Friday, 28 July 2017


Text by | Photographs by Lode Desmet   
In 1913, the Morning Post’s Balkan correspondent described his reaction to Sofia, “I had expected a semi-Barbaric eastern town, but I found a modern capital, small but orderly, clean and well-managed…but oh, so deadly dull.” Though no longer very clean and orderly, Sofia is also far from dull. The city surprises foreign visitors, who anticipate a slovenly, slightly oriental, post-Communist town, with its rather unexpected, but definite European feel. Though not a widely popular destination yet, the city offers an interesting mix and plenty to see and do to those willing to look beyond the immediate surface.
The relative compactness of the Sofia’s centre makes it quite a walkable city and a tour on foot could be a very pleasant experience. Depending on their interests, visitors can choose a variety of routes which would allow them to see different aspects of the city that “grows but doesn’t grow older.”

This is Sofia’s official slogan and, for the most part, it is true. The city has had its historical ups and downs, and change – for better or worse, has been a constant, giving it a dynamic and youthful spirit.

A Brief History

Sofia’s earliest inhabitants were the Serdi, a Thracian tribe, who settled in the area 3000 years ago. It was later conquered by the Romans who named it Serdika. During their time, the city was an important point on the road linking Constantinople to Belgrade and was frequently under siege. In the seventh century, the settlement was renamed Sredets by the Slavs who migrated there and under whose control it continued to flourish. Later it became part of the Byzantine Empire, with a new name – Tryaditsa. In the fourteenth century, it was named after the ancient church Sveta Sofia.

Sofia was chosen as a capital only at the end of the nineteenth century, after an independent Bulgarian state was established upon liberation from Ottoman rule. The city’s most beautiful architecture dates from this period. During its more recent history, Sofia – like other Communist bloc capitals, saw the springing up of imposing Soviet-style public buildings and monotonous, concrete high-rise residential suburbs. Though they are far from attractive, they add to the visual mixture of epochs which makes the city appealing. Though the most recent transition period brought much decay and chaos in the 1990s, it also added to the city’s varied historical mosaic.

Five Routes

1. Churches: the Old, the New and the Russian

One of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, Alexandar Nevski is perhaps the most glorious of Sofia’s architectural monuments. It was built in the Neo-Byzantine style over a period of more than 40 years at the turn of the twentieth century, to commemorate the Russian soldiers who died in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War. Its magnificent domes and half domes are covered in gold donated by the Soviet Union in 1960, while the interior is made from marble, onyx and alabaster. The crypt underneath (accessible through a separate entrance) boasts a large collection of Eastern Orthodox icons and offers reproductions for sale. Around the cathedral, visitors can buy hand-knitted lace from old ladies and antiques, such as Soviet-era wrist watches and medals, old coins and jewelry of various quality and authenticity.

A stone’s throw away from the cathedral stands the city’s second oldest church, Sveta Sofia, which the city was named after (Sofia means ‘holy wisdom’ in Greek). Believed to be the fifth structure constructed on the site (preceded by several churches, a Roman necropolis and a theater), the austere, symmetrical cross basilica, covered in red bricks, dates from the middle of the sixth century. Its frescoes were destroyed during Ottoman rule, when it was converted into a mosque and minarets were added.

A bit further to the southwest, across Rakovski street, stands the impressive, gilded onion-domed Russian church, with its contrasting bright exterior and dark interior.

2. Shopping: the Posh, the Shabby and the Gourmet

If you’re in the mood for shopping, Sofia offers anything: from high street and upscale international fashions through locally designed clothing and crafts to Chinese-manufactured goods. The former could be found in the posh stores along Vitosha boulevard, which pedestrians have to share with the passing trams but not with cars. As Sofia’s main shopping drag, Vitoshka – as the locals call it endearingly, is being replaced by numerous indoor shopping malls. However, it offers visitors the chance to combine an open-air walk with shopping.

If you continue northward, shortly after Vitosha turns into the Knyaginia Maria Luiza boulevard, you will come upon Halite – an ornate pre-World War I building with a clock tower. The recently innovated structure – boasting an internal glass roof held up by iron pillars, houses two floors of stalls and small shops selling Bulgarian delicacies and other foodstuffs, making it a nice place for a nutritious and tasty break from your walk.

From there, continue northwest until the crossing of Pirotska street and Stefan Stambolov boulevard, and you will find yourself at the southern point of the Zhenski Pazar, or ‘Women’s Market’. Providing a real contrast to the upscale Vitosha, this chaotic and shabby market offers anything – from farmers’ produce to Chinese knick-knacks and Middle Eastern hookah pipes. Its real attraction, however, is anthropological: an array of interesting characters haggle, buy, sell and rush around – all this to the sound of Roma women’s occasional screams, “Belt panties!”

3. 3 in 1: Ancient History, Modern Art and Politics

True Sofianites are said to be “born on the yellow cobblestones.” The phrase comes from the unusually coloured cobblestones covering the streets and boulevards of Sofia’s innermost centre, where some of the city’s most important government buildings and museums stand. The monolith, Soviet-style former Communist Party house is on Nezavisimost square. The giant pillar, which now stems from it, topped with an unproportionally small flag, used to be crowned by an enormous ruby pentacle – taken down in 1990.

From the front of the building, take a look across the green area with the flags, and you will see the imposing gold and dark grey statue of St. Sofia perched on a pedestal, a controversial new addition to the area. The Council of Ministers’ building is also nearby, diagonally from the former party house building, across Dondukov boulevard.

To the east, on Batenberg square, is the National Art Gallery which has a large, but not very inspiring collection of Bulgarian art. It is housed in an imposing building, which started off as an Ottoman konak but later received a Neo-Classical facelift and became the royal palace. The small and quite unremarkable garden across from its main entrance was the site of the mausoleum, which housed the cremated body of Bulgaria’s first communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov, until 1990. In the following decade, the structure fell into disuse and got covered by graffiti. When the government decided to demolish it, it proved so steadily-built that it took several blow-up attempts before it finally crumbled to the ground. Just south of former mausoleum site is Sofia’s Archeological Museum. The building, a fifteenth-century mosque, contains some Thracian and Roman relics that are worth seeing. Across Lege street are the President’s offices, with guards who change on the hour.

4. The great and not-so-great outdoors: Mountains and parks

Sofia is a relatively green city and its numerous parks, though they are not very well-kept, provide a nice change from the dusty city streets. Borisova Gradina, or the Garden of Boris, is Sofia’s largest park. It was named after Tsar Boris III, under whose reign it was laid out, supposedly partly similar to London’s St James Park. It’s a nice place to idly wander around, but there are also numerous bars, cafés and even outdoor dancing venues scattered around its grounds, as well as tennis courts and a football stadium. The recently refilled Ariana lake offers pedalos for rent during the warmer months, and in the winter there is an ice skating ring near it.

For those desiring a more outdoorsy experience, Mount Vitosha is less than 30 minutes from the city centre. Reachable by car and lift, its slopes offer a quick escape from the city. In the spring, summer and autumn, nature-lovers can take picturesque hikes or just have a picnic in the grass. In the winter, Vitosha provides decent and very easy-to-access skiing and snowboarding facilities. In recent years, thanks to artificial lighting, the phenomenon of night-skiing has become popular among Sofia’s yuppies, who go for a quick slide or two after finishing work in the evening.

5. The multireligious walk

If you’re looking for a testament of Sofia’s long-standing religious diversity, take a walk along the following route: Start with the Banya Bashi mosque on the Knyaginia Maria Luiza boulevard. You may even hear the muezzin’s discreet call to prayer from the structure’s single minaret.

Built in the sixteenth century, the place fell into disuse during the Communist era, but it is now frequented by the city’s Muslims. Almost across the street, on the corer of George Washington and Ekzarh Yosif streets, is the Sofia synagogue. Built by a Viennese architect in 1909, it symbolizes the Jewish contribution to the city. Inside, the enormous chandelier is surrounded by a deep-blue ceiling, framed by Art Nuveau style freezes.

At the time of its construction, 20 per cent of Sofia’s inhabitants were Jewish. Though they escaped the Nazi concentration camps, their numbers dwindled significantly in the post-war years due to immigration. Bulgaria’s largest Catholic church, St. Joseph, is a couple of blocks to the south, on Todor Aleksandrov boulevard. After construction attempts of over a century, the modern, linear structure was finally completed in 2006. Lastly, walk back to the Sveta Nedelia square and the church by the same name. Second in importance only to Alexandar Nevski, the Sveta Nedelia Church is the latest of a series of churches that have stood on the site of Serdica’s main crossroads since the Medieval Ages. Nearby, you could also see Sofia’s oldest church, the fourth-century Rotunda of Sveti Georgi (in the Presidency’s courtyard) and the city’s coziest church, the Medieval Sveta Petka Paraskeva (at the beginning of Saborna street).

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