“Dobro utro. Iskate li da tancuvame?” we say to the waiter in the Hilton Sofia breakfast room, having learnt a few phrases before arriving in the Bulgarian capital the night before. This is supposed by us to mean “Good morning. Pleased to meet you”, but we have jumbled up our phrases and later realise it actually means “Good morning. Would you like to dance with me?”
The waiter is young, tall, stylish and groomed, and unperturbed. “Good morning,” he replies in smooth English. “Would you like to sit inside or out on the terrace? It’s nice and sunny.” Need we have tried to impress, when English is the lingua franca of the globalised world, even the wild and wooly Balkans of legend?
We have driven down from Budapest, a solid 10-hour trip after losing considerable time at the Serbian and Bulgarian borders, clogged with August holidaymakers and “guest workers” from Germany returning to Turkey for a break.
In the cavernous Hilton Sofia lobby, men and women of the world are checking in or out. Airline crews and travellers are shuttled to and from the airport on the hotel bus. If they are going to London, New York, Berlin or Tokyo, four large Swiss clocks in the lobby give the times there.
The receptionist installs us in an executive room, immaculate with plenty of space holding a Hilton Serenity king-size bed, desk and ergonomic chair, on the top floor of the imposing nine-storey hotel. Thoughtfully, they have given us a room with a view: down below is the expansive South Park, then a kilometre or so of city buildings, and finally, right there on the outskirts of the city, right there in front of you, the long and high Vitosha mountain, one of the defining features of Sofia.
We learn another Bulgarian phrase: “Vitosha izglezhda prekrasno”, or “Vitosha looks wonderful”. The mountain is just 15 minutes by car from downtown and is a nature reserve with ski slopes in winter, and thus a popular weekend getaway for city dwellers.
We also learn that above our ceiling on the Hilton roof are four beehives, tended by the chairman of the Bulgarian Organic Beekeeping Association, and the source of the honeycomb alongside the fresh fruit, cereals, smoked herring and Bulgarian cheeses and meats in the breakfast room.
A chef cooks eggs to order while you wait, the waitress brings freshly squeezed orange or grapefruit juice and cappuccino, and, all in all, sitting on the terrace in the pleasant August sun, reading the Sofia Morning News, is a good start to a day in an unknown city, contemplating what the hours ahead will bring.
Hilton Sofia has half a dozen bikes that are free to use for guests, and we wobble off over the informally named ”bridge of the lovers”, a pedestrianised walkway with an outdoor art display, on the 10-minute ride to the city’s oustanding attraction, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The gold-domed Orthodox church is truly impressive and can hold 10,000 people.
The National Theatre, Yablansky House, Central Military Club, Lions’ Bridge, Central Bath and Central Market Hall are some others among Sofia’s architectural attractions, plus a goodly supply of parks and fountains.
Back at the Hilton Sofia they are celebrating their 15th anniversary, which helps explain the surprise Lava Red wine put in our room, from Damianitza winery down by the Greek border. This tantalises the tastebuds and we head down to the Artists Bar, with another sunny terrace, to enjoy a Singapore Sling (nine ingredients) and a Leonardo da Vinci cocktail containing gin, Blue Curacao, Cointreau, Sprite and fresh lemon. There are also wines from Bulgaria’s Thracian Valley and Zagorka beer, founded in 1902, from the city of Stara Zagora but now owned by the Dutch concern Heineken.
It is time for some Bulgarian food and in the hotel’s Seasons restaurant we sample Eggs a la Panaghuriste, a dish of poached eggs with local sirene white cheese, yoghurt and paprika.
The Hilton is one of the city’s premium hotels, with a beauty salon, 24-hour gym and heated indoor pool, and we have enjoyed our weekend in Bulgaria’s capital, but we must leave to explore more of the country; after which we hope we can say “Az haresvam Bulgaria”, or “I love Bulgaria”, not to be confused with “Tazi dama šte plati za vecerta” (“The lady will pay for everything”) or “Korabãt mi na v’zdyšna vãzglavnica e pãlen sãs zmiorki” (“My hovercraft is full of eels”).
1 Bulgaria Boulevard, Sofia