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Skinny lion

I slept well last night, despite the disco or party or whatever it was nearby that had a continuous boom-boom-boom bass-y sort of noise. Actually, it sounded more like the noise an MRI machine makes than musical bass but, as there was singing too, I assume there wasn't some sort of mass imaging festival going on.

The shower was decent. Even the Worst Hairdryer in the World™ wasn't so bad!

Ham and cheese croissant and a ginormous mocha at Costa down the road, then a stroll over to the park where the monument to the Soviet (not Russian) Army is. Climbed up the stairs to the base of the column and felt really quite high up, even though I wasn't. Looking back the way I came, there's a very large paved area leading nearly back to the street, and some flower plantings. I think it's supposed to look pretty, but it ends up looking sort of brutal. On one side of the monument there were kids on razor scooters in a half-pipe. The fact that they were on scooters and not skateboards made it seem innocent and sweet. On the other side of the park was the start/finish of the "1st Sofia Marathon."

I walked back along the top edge of the park and stopped in at the Memorial Tomb of Alexander I of Battenberg, modern Bulgaria's first head of state (late 1800s). Small but nicely restored, I saw people come to lay flowers and wreaths. I think today is some sort of national holiday, so that may be why.

I walked to where I could see the gleaming dome of the Alexander Nevski cathedral but didn't stop because we'll be going there as a group. I did quickly stop in at the Russian Church, which is very small and was extremely crowded. A priest was doing some sort of service (looked like maybe a quickie blessing or similar), and I felt a little out of place without a head covering so I didn't stay but for a minute or two. Quite pretty on the outside.

It was very hot today. It was already 70 when I woke up at 7:00, and it's 84 now (2:15ish). I suspect it was hotter at midday. I'm wondering if I made a mistake bringing only two pairs of capris, one of which are denim. Hoping it will cool down a bit over the next few days. Fortunately, a breeze started up later in the morning, so being inside was much worse than being outside.

Went to the Natural History Museum, which is quite the throwback. There's some modernity to it, but most of it was stuffed, mounted or labeled decades and decades ago, and there was a very strong odor of mothballs. At least a natural history museum is easy when the language (and alphabet!) is a barrier and you're still a bit jet-lagged. I mean, you can at least identify that this thing sitting behind the glass is a bird, even if you don't know it's a blue-backed fairy bluebird (gorgeous, by the way), and there was enough English labeling to get the gist of specifics. Some — fortunately, very little — of the taxidermy was hilariously awful (like the strangely frowny-faced hamster), but some was eerily good (like the cheetahs). Sometimes, if you look at them long enough, you expect the animals to blink and then focus on you, and suddenly your life becomes a Ray Bradbury story.

There were birds, mammals, fish, plants, minerals, insects galore, and a huge ammonite that was more than a meter and a half in diameter and which happened to be 84 million years old. Just sitting there; I could've touched it if I'd wanted to. Eighty-four million years old … in an old-fashioned museum in Bulgaria. There were also stuffed penguins, the Bulgarian for which seems to be peen-gveen.

I had been hoping that Bulgarian would be more or less Russian because I still remember a little of the Russian I learned in the 90s. The pronunciation of the Cyrillic letters is more or less the same, but Bulgarian is definitely its own language. And apparently older Bulgarians don't like to hear Russian spoken because it reminds them of Soviet times, so it's actually better to default to English than to attempt a "hello" or "thank you" in Russian. Unfortunately, even though I can slowly work out the sound of a word, I don't really know how it should be pronounced (stress, etc.), so I'm reluctant to use it. I tried a "dober den" (Good day.) a few times, but was met with a confused look; however, I've been greeted with dober den too, so I must have an atrocious accent. And "thank you" is blagodarya, which I want to pronounce "blagoDARya" but which I think may be pronounced "blagodarYA." I haven't heard it spoken yet, so I'm not sure. I've read that "merci" is common, so maybe I'll just default to that. I probably sound like a simpleton.

Found another pleasant park to sit in for a while so I could have some water and check my map. Turns out I had found the park containing a really lovely national theater, though I never did find it on the map so I'm not really sure where I was. Ended up buying a Coke (I wanted a Fanta but all the guy had was Coke; and I think he overcharged me, too) and sat for a bit fanning myself. Seriously, it's hot!

Walked back to the hotel along some side streets, the Alexander Nevski cathedral (back side), and another park. Everyone is very much still in summer gear, with shorts, capris, manpris, and short dresses aplenty.

The group met at 4:00 in the hotel's breakfast room. Our guide is Stefan, a smiley, bald Bulgarian who is all of 29 years old. He went to law school and was a lawyer for a while; now, he can't believe he actually worked in law for a living, and he much prefers being a tour guide. He is assisted while in Sofia by Peter (with a short "e" in the first syllable), an even younger guy who is learning how to be a guide.

We are a group of 24, including an English-born lady who has lived in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the U.S. and who only has a trace accent (and who also has been on the road for almost three months), and a couple from Vancouver, B.C., who definitely sound either Australian or kiwi. Will have to ask. One couple is traveling with their grown daughter, so I'm the second youngest person in the group; the mother, Wendy, is my buddy. I was tied for number of tours with one other lady, but there's another woman for whom this is her 17th tour! All but a few have taken Rick Steves tours before. It seems like a good, friendly group.

After our initial welcome-to-the-tour talk and introducing ourselves, we had a few minutes to get ourselves combobulated and then went out for a neighborhood walk. At the garden across the street, Stefan announced the name game (What? We only learned each other's names 15 minutes ago!), but put an agreeable twist on it: all we had to do was stand in a circle and then step forward one by one and announce our names. None of that "I'm Teresa, and this is Barb, this is Peggy, this is John …" stuff. We all agreed it was the best name game ever.

Stefan showed us how to cross the street (carefully) and told us about the monument to Vasil Nevski, one of the founding fathers of Bulgaria. His portrait, apparently, hangs in the office of every politician in the country, supposedly to remind them of the ideals, morals, etc. of the original Bulgarian government. But, Stefan says, it's mostly for show when there is a press conference in a politico's office ("Look how mindful I am of our country's history!") and doesn't really mean much in the end.

After another quick stop to repeat the name game (!), we walked by a memorial to the unknown soldier. The memorial was proposed in the 1930s, and it was decided that it should feature a lion, the country's symbol. Since lions were pretty thin on the ground in Bulgaria, the government sponsored an artist to spend - get this - twenty years in Abyssinia studying lions. After his two decades away, he returned to Bulgaria and sculpted the skinniest lion imaginable (it has a mohawk too); you can count its ribs. "This is what you honor our soldiers with," grumbled the people. "A malnourished lion? How does this represent the dignity and strength of Bulgaria?" Naturally, the artist was offended and took his lion and went home; the lion spent the next 50 years in the artist's back yard.

In the early 1980s, the Communist leaders resurrected the idea of a memorial to the unknown soldier, and it was recollected that there was a lion around somewhere. Why spend any more money on a statue if there's a perfectly good one lying around? (Not "perfectly" good, obviously, but attractively free.) They found the lion (artist long since dead) and placed it at the memorial. Sofians are now rather fond of it, although it's still a bit of a laugh.

Our dinner was at Victoria restaurant at a very long table under a canopy. There were three salads for starters: a yogurt, dill and walnut glob; a green salad with avocado; and shopska salad, which has onion, tomato, cucumber, and shredded cheese and is something of a national dish. A garlicky flat bread was also served. We had a choice for the main course: chicken with vegetables, or a vegetable souffle. You can guess which one I got. The chicken was barbecued and quite nice, and the woman who sat next to me, Melanie, ate one of my zucchini slices. Dessert was a layered chocolaty, caramelly thing.

I sat with Rosemary (the English-born lady), Wendy, her daughter Amy (who looks remarkably like Stephen Mangan off of "Episodes"), the aforementioned Melanie, and Terry. Rosemary, far from having the usual British reserve, was super chatty and told us all about her travels. Wendy and Amy had also taken several trips, so it was fun to find out what we had in common and who's been where and whether it was with Rick Steves or another company.

On our walk back to the hotel, Stefan stopped us in front of the Parliament building. He talked about how, a few years ago, the government resigned and a coalition government consisting of the Communist party, the Turkish minority party, and the far right party (literally called "Attack") was formed. After a five-minute conversation in Parliament, the government appointed a 33-year-old man to be the prime minister. This man was very fat, very rich, and very corrupt. The people decided that this wouldn't do and so thousands began to protest. Stefan, who said he simply wasn't the type to worry too much about politicians, protested too, marching around outside the parliament building for 100 days, rain or shine. The fat man only stayed in office for two days, but then the same five-minute conversation happened again, and another corrupt man was appointed prime minister. Finally, he left office as well, and I guess everyone's happy enough with the current prime minister.

It's going on 10:30 now, and I'm not very tired. Hopefully, once I close my eyes, I'll be out like a light.

"Isn't Communism the best?!"

"Isn't Communism the best?!"


Looming evidence of capitalism

Looming evidence of capitalism


Scooter kids

Scooter kids


"Molotov, put down that bottle!"

"Molotov, put down that bottle!"


Back side of the Russian church

Back side of the Russian church


Front of the Russian church

Front of the Russian church


National Theater

National Theater


Big giant head!

Big giant head!


Alexander Nevski Cathedral

Alexander Nevski Cathedral

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in Bulgaria

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