After having a brief venture to the city centre of Sofia for dinner last night, this morning we returned for the city's Free Walking Tour. As usual with these tours, we tried to time Lucy's nap to begin right at the start of the tour, though unfortunately it didn't work out very well today and she was awake for the whole thing. We still stuck with it though, and luckily she didn't need too much distracting and we both managed to hear most of the information provided by the guide. We had a great guide who was of course a local Sofian, and very well informed about her city and her country. The whole thing lasted for almost exactly two hours, making this the shortest walking tour of the trip, but also the shortest in terms of distance walked, with all of the sites being covered in just 2km (compared to 4km+ in some places like Sarajevo or Yerevan). The tour was mainly just about Sofia rather than trying to squeeze in the whole country's history as other tours have. It also didn't really touch on the Bulgarian culture or language, other than how they have a habit of always being late to things. This wasn't to the detriment of the tour though - if anything it was just the right length and amount of content. Another thing is that we got lucky with the weather today, given it was originally forecast to be 34 degrees, but a storm was coming in and it had cooled down to a much more manageable mid-20s. On top of that, there weren't that many people around because apparently there is an exodus of the city in August and early September while Bulgarians go on holiday to the Black Sea and mountain resorts around the country; this meant it was very easy to move around and we could stand in the quiet roads to take pictures of some of the main buildings.
I won't recite the whole tour here of course but cover off a few highlights we probably wouldn't be able to find on Wikipedia. Firstly unlike many European capitals there is no separate old town and new town in Sofia, just one city centre with everything in it. The city doesn't feel disorganised like Tbilisi for example did though, and the Roman ruins are nicely laid out and fenced off wherever there are some. The tour started with probably the saddest story of the tour which was about the St Nedelya Church terrorist attack, which at the time was the worst terrorist attack in history. Hundreds of people died, but not the Bulgarian Tsar who was the intended target. Speaking of the Tsar, we also found it interesting how Bulgaria had its own separate monarchy and although it was aligned with the Soviet Union politically, was never actually a part of it. There was also a nicer story about how in 1943 when Bulgaria was aligned with the Axis powers, it was supposed to deport all of the jews within its borders to concentration camps. However senior members of society like politicians, clergy and intellectuals protested, and in the end none were sent (though they still had a lot of property confiscated I'm reading online this evening so it wasn't a completely positive story).
Possibly the most bizarre story from the tour was about the Sofia 'yellow brick road' which is a portion of the centre where the road is paved with rectangular yellow tiles. Originally laid in the early 20th century, the government at the time said they were a gift from Russia to hide the huge cost of the special tiles, which they had actually bought outright from a factory near Budapest. Once word got out about how much the tiles were worth the spares started to 'disappear' under Communist rule, until there were none left. Then the weird thing is that the factory in Budapest had closed down and with it the recipe to create the unique yellow tiles was lost. This means the government cannot replace any broken tiles and there are now darker ones every now and then on the road. Apparently some scientists have recently done a full analysis on the tiles' composition and they think they know how to recreate them so hopefully the patches will disappear soon.
Finally at the last stop on the tour the guide told us about how the true pronunciation of Sofia puts a stress on the 'o' rather than the 'i', which means it doesn't sound like we pronounce the name Sophia in English. She also told us how the Cyrillic alphabet (the one commonly known to be used in Russia) was invented in Bulgaria and that's why they still use it to this day. The guide then joked about how you can start a quick fight with a Bulgarian by saying something along the lines of "why do you use the Russian alphabet in Sofia??". We therefore won't be making that mistake, since we had actually been wondering why they use the 'Russian alphabet' in Bulgaria!
After the tour we had a quick lunch in the city centre and then headed back to our hotel for Lucy to have a proper nap during the afternoon. At this point there were storms coming in, and around 7pm when we wanted to go back to the city centre for dinner it was raining fairly heavily. We therefore went to one of the city's big malls, Paradise Mall, for an indoor dinner instead. It was a nice enough mall but probably not something I need to describe here on the blog. Tomorrow we have an early start as we set off for another new country, North Macedonia.
Summer was mostly a very good girl on the walking tour today, except for a couple of times when she tried to chase and bark at some pigeons.
We got talking to the receptionist at our hotel this morning about whether we should drive or get a taxi to the city centre on a weekday like today. He seemed to have taken a great interest in our car and advised us that EVs can park for free in the city centre, and there are also some free chargers around. This was useful advice, and we then drove to the centre to try to find one of the free chargers. Unfortunately it was occupied, so we ended up parking in a regular bay for the morning rather than spending more time looking for a different free charger given our tour was starting soon. Annoyingly when we got back to the car a few hours later we had a ticket on the window and our front wheel had been clamped. The ticket said we need to call a number at pay a 30Lev (£13) fine to have the clamp removed. Rather than call the number I went up to some nearby parking enforcers and explained the situation that our car is fully electric and therefore we have been fined and clamped incorrectly. They called someone and said no problem, that the clamp would be removed in the next 15 minutes. We then waited by the car and the clampers came over within 5 minutes and told us in very poor English that we have to "register Bulgaria" and "pay 30 Lev tax". I couldn't establish what the register Bulgaria part meant (still not sure), but I assured them the car was electric and I wouldn't be paying a tax (with the help of Google Translate on the phone). He wouldn't budge for a bit, but then when I pointed at Lucy and said we have a baby, he sighed, called someone, then did a thorough check of the car to confirm if it was electric or not. The problem seemed to be that they don't have iX3s in Bulgaria and thought we weren't an electric car. He spent a couple more minutes doing what sounded like complaining on the phone, then huffed a bit, removed the clamp and drove off without looking me in the eye again.
Clamping aside, it hasn't been a great day for charging either. The free charger in the city centre was occupied as mentioned, and the one by our hotel is also occupied this evening. We are therefore having to pay to charge using the El-drive app, which is luckily very simple to sign up for and use. We topped up a bit during dinner at the mall, and again by our hotel.
- El-drive 24KW DC charger at Paradise Mall, floor -2 of the car park. Cheap charging in Turkey is over, since this one costs 0.9 Lev (39p) per KW.
- El-drive 24KW DC charger at Hotel Kitchen59. Same price as the above, and annoyingly there was an EV in the charger space but it wasn't even plugged in. This was quite selfish, so I have had to block it and leave my phone number with the hotel reception while I charge.