Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sophia, Bulgaria

In his bestselling book ‘Blink’, Malcolm Gladwell writes that first impressions are often very accurate. He hasn’t been to Sophia, Bulgaria.

We arrived on the overnight train to find a very depressing train station with a filthy broken escalator up to the street level. I needed to go to the toilet, but the attendant wouldn’t let me in with my Turkish money, and there didn’t seem to be a money changer nearby. Finally, I got some money exchanged but the only thing we could find to eat were some very greasy pastries that might have had cheese in them, but it was hard to tell. We had arranged to have our hotel pick us up at the station, but we arrived an hour earlier than expected. So we wandered over to the adjacent bus station to check on buses to Skopje, our next destination, en route to Dubrovnik.

Unfortunately, no one could give us the required information, and we returned to the train station. There was no one to pick us up. Finally, we decided to take an OK taxi, since Sally had been cautioned not to use the other companies. The hotel was advertised as a kilometer from the centre of the city, but it seemed much further awayh. I was also astonished at the cost on the meter for the ten minute trip, since it was comparable to what we would pay in Vancouver.

Eventually we got to the hotel, only to learn that they had no record of our request for a pick up, and didn’t even have the advertised shuttle bus service. Moreover, we had taken the wrong OK taxi, and the price we had paid was about nine times what is should have been! Fortunately, I had written down his license plate number, and gave it to the person at reception. He subsequently advised me that there was no registered taxi with this plate number. Despite being much further away than expected, the hotel looked good and even offered wireless internet. We decided to clean up and set off to see the town.

What we found was a very dour, quiet place. There was a lot of garbage around the main square, and not much joy to be had. We found a restaurant that claimed to serve typical Bulgarian food, and not knowing what typical Bulgarian food was, decided to try it. It can best be described as ‘heavy’; a lot of meat and cheese and bread and pastry, along with some chopped salads.

Somewhat tired from the overnight train trip, we decided to get on one of the decades old electric trams and tour around. But it was hot, and after a while Sally was ready to get a cab back to the hotel. She asked if we could leave the next day, rather than stay on as originally planned.

While I too was disappointed with what we had found, I was sure there was more to the city. After all, it is the capital of Bulgaria, and the guide book described some very impressive sights, including one of the largest synagogues in Europe. But I agreed we would leave the next day.

That evening we decided to check out a restaurant recommended by the guide book. But the lady at the hotel reception suggested we go somewhere else, and we did. We found a very trendy spot, with a lot of chrome and orange leather furniture, with some very attractive people inside. While it looked promising, we decided to check out another spot, and THAT’S WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED!

While we didn’t find the restaurant we were looking for, we found an elegant place across the street where almost everyone was…dancing the tango! We were told that an instructor had been giving lessons, but we were too late. However, we could stay and have a drink and watch if we wanted. We decided to stay. We looked at the menu, and it was like going back in time. Few entrees were over 5 or 6 dollars, and a litre of wine was $8.50. We ordered belinis with smoked salmon and caviar, and a litre of local wine. An hour later, we had another, along with a recommended chicken dish and fresh local trout. Our waitress was terrific. She told us about life in Sophia, what to see, and where to go for dinner the next night. We had such a good time, we decided to stay on. She made reservations for us, and wrote out a note to give to our waitress to ensure we were properly taken care of. We were the last to leave the restaurant. The bill came to just over $30!

The next day we exchanged our hotel for a place in the centre of town. We managed to see most of the major sites, including the heritage synagogue, and had an entirely different impression of the place.

We had a wonderful, albeit ‘heavy’ lunch, and a good walk around the city. We realized that the reason it seemed so quiet the previous day was because it was Sunday! And much of the garbage had been the result of a concert in the square.

We went to the recommended restaurant for dinner. It wasn’t as good as hoped, but it didn’t really matter. We had had a wonderful day, and had gained a much better appreciation of Sophia. Our first impression was not the right impression, nor the lasting impression. We were glad we had given the place a second chance.

19 comments:

David Berner said...

This is a wonderful post, wonderfully told. Complete with a lesson - patience, especially when travelling. Many thanks.

David Berner

D. Yfunction said...

Hi This is a wonderful post i enjoyed alot while reading it .It will gives lots of information especially when travelling.thanks.

Codyafhk said...

This is a wonderful post, wonderfully told. Complete with a lesson - patience, especially when travelling. Many thanks. David Berner

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Jordandeym said...

This is a wonderful post, wonderfully told. Complete with a lesson - patience, especially when travelling. Many thanks. David Berner

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