Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital was clothed in a haze of rain clouds when we landed and with temps of 18 degrees, it was a little chillier than we expected for the start of the European summer.
For those flying in from Australia, Emirates offer a reasonable 25 hour flight through Dubai.
I’d booked an apartment in the city centre, a quick 10 minute taxi ride from the airport. In an old building and on the 5th floor without a lift, we were guaranteed a good cardio workout. The Cinematique apartment with its mirrors on the ceiling (but no pink champagne on ice!), was comfortable and extremely well located.
Sofia city centre is quite small, but this city that was first settled by Thracians 7000 years ago, then conquered by Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and Soviets packs a punch with its easy going laid back style. I’ve put together some pics of the sights I enjoyed.
Two lions guard the nation’s impressive Court House below. Not that any have ever roamed Bulgaria, but it is their strength that makes them Bulgaria’s national symbol.
Churches are front and centre in this Balkans country; 76% of Bulgarians identify as orthodox Christians. However, the statistics for practising Christians is much smaller – a legacy of the Soviet occupation when religion was banned. Alexander Nevski Cathedral below, named after a Russian saint is the largest church in Bulgaria and it’s impressive.
This is Saint Sofia and her story as a persecuted Christian is tragic. Her monument replaced a monument of Lenin which was removed in 1991. Graveyards of unwanted Lenin statues are dotted throughout the ex Soviet states.
St George Church is the oldest church in Bulgaria – 17 centuries to be exact.
Bulgarians we are told, think it’s quite OK to be late. This stems from an event in 1925, where communists hatched a plan to kill the Tsar of Bulgaria in church. Twenty five kgs of explosives were detonated, and while 200 people were killed, the Tsar survived because he arrived late. Hence, the Bulgarian moral; being late is tolerated, since being early could cost you your life.
Serdika Roman ruins (4th century) were discovered in 1991 when the metro line was being built. Serdika as Sofia was then called was an important trade centre on the road between Istanbul and the Adriatic. Emperor Constantin kept a royal court here.
The Jewish Synagogue plays host to Sofia’s 5000 Jews. Bulgaria’s Jewish history is interesting, allied as the country was to Germany during WWII. The government devised a plan to keep Jews in Bulgaria and out of the concentration camps by making them work for free on construction projects. Eventually, Jews from Plovdiv were ordered onto the trains bound for the camps, but in an act of sacrifice and humanity, the mayor laid himself across the train line. No Bulgarian Jews were sent to their deaths.
The Ivan Vazov National Theatre is beautiful and named after a Bulgarian poet who helped liberate Bulgaria from the Ottomans.
The Sofia History Museum was once a public bath where people would flock for their Sunday weekly bath in the natural mineral waters. The baths are awaiting renovation and people in Sofia have their fingers crossed that they’ll be similar to the famous Budapest baths.
The Communist Centre built in the 1950s showcases the sheer size, grandeur and dominance of Soviet power. Like other ex communist states we’ve visited, opinions of Soviet rule are divided. On one hand, we were told that Communism guaranteed food, education and health care to the masses, but the downside was the denial of basic freedoms and incredibly harsh punishments to those who ran foul of the system.
Today, Bulgaria is a parliamentary democracy with a Prime Minister as well as a President. The President has few powers but he continues to be guarded by the national guard.
The Royal Palace built in the early 19th century after Bulgaria was liberated from the Ottomans is now the National Art Gallery.
Architecture in Sofia is mixed. There’s the stock standard Soviet grey concrete structures as well as some grand old dames that have well and truly seen their glory days and finally, there’s some really polished gems.
Sofia has a solid reputation for street art. Graffiti is seen as a way to brighten up the grim, gray Soviet era buildings and an apt way to express emotions after the repressive Soviet years. The Chupa Chups street art is quite famous, despite being a bit torn and tattered.
We found some small, local restaurants that served up good food. We also stumbled down narrow alleyways that led to interesting bars.
Sense Rooftop Bar with its impressive cocktail menu offers superb views of Sofia, like the one in the feature photo.
The European summer is just around the corner and beautiful fruit is on sale. This pic was taken at the Ladies Markets and yes, apricots are $A2 a kilo – there is parity between the Bulgarian lev and the Australian dollar.
Tourists find Sofia a reasonably cheap place to visit. Monthly wages for local people are 1200 lev, so it goes without saying that items like food and drinks, even accommodation don’t put pressure on the tourist purse. Interestingly, though, the price of petrol is a hefty 2 lev a litre.
We enjoyed the slow and easy style of Sofia and well understand why a number of ex pats call it home. A Balkans travel blog I can highly recommend is this one written by two American girls who have lived and worked in Sofia for several years: http://sofiaadventures.com
Bucharest Romania is our next stop, so it’s a short taxi ride to Serdika bus station before boarding a Flix bus – should be in Bucharest in 5 hours.