Hello. My name is Isaac, 35 years old from Vancouver, Canada. I have set this blog up to document my journey following Mark Knopfler’s 2013 “Privateering” tour, from April 25 (Bucharest, Romania) to July 31 (Calella de Palafrugell, Spain).

Due to Despite the tour’s obnoxious schedule (thanks, Mark), I cannot be entirely sure that I will attend all concerts. That being said, I will try. You are more than welcome to sit back, relax, read, and comment. You can also subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed (see the “Subscribe for Updates” box at the right hand side of the page. For standard RSS readers, select the “Atom” option).

Have fun,

Note: The contents of this blog are also available in hardcover and paperback formats. For more information, click here:

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Istanbul, Turkey to Sofia, Bulgaria (April 28–29, 2013)

The following box shows an extensive list of everything I knew about Sofia before arriving here Sunday morning:


In other words: not much to work with. Not only have I never been here before, but I also can’t recall any time in my life in which I said “I could really use a visit to Sofia right now”.

Which is another positive thing in following a Knopfler tour: you end up visiting places you otherwise wouldn’t think of visiting.

Arriving at Sofia presented the first mental challenge in the tour: waking up at 4:30am, in order to catch the 7:30am Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to Sofia.

It was harder than it already sounds.

As we left with the hotel’s shuttle to the airport, looking outside the shuttle’s window I was under the impression that I might be missing something. Sunday, 5:00am, and the streets are filled with people as if it’s lunch time. What on earth is going on here? GO TO SLEEP, PEOPLE. It was as hard navigating the cab between pedestrians (and other vehicles) as it was hard doing so in sane, normal working hours.

Then we got to the airport—Istanbul’s primary airport, named after modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (by the way, here is an interesting piece of trivia: in Turkey, it is illegal to criticize Atatürk and/or his legacy), which presents the fortunate traveller with quite the obnoxious airport experience.

Here’s a tip for you North Americans who are considering visiting Turkey and flying out of Atatürk airport: I know that some, if not most of you, ignore the fine print when flying within North America, advising you to arrive 2–3 hours prior departure.

Once you’re in Turkey, forget about it. Always be on the safe side. There are just too many things happening here.

First, you need to go through security just in order to get into the terminal building. I am not sure why—I’ve never seen it happening anywhere else—but I’m guessing it has something to do with safety precaution against possible terrorist attacks.

The problem (for the passengers) in this security line‐up is that airport & airline staff have precedence. Hence, even a small line‐up can end up taking long minutes to dissolve if a large group of an airline’s staff enters the building.

Check‐in seems to be a huge mess, so try checking in online.

Next up is passport control—the first of two. This takes a long time as each and every passport is thoroughly checked for your entry stamp, and you will be asked questions if your entry stamp isn’t clear enough. Can take about one minute per passenger, so in a line‐up of 50 people with 2 agents working in the passport control booths, you’re looking at a potential 25 minutes wait.

Right after passport control, there’s another, more thorough, security screening. Then, at the gate, there’s yet another passport control process. That I have never seen done before, anywhere.

Much fun and hassle at 5:30am, after having slept about four hours the night before. Boarded the flight on time and passed out in my seat—a rare phenomenon, as it is extremely difficult for me to sleep during flights—being completely oblivious that the flight was delayed by about half an hour. An hour or so later, the plane touched ground in Letishte Sofia‐Vrazhdebna, which, for all practical purposes, will henceforth be referred to as “Sofia’s airport”.

While Bulgaria belongs in the European Union, it is not a part of the European Monetary Union, thus it maintains its own currency (which is good for current EMU member countries; as if the Euro currency is not already in a huge pile of horse manure), called “Lev” and abbreviated “BGN”. One BGN is worth approximately €0.50 and $0.68 CDN.

Hopped on a taxi cab to the city center. It was Sunday morning, hardly a living soul on the streets.

The hotel, Hotel Sofia Place, is conveniently located in the city centre, and save for having no air conditioning in the month of April, is quite good.

The last paragraph requires elaboration.

Weather forecast called for about 28℃. Having lived in Canada for the last ten years, with Vancouver’s summer fluctuating around the 24℃ mark, it was quite expected that the first thing I was going to do was to charge at the air conditioner and attempt to operate it—a rather simple operation that had triggered a very interesting learning experience.

Quite expectedly, nothing worked. Minutes after reporting it, we got a call from the front desk saying that the air conditioning will not work today, and possibly not tomorrow. “No problem then”, I said; “let’s move to another hotel”, which is more or less when things started to get really strange.

As I was searching for a hotel, Jeroen went downstairs to talk to the front desk guy and inform him that we’re leaving. Here’s how the conversation went:

Jeroen: We are not happy with the fact that the air conditioning isn’t going to be working, as the weather calls for 28℃ and we are thinking about moving to a different hotel.

Attendant: What can I do for you?

Jeroen: Well, we would like to check out and go to a different hotel.

Attendant: Have you tried opening the windows?


Jeroen: No.


Jeroen: But we were specifically looking for a hotel room with air conditioning, so we’re interested in moving to a different hotel.

Attendant: All other hotels in the city will probably have the same problem.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I found the attendant’s last statement to be somewhat puzzling. Yet, I checked. Called up the nearby Best Western—a respectable 4 star hotel—and inquired about the workability of their air conditioning system.

What do you know… Same issue. “We don’t have air conditioning today, but we will most likely have it working tomorrow. But we can’t promise anything.”

(On a side note, opening the windows did help.)

More than I was frightened of the prospect of spending two days in a boiling hotel room, I was intrigued to know what the HELL is the problem this city has with air conditioning. After a few attempts to find out, it turned out that the reason has to do with how piping works in most hotels in the city center area. The same pipes are being used for both heating and cooling, and there’s a system that is tuned to switch into “cooling mode” on exactly May 1.

Is it possible to set it to “cooling mode” earlier? probably. Can you get to anyone who would take such decision? no.

Also, the western visitor to Bulgaria is likely to discover that everything here is cheap. There’s a sad reality behind this. Bulgaria’s economy was never really strong, and is nowadays going through a difficult financial crisis: unemployment is high and electricity—while costing less than anywhere else in the European Union—is still very expensive considering the fact that the average wages are about €400 per month (that’s $530 CDN) and the median wages are much lower, at the €250–300 range.

Recently, riots ensued in Bulgaria, demanding that the government is to be sent either to home or to hell, whichever is closer. I was told that people reached a situation when they can’t pay their bills anymore. As finances is one of my hobbies, I had to inquire further; and as annoying people with in‐depth examples is another one of my hobbies, here are some numbers.

€0.0846 per kWh (price of electricity in Bulgaria) means that a person consuming 100 kWh ends up spending €8.46, which, considering Bulgaria’s average salary, is 2.115% of their wages.

Compare with Vancouver, Canada. But here, let’s give Bulgaria a head start. Instead of comparing to Vancouver’s average wage, we’ll compare it to the minimum wage. The minimum wage is $10.25 CDN per hour. Assume 180 working hours per month, you get $1,845 CDN.

Electricity costs $0.068 CDN per kWh (according to my most recent bill); 100 kWh costs $6.80 CDN.

Hence, 100 kWh costs the Vancouverite earning minimum wage about 0.36% of their salary.

In total: the financial burden on a Bulgarian earning average wages when paying their electricity bill is almost 6 times (!!!) heavier than it is for the Vancouverite earning minimum wage.

To that, add the fact that Vancouver is the most expensive city in Canada when it comes to overall cost of living.

That, like many other things recently, set me off to do some thinking. Obviously, the initial reaction to finding out that air conditioning is kaput for the next two days is disappointment and frustration. But really, wouldn’t it be considered selfish to feel bad about something like this? Perhaps these negative emotions are the direct result of myself taking things for granted.

Now, you might think that “electricity” is such a basic commodity that it’s natural to take for granted; I know I did. But then you come to realize that, what you consider in life to be so basic and elementary, is more than likely a big bonus in the grand scheme of things. In other words: instead of bitching about not having enough electricity to cool you off in the hot summer days in Sofia, perhaps it’d be prudent if you shut the hell up and be thankful for having the privilege to have such elements so readily available to you in your own home.

After catching up with some much needed sleep, we set off to the central bus terminal to complete one of the two missing links in our travel plans: bus tickets from Sofia to Belgrade on April 30, as these could not be purchased online (the other missing link is the bus ticket from Trieste, Italy to Ljubljana, Slovenia next week).

Long walk to the central bus station:


Very handsome central bus station building. Too bad it’s the domestic one; the international bus station is across the street, looking much less pleasant.

After spending about 45 minutes waiting in line, we were sent back in shame as it turns out that you need to present a passport when purchasing a ticket (makes absolutely no sense to me, but nevertheless).

Back to the hotel to do some work, and then decided to try the bus station once again and get the tickets’ purchase over with. A subway ride seemed more appropriate. Sofia’s underground system—at least, the part that runs south to north—is relatively new, less than a year old.


There, we met with Slavina, whom I met a few years ago in London and kept in touch with since. Slavina is local to Sofia, and was very helpful in ensuring that the tickets purchased were really what we were looking for.

(You would think that the international bus terminal in Sofia will be manned with English speaking personnel. Think again.)

After that, a stroll in Sofia’s main entertainment avenue along with Slavina, taking a few shots along the way:


A few drinks on a curb‐side patio, until Slavina’s friend, Maya, joined and demonstrated to me that it is physically and mentally possible to drink coke and espresso at the same time and actually enjoying it. Bloody absurd, I’d say. In proper countries, doing something like this would cost you a night in jail.


Hours passed quickly until we all bid each other adieu at around 11:00pm. Back to the hotel to catch up with some work.

First day in Sofia turned from absolute boredom to quite the enjoyment thanks to Slavina and her friend Maya who joined us later. Hats off to them.

Dreading the upcoming nine days, which are going to be the hardest travelling days in the entire tour, a joint decision was made to keep effort levels to a minimum on Monday, the day of the show. Caught up with work, great lunch in Cactus conveniently located about a block away and I was all set to keep to myself in the hotel room until I realized that the next 9–10 days are going to be hell, and it’s time to do the laundry.

I don’t understand what’s going on inside the head of a hotel owner when coming up with a price list for laundry. €1 for washing (drying not included!) a pair of underwear? You can’t be serious. This is Sofia; you should be able to buy an underwear factory for €1. €4 for washing one shirt?

Naturally, we set out to look for a laundry place. Found it. “Do you speak English?”, I asked. “No”, she said. Goodbye.

Alright, Sofia, you wanna play tough? I’ll hand‐wash my underwear, I said. And I did. Now how do you dry them?

This is very simple to do when you happen to carry a 3 meters long LAN cable that you’re unlikely to use. Luckily, the hotel room had a balcony.


Took the opportunity to take a few pictures of the view from the hotel’s balcony:


Short stroll down the street for some coffee:


The night before, Slavina offered to join her and her friend, Maya, for a short trip to the nearby mountains.

I have a long‐running romance with mountains. Mountains were the reason why I fell in love with the city of Vancouver in the first place, and is also why I decided to finally move there two years ago—the Get Lucky tour providing another great deal of motivation. There are at least four things I can hardly say “no” to, and being in the vicinity of mountains is one of them.


Sofia is surrounded by mountains, which look quite pleasant when viewed from the city centre and look even better up close. The destination: a desserts shop called “Romance” (although there’s nothing romantic about it, at least not in day time), offering a very nice view of Sofia from the top.


Wonderful desserts, plus I got proof for the coke & espresso nonsense:


Headed back to the hotel, and then off to the venue for tonight’s concert.


The National Palace of Culture consists of various halls and theaters, and as far as I am concerned, it wins the title of “the most poorly signed venue in the history of venues”.

I have watched this band perform approximately 150 times before, in many venues in many countries. Never was the experience of actually obtaining the physical paper ticket so annoying and stressful. After about 20+ minutes circling this giant complex, I still had no idea where the tickets are to be collected. Luckily, Slavina was on site and showed us the way—a small hidden doorway, leading to a set of stairs, behind which there is one small counter (practically invisible).

Now back in the venue:


The stage contained this:


Which implied that a new song was going to be played. The show kicked off about ten minutes past 8 o’clock, to the sound of massive cheers.

When it was the time for the third song, Richard Bennett took a seat next to the pedal steel. During the joint Dylan‐Knopfler tour, Redbud Tree was played with a lap steel guitar, so I thought we were going to hear that song again, until the opening C chord was played.

Redbud Tree doesn’t start with a C, but Seattle does. Talk about a surprise—definitely a favourite from Knopfler’s latest album. Beautiful live arrangement that just works, and by the looks of it, the band definitely enjoyed playing it.

Seattle is a nice city, but I’m much more in favour of that other city that is located approximately two hours and a half north of it, across the border. Homesickness kicked in and failed to depart until the next morning.

What else we had? an ecstatic audience, a cute young boy sitting on his father’s lap at the front row, seeming to enjoy every minute of this wonderful show. We also had a Sultans of Swing solo that was rather different than the usual line, and an aggressive Hill Farmer’s Blues solo worth listening to.

The second surprise came at the encore. As Brothers in Arms was skipped, So Far Away was played and I was under the impression that the show is over. Fortunately, the band had other plans. Piper to the End, the concluding song from Get Lucky that was played in 86 out of the 87 Get Lucky concerts in 2010, concluded the show. It was a real treat listening to this wonderful tune again, played live. Whoever went to a few shows in 2010 and listened to Piper to the End being played live, must know what I’m talking about.

After the show, we remembered that we need to buy some sandwiches for the next morning as we’ll be taking an early bus drive to Belgrade. Stopped over at a local cafeteria for a sandwich and a couple to go, and off to the hotel to pack.

Concluding this post from the hotel room in Belgrade. What a hectic day, I tell you…


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