I was sitting on a train, I think it was somewhere in Scandinavia, when it happened.
I laughed so hard that I snorted. Like, really loudly, and I was in one of those old-school six-person compartments I’d previously found to be quite twee and gezellig. Everyone turned at me, and by God it was like I’d farted. The five strangers looked at me with sheer horror in their eyes.
Of course though, I couldn’t stop cold turkey. For the next twenty minutes or so little giggles would escape at irregular intervals, causing everyone in my compartment to justifiably put me in the nutter basket. Eventually, I had to put the book away and be content with staring out the window with a weird little half-smile on my face.
I was reading Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There, still my favourite travel book of all time. I read the book again this year, and again became hysterical by his accounts of falling down a hill in Belgium and drunkenly trying to find his way home in Croatia. Luckily this time I read the book in the comfort of my lounge room, where nobody could judge me on my snorting.
I’d wanted to read the book again, specifically the part where Bryson travelled to what was then Yugoslavia, followed by Bulgaria and Turkey. I was set to travel a similar route and was keen for some of his insights. Bryson had travelled to these parts in 1990, a strange year for the region; communism was dead but infamous regimes were either teetering or only very recently fallen. Nobody really knew what was going to happen next.
The way he described Sofia, capital of Bulgaria and in that stage going through hyperinflation and perhaps even a bit of anarchy, stuck with me back when I read his book the first time, and again this year when I re-read it. It sounded magical, like a true European capital in the purest sense. He described it as full of broad avenues, large Big Brother-esque government buildings, clattering trams, Ottoman ruins and grand bathhouses. I couldn’t name a single Bulgarian even if you offered me a million bucks, but his description of the city enchanted me before I’d even stepped foot in the country.
Bulgaria is a poor country. It’s the poorest in the EU, but you wouldn’t know that if you gave Sofia a quick glance. It’s got all the capital-y looking architecture, right down to the communist-era TZUM department store which is now home to the likes of Swarovski and Nike. The Largo area feels like something out of Soviet-era Moscow, complete with the former Communist Party headquarters and President’s Palace. Walking around it all, you feel tiny and insignificant compared to the might of everything around you.
As an historian and tourist, that makes me all giddy inside and I ran around like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. But to a Bulgarian, well. That’s a bit different. They were there all summer (the protests started every day at about 6pm, ‘after work’), and they’re still there today. Thousands of them think that the government’s lost touch and is woefully corrupt.
The protests have been largely peaceful, and that was the case when I accidentally walked my first group right through the middle of them, just outside the President’s Palace. Everyone was amused, taking photos and boasting on Facebook that they’d seen a real, live European protest, just like those Greeks on TV.
I asked a couple of locals about the protests, but I couldn’t seem to get much of a concrete idea about what had happened. They protesters were either ‘lazy bums’ as one put it, or the government was. News reports – few and far between as they have been – have concentrated on the protests themselves, particularly in the rare occasions when they’ve turned violent, and the recent development of the shutdown of Sofia University.
I had to come to my own conclusions, and I did. As I said before, Sofia looks wonderfully grand on the surface, but a closer glance tells another story. There are more potholes in the city centre than in any city I’d visited in Europe. Many of the secondary buildings – ie, not belonging to the government or high end shops – are cracked and faded. The beautiful bathhouse, when viewed close-up, is abandoned and showing its age. The country just can’t afford its own capital. In a similar vein, I doubt it can afford its politicians, either.
Still, I found that I loved Sofia. Yes, loved. I grew to adore its little quirks, all the way down to the hotel in which we stayed; the Hotel Rodina. Stepping into the high rise hotel is like stepping into a time warp, complete with floral bedspreads and analogue bedside radios. Up on the top floor you can even find a classy ‘Piano Bar’ with sweeping views of the city below and cosmopolitans for two euro. Just make sure you pick the right door when you take the lift to the top floor; you wouldn’t be the first if you got the Piano Bar confused with the strip club next door.
I found Sofia in a way sadly beautiful, almost like Saint Sophia herself, the city’s patron saint. A Christian before Constantine decided it was cool, Sophia refused to renounce her faith to Emperor Hadrian. He decided not to have her killed, but to do something even worse; he ordered for her three daughters – Faith, Hope and Love – to be killed, one by one, in front of her. She decided to stay by their graves forever, and by doing so, died of starvation in the process.
Well, that was a bit morbid, wasn’t it? Sorry about that.
After the disappointment of Belgrade, I went the complete opposite way with Sofia. I got all excited when I saw the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the statue of St Sophia and yes, even the former Communist Party headquarters.
In Belgrade I was worried that I was getting complacent, and that European cities were just starting to all feel and look the same. Sofia, whilst being the same, was so very different.
A bit like Neither Here Nor There, actually. On the surface it just looks like any other travel book, and then you go and stupidly read it on a packed train. That’s just asking for trouble. It should come with a warning on the cover, really.