I knew, with my two days in Edessa and four days in Thessaloniki and the recovery from my illness in Sofia and the two train rides between these three cities, that it had been some time since I've actually walked from one town to another over the course of a day. It was only when entering the specifics for my "Daily Stages" stats page that I realised I haven't walked into a town since January 16. I began walking again on the 29th. It's amazing how easy it is to lose track of time, although to be fair, I lost two days in Sofia to fever dreams and muscle aches as I lay in my bunk alternating between chills and sweats.
For Thursday, I set my alarm a little later than I normally do when I'll be walking, but I'd already packed almost everything the night before and moved it down to reception. I had a larger than usual breakfast, chatted a bit with the three other guests at breakfast (two Lithuanian giants and an Irish schoolteacher), settled my account, checked Google Maps one last time on the hostel's computer terminal, and set out.
(If ever you need a place to stay in Sofia while on a budget, Hostel Mostel is worth checking out. www.hostelmostel.com All the staff I interacted with were wonderful, the facilities were kept clean and in good repair, good food, free WiFi... it's just a really well run place. I am older than the demographic they seem to be targeting, but I was by no means the oldest guest there.)
Sofia is a very sprawling city, and most of the buildings were between four and eight storeys high. It was pleasant walking with the morning crowd on their way to work even though the day remained overcast and chilly. As I made my way farther from the city centre, the wind picked up a bit since the buildings were no longer densely packed enough to block it. After an hour and a half of walking, I paused to put on another light layer of clothing. From this point on, I always had the southern range of hills in view to my right, with the northern range visible across the very wide valley to my left.
It was something like 14 kms from the hostel to the official city limits, although by the time I passed the exit board there hadn't been a café (or even a place to sit) for quite some time. The one nice thing about following the highway was the full-width breakdown lane plus shoulder which separated me from the traffic. Once the highway veered to the south of the route I was taking, the road got narrower and much quieter. Still no place to stop and sit, and the wind was getting progressively stronger throughout the afternoon.
Finally I came across the Sofia Studios Complex beside the road. Of most immediate interest to me was the large sign out front, which had enough room for me to set down my pack and myself. It wasn't protected from the wind, but at that point I didn't care. I wolfed down an orange, some nuts, and some chocolate and pressed on.
According to my GPS, I was less than an hour from Novi Han. Before I left the hostel, I'd asked if they knew of any accommodations at my destination. The answer was vague but reassuring. The folks at the first gas station at the edge of town were far more specific. "No hotel. Elin Pelin." Elin Pelin is only eight kilometres away, but that 8 kms is at right angles to my direction of travel, and I would have to walk back again in the morning. I do not like to detour or backtrack, so next I asked about a church in Novi Han. Everyone seemed to think that was an excellent idea. Encouraged, I pressed on. (Cultural note: I am used to nodding my head to say yes and shaking my head to say no. In Bulgaria, they do the opposite. These culturally ingrained habits are tough to overcome in the course of a day or two, but it's helped me become more aware of what I'm doing.)
Novi Han is not a large town, but it's big enough that I couldn't see the church. When I walked past the post office, I could see people staring at me through the window, so I decided to go in, ask for directions, and learn a few more words of Bulgarian. One postal worker drew a rough map for me, but it wasn't really necessary. Once I knew that the church was on a side street to the left, it was just a matter of checking for a cross and a dome.
I'd been looking for a church, but what I found was much more than that. The structure had formerly been a monastery, that much was clear. The sign over the large gate was good clue, as was the inner courtyard with a church surrounded on all sides with connected buildings. Kitchen, living quarters, work area, check check check. The satellite dishes and toys I could see on the exterior balconies are not standard features of monasteries I've been to before, and the multiple pieces of large and brightly coloured playground equipment (not visible in this photo) were also surprising. In addition to several small children playing in the courtyard, there were three men patching a concrete sidewalk.
Once I made it clear that I was looking for a place to sleep, there was only one question they had for me: how long would I like to stay? Never mind about my nationality, religious affiliation, or even my name. (Introductions happened later, during a communal dinner.) I was shown to the office and invited to sit down while someone fetched linens and got a key, and then I was shown to my room.
I was given a cell on the second floor of the west wing. The door from the main corridor opened into a small antechamber, about three metres wide and two metres deep. There was storage space and shelving to the left as I walked in, while immediately ahead was another well-sealed door, this one with a window. The next section of the cell had a small washroom sectioned off from the narrow corridor. That lead to another door, the third between the toasty warm bedroom and the unheated corridor. It was quite clear that there had been some redecorating since the monks moved out, as the walls were bright pink and there was a plastic tiara hanging on one of them. There was a single bed on one wall with shelving built in to the wall at the head, a small table, two chairs, and an old treadle sewing machine which had been converted into a desk. My guide left me to settle in, pausing only to point in the direction of the kitchen.
After unpacking, I headed downstairs for a look around. The church was locked, so I drifted into the dining area where a few people were sitting. I introduced myself and apologised for not understanding Bulgarian, but several of the people spoke English. Kids started drifting in, and each of them practised their English greetings with me. (I'm afraid I've already forgotten most of their names.) One lad produced his grade 5 English textbook which I leafed through.
Dinner was simple, but tasty and filling. Afterwards, the singing started. I guess "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is on the school curriculum, since everyone knew it. Then I decided to entertain them and sing for my supper. "I Know an Old Lady" is always fun, and for this rendition I included actions and sound effects. One of the young ladies provided a running translation, but there's so much repetition in the song they caught on pretty quickly. The kids vanished soon afterwards, and following a little conversation with the adults, I headed back to my room and started composing this update. I fell asleep mid-sentence several times and finally just saved it and turned out the lights.
As I was approaching Novi Han in the afternoon, I had no idea where I'd be spending the night. I couldn't have found a better place in a town ten times the size! This was a most excellent adventure.