Category Archives: Culture

Picture it, going for Gold in Sofia

I find myself for 26 hours in Sofia, Bulgaria. It’s a nice city, with easy access to/from the airport in relatively cheap taxis ($8-$11). But why am I even here? We’ll get to that. 

For my overnight stay I chose the Sofia Balkan Hotel, part of the Luxury Hotels/Starwood group. The interiors were nice, but the lobby was unfortunately taken up by an education convention, so the interior was a bit off. Outside, there is an archeological dig taking place, with an awkward fencing separating the hotel from the street. 

I managed a great rate on Booking.com for a Junior Suite, and when checking into room 327 was shocked at the state of the furniture – the couch was literally thread-bare. A quick trip back to reception yielded 527 – much nicer. A good reminder to never take the first room you’re offered if you don’t love it. There’s almost always a better one. 

The hotel’s central location was great – the city’s large pedestrian mall was a block away, as was the meeting site for the local Free Sofia Tour, which lasted about two hours and was a great way to see the city and get an overview of the lay of the land. Sofia has been populated for 6000 years and has flipped back and forth between occupation and liberation about 4 times. 


The highlights of the tour were the open-air excavations and taking a sip of the running sulphuric mineral water at the public bath house. It’s the second time I’ve been in an ex-Soviet Eastern European city, and Communism fell less than 30 years ago – the city still has the marks of the regime in its huge Soviet-era buildings.  


But the remarkable thing is the survival of many churches as well as a mosque and the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe. 


I spent some time at the synagogue, with a lovely introduction to it from a local congregant. He was old enough to live through the Holocaust, and a witness to the miracle of the Bulgarian Jewish survival through the period. Even though Bulgaria was a member of the Axis, it never deported its Jews to the camps. My Shul guide told me all the Sofia Jews moved away to the North and stayed with other Jewish families. He was 5 at the time. 
Overall, Sofia is a funny place though – the public bath house has been turned into a museum, even with its beautiful architecture and springs still intact. A spa is being planned – that would be make more sense. The statue of Sofia that is the cities’ new symbol is a strange amalgam – the city is named after a Saint, yet the statue had an unsaintly neck line and is adorned with pagan objects. 


So why am I even here? It’s all about the Gold. Gold status on BA, that is. My year end is over soon, and I found myself in spitting distance to Gold status. Going Gold has a number of benefits over Silver, including First Class lounge access, seating choice at booking, better upgrade chances, and accelerated points-earning to help maintain your level.

Doing a bit of research, I discovered there are a handful of shorter ‘long haul’ flights that provide maximum points with minimal time – evaluating the options like Marrakech (been there), Rekjayvek (would want to spend longer and expensive on the ground), St Petersburg (not gay friendly), and landed on Sofia – cheap on the ground, and in a country I’d never been to before. I have a goal to travel to 50 countries by the time I’m 50, and Bulgaria is now #46.


So in all, a nice little adventure, a new country, a new culture … and Gold status. A good way to end the Jewish Year 5776 – Shana tovah to all! 

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3 Musicals and an Opera

I’ve been busy taking in some culture this past month, seeing three musicals and an opera..

IMG_42751. Urinetown the Musical – this is the London premiere of the Emmy-winning musical. I saw this one on Broadway back in November 2003, and wasn’t particularly wowed by it back then. The story takes place in a future where water is so rare, people have to pay to pee. Its a fable of freedom and revolution, with broadly drawn characters and a satirical bent. The lead hero is played by a hot and buff Richard Fleeshman. This production was much edgier than the Broadway version, owing lots of its graphic imagery to the Walking Dead and Blair Witch Project, with blood splattered all over the cast and deadened wraiths hanging out on the set. The St. James Theatre has a strong pitch, so every seat feels close to the stage. I would check this out before it closes in May.

2. The Commitments – Jukebox musicals aren’t my thing, but I loved the movie back in the day, buying both soundtracks, so I wanted to check it out. Scoring half price tickets at TKTS in Liecester Square didn’t hurt. If you aren’t used to thick Irish accents and aren’t familiar with UK and Irish culture, a lot of the dialogue will fly by you, but the music and the performances are really what you’re there for and they don’t disappoint. A young, exuberant cast delivers fun performances. Worth seeing if you get the reduced tickets, otherwise enjoy the movie.

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3. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – I had caught this one too on Broadway, back in February 2006, with Jonathan Pryce and a younger Norbert Leo Butz (and Joanna Gleason), and had vaguely fond memories, but no real stand-out songs. A hallmark of a good musical in my view is for at least 1 or 2 songs to be memorable once you leave the theatre, and ideally a yearning to buy the cast recording to re-experience the magic. This production has some pretty big UK stars in it – Robert Lindsay and Rufus Hound play the leads, and do fine jobs indeed. The biggest name for US (and global audiences) is Samantha Bond, who plays Lady Rosamund on Downton Abbey (the aunt who gets Edith out of trouble). Packed with laughs, the musical is a lot of fun, with memorable numbers “Give Them What They Want” and “Great Big Stuff.”

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IMG_41684. La Boheme – Last but not least, I took my friend Adam to see the opera at Royal Albert Hall for his birthday. The Hall itself is grand – probably the most incredible venue in which I’ve seen a production.  A very approachable opera for most people, given its popularization as “Rent” – so many of the musical’s scenes have their corollary in the opera, the most endearing for me is the candle scene when Mimi and Rodolfo meet. This production in the round was spectacular – around 95 people in the company,  with spectacular sets and lots to look at. The chorus members have little stories of their own, and it made me think that opera is in its way ‘live transmedia’ in that all of these little parallel stories are playing out on the stage at the same time as the main narrative – something that

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online transmedia so often tries to accomplish with side-stories and narrative tangents. If visiting London, I would really recommend seeing just about anything at Royal Albert Hall, it is such a magnificent venue.

Which London musicals, West End or otherwise, have you seen lately and would you recommend it?

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