Enchanting. If one combined the cultures and flavors of Turkey and Greece and the Orient, and Russia and Eastern Europe and the Balkan States, sprinkled in a little exotic Gypsy character, then mixed them all together in a city it would be Sofia.
From arrival it was clear that I was not in Western Europe. The Immigration Officer asked me many questions, and the lack of ATM’s in an international airport was a little unnerving. Taxi drivers are insane; I just accepted that and held my breath every time I entered one. Potholes and missing cobblestones abound, yet I did not twist an ankle navigating the city in my stacked heel boots. Graffiti and cigarette smoke are everywhere, too. Gypsy women appeared before me countless times begging for Lev, and I’m convinced one of them put a hex on me when I passed by without opening my pocketbook.
Yet, older Bulgarian gentlemen held doors open for me. NYC and Paris-style high end designers have stores along a few fashionable streets. Billa and Carrefour have made their way into this part of Europe from Germany and France. Fur seemed to be the new black, in spite of the 20° day. The streets along the tourist routes were clean and inviting, and I felt perfectly comfortable wearing my Canon around my neck as I wandered Sofia’s “Yellow Brick Road.”
Conveniently the yellow painted cobblestones (a gift from Emperor Franz Josef to his Bulgarian cousin) link most of the Sofia’s important sights, so it is conceivable to navigate the city highlights without a map. I know this because I started out without one, assuming that the hotel would have maps for their guests. (Yes, of course I had an outdated guide to Central Europe with me, but it did not have a walking map of Sofia.) The following is a complete transcription of my conversation with the hotel clerk regarding said tourist information:
OK, then. Using a photo of a walking tour I’d taken from the Internet with my iPhone, I asked the taxi driver to drop me at the Tsar Alexander II Monument (above). Of course it is undergoing restoration so I got to view the screens instead. An easy walk from the monument then brought me to the National Assembly. Protests here eventually led to the fall of the Socialist party in Bulgaria.
Nearby, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, named for Tsar Alexander II (The Liberator). Byzantine in style, it is believed to hold up to 7,000 people. I stood inside for a while; that estimate seemed reasonable.
Sofia has a mix of Turkish, Asian, Communist, Russian, and Modern architecture. You can guess which style this official building reflects.
The Ivan Vazov Theater commands a striking presence in the pretty City Garden. When I passed through the area again later in the afternoon, the square was filled with people enjoying coffee and the warm sun. Very cosmopolitan.
This former mosque is now the Archeological Museum, and contains an impressive collection of Roman Balkans ruins. No photos, of course. This was the only museum open on my touring day, because I somehow took leave of my senses and planned my Sofia trip for a Monday, when Europe closes almost all of its museums. The two I had most wanted to visit, the Museum of Ore and Man, and the Museum of Socialist Art, will just have to wait for another time.
By now I really needed both a snack and a map. As good fortune would have it, the former “Central Department Store” was near, so I wandered in to search for food and direction.
A small grocery in the building offered a colorful guide, complete with a street map. Yay! Armed with a snack (a whole box of Lokum was the equivalent of only €0.35!) and my guide, I took a few minutes on a sunny bench to plot my course. Only then did I discover that the sights discussed in the narrative were not anywhere to be found on the map! It seems as if two separate people made the map and wrote the narrative, and did not have a meeting before sending their work to the publisher.
So, the afternoon was spent much like the morning, navigating with little more than the yellow bricks and a tourist map that did not identify all of the tourist sites. But I found St. Petka, a 15th century church that does indeed sit below street level. This is because under Ottoman Law, a church could be no higher than a Muslim on his horse. The church is striking for its wall paintings (100 Lev fine for taking photos!), and because it is surrounded by a glamorous and modern part of downtown Sofia.
Not far away, or maybe they were–the map turned out to not be all that great, either–are the Sofia Public Mineral Baths. Bulgaria is known for its mineral waters (which are quite tasty) and allegedly curative springs that feed the baths. No surprise, the bath was closed for touring because it is under restoration!
Adjacent to the baths is the Bania Basi Mosque, the only remaining active mosque of the Ottoman period. Although under restoration, visitors were permitted inside. But I chose not to go inside, because the two young boys “guarding” the shoes looked just devious enough to make off with several pair, and I did not wish to roam Sofia in my stockinged feet.
St. Nedelia Church is noted for its interior woodworking. I was ecstatic that photos were permitted inside, only to learn that the church was closed for a special event. At least it wasn’t under restoration.
Determined to find St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Church, I retraced some steps past the National Assembly, holding court on a grand boulevard…
…and found the church! The Russian-design church, with its onion domes, shone brightly against the blue sky, so much more so than the photos suggest.
Inside there is a small vestibule with tables and chairs, and little note pads, to allow worshipers to write their prayers and place them at the altar of St. Nicholas.
My final church for the day was Hagia Sophia, built over a series of churches dating from the 4th century. Although plain on the exterior, the inside was an architectural timeline of history. I think the kindly nun took pity on my forlorn expression and allowed me to take a couple of photos in spite of the “No Photos” sign, but I was soon busted by another more pious nun and had to stop.
While making my way back to the hotel I came across what appeared to be another market near Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, this one selling vintage clothes. I walked through and noticed that 1) there were several benches filled with people dressed in these vintage clothes, talking and having coffee; and 2) many of the people in this “market” were staring at me. As I am often stared at in Vienna by the older generation for not being dressed up enough when I grocery shop, I paid no mind to these gawkers, either.
Continuing around the cathedral, I noticed a crowd of people holding signs and singing. I walked over for a closer inspection and found myself face-to-face with local law enforcement. Seems I had wandered onto a scene from a movie being filmed, and the kindly officer was shooing me out of the way! And that vintage clothing “market” was actually the dressing area for the movie extras! The officer did not know what movie was being filmed, so you’ll just have to add the next new release from Bulgaria to your Netflix queue to see my movie debut.