Sofia and Bucharest

If you can’t find two European capital cities, Sofia and Bucharest, on a map, much less say why they’re great places to visit, don’t feel bad. Before I began serving nearby as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova, I didn’t know much about them either.Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 1.43.58 PM

Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria. Bucharest is Romania’s capital. Champa and I visited both this past week during a holiday break, using Sofia as a base to explore western Bulgaria and then making a quick stop in Bucharest.

Neither city is as beautiful as Paris or Venice. They still have plentiful Soviet-style apartments and government buildings. But they also have magnificent churches, lovely parks, modern hotels, excellent restaurants and interesting places to visit, all with prices much lower than elsewhere. Together with Krakow, Poland, they were the cheapest tourist cities on the latest European Backpacker Index.

We were very glad to visit both.

We toured Sofia and the surrounding area for four days, beginning with a free walking tour of the city. It’s a laid-back capital that Lonely Planet described as “a largely modern, youthful city, with a scattering of onion-domed churches, Ottoman mosques and stubborn Red Army monuments that lend an eclectic, exotic feel.” You can see some of its sights in the photos above, including the stunning Alexander Nevski Cathedral,

On our second day, we joined a group that visited the Boyana Church, a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox structure with striking frescoes on the city’s outskirts. We continued on to Rila Monastery, the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria.

Snow began falling during our visit, making the setting even more beautiful, as you can see in the video clip.

Next we visited Plovdiv, an ancient city straddling seven hills, with an amphitheater, stadium and other ruins dating back to Roman times. Today it’s Bulgaria’s second-largest city, blending museums and tourist attractions with shopping and nightlife.

We shifted gears with our final visit in Bulgaria, this time to Koprivshtitsa, a historic mountain town known for its traditional architecture. We visited several of the town’s colorful houses and churches before taking a break in a charming local restaurant to sample some of Bulgaria’s famous soups, salads and breads. We arranged this and the other tours with Traventuria, a local company that provided great service. We stayed in a nice Airbnb apartment two blocks from the cathedral.

On Monday, we took a bus from Sofia to Bucharest, arriving in the evening at an out-of-the-way bus station where it took us several minutes to flag down a taxi. Eventually we arrived at our hotel in Old Town, where we strolled for a late snack and view of the many clubs, which were pulsating with music and, in a couple of cases, scantily clad dancers in the windows.

The next morning we walked across the boulevard to Unirii Square for a two-hour walking tour that provided a great overview of the city’s complicated history, which ranges from the Roman and Ottoman Empires to Vlad the Impaler (also known as Dracula), as well as the more recent Communist reign of Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was executed with his wife in 1989. Nearby was his People’s Palace, the world’s second-largest building after the Pentagon.

On Wednesday, we flew back to Moldova, where our host family welcomed us with a great dinner and lots of questions about our travels.

All in all, it was a fascinating week, and fun, too. I know now why Sofia and Bucharest are great places to visit. Maybe you should find out, too.

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