It seems like more and more cities throughout Europe are adopting the concept of the “free walking tour” – which personally, I just love. And not because they’re free. In the end I usually wind up tipping about as much as I would’ve spent for a “paid” tour anyway.
What makes these free tours so great is that because they’re funded entirely by tips, the quality is almost always outstanding. The guides are passionate, knowledgeable, and genuinely concerned about making sure everyone enjoys themselves in the country they proudly represent.
(Compare that to a paid tour you might book on a quick airport layover – like the one I took in Panama. Just awful. They shuttle you from souvenir shop to company-owned restaurant, filtering all the cash they can before sending you back on your way. Why should they care? You’ve already paid in advance.)
So when I just happened by a Free City Tour on my first morning in Sofia, I immediately pulled the guide aside and asked for a schedule. It turned out there was an evening option that very same day. Perfect!
I hurried to take care of my morning errands – sign up for an Internet SIM (yes, even for just a few days :P), purchase a Thai visa, dump my leftover Serbian cash, and wrap up a few work mails. Then I met up with the 6pm “sunset” walking tour.
Here’s what I learned (& observed) about Sofia (& Bulgaria):
• In the morning and evening, it’s remarkably colder than it had been in Serbia. Luckily though, midday weather is just as nice – tanktop-and-shorts – as it continues to be throughout this entire trip (/loving it).
• Bulgarians seem to be quite a bit better at English that Serbians, who are in turn far better than Ukrainians. Things are getting more convenient with every step I take! 🙂
• Sofia has a very pleasant pedestrian-only boulevard that’s lined with street cafes, restaurants, and shops on both sides. A bit like 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica…but wider, more European, and more coffee-shop oriented. All in all a really nice vibe.
• In fact, I have to say that Sofia on a whole has a really great vibe. It feels like a truly vibrant city with lots going on all the time: there are streetcars wizzing about, modern commercial boulevards, little cobbled roads, huge monuments, ancient churches and mosques, cafes and restaurants, universities, parks, nightclubs – everything you could want. I can already tell that three days won’t be nearly enough.
• Without exception, everywhere I stopped had at least one open WiFi network. And they were all blazingly fast. For lunch I ate at Subway, which had perhaps the fastest public WiFi I’ve ever used: 1.5Mbps continuous upload. Super convenient!
• Throughout the city, some 50 natural springs deliver 8 unique kinds of water to a number of free-flowing “public fountain” areas. Some of them are hot, some are cold, some stinky, some flavorless…but all of them are drinkable.
• Cyrillic was invented in Bulgaria.
• Bulgaria has an unbelievably long and diverse history, with periods under countless different empires – Roman, Macedonian, Byzantine, and Ottoman, just to name a few. As a result, many of its cities sit on layer upon layer of ancient civilization. In Sofia, a 21st century bank might be right nextdoor to a 2000 year-old Roman ruin, as it’s not uncommon for neighboring buildings to be separated by literally thousands of years. During my stay I witnessed this firsthand on several occasions.
For example, the building shown here is a 14th century church from the late Ottoman empire. It was discovered just below ground level more or less in the middle of an intersection, and now resides in the underpass-entrance to the Tsum Retail Centre.
I also noticed that several major intersections were being dug up. The tourguide said it was for a new metro line, but that projects like these take forever because virtually wherever they dig they stumble upon remains of ancient civilizations. Just 2 years ago, while hollowing out space for one of the stations, they found the ancient city walls of Serdika (see here). They ultimately decided to make the station out of glass, turning it into a “working museum,” so to speak.
Because of this “layer upon layer upon layer of history,” Sofia really reminded me of Jerusalem – the only other place I’ve been that has so many stacked civilizations.
• Beyond its raw history, Sofia is in general quite an aesthetically pleasing city. Everywhere you look there are interesting monuments or huge column-laden government buildings. Even private businesses – i.e. banks and the like – are often so grand that I actually found myself thinking, “this looks just like Paris.” A Paris/Jerusalem hybrid? Definitely a city that warrants some hardcore exploring.
Note: These posts are behind realtime; the above took place on October 3rd, 2011.