19/08/2013 - 22/08/2013
Sofia train station isn't the best introduction to the city. As well as being quite run down and low on amenities, you get people hassling you and trying to get money out of you by claiming they've helped you out. We experienced this a couple of times, though refused to part with any money. However, we heard that other people had caved and handed money over. Some of those people were only in Sofia for a few hours in order to change trains, so ended up leaving with a very negative view of the city, which is a shame. It is a city that could do with some TLC, which was evident on our walk to our hostel - the pavement's in terrible condition - but it was a good place to spend a few days.
We stayed at Hostel Mostel, which was brilliant. We had a private room, which was really cheap. The private rooms are in a separate building, a few minutes walk from the main hostel building, but you get breakfast included (which has a decent array of food), plus every evening there's a free meal of pasta and a free glass of beer! The communal area's got a nice atmosphere too, plus a free pool table (albeit in quite bad nick). The staff are really friendly and helpful as well. The only minor quibble I had was the lack of air conditioning in our room - especially as it was very noisy if leaving the window open. But still, if visiting Sofia, Hostel Mostel's the place to stay.
It was quite early when we arrived, but we could pay a bit extra and get breakfast, so that saved us having to hunt for somewhere. We still had quite a bit of time to kill before check-in though, so we then went out in search of the Iranian embassy. Not as some random strange-form-of-fun thing, though I guess it needs some further explanation...
Visiting Iran has always been part of our travel plans for this year, though I've mostly avoided telling people, particularly family, as it's portrayed so negatively in the media and I didn't want them to worry (or try and convince me not to go). I'm actually writing this from Iran, though by the time I get round to posting it I'll have long since left, so if you are inclined to worry, no need, I'm fine - Iran was great, though that's a post for another time. In terms of getting our visas, the lack of an embassy in the UK at the moment meant that we couldn't sort them during our 2 weeks there. That wasn't a problem though. The first stage of the process is getting an authorisation number, which you can do online through an agency. You then choose which city's embassy you would like to go to in order to collect the visa. As we were going to be travelling across Europe in advance of entering Iran, we chose Sofia as a convenient place to collect our visas.
This might all sound fairly straightforward, which it should be in theory, though our personal experience wasn't quite as plain-sailing as we'd hoped. We applied online for our authorisation numbers when we were back in the UK. We used the agency iranianvisa.com who were recommended by Lonely Planet and therefore seemed like a safe bet. They got back to us about transferring the payment to them (it was €35 each for the authorisation numbers), which we did, then we should have gotten the authorisation numbers through in 7-10 working days. More than 10 working days went by and we heard nothing. I e-mailed them - no reply. Both Jamie and I e-mailed them again - still no reply. We checked their website one particular day and it was down. Oh dear. We did some online research and found lots of recent posts from people with similar experiences, calling the agency a con - they'd paid their money and then not heard from them again. We felt pretty gutted. We found a different agency to apply through instead, though as we were getting tight for time, we were looking at having to pay for the express service. We exchanged a few e-mails with them, over the course of a few days, checking that they could provide the numbers quickly enough, how much it would cost and how we should transfer the money. Then, on the day we were going to transfer the money, I got a reply to one of my e-mails to iranianvisa.com. I couldn't believe it! They apologised for the delay and said it was due to Ramadan. They said we should get our numbers around the 12th August. We were still doubtful but we didn't think it would be sensible to continue with our 2nd application and pay a lot of extra money when we mightn't need to. So we left our 2nd application and pinned our hopes on the first agency coming through. We really weren't too hopeful though, after a little while we started planning out an alternative way of travelling between Turkey and Russia. I think it involved taking in an additional 5 countries. It turned out unneessary though as we got our authorisation numbers! Yes, we got an e-mail saying they'd been approved. But was the e-mail from iranianvisa? No, it was from the 2nd agency - the one we'd not paid. Weird. A couple of days after that we also got an e-mail from iranianvisa saying that our application had been approved and giving us a different authorisation number. So from thinking that we mightn't get Iranian visas at all, it now seemed like we had 2 each!
So, the next stage, now we were in Sofia, was to go to the Iranian embassy with our authorisation number (we decided to use the one we'd actually paid for) and get our actual visas. We'd looked up the address of the embassy and it was pretty central - not too long a walk from our hostel - so we headed there whilst waiting for check-in. We found the building but it seemed like it was closed. The opening hours stated it should be open, but it all looked pretty run down and deserted. Thankfully I had enough credit on my phone for us to call them. After a bit of confusion we discovered that their offices had moved. Doh. A lot of websites should really update their information - especially as we discovered they moved 4 years ago! Their new offices were less central and really required a taxi journey. As they were now nearing closing time for the day, we decided to try again in the morning. We went back and checked in to the hostel and had a nice relaxing evening.
The next morning, after breakfast, the hostel called a taxi for us and we travelled to the current and open Iranian embassy. Thankfully there was someone who spoke English and he pulled up our authorisation numbers and got us to fill in an additional application form, plus hand over 2 passport photos. We had read we'd need 3 photos, plus I'd read that in women's photos they should be wearing a headscarf, so I'd gotten a set of 5 photos with headscarf taken in preparation. After handing them over, however, the guy said it wasn't necessary for visitors to be wearing the hijab in their visa photo and that they had a special exemption, so I could use some regular photos instead if I liked. I didn't have any other photos on me though, plus what else would I do with photos of me in a hijab? Anyway, the last stage was to transfer the money for the visas. We'd paid the agency for the authorisation number but now needed to pay for the actual visas. As we didn't have long in Sofia, we needed them on a next-day basis, so I think we paid extra for that. It was about €170 each, so not cheap. We had to go to a nearby bank and get the money paid in to a specific account then take the receipt back to the embassy. We were then told our visas would be ready for collection at 11:30 the following day and the guy kindly called a taxi for us to take us back to the centre of town.
We carried on this practical day by booking our onwards train tickets and then going to a big shopping mall to look for a new tablet computer for me. I mentioned before that my tablet died suddenly when we were in Barcelona. Happily in Sofia we found some pretty cheap tablets, so I got one for about a quarter of the price of my old one. I'm using it now to write this. It has most of the capabilities of my old one, but I've also come to appreciate why it was so much cheaper. I've not directly compared the specs, but this tablet is a lot slower and less responsive, especially when using the internet. This makes it quite frustrating at times, but it's still an adequate stand-in for these last few months of travel (I hope). I still need to use Jamie's netbook for uploading photos though, so if I post a blog and it's lacking in photos it's just because I've not had the chance to get them uploaded yet.
For dinner we went to Wok To Walk (which we'd actually done the previous evening too), then we went and did the free walking tour. It's very popular in Sofia, there was a big group of us and there was even a TV camera there for the first part. They maybe hype it up a bit too much though. It was decent enough, but it was lacking in the personal and quirky anecdotes you get on a lot of the other walking tours - I found it quite dry. There's a lot of historical information - you can't fault it on informative content - but it needed more of a fun element too really. There were a few fun things thrown in and it's definitely worth doing, but I've far preferred some of the other ones we've done. Still, the guide was really nice and at the end of it she invited any interested people to join her for food and/or drinks. About 9 or 10 of us went with her to this tucked-away pub and had a couple of drinks. That was really nice. One of the people we spoke to quite a bit was an American guy. He was from one of the central states but he was pretty liberal - he talked about how he doesn't really fit in with most of the people there. Despite his general open-mindedness, however, he thought we were crazy for planning to go to Iran. It's been interesting telling fellow travellers about our plans to visit Iran. People from most countries think nothing of it, but Americans and the British are prone to call us mad. It's definitely been a strong indicator of how negatively the country's portrayed in the American and British media.
On our last full day in Sofia we went back to the Iranian embassy to collect our visas. That was all nice and straightforward. The guy we'd been dealing with also talked to us for a while about our travel plans and then gave us a map of Iran (albeit one from 2004) and a DVD about the country. After that we actually walked back into town, stopping off for a while to get a cold drink (it was hot in Sofia, just like most places we've been since the UK). We had a relaxed evening then, enjoying the free pasta and beer at the hostel.
On the day we checked out our train wasn't until the evening, so we spent most of the day hanging out at the hostel and getting things researched and booked for some of our future travels. Jamie also nipped out to get us some Wok To Walk as well - our 3rd in 4 days, but the last place we'll get to have it on this trip. We then made our way to the station for our overnight train to Istanbul.