THE SCUNTHORPE OF THE BALKANS
With the trip to Sofia for the first round of the Uefa Cup looming large on the horizon, Jeremy Walters tries to recall some fond memories of his past visits to the city, and struggles badly.
With the away leg of Chelsea’s Uefa Cup first round tie against Levski Sofia due to take place on Thursday 27th September, the thoughts of supporters planning to travel to the city for the first time will turn to wondering what it is like. After reading this, travelling fans may well wish that they had never asked. Still, they should be grateful for the ample time to cancel the plane tickets, abandon the rail plans and call off the interminable car journey provided by this mini city guide.
I may be leaving myself open to accusations of being a fair weather fan and of being disloyal to the cause, but to the legions of travelling fans all I can say is, if you like Scunthorpe you are going to love Sofia. Is the city drab? Is the Pope a Catholic? If Sofia were any more dreary then a new word would need to be invented. Think of dismal and think of Sofia. They go hand in hand, like Hasselbaink and a bulging goal net.
Upon arrival in the city, the first thing you notice about Sofia is how boring the architecture is. Acres of grey, communist-inspired blocks of concrete interspersed with a few churches. It is about as exciting as the substitution of Zenden for Bogarde. The city is beginning to adjust to a more western lifestyle, but the conversion is proving to be a painfully slow process. While there is no lack of food in the shops, there are still plenty of street vendors hawking everything from bread and milk to second-hand clothes. It is not unusual to see women and men scraping through rubbish bins in search of even the slightest reusable object. The streets are filled with people trying to scratch out a meager living.
Everything in Sofia is cheap. For visitors looking for a good piss-up, perhaps this is the place to come. The combination of ridiculously low priced booze and a shortage of things to see equals one big party. If you are not already a particularly big drinker, a visit to Sofia would be a good time to start. By the end of the trip you are going to want to partake of the local tipples, believe me, particularly if the team loses.
The food in the city is okay, in a basic kind of way. Inevitably, the unstoppable march of Mikey D’s golden arches has passed through the city, although McDonald’s is still considered something of a delicacy in Bulgaria. How we think of caviar is how the Bulgarians think of chicken McNuggets. It would not be an exaggeration to say that many Bulgarians cannot afford to eat at the imperialistic burger bar.
As for street life, well, the potholes are large. That’s about it. The streets are filled with packs of barking dogs. If there were a soundtrack to Bulgaria it would have to incorporate ten gun dogs barking at a postman. Believe me, take some earplugs. As for transport, there are plenty of buses but they are packed to the rafters. Just pray that the weather stays mild or a journey could compare to a tube trip with your face pressed into a builder’s armpit.
If you are braving the journey despite my admittedly bitter recollections, then have a good trip. If you want a more upbeat guide of the city, then pay a visit to www.sofia.com for a more comprehensive city guide. Of course, there is one thing guaranteed to brighten up a journey to the most unattractive of locations, and that is witnessing a thumping Chelsea victory. Here’s hoping.