A weekend in Sofia

A weekend in Sofia

From Nuremberg to Sofia with Wizzair

Wizzair FlugzeugFor some time there is a fly from Nuremberg to Sofia offered by Wizzair. So what is more obvious than visiting this unknown city? Said, booked. 

Wizzair has really strict hand luggage rules, that is why I decided to book the „plus“-ticket, which allows a normal hand luggage of 56 x 45 x 25 cm and and a checked baggage. At the airport I have seen, that the staff strictly controlled the rules. Wizzair is the only airline I know, that names „normal hand luggage“ as small. For this reason my oneway flight costed 70 €, quite much for a one way flight with a low cost carrier.  Anyway…

My flight started fridays at 4 p.m. and 2 hours later I arrived in Sofia. One hour time difference included I was at 7 p.m. in Sofia. As always, low cost carriers do not land at the top terminals of airports. So it came, that the aircraft landed at Terminal 1 of Sofia airport. Well, terminal 1 seems to be the stepchild of Sofia airport. The arrival part of the terminal is a bit rundown and neglected. There is at least a small cafeteria and one ATM, which was well attended. The only possibility to get Bulgarian Leva easily.

Just behind the customs area were the taxi-guys waiting, the internet warned me of. Because I was informed, I knew that the only trustworthy taxis wait at the official taxi stand.  My plans were different, anyway.

By subway into the city centre

For some time there goes a subway – the metro line 1 – from the airport into the centre and back. Well prepared as I was, I knew that I just had to enter the metro and leave it after 13 stations. So much for the theory. Unfortunately I occasionally make the mistake, that I don`t care at which terminal I arrive. You might guess it – the subway goes from the good terminal – terminal 2. Not at the stepchild terminal 1. No problem, after googling, I figured out, that there is a free shuttle-bus to Terminal 2. In the meantime I talked to some other people and it turned out, that the shuttle goes only until 6:30 p.m. We were at the official bus stopp of line 84 and it seemed, that this bus also goes to Terminal 2. 

The bus arrived and 5 Germans wanted to buy a ticket – each with a 50 Leva note, which is worth approx. 25 €, for a bus ticket that costs 1.6 Leva.  The bus driver was in a hurry and he also said (as far as I understood his gesture) that he has no change. Ok, just until terminal 2 – we stayed on the bus. After a while of starring on google maps we became aware, that we are not going to another terminal – we were driving into the centre. That was not planned, but nevertheless the bus went into the right direction. Finally we went until the last stopp Sofia university without any ticket. At the subway station the machines didn´t accept banknotes or credit cards too, but there was a ticket desk. Happy end. So I went just two last stopps until Opalchenska by subway. From there I had to walk ten minutes until my hotel.

Best Western Plus Bristol Sofia

I booked an affordable 4* hotel close to the centre of Sofia. The name of the hotel is Best Western Plus Bristol. It is very convenient, the room is ok, the bed was great, Wifi is good, but the breakfast was not my taste. All in all I have been happy with my choice.

On tour in Sofia

In the evening I took my camera and explored a bit the city… and talented like I am… I just walked through a nationalist demonstration close to the church „Sveta Petka Samardzhiyska“ – directly through the Square of Religious Tolerance with Banya Bashi Mosque – where am I?

But ok, the demonstration was very little. Later I was impressed by the exposed ruins of the old, historic roman settlement Serdica, which was just released in April 2016.

roman settlement Serdica

On Saturday I walked the whole day through the city of Sofia. For me, this is a part of exposing a city: walking, walking, walking – looking around the next corner and maybe around the next one too.  My pedometer counted more than 30.000 steps for this day. Most of the time I was in the area between Mall of Sofia and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Some places I crossed maybe three times, but I also saw very interesting things. Actually my plan was to visit the „Position Chrome Label Night“ in the Club Mixtape 5 – but I was to tired in the end.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the main sights in Sofia.

Because I was walking through the city centre the whole Saturday, I considered some excursions for Sunday. First I went (again through the city) to Sense Hotel. which is close to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The reason why I went there is the rooftop bar in  the 9th floor from where you have a fantastic view on the cathedral and the whole city.

Little side note: Between 11 and 12 a.m. there is no food to get at the restaurant. To late for breakfast, to early for lunch.

My next destination should have been Vitosha mountains to enjoy the view on Sofia. The lift Simeonovo up on the mountain works only Saturdays and Sundays – actually perfect for me – but the mountains disappeared in the clouds. I had to find a plan B. So I went by subway from  Sofia university until GM Dimitrov. Here I visited the museum for social arts. The visit took not as much time as expected and the mountain was still in the clouds. So go on with plan B. I went by metro until Sofia Business Park, where I was lost. Going to the mountain did not make sense, so I decided to go to the national historic museum, to experience more of the Bulgarian history. But far and wide the was no taxi.

With a little help of google I found a bulgarian website, which showed me routes for the public transport. This website was a bit complex and slow, but in combination with copy and paste to google maps it was possible to find the bus I needed. With line 111 I went for approx. 20 minutes via the ring-motorway until the museum.

National Historic Museum Sofia

The building of the national historic museum is very interesting and has a clearly socialist architectural style. It was the residence of the former president Todor Schiwkow. But also at this museum I was a bit faster than expected. The building is impressive but a bit run-down. It looks larger from the outside and I was unhappy, that you never get to the windows to enjoy the view on Sofia, which could have been great from this place.

The circus in Sofia. My next possible thing to do in Sofia was the circus. Right. The circus. I passed it already on Saturday and thought, this would be the perfect finish for my Sofia trip. So I went by Tram to Russian Monument Square and from here some meters walking until the park Vuzrajdane where the Circus Sofia resided. But unfortunately – no show today. That`s not much good. I went to the hotel, pack my bags for Athens.

My hotel surprised me on the last positive again: Due to the very early flight, they prepared breakfast to go for me, called a cab accepting credit cards and printed my ticket. Thanks to Best Western Plus Bristol, Sofia! (what a name!)

By taxi to Sofia airport

Much to early I had to leave the hotel on Monday morning, so I had no choice but taking a taxi to the airport – and I am enthusiastic. The hotel called the taxi at 4:30 and it arrived 3 minutes later. The driver did not speak english, but understood, that I wanted to go to terminal 1 at Sofia airport. Driving through the city I wasn`t sure if he is going the right way, but on the urban motorway I realized that he is a good guy. We drove with 140 km/h over the empty streets and after 15 minutes I arrived at the airport – at the right terminal. Also the price was surprising. I had often read, that a ride by taxi to the airport took approx. 10 € and so I expected a bit more for my nightly tour. But noway. The taximeter showed 14.07 Lev – a bit more than 7 €. So I could easily pay cash with my last 15 Lev.

The departure hall of terminal 1 in Sofia. Terminal 1 was really crowded, Ryanair was totally right with the request to come 2-3 hours earlier. In the end I needed 20 minutes until security check. My big advantage was, that I had no luggage to check in. Otherwise, I would have had to queue two times.

Until 10 minutes before departure of the aircraft there where still people running to come with us… and in contrast to an earlier personal Ryanair experience – they all got the flight.

Sofia – my impression

Sofia made a really interesting impression on me. On the one hand the city is still run-down – on the walkway outside the centre you cannot look on your iphone while walking – you would break your legs. Many houses are in a really bad condition. On the other side, you enjoy the full power of a developing metropolis in Eastern Europe with at least 1.2 ml inhabitants.

There are some shopping malls in Sofia and in the real centre there are some nice historic buildings renovated. I dread to think, how it may look, if the city comes to money at one time. The boulevard „Vitosha“ is a beautiful long and broad shopping street, which is full of life on a Saturday. Walking through the side streets you see many old houses, waiting to come back to life again.  There are also a lot parkways, old villas, needing more than just new color. But there are also many housing blocks, which seemed to be in a bad condition.

Sofia is the perfect place for a(n) (extended) weekend trip:

  • There is a lot to explore.
  • The live in the city of Sofia is really cheap in comparison to Germany.
  • It is easy to get there.
Vitosha mountains
The Vitosha mountains would be one of my next tours in Bulgaria.

I will visit Sofia or Bulgaria again. When I was there, several trips came to my mind, like Rila Monastery and Boyana church, Plovdiv and Bachkovo or mount vitosha. Bulgaria is not only old housing blocks, but there is a lot to see and explore. And also in Sofia there might be more to see, than I explored within the two days of my stay.

But now I`m going to Athens 😉

5 days Athens – there is a lot to see

5 days in Athens

Day one: Overview first – mount Lykabettus

A bit to early for my need I flew in the morning from Sofia to Athens with  Ryanair. The coffee was more expensive than on the Wizzair flight, but the ticket was cheaper, due to traveling only with hand luggage.

Greece welcomed me with a storming sun rise – looks like there is still a bit summer for me. Yes.

sun rise greece

Landed at Eleftherios-Venizelos-airport in Athens I chose to go by subway  line 3 into the city centre. The ticket cost 10 € one way – which is quite expensive when you have been to Sofia a day before. There is also a roundtrip ticket, but this is only valid for three days.

You can buy a ticket at the ticket desk or at the ticket machine. Just follow the „trains“ sign until a round hall.

By the way: A ticket is worth buying it – just in the train, the ticket inspectors showed up and catched some guys without a ticket.

In the subway I realized, that the weekend was over – I left the relaxed-weekend-Sofia behind me and started into a squirrelly Monday-morning-Athens. The subway was crowded and it took 45 minutes until Syntagma-square (ΣΥΝΤΑΓΜΑ). Meanwhile it was perceptible warmer than in Sofia. 9 a.m. 17 degrees.

My hotel in Athens – this times just a three start hotel – the Best Western Museum Hotel Athens – is located approx. 1.8 km in the north of Syntagma-square. Just a 20 minutes walk – I had enough time in the morning.  First I crossed the large Panepistimiou street and then some smaller streets. The area is not very noble, but acceptable. Seems to be more an alternative region with many grafiti/streetart and lots of shabby houses.

My impression of the hotel was positive – to my surprise they had a room for me although it was just 10 a.m. The room was ok, good bed, a little balkony with a view to the national archaeological museum. Only the shower was really to small for a bit larger individuals like me. I hate being touched by the shower curtain.

Mount Lykabettus – overlooking Athens

Mount Lykabettus
The city hill of Athens overlooks the whole town.

Close to my hotel is mount lykabettus, the city hill of Athens. I read that I can see the whole city from this hill, so I decided to walk up. There are several tracks up, finally they all end 277m above sea level. With in the meantime 20 degrees it is a sweating issue going up to Lykabettus, but it is worth it. It is also possible to go up by cable car, which starts at Ploutarchou street, but walking is nicer

On the top you have a fabulous view on Athens and the sea at the horizon – and there is a restaurant (and a church). Good opportunity to have some greek food. The moussaka was very delicious and the greek beer is also acceptable.

View on Akropolis
On Lykabettus you have a great view on the Akropolis.

On the other side of the mountain I went down, crossing the German embassy, the „War-Museum“ and the „Byzantine and Christian Museum„. I was strolling a bit through the national garden, which is the right place for you, when you want to feed rabbits, goats or ducks – or just relax in the shadow. Within the national garden is also the beautiful Zappeion, which is an event location, hosting currently the „Athens Xclusive Designers Week„. From Lykabettus I also saw the Panathenaic Stadium, which was supposed to be my next destination. Unfortunately I arrived at the Olympieion.

Akropolis Ticket Package
The Akropolis ticket package: 30 € for 7 museums.

Here I bought a ticket package for Olympieion, Akropolis and several further museums for 30 €. Knowing that just the Akropolis tickets costs 20 €, I thought this must be a good deal. But it wouldn`t have been necessary to visit  Olympieion – just walk to the arch of Hadrian – from there you have a view through the fence on Olympieion. I guess this will be enough – except you are an archaeologist. 

Panathenaic Stadium – where olympia began

Good – what I really wanted to see, was Panathenaic Stadium – so I started my second try. The Panathenaic Stadium is the first olympic stadium of the modern times. It has been reconstructed in the 19th century and been used for the first olympic games of modern times in 1896. This impressive building is made completely of marble.  The entrance was 5 € (of course not included in my ticket package…) and really was worth it. There is a free audioguide included in several languages.

Day 2 – Up to Akropolis

Hadrians library
Colorful vases are existing much longer than I thought.

On Tuesday I started to Akropolis, on foot, as yesterday. On my way I visited Hadrian’s library and the Agora, both were included in my ticket package in both were on my way. Well, Hadrian’s library is again such a place, where a short view through the fence is enough, but I had the ticket, so I went in and at least, there was a small house on the area with some exhibits, that surprised me.  History from this epoch had for me alway just this light, colorlessness and consisted of pillars and chalices. Now I know – also in this times they had colorful dishes. Not changing anything, but still interesting.

Also the Agora contained a lot of interesting exhibits. The most surprising exhibits for me were toy-horses from 400 b.c. Maybe obvious, but for me new and interesting. (In my latin lessons there where never toys, always just pillars and vases.

akropolis Athens

My next station was the really omnipresent and impressive Akropolis. Considering the tools and the state of the art, when all this was built, it is even more impressive.

Be careful walking on top of Akropolis, it is very slippy at some places there – when it`s raining, you should really where good shoes. But I was lucky, also day two was a more or less sunny day. So I decided to relax a bit on the Areopagus aka Mars hill. Really a good place to chill a bit in the sun and think of the Romans, Greeks and gods.

Finding a rooftop bar in Athens

In the evening I started again into the city because I wanted to see the illuminated sights and also I was looking for a roof top bar with a great view to Akropolis.  I figured out some places and my first try was the Bios – no typical cocktail bar, but a cultural centre with a bar on the roof top. After arriving there, I had to accept, that the terrace was closed. So I had a beer and continued to the 360 cocktail bar. The 360 was open, but they didn`t want to spent a whole table with view for only one guest. I was there for the view, not for the bar, so I left to the 100 meters away bar „A for Athens„. Good decision. From here I had not only a view on Akropolis, but also on the 360 bar 😉 I had a greek beer for 7 € and received a friendly smile as always when I ordered explicit a greek beer.

I took some pictures and left looking for a night club. Most of the nightlife seems to be in Glyfada – but this was to far for me at night. I was happy to find to bars close. The first one was the Six dogs, and the second was the Boiler. At the end I entered non of them, because it was obviously not much in there. Maybe I was to early, to late or it was just to Tuesday.

Wednesday – time for the beach of Athens and a bit culture

The weather forecast said wednesday will be the last sunny day in the week, so I decided to go to the beach – logic, doesn`it?

Lets go to the beach in Athens

The best way to the beach is with the tram line 5 from Syntagma square writes every travel guide. No sooner said than done. At Syntagma square it is not so easy to find the tram, because it is not crossing the square, it is just starting there – and the square is large. After some minutes I saw the tram at the corner of Othonos and Syntagma square. From here the Tram line 5 goes every 15 minutes to Glyfada. You can buy tickets at the ticket desk or at the ticket machine for 1.40 € one way. You should by 2-3 tickets in advance(I tell you later why). The tram was already there, so I entered it immediately. Unfortunately there are no stampers to validate the tickets in the tram. Therefor I left the tram after 2 stations again to validate my ticket. The first stamper didn`t work, the second did – but to long for the tram. I had to wait 15 minutes for the next tram – at least I could use my time meaningful to explain to a british family that they have to validate their tickets 😉

The next tram arrived and I enjoyed the ride following the coast until the last station Glyfada. In Glyfada i had the feeling, that I`m 3 months to late – maybe also 30 Years to late. Contrary to my expectations there were not 20 open beach clubs waiting for me. After some minutes of looking around I found the entrance of the „S Beach“ club, some meters towards Athens.  The club was open and they had sun beds.  What they didn`t had were towels. After one hour in the sun, I really wanted to go into the sea and I really wanted to have a towel. Difficult task. I was walking through the streets of Glyfada searching for a towel. No way. In the shops I could listen to „Last christmas“ by Wham, but not buying any swimming equipment. After 30 minutes I decided to stopp my search and go back to Edem by tram. In Edem I was lucky, and a Pakistani was lucky too. He had towels, I had some money. I bought the most ugly towel he had for 7 €, with my last cash and went swimming – finally. The sea was still warm, I guess 22 degrees.

Going back from Edem to downtown was more difficult than I expected… From Edem are several tram lines going to the city, but I needed a new ticket. The ticket machine in EDEM ate my last coins. It just get stuck in the coin slot. One beside the other one (!!) – i was surprised this is even possible. The second machine was out of order.  So I decided to walk to the next station, but here the machine only accepted 5 or 10 € notes. I just got four 20 € notes from the ATM. Ok, I decided to go to the next and buy a coke on the way to get some coins. Next station, next problem. The machine did not accept my 2 € coin, because it was out of change… I never went without paying a ticket with such a good feeling like this day.

Royal Orchestra Concertgebouw Amsterdam in Megaron Athens

Megaron concert hall Athens
Why not some culture during the stay in Athens? The Royal Orchestra Concertgebouw Amsterdam played in Megaron concert hall.

For the evening I wanted some culture. I read online, that the Royal Orchestra Concertgebouw Amsterdam is playing a concert at the Athens concert hall Megaron this evening.

I would have bought a ticket already at the beach, but my bank wanted a TAN by me for the purchase with Visa online. So I had to go to the evening box office. Getting a ticket was easy, the concert hall was maybe filled with 90%.

The orchester played excerpts from operas written by Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg under the direction of Daniele Gatt. For me it was a great pleasure to listen and in same time enjoy a cultural event in a foreign country.  Good music, good atmosphere, great evening.

Thursday – view, view, view

On Thursday I started relayed. The weather was not very good, 17 degrees,  cloudy and not much more. My first way led me again close to Akropolis. I had lunch at the roof top of „Thissio View“ with a perfect view on the Akropolis  – also eating with my eyes 😉 I was not in the mood to visit another museum, so I found the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center would be a good destination to go.

Visiting the SNFC Center in Athens

The bus line B2 should bring me there, but there was no ticket machine to find. The bus-driver also did not sell tickets. I was walking two stations – always looking for a ticket machine. Then I decided to take the bus. I read in a blog, that many people in Athens go by bus without paying – I assume, that at least tourists would buy a ticket if somebody sold some.

The idea to go to Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center was a real stroke of luck for me. There is a beautifully landscaped park going up with  a slight incline until you are 20-30 meters above sea level. In the park are  smells of herbs and before you can turn around you are on eye level with Akropolis, skyscrapers and Lykabettus. The entrance is free and you have a surround view on Athens and Piraeus. There is also an art exhibition and – if art is nothing for you – also a telescope, to observe ships. 😉 

snfcc national opera athens
Finished in 2016: The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center is worth a visit. Really.

And when I was up there, I asked myself what is under my feet? Since 2016 the greek national opera and the greek national library is located in this impressive building.

My recommendation: Go there, have a look, it is quite new.

In the evening I wanted to go to cinema, but this story is told very fast. There were – according to google maps – a cinema was supposed to be – was no cinema.

Parade, Piraeus, postcards

The Oxi day parade in Athens

Friday, my last full day in Athens.  The 28th of October is national holiday in Greece. On the so called „Oxi-day“ is celebrated, that an ultimatum by Mussolini in ww2 was answered with No – „Oxi“.

On this day there are parades in the whole country with school-classes, sport clubs, scouts, military and everybody who is able to march. Of course  I was curious and wanted to visit the parade. After a delicious breakfast in a little street cafe I was at Syntagma-square at 10 a.m. The square was already closed for cars and the vip tribune was ready. At this occasion I viewed the change of the guards again.

The streets were lined with police and step by step the audience arrived. I settled in my personal tribune – a bus station towards the Amalia hotel – and waited for the start of the parade. Just in time at 11 a.m. the parade started, leaded by a brass band delegations of different schools marched in school uniform to Syntagma square. A big highlight were the officials and the teachers trying to keep the children in rank and file 😉  The parade was not so highly frequented – I guess only relatives off the marching children were joining, giving some applause when their relatives where crossing. The only exception, when everybody – even the police –  was clapping, was when disabled children were marching past them. Really friendly gesture.

The parade took just 30 minutes and after that everybody left very fast. In the evening I saw on the greek TV, that at other cities the parades were a bit larger. In Thessaloniki there was held a real military parade including F-16 jets, helicopters and paratroopers. The TV report in the normal news took 10 minutes…

Visiting Piraeus in October

I expected the parade in Athens to take more time or at least that there is more to see in the city on a national holiday, but the city was really empty.   On the other hand, no surprise, it was a long weekend and a good opportunity for a short holiday trip. I decided to solve my problem by going to Piraeus. With subway line M1 I went to Piraeus last stop for 1.40 €. (subway tickets are sold with machines, that also have change 😉 In Piraeus I did wrong what you can do wrong when you visit a city you do not know. My mistake was, to expect a nice city centre close to the last stop of the metro. But around of this stop was only a large industrial harbor for ferries and big ships. Uninformed as I was, I walked just along the harbor, expecting some nice places to come. But nothing came. I was following the Akti Miaouli road until I saw the sea. But there was only fenced harbor-area. I turned back and then I noticed 2 marine ships and a submarine surrounded by some people. So I went there and surprise, surprise: National holiday = open submarine at the greek marine. I decided to line up for the submarine, because it is not so often possible to visit a real one. The only submarine I ever visited so far is the technical museum U-995 in Laboe, Germany.

submarine in Piraeus
Rare opportunity: Visiting a greek submarine in Piraeus harbor.

The queue was not that long, but into a submarine fit not much people. After one hour of waiting I entered the submarine. One of the officers noticed that I do not understand greek, so I got a private guided tour in English. Very polite. Of course I was not allowed to take pictures on board, but everybody who has seen „the hunt for red October“ knows how it looks in a submarine. Afterwords I also visited the other boats, but nothing is as impressive as a submarine.

If I had informed me before wandering through Piraeus, I could also have found some nice touristic places in Piraeus – e.g.

  • Zéa Marína, the largest greek yacht marina with luxury yachts from all over the world.
  • Mikrolímano / Turkolímano, a fishing harbor surrounded by several restaurants and
  • the museum harbor

After this I went back to the city centre with the subway. Than I remembered what I forgot so far. Postcards. I bought them already, but I needed also stamps. On the web I read that a lot of the small shops / kiosks sell stamps – well, no one of the shops I visited had stamps. They all said: „go to the post office.“ I found a post office, but due to national holiday it was closed. And there were no stamp machines, which I was hoping on. So I buy some on the airport or never.

From Athens City center to the airport by bus on a Saturday morning

On Saturday it was time to go home to Nuremberg. My flight to Zurich started at 6:30 a.m. – a taxi seemed for me alone to expensive, so I decided to take the airport bus X95, which goes every 15 minutes. So at latest at 4:30 a.m. I should take the bus to be at the airport at 5:30 a.m.

Like the trams also the X95 Bus leaves at Syntagma square. My alarm clock was set on 3:40 a.m. – I had to leave the hotel at 4:05 a.m. The walk to Syntagma square took 20 minutes, that I was just in time at 4:25 at syntagma square to get the bus. Arriving at the square I had the same problem like on Wednesday with the tram to Glyfada. Everywhere is written, that the bus is leaving at the square, but nobody writes where the bus exactly leaves.

The bus should have left at 4.25 & at 4.40; so I could have reached the 4.25 bus, but there are 2 bus stops at the square. I was in time – at the wrong bus stop. I just saw the bus leaving.

x95 bus from syntagma square to Athens Airport "Eleftherios Venizelos"
Where to buy the ticket for the Athens airport bus on Saturday morning? At the ticket desk on the left in the picture.

But ok, thats why I planned to be 15 minutes earlier at the Syntagma square. But there are also good news. The ticket desk was open at this Saturday morning. A one way ticket from Syntagma square to Athens airport costs 6 € (October 2016). The 4:40 bus arrived in time so every body could get on the bus relaxed. The bus left with 2-3 minutes delay, because all the time there are more people coming. The bus passed the Hilton Hotel and also the Megaron concert hall. On the way to Eleftherios Venizelos airport the bus stops approx. 10 times. People who get in the bus after Syntagma square can buy their tickets on the bus. The traffic on a Saturday morning is not important for the bus, what really took time were the people who got on the bus and bought a ticket there. But all in all the bus needed just 50 minutes for the way to the airport. The bus arrived at the airport around 5:35 – from here I needed just 15 minutes to the gate – but I traveled only with hand luggage.

The machine to Zurich left 20 minutes to late and due to this I missed my flight in Zurich, what resulted in 4 hours delay in Nuremberg.