Rumania and Bulgaria 2023

Our Romania to Bulgaria Trip

– Cindy and Andrew, August 24th to September 3rd, 2023

Thursday, Aug. 24th, Day1 Lugano to Sibiu, Romania

Early start 4:30 am (Cindy earlier!) to leave at 5:20. to take the 6:02 train from Lugano to Malpensa Terminal 1. We checked in yesterday on line, so we could wander around, drink coffee and have some sugary brioches, before boarding. The flight to Vienna arrived 25 minutes early! Cloud and haze spoilt the views a lot of the way but still the scenery was fantastic. We think the long and very wide ater way we see threading through the terrain must be the Danube River. The plane/bus width was 4 seats per row, 2 engines. Short lay over in Vienna. Passport control, not entering the EU from Italy, but the officer asked to see my Swiss Residence Permit. Ah yes, Brits are extra-community now. Feeling soiled, I catch up to Cindy who had sailed through on her Swiss p/port. Schengen zone clearance, I guess.

Both arrival and departure were by bus. We were invited to check in the cabin size suitcase free of charge, since the flight to Sibiu was full to the gills and there may not have been enough overhead luggage space. The flight was short, entering a stormy patch, before landing with full engine reversal on the short runway to the small, cosy airport. In the passport control queue we chatted with a pretty young woman with a curiously shaped large backpack. She had just returned from the US Tennis Open in NYC, where she had represented Romania, ‘not so well.’ She was joined at the baggage claim by a shorter man, looking super fit and dapper in classic white tennis shorts and bulging calf muscles.

No buses in sight in the carpark, so we took a taxi. The driver spoke basic English, having spent 6 years in London, working in interior construction.The taxi ride was a chaos of new and old, drivers as wild and disrespectful as Italians. Rain was promised but did not show. Our driver decided to return to Romania at the birth of his first child. ‘I want to live in my own country.’ He dropped us off 20m from our hotel, just outside the pedestrian zone in the old town. Fare was 62 Leu (Fr12) and we gave him 100.

Our hotel was above a bar/restaurant in a very old, very inviting building with wooden beams and white stucco walls, attempts to retain a rustic look. The friendly staff with smiles and English in bits and pieces greeted us. We struggled with ‘thank you’ ‘multumesc’ because of the pronunciation (muzza-mesc). Up 2 floors, past an extensive set of bookshelves of exchange books (We didn’t bring any VBoys in the end – on a minimalist bent for luggage), to a tight but well furnished room with an enormous bathroom with a view of the rooftops and Evangelical Church towering overhead. After a brief rest, we dressed in sandals and shorts-it was quite warm-and walked up steps to the 2 adjoining squares, Piata Mica (small) and Piata Mare (big) to explore. Very interesting mix of architectural styles, with onion domed spires, 18th century regal buildings (Nb: Hungarian occupation) and steep, tiled roofs, pidgeons precariously perched. Some roofs look very dilapidated, others well-conserved, careful to retain an authentic look.

Dinner started with a delicious appetizer and got heavy after that as we odered the peasants’ plate which meant a lot of meat! The cost, Leu 160 or Fr 32. There was a very pleasant market on the level zone above the wide, descending road under the ‘Bridge of Lies’. At least 2 outdoor restaurants had a pianist playing gentle jazz. We strolled till 9pm. We were tired so we had an early night.

Friday, Aug. 25th, Day 2 Sibiu, Romania (Transylvania)

We slept late, thankfully. Breakfast was pleasant with a very nice man hosting. There was a lot of meat, dried meats, sausages. No museli or cereals. We walked the periphery of the old town, south side where there are 3 (count them!) defensive ‘rings’; one monumental, still intact wall, and an inner section with a walkway. Sun, up and bright, clear sky, too hot in the sun, so we followed the shade back to the main square, Piata Mare, where we found the palatial info office, displaying maps and chose the history museum. Smallish but full of relics, displaying the phases: prehistoric, bronze, iron, Dacian, Roman, Ottoman, Hungarian, the armoury generously stocked, pewter, bronze, glass galore.

We saw only a few easily-identifiable Roma people (a large woman and 2 small children). Our taxi driver warned us to take care with our wallets, especially at night.

Vocab: autocephalous= self-headed as in the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church

Instead of a big lunch we crossed the road to a cool cafè; Cindy opted for a mint lemonade and me a banana bread concoction. Later 2 lemonades at the hotel: mint and fruit. We walked to the 3 most impressive churches: Orthodox, Evangelical, Catholic. The Evangelical is the one we see from out bathroom window, and is very asutere, sand toned masonry, no decoration, light and airy. The Catholic church is as gaudy as ever, with murals and frescoes depicting the usual gory stories. The Orthodox had only a few straight-back chairs against the wall and nothing in its spacious square interior. The performance end had indeed a backdrop of wooden panels, depicting the 12 Apostles and the rest with 2 entrance doors camoflaged in the complex. It was very beautiful inside and we watched devotees come in to kiss and lightly touch the icons and paintings protected behind glass.

Then a longish walk through the more modern periphery to the train station where we forked out an extortionate 32 Leu Fr.5 40) for 2 tickets to Sighisoara the next day. Back to the hotel for a long rest, playing with phones. Then dinner in the main square (Piata Mare) at La Turn (tower) with live music (singer (female), electric piano, guitar). Cindy has trout, me beef and polenta (nothing special). Our friendly, tattooed waitress spent a year in a hospitality internship in San Diego. She recommends a ‘party’ in a park to the south east. So, we listened to a few more oldies by the very good singer, who appreciated out fanning, then found our way the 2 km to the very extensive leisure arena park, at the business end of which is a large stage (called ‘Focus’), and a light show, with a heavy Romanian rock and rap band playing possibly cross-over music: cross between sheepdog Romanian folk and rottweiler heavy beat repetitiveness. A couple of the singers were wearing folk dress, or remnants of such.

The crowd was dense and very enthusiastic. They seemed to know all the songs, singing along when prompted in the Queen style. We inched forward through the well-behaved, civil, yet wildly happy throng. Quite enjoyable to be immersed in youthful energy. There were also some very young children, privileged by shoulder-perch views on their jiving parents. Noticeable was the homogeneity of the crowd, as in all of Sibiu, the lack of black faces, or even Asian. I imagined Romania is not top of the list of preferences for migrants, but also I suspected eastern European countries have an impermeability to non-natives as a general policy, as they struggle to establish themselves post domination.

Proud to have photos and videos as evidence to show Sean, we wended our way back through the still in-flooding thousands of people back to the hotel. Even the police (saw only 2) were very young (girls even). The population here in Sibiu does seem to be youthful, more so than Western Europe. There seems to be a strong pride in their cultural identity – the music suggests ‘we have always been downtrodden, now it is our time’. So far we have seen nothing suggesting support for Ukraine – not like we saw in the Baltic states.

Saturday, Aug. 26th, Day 3. Sibiu to Sighisoara

We slept till 7:45. After breakfast, a nice omelet was served, we decided to undecide to go to the folklore museum. We strolled up the steps and around the piatas, hogging the shade as it was already 33°C. Clear blue skies all the time in Sibiu. The museum option was foreclosed by an opening time of 12:00. So we wandered to the rear of the Orthodox Cathedrale and spent a few minutes admiring its many murals and furnishings. It gets my vote for most interesting and tasteful of the 3 cathedrals we visited. There were also a synagog and a 7th Day Adventist church to visit.. A real mix of religions here. Nothing Islamic was seen at all, except maybe the borrowed architectural feature of the onion spire on the Catholic church.

Cindy needed a mint lemonade fix, so we headed back to the hotel, only to find the restaurant was closed. We collected our bags and found another cafè for smoothies, mint lemonade and postcard writing, before walking to the station along a busy road.

The train was comfortable enough but very very slow. The nice middle-aged man across from us, friendly but spoke no English. He tried to communicate about poverty, and maybe corruption in Romania. We saw crops for beer (beer-hops) on empty stakes, reminiscent of Vlad the Impaler, and one shop for natural spring water for treating skin problems. One elderly man was wearing a folk costume-decorated, white shirt, wide-brimmed black hat and breeches. We passed a large solar farm. So far no wind energy. Open, hill farmland with the occasional dam. Some cattle, otherwise, sunflowers and corn in the very dry conditions. Brown grass hilltops, neat townships with semi-modern houses, looking a little rundown from the train, often with solar panels. No solar powered lights at level crossings. Quite a few fields look fallow. Christian church spires rose from neat rows of houses. There was an American family sitting next to us enjoying a sack lunch. We didn’t engage in conversation until we met them later in Sighisoara.

The train station seemed to be a km or so from the center of this smallish seeming town. We had a 750m walk down a pleasant road to the river. Passing an Orthodox church we took a footbridge to the south side, where the fortress town of Sighisoara was high above us, pointing itself out with towers and buildings shouldering the edge of a precipice. Our pension was at the start of one of the footpaths leading up to the citadel and we could hear talkative passersby right outside our window even up to midnight. After having a rest we headed on up too, meeting the American family from the train. They were from Nevada City, California and they are on a two year journey around the world having already been to South America, since January, and were heading towards Egypt. The parents are both teachers of American History, English, Science and photography. And their little boys, 11 and 8 years old, both friendly and talkative, study online. They went to a special school which included a home schooling option. One of the kids was very keen on chemistry, and wanted to make a safer nitro-glycerine. I thought of explaining how TNT (tri-nitro toluene) works but thought better of it.

Up on the Citadel of Sighisoara we strolled around appreciating the tourist crowds gathered for a folk festival (Proethnic) of Romanian dancing and singing groups from the area. The stage was set up in the main square. We walked past the tourist trapping souvenir shops and restaurants, trying to milk the Dracula image, after all Vlad the Impaler came from here. We ascended to the upper cemeteries, church and German school through the 176 covered stairs. The upper cemetery had stones with German inscriptions attesting to its 19th century (and earlier) linguistic dominance. Transylvania was Hungarian until it became part of ‘Greater Romania’ at the end of WWI when many Germans settled here. We dined in a small restaurant opposite from Melas’ house, the Melas who commanded the Austrians at Merengo in 1800. He grew up here! Cindy had pork steak with mashed celery root and I had a ‘Buddha Bowl’ of green beans, rice and vegies, to bolster the flagging vitamin count. Seated next to us were a retired nurse and her doctor husband from Ohio who have hired a car and driver for a 9 day tour to see ‘all of Romania.’ They intend to visit Oz in December 2024. Cindy was sorry she didn’t exchange contact points with the nurse. Missed opportunity. Such is traveling…

Sunday, Aug. 27th, Day 4, Sighisoara to Brasov

We didn’t leave our roomy room till after 9:00. No breakfast provided so we left the bags (my black backpack and the cabin-size roller bag) in the lobby, and strolled to the centre of the new town. The first Italian-inspired cafè had a lot of people waiting on the glacially slow service (all male), so we continued on to a central restaurant, where a lovely, experienced waitress told us about the festival and where the tourists come from. Photos of past generations in various guises are on the walls: a female selection of weddings and families. One young man in a uniform prompts me to read up on the tragedy universal that was WWII, and the duplicitiy of Romanian involvement. First a dictatorship under Antonescue (executed 1946) lead 3/4 million Romanians into Russia, through Bessarabia (Moldavia/western Ukraine) thinking Hitler would ‘reward’ Romanian fidelity with Northern Transylvania (from Hungary, which, ironically didn’t happen due to Axis support granted but lost to the Soviet Union later) and Moldavia and territory including Odessa. Then with the failure of the Axis forces in Stalingrad, and the tide turning against Nazi Germany, the king, Michael, organised a coup and established a government which sided with the Soviets. Initially, Michael offered the Germans a non-combatant withdrawal, but the Nazis attacked Bucharest and battles were fought through Transylvania to oust them. This was followed by the Western allies ‘awarding’ Romania to the Soviets, who carried out a brutal purge in revenge for this new ally’s previous belligerence. However, the great criminal, Hungary, was punished by the loss of Transylvania, the original objective of Romania’s aggression, against its later allies was achieved.

We made the trek to the train station and took the hottest and slowest train ride of the trip, sharing our airless compartment with kindly fellow passengers. One woman, wearing tight jeans, was a political journalist there to cover the Sighisoara Ethnic Dance and Music Festival, talked incessantly and onesidedly to a young man who could speak English quite well but said he had never spoken to an American before. Sitting side by side it was almost unbearable to have skin to skin contact; it was so hot; clothes damp from perspiration but no malodorous moments like on the hot train journey yesterday. All sorts of humanity moving back and forth on the ‘outside’ aisle, shifting to accommodate one another, young, old, chubby, skinny men with shaven heads, old bent over women wearing polyester. Which brings us back to our 2 female compartment mates, the young one beautiful, skinny, exotic, refusing to make any eye contact. The chubby journalist. Oh how we wondered what in the heck she could be going on about, totally dominating the flow.

We arrived over an hour late in Brasov. The train stopped for at least 45 minutes on the track and we all got out to cool off. The entire trip took 4 and a half hours! There had been no ventilation, no AC. No one complained.

Brasov old town was a good ten minutes by taxi, but cost only 19 Lei; (but paid 30), the driver was older and spoke no English. The hotel was very pleasant, roomy, and done up well. Getting there was another two flights of stairs testing our tired legs a bit. Ceiling with massive square wooden beams, new walls, white. We have a small high alcove window with a direct view of the Brasov Mountains with the funicular reaching straight for us. We walked the flat town center finding many derelict buildings waiting to be refurbished. Clearly the town is enjoying a tourism revival. The large central square with a nondescript church of sorts is full of people and large umbrellas protect them from the last of the day’s merciless sun. We dined in a brasserie, an impressive theatre looking space with massive square columns and side enclaves with exorbitant decorative tiles octopussing from the ceiling, and every ceiling space painted wtih scenes of gothic grandeur. Large floor to ceiling windows were opened wide so we could observe the the passersby outside. The waiter tells us the place was a Chinese restaurant just after the fall of communism, but before that he didn’t know. We have hamburgers, she rosè, me 2 deliciously refreshing mango lemonades. A bit pricey at 230 Lei: Fr46.

Monday, Aug. 28th, Day 5, Brasov to Bucharest

It was hot but bearable. We walked past the ‘Black Church’ so named because of severe acid rain damage it has suffered, and still showed clear signs of. We walked past the tennis courts, athletes preparing for the Brasov Open. We entered a cool, forested road at the foot of the E-W steep Brasov Mt. towering 400m above us. On Mondays the teleferica/funivia /cable car only begins at 12:30, so we continued our walk to the other end of town and wandered through a department store, to no acquisitional avail. Then we found a monument to the martyrs of the revolution of 1989, before turning up a pedestrian road to meet a Marianne and her husband, who fled Bucharest to the mountains during Covid and thought that was the best thing about the pandemic. She showed us photos of her home with views of two mountains. We had a snack of nothing special crepey things, mine with (yuck!) Nutella. Back to the hotel to collect our bags, book a bus from Bucharest to Ruse for tomorrow 16:15-18:00, and take a taxi to the train station. The driver knew more French than English because his wife had worked in France.

The train wass 55 minutes late. Maybe anything less than an hour is considered ‘punctual’ here. We chatted with Carston from Hong Kong, who was doing a student exchange year in business studies here in Timisoara. He had travelled around a fair bit. Here his rent was paid for him, but a study offer he had for Bern wouldn’t have been paid and would have been too expensive. I asked what is going on now in HK with the Chinese takeover. He is a citizen of ‘Hong Kong’ of China.

The train with barely functioning AC was roasting. Luckily, there were effective curtains to shield us from the laser hot sun streaming in. We passed through alpine scenery which, with thick pine forests and craggy clift faces. Even ski lifts and chalets. Then the landscape flattened out to a farmland plain just like passing from CH into Lombardy.

We entered the big city of Bucharest. The main train station, an old style ground floor main hall was jam-packed with travellers of every ilk. We worked out the Metro ticket system and took the right line but in the wrong direction. Backtracking we changed lines at the right place, Piata Victoriei = Victory Place, and headed south to Universitade to find the hotel. The code we had received didn’t work but a charming waitress in the Italian restaurant next door helped us by calling the manager. The room was decorated in flamboyant, modern designs and colors. We have never had such a grand bathroom either. Huge!! We decided to keep it simple and eat in the Italian restaurant with the nice waitress and then explore our neighborhood. Impressive contrast of dilapidated buildings and new blocks. Nets have been erected at first floor height on most art-deco decorated exteriors, probably to catch falling masonary and statuettes eroded through decades of neglect.

Tuesday, Aug. 29th, Day 6 Bucharest – Ruse, Bulgaria

Another very hot day, 36°C. We walked the old town, deposited our bags for 50 Leu (€10) at a student travel cafè, then found 2 old Orthodox churches, which may have been among those moved when Bucharest was communised. An interesting mix of grandiose and derelict buildings, we found the Bulevardul Unirili which leads from the grand Parcul Unvii and its myriad fountains to the austentatious Piata Constiturei, or which is the enormous Palatul Parlamentului, Ceausescu’s enourmous pretentious statement of ego and contempt. There are well-to-do apartments (for the faithful no doubt) in multistory blocks along the Bulevardent, which has a shady avenue for pedestrians and a roaring central 4-lane street. The ediface of the parlament building is moated by terraces, and a low wall, ensuring no encroachment by the peasants. Far too large and uninviting to attempt to walk around, we retraced our steps to the park and relaxed in the shade while old guys with security shirts patroled boredly looking for troublemakers.

After some trepidation we were relieved to be picked up by the Pegasus mini-bus sevice to Ruse from the now closed Horoscope Hotel. The young driver is taciturn and efficient. We even left early (16:06 instead of 16:15) and were in Ruse by 17:30. The road, a 2 laned motorway, was lined on one side by hundreds of semi-trailers, parked before the border. Wonder how long they had to wait to cross? The coat-hanger steel girder bridge took us over the wide Danube past docks and myriad cranes and conveyor belts between the docks and railway lines. Our passports were taken by the border guard and stamped while we waited on the bus. From the bus depot in Ruse we took a taxi for 10BGN (€5) to our wonderful Hotel Adeo in the centre. Some kind of mix of Soviet/modern architecture, with evidence of some new investment.

Dinner was had at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant recommended by our very friendly and well spoken hotel receptionist. We had chopped eggplant and tomatoes with roasted peppers, cabbage leaf dolmas made of rice, herbs, minced meat. Cindy had the goose liver on broiled orange slices and currant sauce and a big hunk of fresh bread. I had the Landowner’s style lamb with rice, herbs and liver. To drink: a salted yogurt drink called ayrian and wine. Our waitress was a cute, willowy young woman who had studied American English but went to the UK to work and could not understand English English. hahaha

After dinner we strolled back up the pedestrian zone to a large park with a victory monument. A row of regal buildings projected umbrella-shielded boulevard restaurants. The whole place was buzzing with people: couples, girls groups and guy gangs strutting their stuff, young and not so young on electric trottinettes and bikes. We enjoyed the cooling air by the fountain.

Wednesday, Aug. 30th, Day 7, Ruse, Bulgaria PYCE

We decided to stay another night in this pleasant little city needing a break from the one-night stands and tiring travelling. Even short distances, like yesterday, seem to involve the entire day. And this hotel had a gym and spa! So, at 7:40 I did an hour and felt totally relaxed…maybe too much!

We had a simple breakfast in the attic breakfast room, which was already feeling the heat of the day. High 30s today, broken by a thundersorm as we walked back from the boat cruise later in the evening.

We traipsed the main pedestrain strip to find an Info Office. The lady, who looks like Rebecca on Ted Lasso, explained at length in so-so English that Ruse’s Elias Canetti was born here but left early for Vienna. We retraced our route to the unair-conditioned history museum. First floor was ancient history, Bronze Age up to Medival. The next floor took us through to the 19th-20th centuries of seemingly constant warfare. They slipped over details such as the Fascist 30s and the tragic switching of allegencies, and painted the wars as wars for freedom from the Ottomans. Little mention of the Soviet Era. A nice display of embroidery.

We decided to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. We started our walk by going north to the river Danube, a 800m parallel-banked brown-green waterway with 10m depth only allowing shallow-draw craft like barges to navigate. We took a choo-choo train from the courthouse for 40 minutes which reached the waterfront and parks. We lunched on a club sandwich before resting a while at the hotel. Later we walked 1.5 km to a cruise boat which took us down the Danube for an hour, about 5km, to the bridge which we crossed yesterday. The central section of the box girder bridge seemed to have a mechanism to lift up the railway bottom half to allow taller craft to pass under. We saw no trains pass and from Bucharest as there is only one train a day. Trains seem to cover only 30-40 km/h in these parts, if they move at all. The kind crew allowed us to sit for a while in the bridge room. Cod and maybe sand/gravel are loaded from barges by cranes and conveyor belts. There were about a dozen tourists aboard, possible local nationals all.

On the walk back to town it started to rain, a much welcomed break from the heat and drought. We took shelter in a pseudo Italian restaurant for a bacon burger and salad Nicosie. Cindy finished her white wine from the boat surrepticiously filling her glass under the table, in the Smith family fashion. The rain didn’t last long and we took a leisurely stroll back to our very nice hotel.

Thursday, Aug. 31st, Day 8, Ruse PYCE to Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

This train was AC’d and comfortable with very few passengers, going at a reasonable speed. Vast farmland, sunflower fields and corn, in places harvested already. After the Borovo forest there were more vast fields in stages of harvest. Very dry, harvesters throwing up clouds of dust. The train to Veliko Tarnovo from Gorna Orjahovicha was a different story! Graffitti smothered windows, broken seats, very dirty and unpleasant.

Luckily, the trip to Veliko Tarnovo was only 20 minutes. Hills topped with churches and fortresses appeared as we snaked through a tunnel and across a bridge to the poor station, a concrete bunker. But we found the ticket counter and got our tickets for Sofia the next day. We took a waiting taxi to the town centre (10BGN) to find a delightful Alegro Hotel opposite an big park. After a shower and clothes wash (from the gym this morning) we strolled along the main street, with imposing views across the central valley, focused on a large church and monument to 4 tzars. We met a tall tattooed Finn artist married to a Bulgarian souvenir shop keeper settled here. He tells us that the buiding their shop is in was saved from the local maffia by an American philanthropist, Mr. Beck from Texas, who donated money to preserve it in its original form. The buildings, like in Ruse, go from well-restored to dilapidated, with some modern horrors. We bought the first souvenirs/presents of the trip and chatted to the shopkeepers. We had dinner in our hotel restaurant hoping for some special Bulgarian dishes, having a mixed meat ‘sach’ which was basically chunks of meat in a casserole dish. Cindy had a grilled chicken fillet. Nothing special. Then we strolled through the park, hearing a bar saxophone player, past a complex fountain, and an outdoor cinema.

Friday, Sept. 1st, Day 9, Veliko Tarnovo to Sofia, Bulgaria

Our breakfast was a choice of 4 menues, such as Continental, American…Not great but well-meant. We found the bridge across to the tongue-peninsula, badly in need of and in repair, with a view of the murky brown Yantra river gurgling around the sharp bend below us. The ‘island’ has nothing but a large sandstone art gallery dedicated to a local painter, and a massive commerative statue with 4 tzars on horseback around a phallic sword reaching pointedly to the stars. This was the old capital during the 2nd Bulgarian Empire of the 13th century, and don’t they remind you of that at every turn.

The gallery had a permanent exhibit of 19th-20thC painters, many orthodox religious paintings of saints, etc. and their heroisims and pathos of the hardships of life and war under the Ottomans. Some cityscapes of Tarnovo are pleasant. We found the Mother Bulgaria statue commemorated in one painting, painted as a column before Mother Bulgaria took up roost. Wars of 1877-1878, 1885, 1912-13, 1915-18 commemerated around the base. A military club nearby gave us a list of the fallen in the various wars. Then it was a taxi to the station.

The first train to Gorno was not quite the horror show of yesterday but it was close. We waited in the station hall under the scrutiny of youngish police officers in dark blue uniforms for the train to Sofia. The police looked us over but decided a swarthy young couple were more within their profiling and asked for their IDs. A lot of people here were handicapped or, in some way, weird-looking. The train arrived punctually (i.e. only 20 mins late) and we found our compartment. It was occupied by a young couple who cleverly rolled up a leaflet page to wedge open the top-down sliding window. It was very hot and when the sun entered directly, dazzling. The carriage occupants swapped in and out. A little wizened lady brought in her mentally handicapped son holding a stuffed animal, who was very well-mannered and well dressed. Another elderly lady arrived and I was the chief bag to overhead rack hauler. (Much appreciated by all.) The old lady and the middle-aged lady to my right talked incessantly for hours. Maybe it was their way of ignoring the discomfort of the trip.

We passed through open, flat farmland and forest to enter the mountains with rocky (limestone, I think, given the cement factor or two we passed) sculpted shapes reaching upwards like chubby accountants’ fingers. Such topography explains, similarly to Romans, the divided histories of the north and south of the mountain range that sits dead centre in the country. The southern region, Thrace, would be easy for the Ottomans to enter, but the Bulgars could stop them in the mountain passes.

We arrived in Sofia after many hot hours. The central station seemed to be in different stages of rinnovation. The tracks and main hall were new, white stone and quite elegant, and then one passes to the mid 20th century Soviet era dowdy part before exiting. The old part of the central train station is in huge contrast to the new gleaming, state-of-the-art metro we found later. We walked the short distance to our Hotel Adria which seemed like an oasis in a dilapidated, crumbling sidewalks area. The staff were waiting for us and were very sweet.

After settling in we headed out to explore and I figured out how to use the trams and metro right away. Cindy just wanted to walk to the center but was glad we didn’t do that in the end. We walked to the metro entrance and found a beautiful underground street. We exited in the centre where all the huge and beautiful government buildings were well lit and impressive. Eventually we returned to our neighborhood to have a late dinner in an authentic Bulgarian restaurant with Bulgarian musicians serenading the customers. We heard ‘O Sole Mio’. They had drums, an accordian and a wooden flute, played at an angle of 30°. Cindy was happy with her meal of a big salad with all the fixings of tomatoes, Bulgarian cheeses, etc. I was not that hungry so my meal wasn’t as appealing although it was delicious. Potatoes, salad and a little meat loaf.

Saturday, Sept. 2nd, Day 10, Sofia, Bulgaria

After breakfast in a sunny and light breakfast room we headed for the trams to get a better feel for Sofia. ‘Tickets’ are a wave of a credit/debit card over the machine at the entrance to any bus, tram or metro. Max 4 BGNs per day for unlimited travel. Neat, efficient system. We trammed it down to the south, then back to the centre to walk through a market. Fresh fruit, enormous melons, as well as textiles, embroidery shops. We made it to the commercial street full of expensive cafès and paid 32BGN for 2 small sandwiches and 3 drinks (lassis and lemonade). Like Swiss prices. We next took a tram out to the east, through impressive peripheral estate with some dilapidation going on. People who have money invest in quite well-to-do homes (although it wasn’t really apparent), clothes and cars, but the public areas are often left to ruin. We made it back on the old rickety tram but it was getting hot. We visited the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and gave it an 8 on a Hagia Sophia=10 scale.

Feeling overheated, we broke for a lemonade and aryan yoghurt before visiting the tiny Russian Orthodox church. Then back to the hotel at 5:00 for a shower and nap before heading out for a Halal Turkish dinner in a takeaway joint (not great), yet more aryan yoghurt (love it) and a stroll down the commercial centre restaurant street. Lots of people were out and about and it was quite pleasant.

Sunday, Sept. 3rd, 11th Day, Sofia, Bulgaria to Lugano via Bergamo

We got up late. I skipped the fitness room (did 40 minutes yesterday in the unimpressive dungeon room) and we had an overpriced breakfast (Fr10 per person) before finally setting out at 10:00. Taking the ‘scenic route’ to the end of one tram track we decided to walk the ‘short distance’ going left to the museum of Bulgarian history finding the road/footpaths difficult to walk along. The museum was on the far right side of a wide, busy road. Rubbish location and public transportation to it. The return involved a 15 minute wait and then we got off a trolley a bit too early and needed to take 2 more trams to get back via the central station. Kind of tiring but what the heck it was the last day of the trip.

The National History Museum does the same as the Ruse Museum, only on a larger scale. Prehistory, Bronze, Romans, Byzantines, Bulgars, Ottomans. Then independence with Russian help in 1877-78. Disappointment at not getting all their land back. Then the disasters of the Balkan wars and the two world wars. They brushed over unsavoury details about the Fascist 30s and how Tsar Boris really died in 1943. At the end there was a nice display of costumes through the ages with paper cut-out figures and hand-made textiles. The building itself had some impressive, massive grand halls.

We hiked it to the airport by metro taking about 25 minutes, leaving the center around 2:30 for a 5:50pm flight. So convenient! The Sofia airport was really modern and attractive and not too big. We had a nice snack knowing that there would be no snack service on Ryan Air. And speaking of Ryan Air. The seats were not plush! But the flight went well, on time and all that.

We arrived in Bergamo, Italy in good time and took a bus to the city to take a train to Monza and then to Lugano. At Monza the platform was full of Formula One enthusiasts and lots of them. In the end we got back to Lugano after 11pm, happy and exhausted. We didn’t even start unpacking right away which was telling. It felt good to be back in Switzerland! And home!