Sofia - Andrew - 2009
For many years Bulgaria has been the butt of jokes about poor food and ugly cities. Since the collapse of Communism, though, the country has slowly struggled to destroy this stereotype and success is now beginning to show. EU Membership has also helped bring Bulgaria to the international stage.
The main tourist draw is the Black Sea coast, but there are a number of very attractive towns dotted across the country, several historic hill monasteries, and the capital city, Sofia, which has always been one of the most important centres of the Balkans area.
Sofia - Andrew - 2009
In July 2009 my work took me to Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria. A fairly uneventful journey got me to the airport and then a typically Balkan hair-raising taxi journey dropped me at Narodno Sabrovski the Parliament Square (like so many squares around the world not square at all but rather an oblong with a semi-circle).
I was staying at the Radisson Blu Hotel which is one of those frequently accidentally photographed hotels, standing as it does opposite the Parliament building and behind the equestrian statue of Tsar Alexander II. I selected this hotel as much as anything for its key position just around the corner from the most iconic landmark in Sofia the Alexander Nevski Memorial Cathedral.
Having dumped my bags and rested a bit, I decided to head out to try to find food and to have a look around. It was about 2 in the afternoon so hunger pangs were beginning to set in. Not far from my digs I found food in the shape of a very Bulgarian yoghurt dish (cant recall the name now, but it was essentially balls of very thick yoghurt with dill and honey with a salad attached). In the building heat of the afternoon this was a refreshing treat and set me up for a wander around Sofia.
My first stop, of course, was the Alexander Nevski Memorial Cathedral. It is justifiably a building of which the Sofians are proud. Recently renovated I was delighted to see the scaffolding was now off and the great golden dome of the Cathedral glinting majestically in the sunshine.
It truly is a magnificent church, built in thanks for Russian intervention in the War of Liberation (of Bulgaria from Ottoman Turkey) between 1882 and 1924. The exterior is a curious mix of very Balkan post-Ottoman arches and domes and a more obviously Russian-influenced architecture. Once you pass inside into the gloriously cool interior then you are very much in an Orthodox environment. Dark and gloomy, shadowy visages of Saints and Martyrs peer down at you from behind vast candelabra, all lit with flickering (nowadays fake electric) candlelights.
Back outside and blinking in the harsh evening sunlight I wandered back around the exterior and then trundled into town.
I returned to the Cathedral a number of times during my stay. This was by far my favourite thing in Sofia and undoubtedly is one of the great churches of the world.
Directly across from Alexander Nevski is one of Sofias ancient churches, St. Sofia. This venerable building dates to the 10th Century and is considered to be a shrine by the Bulgarian people, just outside it guarded by two concrete lions is the Eternal Flame commemorating those lost at war and around the opposite side is a simple memorial to the Jews of Sofia. Bulgaria, almost alone amongst the Balkans, has an exemplary record during World War II with regard to its Jewish population. Although the Bulgarians like to make out they did not persecute the Jews at all, that is perhaps over generous some very strict anti-Jewish laws were put in place and the Jews of the parts of Thrace and Macedonia then occupied by Bulgaria were all deported to the Camps. However, the Jews of Bulgaria proper were only moved to labour camps along the Danube (still in Bulgarian territory) and very few were sent to the Death Camps. Although the record of Bulgaria is not perfect, the Church, Government and particularly the Vice President Dimiter Peshev did their best for their Jewish population and are estimated to have saved around 50,000 lives a fact to be rightly proud of. Ironically, no sooner had the state of Israel been set up than 90% of the Jewish population of Bulgaria emigrated.
Across the road from St Sofia and Alexander Nevski is a small bric-a-brac market which mostly now sells Communist era tat, but also lacework, paintings and a Bulgarian speciality rose water. Beyond that you reach yet another church the Russian Church. This looks very much like a standard Russian Orthodox Church, a few gilded frescoes around the top and a copper spire give it a more attractive edge than its plain exterior might otherwise have.
Passing beyond this you are on to the main street of Sofia, Boulevard Tsar Osvoboditel, this opens up into a large square which terminates at one end with the Presidency buildings and inside its courtyard the oldest of Sofias churches St. Georges Rotunda. This is a truly ancient structure one of the oldest surviving working churches in the world, it dates to the Roman period, circa the 2nd Century, during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great (a relatively local lad from Nis in Serbia). In front of the church are some remains of ancient Serdica the Roman city that stood where Sofia does now. The church itself is circular and is decorated inside with magnificent 12th Century frescoes.
From here you pass through the back of the Sheraton Hotel and come out at the end of one of Sofias main shopping streets, Vitosha Avenue. Immediately next door is the last of Sofias great churches, St. Nedelya a church with typically Balkan low arches and pantile roofs around which cluster a small group of souvenir stands and food sellers. It is one of the places in Sofia where young people gather of an evening.
Across a busy thundering dual carriageway you can see the modern Catholic Cathedral.
Crossing this road you then come to the main Sofia Mosque, the Banyi Bashi Mosque which dates to 1576. It is hemmed in by roads on one side but on the other is a small peaceful park.
Directly across the road (and accessed by a slightly unnerving underpass) is the old Sofia Synagogue which is now one of only two functioning synagogues in the country.
I visited some of the latter parts of this tour of religious buildings later on in my trip. The next two days were solidly at the Conference. On the final conference day, I left a bit early and headed back into the centre of Sofia. That morning I had been scammed by a taxi driver outside the Hotel. Each taxi has to display its fares in the window, so you check for the correct one with the lower fare. This morning I got into a car with the correct fare and then he suddenly told me his meter did not work and I could go with his friend. I jumped into the other car, and it was only once we had started moving that I saw the huge prices on display in this cars window. So my normal six Euro fare ended up costing me closer to seventy. This made me considerably nervous of taxis for the remainder of my trip, but the conference centre was so far from anything that might be useful (like a bus or the city centre) that I had to get one back into town at which point I came across a distinct lack of customer service at the conference venue and ended up going into a nearby café and trying to mime needing a taxi to blank stares.
Once back at my hotel I set off again, walking directly into the city centre. On Knyaz Al-Batenberg Square you pass the National Museum of Bulgaria which coincidentally has one of the better souvenir shops in the city attached to it.
Beyond this is one of the very few Communist era buildings in the centre of the City, the tower of Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party building. This has the look of the great towers in Warsaw and Moscow, but is on a considerably smaller scale. Even so, its position at a key road junction does mean you come across it frequently.
I found, away from the main streets, Sofia to be a city of small rather rundown roads with shops that were not overly inviting, a bit dark, and in many cases ones which seemed to sell whatever they could. This is probably a hangover from the Communist era and once back on the main drags and the larger, cleaner streets Sofia had the look of any other southern European city. Masses of work is being undertaken, at the moment the statue of St. Sofia which is intended to be a counterpoint to Alexander Nevski at the opposite end of the city centre is stranded amongst massive holes and deep scaffolding which rather destroys the look of that end of the city.
I had considerable trouble trying to find food in Sofia. Frequent reference to guidebooks promising nice pasta restaurants failed to come up with the goods. For a start many of the roads have no road signs, and being in Cyrillic did not make it any easier to locate the appropriate roads. Then every time I found the right road I could not find the restaurant I was being pointed to. Virtually every day I walked around in growing frustration trying to find food where I could understand the menu enough to ensure my vegetarianism would not come unstuck, and every time I did this I ended up hungrily ending up somewhere else.
My final attempt at this involved trying to find Spaghetti Company, an Italian café attached to the massive TZUM shopping centre (a very Communist institution but one which is still hugely popular with the Sofians). I was on the point of giving up on this one too and had decided to head back towards home by cutting through a back way. Then I came upon the restaurant, hidden around the back of TZUM, and had the best meal I had in Bulgaria. Finally, on my last full day in town, I began to feel like Sofia was growing on me.
Having eaten, and now actually satisfactorily, I headed back towards my hotel. I stopped briefly in the park outside the National Theatre and had a coffee by the fountains and statues and contemplated how I would rate Sofia as a destination. For the moment, I concluded, it still is a place for the more intrepid traveller. There was still very little English signage (although I did note a clever innovation whereby each point of interest had a sign with a phone number which you could call to get more information about what you were seeing), away from the main streets things were still a bit dilapidated, but it did have some fantastic churches to visit and in parks and squares like this one it felt sophisticated and safe. My decided that Bulgaria was getting there but still has a way to go before it can stand alongside Greece or Turkey as a Balkan hotspot.
When I reached Nardono Sabrovski the sun was beginning to set. As the floodlighting started to come on this most attractive part of Sofia began to take on another look altogether. Lighting bounced off the cobbles giving a light and dark dappling. The domes of Alexander Nevski beckoned once more and if anything the Cathedral looked even more glorious than in the daylight. The now empty cobbles dappled with light from the surrounding buildings and perfectly aimed lighting catching every angle and cupola.
It was a nice end to my visit to Sofia, a city of great contrasts and contradictions and one I dont feel I ever quite fully got to grips with. The next day it was a long leisurely breakfast and then a monstrously scary (but properly priced) trip in a taxi back to the airport.
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