Monday, November 29, 2010

Riding the Tram

After living in Sofia for close to two years, Ellis and I decided that it was time to try riding the tram. Ellis had already purchased 10 tickets at 1 leva each over 6 months ago, but somehow, we never seemed to actually have the chance to use them.

So, on Sunday, we took the plunge and caught the tram near our house, in order to go to another mall to see a movie.

The Number 6 arrived, and we got on the tram, and looked around for where we were supposed to punch our tickets, since we knew that this was not done by the driver. We saw one box that looked promising, but there was no place to put the ticket. Another, different looking box was also a false lead. Finally, one woman pointed out a small, old looking metal box which was attached to the space between two windows. Ellis put in his ticket, and pressed, but nothing really happened except for some round indentations that appeared on the ticket. He then did the same with my ticket, and we went to sit down further along in the carriage.

As we were riding, Ellis noticed that another woman put her ticket into a different box near where we were sitting, and she actually had a hole punched in hers. So, he took out our tickets and repunched them, and felt very pleased. And then the inspector arrived...

The inspector looked at our tickets, and was very confused, as there were "many marks". We tried to explain to her in English that we had first punched the tickets in one box, and then in another - and she kept looking at them and saying "many marks". Ellis then managed to explain in rudimentary Bulgarian that this was the first time that we were riding the tram, and we didn't really know what to do. Someone else also explained to the inspector, and she finally agreed to accept our tickets this time. Apparently, each box has a different pattern of dots and punch, and by punching our tickets in 2 different boxes, we confused the system... From what we've heard, the fine for not paying, or using an invalid ticket is 10 leva - or 10 times the price of a normal ticket.

We were expecting an electronic punch for our tickets, but instead had a very simple hole punch. I have heard that there are newer trams with electronic punches, but obviously not on all of them. There are also trams that you can purchase the ticket when you get on, and not have to buy them in advance.

Some people have magnetic cards which are prepaid for a certain number of trips, or for a certain period. We saw a couple people who swiped these cards in front of one of the other boxes.
But, a lot of people don't pay at all - until they see the inspector coming, in which case there is a mad scramble to punch your ticket before the inspector reaches you!

Coming back, we were impressed with the electronic sign that let you know when the next tram for each of the different lines was due. This was at a busy stop, where a lot of different trams passed. One of the things that we noticed at this stop, was how difficult it was for older, infirm people to climb up the very high steps to get on the tram.

The tram is obviously the cheapest means of transportation, but there is a lot that needs to be done to also make it a more modern and comfortable ride. Still, we're glad we finally tried it, and hope that we'll be able to use up our tickets while we're still here.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Movie "Red" in Bulgaria

Jodie and I went to see the movie "Red," starring Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Mary Louise Parker, and Helen Mirren. The movie was an action thriller with a very strong dose of humor and we enjoyed it.

In English, "Red" stands for Retired, Extremely Dangerous, which referred to the fact that Willis and friends were former CIA agents who suddenly found themselves once again involved in an operation.

In Bulgarian, the name of the film was "БСП - Бесни Страшни Пенсии" which means "BSP - Furious Frightful Pensioners". BSP is also a mock title referring to the abbreviation of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Its political color is red and its voters are mainly elder and retired people - just like the "reds" in the film.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bulgarian Restaurant Service

The service in Bulgarian restaurants never ceases to amaze me - both for the good and the bad. We have been to average restaurants where the service is quite professional, and fancier restaurants where the service has been poor. There doesn't seem to be any real logic in it.

Some of the things that we have experienced:

1. Some waiters bring you your drink, open the bottle, put one hand behind their back, and pour your drink for you. They will then close the bottle and leave it next to your glass. Some of them will watch your glass and refill it when needed. Sometimes it seems that this is done solely so that they can remove the bottle from your table as they walk by.

2. One of my major issues regarding service, is the order in which your courses are brought out. Many restaurants will bring out your food according to whenever it is ready, as for example:

  • Your order is ready, but your companion's is not. This leads you to either start eating so that your food won't get cold, or, to sit and stare at your food until your companion's meal arrives.

  • You are eating your first course, and before you have finished, your second course arrives and is left on the table, in order that it has plenty of time to cool off by the time you finish eating your first course.

  • Sometimes, both of the above happen before your companion has even received his first course. This leads to an exciting meal of each of you watching the other eat while waiting for your food, or else digesting your food after you finished your meal.

  • Sometimes, second courses are brought out before the first.

3. Waiters always seem to be in a hurry to clear away your dishes. Quite frequently, this has left me holding a piece of bread or pizza that I was eating, and no place to put it down, since my plate has already been cleared away. This also holds true for napkins, which leaves me taking another clean napkin, since my (perfectly good) napkin was already cleared.

A couple more things in general regarding Bulgarian restaurants:

I believe that all waiters in Bulgaria are taught to say "Here you are" ("Zapovyadeti" in Bulgarian) with each item that they bring to your table.

EVERY restaurant, no matter what type of restaurant it is (even Chinese!), will always have Shopska Salad on the menu (the national Bulgarian salad consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions, with a mountain of grated white cheese on top).

Bread is generally not provided at meals. If you want bread, you will be asked how many slices you want, as you pay by the slice.

Despite, or because of, the above,we still enjoy eating out in Bulgaria. We have come to enjoy the professional service when we encounter it, and to laugh and go along with it whenever some of the more unprofessional service comes our way. If you can't beat them, join them!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sofia Restaurant Reviews

Jodie and I continue with our efforts to sample the cuisine in as many of Sofia's fine dining establishments as possible. Here are three of our recent findings.

We stopped in at The Fox & Hound on Angel Kanchev Street for a Sunday lunch recently. This is an Irish pub and we both had Kilkenny ale to accompany our meal. While I enjoyed my fish and chips, Jodie was a bit disappointed with the Fox & Hound burger, which was served without a bun.

We had previously dined at La Pastaria in Varna, where we enjoyed a luxurious dinner on our recent weekend there. We knew that La Pastaria had another of its Italian restaurants in a neighborhood not far from our office, so last week we went there for lunch. The noon time menu was just as good as what we remembered from Varna, and there was a special business lunch offer for under 10 Leva. We both ate the delicious vegetable lasagna of the day and we plan to eat there again.

This past Saturday we again went for a walk on Angel Kanchev Street and this time we stopped for lunch at The Olive Garden. The Olive Garden is a Mediterranean restaurant that serves delicious pastas and other interesting selections. I started with the tomato soup and then had the spinach penne pasta. Jodie started with a tabuli salad which was a little overladen with parsley, and then she had the steak sandwich. She said the steak could have been served a little rarer. What was nice about this restaurant is that they serve many of their dishes in lunch-size portions, with lowered prices to match.

Where will we dine next?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Cats of Bulgaria = Sofia Window Sill

Friday, November 19, 2010

We Dine at the Contessa

I had previously written of my efforts to find the Contessa Restaurant in September, when Jodie was in Israel. Last Saturday, we decided to go there for lunch. We also were determined to travel there by tram, as we have lived near a tram line for nearly two years yet have never traveled on one.

We waited at the tram stop for about 10 minutes, wondering why it was so late in coming, and also why there was no one else waiting for it. I noticed a paper pasted on top of the tram schedule, and while I couldn't read it all, I saw that dates were listed. Apparently the line was closed for a ten-day period.

This turned out to indeed be the case. When we walked over to the City Center Sofia Mall we saw tractors digging up the tram lines there. We got into a taxi instead and took it to 76 Pirotska Street. And that is where we finally found the Contessa.

The waitress handed us menus and we were about to ask if she had menus in English when we noticed something very strange. The menus were listed in Hebrew! As noted in my September posting, the restaurant is located right near Sofia's Jewish School, and apparently they get quite a few Jewish visitors.

We chose shnitzel and chips, and it was very good! The portions were so large that we took home enough for another meal.

Now that we know where the Contessa is, and how good the food is, hopefully we'll be going back!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Cats of Bulgaria = Varna

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bulgarian Humor = Rakia

A middle aged Bulgarian family. The wife starts shouting at her husband at 2 in the morning:

"I left two bottles of rakia in the fridge! Why is there one bottle left?!"

"Because I didn't see the second one," explains the husband.

From the Sofia News Agency.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dobrich, Bulgaria

We drove north of Varna to the small town of Dobrich, located in the Dobrudzha, Bulgaria's main grain producing region. We found the town to be quite laid back, with a very large pedestrian zone and a beautiful central park.

Dobrich has a recreated "old town", with crafts shops showing how various products are made. Unfortunately, all these shops were closed on the weekend. And, the town's museums were also closed.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Varna's Cathedral of the Assumption

Friday, November 12, 2010

Who Enjoys the Varna Beach in November?

The answer to that question can be seen in these photographs.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Beautiful Cape Kaliakra

According to a Bulgarian legend, during the Ottoman conquest forty local maidens tied their hair together and jumped from the rocks of Cape Kaliakra to the sea below in order to escape being raped at the hands of the Turks.

Today, Cape Kaliakra, on a rocky, narrow peninsula jutting into the Black Sea north of Varna, is highly revered by the locals for its beautiful scenery more than its history serving as a fortress in both Roman and Byzantine times.

There is a connection to more recent history at the cape, as it overlooks the area of the Black Sea where two important naval battles took place. In 1791, the Russian navy defeated the Turkish fleet here. And more recently, the Bulgarian navy sunk the Ottoman gunship Hamidie here in 1912. In one of the caves on the cape there is a museum which marks these naval battles, but unfortunately it was closed when we visited.

And finally, two more legends about Cape Kaliakra. Muslims believe that one of the caves contains the grave of Sari Saltuk, a mystical Turkish hero who came here to kill a seven-headed dragon and rescue two of the sultan's daughters. As for Christians, there is a claim that the cape marks the final resting place of St. Nicholas, the savior of seafarers from shipwreck and the saint who guides fishermen towards their prey. From atop the rocky cape we could see small fishing boats dotting the sea, but no dragons, seven-headed or otherwise, were to be seen.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wind Power

It was not particularly a windy day as we drove north along the Black Sea coast, but the wind turbines we saw lined up in rows across the fields were turning slowly, generating power.

We arrived at the Kaliakra Cape, and the wind turbines provided a fitting background to the views.

The stunning shoreline at the cape.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Balchik = Summer Home of the Romanian Queen

We drove north of Varna along the Black Sea coast to the small town of Balchik. The town itself doesn't have much in the way of beaches but its claim to fame is that it served as the summer residence of Queen Marie of Romania, when that country ruled this part of Bulgaria before 1940. Marie, a granddaughter of England's Queen Victoria, started the construction of a palace here in 1936. Today you can visit the palace and the adjacent botanical gardens.

Below is the guardhouse at the entrance to the palace grounds.

The palace grounds are like a small park, with many paths, a waterfall, a stream, all leading down to the Black Sea shore.

We tasted sweet wine (with very strong tastes of honey and almonds). Some of the below bottles may have been from the queen's personal collection.

Overlooking the Black Sea. Queen Marie loved her palace in Balchik so much that she asked for her heart to be kept there after her death. This wish was fulfilled, but in 1941, the area was returned to Bulgaria, and the queen's last remains were moved to Bran Castle in Romania.

The queen's palace was was a very modest villa topped by a minaret. It is not a mosque. According to the guidebook we read, the queen may have adhered to the Bahai faith, or alternatively she may have had a Turkish lover. All the pictures we saw of her walking around the Balchik gardens showed her head covered by a scarf.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Best Little Restaurant in Bulgaria

On our first night in Varna, we decided to go to Acant Rouge, a restaurant that was recommended by our hotel, and which was within walking distance from where we were staying.

We found the building tucked away on a small side street, and were surprised to see that it was located in a historical building, with an explanation of the history posted on a sign outside.

The building was built in 1864 by Hadji Yanaki Flori, who was a prominent grain merchant. In 1867, Varna's first charity ball was held there. In July 1878, with the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire, the building became the headquarters for the Russian Army. From 1888-1898 it was a Girl's Secondary School, and in 1900 to 1910, it housed the first Machine School of the Navy. Over the next 80 years, the building was used as a boarding school for hearing-impaired children, a school for the visually impaired and a kindergarten. Today, there is a restaurant, and upstairs there are offices for rent.

We entered the restaurant, and were immediately impressed with its rich, but subtle decor. Inside are stone walls, with arches, and niches with tables. The crystal chandeliers over the tables cast pretty rainbows on the white tableclothes. After we were seated, the waitress came over to me and opened my napkin onto my lap (this was a service only for the ladies - Ellis wasn't treated to this special pampering!). We were brought our menus and ordered our dinner and wine.

When the waitress brought our wine, she did something that we've never seen before - after opening the bottle of Chardonnay, and sniffing the top, she poured a little bit of wine into a glass, turned around and tasted it, and then poured the wine for us, after she was satisfied that the wine was good. She left the top on a small plate on the table next to Ellis.

While we were waiting for our first course of Spinach Salad with Chicken Fillet, we were served warm bread with a home-made special cheese, which was very good. The salad arrived, and was every bit as good as it looked.

For our main course, we ordered the day's special - roast lamb fillet served on a puree of potatoes and mashed eggplant. The lamb was sliced in thin slices, and was done to perfection. One thing that surprised us, and is in contradiction to service in most Bulgarian restaurants - when our main course was served, it was brought out by 2 waiters, who came around to each of us, looked at each other, and put the plates in front of us at exactly the same moment - very professional!

For dessert, Ellis had chocolate cake with apples, while I had homemade ice cream from pears and pomegranates - excellent, and very refreshing!

This was certainly one of the best meals we've had in Bulgaria (actually, some of our best meals have been in Varna). And the big surprise was the fact that, despite the excellent food and the high level of service, the price was no higher than a nice meal in a regular restaurant.

We discovered afterwards, that Acant Rouge was selected by Premium Lifestyle Magazine as its "2010 Best Restaurant of the Year" - a prize we agree that they totally deserve.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Malls of Sofia

When we first arrived in Sofia, there were two malls in the city. The larger mall "Mall of Sofia" was in the city center, and the second, smaller mall "City Center Sofia", is right near our apartment.

We visit "our" mall quite frequently - mainly we go to the supermarket on the lower floor for most of our grocery shopping. There are 2 restaurants that we like, my hairdresser is there, and of course, the cinema. Most of the shops are international designer shops, and the prices are high, and we don't usually shop there. We see shops with a couple of sales personel, but very rarely do we see shoppers inside. We've often wondered how these shops keep in business, since Bulgarian salaries are not high, and we don't understand who can afford the high prices.

We've also noticed that there are a certain number of types of shops that are missing from Bulgarian malls, that you would find in most malls in Israel - for instance, a home improvement shop where you can get everything from paint and hardware to kitchen ware and furniture. Another shop that is missing, is office/art supplies. Although Bulgaria does have their own chains of these stores, they are never to be found in the malls.

Last spring, a new, and bigger mall opened - "Serdika", which was even larger than the mall downtown. As soon as this mall opened, we started noticing that our mall was less crowded, and slowly but surely, a number of shops started closing. And two months after "Serdika" opened, "The Mall" ,the newest, and biggest mall opened on the road on the way to the airport. And more shops closed in our mall....

I can't help but wonder if Sofia really needs all these large, unaffordable malls that all carry the same expensive imported merchandise, and which the average Bulgarian can't afford. There's really no difference between one mall and the other, they just keep getting bigger. And if the 4 malls that already exist aren't enough, today's morning news announced that within the next 2 years, there are plans to open up to 3 more malls - each one being even bigger than the previous one.......

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Old Ruins On Our Street

I had noticed them before, but only recently did I have a chance to visit the old ruins on our street. This is an archaeological site about four blocks down. I haven't a clue what was here, or when, but my feeling is that this was a church. There is a large central hall and two covered graves, which made me immediately think of sarcophagi.

On one of my walks I noticed a large group of people, both young and old, cleaning away the weeds and garbage from these ruins. It is now very clean there, so obviously somebody knows more than I about the historical significance of these ruins.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lonely Planet: Visit Bulgaria in 2011

Lonely Planet Magazine has named Bulgaria as one of the top ten countries to visit in 2011. The selection was made at the same time Lonely Planet chose Tel Aviv as one of the top cities to visit next year.

According to the magazine, "Bulgaria sometimes feels like the odd guy out in this corner of Europe. But things are changing. Now proudly part of the 21st-century EU, Bulgaria has enjoyed more attention – and self confidence. Its ski slopes are de facto destinations for Europeans looking for cheaper alternatives, empty patches of lovely Black Sea beaches can still be found, and its quietly brilliant wine industry is flourishing."

Other countries selected include Albania, Brazil, Panama, Japan, Italy, Syria, Tanzania and the unusual choices of Cape Verde and Vanuatu.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bulgarian Humor = Brazil's New President of Bulgarian Origins

Two Bulgarian sociologists discuss the effects of Dilma Rousseff's election as President of Brazil on the Bulgarian-Brazilian relations.

"I think Dilma Rousseff's election will make Brazil more popular in Bulgaria, and we will therefore observe an increased number of Bulgarians eager to emigrate to Brazil."

"Are you crazy? How do you imagine that any person would decide to leave a country where the rulers are Bulgarian only to go to another country where the rulers are Bulgarian?!"

From the Sofia News Agency.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Another View of Autumn