(Editor’s note: We just added the Visit Sofia video. Thanks, Iassen Djabirov! Also, thanks to Marin Ivanov for pointing out that Cyrillic script was created during the First Bulgarian Empire. at the end of the 9th Century AD. That error has been corrected.)
How cool is Sofia? Let’s just say this … after traveling nearly constantly and living around the world from France to South Korea, my sister Marjorie is not easily impressed.
So to my amazement, when I called in July to ask her how things were going during her 3-week stay in Sofia, Bulgaria, she raved! All superlatives!
When I reached her in London last week, Marge said she and her husband Martin were already missing Sofia, which she says compares favorably to her favorite cities in Europe, even her beloved Paris. “I thought it was going to be run down, but it wasn’t at all. Sofia recovered nicely from Communism.” In some ways, Sofia is superior to other big European cities, from the expat perspective.
And a bit of context here: Americans tend to visualize former Soviet Bloc countries, with the exception of the Czech Republic, as broken down and charmless.
Sofia turned out to be an undiscovered jewel. Parks all over the city. Wide boulevards. Great food. Friendly people and few tourists. And best of all, Marge said, the transportation network of trams, trains, buses and subways “is just amazing. I said the best in Europe ….”
THE LIVING IS EASY
Oh, and with all of this, the cost of living – and living well – is basically a sixth of what it costs to live in other European capitals such as London, Stockholm and Paris. It has insanely cheap currency from the perspective of Americans, with the dollar buying almost double Bulgarian levs. “You know how you watch your finances because you can go through a hell of a lot of money (traveling)? There we didn’t have to do that. We bought what we wanted. We had beer or wine with meals. We had coffee and pastries.
“Let me tell you, we lived like kings.”
Marge is a great example of an expat who is always on the lookout for her next home while she travels. Bulgaria as a whole is a very inviting place to live. The country itself has four or five sizable cities with history, architecture and – in the case of Black Sea resort Varna – sun and sea.
THERE’S JUST ONE LITTLE THING
It is, in short, the perfect prospective home for adventurous English-speaking expats if it weren’t for one tiny, little complication hardly worth mentioning ….
Outside the cities, few Bulgarians speak English and most of the signage is in Cyrillic letters.
Arriving from a spring and summer in Greece, Marge and Martin were able to figure out the script because Cyrillic alphabet – created in Bulgaria – inherited Greek letters. Bonus trivial point: Followers of Saints Cyril and Methodius created the language in the First Bulgarian Empire.
“You have to learn Bulgarian,” said Marge, who speaks English, Spanish and French. “English is not common. Everyone speaks Engleski,” a melange of Slavic languages and English.
“You can get by in the city with English but it’s not like being in Paris or wherever.” Most restaurants in Sofia have English menus. Signs are in English in tourist areas and on the subways, and young Sofians tend to speak English, coming to Marge’s and Martin’s rescue on several occasions. “It’s a young country, thank God, so the kids can really help,” Marge said. At no time were she and Martin completely lost during their three-week stay.
Of all of Sofia’s charms, Marjorie loved the parks the most.
From our conversation:
The parks are fabulous, and everywhere. Each park has a different personality … charming and amazing. We’d get food from the cafeteria and have lunch in “our park,” one of three just by us. All had cafes and restaurants, all are walkable. There were no cars. Kids are playing guitars in parks. People are playing ping pong, which is really popular. We went to a jazz festival with Branford Marsalis. For free! There was a free reggae festival in a different park. In the evenings, all the families would go to parks. Kids would play, dogs would run, and the whole place would fill up. It was really cool. They really enjoy their parks!
The parks are landscaped like French parks with fountains and, of course, roses. (Note: Bulgaria has its own Rose Valley.) One park has its own ruin, restored through the generosity of the U.S. Embassy. Outside the parks are florists offering elaborate displays. “I had Martin get a photo of one! It was so beautiful,” Marge said.
All and all, Marjorie describes Sofia as an exceedingly tempting town. And a town where everything is easily accessible.
GREAT TRANSPORTATION INFRASTRUCTURE
• Sofia has electric trams and buses, with few diesel taxis. “I’d say 99 percent of public transportation is electric,” Marge said. “Can you imagine the difference in pollution?”
• Public transportation is very sophisticated. Bus stops have electronic signs (left) that tell commuters how long before the next bus. “We didn’t wait more than 10 minutes, and two minutes to four minutes was the typical wait.”
• The metro is limited to two lines but is state of the art. You can take the metro to the airport, which is about 4 kilometers from the center of Sofia. The price? About 90 cents one way from downtown to the airport. Try that in London.
• Taxis are affordable, with most trips the equivalent of $2 or less. There are meters, “but you need to negotiate each ride,” which top out at a max of about $4, according to Marge.
Of course, there’s more to quality of life than infrastructure, as important as that is. Sofia also compares favorably to the rest of Europe in terms of crucial creature comforts – culture and coffee. Just like San Franciscans or New Yorkers, Sofians need perpetual access to caffeine, Marge said. You can get quality coffee just about anywhere including tabacs, and coffee vendors will sell you a cup for the equivalent of 24 cents. Or you can go to one of Sofia’s three Starbucks and pay $5. Your choice.
Restaurants are above average, with lots of local delicacies such as chicken livers and stews, along with fresh veggies, salads and fresh fruit. Cafeterias have home-cooked food. “It was just really nice because you could get meat, veggies and fruit for $2, or we’d splurge and make it $3 with beer,” she said. For dinner, they’d each get an entree and split a large beer for $6. Portions are smaller, and Sofians tend to be thin and fit. There are bakeries. Shops with fresh cheese. “The goat cheeses were excellent. And there were tiny mom-and-pop shops that just sell nuts or dried fruits,” Marge said.
Her favorite area was the embassy district, where a lot of French live … and must have their patisseries. “The croissants there were so good. A croissant that was 45 cents would easily compete with French croissants,” Marge said.
LOTS FOR THE CULTURE VULTURE
Unlike her brother, who tends to wander around Europe looking for bourbon, country music and locals to hang out with, Marge is more – shall we say – culturally oriented. She went to the European art museum, the National Gallery for Foreign Art, a converted palace which she says has “a lot of standards.” The museum also has a large collection of Indian art. (Go figure.)
Like most of Eastern Europe, Sofia is a town rich in culture and arts, and Marge says there are at least 10 museums and institutions worth visiting including:
• the National Institute of Archeology with Museum
• the National Museum of Natural History
• the National Historical Museum (which has an awesome website in English.)
Okay, this is the part where we have full disclosure. Sofia isn’t perfect. Marge says everyone smokes. There, we said it.
Also, the language barrier makes it tough for non-Slavic language speakers to fully enjoy Sofia. “It’s a shame because in Bulgaria, if you don’t speak the language, you’re missing 90 percent of everything,” Marge said. “We definitely saw it as tourists.” Which is most un-Marjorie-like.
What is almost surreal, though, is how inexpensive it is to visit Sofia for dollar- and euro-earning travelers. Marge and Martin rented a nicely renovated 1-bedroom apartment near the University of Sofia with a full kitchen and fast Wi-Fi. The price: the equivalent of $20 per night over three weeks. They budgeted $25 per day each for expenses, and ended up averaging about $45 per day. “It was like being in Paris in 1950s, yet everything was modern … not just modern, but advanced in some ways,” Marge said.
“I don’t know any city in Europe that can compete with Sofia.”
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.