"Why would anybody who looks like Janet Street Porter think their calling in life is to run a fetish club?"
|Bulgaria 0-3 England. Vasil Levski Stadium.|
The first rule of going abroad - always check the weather forecast. Something that was dearly forgotten for this trip to Sofia for England's Euro 2012 qualifier with Bulgaria.
Boiling hot weather and one pair of jeans is a combination that goes about as well together as Nick Griffin being a guest speaker at Martin Luther King day. So when you pack just one pair of hot, stuffy denim jeans for four days away it's pretty much a disaster.
|Alexander Nevski Cathedral|
Apart from the wardrobe malfunction, this was a wonderful trip. It's doubtful many people would pick Sofia as a holiday destination but when the weather is good, the women are unbelievable, it's dirt cheap, you can fly there with easyJet for £40 and accommodation is £12 a night then you are always onto a winner.
Of course, there was a drawback to that accommodation and that was sharing a double bed. Thankfully, our lovely lady host at the appartment we booked turned out to not be homophobic and was more than happy to allow two strapping gents to bunk up together in her place. Although she may have just tolerated it for the fact she knew we'd go the entire four nights without any hot water. We'll never know.
|Soviet Army Monument - rolled up jeans because|
of the heat!
Having arrived on the Tuesday and with the game not until the Friday night,we had plenty of time to explore Sofia. Bulgaria is quite a religious country with a number of grand churches including the Alexander Nevski Cathedral which was rather beautiful. We spent our first day checking out the sights which included the cathedral and the wonderful Soviet Army Monument which features a Soviet soldier surrounded by Bulgarian women. There is a lot of debate about whether it should be pulled down but it serves as a great meeting place with people skating around it and was even home to the England Fanzone on the Friday before the game.
Wednesday was another day of looking around including a trip to Sofia Central Station. Why go to the station I hear you cry? Well, we'd heard rumours that on the last England trip to Sofia there had been a bear caged outside of it so we set off in the vain hope that would still be the case. It wasn't but it wasn't a completely wasted journey either as Tom managed to pick up a hideous Barack Obama t-shirt for just £2 from a market stall. Yes we can!
|Tom delighted with his £2 Mister President t-shirt|
We did eventually get to see a bear by spending Thursday at Sofia Zoo. Now I pride myself on being something of a zoo expert and this was easily the most unsafe place you could go to. The bear enclosures were just slabs of concrete with a little bit of water you could climb into and for the truly adventurous you could stick your hands through the bars into the lion and tiger enclosures.
|Bear in his concrete enclosure at Sofia Zoo|
|Feeling adventerous? Reach through the bars and touch a tiger|
The best part about Sofia however has to be the food and drink. Well, maybe not the drink, but certainly the food. And certainly the magnificent chain of restaurants that are aptly known as Happy Grill. At Happy Grill, you could buy an industrial sized plate of varrying meats and a bicycle wheel sized piece of garlic bread for £4.20. Throw in cocktails for £2 and it was very very happy indeed.
|Barnsley fans on the Soviet Monument on game day|
Unfortunately, the beer was mainly horrific. Among those tried were Zagorka, Wymechko and Astika. At £1.20 a pint we weren't complaining and got through our fair share. The best places to drink were outside bars, set up in tents in the middle of parks. Every bar we found seemed to shut at midnight during the week which at one point forced us into the only open place we could find in an attempt to continue drinking - a fetish club. I say club, it was more like an underground prison, we were the only people who had been brave enough to venture in and didn't even get around to ordering a beer, deciding to bolt before a woman who looked suspiciously like Janet Street Porter managed to get us into what presumably would have been her red room of pain.
As for game day, the already mentioned fanzone in the gardens around the Soviet Monument is where we spent our time drinking. At £1 a pint it was the cheapest beer we had all trip yet you had to keep your wits about you with footballs flying through the air, a potential hit at any time. The Monument itself was popular to climb and there was music being played to sing along to with the DJ obviously being a big fan of the Champions League theme tune, playing it every five songs.
|Vasil Levski from the outside. Sponsored by Pepsi|
|Inside the Vasil Levski Stadium|
|Bulgarian fans raise the flag|
|It wouldn't be Eastern Europe without flares and fireworks|
The ground was reasonably full and those England fans who had got tickets for the home ends were escorted around the running track and into the away section before kick off, meaning that our section had up to 500 more fans in that it should have done. The game itself was pretty dull - Bulgaria were absolutely awful and England were 3-0 up by half time through Gary Cahill and a Wayne Rooney brace meaning it was game over in 45 minutes. No matter, we still couldn't leave as the police wouldn't let anybody out even at the break which meant the frustration of not only watching a pointless second half but then being held in for an hour afterwards while the home support were cleared.
|The teams line up for the national anthems amid the smoke|
of the home fans flares
We headed straight back to the apartment after the game with an early flight to come from Sofia to Berlin with Bulgarian Airways. Such was the type of plane we were flying on, you half expected a man like Biggles in World War II fighter pilot gear to stride from the terminal, bottle of whiskey in hand to fly the plane. Incredibly, we made it to Germany in one piece and spent the day mooching around Berlin before flying back to England in the evening.
Where I could finally take those bloody jeans off.
Where I could finally take those bloody jeans off.
|England players at the end of the game|
|Happy Grill certainly lived up to it's name with all this meat|
|Home via Berlin and the Brandenburg Gate|
England: Joe Hart, Chris Smalling, John Terry, Gary Cahill 1, Ashley Cole, Gareth Barry (Frank Lampard), Scott Parker, Theo Walcott (Adam Johnson), Ashley Young (James Milner), Stewart Downing, Wayne Rooney 2.