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Exploring Bulgaria

July 13, 2011 • Comments Bulgaria

Exploring Bulgaria


I arrived in Sofia on the night train from Belgrade. The train is my absolute favourite way of travelling, though this train was cold, because the window would not close, which meant that a current of cold air streamed through the carriage all night, preventing sleep. I thought that it arrived exactly on time, exploding the myth that Balkan trains are usually late, But it turned out that I'd forgotten about the time change, so it was 8.30 am, rather than 7.30, which was when it was supposed to arrive. Not that it made any difference to me, but I was being met by a friend, which meant that he had to wait for an hour.


It turned into a gloriously sunny morning and after we crossed the lion bridge and I left my rucksack at the hostel at Pop Bogomil, where I was staying, we went on to the city centre, looked in at St Sofia church and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and had a coffee outside the Gallery of International Art.


I felt at home in Sofia immediately, with its leafy cobbled streets, undulating paving stones, elegant churches and gliding orange trams. People are friendly, relaxed, and indulgent with my inability to speak the language. The people at the hostel in Sofia told me to leave my rucksack there, when I went off for a couple of days to the Black Sea. The woman at the hotel in Nesebar, where I stayed for a couple of days, was all smiles and laughter when she showed me to my room.


I did provoke the ire of a ticket inspector on a train back from Plovdiv to Sofia, as he rattled off a stream of Bulgarian and pointed to something on the ticket, but I was mystified as to what I had done wrong. A woman in the same compartment explained to me that I should have got it stamped at Plovdiv station, but I hadn't known that, as this information was written in Bulgarian. She managed to convey this information by sign language, as we had no language in common. But the thing is, she made the effort. People who get on trains in the same compartment as you will speak to you. If you don't speak their language, they sometimes try to find one in common, and if not, they will simply smile. This kind of friendliness is largely absent from Western European trains, where people sit in their own private worlds and rarely speak. My Bulgarian friend P said that it's usually poorer people who take the trains, which stop at small villages throughout the country; the coach is the more upmarket – and expensive – way to travel. Just to try it out, I took the coach from Sofia to Nesebar, but to sit in a cramped place on a bus for hours, unable to move around, is the same whatever country you are in and I was at a loss to figure out why people would choose the coach. Except perhaps on account of the delays.


Coming back from Nesebar, on the train from Bourgas, we had to wait two hours at Karnobat. As far as I could understand, this was because we had to meet up with the train from Varna, to join with our train to Sofia. I tried to imagine the scene if this had happened in western Europe. Somehow I doubted that the passengers would react with the same acceptance as did the people here.


I was delighted to be invited to read some of my poems in Sofia, at the Rock Bar Fans, at the launch of Petar Tchouov's latest book The Return of the Unicorns. 

I read in English and Petar read his translations of them into Bulgarian. The music was provided by the folk/rock band Gologan, a fantastic mixture of eastern rhythms on the kaval, with guitar riffs, a pounding drumbeat and some virtuoso singing by Angela. The spotlights picked out the players and lit up shafts of smoky air which provoked nostalgia in me – smoky basement bars no longer exist in western Europe.



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Morelle Smith

Morelle Smith

Morelle Smith is a writer of fiction, poetry, travel articles, essays, and a translator from French. She has worked in Albania for an NGO and as a teacher of English, and she returns to the Balkans as often as possible. Her published work includes the book of stories, Streets of Tirana, Almost Spring and Touching the Shell - two novellas, which take place in Albania. In addition to her stories about Albania published on and Rivertrain - her blog about writing and travelling, Morelle’s other publications on the web include: an essay on the Cathars of southern France; an interview with Ismail Kadare in The Dublin Quarterly; and Mirror City - a journey from Belgrade to Trieste - on