Category Archives: Vacation

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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Filed under Culture, Vacation

Some Fun in Funcheal (Portugal)

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I decided to get out of London for a quick weekend, to catch some sun and relaxation before the mad dash to the end of the year. I was hoping to accumulate enough miles to make 1K this year, but a mess up on another flight has put it out of reach this year. I wanted to go as far as I could without leaving Europe, get some sun, spend less than 250£ on airfare, and ideally visit a country I had never been to. The Portuguese island of Madeira, with the main city of Funcheal, fit the bill.

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I flew TAP Portugal for the first time, and I liked the attendants cute lime green and magenta outfits, and the safety video starring actual passengers reading the lines (very cute, surprised I haven’t seen it ripped off). A quick 4 hours from Heathrow and I landed – the airport is built on the side of the mountain, with the runway propped up on huge columns, originally over the sea, now over landfill. I’m glad I only learned of this construction until after I landed.

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Funchal is a port city at the base of a mountain range. The most interesting part of the city for me was the old section. I spent most of the day time there, with its charming streets, including Rua de Santa Maria, which had a lovely gallery and the doors were all painted with different designs.

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The weather was a bit overcast so I didn’t get an opportunity to take the cable car ride up to the top of the mountains, which is a highlight of the city. I had on day of solid sun – I would recommend coming back when you have definite good weather as there isn’t as much to do in the rainy weather.
I stayed in the Residences at Porto Mare, to the west of the old town and city center where the action is. I had a full apartment, which was quite nice, and if I was staying longer would be a good deal with the full kitchenette. I only ate breakfast there, but the buffet was well presented, with all the usuals, including an omelet bar and lots of fresh fruit. The spa was mediocre – even with a facial treatment (which was a challenge as the clinician couldn’t explain what she was using), they charged extra to use the steam room/sauna which were tiny.
As it was holiday time, the town really came alive at night. All throughout the town were hung different electric light designs, creating a very festive atmosphere.

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I had a few good meals – Tasca Literara Dona Joana on Rua de Santa Maria was a nice spot for tapas, mostly good, slightly inconsistent. A pianist played a nice selection of ballads and show tunes as accompaniment. Taverna Da Esquina is a great fish restaurant with outside seating in the street as well as a cool room in the back. I had parrot fish for the first time, and I recommend Espada-com-banana – a local fish dish prepared with the banana sauce.
One of my favorite things to do when travelling is go horseback riding. I checked on Tripadvisor, and the top rated ‘Attraction’ was riding with Quinto do Riancho. For a very reasonable price, I was picked up (and taken back) by Paulo, and taken on a 2.5 hour ride . As it was a little off-season, I had the ride to myself. I took easy with a slow pace and took in the scenery – all in all a very relaxing ride.

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Madeira is known for its sweet wines – port wine originally comes from Portugal (get it… port – Portugal.. this was news to me). I bought a few bottles of the local wine – the most popular brand was Blandy’s – they have a fun wine lodge and store (don’t buy the wine at the factory store, its cheaper in the smaller bodegas in the town). I have yet to open mine up.. I look forward to doing so soon.
In all, Madeira was a reasonably priced excursion from London, definitely on the lower-key side, which is what I was looking for. While not in any rush to go back, for a quick trip for calm sun, I’d definitely consider a summer hop over when the London grey gets to be too much.

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January 1, 2014 · 7:38 pm