We wandered through the pot-holed streets of Sofia in our pyjamas. It was summer and the overnight train from Bucharest had been hot. Nothing was open, but lurid neon signs flashed “sex shop” and “strip show”. It was 5am, dark and only one flickering streetlight was working. Every shadow seemed like a threat and the Cyrillic signs more foreign to me than any South East Asian language.
My friend Anna and I just grunted at each other, the need for full sentences lost 3 countries before. We were tired. And hungry.
Anna had met Martin in Dubrovnik the year before. He now lived in the suburbs of Sofia teaching at a Hogwarts-style private school up in the pine-clad mountains surrounding the city. He was a good friend to have. In the centre of town, still under the cloak of darkness, he met us looking just as bleary-eyed and confused as we felt. We were his first guests in Bulgaria.
Right in the middle of all the pleasantries and greetings my stomach let out the long hollow moan of an empty chasm that’s only seem 45 minutes of jolted train-sleep.
“Hungry?” Martin asked, laughing.
I nodded through a sleepy daze.
“I know a place open this early,” Martin assured me.
I was so glad we met him, because we never would have found the little bakery by ourselves. Down a maze of side-streets and dilapidated buildings the glass case out on the street was crowded and fizzing with early morning life – a far cry from the shady area we had been met with around the train station. Golden pastry glistened under the fluorescent lights in the cabinet and the smell of fresh baking and cheese made my stomach do another noisy summersault in anticipation.
We fought our way to the front, taking no prisoners and Martin shouted our order in Bulgarian. Somewhere from the jungle of arms we were each handed a banitsa, Bulgarian cheese pie. Layers of flaky pastry with a salty white Bulgarian cheese in between, it had the taste of halloumi, but with the crumble of feta. As we munched, we wandered back to the centre of town where light started to creep into the streets and chased shadows to sulk in doorways. The banitsa left little grease stains on the paper napkins, but at 6am after an all-night train journey, it wasn’t the time for calorie
The sun rose over the golden domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the neon lights faded into daylight. With the sun shining and a full belly, Sofia was nothing like the Daily Mail fear-mongering would have us believe back in the UK.