Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Sofia is quite a new capital and so isn't doted with many grand, historical buildings and monuments that one often expects of capital cities. Apart from a few museums and a couple of churches there isn't much to detain you in Sofia for long. The city's main sight isn't actually in the city, but towers over it. The Vitosha massif rises straight from the southern suburbs and reaches a respectable 2290m. Cable-cars get you a good chunk of the way up and the place is well-endowed with marked paths so it's highly popular with urbanites who go up en masse to escape the rat race, if at least only for a day. I did, nevertheless, stay for a while, partly due to the Monday Curse, and partly because I wanted to confront an obstacle that I have yet had to deal with whilst travelling in Europe, but which will become more common once in Asia: visas.

Even this dog didn't find much interesting about Sofia.

Since I will be spending winter in Iran I thought it best to start the application procedure early so that I could be sure to get my visa on time when I get to Turkey. I looked up the Iranian embassy's address online and headed off bright and early on Monday morning (as all the museums were closed anyway) with my paperwork tucked jauntily under my arm (well, actually in my backpack, but it sounds more poetic that way). The place turned out to be abandoned: no-one was answering the doorbell, no plaque on the wall and nothing but a tatty old sheet of photocopied A4, giving office hours, on the front door indicating a Persian presence. So I hurried off to an internet cafe in order to call them and see if there was maybe a special holiday I was unaware of. Neither of the 3 numbers I found worked. I was not impressed. Whilst at the tourist information office I asked them if they had the number (I was looking to test them with slightly less usual tourist requests) and, to their credit, they managed to find a recent number. Apparently the embassy had moved locations a year ago. So the next morning (office hours are only 9-12) I set off again, this time the spring in my step was decidedly less bouncy. I did manage to find the place and it was open, which was a promising start. I explained that I would like to apply for a visa. They asked why I didn't apply in my country of residence and I said that I had been on the road for 8 months. Ah. In that case he suggested I apply in Istanbul instead, where they are more used to transiting travellers, as an application in Bulgaria might be refused. Although it was an ultimately fruitless exercise the friendly consular official (almost an existential paradox) told me that there was a good chance I could even get the visa in a week, previously unheard of for Iranian visas. It seems that Iran is trying to entice more foreign tourists, most likely as it is a rare source of hard cash for the regime which is being squeezed by international sanctions. For once I may be thankful for them.

My work in Sofia done (or at least unable to be completed) I headed south to the Rila monastery and its eponymous mountains some 100km south. The monastery is the largest and most important in the country, and the mountains, similarly, are also the highest in the Balkans. I was hoping that the unseasonably good weather would hold and let me ascend, if not the highest peak (Musala), then at least a respectable one. As the bus wound the 22km up the narrow valley to the monastery, hidden in the heart of the mountains, the clouds were hovering low and menacing overhead. There was light snow from about 1500m. I was undecided as to whether it was worth trying to hike so I decided to stay overnight at the monastery and get up early the next morning to see if the weather would be any kinder. When I awoke I was glad to see that at least it hadn't rained ... instead it had snowed and there was sizeable layer of the white stuff all over the camp ground. The weather had well and truly turned for good and there was no way I was going to even attempt going up. So I had one more look round the monastery and made my way to Macedonia. Sometimes when travelling things just don't work out and it's important to know when to cut your losses and try something new. At least I now have a good excuse for coming back to Bulgaria again.

1 comment:

H said...

It's sad Iran doesn't do more to help foreign tourists enter the country. It must have to do with security paranoia, I presume.

Of all travellers I met they all told me Iran and the post-communistic countries in Central Asia (except Kyrgyzstan) are the bitchiest when it comes to get a fuckin' visa.

And the most lethal cocktail is getting an Iranian visa in Central Asia. Impossible.

Good luck with getting it in Turkey. By the way, I wanted to ask - will you enter Iran via Naxicevan (for the reason nobody goes there, there are 2 CSers BTW) or via Iraqui Kurdistan? (this year two borders with Iran have been opened, in both directions)