Our late return the previous night from Plovdiv meant that, as a group, we slept in a little. By the time we did all get up and processed through something resembling a morning routine, it was time to check out of the hostel. Jacqueline and I each left our bags in the luggage room, but the others opted to take theirs with them.
We broke our fast in a small bakery shop beneath the hostel, as we had been saying we would do for largely our whole trip. Some of the group shared in some pastries, but I had a large slice of their pizza. We took our time, there was no great rush to get going that morning. When we were ready, we walked down the street to the Serdika Metro station to catch a train towards the edge of the town. We went all the way to the end of line 2, the newer of the two lines in Sofia, and arose from the subterranean platforms to an unremarkable suburban intersection. Apparently, there would be a bus here to take us to our planned destination.
We eventually found our bus stop and waited here a while. The first bus that came wasn’t ours but it looked somewhat modern. Our bus was the second one, and it was a sight to behold. It was painted an ugly mustard yellow, as with many relics from Socialist Bulgaria, and it looked like it had seen continuous service since the 1970s. We climbed inside; unfortunately there were no locals around to copy, but found ourselves to the bench seating. The floor seemed to be a strange linoleum and the seats were old and worn. The engine of the bus was loud and seemed to struggle as the driver drove us towards the mountain and up increasingly steep and windy cobbled roads. All told, it was the kind of random off-the-beaten track where-are-we-going experience I love when on holiday.
We took the bus to the end of the line, a small carpark at the edge of the Torfeno Branishte, a large nature reserve encompassing the Vitosha mountains. Krittika and Paul asked the driver for directions from here, which led us up a steep and poorly maintained road through the forest. It wasn’t long before we found an old and non-operational ski-lift, which seemed to violate all of the possible EU safety standards. There were people skiing in March but they were much higher up the mountain and not starting their journeys from here.
We walked past an old restaurant by a mill and our path led us up a gully by a stream of fast flowing mountain water, which tasted beautiful compared to the filtered water from the tap in the hostel. We kept walking, and eventually we found ourselves at the gates of the Dragalevski Monastery. This was a beautiful place, we were able to freely walk inside and around the gardens. In the centre was a small chapel, smelling of incense, but around it was a well maintained garden with lots of blooming mountain flowers. Around the back, there were headstones of passed-on nuns of the monastery, each with a tree growing out of the grave. At this point a nun and her dog came out to do some gardening, reminding us that this was still a living place of worship. We sat down in a rotunda to listen to the bird calls of the forest and watch the monastery cat roll around the yard.
Soon it came time to leave, and so we smiled at the nun as we exited the gate to walk back down the mountain path. We stopped to fill up our water bottles with the fresh mountain water and then kept walking until we found ourselves back at the mill. The mill was now a restaurant and it was time for lunch, so we found ourselves seats outdoors in the warm sun. Lunch began as a mix of Bulgarian cheeses and soups, which were followed by rather earthy dishes that felt more like a home-cooked Bulgarian meal than a restaurant delicacy, which was pleasant given the surroundings. The place was quiet but well kept, and so we sat and enjoyed ourselves as we listened to the rushing water from the nearby stream.
It started to approach the hour, when we figured the bus would be leaving, and so we paid and left, to get to the bus minutes before it shut its doors to start its way along the route back into town. Eventually, we found ourselves at the metro station again, and on a train back into Serdika station in the heart of Sofia. Krittika told us that there was apparently a good souvenir shop at the national ethnographic museum, so we set of to find our way there. This was a little hard to find given the maps that we had, and our self-imposed diet of a lack of technology for the day, but we eventually figured (i.e. was directed) that was a side wing of the nearby National Art Gallery. Jacqueline and I left the others there to shop as we returned to the hostel to pick up our bags, but they had only just finished their purchases when we returned.
We stopped for afternoon tea at a nearby café, but the menu was not sufficient for our desires, and so Krittika suggested returning to the bakery we had been to on the first day. This was a short but now familiar walk away, and soon enough we found ourselves sitting in a small garden off a back alley. Here, I had a delicious three tiered carrot cake, whilst Annalise ate her way through a chocolate cake in the same time it took Jacqueline and Krittika to eat the equivalent amount combined. She then got to pat a dog sitting at a nearby table and was bouncing wall-to-wall for the rest of the afternoon.
As the afternoon waned, we left the shop and found ourselves a bench in the nearby park, again to watch all of the Bulgarians enjoying their public space. We had about an hour before the plane was due to leave, so we sat and enjoyed the sun (and got a little bit burnt due to our pale Cantabrigian skin). It was nice and warm to lie on the ground for a while and just soak in the last of Sofia.
Soon enough, the time came to head to the airport. The metro was only a short walk away and took us all the way to the airport to connect with a well timed shuttle bus to our terminal. Check in and security was straightforward as our flight was one of only a few leaving late that evening, and so we had much waiting around to do in the airport. Therefore we had time for a last minute bite to eat and a card game or two. When it came time to board, we were slowly piled on to a pair of airport busses for the 100 m distance to the plane itself. The busses then proceeded to loop around the airport, driving four times longer than they really needed to, but eventually we were happily on board the plane.
The flight home was largely uneventful. Jacqueline slept for most of the flight and Paul was sitting away for us so I was chatting to Annalise and Krittika for much of the 3 hour journey across the continent. Once in Stansted, we were some of the very few non-EU travellers, which made the security line much easier than when I had last been at the airport. It was then a short train journey back to Cambridge as we farewelled each other on the ride home for the first time in four action-packed and exciting days.