Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Sofia, Bulgaria: A City of Ecumenical and Earthly Delights

Text by Prabha Chandran for Balkan Insight   
Close enough for a weekend away this summer, Sofia is a city of contrasts. Lively, hedonistic bars and nightclubs, co-exist with beautiful churches and cathedrals.

“Bulgaria is similar to Hungary.” I’d heard it said, but had never really been convinced. So perhaps the most relevant similarity for me is that both capitals are some 4-5 hours by road from Belgrade, making them ideal weekend destinations. Having fallen in love with the old castle district of Budapest, we wondered if Sofia could compete - we were not disappointed.

Getting there is fast and easy. The E75 motorway from Nis turns into a stunning drive along the Stara Planina range where white limestone mountains skirt the river Timoc, dividing Serbia from Bulgaria. We passed through a series of white rock tunnels that stick out like extended underarms of the mountainside.

Our idyllic drive ended abruptly at the mildly chaotic Kalotina checkpoint in Bulgaria. I had seen the long queues on Google Earth, including an interesting piece on a house that straddled the border, two of its room in Serbia and two in Bulgaria! I amused myself by wondering if they had to negotiate Bulgaria’s chaotic customs to eat dinner or visit the toilet.

Imagine our confusion when a USB device was handed to us, together with our stamped passports. After being directed to three windows we realise the USB has data for a toll to be paid in Bank Window 1, then stamped in Bank Window 2. Bulgaria may have joined the EU, but our first tedious encounter with its bureaucracy showed the old mindset is still dictating how business is done.

It’s something Bulgarians are angry about - as well as the fact that desperately needed EU funds for development remain suspended on corruption charges. That some people have a lot of inexplicable wealth is obvious from the top-of-the-line Mercedes and exotic sports cars lining the streets, bumper to bumper, in the neighborhood we stayed in.

Their occupants can be seen sipping cocktails at exclusive restaurants like the Bulgari Cafe, dressed in the latest Paris and Milan couture, with bejewelled Vertu mobiles and Chopard diamond watches dangling from their wrists. The girls look unnaturally well-endowed and flaunt their enhanced assets in the timeless tradition of molls. I felt suddenly undersized among the mega mammaries.

Sofia’s dubious sub-culture becomes apparent later at night when the city square flashes with sexy neon-lit silhouettes and vibrates to the beat of pole dances and erotic massages – but beware, there maybe up to six bouncers with threatening biceps guarding every entrance. It’s like the Mafia is out to get the girls!

We settled for more sedate, if equally engaging, entertainment: a restaurant in the nearby Vitosha mountains where a pious couple dance over burning coals holding aloft the icon of St Elena. It’s a traditional Bulgarian dance and tonight, a bridal couple was being feted by the dancers, who picked up the bride and made as if to drop her among the embers.

This weekend the city was full of brides and they were posing for photos at the cities many monuments and in the parks. We saw wedding ceremonies in two of the four ancient churches that dot Narodno square. Choral music rang out from the oldest one, the St. Sofia Church as the bride and groom exchanged their vows.

This fourth-century basilica was built during the reign of Justinian and has survived intact with 1600- year-old mosaic details. We left the newly weds to their bliss, walking out to pay our respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier nearby and the grave of the national poet Ivan Vazov, marked by an engraved boulder.

The city’s chequered past is amply reflected in its contrary architecture of communist housing blocks, top-end designer boutiques and bars and a wealth of Byzantine architecture. Our hotel was in the heart of the old square, on the doorsteps of Sofia’s most imposing monument: the golden domed Alexander Nevski Cathedral.

The multiple onion domes of the five-aisled church glinted richly in the sun as we read a plaque which told us that the church was completed in 1912, in honour of the Russian and Ukrainian casualties of the 1877 War of Liberation from Ottoman Rule. Arguably one of the finest pieces of architecture in the Balkans, it took craftsmen and artists from six countries 30 years to create masterpieces of icons, frescoes, murals and the huge chandeliers.

The interior decoration, made of Italian marble, Egyptian alabaster, Brazilian onyx, gold and mosaics embodies the spirit of the finest Eastern Orthodox traditions. Later, we visited the superb collection of ancient icons in the Church’s crypt, buying a signed silver icon of the Virgin and Child from the store.

Walking across the sunny garden to the Russian church nearby, we stopped at some antique stalls selling Soviet and Turkish bric-a-brac, old weapons and expensive designer fakes. I bought a couple of items for good luck as we head to the Russian Church, arguably the prettiest in Sofia.

Built by Russian workmen in 1912, it is dedicated to St Nicholas, ‘the miracle worker’. The exterior has bright yellow tiles and the domes are covered with emerald green majolica tiles, crowned with five gold-plated onion domes. The domes, I learned, have recently been renovated by the Moscow Patriarchate, who provided the gold.

Having just visited St. Petersburg and its profusion of golden-domed churches, I’m beginning to believe the Patriarchate’s coffers are no mean second to the Vatican. The church’s crypt is a popular stopover for Sofia’s miracle seekers, who make requests of St Nicolas. The crypt is festooned with scraps of paper containing messages from supplicants.

By contrast the Church of St.Nedlya is modest, but has a Serbian connection. It has two ancient bells made in Serbia and was the resting place of the Serbian King Stefan Milutin for several hundred years.

The church was partly destroyed in an earthquake, rebuilt, and then razed to the ground in 1925 when Communist rebels detonated a bomb during a funeral service, attended by Tsar Boris III and his cabinet ministers. A plaque commemorates the 123 people who died in the explosion. The church was rebuilt, restored, and modernised but its interiors no longer boast the richness of the original frescoes.

We completed our ecumenical tour of Sofia by visiting the medieval Boyana church on the outskirts of Sofia. Don’t be fooled by the modest size of the church which looks like a little hut.

It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and owes its international fame to its frescoes dating from 1259. Once inside the climatically-controlled chapel, we saw how the two layers of frescoes revealed themselves in unexpected motifs, the second layer covering the paintings from earlier centuries.

This is the most complete and well-preserved monument of Eastern European mediaeval art. A total of 89 scenes with 240 human images are depicted on the walls of the tiny church. An inscription on the church dating from 1259, says the church was created with funds donated by the grandson of Stefan Nemanja, King of Serbia.

It was time to drive back to Belgrade after lunch, and as we approached the chaotic Kalotina checkpoint once more, we heaved a sigh of relief that we were leaving Bulgaria on a quiet election Sunday - and pitied those entering who were in a mile long stationary queue. Later, watching the news, we learned the mayor of Sofia has won the elections, we wondered if God, or Mammon, had something to do with it.

This article is courtesy of Balkan Insight, the online publication of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, which contains analytical reports, in-depth analyses and investigations and news items from throughout the region covering major challenges of the political, social and economic transition in the Balkans.

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