Dextrophobia Rooms: Escape Is Sweet!

04.11.2014 § 1 Comment

Success stories seem so few and far between in Bulgaria these days, so it is extremely heartening to be able to report some good news. This past month, alongside the colossal scandal of Bulgaria’s Corporate Commercial Bank imploding to the tune of a 2 billion Euro deficit, some great things have happened in spite of the usual grey mass of doom and gloom. Sofia’s iconic Lion’s Bridge just reopened after extensive renovations, the latest in a string of long-overdue infrastructure improvements presided over by Sofia’s most successful mayor in decades, Ms. Yordanka Fandukova. Four Bulgarian entrepreneurs just sold their hugely successful homegrown software company Telerik to Progress Software for $262.5 million. Finally, Dextrophobia Rooms, a real-life escape game business created by seven dreamer friends in their spare time, is neck-to-neck with St. Alexander Nevski cathedral as the best reviewed attraction on TripAdvisor in Sofia, barely six months after opening.

What is Dextrophobia and is it worth seeing? Read on!

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Plovdiv selected for European Capital of Culture 2019

05.09.2014 § 1 Comment

After a five-year, good-natured rivalry with three other cities, my birthplace of Plovdiv has been selected as Bulgaria’s official entrant into the European Capital of Culture program. The other European Capital of Culture for 2019 will be in Italy, where Caglieri, Lecce, Matera, Perugia, Ravenna and Siena are competing in the final round.

Out of 8 original candidates in Bulgaria (Burgas, Gabrovo, Plovdiv, Ruse, Shumen, Sofia, Varna and Veliko Tarnovo), four finalists were selected to submit detailed proposals and to begin implementing strategies and programs towards becoming Capital of Culture. Any one of these cities is well worth a visit.

Plovdiv

Continuously inhabited for close to 6000 years, Plovdiv is the third-oldest city in Europe (following Athens and Argos). Throughout its long history it has had multiple stints as an important crossroads city. Notably, as Trimontium to the Romans, Plovdiv was the most important Roman city in the province of Thrace, as it lay on the Via Diagonalis arterial road for the empire. Cobbled Roman streets, theatres, villas, and an entire stadium can be seen there, layered with Ottoman-era and Revival-era homes. The oldest mosque in Europe outside of Moorish Spain, Djumaya mosque, lies at the centre of the city.

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Graffiti Art Graces Sofia’s Classic Trams

06.06.2014 § 2 Comments

 

As a resident of Toronto, I have been closely following the ordering, testing and politics surrounding the fleet of new low-floor, double-capacity TTC streetcars. Across the Atlantic, where full-fledged streetcar networks are far more common, the Bulgarian capital Sofia is in the process of replacing some of its classic (i.e., aging) streetcars (also known as trams or трамваи/tramvai in Bulgarian) with Polish-built articulated units. Back in January, the first one was symbolically put into exploitation to mark the 114-year anniversary of the opening of the first Sofia tram line.

A new tram next to a classic Sofia tram. Photo Credit: Yuliana Nikolova / Sofia Photo Agency

However, as exciting as the new trams are, I was delighted to discover another interesting development. In tune with its bid for European Capital of Culture (for which it competes with three other Bulgarian cities: Veliko Tarnovo, Plovdiv and Varna), Sofia has initiated a brilliant public art project. On June 1, 2014, as part of the city’s youth art festival ZONA CULTURA, a dozen of the current system’s yellow-and-white trams were painted by various graffiti artists before returning to circulation. This is a welcome change of pace, as it gives graffiti artists a very daring showcase, instead of whitewashing their works on sight. It also reserves for art visual space that is all too often (khm-khm, Toronto) used for advertising decals.

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The Face of the Protest

13.11.2013 § 5 Comments

This photo was taken by Facebook user Stefan Stefanov. It shows Bulgarian protester Desi Nikolova interacting with a police officer on the barricades outside what appears to be the Bulgarian National Bank building (someone please correct me on the exact location). It depicts the frustration and high tensions of the protests in Bulgaria, which have continued (mostly) peacefully for over 150 days, but the story behind it adds a few telling and heartening details. To quote Desi, the protester:

Some of the police officers were well-intentioned. The one whose shoulders I’m holding had a little blood on his nose, I think he’d scraped it somehow. I saw how he was protecting the people and trying to prevent other police officers from beating us. I began to cry and I told him to be safe. He replied “Hold on. Everything will be okay.” There were tears in his eyes…

Please share this photo by linking to its original link or through my translation here and spread the word. There are sensible police officers, many of whom are walking the fine line of maintaining peace without harming anyone, and there is no stopping human decency, civic action and the demands for change.

“We have all the patience in the world and twice as much brains”

21.07.2013 § 2 Comments

Almost 40 days into the protests in Bulgaria, here’s an update on the situation. This is a brilliant piece by Samuil Petkov (a.k.a. zhelyo), a member of the NE!Novinite collective, originally published at OFFNews.bg.

Many have expressed criticism of the spirit of the protest. For 35 peaceful nights, tens of thousands of people have walked serenely with a smile on their lips and a loved one on their arm, denouncing the political class and demanding the resignation of the government. Nothing more, nothing less.

Skeptics believe that “carnivals” and “parades” will yield no results. They do not overtly demand more radical actions, but their patience is exhausted. Or their confidence in the protesters’ cause. Or they inherently rely on [the Bulgarian Socialist Party], blindly believing that they are a real alternative to GERB.

The blame for the impasse in the country is thrown at the crowd, which has, for over a month, peacefully resisted the provocations that ruined the February protests and distorted them. No blood, no aggression. Even verbal abuse and swearing are minimized – unprecedented for any group of people unknown to each other. The ones not being blamed are the ones committing blunder after blunder at the head of our state. Figures like [Volen] Siderov, [Anton] Koutev and [Tatyana] Burudjieva hurl ridiculous qualifications at the protesters, and the prime minister is searching for his balls, pitifully silent.

Yes, the Parliament and the Cabinet are playing deaf. Or they’re distorting the truth. We’re paid, we’re bloated, we’re few, we’re terrorists. They have claimed we are anything except what we are: all kinds.

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Civic Power: Bulgarian Democracy in Action

19.06.2013 § Leave a comment

Bulgaria is in the throes of a political crisis (some background). The interim cabinet’s appointment of a college dropout with known Mafia ties as head of DANS (the Bulgarian NSA) sent thousands of Bulgarians onto the streets in protest. Not being directly involved, I have a few quick comments before I quote a few friends who are there right now.

Peaceful Protest

Despite the heightened atmosphere, so far the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful. Bulgarians are exercising their right to dissent, and the fundamental democratic tenet of allowing them to do so without interference is being upheld by the government. This is a seemingly rare occurrence in a world where the US, Brazil, Turkey and, I’m sorry to say, Canada, have recently shown aggressive responses to peaceful protests. Not only that, but the police is largely sympathetic and refuses to be drawn into confrontations or ordered around by the government. Just today the police union released a declaration of support with the protests:

The union of Ministry of the Interior staff wishes to remind the politicians and assure Bulgarian society that MoI officers are not private employees serving the interests of one or another political party or coalition. MoI officers are part of Bulgarian society and are fully and solely in the service of public interest. We fully support the equitable social and economic demands of the citizens. Our friends, relatives, and members of our families are among the protesters.

It is with the least motivation that employees in the Ministry of Interior stand with face and chest in front of one or another party headquarters and defend the political elite from the “love” of the people.

(Translated from this Union declaration)

The protesters have returned the respect granted to them by police and security forces in spades. Boyan Benev, writing for HuffPo, had this anecdote:

…gathered on the Eagles’ Bridge yesterday evening I saw a friend wandering through the crowd carrying two cases of 500ml mineral water. I made a quip about him stocking up for the protest when he replied:

“This water isn’t for us, it’s for the police. These men and women have been standing here in the 30 degree sun all afternoon and have shown us only respect. I think it’s time we showed some back.”

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“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”

18.06.2013 § 2 Comments

This is a guest post by my friend Kate Latimer, who accepted the invitation of a fellow Bulgarian expat to visit Bulgaria. These are her impressions. 

I was sitting over a toilet at 2:30 in the morning, vomiting up the last of my shopska salad I had eaten for dinner, in the early stages of what turned out to be a 48 hour flu that was travelling, if not around the city, then around the apartment I was living in. Three weeks earlier, my Bulgarian best friend had convinced me to get on a plane and travel from Toronto to Sofia so I could see her homeland. It didn’t take much convincing because she had, for the entire time I had known her, lived a double life. She would disappear for months at a time, travelling back to this tiny Eastern European country, and each time she would come home different, somehow transformed by this seemingly sacred experience she would have each Christmas and summer vacation. So when invited, I leapt at this opportunity to go see the place she escaped to, this double life that was moulding my best friend into the person that she is now. Having sat through many history classes in high school, I was confident that not once had Bulgaria been brought up, not once had a history textbook mentioned Bulgaria. My only knowledge of Bulgaria came from sitting around the dinner table with my friend and her parents, as they explained to me the dark and violent history of Bulgaria.

It was this well informed state that led me to ask questions such as, “You guys have electricity, right?” or “There’s gonna be indoor plumbing in the apartment, correct?” My friend rolled her eyes. And so I got on the plane, having no idea what to expect.

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“Craving”

29.04.2013 § Leave a comment

A short story by Bulgarian author Aleko Konstantinov, translated by V. Pandeliev.

That I am a lucky man*(1), that all of Bulgaria knows. But one thing no one knows is that today I didn’t have 45 stotinki*(2) to buy myself tobacco. This circumstance did not deter me however from preserving my regal demeanour. I continued to look upon the world and the people in it as if I could fit a million Rothschilds and Vanderbilts*(3) into my vest pocket, while our own wealthy men were worth no more to me than the ashes of last night’s final cigarette. That is all well and good, but there’s still no tobacco, the devil take it all! Silly craving!

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The New York Times on Sofia

27.01.2013 § 1 Comment

Here’s an interesting piece in the NYT on spending 36 hours in Sofia, which I strongly recommend you do if you can’t spend more 😉

“Passport and a Toothbrush” on Sofia

01.10.2012 § Leave a comment

Travel blog Passport and a Toothbrush had some lovely things to say about Sofia when they visited it on their trip through the Balkans.

Read the full post here: Sofia, Bulgaria: Our favourite city in Eastern Europe

My favourite quote from the article:

It oozes effortless cool.

Sofia is like that cool girl in university who doesn’t wear lots of makeup but still manages to look stunning while listening to Them Crooked Vultures on her oversized headphones. Catch my drift? This city may seem like a classic town full of churches and museums but dig around and you’ll find a cool attitude in the streets. Take a stroll on Tsar Ivan Shishman street to get a good feel of funky cafés and even funkier shops.

I’m happy to send these guys some redirects and love, not just because they’re praising the Bulgarian capital, but also because their blog is full of great travel tips and stories from all over the world. In fact, they’ve made my shortlist for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. I wish Matt and Caro lots of new adventures!

If you’re curious about Sofia, read about my ritual returns, the Essential Walk, Sofia’s street names, its use as a film shooting location, and its book markets.

Sep. 17 – Day of Sofia

17.09.2012 § Leave a comment

September 17 is recognized as the official holiday of the city of Sofia. I have written lots about Sofia, but I’d like to share a birthday gift of sorts with the city: the finalists in 8 Magazine’s “Warmth of Bulgarians” photo contest.

While you enjoy those, I should debunk a common misconception. September 17 is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox church as the day of 2-th century martyr St. Sophia, who was martyred along with her daughters Faith, Hope and Love. It is natural to assume that the city of Sofia was named after this saint. However, the city takes its name from St. Sophia Cathedral Church, which was consecrated not to Martyr Sophia, but to Hagia Sophia, the Holy Wisdom (much like Hagia Sophia in Istanbul). The fact that Sofia celebrates on Martyr Sophia’s feast day is a combination of coincidence, confabulation and confusion.

Sofia’s Second Metrodiameter: On Time and Under Budget

04.09.2012 § 1 Comment

UPDATE: Sofia’s second metrodiameter was unveiled on August 31 in the presence of José Barroso, the current president of the European Commission. This is a monumental achievement for the Bulgarian capital, as it was not only completed on time, but the money saved means that the line could be extended to the airport far earlier than anticipated, possibly even before the 2014 programme cycle of the European Union.
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The Treasure of Slaveykov Square

24.08.2012 § 1 Comment

Sofia’s Slaveykov Square, named after father-son poet duo Petko and Pencho Slaveykov, is a bustling marketplace for one of the most coveted and important commodities in the nation: books. As a small country with a significant contribution to world literacy, reading and books have always been prized very highly in Bulgaria. The years of the Socialist boom were also the heyday of publishing, with hundreds of Bulgarian authors being printed alongside translations of world classics. Many of these books, often produced in hardcover and printed to last, have been resurfacing in used book stalls alongside new books and editions. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Comfort of Familiarity…and Big Macs (Updated)

24.07.2012 § 5 Comments

In August of 2010, I had just arrived in Sofia for a month-long stay in Bulgaria. I’d rushed out to buy кисело мляко, сирене and лютеница, to have a taste of authentic Bulgarian things, and I was excited to participate in a ritual I like to call The Walk.

The Walk essentially consists of my taking the trolley down to Sofia University and strolling through all the places in the centre of the city that I want to refresh in my memory. It is a slow, leisurely affair, notably because usually it’s undertaken in the scorching summer heat, and it serves to suffuse me with the understanding that I am, indeed, home. You will see many of these landmarks in future posts if you haven’t already, but they include the yellow cobbles, the National Theatre (where I spend a good half an hour admiring it and wondering what might have been if I’d been a superfamous actor slash director slash sex symbol person…but I digress) and a dozen other known and unknown places that really ground me, telling me “Yes, you are in Sofia”.

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Public Transit in Sofia

22.07.2012 § Leave a comment


Coming to you from a secret, undisclosed location in Bulgaria’s capital, I will brief you on the essentials of the modes of public transit available to you in Sofia and their respective costs and quirks.

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Tourist Information Centre Sofia

21.07.2012 § Leave a comment

Recently opened in the Sofia University underpass (a.k.a. “Rektorata”, “SU Kliment Ohridski”, etc.), near a big transit ticket office and literally across metro station “SU Kliment Ohridski”, stands the office of the Municipality of Sofia’s Tourist Information Centre. Inside, you can find detailed maps of the city, information about tours and events and helpful, English-speaking staff.

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Sofia Taxis Demystified

21.07.2012 § 3 Comments

You’re in luck. Only a couple of years ago, Sofia was crawling with gouging, faker taxis that charged 3.50 Leva per km and relied on tourists’ naiveté and inattention to fleece them. Thankfully, a couple of reliable companies have emerged, as well as legislation that caps the maximum one can charge for a certain distance.

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Off to Bulgaria!

09.07.2012 § 3 Comments

Hello, my throngs of loyal followers!

The time has come: I leave Toronto tomorrow, via Munich, Venice, Verona, Florence and Rome, for Bulgaria.

I will spend close to four weeks there, writing helpful guides and impressions on location from Sofia, Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo and Ruse. I will also be undertaking a 7-day hike through the Eastern Rhodopes, which will be detailed like my routes through the Balkans and Rila.

If you have requests, about anything at all (language, customs, shopping etiquette, travel guides), now is the time to send them to me as I will be able to research them at the source.

So, please comment on this post with your requests, and I will do my utmost to fulfill them.

My next post will be from sunny Sofia!

Ribbon-Cutting Works!

08.07.2012 § 1 Comment

After decades of being tossed around on the high waves of economic uncertainty and construction stagnation, the Bulgarian government is finally backing some serious infrastructural improvements to transportation. Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria’s current premier and leader of the GERB party, is the subject of thousands of political jokes and jabs, and opinions about him range from “exactly what Bulgaria needs” to “a thug with links to the Mob”. However, he has been instrumental in absorbing EU infrastructure funds and putting them to good use. Regardless of whether it’s for the good of the nation or for photo-ops at ribbon-cutting ceremonies, under his leadership Bulgaria has committed to several infrastructure projects of major importance.

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Walking Tours of Sofia 1: The Essentials

21.06.2012 § 9 Comments

Nevena Kokanova: The First Lady of Bulgarian Cinema

18.06.2012 § Leave a comment

Nevéna Kókanova (Невена Коканова) was a woman of extraordinary beauty, talent and grace, who bore the laurels of stardom with humility while her face spoke volumes of love, loss and passion. But, as is often the case, the story of Bulgaria’s brightest star is really one of tumult, forbidden love and politics, a fascinating journey from beginning to end.

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Sofia’s Street Names and Major Landmarks

16.06.2012 § 2 Comments

What’s in a name? This post will give you a general idea of the layers of history and city planning in Bulgaria’s capital, based on the names of its major streets and arteries. Furthermore, it will acquaint you with several landmarks and important city squares.

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Memory and Oblivion

12.06.2012 § 3 Comments

History knows hundreds of cases of historical facts being forgotten or purposefully shuffled towards oblivion. The purpose of history is, in my mind, to know where one stands by knowing where one stood and moreover to learn from past mistakes and appreciate the good and the bad of previous historical contexts.

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A Tour of Sofia in “Hitman” Movie Frames

03.06.2012 § 1 Comment

The not-terribly-brilliant 2007 movie treatment of the video game series Hitman starring Timothy Olyphant and directed by Xavier Gens is notable for being shot primarily in Sofia. The Bulgarian capital is standing in for Moscow, but, as a pedantic and shrewd movie-goer, I have extracted a few screenshots that are definitive Sofia landmarks.

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“Don Juan” at the National Theatre

23.05.2012 § 2 Comments

In the dimly lit colonnade of a villa’s courtyard, a blindfolded young lady is laughingly following the call of a tiny bell in the hand of a masked gentleman. Her laughter echoes from the empty stage. Three masked figures peel away from the shadows and join their game with predatory grace. Two grab the gentleman, gag him and drag him off the stage. The third takes out a bell and lures the lady towards him. Completely oblivious, she trustingly approaches the predator calling to her with the bell of her beloved. He lunges at her and she screams in fear. Her screams attract the men from the house. Cornered and surrounded, the predator shoots the girl’s father and disappears in the ensuing chaos.

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