Visiting my First Eastern European Capital: Bulgaria’s Sofia

As I wrote in other entries about the trip to Bulgaria, the main purpose of my visit to Sofia was to attend a wedding. Around the various events, though, I had time to check out the city, of about 1.2 million residents (15th largest city in the European Union as of this writing) by walking around a lot and stopping at key sites based on my travel guide and curiosity.

Sofia was a Roman capital, which belies my ignorance as I didn’t realize the Romans got to this part of Europe.  It also was home to a Celtic tribe before that.  And about the 7th century BC, it was home to the Thracians.  All this followed by probably gazillions of tribes, peoples, empires given its strategic location in southeastern Europe.  I did not realize how old this city was in its history!  But there was a lot of learning and discovery for me as I spent time in Bulgaria’s capital…

Churches and Religion

I guess the main type of site to visit is churches. There are a lot of churches in Sofia and out in the country. In Sofia, I visited the Saint Nedelya, Saint Sofia, Saint George, Alexander Nevski (the Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral), and perhaps a few other lesser known ones.

Saint George, a 4th century church! (between the Sheraton and the Presidency)

Cathedral of Alexander Nevski in Sofia, Bulgaria - Orthodox Church

Cathedral of Alexander Nevski in Sofia

I began to see that while each church is unique in its own way, they tend to be quite dark and austere.  I imagine this is as intended but being new to visiting Orthodox churches, that was a new piece of “data” for me.  The iconostasis, or what to be is the back of the altar area, was always unique and beautiful.  There were always icons placed around the church; the faithful would walk to each, bow, perhaps kiss it and say a prayer.  The faithful would also buy candles upon entering the church and light them as they prayed.  It was moving to see the display of faith.

Inside the Cathedral of Alexander Nevski in Sofia, Bulgaria

Inside the Cathedral of Alexander Nevski

My mind wondered how religion and its public expression may have changed since the fall of communism (a religion of its own in my opinion but of a darker sort…).  Regardless, it is good to see that it is alive.

Reminders of the Communist Past

Walking around town, you see a fairly modern and free society – and then you run into sights that remind you of the serious communist past of the country.  I recall reading somewhere that Bulgaria was more Soviet than the Soviet Union itself (well, the communist leadership anyway; not sure that all Bulgarians shared that preference!).

Office House of the National Assembly in Sofia, Bulgaria; formerly the House of the Communist Party of Bulgaria

Office House of the National Assembly; formerly the House of the Communist Party of Bulgaria

Art mural in Sofia, Bulgaria

Mural on the side of a building in Sofia

Statues in a park in Sofia, Bulgaria

Statues in a park in Sofia

Guard post in Sofia, Bulgaria reminiscent of communist times

Guard post at an intersection

Rain, Rain on My Face

It rained most of the time I was in Sofia, except during the weekend which was perfect since that’s when the wedding events were taking place – I can only imagine the bride’s concern at all that rain right before her wedding day!  The worst part was that water didn’t clear fast enough from the curb so when walking in narrow-sidewalked streets, you played a game of dodge of sorts…  Most drivers slowed down, if not for the common potholes, for us as pedestrians.  But there were one or two drivers who saw opportunity in the convergence of curb water and pedestrians… Evil! 🙂

Pothole (LOL, not from Sofia, just searched for a pic on the Net)

While it was common to see potholes on the streets, I may add that the sidewalks weren’t much different!  You really had to watch where you stepped.  In some places where the sidewalk was made up of square tiles, you had to mind that the tile could be lose and, if so, there was water under it, so stepping on it could also mean getting splashed even if a little bit, by oneself!  The rain did not deter me -or the locals- from venturing out.

Vitosha is the name of the main shopping street where only the tram and buses travel the roadway and which sort of ends at the church of Saint Nedela.  I enjoyed walking it and seeing the shops – and the folks. I wondered if people thought I was a local given my looks…

File:Vitoshka-with-St-Nedelya.jpg

Vitosha (not my picture!)

Because of the rain, there was not much available in terms of open-air cafes. I don’t recall seeing many places with that type of facilities, except maybe in Vitosha street. Because it is still a heavy-smoking culture and because I am no longer used to being around smoking, I was longing for an open-air cafe but the rain pretty much killed that possibility even where such cafes existed. I did manage on the weekend to sit at Flo-cafe across from Saint Nedelya and enjoyed a beer sitting outside. It was cool enough that I wanted to be inside but not too much that it was going to be intolerable so I opted for “fresh air”.

The weather did not allow for the best of photos but some of the views were still worth a picture!

National Theater in Sofia, Bulgaria

National Theater in Sofia, a beautiful building

I visited the Archeological Museum (across from the Presidency) which was as impressive a building as it was in terms of its contents. It was well labeled in Bulgarian and English and I recommend it if you are interested in artifacts from a long time ago.

Guards at the Presidency in Sofia, Bulgaria

Guards at the Presidency

There were other museums that I did not get to visit (National Art, Natural History) as I wasn’t feeling too museum-bound in spite of the rain which invited one to find indoor entertainment/activities.  Some key places offered info via your mobile phone and were so identified with signs like the one below.

Sign in Sofia, Bulgaria for tourists to get information

Bulgarian and the Cyrillic Alphabet

I walked around the Presidency, the Party building (former home of the Communist Party), and many non-descript sidestreets that allowed me to see more about real life in Sofia.  One key challenge at the beginning was figuring out where I was on the map. Most street signs, not all, were only in Bulgarian.

Building in Sofia, Bulgaria - neat color and architecture

Around Sofia’s center

As you may know, they use the Cyrillic alphabet which often but not always looks like the Greek letters we used in my science/math classes in college.  I finally figured out the value of studying engineering when one does not work as an engineer: it is easier to sort through Cyrillic/Greek alphabets when traveling abroad!! I would like to say that I can finally justify my engineering degree as it was going to help me in my travels!

Having said that, it was not cake to sort through Cyrillic but, I like puzzles so I kept looking up the letter “conversion” to my alphabet and kept trying to read signs phonetically. I think that helped me a lot as I was able by the 4th or 5th day to pronounce most words I read. Now, that did not mean I knew what the word meant!  But since my map used English street names, it helped me at least learn to find my spot on the map and then get to learn how to move about the city.  In about 3 days, I didn’t need a map to navigate around my part of the city as my sense of direction and memory allowed me to get rid of the dependency on the map.

Some words in Bulgarian are similar enough to words in languages I speak so being able to read the Cyrillic helped me out. Of course, I also made an effort to learn a few words in Bulgarian (to read menus, for example) so that helped. I did notice some French influence and I wondered how that came about and if it had always been like that or if that was a post-Communist thing.  For example, the word for “thank you” in Bulgarian is quite long so people just say “merci”.  Another example is that one can say “aerogara” to refer to the airport.  If you are curious on the Cyrillic alphabet and how it came about, check this link out:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrillic_alphabet

Impressions of Sofia and Bulgaria

I could clearly tell that Sofia was a capital city given all the government buildings around the area where I stayed.  The former influence of the Soviet Union was felt in some of the architecture though there is enough of other architecture that I didn’t feel like I was drowning in state-planned architecture (mercifully).

I was sad to see the state of some of the buildings and infrastructure.  Bulgaria is now in the EU but that is also an expensive proposition for a country recently escaping from communism that may not have had the pre-communism experience of capitalism other ex-Soviet bloc countries may have had (like the Czech Republic).  I could see that the country is moving forward but I didn’t feel unbridled energy.  A local told me that Bulgarians don’t like to see others “get ahead”, that they want everyone to be the same and that such mentality keeps the entire country from exploding in growth and new ventures, things needed to help lift a country to the next level.  I wondered if his viewpoint was skewed in any way but what he said made sense to me knowing that the country had been under a stern Stalinist model for close to 50 years.

I think the country is blessed with great natural beauty, a perfect setting for trade (it is at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East/Turkey), great climate, and a rich history.  It is a great destination should folks be willing to go somewhere different where the sights and “feel” of the city are not exactly those of the major European capitals or even towns like Tours, Toledo, Siena, Salzburg, or Krakow.  I wish I had had more time to explore other areas of the city and more of the countryside and smaller towns to experience it more fully.  But I am glad I got to get at least a peek at it and finally get a real picture of that country that seemed so inaccessible and remote in my childhood…

Comments

  1. Great to combine travel with something social like a wedding. Glad to hear the rain stopped and became nice for the big event. Bulgaria looks gorgeous.
    Traveling Ted recently posted..That time at the Chicago Marathon photo essayMy Profile

  2. Stefan Bogdanov says:

    It’s great that you enjoyed your stay in Sofia! I just have a small correction: Alexander Nevski is not Russian Orthodox, as the denomination is either Bulgarian Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox. We have a Russian church, the church of St. Nicholas, which is less than 5 minutes away from Alexander Nevski.
    Thanks again for your great post on Bulgaria!

    • Stefan, thank you for the correction on Alexander Nevski and for the feedback on the post! I enjoyed Sofia and the other spots I got to see of Bulgaria (I didn’t see enough but glad I was able to see some of it).

  3. Luly Pino says:

    Very interesting! Reading about the history and your experience in Sofia while looking at your photos, is like being there. Interesting the structure about St. George Church. Were you able to enter this church? Any pictures from the inside of it? The Cathedral is huge. Like the lighting of the candles …we do that too.

  4. that’s really interesting what the local said about them not wanting others to “get ahead”. SO glad the rain stopped for the bride!
    lola dimarco recently posted..Four Great Places to Visit in LondonMy Profile

  5. A place not on my radar at all!! Thanks, Raul!
    @mrsoaroundworld recently posted..My hOtel: Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills @fslosangelesMy Profile

    • Sofia is not the kind of place that lands in most people’s bucket list – but it is interesting in its own way and worth it for those seeking something different, Mrs. O.

  6. I was in Sofia for two days when I was six years old, and I don’t remember much. Only that we stayed in a hotel called Moscow (not surprising, considering it was in the 80s). I’ve always wanted to go back.

    I enjoyed reading your impressions, esp. the part about getting ahead. I’m interested to see how that unfolds – now that Bulgaria is part of the EU, some changes are inevitable.

    The National Theater and the orange building in the city center are beautiful!
    Pola (@jettingaround) recently posted..No Ordinary Park Bench: Virgin Atlantic’s street campaign in NYCMy Profile

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