Sunday, 20 August 2017

Bulgaria’s Capital Sofia: Queen of the Balkans

Text by İlknur Akman Ünal   
Alive and stirring, Sofia is like a butterfly about to emerge from its chrysalis. Neon lights, posh hotels, fancy restaurants and brightly lit shop windows now illuminate its avenues, but a walk through the city gives visitors a glimpse into its varied past – from medieval churches and mosques dating to Ottoman rule to a newer, golden-domed cathedral, from ornate nineteenth-century façades to communist-era architecture.

When I arrived, by train from Skopje, the first thing I saw were the drab old yellow apartment blocks identified with the socialist way of life, the ancient trams creeping slowly along, and the people with grave expressions on their faces.

At first I felt a little alienated since I couldn’t understand a thing due to the use exclusively of the Cyrillic alphabet. But when I decoded the individual characters to make out the street names, I soon caught on to it and I warmed up to the city. Eventually its wide boulevards and green parks won me over completely. It’s said that the best way to get to know a city is by walking, and the more I walked, the more I got used to Sofia and felt at home there. I was actually annoyed with myself for having been so prejudiced at first. Later, I had occasion to travel to Sofia for various reasons, and each time I was pleasantly surprised.

Vestiges of the Ottoman Past

If we go back to the history, Sofia was founded approximately 3,000 years ago on a fertile plain 550 metres above sea level by a Thracian tribe known as the Serdi and was known as Serdica until the ninth century.

Because it was situated at the intersection of the major military and trade routes, it became an important administrative centre from the Roman period on. Sofia’s golden age coincided with the the reign of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD, when the city gained prominence as one of the earliest centres of Christianity. The Banyabaşı Mosque smack dab in the city centre and the Great Mosque, which today hosts the National Museum of Archaeology, suffice to remind us of Ottoman influence.

Some three thousand buildings were completely destroyed and a further nine thousand made unusable when the city suffered heavy bombardment during the Second World War. Occupied by Russian soldiers when the war ended, the city was soon part of the Eastern Bloc. During the period of rapid industrialization in the Socialist era that followed, new factories were built and vast apartment blocks constructed to accommodate the thousands of people that poured into the city’s outlying districts from the rural areas in hopes of finding work.

Although the Communist chapter of Sofia’s history came to an end in 1989, the city centre even today is chock full of striking examples of Neo-classical Stalinist architecture, and it is impossible not to be struck by their sheer monumentality in the face of which a person feels very small by comparison. While the luxuriant parks and tree-lined boulevards go some way towards mitigating this oppressive atmosphere, the elegant houses with balconies and elaborate facades built by Russian and Viennese architects in the nineteenth century reveal the city’s gayer, human face, which was unfortunately hidden for many years.

Sofia’s Bright Face: Vitoshka

Sofia today resembles a butterfly just emerging from its chrysalis and getting ready to fly. It is struck today by the neon lights, the posh hotels, the fancy restaurants where you absolutely can’t get in without a reservation, the brightly lit shop windows. This cannot be said of Sofia as a whole of course. But Vitosha Avenue - “Vitoshka” in the local parlance - which ranks around 22nd among the world’s priciest upscale avenues - bisects the city centre from end to end and awes with its air of modern luxury. Even the famous houses of haute couture have begun to show their faces here. All you need is plenty of money to spend!

In the background, the Mount Vitosha massif, for which the avenue is named, rises like a giant with the city nestled against it. Reaching 2,290 meters at its summit, this mountain is a dedicated ski centre in winter, hosting prominent members of the European jet set who come here to escape harassment by the paparazzi. In the foothills of the mountain, the Boyana Church, one of the finest examples of medieval Eastern European architecture, was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1979 for its flawless frescoes.

Chess in the Park

But to my mind it’s the streets that best reflect the character of this city. Sofia’s residents congregate in open-air cafes to pass the time in pleasant conversation. Its capacious markets offer everything from pickles to Bulgaria’s famed dairy products. And on street corners around the city gypsies resort to humorous ruses of every kind to get passersby to purchase their colourful posies. While people loaded down with shopping bags wait in line to board the trams that whiz to every corner of the city, street musicians entertain them with rousing familiar melodies.

Fierce chess matches rage in the city’s well-shaded parks. Rumour has it that these contests, some of them among prominent players, can drag on for days; and curious spectators never fail to gather round to watch, come rain or shine, snow or sleet.

City Icons: Cathedral and Churches

Strolling around Sofia is fun and full of surprises. This city will amaze you. The Church of Saint Gregory, for example, famous for its twelfth to fourteenth century frescoes, stands today where you would least expect to see it - in the courtyard of the Sheraton Hotel! Descending into the metro, you will encounter the remains of the Roman town walls as you saunter down the ancient Roman way.

Sveta Sofia, an early Byzantine church from the sixth century is regarded today as the city’s the most prestigious venue for weddings. Immediately next to it, the magnificent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its 45-metre-high golden dome is a virtual icon of the city. Built in the early part of the twentieth century to commemorate the 200,000 Russian soldiers that died in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, the cathedral is one of the largest places of worship in the Orthodox world.

Bustling with Culture

Sofia has a lively cultural scene as well. It’s impossible not to envy its 500-meter strip, which boasts nine theatres and an opera house. With its 13 exhibition halls and show venues, the country’s biggest cultural centre, the National Palace of Culture, earned the distinction of being the best culture complex in Europe in 2005.

The Ivan Vazov National Theatre, the Sofia State Opera and Ballet, the Bulgaria State Symphony Orchestra and the Sofia New Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1991, have a respected place in the world with their ongoing performances, the international artists they host and the joint projects they produce. And ticket prices are kept incredibly low in order to reach out to people at every socio-economic level. All this cultural richness serves to make the city worthy of its name: Sofia, or ‘Holy Wisdom’.

So if your travels happen to take you to Sofia, that holy wisdom will engulf you in the light of thousands of years of history, an indescribable feeling that will bind you like me to this city forever.

This text is courtesy of SkyLife, a monthly magazine published by Turkish Airlines.

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