Bus Lines

“The Simeonovo Lift Express”: Buses #122 and #123 – Avtostantsiya Hladilnika to Simeonovo Lift


When visiting Sofia, there are several ways to get to the top of Mt. Vitosha. The first is by bus #66, which works on the weekends and holidays. The second way is to walk, which isn’t practical for a short term trip. The third way is to take one of the ski lifts – either the Dragalevtsi Lift accessible by bus #93 and going to Aleko, or by the Simeonovo Gondola Lift, which is enclosed and can seat four. Both offer spectacular views

Bus #122 info table.

of the city and mountain, and are both run by Vitosha Ski (click here for the website – there apparently is an English version, but it must be under construction.)

There are two buses that go to the lift base in Simeonovo. I started my journey from the Hladilnika bus terminal, easy to get to by bus #9TM, or as of last week, tram #10 (see updates section too). Bus #122 starts from Hladilnika, leaving once an hour. I boarded the 13:10 bus, an older Mercedes Benz Connecto No. 1901. The bus really only makes four stops – once leaving the bus terminal it travels south on Cherni Vruh Boulevard, turning east onto Okolovrusten Put (Ring Road), stopping once, and then making a right onto the Simeonovo Lift Road, stopping in front of the lift base. The whole journey took just 15 minutes, as we arrived at 13:25.

From the lift, you’ll see tons of new construction, including an Ikea, 1,000 apartment buildings, and ANOTHER mall, all positioned close by to lure ski tourists.

The Gondola Lift has only started working thus summer after a long period when it was inoperable, causing headaches for tourist during last year’s ski season. In the summer, the lifts work only on the weekends and holidays, costing 8 leva up, and 10 leva for a round trip ticket. The lift takes a break from November 1st until the snow builds up, about a month or so. Check the website for more information if planning a visit.

The Simeonovo Lift base, next to bus #123.

The other bus that serves the lift is #123, which runs between Simeonovo and the G.M. Dimitrov Metrostation. This bus runs about every 45 minutes, taking about 30 minutes one way. I did not travel on this line, but I decided to include it here for interested parties.

The bus #123 info table.

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“The Pancharevo Beach”: Bus #4 – Mladost 1 to Kokalyansko Hanche

The bus #4 info table.

The worst thing about being in Sofia in the summertime is that you know everyone else is at the beach, and you’re stuck riding hot buses. If only Sofia had its own beach…

Situated just outside of the city in a valley on the eastern side of Mt. Vitosha is Lake Pancharevo, a man

The dog days of summer.

made reservoir from the Iskur river, and the same river in which the city gets its water. Pancharevo is a once sleepy village turned commuter suburb that is home to lots of new gated communities and the Anglo-American School, a private English language school. Alas, there is no natural beach on the lake for swimming – the actual “beach” is simply that, an area of the shore where you can go and hang out, but not really swim. However, on the northern side of the lake is a swimming complex and old city bath house.

I boarded bus #4 at 11:47, at the bus turn around in Mladost 1 just up from the Mladost 1 Metrostation. The #4 runs every half hour during the day. No. 9079, a brand new Mercedes-Benz Connecto, begins its journey

Inside No. 9079.

past the Arabic embassies, and turns onto Andrei Saharov towards Alexander Malinov. If you’re planning

Smoke from a wildfire on Mt. Vitosha. After four days, it was put out. If hiking in the forest, please be responsible and bring a little bag for all your cigarette butts. If making a campfire, douse it with water before you leave.

on taking the bus from the center, I recommend taking the subway from downtown, getting off at Mladost 1, and waiting for the bus at the stop in front of the Mladost Fruit Market on the southern end of the subway station (OR you can also reach Pancharevo by taking the subway to Tsarigradsko Shose, and catching the south-bound #1 bus, which stops right in front of the Metrostation and the Metro Superstore). Once in Mladostland, the bus weaves through Mladost 3, and exits the neighborhood on its backside on Engineer Georgi Belov Street, then passing through the Iztok Industrial Park, and the neighborhood Zh.K. Gorublyane Experiment, which from its crumbling panel blocks and dirt patch parking, looks like it may be a failed experiment. Just past this, the bus hooks up with Samakovsko Shose, the main street in Gorublyane and the highway that heads to Samakov (about a 45 minute trip), the gateway to Rila Mountain.

Gorublyane is an unpretentious little town that has only recently been absorbed into Greater Sofia. The neighborhood is mostly

Pancharevo Beach. NO SWIMMING!

houses, and is probably more like New Jersey than Long Island. The bus passes through its little main street, before crossing the Okolovrusten Put (Ring Road) and out of Sofia.

Here the terrain gets hilly as the bus gets closer to Vitosha. The first stop next to the lake is “Pancharevo Banya” – This is the stop for the swimming and bath complexes. You’ll recognize it from all the nearby parked cars. Here, you have two choices: The Korali Complex is a newly-built swimming pool that

Wild plums, growing along the shore.

is filled with heated mineral water and not lake water. There are separate pools for children and adults, and the complex has water slides and a working waterfall. It’s nice because you can see the lake while you swim, but not be in the lake water, which is a bit murky. Admission is 10 leva for adults on the weekends and 8 leva on the weekdays, with a deck chair (shezlong) 3 leva extra. There is a restaurant and a cafe. The complex offers sauna and spa services for an extra charge, and as a side note, since the water is heated, outdoor swimming happens year round.

Next door is the old city bath house which was built more than 50

A fisherman.

years ago. If you’re looking for the authentic Bulgarian bath experience, this is closer to how it used to be when all towns had one. All function and no fashion, the house exists as a way for people to come and get clean, which was their original intent; inside men and women are separated, and all bathers bathe nude, though you should bring your own towel and flip-flops. A visit here will set you back 4 leva, with other services at an additional charge. When I was there, this seemed like an all-Roma affair, with non-Roma Bulgarians choosing to attend Korali.

The Pancharevo Bathhouse.

The whole setup reminded me of when I worked in Vidin as a Peace Corps Volunteer; as a prize for one of the art contests I held for the Roma kids with whom I worked, the grand prize would be a trip to Vidin’s elegant Swimming Pool at the Hotel Anna Krisitna for the best artist and a friend of choice. Once prizes had been awarded, a friend and I took the kids to the pool only to be refused entrance. The hotel staff was visibly irritated by our presence, though with a signed parent permission slips and some sharp words, eventually the hotel manager let us in. The kids had a great time, and after about 15 minutes, people stopped paying attention to the fact that

Swimming at the Korali Pool.

there were “gypsies in the pool.”

Regardless, if you’re a tourist coming for the day, I recommend trying them both. A hot soak with some locals and a warm swim with other locals  here, if anywhere, will give visitors a true sense of the social divisions that exist in Bulgarian society.

After the baths stop, the bus continues four more stops past the boat docks (where you can rent paddle boats), the center of Pancharevo, the old Pancharevo Beach, and finally at a bus turn-around named Kokalyansko Hanche. I exited the bus at 12:25, and walked back to the baths along the shoreline occasionally eating Djanke Plums. From first stop to last stop, the travel time was 38 minutes.

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“The Business Park Sofia”: Bus #413 – Central Train Station to Business Park Sofia

Talk about “mass transit…”

The #413 line must be one of the longer bus routes in Sofia, starting at the Central Train Station and going all the way to Mladost 4, where capitalism has built the new “Business Park Sofia,” a community of office buildings and mega stores surrounded by a fence and then by new apartment buildings.  Most of the #413 buses are older Mercedes Benz accordion buses.

Because I’m on vacation and I have nothing to do, I spent about an hour browsing in a second hand store

Bus No. 3571 and some Kontrolla ladies.

across from the initial stop of #413 at Hristo Botev and Maria Luiza. Mupet Mag is one of my favorite second-hand clothing stores because they don’t price per kilogram, but rather by type of item. Unlike second-hand stores in the U.S., which are most often run by a charity and rely on local donations, second hand stores are for-profit and purchase in bulk clothing from western Europe. Generally, they price according to kilogram, usually on a certain day (like Fridays or Mondays) starting out at around 25.oo BGN a kilogram and ending the week as low as 7.00 BGN a kilogram. Apart from Mupet Mag, I also like the second hand store at Odrin Street and Stamboliiski in Zona B-5, and Shik-Shik at the corner of Pirotska and Sofronii Vrachanski. Near Exarch Iosef and Serdika Streets – just behind the Sofia Central Bath House – is another Shik-Shik, which is cheapest on Mondays I think. This time around at the Mupet Mag, I bought a pair of green shorts which cost 6 leva.

Mupet Mag, surprisingly low on muppets…

By the time I got to the bus stop and looked to see when the bus was coming, I noticed that # 413 didn’t stop at Hristo Botev and Maria Luiza, but rather stops in front of the Central Train Station, and then at Jardin d’Algiers at Klokotnitsa. So I walked down to that stop and bought a Schweppes Tonic at a bodega because I was really thirsty. You would think that from all the tonic I drink I would be repellent to mosquitoes, but this just isn’t the case.

I boarded bus No. 3571 at 15:15, an older orange accordion bus, of which there were maybe 6

You were cheated, Serdika Center…

passengers. I sat down near the back. The bus ends/begins its journey here by looping around Maria Luiza, passing the train station, and returning towards Slivnitsa on Hristo Botev Boulevard. From Slivnitsa, the bus heads towards Stochna Gara (one of Sofia’s larger traffic circles and home to a trolleybus depot), runs along Boulevard General Daniel Nikolaev (the patriarch of the Bulgarian Military), and eventually turns onto Sintyakovo at Poduyane Train Station.

The older Roma lady talking about Arab women and eggplants on the bus…

The bus passes the deflating Serdika Mall, which was the largest on the Balkan Peninsula for about three weeks until the larger “Duh Mall” opened on Tsarigradsko Shose. It then passes by the Romanian Embassy and the Bulgarian Military Museum, which has an impressive display of military equipment, modern as well as antique. I think it’s one of Sofia’s more interesting museums.

It was around this time that two older Roma ladies boarded the bus and sat next to me. Because the bus passes under Tsarigradsko and cuts into Borisova Gradina on Peyo Yavorov, currently under construction, we sat in traffic for a half hour and I had nothing else to do but listen to their conversation. Now, I understand almost everything people say in Bulgarian, however these ladies were speaking in Roma, which from a linguistical standpoint is thought to be related to languages spoken along the Pakistani-Indian border (Pahstu and Urdu), but is spoken in more of a pidgin language which has mixed with Bulgarian over hundreds of years. I personally can count in Romani, say a few choice phrases and know the names of animals, but I can’t understand a conversation. What I did understand this day, is that these ladies were talking about (1) an Arab woman, (2) watermelons, and (3) eggplants.

After passing the T.V. tower, #413 turns left onto Dragan Tsankov Boulevard, under which the subway is

This is picture is from last winter, but the Museum of Socialist Art is on the street behind these skyscrapers.

running. Although this neighborhood doesn’t offer much for the casual tourist, one point of interest lies just behind the triplet Sopharma Towers, as the bus approaches Boulevard G.M. Dimitrov. The Museum of Socialist Art opened in 2011, showcasing a collection of statues, artifacts, and communist kitsch from all over Bulgaria (You can read my friend Caroline’s post about it on her blog). While I haven’t been, I hear that it’s an interesting afternoon if you would like to know about Communist art. If you go, however, I suggest getting off the subway at the northern end of the G.M. Dimitrov Metrostation and heading towards the Sopharma Towers (the tall ones) to Luchezar Stanchev Street, which runs behind them.

It’s all business at Business Park Sofia.

For those of us still on the bus, it passes the Metrostation (where my Roma ladies exited) and then heads down Boulevard St. Kliment Ohridski into Studenski Grad. The bus turns left onto Andrei Lyapchev (a former Prime Minister) past a semi-industrial zone towards the green spaces of Mladost. Just as you past the Dervenishka Reka (Dervenisha River) watershed, look to the left to see one of the longest panel blocks in Sofia, Nos. 57-61 Mladost 1. It’s like a modern day Great Wall of China.

Once in Mladost (of which there are four neighborhoods aptly named 1-4), the bus passes endless panel blocks before turning into the Business Park Sofia and dropping everyone off in front of the Technopolis Electronics Store, next to the Kino Arena, a massve Cinema Complex. I exited the bus at 16:12,a total travel time of 57 minutes. If you end up here, there are actually some interesting things to do. Heading north from the bus stop is the Business Park Sofia, a kind of oasis of western development with incredibly manicured landscaping, modern European architecture, and a slew of low-rise office buildings housing everything from Hewlett-Packard’s administrative operations to lackluster cafeterias to a Holiday Inn. The Business Park is a mix of terrible and lovely, much because it’s nice to see a gourmet office park in graffiti covered Sofia, but disappointing because this is not an organic community; it exists as an alternative to the real Bulgaria that is too backwards or frightening to set up shop in. Regardless, it is nice to take a walk there because it is so different.

The Banner of Peace Memorial Bell Tower.

To the south side of the bus stop, just across the overpass of the Ring Road and behind the HP building are

East Germany’s bell…

“Kambanite,” translated as “The Bells,” but officially named the “Zname na Mira Pametnik,” which means “Banner of Peace Memorial.” Here, planned by first daughter and one-time culture minister Lydmila Zhivkova, is a large concrete bell tower surrounded by bells sponsored by various countries around the world under the banner of peace. The bell tower is easily visible from the Kino Arena, and is surrounded by a nice forested park with several short trails. If you continue past the large HP building, the park is about 10 minutes along the paved road. It just goes to show that there are little surprises around every corner, even on the route of an old accordion bus.

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“The Vitosha Mountain”: Bus #66 – Avtostantsiya Hladilnika to Hotel Moreni (Top of Vitosha)

Ms. R and Mr. P in front of the ticket shack.

It was like pulling teeth, but I finally did it. “I want to go swimming….let’s go swimming.” All my friends wanted to go swimming but I put my foot down. “No! Let’s go swimming during the week when it’s cheaper.”

I had heard that there was a bus going from the Hladilnika Bus Terminal (See post Tram/Bus 9TM) to Aleko

Bus No. 1507 and the jolly driver.

on top of Vitosha, but until one of my readers gave me the schedule via link (click here), I had no idea when to go. FYI, buses leave Hladilnika at 7:50, 8:55, 10:00, 11:05, 12:15, 13:30, 14:50, and 17:00. On the return trip, buses leave the Moreni Hotel at 8:45, 9:55, 11:05, 12:20, 13:35, 14:50, 16:05, and 18:00. Although this bus is managed by the Sofia Bus Company, it is considered a special seasonal line (running possibly April – October?) and costs 4.00 BGN one way and 6.00 BGN round trip.

We arrived at Hladilnika (Mr. P, Ms. R., and I) and proceeded to buy our tickets. “They’re a little expensive,” Ms. R. said. “Yeah, but the bus uses a lot of gasoline to get up to 7,000 feet.” Passengers need to buy their tickets at a ticket shack next to the bus loop. The lady asked us to wait “in the middle waiting area,” but we walked directly over to the bus. They driver was exceptionally jolly and told us that he didn’t mind if we just “come on in.” He then proceeded to make some jokes with some older ladies who looked like they were going for a hike.

Bus + bikes = love.

Bus No. 1507, an old manual-transmission yellow Mercedes-Benz, left Hladilnika at 12:15, packed full of

There are two individual reserves within the nature park. This is the one we went to.

mountain bikes. Several of the guys going biking were sharing a two-liter of beer on the way, which seems to be completely socially acceptable. My friends and I shared a bottle of wine. From Hladilnika, the bus goes down Cherni Vruh Boulevard, past Okolovrusten Put, and on up through Dragalevtsi. The bus did stop at Dragalevtsi Square, but no one got on. From here the bus climbed the 10 or so kilometers into Vitosha Nature Park, and up to the top.

Vitosha Nature Park   is the oldest protected area in Bulgaria, being founded in 1934. The whole area has recently been the reason of protests by environmentalists who are against the government opening up the countries parks and reserves to construction of new ski pistes and hotels. I agree with them, and the bill luckily didn’t pass. The government claims that the bill would be good for tourism and that Bulgaria could be similar to Switzerland and Austria in the ski world, however people soon forget that Austria and Switzerland are managed by the eco-friendly Austrians and Swiss, and not Bulgarian businessmen who have a reputation for being corrupt. Anyone who have been to Bansko can see how  rampart construction can destroy a town. Also, this bill is in contrast to what was originally intended. Rila, Central Balkan, Vitosha, and Pirin are all reserves. Their entire reason for being is to preserve nature in its truest form. New ski lifts and pistes are about someone making money, not protecting the environment.

Vitosha is famous for its moraines.

The bus arrived at 13:04, a travel time of 49 minutes to the top. Hotel Moreni is a soviet-era hotel with a

Sofia from up above.

nice cafe overlooking Sofia. Right at the bus stop, there is a steadily graded trail that leads to Cherni Vruh, about a 2 hour paced hike. In the other direction, further up the road is Hizha Aleko, one of the first Mountain Lodges built in the country and named after writer Aleko Konstantinov, who graces the 100 leva bill. In 1895 he led an excursion of tourists up Mt. Vitosha by foot, which seems to have sparked the mountain tourism that Bulgarians so dearly love. The Hizha is well-worn, and well-loved, achieving status as one of the 100 national tourist sites. A room is 9 BGN per night, and there is a snack bar and restaurant. From here there are other trails leading to Bistritsa Village and Zlatni Mostove. If planning a long hike, a map is a necessity, as is sunblock. Also, be sure to check the weather report. Hiking on a mountain in heavy fog is a bad idea. Ms. R, Mr. P, and I walked some of the trail leading to Bistritsa, where we met an elderly lady who was bathing in her swimsuit in a mountain stream. She was very friendly and

What it was like in January.

told us there was a beautiful field a ways up.

“How many kilometers?” I asked.

“Kilometers? There are no kilometers on the mountain! Maybe 10 minutes!”

Later Ms. R. said “I wish I had a grandmother like that…”

After drinking some coffee at the hizha, we got back on the bus at 16:00. It was much more

Kiddie ski school run by Moten at Hizha Aleko.

crowded this time, but not with bikes. A man who must have been in his 80’s tried to get on the bus and pay with a regular ticket, but the driver told him that he needed to buy a special ticket. The man didn’t move. The driver then sold some more tickets and went back to him and told him again that this wasn’t a city bus line, and his card won’t work. The man showed him his card. The driver then proceeded to yell at this guy until he got off the bus and told him:

On top of the mountain, radiation levels are higher and the sun is stronger. I recommend a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.

“If I get caught with ticketless passengers on my bus, I get a 500 leva fine! I have a house, kids…”

The man got off.

“They should let older people ride for free,” Ms. R. said.

“What I don’t understand is that this bus is run by the city bus company, has a route number, and has ticket validators. If they want it to be less confusing, they need to put a ‘Special Trip’ sign in the window like other buses do.”

The trip down the mountain took exactly 60 minutes. At Dragalevtsi, a woman tried to get on, thinking it was a city bus. The driver stopped the bus and yelled:

“This is a special trip! This is not a city bus! This bus isn’t leaving until you get off, ma’am. I’m not going to risk a 600 leva fine! I have a house, kids…”

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“The Sofia Airport Express”: Bus #384 – Zh. K. Mladost 1 to Sofia Airport Terminal 2

#384 Info Table.

It seemed like just as my book was published, the Center for Urban Transport altered the bus lines to the airport, which makes the information in my book wrong. And not wrong like a no-longer working telephone number or a typo in a website, but probably the most useful information a traveler who is using my book will need. I just need to trust that my readers are inventive, flexible, and adventurous people!

Buses #3 and #384.

Since the opening of terminal 2 in 2006, there have been two buses: #84 which serviced terminal 1 (now used for budget airlines), and #284 which serviced terminal 2. #284 was an express bus reaching downtown in 15 minutes, and #84 was local. The only bad thing about this arrangement was if you mistakenly went to the wrong terminal (like I did), and there was no way to get to the other lest pay a 15 leva taxi fare. Earlier this year #284 disappeared and #84 (see post) was extended to both terminals, which although the bus takes longer to travel, is less confusing. At the same time, bus #384 appeared, shuttling travelers from the Maldost 1 Metrostation to the airport.

This might be the first time I’ve ridden a bus and I was the only person on it from start to finish.

I got off the subway and walked over to the first stop in the bus loop, also shared by buses #3 and #5 (both waiting when I arrived) which go to satellite villages near Pancharevo. The bus driver of #3 was eating a doner kabob sandwich and listening to “Let’s Talk About Sex,” by Salt-n-Pepa on a turned-up radio. I asked him if the #3 bus was a normal fare bus, to which he replied “yes.”

#384 pulled in, and after the driver went to a nearby shop to buy some snacks, I got on the bus at 17:21.

Your days are limited, Duh Mall! Paradise Center is going to be finished in a matter of months!

This particular coach, No. 3804 was one of the newer orange BMC buses. The bus first passes the run-down Yemeni and Libyan Embassies before turning onto Yerusalem Street at the Sofia Metro. If coming off the subway, use the northeast exit. After this the bus buzzes along past Picadilly, Duh Mall, and up onto Brussels Boulevard, which is the expressway connecting Tsarigradsko Shose with the airport over the scenic apartment buildings of Druzhba.

It was about this point that I went to the driver and I asked him why the bus runs so infrequently. “Why are there only buses in the morning and in the evening?”

Sofia Terminal 1.

“Yes, this bus runs in the morning and in the evening.”

“Yes, I know that, but why?”

“Well, that’s they way they decided it.”

As usual, asking total strangers proves to be fruitless. I assume according to the data that this bus was

Next to terminal 2 is an unexplained small park with some new buildings. This is where the Sofia Subway will one day pop out.

intended for employees of the airport, due to the bus running 7 times between 5:00 am and 8:00 am, and later 7 times between 16:00 and 19:00. We pulled into terminal 1 at 17:32, 11 minutes into the trip, and terminal 2 at 17:38, a total trip time of 17 minutes.

Once at the airport I noticed several Kontrolla swarming the bus stop, and indeed they checked me on the return trip on #84. With a helpful hint: If arriving in Sofia, I wouldn’t change any money at the exchange booth in the airport (instead try Nikar on Graf Ignatiev – they change currencies fairly from almost everywhere). The rate was just ridiculous. If without Bulgarian leva, transport tickets can be bought from the grocery store across from the toilets in Euro. I asked the shop girl if this was okay, to which she replied “as long as they aren’t big bills.” Probably because she can’t make change. If arriving in terminal 1, there is also a small convenient store that sells tickets. You won’t be able to buy bus tickets from the driver in Euro. One Euro will buy two tickets and the signs at the bus stop explain the rest.

I think you can buy tickets here.

On this day, 100 US dollars would have bought 131 leva at the airport, but 160 anywhere else.

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“The Bankya Express”: Bus #42 – Avtostantsiya Bankya to Metrostantsiya Slivnitsa

All the information you need…

After having ridden the antique train to Bankya (see post), I opted to take the city bus back since it left earlier and it was free for me since I have a new transit card. As a side note, as of May 1st, passengers can no longer buy the laminated and star punched cards that were really great because you could usually squeeze a few extra days out of them from inattentive ticket ladies. Now every one must buy a magnetic electronic card which is cheaper if you let them put a picture of you on it. I look like I’m drunk in mine.

After walking around for about 15 minutes, I still hadn’t found the Bankya Bus Station, which is a paved loop

Getting on the bus.

and a modular building. From there, buses connect the town with Sofia, but none more conveniently than #42 which is a 20 minute journey to the Slivnitsa Subway Station. Actually, the first stop is the bus station, but the bus back-tracks into the town center of Bankya before passing by the bus station again and then off to Sofia. This is where I was when I saw the bus coming and ran to get on before it pulled away. I boarded bus No. 9092, an orange Mercedes-Benz Conecto, at 16:08. From the center there is one major highway out, aptly named the Bankya Highway, which goes through shaggy residential neighborhoods before passing by the Bankya Mineral Water plant on the edge of town and on into pasture land.

One place of interest on the highway is the Balkanka Swimming Pool about halfway between Bankya and Boulevard Slivnitsa, which is an outdoor swimming pool with a restaurant and and some water slides. There isn’t a bus stop, but I’m sure if you ask the driver, they will stop since on the bus schedule this area of the route is listed as “по желание” or “by request.” I’ve been once with my school group, but since I didn’t pay for myself, I don’t remember the entrance fee, but I do remember liking it.

Take the bus from here to Bankya.

The bus turns right towards Sofia at Slivnitsa Boulevard which is where a pre-teen girl walking with her older

Somebody threw a metal garbage can through the glass bus shelter. I bet it was the girl with the sucker…

sister gave me the finger through the window, which is always kind of funny since all I was doing was riding a bus. Maybe she was mad because she spent her bus fare on a sucker she had in her mouth.

After creeping along waiting for traffic at the intersection of Okolovrsuten Put (Ring Road), the bus finally arrives at the Slivnitsa Metrostation, which has a make-shift bus station street level serving city buses going to the various western towns and villages outside of Sofia. I exited the bus at 16:30, a total travel time of 22 minutes, and went to the Hit to buy some pre-packaged Japanese-style miso soup. I also found some Bulgarian brand Tofu, among other things.

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“The Dragalevtsi Monastery”: Bus #93 – Hladilnika Bus Terminal to Dragalevtsi Ski Lift

The Bus #93 info table.

Because it was so nice outside yesterday and everyone else is on vacation I decided to go to Mt. Vitosha and

Like a boxy little bumblebee, here comes #93!

take a hike in the forest. In case you don’t have any windows in your house or you’re a first time visitor to the city, Sofia sits at the base of a 2290 meter mountain massif, which is a wonderful escape from the city when it gets hot. There are several buses that connect Sofia with the mountain, all of which leave from the Hladilnika Bus Terminal at the corner of Cherni Vruh Blvd. and Blvd. Henrik Ibsen, just south of Lozenets. You can get from the city center to here using bus #9TM (see post) which for the time being has replaced Tram #9. Once the subway is done this fall, they may put Tram #9 back in service. From Hladilnika, there are several options to reach Mt. Vitosha: Bus #64  (see post) runs through all of the suburban zones and connects with the main square in Dragalevtsi (to which there are taxis waiting to take visitors to the top), the NuBoyana film studios, and the Boyana Church. This is probably the most frequent bus. Bus #122 takes you to the Simeonovo Cabin Lift, which is a crap shoot whether it’s working or not. However there are trail heads here leading up the mountain. Bus #98 goes to Zheleznitsa Village, which has additional trail heads. Bus #93 goes to the Dragalevtsi Lift, and then there is the mysterious #66 phantom bus which no one seems to know anything about, but goes the entire way up the mountain to Hizha Aleko, which is a above the tree line and about an hour’s hike to Cherni Vruh Peak and the weather station. On my many trips

In the bus, up the mountain.

to Aleko I haveseen #66, but nothing is written about it on the Sofia Transport website. This is one of those cases when trying to get information out of Bulgarians is like an interrogation. Having written a book about the entire country, you’d be surprised how little people want to tell me about the interesting things in their communities, or they just don’t understand what I’m asking. Anyway: back on the bus…

Aha! The #66! It’s like playing Where’s Waldo…

My friend Mr. P and I decided to take bus #93 to Dragalevtsi Monastery and do a little bird watching. We packed some snacks and a couple of empty beer bottles to fill with mineral water from the monastery and caught bus No. 1539 at 13:33 from Hladilnika. The #93 departs every hour on the half hour from 7:30 to 18:30 with additional buses departing on the :10 and the :50 on weekends and holidays. The buses that run on this line are boxy, yellow and white, made by Mercedes Benz with manual transmissions, which is practical since the roads are steep and the bus takes you half way up the mountain. Upon leaving Hladilnika, the bus rides up Cherni Vruh Blvd., crossing the Okolovrusten Put Highway and through Dragalevtsi to its main square. There are several bira-skaras here in case you’re hungry, as well as a bar called “Uncles (Чичовци)”  which although I haven’t eaten there, I would really like to because of the name. After the main square, the bus winds up the mountain into Vitosha Nature Park and stops at the bottom of the ski lft, which also seems to have an intermittent working schedule. When I exited the bus (at 13:52, a travel time of 19 minutes), I asked the driver about bus #66, and this is what he told me: it works

A quaint mountain stream.

only on weekends and holidays, and it runs once an hour leaving from Hladilnika and going to Aleko. I thanked him and told him I was doing some investigative journalism. Right after I got off the bus and he pulled away, I realized I should have asked more investigative questions, like a time schedule.

From here, it is a 20 minute walk up a paved road to the Monastery. There aren’t any signs, but there is only

The church, with the cloisters in the background.

one road and there will probably be other people around to ask if you’re unsure. The monastery itself, officially called “Holy Mother of God,” is usually referred to as Dragalevtsi Monastery. It was built in the 14th century by Tsar Ivan Alexander during the Second Bulgarian Empire. Among it’s notable visitors was Vasil Levski who based his network of revolutionary committees against the Ottoman Empire within monasteries throughout Bulgaria, which was practical since they were usually isolated and not near any towns or villages. Vasil Levski himself had also studied as a priest. The Dragalevtsi Monastery however houses nuns, not monks, which is a rarity.

After visiting the monastery, Mr. P and I hiked down the mountain, stopping to wade in one of the mountain streams (with very cold water), and also stopping at the Vitosha Nature Park Info Center, which has a small observation tower with a really nice view of Sofia. After that, we continued on to the main square in Dragalevtsi, which altogether from the monastery was about a 45 minute walk. When we reached Dragalevtsi, none other than phantom

One of the best things about Bulgaria is the honey.

bus #66 was waiting to take us down the mountain. The driver was hesitant to let us board, but did finally open the doors. Once on, I asked him about that particular bus line and he repeated what the other driver had told me. We got off at Okolovrusten Put to switch buses to go to Ikea and eat Swedish Meatballs, and while we were waiting for #111 (see post), we met a couple who had taken #66 up the mountain. They told me the bus fare was 4 leva, one way (which was why the driver was probably reluctant to open the bus door for us on the way down, but I do have a transit card that says all lines…), and the bus was meant for tourists. Once the snow melts, I think this will be an adventure worth taking…

Sofia from the mountain.

Categories: Bus Lines | 4 Comments

“The Sofia Airport Local”: Bus #84 – Orlov Most (Eagle’s Bridge) to Sofia International Airport

This is the info table.

Because I am a teacher, I had a very long spring vacation, so I decided to take a trip outside of Bulgaria. My first choice was to rent a car and go to the Adriatic, but that ended up being very expensive. I next looked at taking a bus tour, but I would literally be spending half of my time on a bus for almost the same amount of money as renting a car. Then I looked at airline tickets. Malev, the Hungarian Flag Carrier had recently gone out of business, and Wizzair had taken over it’s old route to Budapest, costing less than a bus ticket (or my US readers, Wizzair is something like the JetBlue of Europe, which is basically a bus with wings; don’t expect

In the words of Janet Jackson…”controoool…”

any frills). I bought the tickets two weeks in advance at a grand total of 120 leva (or 80 US dollars) round trip. This vacation meant that I finally had a reason to travel with bus #84 to the airport.

Since the opening of terminal 2 five years ago, there have been two buses that go to the airport: #84 which served terminal 1, and #284 which served terminal 2. If you were going to the airport, you needed to be sure of which terminal to use because they did not connect with a walkway and neither of the buses went to the other’s terminal. One snowy winter night I went to terminal 2 to pick up my friend Paolo who was coming from Italy, only to realize he would arrive at terminal 1. A taxi driver told me it would cost 15 leva to take me to the other terminal, so I decided to walk, which took about a half hour, through an industrial park. If I hadn’t been so angry I think I would have froze to death. The road leading to terminal 1 also had no sidewalks, so I had to constantly step off the road to let traffic pass. When I wrote my book, I wrote a very clear paragraph on the importance of knowing which terminal to go to, but as of January 2012, I see that the #284 bus no longer exists and #84 goes to both terminals, which although this will now cause some confusion for travelers using my book, I am glad because this makes a lot more sense. Why complicate things more than they need to be? I also noticed that there is a new bus that goes from the Mladost 1 subway station to the airport – #384 – but it only runs in the mornings and afternoons, so it’s not yet a practical or dependable ride. Eventually the Sofia Metro Red Line will reach the airport, but this will be years until it is completed. My friend Mr. P had also decided to come to Budapest with me, so we left for the airport together from Orlov Most.

Terminal 2.

#84 begins its route downtown in a lollipop loop going around the Monument to the Soviet Union in Borisova Gradina (the big one with the soldier holding the machine gun), bordered by Evlogi Georgiev, Gurko, Vasil Levski, and Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevards. It stops at Orlov Most just up from the Sofia University Metrostation, giving travelers a nice drop off point in the city center. We boarded bus No. 9097 at 17:45 (our flight was at 19:15), which was full of people going to the airport. From here, #84’s route is a straight shoot down Tsarigradsko Chausse (the Istanbul Highway) to a side street that leads to the airport. I usually travel with a universal transit pass that lets me use all lines in the city as much as I want, but my

Bus No. 9097, at Terminal 1.

card had expired a couple of days earlier, so I considered riding without a ticket, but when I thought about what a big travel day it was, it seemed like a bad idea. So I bought a ticket. Ten minutes into the trip, at 7th kilometer where T. Chausse meets G.M. Dimitrov in the big traffic circle, a group of KONTROLLA boarded the bus. I would like to state that this is the first time since beginning my blog that I have run into the KONTROLLA, which is a staggering 20 transit lines. Because I haven’t had the opportunity, I will explain:

In America, and in many other places, if you want to ride the bus, you have to pay. In my city in America, all passengers must board the bus in the front door and a.) pay $1.50 in exact change, b.) give the driver a prepaid ticket, or c.) show a monthly pass. If you can’t pay then you don’t ride the bus.  Exceptions are in case you’ve been a victim of abuse, a crime, or you’re a runaway teen, and the bus company participates in “The Safe Place Program,” in which they’re instructed to take you to the nearest police department or fire station. It’s a wonderful program. In Sofia, however, the bus driver couldn’t care less about fares. Usually the drivers sell tickets, but they won’t make change and sometimes they run out. Tickets can be bought at most convenient stores or at transit kiosks and then need to be punched in a ticket punch to validate their use. This is the same in trams, buses, and trolleys, though in trams they also have an automatic ticket machine which prints out a ticket and doesn’t need to be punched. Theoretically (and actually very often) people can ride without a ticket for free. If someone is caught by the KONTROLLA, you need to pay a fine of 10 leva. As of this month, the fine has been raised to 20 leva.

The Sofia Airport, terminal 1.

The KONTROLLA are conductors that travel in groups of two or three and come into the bus or tram and check people’s tickets. Until a few years ago they would be dressed in plain clothes, but now they must wear uniforms. They have a scanner for electronic tickets and if you have a paper ticket, they tear and take the top portion of the ticket and you keep the bottom. They usually get on at one stop and get off at the next where sometimes the police will be waiting. If you don’t have a ticket, then you will be asked to exit the bus with them and you have the option of paying the fine on the spot or being issued a fine that you can pay later at much higher price (150 leva I think). I find that most people buy tickets, but occasionally you’ll see someone who fights back. One time on Stamboliiski, this incredibly large man was stopped and he played this game where he searched all of his pockets for his ticket until the next stop and then when the doors opened, ran out and down the street. He looked ridiculous with all of his parts flapping as he ran in what looked like a really nice suit. The KONTROLLA shrugged his shoulders and moved on. Sometimes people get vocal and fight. This is the most entertaining, but they never win. Tears don’t work on the KONTROLLA. Only twice have I been caught without a ticket: once on

The Budapest Subway uses the same train cars as Sofia!

tram #5 about five years ago when I didn’t really understand how to buy a ticket. I paid the fine, but a man stood up and began to yell at the conductor who apparently “let’s all the gypsies ride for free, but steals money from tourists…” which although I truly was in the wrong for not buying a ticket and don’t really agree with what he said, it was nice to have someone stand up for you. The other time was late on a Sunday night when I didn’t thing anyone would notice, but right at Jardin d’Algerie, two ladies got on and asked for my

The transit system in Budapest is incredibly efficient, but tickets are one EURO, which is twice the price of Sofia. They have several subway lines, but less tram lines it seems.

ticket. I had a bottle of wine and had just recently shaved my head, so when they asked me for it, I pointed at the driver and went and bought one. They said that was okay. I guess looking tough and not speaking told them I was more trouble that I was worth. This time on #84, the KONTROLLA caught one young man who agreed to get off at the next stop without a fight.

After 7th kilometer, the bus gets back on T. Chausse and rides to Brussels Boulevard where it exits and takes the lower side street through Druzhba 1 until it reaches the airport. Coming from Downtown, the bus turns right towards terminal 2 first, which is where the second group of KONTROLLA got on the bus. They saw our checked tickets and moved on. At terminal 2, the got off and yet another group of KONTROLLA got on, again checking our tickets. I guess I was making up for all of those blog posts where I wasn’t checked. My advice to tourists is that if you plan on taking the bus, buy a ticket for you and any person-sized bags, because there will be a conductor. You can buy tickets on the bus from the driver or at the the magazine shops in the airport. If you have a big bill or EURO, this is where you need to go. I think it would be a nice idea to have an automat at the airport where visitors could buy tickets with EURO coins or credit cards, but this has yet to materialize. Taking a taxi from the airport as a foreigner will cause you to be ripped off every time. I speak Bulgarian well and

The Budapest Yellow Line is the oldest subway line on the continent. The cars are much smaller than the regular Russian wagons.

have lived here for six years and it still happens to me. I can’t scream “run the meter!” loud enough.

The bus pulled into terminal 1 at 18:08 and we got off the bus and headed to the terminal, a travel time of 23 minutes from the city center to the airport. We flew to Budapest and had a great time. Enjoy the pictures!

A Budapest Tram.

Categories: Bus Lines | 3 Comments

“The Villa Zone Local”: Bus #64 – Hladilnika Terminal to the Center for Hygiene

#64 Info Table.

Just after getting to Hladilnika bus terminal of Bus 9TM, I decided to take #64 (which runs

This guy told me to “get on the bus.”

through the villa zones to Boyana and back into the center) since it would take me near to where I live. After dashing into the bushes for a quick bathroom break, I boarded bus No. 1761, a green Mercedes-Benz coach, at 13:47. The bus left Hladilnika, which serves as a transit point between Sofia and some of its southernmost suburbs on Mt. Vitosha, taking a left down Cherni Vruh Boulevard, the road that eventually goes to Dragalevtsi Villa Zone and on up to Aleko resort area, just below Cherni Vruh (Black Peak – the highest point on Mt. Vitosha at 2290 m. or roughly 7500 feet). The transition to democracy has not been kind to this part of Sofia, where older parts of the city

It’s not a dump, it’s “prestigious.”

were meticulously ordered through socialist planning, this section has become the “build whatever you like” town of nouveau riche Sofians, without concern to a cohesive urban plan. Unlike Americans, who move away from the downtowns of their cities in order to buy houses, if you move to the suburbs in Bulgaria, you’re probably likely to still live in an apartment, which for me seems like a bad deal since these apartments tend to be more expensive than the ones the could buy further in. And with the aging of the population and the recent financial downturn, I know that there are plenty of apartments available in better neighborhoods. I’m sure that neighborhoods like Vitosha, Manastirski Livadi and Malinova Dolina are attractive for some people, but the endless sluggishly-paced construction and mixed lots of garbage, nurseries, dirt plods, and half-empty

These suburban housewives are desperate for some stucco.

apartment buildings are a standing monument to what happens with a weak municipal plan.

Just over the Okolovrusten Put (the beltway), Cherni Vruh Boulevard enters Dragalevtsi, which is one of the bigger former villa zones that sit higher above the city and are home for well-to-do Bulgarians (think “Hollywood Hills”). Before democracy, the villa zones were set up as resort villages full of houses, meant for the elite in Sofia to escape the city. A villa zone address in the 1970’s and 1980’s was more than prestigious,

The Hollywood of Bulgaria.

even so for Todor Zhivkov who built his residence in nearby Boyana, a building that now houses the National History Museum. However, deregulation and the free market have allowed rampant construction even here, turning what once was a “rustic retreat” into “how many apartment buildings can we fit on this lot?”

The bus leaves Cherni Vruh Blvd. and turns onto Paprat Street, which just after the Dragalevtsi Village Square turns into Nartsis Street. The bus rides into the Kinocenter Villa Zone, which is named for the NuBoyana Film Studios, Bulgaria’s own version of Hollywood which has attracted quite a bit of business from its American counterpart. Most recently, the film crew of “The Expendables II” were accused of disturbing and damaging colonies of endangered bats in a Rhodopian cave during shooting. I guess the bats were also expendable. It was here that I exited the bus (at 14:07) and walked around for a few minutes. I got onto the next bus (No. 1985), an orange BMC 220-SLF, at 14:23. After NuBoyana, the #64 route enters into the Boyana Villa Zone proper, passing by the Boyana town square and

An old Roman film set! Those Romans made everything!

the adjacent 11th-century Boyana Church, a UNESCO world heritage site. I’ve been several times, though just make sure that you don’t ask the tour guide if St. Ivan Rilski was a bogomil. This question was unappreciated.

The view of Sofia from Boyana.

After Boyana, the bus pops out onto Daskal St. Popandreev, which borders the Boyana Residence, crosses the Okolovrusten Put again – placing it on Boulevard Bulgaria, and rides into town turning left onto Boulevard Akademik Ivan Evstatiev Geshov, and ends its route right in from of the Center for Hygiene, which is a part of the greater Medical Academy Complex. I exited the bus at 14:46, a total of 43 minutes (if I hadn’t broken up my trip).

Categories: Bus Lines | 2 Comments

“The Cherni Vruh Local”: Bus #9TM (Tram Line #9)

9TM Info Table.

Kino Odeon, with an ad for H&M, one of the most expensive brands not yet in Sofia.

Because of the construction of the Sofia Metro under Cherni Vruh Boulevard, the #9 tram has been temporarily replaced by a bus, named 9TM. This route is short and acts as a connector from the center of Sofia to the Hladilnika Bus Terminal, which serves buses going to and from the suburbs on Mt. Vitosha. The route begins on a lollipop loop of Vasil Levski, Patriarch Evtiimy, and Fritof Nansen Boulevards. I got on at the Sixth of September and Vasil Levski Stop at 13:21, on bus No. 1943, a Mercedes-Benz Connecto that wasn’t connected to any other parts. The bus then passes by Kino Odeon, a second-run movie house owned by the Bulgarian Film Archive, at the “Popa” intersection, where it turns left and coninues down Patriarch Evtiimy, before turing left again on Fritof Nansen. On the right in the National Palace of Culture and a memorial displaying a piece of the Berlin Wall, and on the left is Sofia’s second Starbuck’s.  Past the Lover’s Bridge, a pedestrian walkway going over Blvd. Bulgaria, the bus passes the incredibly boxy Sofia Hilton and then the Museum of Earth and Man, which has endless exhibitions of geological formations, the kind that are interesting to a seven-year-old for about five minutes. This also

In other news, the Bulgarians are re-making “Married With Children” into Bulgarian with Bulgarian actors. I am actually really excited.

happens to be the beginning of Yuzhen Park, which is probably second for Sofians after Borisova Gradina in terms of popularity. You next get to meet the dying City Center Sofia, Sofia’s first western style mall. When I first moved to Sofia in 2006, CCS was THE mall, the one with the Picadilly Supermarket where I could find western style groceries like avocados and rice noodles. Since then, Sofia has been mall crazy with Mall of Sofia on Stamboliiski,the Serdika Center on Sitnyakovo, and The Mall on Tsarigradsko Chausse, which has the Carrefour, or for us Americans, “French Wal-mart.”

Just after CCS (and it’s neighbor the hotel Hemus which offers “sound-proof rooms” on its website and notes

Just say the magic words: “presto connecto!”

that “discretion” is one of its words…), you’ll start to see the construction that has plagued the street for the past three or so years, causing headaches for the residents of Lozenets. In a few months, construction will finally be completed on the stations, though I’m unsure whether tram rails will be restored. After going up a big hill and the five start Hotel Kempinski (where four years ago I had what amounts to the best and worst dental experience in my life – the filling of six cavities in one hour without the use of novacaine) before coming to a stop at the intersection of James Bourchier Boulevard, named for the Irish journalist who lived in Sofia (across from the Royal Palace no less) for twenty years, and who reported on movements in the Balkan Wars. He was a strong supporter of Bulgaria’s expansion and reclamation of former territory.

The unused tram rails at the #9 tram loop.

After Bourchier Blvd., the bus goes downhill on Cherni Vruh, which at this section is lined with newer

Take me down to the Paradise Center where the grass is green and the gurls are pretty…

apartment buildings, and turns left into the Hladilnika (meaning “refrigerator”) Bus Terminal just after the #9 tram turn-around. Here, at the corner of Sreburna and Cherni Vruh, is where they are sickeningly building the Paradise Center, which will dwarf all other malls in Sofia and markets itself as a “lifestyle center” bringing the “most expensive brands not yet available” to Sofia. Well, let’s just say that I just can’t wait to wear my Italian Gucci loafers through the mud-soaked torn-by-construction streets to catch a twenty-year old bus to take me to my one-room apartment. I exited the bus at 13:38, a travel time of 17 minutes.

Categories: Bus Lines, Tram Lines | 3 Comments

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