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Our first visit to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria

Home -> Europe -> Bulgaria -> Travelogue Bulgaria -> 14 May 2019

Tuesday 14 May, our first visit to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria

It has rained all night and we are happy that it stops in the morning. Opposite the bus stop (line 2) we buy 4 bus tickets in a kiosk because we have read that you have to pay in the bus with exact change and a single ticket costs 1.60 Lev (about 80 eurocents). In the bus, two girls who know a little English explain to us that we have to stamp the tickets ourselves or, rather, puncture holes in them. According to Teije, a system that was also used in public transport in the old communist era. We ask them what the Bulgarian word for 'thank you' is, which is always handy to know. It is something like 'blakondarja'. We have to get out at the 5th stop and that is a bit difficult because the trolleybus is packed with people. As a result, we unfortunately do not see much of the neighborhoods that we drive through.
The Vassil Levski Monument in the center of Sofia Large advertising poster at the Vassil Levski Monument in SofiaWhen we get out, we first have to orientate where we are. Teije usually has a reasonable sense of direction in cities, but not today. We just walk up to the first monument and then we will find out: this is the Vassil Levski monument in honor of a national hero and revolutionary who helped set up the freedom movement against the Ottoman Empire.
It is clear that the city center is much better card for than the suburbs. And instead of the former communist propoganda, advertising is now everywhere to be seen, capitalism has won here too.
A brief history lesson: Sofia has been around for a few thousand years and was already the capital of the region during the Roman Empire period and was then called Ulpia Serdica after the Thracian tribe of the Serden who had a settlement here. In 447 the city was destroyed by the Huns but rebuilt by Justinius I of Byzantium under the name Triaditsa. In 809 the Bulgarians conquered the city and with the name Sredets became the part of the First Bulgarian Empire. It was conquered again 2 centuries later by Byzantium to be included in the Second Bulgarian Empire a century and a half later. In 1376 the city was renamed Sofia to St. Sofia to whom a church was sanctified in the city.
We will see her statue later and when we read more about her we find out that tomorrow, May 15, is her holiday. She is also called 'cold Sofia' or ice woman because the days before, from 11 to 14 May, are called the Ice Saints. Is that why it is so cold? We almost regret not bringing coats.
In 1382, the Ottoman Empire conquered the region and Sofia became the capital of the Rumelian province. Only in 1878 was Sofia liberated from the Turks by the Russians and became the capital of the autonomous principality and later principality of Bulgaria. Many of the Islamic buildings that were built in the city in Ottoman times were destroyed and the Turkish families, who had moved to Sofia in all centuries of domination, fled the city. In the Second World War, Bulgaria took sides with Germany and was occupied by the Russians at the end of the war, after which Sofia became the capital of the communist republic of Bulgaria. Sofia is still the capital but now of a democratic country that has been a member of the European Union since 2007.
National art gallery, Sofia Monument in Ohridski park, SofiaThe center of Sofia is spacious with wide avenues, many squares and parks and everywhere monumental large buildings that a cosmopolitan city likes to show, although nothing is really famous or special. But on every street corner or square you see an impressive building such as the National Art Gallery (a former palace) where a few art exhibitions (modern and medieval) can be seen. The parks are called gardens here, which can be found everywhere in and around the center. And they are full of sculptures, unfortunately mostly without accompanying text otherwise we could have told something more about them. A small botanical garden can be visited in the St. Kliment Ohridski garden.
Bulgarian academy of sciences, SofiaBecause we still have to orient ourselves a bit, we first have a cup of coffee in the sun on the edge of a park. When we walk in to pay, we bring our empty cups and put them on the bar, but then someone in the kitchen gets mad at me: there should be no cups there, don't you understand? Accompanied by some Bulgarian curses, I guess. Well, we tried to be helpful! That piece of bar was reserved for food and nothing else. Sure, logical. Well, from now on I will leave the cups on the table and we will not visit this place again.
We walk further to the center along the oldest institute in Sofia, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.
A plane above the Aleksandar Nevski cathedral The Aleksandar Nevski cathedral in SofiaWe had already seen the Alexander Nevski Cathedral from a distance and are now moving closer: the cathedral dominates a large square and is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. Apparently Sofia has a busy airport because every few minutes a plane flies over the city and they seem to go right over the Neo-Byzantine cathedral that was built at the beginning of the 20th century in honor of the Russian soldiers who died in the war against the Ottomans that liberated Bulgaria. No fewer than 5,000 people fit in the cathedral. We think the exterior is especially beautiful because of the many domes. There are 12 clocks, the largest of which is 3 meters high and weighs 3 tons.
Exhibition in the crypt of the Aleksandar Nevski cathedral Colorful painting, crypt of the Aleksandar Nevski cathedralInside, just like almost all orthodox churches, the church is richly decorated with a lot of gilding and paintings. We find the crypt more interesting where a part of the National Art Gallery is exhibited, all ecclesiastical objects of course. The crypt was intended as a tomb for the Bulgarian kings, but no one was ever buried here.
We are welcomed by the staff who explain a lot about the the collection to us and we get to hear an ethymological story about 'blakondarja' when we use that word to thank them. But that was too difficult an explanation to remember.
St. George and the dragon, crypt of the Aleksandar Nevsky cathedral St. George and the dragon, crypt of the Aleksandar Nevsky cathedralThis seems to be the largest collection of orthodox icons in Europe and what strikes me most are the colors that even on age-old canvases still seem very clear. But there are also other valuable items, including a 500-year-old Bible, the cover of which is gilded. Many of the icons depict the same scenes as George and the dragon although this saint probably never really existed. One of the characteristics of the orthodox church is that it is believed that everything religious has already been revealed and that therefore nothing can be changed in the faith. Tradition is the most important and that is reflected in the icons and orthodox art in general. You will not find unexpected things and many resemble each other, even from different centuries. After half an hour we have seen enough.
Holy synod of the Bulgarian orthodox church, SofiaThe Orthodox or Byzantine church separated from the Catholic Church in the 11th century and is now mainly organized in national churches. So you have the Russian Orthodox, the Greek, the Bulgarian, and so on, but it's just the same belief, not different directions. And they all have a holy synod, the highest church organ. We are not really in to religion, but here too it has produced beautiful art and buildings such as the building of the Bulgarian Orthodox Holy Synod. Many monumental buildings in the center of Sofia have been renovated thanks to funds from the United Nations.
Lion statue at the monument to the unknown soldier, Sofia The monument to the unknown soldier, SofiaOn the side of the 6th century St. Sofia church we see the monument for the unknown soldier and before that an eternal flame burns. But it took a while for this monument to be placed because Bulgarian intellectuals argued that a monument for unknown soldiers meant that their names would be forgotten, all those hundreds of thousands who had given their lives for the freedom of Bulgaria. And the accompanying lion could count on quite a bit of criticism because a seated lion would be a metaphor for letting go of national ideas. What a sensitivities!
Ivan Vazov national theater Ivan Vazov national theaterOur feet are in need of some rest and on a square in front of the famous neoclassical Ivan Vazov national theater we find a covered terrace where we eat a cheap but tasty sandwich. Lovely to sit for a while because even though the center of Sofia is not very large, you walk easily quite a few kilometers unnoticed. The theater we overlook is the oldest theater in Bulgaria, designed by Viennese architects. After being bombed in World War II, it was rebuilt in 1945. From the inside it also seems to be very beautiful but it is now closed.
Fountain in the city garden of Sofia Chess players in the Sofia city gardenOpposite the theater is a pond with a fountain and a lively park where a group of men play chess, checkers or watch the others play. This park is the heart of the city and the oldest in Sofia. It is simply called the City Garden and has existed since 1872. Until 1999, a mausoleum for Bulgaria's first communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov, dominated the park. His embalmed body lay in it, but after the fall of the Soviet Union and the democratization of the country, the body was removed, cremated, and buried elsewhere. In 1999, the entire building was destroyed, against the wishes of the majority of the population.
Sculpture group in the city garden of Sofia Statues in the city garden of SofiaIn the communist period, parades often went through this park, now there are mainly statues, most of which date back to that time, but unfortunately there is nowhere an information sign so that we have no idea what the people in the photo on the left are listening to. But it should not surprise us if it were to show Bulgarians listening with hope to the sound of Russian planes that came to liberate the country from the fascists. The image on the right looks more like a cross knight but we honestly have no idea, suggestions are welcome.
In the course of the 20th century, many more parks were built in Sofia, often with all kinds of facilities to make them attractive to visitors. All have lots of monuments and statues and all are well maintained.
Beggar in Sofia A toilet in a neglected apartment, SofiaThen we look for a toilet but that is not that easy. In a shopping street we come across the only beggar we see these days, a woman with a blanket over her and surrounded by pigeons. But in Western cities we have often seen many more beggars. We find a sign with a toilet on it a little further in a kind of half-empty shopping center. We have to go through the entire building, then up the stairs to the second floor where there are neglected apartments and in a corridor there is a toilet with a sign that it costs 50 lev, 25 cents.
The Banya Bashi mosque in Sofia The largest synagogue in southeastern Europe is in SofiaSomewhere in the area must be the Bulgarian Tourist Office, but we cannot find it. Fortunately we have already collected enough information from the internet and continue to the Banya Bashi mosque, one of the oldest in Europe (16th century). The mosque is still being used but both men and women can enter for free outside of prayer times. The name Banya Bashi means 'many baths' and the mosque is built above thermal springs. Here you can still see the Ottoman architecture and the walls of the mosque are beautifully decorated with texts from the Koran.
Opposite the mosque is the Sofia synagogue, one of the largest in Europe. It can accommodate 1,300 people, but most of the Jews from Sofia have migrated to Israel.
Sculpted pillar at the Banya Bashi mosque in Sofia Sculpted pillar at the Banya Bashi mosque in SofiaA short distance before the mosque and the synagogue, near the McDonalds in the center, we see a beautifully carved pillar.
Here too we have no idea what this monument is for, but since the artwork is playfully executed it will probably not date from the Communist era.
Many statues from that time have since disappeared from the streets because some they were no longer considered politically correct. There are, by the way, still enough, but it seems that vandals (or politically motivated people) regularly paint or color those works of art. For example, Russia has already complained that a certain war memorial for the Russians was painted as if the soldiers on it were American superheroes.
Sculpted pillar at the Banya Bashi mosque in Sofia The regional history museum in SofiaIn the park behind the mosque are the former mineral bath buildings (from the 20th century, not the Ottoman baths), but since a few years the regional history museum has been housed there. The museum shows the history of Sofia and the surrounding area from 6,000 BC. until now. In addition, there are often temporary exhibitions. The price is 6 lev (3 euros) but if you want to take pictures then you pay 15 lev (7.50 euros) extra. We don't think that is worth it. The attendants here are a lot less friendly than in the crypt of the cathedral, they walk around grumpy and keep a close eye on everyone.
Remains of the old city Serdika in Sofia Open-air museum Serdika in SofiaSofia has more than one million inhabitants and the city has an extensive public transport system, including a metro. During the construction of the second metro line, archeologists discovered remains of the Roman city of Serdica between 2010 and 2012. 9,000 m2 has been uncovered and most of it can be visited for free. From the mosque to the Sveti Petka church you can walk above it or underground among the remains that largely date from the 4th to 6th centuries AD. but older parts have also been found. And all that just a few meters below the current street level.
The old city of Serdika in Sofia has been partially excavatedTwo archaeological teams have investigated as much as possible and they have done their best to turn it into a kind of open-air museum, which certainly worked out well. We do not know to what extent the construction of the metro has been delayed by these finds, but as much of the old city as possible has been preserved and this year a new part has been opened to the public. Who knows what else can be found. It is somewhat reminiscent of Thessaloniki where parts of the old city are also visible between the shopping streets. The excavations will continue and we read that they have found a tomb this month.
The church of St Petka of the saddlers in Sofia The Sveta Nedelya cathedral in SofiaWhen we walk back to the pedestrian zone in the center, we pass St. Petka, a medieval church that is also partially below street level with walls of one meter thick, and the Sveta Nedelya cathedral that was destroyed in 1925 when a group of communists bombed the place while a funeral was going on where Czar Boris III of Bulgaria was the target. Just before that, he had suppressed a communist uprising in which some 10,000 people died. There were also quite a few casualties in the bombing, but not the tsar and his family.
We are now quite exhausted from the long walk on which we have seen many more impressive buildings and statues, too many to mention and to be honest, I am a bit tired of all those impressions. You get so much information in a short time and you know that you will have forgotten half of it within a few days.
Hot chocolate in Sofia View of the Vitosha mountain from the center of SofiaIn a shopping street I order a cup of hot chocolate because with 15 degrees it is not really hot. What I get is more like a cup of hot chocolate, without the milk. In addition to the sweet drink, the waiter also lays down a number of sugar bags. As if someone would add that! Behind us we see the Vitosha Mountains in the distance where there is still snow. We now also read that Sofia is situated over 500 meters above sealevel and that it is therefore often a lot colder than on the plains.
After this long break we want to see a few more things, but when we point something out to the waiter on the map, he sends us completely in the wrong direction. We still see a number of churches and statues but it is becoming increasingly cold and it is probably going to rain. It has been a long day so we decide to go back home. On the way back we enter the Alexander Nevski Cathedral for a short look but we almost can't get out anymore because 2 buses with Dutchmen have just arrived and want to enter the church. What are these Dutch people doing here? Even in Bulgaria you cannot escape them.
When we think we have found the right bus stop, we ask the driver if he is going to our neighborhood, but he acts sullenly as if he doesn't understand us. Fortunately the fellow passengers help us and also indicate the place where we have to get out, although we also recognize it ourselves. We are happy when we sit on the couch, our feet and my back feel very painful from the long walks. We are getting old...


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