Monday, November 28, 2016

Thanksgiving in Sofia

Our November adventure is now behind us! We spent Thanksgiving weekend in Bulgaria, of all places! When Jordyn was in town in October, we started talking about taking a trip with a group, and that night found cheap tickets to Sofia, Bulgaria. Jaime, Jenna and Lloyd quickly hopped on board too and suddenly we'd purchased tickets and were making plans to go to a country we knew almost nothing about! 

We left Thanksgiving morning. Carson and I had the easiest time getting there, being a little less than an hour from Dortmund. We left the house at 4:45 that morning to walk to the train after only an hour and a half of sleep for me, thanks to some loud partiers next door. Everyone else had a lengthier trip and got little to no sleep. Jenna barely made it after her train didn't show up for her first leg of the the journey and she had to take a bus to several more trains, all of which were delayed. Our flight left at 8:40 that morning and when she finally came running into the gate area at 8:25, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. It was so stressful, but we were relieved that she made it! 
Empty train at 5:30 in the morning

Mountain tops through the clouds as we flew in to Sofia
 We withdrew Bulgarian Leva from an ATM in the airport after going through passport control. The exchange rate was 1.95 Leva to 1 Euro or 1.75 to the Dollar, so it worked in our favor! After checking out our new bills, we found our shuttle driver. It turned out that he didn't speak English, but did speak Spanish, so Jenna refreshed herself in her knowledge of that language and translated for us!

Our room wouldn't be ready until 2 in the afternoon, so we left our backpacks in the hotel and headed out for some food! We stayed right off Vitosha Boulevard, a big pedestrian shopping street, so we were in a prime location for all kinds of things. We decided on a place called "Samurai" with a mid-range price point and enough seating for six. Everyone was in the mood for a burger, and with the exception of Jordyn, everyone ordered the same burger off the menu (I guess we should have discussed our choices before the waitress took our order!). We "cheers-ed" to a happy Thanksgiving and to Jenna's making it on that plane.

The burger was the best burger I've had in Europe by far, AND the burgers came with fries and sauces. Just about everything in Germany is a la carte so this was truly special.

By the time we finished our meal, our room was ready, so we got to see that for the first time. Carson found the place we stayed and he did a wonderful job. We stayed at Vitosha Apartments, in the "Emma" room. There were two bedrooms, one bathroom, a little balcony, spacious living room, a kitchen with not only pots and pans and a big fridge but also a dishwasher and washing machine. It was much much bigger than our apartment in Germany and we could have easily continued sharing that space with four other people just for all the convenience it offered! It was also really really cheap and for three nights, we paid so little that it was almost funny. The staff was very friendly and gave us maps and offered advice when we had questions. Probably the best hotel experience we've ever had.

After we'd settled in and cat-napped (Carson walked into the living room not long after we'd arrived and Jenna, Jaime, Lloyd and I were all passed out sprawled out on the furniture - video exists), we headed out to see the city! Bulgarian uses a Cyrillic alphabet similar to Russian so I tried to sound things out as best I could and some of the words were even the same as Russian, so I knew what they meant!
The old city is marked by yellow brick roads!

We walked through the Hagia Nedelja, dim and dark and full of magnificent details. The smell of incense was everywhere and there were many people inside lighting candles and kissing portraits of saints. It was a beautiful building.

Jenna studies bats, so this felt appropriate!
Many street corners had these little structures. They said "police" on the doors, so I'm wondering if it had something to do with traffic cops?

We walked through an underground area next that had souvenirs and Roman ruins.

Where Sofia is now, there used to be a city called Serdica. This amphitheater was built during the Roman empire around the third century, but wasn't discovered until about ten years ago. Once upon a time, it was nearly as large as the Coliseum in Rome! The ruins are under the street now in Sofia and you can walk around them.

We continued walking and came upon Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It was huge and a little hard to miss. It is a Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral and is the central church for that faith.

Tricky camera focused on the faces and then switched after I pressed the timer button. Jenna has a good one that I'll post if she shares her photos!

When we went inside, we saw people lining up waiting for something. We waited too just to see what was going on and discovered that it was quite an event. There was a processional and so much incense and smoke and lots of men in robes. We discovered later that the man who looked most prominent was the "Patriarch of All Bulgaria" (that's a real title). I couldn't figure out what the ceremony was about, but it looked to be in honor of a saint. When they walked in, they bowed to a large stone tablet in the middle of the red carpet that was laid out. We left before things ended because we couldn't understand what was going on, but it was really unique.

It was dark by the time we left. It got dark about an hour later than it does in Germany, which makes sense since Bulgaria is ahead of us by an hour!

And what do people living in Germany discover when they visit another country? Weinachtsmarkt, of course! I'll touch more on this in the future when we go to one that's actually in Germany, but basically, Weihnachtmarkten are Christmas markets that last until December 24. Advent is a big deal in Germany, and the Christmas markets are very famous. So famous, in fact, that we found one in Sofia! We decided we had to go and try Bulgarian Gluhwein. Lots of the signs were in German, and we found that funny. I don't know if Sofia has a large German population or if the popularity of these markets causes other countries to jump on the trend, but we really enjoyed walking around.

I must add too that the weather forecast for Sofia was way off. It said it was supposed to be in the high 50s every day we were there and it was far colder - 30s to mid 40s and 20s and low 30s at night. If I'd known, I'd have brought my heavier scarf, but the optimistic forecast fooled me!

On our way back "home", we found a Lidl grocery store and stopped in to buy breakfast supplies. We had it in our heads to make a Thanksgiving dinner also, but everyone was full from lunch still and tired, and we decided that we couldn't really fully appreciate a homemade dinner, so we bought snacks and moved on. Once back at the apartment, we changed into cozy pajamas and started planning the next day. We'd intended to have everything planned out before we stepped foot on Bulgarian soil, but it's hard planning things over group text, so we planned on the fly. 

I got to FaceTime with Morgan and the rest of the Norman clan while they were waiting around for the turkey to be ready at my parents' house. It was so nice to say a quick hello, but when we'd hung up I definitely had to wipe a few tears away. As much of a great trip as this was and as much as we enjoy living in Germany, I do miss "my people" and Thanksgiving is always one of my favorite holidays to experience back home in South Carolina. 

This was our Thanksgiving dinner, which we enjoyed while watching old SNL clips (this one is a favorite and we couldn't stop laughing).

We watched a few more clips and started to watch Home Alone while making hand turkeys. Carson and I had walked a mile there and a mile back the night before to get paper for these turkeys, but we forgot to pack it in our bags, so we used paper towels from the hotel instead. I forced this activity but nobody complained and they all humored me which was so kind. 

Exhausted from the day's adventures, everyone turned in pretty early, although I did FaceTime with Mom and Dad once everyone had left their house. 

It was a great Thanksgiving! It didn't feel at all like Thanksgiving, and we definitely missed our people back in the States, but spending it exploring a new place with our friends who already feel like old friends made it a really great day!

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