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Stories from Bulgaria

Sofia, Bulgaria

Fresh Air

timMy night bus from Istanbul arrived in Sophia with the 5:30 AM sunrise. After spending the night on an 11-hour bus ride full of smoking Bulgarians, the crisp morning air that greeted me felt heavenly. A few deep breathes later I started walking towards town.

At that early hour, Sophia showed few signs of life - just random early risers, an occasional car, and shops clamped down for the night with rolled steel storefronts. I walked into an unlocked hostel and slept on a couch until the proprietor woke and gave me a bed.

Daytime Sophia greeted me with a whole new image. The sleepy town I saw had morphed into a city of contrasts, where the evolution from communism to free-market economy manifests itself on every street. Where a glittering upscale shoe store sits on the first floor of a grotty communist-era concrete building. Or a brand new Mercedes parks next to an old Russian Lada. The antiquated streetcars now scrape through a city in a state of change.

It didn't take me long to warm up to the city. Sophia's wide boulevards and light car traffic furnish it with an open feel. Lively street-side cafes serve espressos to people who seem to have an infinite amount of leisure time to enjoy them. The people are remarkably fashionable and the women are known for their beauty. In my aging travel clothes, I frequently felt like a vagrant at a black-tie affair. But no matter, I spent the day walking through historic churches and meeting new friends at the hostel. top

Caveat Emptor

timThe shady man approached me under the shadow of the former Communist Party headquarters building, where I sat by myself reading on a park bench. The little alarm bells that rang in my head when he made a b-line towards me clanged loudly when I noticed the Vegas-sized wad of US $20 bills in his hand.

He wanted to change his $20's in for US $100's, a denomination that hasn't ever seen my wallet. I was surprised he even asked me, as I do my best to prevent theft by looking disheveled. Nevertheless, I waved him off claiming I had no US currency. He switched tactics using local currency and kept badgering me until I showed him my nearly empty wallet. He spied a 20 and a 10 Leva note and tried his scam on a smaller scale. At about $12 it wasn't that much to loose. And besides, I was intrigued.

So I placed my two notes within my easy reach, far from him. He counted an assortment of five and one denomination notes and handed it over, asking me to count the pile. They added up and looked authentic so I started to think he had asked for an honest favor. But when I was done counting he asked me for the pile to confirm.

His slight of hand marveled the skill of any professional magician I'd ever seen. He counted with his hands in plain view, out in the open, and without any sleeves to hide cash in. When he returned the wad, abracadabra! I recounted and half the money had disappeared.

I slapped my hand down on my cash and threw his back at him. The shady man skulked away under the cackling laugher of an old man, who had witnessed the entire transaction from a nearby bench. top

A streetcar rumbles past a worn building in Bulgaria's capital of Sophia. A Rom (gypsy) child plays the accordion with his pet dog for change on the streets of Sophia.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

A Monk's Life

timThe Rila Monastery's cool alpine location and colorful buildings make it a popular tourist destination on the weekends. I visited on a Sunday and despite the hordes of other visitors making noise around me, I still sensed the underlying solitude in the fresh mountain air that drew monks to this location over 1000 years ago.

The monastery's four levels of rooms (300 plus) surround an ornate domed church housing hundreds of frescos. The whimsical architecture and patterns reminded me of an MC Escher drawing of real-life proportions.

As soon as I arrived, I regretted my decision to visit as a day trip from Sophia. I'd spent over six hours travelling to spend only 90 minutes here, while I could have spent the night in a monastery room with attached bath for only $10 a night. I pictured the quiet scene after dark, with most of the people gone and the chilly air cooled down even farther. Like the monks before me, I'd search for peace in a simple room with rough hewn floors and a simple bed. Maybe next time. top

The Rila Monastery sits in a cool wooded valley only a few hours south of Bulgaria's capital Sofia. Its construction spanned the first half of the 19th century, but the monaster'Ys history goes all the way back to its foundation in 927 AD. Pictured here are the domes of the church, built between 1834 and 1837. The Rila Monastery sits in a cool wooded valley only a few hours south of Bulgaria's capital Sofia. Its construction spanned the first half of the 19th century, but the monaster'Ys history goes all the way back to its foundation in 927 AD. Pictured here are the domes of the church, built between 1834 and 1837. A priest walks with three men while gazing toward the courtyard of the Rila Monastery. The Rila Monastery sits in a cool wooded valley only a few hours south of Bulgaria's capital Sofia. Its construction spanned the first half of the 19th century, but the monaster'Ys history goes all the way back to its foundation in 927 AD.