Russia Travel Rocks – St Petersburg to Majestic Moscow

Red Square Moscow

Russia is just the most amazing place.  Part of this for me is just the pure history of the last century, but also it’s just so prominent on the globe.  Russia has been so imperial.  So majestic.  So mysterious. There’s the crazy cold war, and my favorite the space race.  Forget about the arms race, although I really do need to visit Chernobyl.  I did fly over it on a jet on my way out of Moldova. Can you believe it? The US is now hitching rides with the Russians into space to the international space station.  Amazing how the dynamics themselves have definitely changed.  At least the space people are collaborating.

Red Square - State Historical Museum

When I was growing up I remember looking for places to hide just in case the Russians came.  There was the attic, and the potato cellar.  Either way Russians were always the enemy, but in church we would talk about when Russia would be open for the preaching of the gospel.  The end of the world would come shortly after missionaries entered Russia, or so it would seem. Ronald Regan had that big arms race thing.  The “Wall” comes down and shortly Russia would be open for preaching of the gospel.  I’d hear of friends who would go there on their missions.  There was stories that reached all the way to Idaho about the first McDonalds in Russia and how lines wrapped around the block or worse.  Fast forward a few years, and I’m a minority on a Russia majority software company up in Seattle.  I find these “refugees” are amazing, and I’m fascinated with their culture.  I never hated Russians, just fascinated by their culture and the communist machine.  So many stories about how we should be extremely worried about anything that had anything to do with it.  Living in Seattle, I’d find a HUGE Leningrad Lenin at a coffee shop.  There was even communist magazines and articles in Fremont area in Washington, that made it seem almost cool to be communist, because it was racy.  Why do I give you this terse background story?  Because going to Russia is a HUGE rush.  Most American’s have some weird ideas of what it would be like to go to Russia.  How dangerous it might be, what might happen.  The crazy Russian Mafia stories.

First thing I had to do as an American was getting the Russian Visa.  It was the longest visa form I’ve ever filled out.  I started having doubts that they might not admit me.  It’s not just asking about my passport details and where I’m going… It gets into my parents and grandparents on both sides.  It asks about every country I’ve visited plus dates, that’s a pretty good list that ends up being pretty complex.  Despite the complexity and the couple of weeks it took.  I get the visa!!  I’m on my way to Russia.  What’s better I’ve got colleagues in St. Petersburg and I’ve got a SharePoint user group meeting setup in Moscow.  So work is paying for hotels, and all I’ve got to do is cover a train ticket from St. Petersburg to Moscow.  The Nevsky express!  Strangely about a week after that train ride that same train would get blown up and derailed by Chechen Rebels. Crazy.

St Petersburg Church of Spilled Blood

Pictured Above:  One of my favorite buildings in St Petersburg is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This Church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and was dedicated in his memory.

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Must See Cathedrals of Sofia Bulgaria


Black Sea to the East, Turkey and Greece to the south, Macedonia to the Southwest, and Romania to the North.  Sofia is a feast of richness in culture.

I had a 5 hour stopover in Sofia on my way to Istanbul, and I asked the Taxi to drop me off in the center of town.  As we got close I saw this amazing gold roof, and I asked him to drop me off at what I’d find out was Alexander Nevsky Cathedral an Eastern Orthodox church that can support 10,000 people.

Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky Sofia Bulgaria
Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky in Sofia Bulgaria

What a fascinating area.  First you just start walking around and you find amazing vendors selling antiques.  Antiques including old money from Yugoslavia, Germany, Iran, Iraq, across the middle east and various EU countries prior to their adoption of the Euro.  Amazing masks, art work, and antique razors, knives, and swords.  What a beautiful area to wander around.

Next door sits St. Sofia a crazy old church even for Europe.  On the site of the church in the 2nd century was a Roman theatre, and over the next couple of centuries were built churches only to be destroyed by Goths and Huns, and in the 6th century was built the Hagia Sofia church, a contemporary of the Hagia Sofia church in Istanbul.  In the 16th century it became a mosque, and the mosaics destroyed.  Now one of the most valuable pieces of early architecture in Southeastern Europe.  The city took it’s name from this church.

Alexander Nevsky
Alexander Nevsky

The young population of the city breathes life in a big way.  My second visit to Bulgaria a week later after having traveled across Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia to then drive from Skopje to Sofia in 3 hours with an impressive taxi driver. One estimate we had in Sofia was an 8 hour drive.  My hat off to our Macedonian driver.  The same driver who took us to meet the Roma.

Center of Sofia
The workers of Sofia Bulgaria

I’ve seen skaters in large cities in Europe before.  In fact in Paris, I saw huge jumps setup in a park, but in Sofia it was different.  Here it was as if the youth were the center of the city.  There presence is more important and embraced.  Vibrant youth. Radical change.  Hope.

cappadocia 065 (2)

I met one such youth.  Yordan. He is full of hope, he is full of energy.  He was playing his accordion for fun.  It added a cultural element to the air.  We had a quick chat and extremely quickly we became friends and built trust.

Having a great meal in Bulgaria with locals
Having a great meal in Bulgaria with locals

Speaking of hope… I spent a few days with these guys at MS Days Bulgaria.  Two company owners and Microsoft Employee.  Radi, the Ninja Master, opened up his office and on my way home I had dinner with his team.  Again, passion, energy.  The old guard is getting old and retiring, there’s a lot of change a foot in Bulgaria.  A new generation is building businesses and generating successful employment.  Over 1000 attendees came to the event held in a very new Movie Theatre complex.

One of the coolest things about Sofia Bulgaria is the various fresh local markets. While the antique market may be catering somewhat to the tourist. The book market, the fruit and fresh market, and the vendors in the area.  Encouraging passion, intelligence, and getting people out into the streets engaging.  The culture is very open, very talkative.

Fresh Market in Sofia Bulgaria
Fresh Market in Sofia Bulgaria

Travel Tip: We had no problems with metered Taxis, but yes you might pay more than twice more if you don’t negotiate a local price.  Use the OK taxi, use the meeter and you’ll save a bundle.  Don’t believe them when they say fixed price from the airport, and don’t take a taxi that isn’t in line.  Those soliciting are going to charge you more than the yellow OK taxi.

The parks aren’t setup specifically for the tourist.  A book market… YES! Can you believe it!  Knowledge is power, and whether it’s the book market or the extremely passionate chess games with crowds as large as 20 people watching the intense game.  There’s something going on in Bulgaria.  It’s called life.

Sorry to say… I had a delay on my way home from Turkey which caused a domino effect.  It did put me in Sofia for another 5 hour layover, a third trip to Sofia in a 10 day period and rather than sit at the airport lounge, I reached out to my new friend Radi who invited a few friends.  Many thought it was an April fools joke.

One of the things I loved most of Sofia was how easy it was to find incredible food.  I didn’t have a single dish that wasn’t incredible.  The salads, the soups, the vegetables… I don’t think I’ll ever rave so much about various red and green peppers, cucumbers, egg plant, TOMATOs, and the cheese… yes the cheese.  I mean really, they were spectacular.  I’ve never tasted anything like it, there’s something in the soil, or something.  I have to imagine organic plus no chemicals, hormones, no accelerated growth, or weed killer.  Something I just can’t get in the US or in Western Europe.  When I saw goat head on the menu, I was getting a little excited.  The guys had some fun with that.  Unfortunately Goat head wasn’t available.  Parts and pieces depend on what’s available.

A crossroads of East and West, Bulgaria may hold an important piece of the future of Europe and hence the future of our world.  Often overlooked, but sleeping spark of economic growth.  While Greece, Spain, Portugal and others slow, there’s a sleeper that is emerging.  Let us welcome Bulgaria to the world stage.  I’d definitely welcome a Bulgarian restaurant in my home town.

Russian Orthodox Bulgarian
Russian Orthodox Bulgarian