Sleepless over the Atlantic
The day had finally arrived. A taxi ride and $40 later we were among the first in line for check-in at LH
's counters at ORD
. A rather cold but über-efficient gentleman had us (and our luggage) checked-in in 30 seconds. It felt like we were in Germany without even having left ORD
yet! Security was thankfully not too busy so we were through in less than 10 minutes. I wish every visit to ORD
was like that.
Stalking our flight's crew to the gate
Here's our bird hidden behind the gate and a bunch of jetbridges.
Confirming that this is indeed D-ABVH.
ORD was much busier this time than the last time I was here
And what do I see in the background as we are lined up for boarding?
Knowing that we wouldn't be eating any American food for the next 2 weeks, my wife and I decided to sit down and eat at... an Italian
restaurant, not too far from our gate. The gate itself (B17) had very limited seating and to make things worse, it was flanked by 2 other gates that offered hardly any seating themselves. Not ideal when you have a 747 and 2 more aircraft-worth of passengers to accommodate. I was expecting a chaotic and messy boarding but what followed left me speechless. Our boarding must have been the fastest and most efficient boarding I've witnessed in my 15 years of flying. All passengers were asked to line up according to the row they were seated (the gate crew had put labels indicating where everyone should line up, kinda like Southwest) and then we were asked to start boarding with those seated at the back starting first. Hallelujah! Everyone was on board in no time and with very little hassle. So freaking simple, so unbelievably efficient.
I was delighted to see a tiny old lady seated in the seat in front of me. In my experience old ladies don't tend to recline their seats. However, before boarding was completed, a middle-aged German guy came over and pointed out that she was seating at his seat. Darn, this guy certainly looked the recliner-type. Sure thing, for the next 8 hours he kept his seat in the fully reclined position...
My wife and I had (on purpose) selected middle-section aisle seats (I find them much more functional than window seats on long-hauls, especially when there is hardly anything to see outside). The seats themselves were not too bad. In fact I was happy with the pitch and the headrest was rather comfortable. The IFE touch-screen on my seat was somewhat unresponsive but I've seen much worse. Not the greatest selection of shows or movies either but enough to keep you busy for a few hours.
My entertainment for the next few hours
Push back was on time and after a long take-off we were finally Europe-bound. It didn't take long for the service to start, initially with snacks and drinks, followed by the meal and more drinks. The meal choices were chicken and a vegetarian option. Both my wife and I went with the chicken. The chicken was somewhat flavorless, as were the vegetables, leaving just the potatoes to save the day. The salad was pretty standard. The pineapple mousse dessert however was abysmally nasty. Not a terribly good meal but the metal cutlery was a plus!
The meal: Chicken, roasted potatoes and mixed vegetables. A green salad with olive oil and vinegar dressing, Monterey jack cheese and a rather nasty pineapple mousse with chocolate shavings
The guy in front of me had some serious issues with his PTV
Pre-landing snack. Fruit salad, muffin and a shortbread cookie
The crew was a mix of male and female attendants. They all appeared to be in a good mood and were very polite, even if it came across as somewhat artificial at times. I'll take that over the cold-hearted TK
attendants any day!
After dinner I opted for a Bailey's hoping that the alcohol would relax me and allow me to sleep. Alas, it was not meant to be. Not even the multitude of boring movies was enough to make me fall asleep. I spent the rest of the flight staring at my PTV or looking at the moving map on the overhead screens. About 90 minutes before landing we were served a snack box consisting of a muffin, a fruit salad and shortbread cookies. Not my kind of breakfast but then again I'm a bit prejudiced against sweet foods.
We landed at FRA
on time and were greeted by an eerily quiet airport (it was quite early after all). This, combined with the jet-lag that was kicking in by now, made me feel like I was in a dream. We now had 3 hours to kill until our connecting flight to SOF
Flying Lufthansa Balkan Style
If you ever find yourself in FRA
, near the B gates, and you need to use the bathrooms then pray that it's not 7:30am. Apparently that's the time all bathrooms are cleaned simultaneously. Or so I found out while trying to find a restroom that was available. It took me 20 minutes to find one I could walk in. Our 3 hours in FRA
reminded me of how much exciting traffic European airports get. While 90% of traffic at ORD
, in FRA
you get to see all sorts of fruits: Widebodies from Namibia, Thailand, Kazakhstan and Singapore, turboprops from Austria, Embraers from Azerbaijan and Bulgaria, airbuses from Croatia...You name it. Despite my exhaustion, I had a great time looking at the action on the apron.
Hello Frankfurt. It's been a long time
On the SkyLine train travelling between T1-AZ and T1-BC
Some beautiful Asian widebodies lined up next to our gate
An interesting collection of aircraft in the distance. A Privatair 737, a DHL 757 and a Thomas Cook/Condor 767
Now, that's something we don't ever see at ORD
I see these guys land at ORD quite often
Air Canada had a surprisingly large number of widebodies laying around
In the meanwhile, we had found our gate and set camp there. We were scheduled to fly an A320, but upon inspection I saw an A321 anchored at our jet-bridge. Splendid. Pretty much everyone at the gate was Bulgarian, except from the 2 compulsory Japanese businessmen you find on every flight. Boarding was your typical Balkan affair: Like scrummaging rugby players, everyone converged in front of the gate, fighting for a spot in the sun. After all, lines are for weaklings and idiots. My wife asked me how was it physically possible that the guy who was behind her a moment ago was now already in the jetbridge while we still had 20 people in front of us. "It's an art, honey"
I reminded her. Welcome to the Balkans.
Our aircraft at the gate
In situations like these I'm glad jet-bridges are as narrow as they are so that they force everyone to form a line
This was a completely full flight. To make things worse, many passengers were traveling with screaming toddlers. This however was not the worse part of this flight. You see, it appears that many of my compatriots have not yet mastered the skill of covering their mouth when coughing. If they have to cough then they just do so, even if it has to be in your face. A coughing and sneezing frenzy by some fellow passengers in my vicinity made sure than I spent much of the subsequent week nursing a cold.
Pretty standard pitch
The aircraft (D-AISU - "Nördlingen") was in great condition and the seats were more comfortable than expected. We pushed back on time and took off over sunny Frankfurt a few moments later. Lovely views of the German countryside this morning. We headed southwest, scheduled to fly over Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia before entering Bulgarian airspace.
Shortly after take-off looking back at FRA and Frankfurt's skyline in the distance
I was pleasantly surprised to see two decent size half-sandwiches served as a meal on this flight. One contained cheese, ham and pickled peppers and the other was vegetarian. Long gone are (I hope) the days when LH
gave you a small bread roll with a piece of cheese in it, in flights like these. The crew, once more, was very pleasant and helpful, always with a smile on their faces.
Overflying the Frankfurt Egelsbach (QEF) Airport
Over the town of Miltenberg
The rather nice sandwiches we were served shortly after take-off
Flying over MUC
It was a nice surprise to see SZG and Salzburg in the distance
The rest of the flight was overall uneventful. Once we reached Slovenia, clouds moved in so there was not much to see outside. My wife managed to get some sleep but I remained awake the entire way. I knew I was in for a nasty jet-lag in the days to come. The clouds finally cleared near western Bulgaria.
The disbanded Dobroslavtsi Air Base, outside Sofia
The town of Elin Pelin, just east of SOF
Arrival at SOF
was on time. We looped around the city and landed from the East. We were seated near the front of the plane so we managed to be of the first few to disembark. This allowed us to beat everybody else to immigration. Then we arrived at the still empty luggage claim area. It was just us and a 40-year old Bulgarian fella, who (completely unfazed by our presence) let loose a loud fart. Yes, I was definitely home.
Looking at SOF shortly after landing. Another LH aircraft seems to have beaten us there
A lot of abandoned-looking hangars and aircraft
This old Balkan Tu-134 is definitely abandoned. Quite sad.
Getting ready to anchor at the gate
Welcome to Mteland? Am I in the wrong country?
SOF's old-school logo at the luggage claim area
With our suitcase collected we crossed to the arrivals area, relieved that everything had gone according to plan so far. The plan now was to go to central Sofia and get on the first bus to my hometown of Petrich. However, exhausted as we were, we decided to check-in at a hotel, get some sleep, and then take a bus the next morning. We grabbed a taxi and headed to the Kempinski Zografski Hotel, a place I was fairly familiar with since my stay there last November. I asked for a room on a floor as high up as possible in order to allow my wife to see a panormic view of Sofia. She had been with me to Bulgaria before, but she had never been to Sofia. We got a room on the 18th floor, but before we could enjoy the views, we first had to get some much needed sleep...
No shortage of commie-blocks in Sofia
I can think of many better uses for all that gold atop the Nevski Cathedral's dome
Sofia's architecture is slowly acquiring some more color
Petrich. Behind the Glitz and Glamour
The next morning, rested and after a quick breakfast of Bulgarian pastries, we hopped on a taxi and got to Sofia's central bus station. We got out tickets and jumped onto a sort-of-a-bus vehicle (see below) destined for Petrich. Unlike most Bulgarian drivers, our bus driver was extremely slow and I would not be exaggerating if I told you that we did not overtake a single vehicle during the first 3 hours of the journey. Not even a Lada, not even a Trabant, not even a Wartburg. This perhaps had to do with the fact that the driver spent more than half of the journey talking on his smart phone or frantically searching for something online. I always admired people that can multitask.
Our trip included a scheduled stop at the Blagoevgrad central bus station. However, in a move that only Bulgarian logic could explain, our driver decided to stop at a tiny rest area about 5 miles outside of Blagoevgrad for "a ten minute break". Why did he have to do this when we were supposed to stop at Blagoevgrad for a 10 minute break anyway? I'm suspecting a commission from the purchases made at the rest area's coffee shop had something to do with it...
A look at Sofia's central bus station as we're departing for Petrich
Much of central Sofia's roads are not made of asphalt but of granite blocks, which makes driving on them very noisy
From Sofia we drove south, though a bunch of construction sites before reaching the highway. Soon a thunderstorm caught up with us, rendering any kind of landscape photography impossible. We also drove on the highway strip of Dupnitsa (a bad photo of which you can see here)
, which was (maybe still is) intended for emergency military aircraft landings. We finally made it to Petrich in the afternoon and were welcomed by a severe hail storm.
Arriving at Petrich
The something-like-a-bus thing that brought us to Petrich
It was great to be back in Petrich. My little hometown doesn't have much to offer in terms of attractions, but here are a few photos:
The commie-style shopping center. I have purchased many an item from here (most of which didn't last a week).
Bvlgari... er, I mean Bulgari offers quality knock-off goods at excellent prices. They are huge in New York I hear.
Not sure I'd like to stay here
Some home delicacies, served in traditional Bulgarian clay pots, washed down with some nice Bulgarian lager