Wednesday, June 27, 2012

SOF: With Compliments

Hello from Sofia, where I have spent the past 3 days. The city looks considerably more welcoming than it did on my last visit in December 2008. However, some of the decaying, crumbling buildings I took pictures of last time have continued to fall apart and what I don't remember noticing last time are the crazy pavements or lack therof. I really pity old and frail people, wheelchair-bound citizens and parents wheeling about prams: I have never seen, nor walked on more destroyed pavements anywhere else, least of all in another EU member country. Here's a very mild example (I felt a bit self-conscious taking pictures of the more extreme examples of frost-bitten slabs of concrete) that's also not right in the middle of the path, but there were really some veritable holes in the ground plus random rods of rusty iron sticking out that would be fenced in with a warning sign or two elsewhere:
I spent the first night in the decadently oversized "Panorama Suite" of Central Park Hotel that offered a prime view of what - in my humble opinion - is one of the ugliest buildings in Sofia, the National Palace of Culture:
Even after I had moved to a "normal" room with only one as opposed to two TVs and no complimentary fruit bowl, I still had a room maid knocking on my door at about 7 p.m. uttering "Veeez compliments!" and pushing a chocolate and a card with the following day's weather forecast into my hands. Nice gesture!
All in all, I really enjoyed this last stop in my "roadshow" although I have to say that it did get a bit repetitive to deliver the same presentation for the sixth time (2 slots per city) and I'd have to lie if I said I wanted to hold it again anytime soon.

Sofia is much livelier than both Ljubljana and Vilnius. Definitely not prettier, nor cleaner, but more "southern" and "balkanesque". It reminds me of Istanbul in many ways (just as many yellow taxis cruising around), which might be partly due to the centuries of Turkish rule here. In fact, Bulgarians seem to be much fonder of their Greek neighbours because of this historic legacy and my Bulgarian colleague took us (another, Polish, colleague is visiting as well) to a Greek restaurant last night that far exceeded my expectations. I'm not a big fan of the type of Greek food you get in Austria and don't think I have ever been to a Greek restaurant in Vienna, but if you are ever in Sofia, I can really recommend dining at Yamas.
Said Bulgarian colleague actually seemed to think his visitors were in imminent danger of starvation and therefore embarked on (force) feeding us well. It makes SUCH a difference if you have a local to take you out as opposed to just eat at the first place you pass that has an English menue (my cyrillic reading skills are at best rudimentary). On Monday, our host took us to Motto (no relations to the place in Vienna of the same name, I'm guessing) for lunch, where he got us to order the traditional shopska salad as a starter. Again, not something I would have ordered as I assumed it to be very onion-heavy and I'm not a fan of cucumbers at all. I ended up getting it without any onions and the cucumbers were very fresh and "digestible". The cheese on it was divine as all Bulgarian cheese seems to be!
Tonight our sleep-deprived and overworked host asked to be excused from entertaining duties and the Polish colleague wanted to watch football (I can hear people cheering outside as I'm writing this), so I went for an extended stroll in the city centre, up to Hotel Maria Luisa near the old market and the Synagogue, where my Mum and I stayed last time. I also followed the many signs for good old BILLA supermarket, where I was amused to see they also gave away collectible stickers and asked whether you were a cardholding member. One difference was the two security guards by the doors - definitely not something I have ever seen at an Austrian supermarket. I didn't feel like a proper fancy dinner so fed myself at McDonald's where the Filet-o-Fish Menu set me back less than €3. Bulgaria is actually very cheap in general and I also did some shopping. More about my retail exploits from several cities soon.

Although I did see someone walking around with a Starbucks paper cup, I much prefer local coffee-shops and discovered a really nice and inviting looking one round the corner from my hotel. They also sold very authentic looking baguettes. I ordered the first thing that jumped out to me at the menu that I could decipher, being a лате макиато (latte macchiato) and pointed at one of the cookies at the counter. Again, this was super cheap and I paid less than €2 for both. The place is called Ma Baker and looks like this:
I'm afraid Sofia won't win a beauty contest anytime soon (least of all the "best pavement award" or best public transport one: the trams and buses mostly look as if they are only held together by grease and paint), but I still like this city. People (I've met) are really friendly and the atmosphere is very laid-back and there are some pretty buildings, too. What I find very shocking is the visible poverty on the streets: lots of people who are dressed in rags rummaging around in bins and old grannies standing at street corners with some bunches of scraggly wild flowers in empty yoghurt cups. This truly is a sight that breaks my heart and I want to buy all their offerings. Behind the main boulevards many residential areas look rather shabby and not even all sights are anywhere near photo-perfect condition. The Alexander Nevski Cathedral looks pretty impressive by day and by night:
A best-of my recent international shopping exploits coming up, probably before my next business trip: Warsaw on Monday...


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6/29/2012 05:29:00 AM  

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