Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Bulgaria in 3 Days: Sofia and Mount Vitosha

Text by Albena Shkodrova | Photographs by Lode Desmet   
Your three days in Sofia do not necessarily have to be spent entirely in sightseeing around the city. Mount Vitosha, which lies at Sofia’s outskirts and creates its unique landscape, can add a taste of nature to your trip and let you experience the true spirit of Bulgaria’s capital – the way the locals did more than a century ago.

Certainly, you can have three full days in Sofia, as there is more than enough to see and do in the city itself. Even in its gloomiest times in the late 1980s Bill Bryson found it the “most European of all cities,” and a Europe he “had dreamed of as a child".

Although part of the European authenticity he saw here is now gone and Sofia can no longer be called a place that had “thoroughly resisted the blandishment of American culture,” here you can still witness the poor and shabby, but also the colorful lifestyle of old Central Europe, which is quickly disappearing in Prague, Warsaw or Budapest.

Cobblestone side streets off the main boulevards, badly lit at night; grey, often dilapidated and yet elegant houses; plain new houses; people, squeezing between cars parked on the walkways: a curious mixture of yuppies, old-school bureaucrats, nouveaux riches and clochards; stray dogs; piles of garbage; little shabby all-in-one shops; spacious sparkling fashion boutiques; gloomy restaurants, filled with cigarette smoke and intense garlic aroma; ill-kept gardens; smart tea houses and trendy bistros.

Add to this all the landmarks and museums of Sofia, and you can get yourself anything from a melancholic journey through old Europe to an enjoyable and cheap wining and dining adventure.

But as the classic Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov would say, better “leave your soft bedding, come out of the smoky cafés, the dusty streets, leave for a few days the city and come here, at this height of 2,500 metres, feel at least for a short time one real pure delight and you shall be transformed, you shall become better, healthier, more balanced, more cheerful.”

A hundred and thirty years ago his words inspired a move that nobody thought possible: 400 Bulgarians climbed Vitosha in the early hours of July 27, 1895, to watch the sunrise from its highest peak, Cherni Vrah (2,290 metres). In this way they marked the first organised tourist event in the history of the Balkans.

“To make them come, I had to tell them that the adventure is only for EXPERIENCED tourists”, Konstantinov wrote, sardonically, after the event, referring to Bulgarians’ tendency to show off. Nevertheless he was flabbergasted by the effect of his invitation, published in a local paper. His article on the following day was called “Incredible but true!

He described the events of that night as a “majestic” affair: “That exalted fantastical rush toward the skies, through thousands of obstacles, that vehement climb onto bushes, onto rocks, of tens of electrified groups, the flying flag – brought along for the purpose, the sounds of a military horn among the burning fires here and there, that fantastical picture, enchantingly lighted by the full moon…”

Although Konstantinov’s zeal may evoke smiles today, the events of that night must have looked impressive at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sofia was inhabited only by some 60,000 people and mass tourism was an unknown phenomenon.

What’s more, for many Sofianites this public celebration of Vitosha marked the beginning of a new culture, an urge to remain closer to nature as their town expanded. It changed the lifestyle of many generations, and nowadays, the people who consider themselves true Sofianites proudly tell about their lifetime love for trekking through the mountain.

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Bulgaria in 3 Days: Sofia and Mount Vitosha
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