Last weekend I had a short escape from Istanbul, sampling a snippet of life across the Bulgarian border on a visit to an old TiT (Teacher in Turkey) who made the brave move to Bulgaria, after having had enough of the vulgarities of Istanbul life.
I had no preconceptions on visiting this country. Quite honestly it is not somewhere I had ever seriously considered going. When the opportunity presented itself to have a cheap getaway and see on old friend (two birds and all that), I jumped on the night bus and gave it a chance.
What struck me was the unique, artsy feel to the city, bars and restaurants included, reminiscent of Berlin or Stokes Croft, Bristol but with a unique post-communist edge. The alternative Sofia bar crawl introduced us to some interesting watering holes. Including (but not limited to) a converted barn and a grand old house cum bar with homemade drinks, snacks and space to ‘create’ (think sofas, cushions and individually themed rooms).
We were consistently impressed by the individualistic style of each place we visited but for me our last supper in Sofia at Checkpoint Charly stood out above the rest. A jazz cafe/restaurant that utilises Sofia’s communist past to make for an uniquely interesting experience.
Named after the most famous of the three main crossing points between West and East Berlin, Checkpoint Charly (according to it’s manifesto) serves to remind people today of the freedoms forfeited by it’s communist past. Remembering those who had“to wait for citizenship to work in Sofia, and never to receive a permit to visit Paris” (as told by the menu).
The ambience of the restaurant alone makes it somewhere worth a visit. With a jazz soundtrack setting the scene, alongside black and white photos of soviet bloc leaders, Bulgarian communist newspaper place mats, graffiti scrawled on the walls and notepads and pencils for those who fancy a doodle. A clever little detail I almost missed was the rather clever communist/capitalist divide of the restaurant. Red napkins and bare brick wall for us, white napkins and modern decor for the liberated.
The menu, (reproducing the timeless image of the border guard jumping ship over to the West) boasts a diverse range of meats (such that I have yet to find in Istanbul) from pork to rabbit, duck to veal. All meals rather reasonably priced, although I understood it to be mid-range in the Bulgarian market. We certainly weren’t complaining.
I opted for the lamb meatballs with Lebanese style bread and homemade hummus. When I say these were more delicious than anything I have tasted in a long time I mean it. The meatballs were huge, succulent and perfectly spiced with a hint of mint (lamb and mint is a culinary combination I have missed being out here in Istanbul). The homemade hommous was unlike any I have had in Turkey (hommous is surprisingly not that big out here, despite chickpeas being a staple) and a delicious parsley and what seemed to be quinoa salad (it is not often you will find me using the words parsley and delicious in the same sentence).
I can only hope one day I get to return to this place, if only to soak in the atmosphere and give the rabbit curry a try.