I rather like Sofia. It’s a bit hard to explain. I like that fact that it’s much smaller than Bucharest, so the place feels a lot quieter and more relaxed. Moreover, there is a city centre which has a very open feel to it. There are many large squares and grand boulevards lined with some very beautiful architecture.
The heart of the city is the Nevsky Cathedral, which dominates the scene with its golden domes. The cathedral reminds me a lot of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which is obviously much larger and older. Even so, as you step inside the Nevsky Cathedral you get a pretty good idea of what the Hagia Sophia must have looked like before it was converted into a mosque.
I spend Saturday walking around the city in the pouring rain. Of course it would be so much nicer if the weather were fine and you could see the mountains, but in the rain the city has quite an atmosphere.
And just in case you were wondering, the food in Sofia is lovely. On the Saturday evening I have dinner at a place called the Spaghetti kitchen, which is just around the corner from the hotel, in an area with lots of restaurants and bars. In any case, I can highly recommend the Spaghetti kitchen. The staff are a bit reserved, but the quality of the food is good. And the portions are rather substantial as well. If you have a sweet tooth, I’d go with the chocolate soufflé.
So before we turn to the flying part of this review, allow me to share with you some pictures of Sofia.
And now I think it’s to my for me to leave. I hope I’ll be back some day, preferably when the weather is better though.
GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
Transport: Bus Nr. 84
Departs from: Sofia University
Frequency: More or less every 20 minutes, depending on traffic
Journey time: Between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on traffic
Fare: Purchase the tickets with the driver, if you can…
Sofia University Metro station, from where the bus for the airport leaves, lies in close proximity to Nevsky Cathedral and the Radisson Blu hotel. Theoretically you can buy your tickets directly from the bus driver as you board the vehicle. But he may not be in the mood to issue a ticket, in which case you travel for free, courtesy of the Sofia public transport system.
One of the city’s metro lines is currently being extended, apparently it should reach the airport by 2015.
Location: Terminal 2
Facilities: Multipurpose self-service check-in machines, dedicated British Airways counters
Counters: Counters 30 – 34, with 33 and 34 dedicated to Club Class and status card holders
There are two terminals at Sofia airport. Terminal 1 is the original building from 1937, which has since undergone several renovations and expansions. Today Terminal 1 is home to all low cost carriers and charter airlines operating to and from Sofia. All other traffic uses Terminal 2, including British Airways.
I check in using the British Airways App. But apparently Sofia is not a mobile check-in destination, so I opt to collect my ticket at the airport.
The check-in counters and the ticket counter at Sofia airport only open two hours prior to departure of the flight, which means at around 12:30 – or thereabouts… It’s just before 12:30 when I arrive, I’m a bit early today, so I decide to try checking in at one of the machines. Just beware that if you check-in at one of the machines in Sofia, you will need to present the credit card with which you paid for the original ticket. Otherwise the machine will not check you in and you will be sent to one of the manned check-in desks.
With my boarding pass in hand, I head one floor up to the security check and emigration. There are a few things strike me as being just a tad unusual here at Sofia airport. On the one hand, the facility looks fairly new and modern. At the same time though, the entire building is incredibly badly lit and the television screens hanging from the ceilings look like a relict from the 1990s, when the airport hadn’t even been built yet. The other thing that strikes me, is that the facility is nearly completely deserted. It’s just empty. But it’s not only that there are no passengers, the building is empty. There is a transfer desk with three empty desks, of which one doesn’t even have a computer, screen or a telephone. And there are just lots of empty spaces, where other airports would have long placed an averagely sized shopping mall.
Location: After emigration turn right, it’s lounge 2
Type of Lounge: Contractor lounge operated by Sofia airport
Facilities: There are no toilets in the lounge, there is a limited selection of cold and hot drinks, cold snacks.
Internet: Free wifi is available, with the longest password I’ve ever seen in an airport lounge
There are three lounges at Sofia airport. Lounge 1 is the Swissport lounge, which seems to serve Bulgaria Air and all the Star Alliance carriers operating into Sofia. And then there’s lounge 2, which serves everybody else. The other lounge is one floor down and appears to me some sort of arrival lounge.
The lounge is fairly small, but it serves its purpose. Theoretically you need a lounge invitation to access the lounge, which I don’t have because I checked in at one of the machines. But this does not appear to be a problem. The lounge dragon makes a quick phone call downstairs to check-in and subsequently welcomes me to the terminal.
Priority Boarding: There is a Fast Track to enter the holding pen
Boarding for the flight is announced 50 minutes before departure. Boarding announcements are made in the lounge. Keep in mind though, that Sofia has closed gates so in fact boarding simply means that the gate is open. Incidentally, should you suddenly feel the call of nature once you’re inside the boarding gate, there’s no need to worry – there are toilets.
Boarding is a bit messy and there isn’t really a boarding call as such. Passengers requiring assistance and passengers with children are invited to board first, but this only results in a general scrum for boarding, with passengers allowed to board indiscriminately.
Configuration: 2 + 2, the middle seat is left empty
Audio and Video: Video screens that drop down from the overhead bins, however these remain closed during the flight and are only used at the beginning of the flight to show the safety on board demonstration video.
The aircraft has your standard British Airways Club Class cabin and seat. But I notice that this bird has the new type of lockers for the overhead bins, so I’m not sure if this is just a newer addition to the fleet or if perhaps it’s an ex-BMI bird. With a flying time of three hours, there are also pillows and blankets at every seat in Business Class. There are four rows of Business Class on this today, and as fare as I can tell, all 16 seats are taken.
The cabin crew consists of four persons, three males and a female purser. All of them are slightly past middle-age. They’re not particularly rude, but they’re not exactly gushing either.
While we’re still on the ground, the crew distribute the menus for the flight and hot towels. The latter are rather flimsy, in fact they’re pretty pathetic compared to the plush ones I got on Air Serbia.
Welcome drink on the ground: No
Hot towel before the meal: Yes, before departure
Pre-meal drink: Yes
Choice: Chicken or seafood; dessert or cheese
Delivery: traditional tray service
Appearance: Like something the cat dragged home and spat out on the carpet
Type of meal:
Menu: Menus are distributed before departure
- seasonal salad with olive oil and balsamico
- chicken, leek and mushroom casserole with roast new potatoes
- crackers and cheese
- ginger ale to drink
We begin with a drinks round right after take-off. I have a ginger ale, which is served with a packed of mixed nuts. I am reminded of Air Serbia, where the nuts are served warm and in a ramekin and by a friendly young flight attendant who addresses you by your name.
The meal service is a bit strange. First of all, the meals have been heated up in plastic containers covered with tinfoil. The flight attendant asks me if I’m having chicken or seafood. I decide to go with the chicken. So she takes one of the plastic containers, removes the foil and spills the whole concoction into the ceramic plate on my tray. The procedure looks and sounds a lot like what used to happen to my cat Boozey when she’d had too much cat nip…
But seriously, what’s wrong with these people? Of course, I know it’s a casserole and all, so everything is mixed up anyway. But on a flight with a block time of three hours, surely the flight attendant could have prepared the meals individually in the galley. Perhaps if she’d done that, the passengers would also have been able to enjoy their drinks with the meal, rather than after it, because she first served everybody their meal before returning to the galley and coming back out again with the drinks trolley.
Once the main meal is over, the dishes from the main course are removed. There is a choice of apple tart or cheese to end the meal. I decide to go with the cheese, assuming that this will be served, as announced on the menu, with crackers. I’ve already demolished the ones that were on the tray when it first arrived. But unfortunately I am mistaken – no crackers. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t occur to the flight attendant to offer me some more bread, despite the fact that the bread basket is sitting in the galley, still quite full – I notice it later on my way to the toilets.
Good heavens, the weather is really bad here and it’s only just before we touch down that the ground comes into view. I think I’m cursed or something!
Most of British Airways’ flights – including the one to and from Sofia – arrive and depart from Terminal 5. There quite a queue for immigration, but fortunately I have a biometric passport, which significantly speeds up the process.
GETTING INTO TOWN
Transport: Heathrow Express Train
Departs from: The basement of Terminal 5
Frequency: Every 15 minutes
Journey time: 15 minutes
Fare: GBP21 for a single journey, which is quite pricey for a trip of only 15 minutes
I take the train into London. The Heathrow Express has a very good app with which you can also buy tickets. You will receive an e-ticket confirmation by mail. In addition, if you’ve got passbook, the ticket will be saved in that app as well.
The express serves Paddington station. From there you can connect onto the Bakerloo tube line, which takes you to the heart of the West End. I alight at Oxford Circus, from where it’s just a short walk to the Masala Zone restaurant behind Carnaby Street. I’m in the mood for a thali.