Sunday, January 15, 2006

Hey, Sofia is hot hot hot.

Some random and not-terribly-well-informed tips... Bars I recommend include Bilkovata (crowded, dark, scruffy and friendly), Apartament (it’s actually in an apartment, converted into a quiet art space where you can sit and play chess or read some of those big Taschen coffee table books), Blaze (swingin’, with lots of alcohols served, and that’s about all I remember) and submarine-shaped place nearby, also with lots of alcohol served (and dancing) but the name and whereabouts of the bar are distinctly fuzzy. (“Distinctly fuzzy” is a contradiction in terms, but so is recommending a bar I can’t even name.)

If you visit, a absolute must is a chalga club, the ultimate Bulgaria-uber-alles experience. Sheherezada is a friendly one right on Vitosha, the main boulevard. It’s the Bulgarian equivalent of the the hezky cesky discotheque-sky, if you’re familiar with that, only rather more interesting and, for lack of a better term, exotic. Chalga is the Bulgarian form of turbo-folk, that ubiquitous Balkan musical form that sounds suspiciously oriental and, well, a bit Turkish (just don’t say that to a local if you want your faculties to remain intact).

For whatever it’s worth, I also paid a visit to one of the mainstay nightclubs, Chervilo. There was an entry charge and it was late and I'd already been to three places, so I didn’t go in, but it looked like a perfectly legitimate nightclub from the outside. I mean “nightclub” in the regular sense, not the Eastern European sense in which it means “brothel.”

Restaurant tips include Mahaloto (Bulgarian-leaning) and Da Vidi (French-leaning). I’ve heard from someone who lives here that Dani’s, on the same street as Da Vidi, is also very good. The Radisson has free wireless internet and the Irish bar downstairs is not bad, not bad at all, for a hotel restaurant. I'm there now; American football's on.

The Hilton, on the other hand, has an outstanding breakfast buffet but they rip you off every chance they get: A 59-second local phone call from your hotel room costs one dollar -- no kidding, and that’s just to start -- and you can forget about using the web.

In case you’re wondering, I’m midway through a two-week stay here to do some chapters on a book introducing Bulgaria to emerging markets investors. I really don’t like to sound jaded, but the biggest problem I have with this place is its utter familiarity. I feel like I’ve already done every interview several times already, and it’s basically clear how the country will look in five to ten years (much the same, but with more hypermarkets and shopping malls, roads with fewer potholes, a proper metro system, and an infestation of British stag party weekenders).

Out on the town last night, I learned of a conference on counter-intelligence attended by Quebecois law enforcement officials taking place right here in the Hilton this week. Just so you know.