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…in which there are planes and tanks

So, I did go to see the military things in the end, although I foolishly decided to walk the entire way. As with the other day, I done made a map – 10.5 miles walked in the two days I’ve been holiday, well done me. Getting to the museum was a bit of a trek, however.

I started off wandering down the main road, as I did the other day, but instead of veering over to walk through the rather depressing wasteland surrounding the “National Palace of Culture” (a convention centre that needs to be razed to the ground in all its architectural monstrosity), I continued down the main road. One of the strange things about Sofia is the underpasses. When I am wandering around a strange city I am always wary of darkened holes in the ground as my experience is that they generally contain scary people ready to jump out and strip me of my worldly goods (well, when I say ‘experience’ I really mean ‘paranoid musings’) – in Sofia that is not the case, instead they are full of smiley people and shops. So I wandered down some stairs, ready to fend off the robbers, only to be greeted by smiley people buying sandwiches and engaging in other forms of commerce – a much better sight than seeing the Palace of Culture while being buffeted by windblown snatches of Backstreet Boys tunes from a rundown open air cafe, as I was the day before. Anyway, I wandered the back streets a bit, saw the other church that I’d missed the previous day and ended up walking along Bulevard Knyaz Aleksandar Dondukov, which being a whole block away from the main tourist drag to the Aleksander Knevski Cathedral (complete with its tourist trap roadside market) was a much more real street, and looked how I imagined Sofia would look – a combination of central european city with a hint of soviet era housing. I popped out round the back of the cathedral and after some walking through a park and down a rather nice tree-lined street I ended up at the front entrance of the military academy, the other occupant of the park where the military museum hides.

My experience with maps this weekend has opened my eyes a bit. The map I had, provided free at the front desk of the hotel, is accurate and to scale, but my estimates of times to walk distances is very random – the road down the side of the military academy is really long. After a while I heard some ominous rumblings from the sky and the burning hot sun started to be hidden by clouds, as everything got a bit darker and more oppresive. By the time I reached the entrance to the museum I had been struck about the head several times by heavy fat drops of rain heated to body temperature by the warm air. It was a very similar sensation to what I would imagine being spat upon from above would be like, which did lead me to check that there were no naughty children hiding on a balcony, using the weather to hide their naughty actions.

I didn’t have any real urge to go into the military museum, although re-checking google maps after the fact has shown me that there may have been even more interesting things hidden out the back, but the front ‘garden’ was worth the walk – a mouldering graveyard of military hardware. There were tanks, bulldozers, artillery pieces, trucks and three planes. There were also only two other visitors – a man and his primary school aged son, who both climbed on and played in all the vehicles. There’s something quite special about the idea of having your dad give you a leg up so that you can run up and down the wing of MiG 21. I wandered around, took some pictures and tweeted one of my favourite comments I’ve ever made – I’m normally quite a boring chap, and skipping around military hardware made my day.

MiG 21

The rain started looking like it meant business, so I wandered off round the corner, hoping that I would find a taxi before I drowned – luckily the next road junction had an honest to goodness taxi rank, and a serious, thin, silent, moustachioed man drove me back to the hotel as the rain started in earnest.

Taxis were something that I was worried about before I came out to Sofia. Not only had I heard the tales of scary driving and traffic, but I was also warned that all cab drivers were crooks, out to fleece the innocent tourist. Luckily for me, although not for some of the other wedding goers, this has been entirely unfounded. Every cab I’ve got has been honest and they haven’t even tried the old “sorry, I haven’t got any change” routine, which means that I do now have a small pile of stotinki that will be added to my “random coin” collection (a pile that never seems to diminish, no matter how often I try to spend them).

On the way back to the hotel, partly due to the lack of conversation with the silent man with whom I probably shared no common language and partly because I am inquisitive wee bastard, I stared out the window at the various bits of scenery. As we were driving along one of the arterial roads around the outside of the centre of Sofia there wasn’t much to see apart from trees, but all of a sudden, poking through the trees appeared a strange vision – Sofia Land. There’s nowt quite so strange as a big wheel popping up from behind a rather official looking hospital building. Every time I’d got to the point that I thought I’d seen everything Sofia had to offer the bored tourist, the town fathers pull something like this. Unfortunately it’s now raining on and off and I don’t have enough time to nip down to see the closed theme park from the outside, but if I ever return I have at least one place on my ‘to see’ list.

So, I’m now sitting in the hotel, leeching their wireless despite being checked out, waiting for an hour until it’s time to get a cab to the airport. It’s been a good trip and the main thing I’ve learned is that I’m not anywhere near as self-sufficient a traveller as I thought. Luckily I’ll have people to talk at on my next couple of trips, and I pity those people in advance.

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