Sofia - Bulgaria

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Known as ‘Serdica’ to the Thracians and Romans, as ‘Sredets’ during Bulgaria’s medieval empire, and by the Greek word for wisdom ever since, Sofia bears the marks of a diverse history, all aligned in no particular order.

Maybe it’s due to the absence of any great central river, but Sofia and its assorted attractions do indeed seem merrily haphazard in their placement. Off the modern Boulevard Maria Luisa, the Ottoman past jumps out in the form of the 16th-century Banya Bashi Mosque – just one block over from Europe’s largest synagogue, and a short walk from the 19th- century Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, a sumptuously decorated Orthodox church, which boasts the miracle-working bones of 14th-century Serbian King Milutin. All these buildings are actively used in this city of 1.2 million souls (or so say the statisticians, who are certainly erring on the side of caution).

At its structural core, though, Sofia is a Roman city. Roman ruins sprawl everywhere, and more are still being found underground – the current construction of a second metro line (which has left the city’s slender bronze monument of patron goddess Sofia challenged by massive cranes for prime position on the skyline) has been slowed by the discoveries of long-forgotten Roman relics.

The same accidental discoveries occurred just seven years ago when Sofia’s most elegant new hotel, the Arena di Serdica, was being built. In the end, the authorities allowed construction to continue around the discovered portion of the ancient Roman amphitheatre’s curving walls; today this eye-catching ruin comprises the lower section of the hotel’s impressive foyer, winding also through the wellness lounge, where guests de-stress before hitting the steam bath or enjoying a revitalising massage.

Indeed, Sofia’s bubbling baths have always been its secret, and in fact the key to its existence in the first place; Thracian tribes settled here for the dozens of hot springs percolating up from under the earth. Roman baths and later Ottoman hammams utilised the spontaneous streams of hot water (up to 50?C) rising out of the earth, and today fountains are dotted throughout the city; traipse around the Central Mineral Baths, a grandiose museum-to-be fronted by fountains where cyclists pause to refresh themselves and kids stop to fill up bottles.

Sveta Nedelya

In Sofia, things are always happening: maybe quickly, often quietly, underground, or out of sight. It’s what makes the city so full of life: as the retro-coloured trams whiz past the crowds, a flock of birds suddenly shoots up; from a kiosk or subterranean shop window, a solitary hand reaches out with someone’s change; while demure women sample on their wrists varieties of rose oil (one of Bulgaria’s best-loved national products, from flowers gathered in the central Kazanluk region).

Meanwhile, down by the green market, traditional mekitsi (fried dough made with yoghurt, served with jam or cheese) sizzle in a special pot under the watchful eye of a jovial doughnut chef, as a fishmonger hawks river trout opposite.

And nearby, in the city’s small Arab enclave, 29-year-old Jusuf from Iraq is hard at work flipping up the crunchy tanoor bread from a giant kiln and at the window where passers-by queue up for this tasty cousin of lavash. He blows a kiss into the air and smiles: “This is a great city!” Jusuf reveals that though he had the chance to live elsewhere in Europe, the kindness of the locals made him decide to settle down here.

Such unexpected encounters are part of the daily life in this often-underestimated capital. Too many still associate Bulgaria with strict Communism, Olympic gold medals in weightlifting, and (more recently) cheap holiday properties. Yet there’s much more to the country and its people.

While certainly subdued, Bulgarians have a wry sense of humour – as was seen in Sofia in June, when an austere, post-WWII monument was artfully vandalised: stony Soviet soldiers were vividly transformed overnight into Superman, Ronald McDonald, Santa Claus, The Joker (from Batman), and various other modern superheroes. Although no-one took responsibility, many suspected that the perpetrators came from the hip Sofia Design Week, one among many art and culture events regularly held in this buzzing city. The ingenuity of the act promoted public thought on the fate of other unloved mementos from the Soviet period, which are apparently now to be included in a new Museum of Totalitarian Art.

Tipped to open this autumn, it will complement an already outstanding array of museums and galleries in Sofia. One of the best is the Archaeological Museum, housed in a former Ottoman mosque and showcasing ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman antiquities, the standout being the lavish 5th-century gold burial mask of an unknown Thracian king. The museum’s cool café, studded with antiquities, is a great place for coffee and cakes. Then there are the lions – on statues, bridges, emblems, and more. Back in Thracian and Roman times, they are believed to have hunted these Balkan plains, and the choice of the lion as a sort of national animal is an apt one, for Bulgarians are a proud nation. They have always sought to express this in big ways, and no visitor to Sofia will miss this point. Indeed, the grand squares of Sveta Nedelya and Aleksander Nevski, plus the expansive city gardens and grand structures such as the Palace of Justice, are fronted by lion statues.

The sight that solicits most awestruck stares, however, is Aleksander Nevski Cathedral, the biggest in the Balkans, and capable of holding over 10,000 worshippers. It took 30 years to build, and was originally envisaged to commemorate the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died in liberating Bulgaria from the Ottomans. Freedom is a sacred concept in Bulgaria, and in this church, the seat of the Bulgarian patriarch, you will see it on abundant display in this Byzantine-influenced structure’s enormous, gold-plated dome, 12 sonorous bells, and a crypt icon gallery containing some of the most valuable icons in Europe.

Plovdiv – Capital of the Arts

A drive of just one-and-a-half hours east from Sofia brings you to Bulgaria’s second city of Plovdiv. It’s an excellent place to spend a day, or enjoy a longer sojourn. Plovdiv’s atmospheric old town, a network of cobblestoned streets lined with art galleries, cafés, boutique hotels, and classic 19th-century Bulgarian architecture is sublime. The de facto capital of Bulgaria’s Thracian region, Plovdiv is one of the most sophisticated towns in the Balkans, and its historic quarter is remarkable for the living tradition of arts it has sustained. 

Many of these galleries are found along, or near, Saborna Street, the main road heading into the old town. Among them are the Zlatyu Boyadjiev House, with large-scale 20th-century works, and the State Gallery of Fine Arts, with works by 19th-century Bulgarian masters such as Vladimir Dimitrov. The Red Pony Art Gallery, also in the old town on Chomakov Street, exhibits and sells works by more recent Bulgarian masters including the gifted Dimitar Kirov. Nearby, the well-preserved Roman amphitheatre is still used for open-air concerts and dramas. A great time to visit Plovdiv is autumn, when temperatures are still warm, without the crowds.

Plus, each year on September 28 the festive Night of the Museums and Galleries is held, with free admittance for all comers, and little celebrations and late hours at local galleries and museums until 3.00 am.

Sofia, Bulgaria
Distance: 3,223km
Flight Time: 7 hours 5 minutes
Frequency: 4 flights a week via Bucharest

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