Waking up this morning got to remember that Friday, as is today, was a day when I landed in Bucharest, the place from where I start my backpacking trip trough the Balkans, along with my, still strong till today, love for feta cheese and spinach. Yes, this very own and very great Romanian capital got my traveling feelings on straight away. Also taking an opportunity here to point that it is a good city to start from this part of the Europe. Allowing myself only a three days, I can not admit that Bucharest has been fully discovered and experienced by me. Yet, touched, thought slightly, but satisfying, managing to ticked a great night out, good city seeing around the center, finishing at meeting local friends along with other travelers. Clearly, was a good start, promising a good further travel. And indeed, that was the case. Though, sparing to write what to see, what I saw, what I liked and what not so, just sharing few photos from this Easter European city, from where my trip has begun.
Everyone of us, or at least most, do some itinerary before traveling. Its is always a significant question on the length of stay in each place, especially for a first-time visitors. Capital, as usually the biggest city in the country, is no estrange to that doubt. Many of them in Europe vary from Barcelona, where you can stay for weeks, to smaller ones, where you can discover the place in just even less than few days and feel satisfy. Good internet research always help to plan your trip better. And here I come with my blog post to answer that questions about one capital in Balkans.
So where are we this time? Sophia, a capital of Bulgaria, a magnificent, and massively underrated (!), country with stunning mountain range Vitosha, that is a volcanic mountain massif on the outskirts of the capital, visible literally all around from the city. Vitosha is one of the symbols of this city and the closest site for hiking and skiing. Thought, when it comes to Sofia, and as much as I loved Bulgaria myself, I can not say that capital itself offers a lot. One day is all you need to discover the place. I would even suggest going to see Rila Monastery in the morning and do the sight-seen after. All could be done in one day. All the major attractions are very close by, almost all located on one street. If you are staying in the city center area, you can start your tour from Ancient Complex Serdica, site situated just above the Serdika metro station, that displays the remains of the Roman city.
There is also a History Museum to see. Just 2 mins away you can see a Rotonda st. George, The Church of St George is an Early Christian red brick rotunda that is considered the oldest building in Sofia.
Now heading forward on pl. Knyaz Aleksandar, you can visit Ethnographic Museum (showcasing folk costumes & regional art & artifacts) and Russian Church. A bit further, on a left hand side, you can visit a stunning Alexander Nevski Cathedral. Built in Neo-Byzantine style serves as the cathedral church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria, and it is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, as well as one of the symbols of the Sofia and a primary tourist attraction. Heading more towards Crystal Palace, you can see on the way a building of a National Assembly.
Close by National Stadium, called Vasil Levski, could be an a attraction too, but to be honest, can be skipped. At the end I would suggest adding a National Palace of Culture, but its located a bit far away. However, can be easily reached by trolley line 1,2,5,8 and 9 just from the Crystal Palace.
This is a main itinerary for Sophia city center. Please keep in your mind that Rila Monastery is a must see place too, so if you want to spend one day around capital, please do add an extra day to see this stunning monastery hidden in a mountains.
Welcome again in my so-called “from A to B” section where I will advise you on the best (or not?) ways of traveling between capitals. I will also share with you guys my adventures like: buying a ticket, looking for a toilet…etc. This time we are looking at connections between Sofia (Bulgaria) and Skopje, a vibrant city in Macedonia.I know that train is a possible option, but it is not a direct one (you have to change at Nic, and it takes 10h, so no thanks), so I simply took a bus. Four-wheeler leaves from the terminal north of the city center. You can get there by underground, bus: 78, 213, 404 and tram: 3 and 12. Public transport costs 1.60 lev for one single ride. Taxi is a good option too, as you should pay just 5 lev from the city center. Once you are around, please don’t head to the big fancy, glassy new terminal, that’s not the one you are looking for. The bus station you need is located just across the street 100 meters away from the other terminal, I mentioned, on a right hand side. It looks like a square with little shops and travel agencies all around with the bus stands in the center. I have chosen to go with Matpu. It is also possible that it is the only company that provides this service right now (march 2017). Bus will depart from the stand just next to the Matpu office, from where you got your ticket. The whole journey was a quiet pleasant experience. Bus did accommodate me in a confi chair, and there was a fast wifi available to use (but just on Bulgarian side…fair enough), so I was streaming youtube all the way till border. Also there was not many passengers in, so I could claim 2 sits to stretch. Toilet was there as well. The ticket can be paid by cash and by card at Matpu office. I paid 30 lev, a fair price for a journey between 2 countries. Three departures at: 9.30, 16.00 and 19.00 are the part of a daily schedule that is valid everyday. Please note that there may be other company that serves this route, but I can’t be definitely sure, as there was no info to be found online. Once you purchase your ticket, maybe in case, use a toilet on the side (0.60 lev), as the bus will stop only once by the loo, and the one in the vehicle may be either unavailable or not-existing. The journey takes around 5.45 h, but you will get to Skopje around 14.00, as of a time change (if you are taking 9.30 bus like me).
The border crossing might be a bit annoying. It is probably due to the fact that you are leaving a Schengen now. Your passport will be checked twice by Bulgarian and Macedonian side. Border control will do the same with your bag, it will be search twice, so maybe don’t try to smuggle anything 😉 Sniffing dogs are at the border too. After 30 mins, you will get back to the bus, and you will head off to Skopje. You will arrive at the main bus terminal that is located east of the city center. One you’re out, you will get attacked by taxi drivers offering their service. Take it if you are tired, they will charge you a fair price. The capital is very small, so I just walked to my accommodation. It took me 15 minutes to get to the main square in the center. So that’s it, you reached your destination…congratz, now leave your bag and go to explore the city!
Hidden in the mountain wildness 1174 meters high above the sea level, Rila Monastery became as a number one attraction in Bulgaria. Remarkable scenery around and an impressive monk`s building itself creates something truly magnificent, something where the old spirit can be still present, felt and found. When you look at it, you can notice how well the architecture collaborates with surrounded nature. It feels almost like monastery grew from the ground respecting the peaceful flora around. The location makes it easy to be reached from the capital of Bulgaria on a daily bases. So here I come with my advise for you guys, on how to get to that remarkable place yourself.
Before heading off please take a warm clothes with you like jacket, shoes etc. There is still snow (March, April) around, and the temperature can be very low. Ok, so after my grany`s tips, we are ready to go.
In order to reach Rila Monastery you need to catch a bus from Ovcha Kupel bus station. You can get there by tram number 5, and you can do that from the stop by Palace of Justice in the city center, from where the tram departs. The ticket cost just 1.80 lev and can be bought from the driver. Well…I have been told by one local that it is 1.60, so maybe the driver charges a little for an extra job as a seller. I guess number 5 departs very often as, even that it was Sunday, I waited only 5 mins. Once you are in the tram, you can count stops to get off on 13th (or 12?). You will see a Kaufland shop on the left and an ABC market on the right, so you wont miss it!
Now go to the right, and just 300 m away you will find a bus station. Don’t bother to ask for the ticket at the counter, as it can be only purchased in the bus. It cost 11 lev (march 2017) one way, and it can be paid only by cash. Please note, that the bus is always full, and it`s the only one you can catch for the trip, so please be earlier to claim a ticket and sit. Mine was full, people were standing (2h drive), and I`ve witnessed that 2 people were deny as of lack of the space. I would suggest to be 30 mins before to be 100% sure that you will get to the Rila that day. Bus will leave at 10.20 am (it should wait there 30 mins before the departure time) from the stand number 7.
As I mention before, the journey takes around 2h. Please keep your ticket with you just in case, as we had to change the bus in one little cute town just 30 mins away from monastery. We also stopped there for half an hour. The second bus came exactly to the same place where the first one dropped us. Nobody checked our tickets, but as I mentioned, just keep it with you. From there the journey was very pleasant with spectacular view of the mountain range, rivers and forest on the way. We arrived after 30-40 minutes right by the entrance at exactly 13.00. The same bus (from the same place) departs at 15.00 back to Sofia, and that is your only option to get back, or you will have to get very friendly with local monks, so they will accommodate you….well, highly not possible. Well actually, there is a hotel on the side, but to be frank, one day is more than enough to see monastery, unless you want to hike some hills around. So You will be given 2 hours to look around, and that is enough time, trust me. There is no fee for the entrance which makes the whole trip extremely cheap (around 10 Euros total). Please go around to see everything and visit impressive church in the center. The side feel so peaceful (even with tourists around), you almost want to stay forever. High peaks, that surround the place, creates a beautiful background to the mystical and old monastery. There is a museum to visit too, but you need to pay 8 Lev entry fee (20 with English speaking guide). To warm you up, coffees and teas are available from the dispensary machine and from loads of other stands. There is one restaurant (accepts cards) on the side where you can have a good meal for a fair price, but please remember you need to get off at 15.00. Souvenirs shops with little figures, postcards, local honey and loads more, are around too. Have a look, they do have loads of interesting and unusual stuff there. 2 free toilets are available on the side. If you have a spare bottle, get some water from the well, it is a great quality one.
Places to see in Rila Monastery:
- The Church (located just in the heart of the monastery
- Museum (on the right hand side)
- The cookhouse (can be found not far from the restaurant and food stands)
- Monastic cells
I have read online that there is a cave to see too, but it`s located 4 kilometers away, and I don’t think it is possible to do with your 2 hours time restriction.
Time to go “home”
There is a time for an end for everything, and at Rila Monastery (for the one who took a public transport) that time is 15.00. So again you will get a return ticket from the driver, and you will head back to Sofia to the same bus station from where you departed. You should be back before 17.30, and this time we did not have to change the bus. Again, you can catch a tram back to the city center. The whole journey from the start is nice, easy and very cheap. The Monastery will stay in your memory probably as one of the best you have ever seen.
There are loads of out of date information online about connections between Bucharest and Sofia and vice versa, so I decided to enrich the internet with more current schedules (March 2017). To complete your goal, either you will take a bus or train. Fly is an option too, but I know that is expensive.
I took a bus to travel to Sofia from Bucharest. As of march 2017 there are no longer any companies with minibuses that provides a service between these two capitals. My transport was a direct one.
I paid 120 Lei (around 26€) for the trip, and I bought the ticket at the Filaret Bus Station, from where the bus departs. Please note that you can pay only in cash, and there is no cash machine there, so be prepared. Purchasing at the station is the only option so far, so I am afraid it is not possible to book your sit online. Actually, I remember that when I approach the counter to buy a ticket, the kind lady told me that I need to wait 5 minutes till she will finish eating her banana…. I gave her 20 in case she had some afters to consume too. No problem whatsoever, I’ve been trough worst. Eventually banana lady served me, and she spoke as good English as was required to close the deal.
The Filaret Bus station, that probably isn’t very impressive but does the job, is located in southern part of the city, but still close to the center (around 20-30 mins walk from Parliament). Ultimately you can always take a bus, tram or taxi. My local Romanian friend advised me that taxi shouldn’t cost more than 8-9 Lei from the city center.As I mentioned before, I didn’t manage to find any current info online, so I took a bus that was departing at 16.00. Now I know that there is another bus that leaves at 13.00, so you can arrive way earlier (god if I only knew, I wouldn’t have to drive with drank taxi driver in Sofia, I could just walk). It does say at the counter’s window that bus arrives at 23.30 at Sophia’s main station for buses and trains (located north of the city center), but we arrived at 22.40, and that was probably due to the fact that the border wasn’t busy at all. We stopped there only for 5 minute where our passports got checked. There is also another bus from different company that leaves at 22.30 from Filaret too, so you have 3 direct options: 13.00, 16.00 and 22.30, and they run from Monday to Sunday. The bus will leave from stand number 1. Even that it was a Friday, vehicle was almost empty, so I claimed all 5 sits at the end to stretch my legs. Joking, just 3. Mine did not have a toilet, so either don’t drink or use charming bathroom (1 Lei) at the Filaret Bus Station prior departure.
On the way it will stop just twice, and journey takes around 7h. First stop will be after the border on Bulgarian side and just for 10 minutes. I am sure there must be a toilet, but I couldn’t locate one. Second stop will be a bit longer, 20 minutes, where you can use a loo and buy something to eat or drink. Toilet will cost 0.30 Bulgarian Lev. Once you will reach your destination, you can walk 20 minutes to the center, take a taxi (I paid 4.40 Lev), tram or bus.
There are several buses that leaves hourly to Ruse (Bulgarian side). From there, just outside the border, you can catch another one to Sofia. As fare as I am aware, it will be twice cheaper, but I just couldn’t be bothered .
Please check current timetable, but for sure train leaves twice a day from Nord Station at 12.45 and 22.25, and it should cost around 30 euros. My French friends from hostel told me that they are very comfortable but slow, and you can book a bed for overnight train there too.