Monday, 15 July 2013

Pivotal times in Sofia, Bulgaria

When I arrived in Sofia a couple of weeks ago, I was given two pieces of advice from the lady renting me the apartment.

The first thing she said was, 'Be careful of gypsies.' After a quick double-take, I wondered if I'd wandered into a horror movie where the naive heroine is warned (usually about something wince-inducingly politically incorrect) by a well-meaning but menacing crone. 'Beware the curse of the full moon...'

The second thing she said was, 'Don't worry about protest. Is like big beer party.'

Tsar Osvoboditel by twilight. Image © Anita Isalska
I knew in the run-up to my travels in Bulgaria that protests were in full swing, demanding the resignation of the Socialist Party government and pushing for reforms (and they're continuing to protest as I write) but there didn't seem to be any cause for concern.

Sofia Public Mineral Baths. Image © Anita Isalska
Protests take on a different sheen in other countries. I'd happily march for a cause on home turf, but distance naturally muddies our ability to take the political temperature. At the back of my mind, I wondered whether I should avoid Sofia centre after dark, or steer clear of the protests.

Saint Sofia gazes down over bul Todor Alexandrov. Image © Anita Isalska
When I first heard the protest approaching, it was a loud musical hum, accompanied by the cheering you'd expect at a football match. When crowds of people marched to the crossroads at Serdika in the city centre, late in the evening, they were waving flags, holding hands with sweethearts, bouncing toddlers on their shoulders. The 'beer party' comparison from the apartment owner suddenly made sense. And it felt like the change had already happened; the mood of the crowd was triumphant, as if change would inevitably come.

The splendid Alexander Nevsky cathedral. Image © Anita Isalska
But aside from a few blurry pictures of crowds walking calmly at twilight, there isn't a single snap of unrest on my camera. In fact the most unruly mob I came across in the Bulgarian capital was probably this lot. You know what travellers are like at the prospect of a freebie:

I'd highly recommend this free walking tour if you're in the city. Image © Anita Isalska 
It felt like a privilege to see part of a turning of the tide in Bulgaria. Everyone I met, in Sofia and beyond, was eager that international reporting of the protests didn't drive away visitors - I found it a fascinating time to explore the city and speak with locals (although of course, always check your government's travel advice before planning a trip).

Glorious wide boulevards and blue skies in Sofia. Image  Image © Anita Isalska
Barring any huge escalation of the situation in Bulgaria, which currently looks unlikely, the protests are no reason to avoid a visit.

Now, the curse of the full moon, on the other hand...

Read more about Eastern Europe in my article for Lonely Planet, Seven startling sights of Eastern Europe.

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