Category Archives: Bulgaria

Sofia to Istanbul, Turkey

11/23 – please forgive the level of detail in this post, but some fellow travelers may need this information if traveling to Istanbul.

We planned to use our EuRail pass to travel from Bulgaria to Istanbul. This involved getting onboard in Sofia at 5pm, changing trains 4 times, then transferring to a bus for the last leg to arrive into Istanbul at 7 in the morning. We negotiated the first two trains successfully (by asking “Plovdiv? Train to Parvomay?” Remember, we can’t read the signs…) then were told there was a problem. No train runs from Dimitrovgrad to the Turkish border, so we would have to take a bus instead. This is a long term issue, not just today. (Both EuRail and DB Bahn show a train.) No problem! We’ve done this before!

The train conductor was very kind, but had no English, so he sought out a student who spoke English to explain the situation to us. We never really got an explanation, just that there was no train, and we’d have to wait alone in the empty Dimitrovgrad station from 9:30 – 11pm for the bus. Our high school student, Constantina, had very good English, and wants to work in communications and study abroad. Translating for the conductor, she relayed that things were getting better in Bulgaria, as the Bulgarian singer had come in second place in the European Sing Off show on TV, and he believed that peace on earth was coming. He also recited many place names he learned about America: Boston! AnnaPOlis! Trenton, New Yersey!

When we got off in Dimitrovgrad, the conductor called ahead to make sure the bus would stop for us. He warned us to stay in the station to avoid pickpockets (there was no one around at all), and he even took us to the conductors office to use the bathroom as there was none in the station. He bade us good night, then came back a half hour later – 10:30 at night – to give us a tract – he was a Bulgarian Jehovah’s Witness! What a nice man.image

Here we are, waiting in the station. There are evidently many things you’re not allowed to do here.

The promised bus arrived a little after 11, and we got on. The bus made several more stops, until only we and three middle-aged Romanian women were left. We caught a little shut-eye until we reached the Bulgarian border. We all had to get out of the bus and stand in the cold until the officer stamped our passports, then got back on the bus. It was now around 2am.

The bus drove forward toward the Turkish border, and joined a queue of other buses. The border looked like a toll plaza, but only one lane was open, and it was not our lane! We waited (and dozed) until the driver ordered us out of the bus. We trooped over to the open station, and waited while the border officer processed cars through. When there was a lull between cars, he examined our passports. It was VERY cold, probably in the 20s, and this took quite some time. Once stamped we all got back on the bus.

The bus was still in a queue of other buses. What were we waiting for now? When the bus moved up sufficiently, we had to get out again, this time with our luggage, and troop over to go through a security scanner. Then we waited outside for over an hour, until it was our bus’s turn to be scanned (for weapons? contraband? No idea). We were all freezing cold by this point, jumping up and down with teeth chattering. I will add that at no point was there any opportunity to use a restroom.

Finally, we were allowed back on the bus – it was now 6am – and were driven to the Kapikule train station on the Turkish side of the border. We all got off again. Train now? No, another bus! The Romanian women complained loudly at this point, (bless them!) so the driver agreed to wait while we all ran to the WC next to the station. Boarded the new bus and fell back to sleep, reaching the Istanbul Sirkeci train station around 11:30am.

So, fellow travelers, do not plan on making any sort of connection based on the train schedule, as you will miss it by a mile. But, you will eventually arrive in Istanbul – how exciting!

We changed our Bulgarian lev to Turkish lira and walked the mile to Hotel Buhara on yet another drizzly grey day. At least it is a little warmer here – mid-forties, which feels warm compared to where we’ve been. Our host gave us hot tea in little glasses, with sugar cubes on the side.

After a nap, we went out in the late afternoon to see the Blue Mosque. A little before 5pm, the Call to Prayer sung out over the loudspeakers, with another mosque nearby responding as a duet:
Allah is Most Great
I testify that there is no God but Allah
I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah
Come to Prayer!
Come to Salvation!
Allah is the Most Great!
There is no God but Allah.

It took my breath away.


A Day in Sofia

11/22 – as luck would have it, there are several clothing shops right down the road from our pension. Within a half hour, Jim found a long, warm coat that he can wear over his fleece jacket, and a fleece hat. I opted for a ski hat and a pair of stretch jogging pants that I can wear under my thin hiking pants to warm up my cold legs. I have three long sleeved shirts and a scarf, and layered them all under my jacket, so don’t think I need another coat. We emerged warmed and ready to face the 30 degree, very grey day. Does the sun ever shine here?

GPS in hand, we want to see some of Sofia’s beautiful buildings today.

Above are the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nickolay in green and gold, and the St. Paraskeva Church.

In close proximity, there is a mosque, a synagogue, a Catholic cathedral and an Orthodox basilica, all near the ancient mineral baths.

The Banya Boshi mosque:

The Sofia Synagogue:

The Church of St. Joseph:

The Hagia Nedelja, from the tenth century:




In the middle of a city block, surrounded by tall buildings, was the preserved Rotunda of St. George From the fourth century, with ancient frescos still visible on the walls and ceiling.

Smaller yet was this little Church of St. Petka, preserved in a crevice next to a busy highway.

The St. Sofia Orthodox Basilica included a crypt where third to fifth century persons were recently excavated.

While we were exploring below, a choir started singing in the church above. From where we stood amidst graves of old saints, it gave us the shivers. We tiptoed up the steps to see an evening service in progress, with everyone holding candles. The choir was awesome. A beautiful way to end our day.image


Belgrade to Sofia, Bulgaria

11/21 – We walked back to a very quiet train station at 9:30 last night to board our overnight train to Sofia. This was my first time on a sleeper train, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The conductor handed us each a sheet and pillowcase, and motioned us down the car to our compartment, where we found the seats folded down to make bunks, a pillow and a heavy woolen blanket. We had the lower berths, but there was no one on the uppers, so we had the compartment to ourselves.


We made up our bunks and settled in. I wasn’t expecting to sleep well, but the gentle rocking of the train had its effect, and we both got a pretty good night’s sleep. At 6:30am we stopped at the border for Bulgarian passport check, and by mid-morning we were in Sofia.

We were greeted by another cold, grey day. The sun is not expected out while we are here. The Sofia station had not a trace of western alphabet, and looked very much like a dreary communist-era building.



We walked the two blocks to our guesthouse and were pleased to find it clean and warm, with a little fridge and dining area. The all-in-one bathroom was the first we’d seen this trip – the faucets for the sink also control the shower hose, and the water just runs down a drain in the middle of the floor. An efficient idea, except the floor stays wet and slippery, so you must be careful.


We found a Bancomat (ATM) and a place to change our leftover Serbian marks to Bulgarian lev. We met a street performer on his way to work, and I took his picture. He immediately demanded payment, so Jim gave him all our Serbian coins.


We took a walk to see what facilities were close by, and were happy to find a Billa (high end grocery). Like our supermarkets, Billa sells a variety of hot foods – cooked chicken, pork chops, sausage, and side dishes like scalloped potatoes with goat cheese, spanakopita, and sauerkraut. We were happy because we don’t see many cafes or restaurants. We do, however, see lots of casinos – anyone up for a Bulgarian gambling vacation?

We walked over the Lion Bridge into the city center.


Our goal was the St. Alexander Nevsky Church, which we had no trouble finding, because a) it is very big, and b) our GPS works in Bulgaria. Thanks TMobile!




Inside was candlelit, making it hard to photograph, but so beautiful.





On our walk we admired some of the city statues.

We wanted to see more, but it was too COLD! Our fleece jackets just can’t stand up to 30 degree weather. We’ve been putting off buying winter gear, but it looks like it’s time to get some…