…to whet your appetite.
On our very first morning in Sofia, Nick and I walked out to the main road to find a bank where we could change our money. But first we ran into a cooler, standing on the sidewalk, filled with cold beer. I think we both did a double take – is that 2 LITERS of beer for 3 leva? (A lev is worth 51 euro cents, or about 75-80 US cents. Do the math.) We knew we would be returning later when we required refreshment.
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And what goes better with beer than pizza?
Fortunately, pizza stands are as ubiquitous in Sofia as they are in New York. Obviously the pizza is very different – the crust is thick and pillowy, and most varieties incorporate sireneh (my keyboard doesn’t do Cyrillic, so I’m transliterating as best I can), the local cheese, which is made from goat’s or sheep’s milk and is quite similar to feta. The range of toppings is different, too. The one on the right in the above picture has corn on it, but we also saw slices with bits of hot dog and pickles (not on the same slice!). But the strangest thing was the condiments. Where in the states you would find Parmesan cheese, red pepper flakes, and dried herbs, the pizza stands in Bulgaria had ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise in large dispensers like a hot dog stand at a ballpark.
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Despite being located on the Black Sea, and speaking a language closer to Russian than Latin, Bulgaria’s cuisine has a heavy Mediterranean influence. They produce large amounts of wine, eat copious amounts of tomatoes, cucumbers, and yogurt, and many of their traditional dishes overlap with those of Greece and Turkey. So it should come as no surprise that there are gelato stands on nearly every street corner in Sofia.
In contrast to the gelato carts I’ve visited in France and Italy, the ones in Bulgaria display their wares piled high in what look like mountains of scoops of ice cream. They are also most often flavored with some kind of commercial candy or cookie – no straight-up chocolate, strawberry, or salted butter caramel here. But the scoops of Ferrero Rocher and Snickers gelato I ended up choosing still tasted pretty darn good in the 90 degree heat.
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After two days of poking around Sofia, visiting churches and admiring the icons within, we were ready for a side trip. We had been told by numerous people that the Rila Monastery was an absolute must-see. And they were right.
Tucked away in the mountains, a two and a half hour bus ride from Sofia, the monastery is a true gem. Like so many of Bulgaria’s important sights, it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Founded in the 10th century by Saint Ivan Rilski (aka John of Rila), it was burned down and abandoned several times before its reconstruction in 1335. The tower (between the dome of the church and the mountain in the photo) dates from this reconstruction. Being hidden deep in the mountains, the Rila Monastery was left alone for most of the five-century-long Ottoman occupation. The buildings as we see them today were built in the first half of the 19th century and painted by some of the most well-known Bulgarian artists of the period.
But what is there to eat there? Well, behind the monastery there are a number of snack bars and souvenir stands, as well as a proper restaurant. Not wanting to miss any photo opportunities, and having had a big breakfast, Nick and I opted for a couple of mekitzi – Bulgaria’s answer to the donut.
Served fresh and hot, these hit the spot. The crisp (if slightly greasy) exterior gave way to a pleasantly chewy crumb with just the faintest hint of sugar. I could have eaten a lot more of these, but the austere surroundings kept my gluttony in check.
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Speaking of gluttony, our last morning in Sofia was spent in search of the elusive banitsa. Supposedly a flaky, cheese-filled pastry served at breakfast, I had yet to try one (other than the doubtlessly mediocre specimens at the hotel buffet). Our guidebook had recommended the tearoom at the Grand Hotel Bulgaria, so we headed there in search of pastries. They had plenty of cakes, but no banitsa.
So I ordered a slice of Dobostorte instead. Neither Bulgarian nor breakfast pastry, but not bad. The pastry chef in me wanted a crunchy caramel slab on top instead of the caramel-soaked cake that was there, and seven layers instead of five, but the fact that the buttercream was real (i.e. smooth texture and buttery flavor) made me more forgiving about the other transgressions.
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With a handful of leva left to burn before our departure, we decided to stop into the Ale House, which looked to be a brewery. We had been eyeing the place but had been deterred previously by the odd setup: namely, you walk in and there is nothing but a staircase heading down. This time we went for it. Down and down the stairs spiraled until we reached the bottom where a bartender and three or four waitstaff were standing around in an empty, windowless restaurant. We sat down and menus were brought out, all in Cyrillic. Still not having mastered the language after four whole days, we just ordered some beers. The waiter pointed to the wall where a tap with a meter was installed. Awesome! He brought us mugs and Nick did the honors.
The counter measures liters - not, as I first thought, currency. The beer was tasty, but we were beginning to feel peckish. All out of energy for reading Bulgarian menus, we asked if they had something to snack on, like fried potatoes, miming eating French fries as we did so. The waiter said he could bring us some chips. We assumed he meant it in the British sense, but a few minutes later we were treated to a basket of hot, fresh-out-of-the-fryer potato chips!
Needless to say, they were delicious.
Originally published on Croque-Camille.