An O.K. Taxi: Ruski Pametnik to Bitaka

Getting in the taxi.

After weeks of trying to get up early and go, my friend Ms. R and I finally managed to wake up

Arriving at bitaka. If nothing else, just remember “the taxi with the red dots are O.K….”

at the crack of dawn in order to go to bitaka – the flea market in Malashevtsi. “Bitaka is epic,” in the fact that if there is something that you would like to buy, it can be found here. Old clothes, memorabilia from the 60’s and 70’s, post cards, old photos, kitchen ware, bric-a-brac, artwork, and furniture. It’s a very come as you are kind of place – many of the merchants are the scavengers you see during the week digging for treasures in the garbage containers. In America, we refer to this as “dumpster diving,” and I can attest that most of my furniture has been fix-me-ups I found in my neighbors’ front yards on big trash collection day (scheduled every three months). One place that connects people’s old stuff with new owners is freecycle, a service that is committed to keeping refuse out of landfills. In Bulgaria, a similar site is, but you need to act fast since good items go quickly.

On this day, I needed to go to bitaka to find some souvenirs for my friends in the U.S., and Ms. R wanted to sell some donated items. Among many things, Ms. R deals with waste. A researcher from the University of Michigan, her purpose for being in Bulgaria is to understand how waste affects our world, and furthermore how waste is treated in Bulgarian society as compared to in the United States. She’s the American that is following scavengers around Sofia, digging through the dumpsters by day, and attending cocktail parties by night with Sofia’s elite. She really is a brazen and ingenious person, who isn’t afraid to tackle an issue that we would rather throw away. Our

Most people came by just to see if we were the Americans everyone was talking about.

trash makes an impact on the environment, and as she can tell you, our trash is giving a whole faction of society a way to make money. One of her recent projects was “Slivi za Smet (Plums for Trash),” an international item exchange titled after the Bulgarian folk tale by Ran Bosilek about a man who sold plums in exchange for garbage in search of a wife for his son.

Because we had so many items, we needed to take a taxi rather than the bus (see post), which gave me an opportunity to touch on a kind of transport people use in Sofia quite frequently: taxis.

Chances are, if you’ve had a bad experience in Bulgaria, it’s been in a taxi cab. Although the

Ms. R doing research. (As a side note, all money collected goes to a charity as a donation…)

drivers have been more tame in recent years, they will still take advantage of a tourist who 1. can’t speak Bulgarian, 2. don’t know the fare rates, and 3. have no idea where they’re are going. I’ve been in Bulgaria six years, I speak fluent Bulgarian, and occasionally I’ll get a driver who tries to push it. So what are you to do? This is my advice: If coming to Sofia by plane, feel free to take a taxi. But rather than just flag one down outside, order one from the O.K. Taxi info desk which is represented in both of the terminals, have an address to give them, and ask them to run the meter. To most destinations in the city center, the fare will be 8-15 leva, and to distant suburbs, as much as 20. If you would like to negotiate a flat fee, feel free to do so, but expect some outrageous offers. For example, a meter charge during the day will be 59 stotinki during the day and 70 sto. at night per kilometer, with 18 sto. per idle minute. Other reputable companies beside O.K. Suptertrans are Radio CV, Yellow, and Edno Evro. In Sofia, it is normal to hail cabs from the street if they have a green light showing, but I tend to call from a number programed into my cell phone. When I do call, my address pops up on their computer screen which makes things less complicated concerning my accent.

To be forewarned, there are a few “premium” cabs that lurk around downtown and are traps – usually the ones parked at busy intersections. These are the cabs that look like reputable companies (i.e., instead of O.K. Supertrans, they use the same logo, but written as C.K. Superfast), and charge anywhere from 1-4 leva per kilometer. My colleague and I made the mistake of taking one of these cabs last year on the way to our school’s Christmas banquet. After four kilometers, I saw the fare was 15 leva, and my colleague started yelling. “Oh, we need to get out of the cab now,” she said. “This man is trying to rip us off!” At the next stoplight she got out, and then I did, and then the driver. He told me that we needed to pay, and I told him that I would give him 5 leva, which was more than the fair amount. He told me that he would call the police, and I told him “to go ahead and do that, because they won’t come for an hour anyway and when they get here, they won’t want to deal with the paperwork for my passport.” I asked him again to just take the 5 leva, which he did and promptly spit in my face. He then got in his taxi, squealed his tires, and drove off.

On the way to bitaka however, we flagged down a regular O.K. Taxi, at 8:36 a.m. at the corner of Laius Koshut and Skobelev near Ruski Pametnik. The driver, Nikolai, was really polite and helped us with our baggage. He had a heavy foot, but I like that because it makes my day seem more urgent and exciting. We arrived at bitaka at 8:48, a distance of maybe five kilometers, and a total fare of 4.94 BGN.

Once at bitaka, we set up our blanket between several really nice vendors, who were very confused at why two Americans had shown up.

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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 Slivnitsa Trolley”: Trolleybus #6 – Stochna Gara to Lyulin 3

The #6 info table.

Trolleybuses #6 and #7 are almost identical save for when they enter Lyulin, and #7 skirts the southern

The Lion’s Bridge in Sofia.

part of the borough and #6 skirts the northern part, yet they both meet at the trolleybus turnaround (referred to as an “ear” in Bulgarian) in the Lyulin 3 Microregion. If you want to know more about Lyulin and Zapaden Park, read the #8 Tram post.

I started my trip at Stochna Gara, which is the major transit hub on the north side of downtown. It translates into English as “Freight Station,” and is named for the industrial train station nearby. This whole section of Sofia, reaching from the Central Train Station to Stochna Gara and on Slivnitsa down to Opalchenska has a reputation for being a bad neighborhood. During the day, looking like “a tourist” will probably at worst attract people asking for money (though pickpocketing does occur), and at night the streets draw out prostitutes and drunks, though it’s best to ignore any propositions if going somewhere in the vicinity during the evening. On this particular day, I passed several young men with swastika tattoos drinking beer on the sidewalk, certainly not the people from which you would ask directions to the synagogue.

At 12:42, Bus No. 2113 – an orange and blue old-style Ikarus accordion bus – pulled up to the bus stop, and the driver got out and bought a Fanta

The old Sugar Factory in Zaharna Fabrika.

Orange at a bodega. I wasn’t fast enough getting on the bus, so I was without a seat. The trolley left at 12:47, quickly pulling out into traffic on

If you’re walking around like I do on an empty stomach, I recommend the “Sladuk Svyat (Sweet World)” bakery right where the Women’s Market (Zhenski Pazar) meets Slivnitsa. They usually have banitsa with spinach or onions, which is my favorite.

Slivnitsa Boulevard. The bus passed Rakovski Street, and then came to a stoplight at Maria Luiza Boulevard.  Slivnitsa Boulevard is somewhat like a divided highway, with one direction of traffic running on each side of large drainage ditch, which is named the Vladayska River. The river starts on Mt. Vitosha in the Vladaya Neighborhood, and eventually hooks up with the larger Iskur River, which hooks up with the Danube, which flows into the Black Sea. At Maria Luiza, the Lion’s Bridge (built in the 1890’s) crosses the river. The bridge is flanked by four bronze lion sculptures, which appear on the rear side of the 20-leva banknote. What is even more fitting is that “leva” translates into “lions.”

After Lion’s Bridge, the bus passes Hristo Botev and Opalchenska Boulevards. At Opalchenska, a nicely dressed young man climbed on and stood next to me. So close that I noticed that his arms had been shaved. Now that it’s summertime, there is a surprising lack of hair to be seen. Unlike the United States, where most men would never shave their bodies lest look effeminate, Bulgarian men seem to regularly shave everything from their chests, to their underarms, to even their forearms. “It’s cleaner,” one of my friends told me, yet when I shaved my chest a couple years ago, I didn’t feel cleaner, just “itchy.” Also, I would probably need to buy a carton in bic shavers to get the job done. I’d rather just be hairy.

The bus continues past Konstantin Velichkov into the Sveta Troitsa Neighborhood, which is a mixed group

The old bungalows in the Sugar Factory neighborhood.

of panel and brick apartment blocks. This whole region is under the administration of the Ilinden Municipality, which is located in Zaharna Fabrika Neighborhood (Sugar Factory). Zaharna Fabrika might be one of my favorite neighborhoods in all of Sofia. Just past the strip malls and the Lidl on Slivnitsa, the bus climbs up an overpass

The old movie house in Zaharna Fabrika.

going above the rail lines and the Zaharna Fabrika Train Station. Opposite the train station is a large complex of old factory buildings which were abandoned for quite some time, but recently have begun to be restored. This is the actual sugar factory was built in the 1890’s by Belgian industrialist Ernest Solvay, and produced sugar well into the middle of the 20th century. What is nice about the neighborhood is that it is more like a village, with the factory and the municipality in the main square, and a shop lined main street with park space in the middle. Next to the factory are several bungalows that were built around the same time as the factory buildings, but the remaining apartments were built in the 1940’s – yet unlike the soviet panelki – with breezeways and no balconies. The neighborhood has somewhat of a bad reputation due to being so close to industrial land and having older buildings, but isn’t dangerous by any means.  This is a great neighborhood to live in if you have a car, as the trolleybus is one of the only forms of transit that pass by the neighborhood, stopping in front of the entrance to Zapaden

I saw this message written on a wall. It’s someone wanting to know why their lover doesn’t want them anymore – I think actions speak louder than words.


Past Zaharna Fabrika, the trolley begins winding its way through Lyulin, passing block after block of apartment buildings. What is impressive about Lyulin is the sheer size and organization of the soviet blocks. The names of the neighborhoods, the buildings, etc. give the

An expanse of cropland just beyond the trolleybus #6 turnaround in Lyulin Microregion 3.

neighborhood a barracks-type feel, like you’re walking through military base housing. For many people, they want to hate it because it seems so dehumanizing, but for me, I kind of like the geometric shape and tetris game gone awry skyline.

The trolleybus stopped at the Lyulin ear at 13:21, a total transit time of 34 minutes from the heart of downtown to the city’s northern edge. I exited the bus and crossed the street and looked at an expanse of cropland.

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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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Sofia Pride Parade – The Monument to the Soviet Army and Back

Get in step with the times and meet here on Saturday, June 30th, to support rights for gays and lesbians in Bulgaria!

Although marching in a parade isn’t a form of public transit, it is a way to get from one place to another, and if you’re visiting Sofia this Saturday, June 30th, why not come out and support a group of brave Bulgarians who are boldly defying cultural stigmas in their country by marching in support for gay rights? The parade will begin at 16:30 at the Monument to the Soviet Army in Borisova Gradina, just next to the Sofia University Metro Station in downtown Sofia. In the past, parade routes have included parts of Vasil Levski Boulevard, though the exact parade route hasn’t been announced on the parade website, which can be found here. Unfortunately there has been some negative press from the Orthodox Church, though I generally find that most Bulgarians are live-and-let-live kind of people, not bothered by different lifestyles and ranging from having an optimistic Western attitude to just general apathy. Either way, I would be surprised if the parade turned violent. Just in case, as in years past, marchers can wear a hard hat.

I wish all of my gay and lesbian friends support and success, and here’s to the 2012 Sofia Pride Parade!

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“The Commuter”: Tram #6 – Obelya 2 – Lozenets (but re-routed to Ivan Vazov)

Take the subway, not the tram…

Obelya is really far away from Sofia. If you ever need to go, I would suggest taking the subway

The #6 info table.

north all the way to the last stop and not the tram. The Sofia Metro setup has painted a sense of affluence on to the neighborhood, which like Svoboda, Levski-G, Benkovski, and Gorublyane hold the titles of being the most uninteresting neighborhoods placed the farthest from the city center. In America, commuter suburbs on Eastern Long Island and in New Jersey (around New York) are popular because the offer cheaper housing and more space, while retaining easy access to the city. With the ease of car travel, a majority of Americans actually prefer to live farther away than closer in. And while this sort of village-meets-the-city approach would work well with Bulgarians who love to garden, Obelya is full of the same unpersonalized apartment blocks found everywhere in Sofia.

Tram No. 926 in Obelya.

Tram #6 runs on the northern-most tram line in Sofia, starting way out in Obelya-2 where the city ends and turns into pastureland, skirts the edge of Nadezhda, the “Staten Island” of Sofia, passes through the viaduct labyrinth under the Nadezhda Overpass, and enters the city center scheduled to come to a stop in Lozenets by Yuzhen Park. Construction of the Sofia Subway has altered the line temporarily sending trams in the city to Ivan Vazov. In fact, Tram #1 and Tram #6 are identical right now, with #6 just heading on to Obelya.

I took the subway to Obelya, which was cool because it’s nice to see construction finishing up on the new

Graffiti in the viaduct labyrinth.

blue line, which is above ground on elevated tracks at this section. The Metrostation lets out at a makeshift town center which has several shops including a doner kabob sandwich place. I walked about 15 minutes to the tram loop on the north side of the neighborhood. At the stop were two old Roma ladies in chairs who were talking about tomatoes and their friend’s son, but I was confused why they were there because they obviously weren’t waiting for the tram and weren’t selling anything

If I ever get to be XXXXXXL, let me know…

– yet then again I also like to hang out at transit stops. At this one in particular, there was an old orange bathroom with flowing water and a little hole to squat over if you needed to go. Surprisingly this was not the worst toilet I have seen.

Tram No. 926 arrived, and the driver took a short break before opening the doors and letting me and this other lady on.  At 15:33, the doors closed, and the tram took off. The #6 trams tend to be non-updated Bulgarian Tramkar Trams, most with a front-middle-behind section setup. No. 926 had tinted windows, which is nice because I could photograph people on the street without them seeing me.

From Obelya, the tram runs through the center of Obelya, and then passes through a treeless field and a

The Beryozka Russian Grocery Store on Hristo Botev and Slivnitsa probably have the best selection of Vodkas in Sofia.

new cemetery before hitting Nadezhda. The trip really doesn’t get interesting until the tram enters the series of tunnels under the Nadezhda Overpass, which are walled viaducts covered inch-by-inch in graffiti and overgrown with tropical-looking plants. The whole area looks like a homeless campground, a perfect spot to hold an illegal cockfight during the night or go to the bathroom. I did see one teenage girl riding her bike on the tram rails, which is kind of dangerous if one comes because you could be pinned in, but

Fruity beer in small plastic bottles? Perfect for the alcoholic in the kindergarten…

life is all about risk.

Once popping out near the train station, the tram turns urban and passes down Hristo Botev Boulevard. At the National Palace of Culture, the #6 should enter a tunnel and pass underneath, coming back onto the street at Fritof Nansen, passing the Hilton, the Mall, and the Hotel Heums, turning into Lozenets and ending at Yuzhen Park. Instead, the #6 is using Ivan Vazov as a turn-around and going to Yuzhen Park that way. I exited the tram at 16:28, a total travel time of 55 minutes.

One of the places you can take #6 to is Yuzhen Park’s southern section which has a large tree covered stream running through it, and lots of bike paths. It’s a favorite escape for people who don’t want to deal with the crowds at Borisova Gradina, but don’t feel like going to the mountain. One nice thing

We’re not even frenemies, we’re enemies.

about the parks in Bulgaria, is that people are allowed to drink alcohol in them. One drawback however is all the beer drinking makes people pee everywhere. If you’re planning on opening a business, I suggest a pay toilet in one of the countless parks and squares. The latest fad has been the appearance of fruit beers in

Shumensko Lemon Twist! It’s so HOBO!

Bulgaria, which is nice, but something we’ve been doing in America for quite some time. However, unlike a fruit lambic, which fruits is part of the brewing process, the Bulgarian fruit beers are all a type of shandy – what happens when you mix beer with lemonade in the summer, the traditional blue-collar cocktail.  My friend Mr. P was disappointed when I told him this. “Well, that’s not really so exciting at all.” In the US, they sell a lot of crappy beer and beer products, but the shandy craze hasn’t set in there like here. First there was Ariana Radler, which I think is still the best tasting, but at 1.8% alcohol, why not just drink a Fanta? Lately I’ve seen Kamenitza Grapefruit, and Kamenitza Lemon, so soft-drinkish looking that I saw a mother giving it to her 4 year old in Sedmochislenitsi Square. In her defense, Boza probably has more alcohol, and it’s like a kid’s drink. My least favorite is Zagorka Fuzion, which is Zagorka beer with white grape juice. It tasted to me what happens when you mix beer and wine. What I suggest, since almost all the Bulgarian beers are light lagers – already perfect for the summertime – is to just put a lime or lemon slice in your beer and enjoy it that way.

Over by the National Palace of Culture.

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The Free Sofia Tour – Sudebna Palata to Narodno Subranie

The tour meeting place, at the Palace of Justice.

Now I realize that a walking tour doesn’t count as public transit in the way that buses and subways do, but using your feet is a way to get somewhere. In fact, it is the oldest form of getting somewhere, and if you’re going to be walking around Sofia, why not take the chance to learn some of its more important history under the guise of a couple of locals.

The Sofia Free Tour, similar to projects in a cities all over the world, was started in 2010 and has since led

Vanya, our tour guide.

around 15,000 visitors through the streets of the capitol. The tour route hits most of Sofia’s major sites, beginning at the Palace of Justice (on the corner of Boulevard Vitosha and Alabin Street under the Lion statue), and ending at the Parliament building about 2 hours later.

Although I’ve known about the tour for awhile, it wasn’t until I was featured on “Gradut i Nie” (see post) on Bulgarian National Television with tour co-founder Vanya Nikova that I decided to visit.

The tour is given twice daily, rain or shine, at 11:00 and 18:00. Different guides volunteer for different days, and each of them bring a certain personality to the tour. I went on a Wednesday morning, and Vanya and her colleague Boyko were both waiting, expecting a large amount of tourists that they would need to split up into two groups.

“I don’t like to have groups of more than 20 people. It’s hard for me, and its hard for them,” he told me. I was chosen to walk with Vanya’s group.

Look what we walked by on the tour! So much old Roman stuff!

By 11:05, there were about 30 people waiting for the tour, visiting from places such as Seattle, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, and I’m sure other places, as I didn’t have a chance to talk to everyone. Of course, the people I did talk to received my business card (a little shameless promotion never hurts…).

The first point of interest is the Sveta Nedelya Cathedral (Holy Sunday) which was blown up by communist

The oldest building in Sofia, the 4th century Rotunda.

terrorists in 1925, trying to murder the king of Bulgaria.

“Do you want to know why the weren’t successful? Because he was late. It’s a Bulgarian trend to be a bit late for meetings…”

After this the tour passed the Sheraton complex, the Sveta Petka Samardjiiska Church, the Mosque, the city bath house, and on to the president’s office. Vanya was very good about keeping us in the shade. The tour proceeds to the Rotunda, the Archaeological Museum and former Sofia Central Mosque, the City Garden, the Palace (where the silversmith who was also featured in “Gradut i Nie” has his shop), and the Ivan Vazov Theater.

It was after this, and in front of the Russian Church that the group was yelled at by a colorful street character who let us know that “Russia will crush you stupid fucking Americans, you chicken shit Americans…Russia forever, fucking Americans….” and etc.. Vanya simply smiled at the group and stated that “not everyone here in Sofia feels that way.”

At the Sveta Sofia Church, Vanya told us about the bell in the tree in front of the church that was placed there at the time of the liberation of Bulgaria to alert people of its independence. This was something that I’ve walked by hundreds of times but never seen.

It’s a tour tradition to take a group photo in front of the National Theater. My picture came out blurry, but I guess that’s okay if you don’t want your face on my blog.

The tour passed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which although I think is pretty, is not my favorite church. I really like Sveta Sofia and Sveti Sedmochislenitsi on Graf Ignatiev. After that the tour stopped by Sofia University and ended in front of the Parliament Building, where a protest against protesting against the Foresty Act was just wrapping up. Altogether, from start to finish, this tour took about two hours. I was surprised how thorough the tour was – Vanya really knows her Sofia history. Even more delightful were some of the old pictures of Sofia she had in purse from the Stara Sofia Blog (click here or over on the right), and it was a relief that the history section I wrote about Sofia in my guidebook seems to be correct.

If you go, I recommend taking something drink, and a snack.

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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…”

Categories: Bus Lines | 3 Comments

“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.

Categories: Bus Lines | 3 Comments

“The Downtowner”: Tram #1 – Metrostantsiya Nomer 5 to Kvartal Ivan Vazov

Message! From May 29th until June 27th, the route of tram #1 will be changed – from Blvd. Hristo Botev at the Klokotnitsa Stop, the tram will move itself on Struga Street, Maria Luiza Blvd. (on the route of tram #7), by the Central Train Station, and via H. Botev to Ivan Vazov.

The #1 tram line in Sofia is rather short, beginning at the future Banishora Metrostation

Info Table #1.

(previously unnamed Metrostation Number 5) in front of the Nadezhda Overpass just past the Central Train Station, and ending at an old tram loop in the Ivan Vazov neighborhood. I started my trip at the listed first stop, but when I arrived, there was a message stating that until June 27th, the #1 line would begin at Boulevard Hristo Botev and Maria Luiza, looping around from the northern side of the Jardin d’Algiers past the old Central Bus Station and popping out in front of the New Central Bus Station.

If you’re coming to Sofia as a point of transit, here is some information about the Bus Stations, of which there are two: The Sofia Central Bus Station  is the tall blue building that was built less than 10 years ago. It serves mainly buses going to places in Bulgaria, though there are a few counters with bus companies going to Turkey and Greece. All of the buses running between cities are run by private companies such as Karat-S (Eurolines), Union Ivkoni (Southern Bulgaria), Aleksiev (to the Northwest), Bio-Met (towards Turkey), and etc. You can choose to buy tickets from the company kiosk or you may choose to buy according to destination from the bus station attendants directly to the right as you enter the front door. Do they speak English? My experience has been that they don’t, but be insistent with them and however surly they seem, don’t let them frighten you away.

Jardin d’Algiers.

Between the Central Bus Station and the Central Train Station is the Serdika Bus Station that is listed in a lot

Animal Sculptures.

of guides as the “Traffik Market Bus Station.” Almost all of the buses that come here are international. If traveling to any of the former Yugoslavian countries, tickets can be bought from window 107. This includes Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro. There will probably be a transfer in nearby Nish Serbia, at which you will need to exchange your Bulgarian ticket free of charge for a Serbian one. There is a daily direct bus to Belgrade and one to Skopje through the company Matpu-96, which is who is running the 107 ticket window. Other buses go as far as Spain and Syria, though expect long journeys and several transfers.

But back to the tram. I walked down Maria Luiza to Hristo Botev and climbed aboard tram no. 718 at 14:13, a yellow and blue refurbished Tramkar. The tram starts its journey down Hristo Botev and passes the nicely landscaped Jardin d’Algiers park, which has mature trees and several absolutely charming animal sculptures as well as lots of roses. The park has a reputation for attracting people looking for trouble during the night, but is completely fine during the day. This is usually where the transport conductors get on and check for tickets, but today they were absent. In 30 posts, I have been checked for my ticket only while investigating bus #84, however, I do get checked quite frequently on my way to work in Studenski Grad.

Tram no. 718.

But who did get on the tram at Jardin d’Algiers was my friend and colleague Ms. T., who you may remember from my post about the Malashevtsi Bitaka. Her and her mother were going to the doctor. It’s nice to have someone to talk to while riding, but when I talk in English, I tend to be the center of attention. I showed Ms. T. some new jeans I bought at second hand. In fact if you’re looking for some used clothes, Hristo Botev is

Ms. T. and her mother.

the place. Between Tsar Simeon and the Five Corners, there must be ten different shops, as well as nearby Pirotska Street between Hristo Botev and Opalchenska.

Running parallel to Boulevard Vitosha, akin to Sofia’s Main Street, H. Botev is one of the main north-south boulevards lined with shops and restaurants. I like the Turkish Diner “Aurasia” at Makedonia Square, which serves Turkish cafeteria food and has a bidet in the toilet, as well as Sziget Bar  right on Makedonia Square.

At the Five Corners (where Praga, H. Botev, Skobelev, and Patriarch Evtimy meet), Ms. T. and her mother got off the tram. We’re going to talk about a trip to the Black Sea on Friday.

After this, the tram heads toward the National Palace of Culture, the massive convention center and theater which is full of restaurants and shops and turn right onto Vitosha. Just behind The Palace of Culture (NDK) is the Little Palace of Culture which has a really nice cafe in zala 12, across from the BTV Television Studios. And behind THAT building is the Galaxy Bowling Club, which is the only bowling alley in downtown Sofia.

A lot of older buildings have been preserved along H. Botev.

#1 passes Boulevard Bulgaria and continues down Vitosha into the Ivan Vazov neighborhood.

Look at the size of those balconies!

For those of you who don’t know, Ivan Vazov claims the title of the most famous Bulgarian writer, a revolutionary and romantic who penned the epic novel “Under the Yoke,” describing life for Bulgarians under the Ottoman Empire. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find in English in any of the larger book shops. His house is a small museum at the corner of Rakovski and Ivan Vazov Street (surprise), and he is buried near the St. Sofia Church in downtown. The neighborhood Ivan Vazov is one of the city’s neighborhoods filled with long-time Sofia residents, much like Oborishte, Yavarov, and Lozenets, and being located nearby to both downtown and Yuzhen (Southern) Park is a highly desired place to live.

Right before the end of Vitosha and almost in the front of the main entrance to Yuzhen Park, the tram bears to the right and two stops later ends at the Pazar Ivan Vazov. I exited the tram at 14:43, a total travel time of 30 minutes.

Downtown Sofia has a lot of “Klek Shops” (literally Squat Shops) that sell beer and candy and other quick items at the sidewalk level. I guess rent for a basement store is less. These ladies are famous.

Boulevard Vitosha, the “Main Street” of Sofia.

The 12th Hall Cafe in Little NDK.

Yuzhen Park.

Categories: Tram Lines | 2 Comments

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