Sofia is the cosmopolitan capital of Bulgaria. It was founded by a Thracian – Indo-European tribe which inhabited a large area in South East Europe sometime around the 8th century BC. Elaborate tombs are the most obvious reminders of the Thracian culture and they have been unearthed across southern and central Bulgaria. But it was the Romans who settled the city that you can see today, after conquering the region in 29 AD. It was also held by the Ottomans for about 500 years and it was during this period that it became a regional capital.
Sofia became the official capital of Bulgaria in 1879 after the city was liberated from Turkish Rule in 1878.
She picked the “wrong side” during WWII and as a result lost much of her heritage to bombing raids. Liberated by the Russians in 1944, a people’s republic was created and socialist architects rebuilt the city.
As the day dawns, Marco leads us on a introductory walking tour of the town centre. The first thing we notice this morning is pizza. Everyone is eating big slices of pizza! That certainly must go on the list of things to do today. When you’re in Rome (or Sofia)….
In front of us is the Lion’s Bridge. At each corner of the bridge are four massive bronze lions as if standing guard to the old city.
The second thing we notice is the ruins. Everywhere.
Beside the Lions Bridge…
Even just walking through the metro station! As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Romans built much of the city of Sofia and it seems that workmen these days can barely put a shovel in the ground without coming across Roman remains of some kind.
And just outside the metro station?…More ruins of course.
Out the back of the imposing Presidency building is the St George Rotunda and the remains of the ancient city of Serdica. The Rotunda now forms part of the St George Church and is part of a complex of architectural monuments consisting of the remains of a large basilica. The floor of this basilica shows evidence of a heating system and the stone pavement of one of the main streets of Serdica complete with drainage.
It’s absolutely fascinating to see ruins like this just in the middle of the city. A definite first for me and in a country I didn’t expect to see them in.
The day was very warm and the one of the guards in front of the Presidential building looked as though he was fit to keel over at any moment, profusely sweating. The poor chaps had to stand there without any hint of shade.
We stop at an outdoor café but we are brusquely notified by the waitress that there is no water, so that means no coffee or other hot drinks. Her offhand manner offends most of us and instead of settling in for lunch, we order only Cokes before heading on our way, leaving the waitress to tend to her other non-existent customers.
Leaving behind the rude waitress, Marco stops in front of a tree and points out some little red and white strings and decorations on the branches of a tree. They are Martenitsi and this is what they are about. On the first of March each year, Bulgarian’s leave the house were little red and white strings tied around their wrists or necks or adorned on their clothes until the wearer sees a stork or swallow returning from migration – or a blossoming tree – and then removes the Martenitsa. The Martenitsi are never bought for yourself, only as gifts for loved ones or friends.
There are different rituals for removing the Martenitsa – some people tie them on the branch of a fruit tree (as we saw), others put it under a stone with the idea that the kind of creature closest to it the next day will determine the person’s heath for the remainder of the year. If that creature is a worm you are in luck – the year ahead should be healthy and successful. Ants are also good. Spiders? Not so much – these mean that you’re in trouble and may not be enjoying luck, health or personal success.
No points for guessing where I’d be putting mine!
Another interesting Bulgarian tradition is remembrance of the dearly departed – pieces of paper, photographs included, stuck to homes, doorways, trees in memory of those who have passed on. These are called ‘Necrologs’ and if you would like to read more on this very interesting topic, please refer to this great article.
Despite the work of the Soviet architects, there are a lot of gorgeous buildings lining the streets of Sofia and it’s a lovely place to walk around and explore.
Marco leaves us outside the Alexander Nevsky church, where we all scatter in different directions depending on what we want to see for the rest of our free day.
Across the road from the church, there was a small antiques market which disappointingly sold a lot of Russian made goods and also a lot of icons.
Moving along from the market, we headed to the King’s Garden, where stands the Monument to the Soviet Army. Depicting a Soviet Soldier surrounded by a Bulgarian male worker and female peasant, it was built in 1954 as a symbol of gratitude for the Soviet Red Army for helping Bulgaria on their war efforts during the second World War. The monument has been the centre of controversy since Bulgaria transitioned from communism to democracy as many aren’t too happy about the presence of this behemoth, which daunts the country’s national symbols.
So it probably wasn’t much of a surprise when, in June 2011, an unknown street artist gave the old Soviet fighters a makeover, repainting them as modern day heroes – Superman, Santa Claus, Ronald McDonald. This wasn’t to be the last time the monument’s stars were given a good ‘zhooshing’. In August 2013, the monument was painted a vivid shade of pink on the anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslavakia in 1968. And in the same month, the monument was again re-dressed in support of the members of the Russian anti-Putin band Pussy Riot, each character now sporting a brightly coloured balaclava. Russia has kindly asked that people stop vandalising the monument, but we’ll have to wait and see how long it is before that request gets ignored.
In the commercial heart of the city is the monument of St Sofia, who was the city’s patron and namesake. Erected in 2001 she replaced Lenin’s monument. Some of Sofia’s residents were not happy as she was considered too erotic and pagan to be referred to as St Sofia.
Markets stalls selling fruits and vegetables are set up alongside the street and further down is a book market where you can find all sorts of books, some even in English, and records too. It’s time to stop for a bight to eat and spying a pizza shop, that’s where I head. The shop attendant hands over a nice big slice of pizza and shock horror – it’s cold! Oh well, that’s not going to stop me from enjoying it!
Vitoshka Street is a fully pedestrianized shopping mall selling just about everything you can get anywhere else in the world. Once upon a time it was the only place to shop in Sofia but shopping malls changed all that and in deed nearly ended things for Vitoshka but once the area was redeveloped, the people came back. Cute cafes line both sides of the stretch and provide welcome relief from the heat when we stop for a drink and some icecream.
The last stop on our sightseeing trail today is the Ladies Market. There are all the usual homewares for sale here as well as jars and jars of different kinds of honey.
Bulgaria has a chain of dine in restaurants called Happy. Marco mentioned this to us and made the point of saying they are a good dining option and that he regularly eats there. Normally, I would steer clear of these types of restaurants (Hard Rock excepted of course – for the rock memorabilia and broccoli), but today I decide to give it a go. Marg is up for the challenge and comes along with me.
Opened in 1994, there are now 22 Happy’s around Bulgaria, the largest and fastest growing restaurant chain in the country.
Staring at the menu, which all looks very appetising as Marco promised, we notice a strange ingredient mentioned frequently – boletus. Trying to eliminate the ingredients by looking at the pictures, and at first think it must be mushrooms, until we notice there are dishes that have mushrooms and boletus. Google comes to the rescue and find it is indeed a genus of mushroom-producing fungi. I’ve never heard this word before in my life, but happily order the Chicken Alfredo with Boletus.
Half way through eating, a countdown begins. Marg and I look at each other wondering what’s going on. Some of the staff begin to meet in the middle of the restaurant and next minute Pharrell’s song “Happy” bursts forth from the speakers and the staff begin dancing to it. The dancing ends with the smashing of plates on the floor and everything returns to normal. I wasn’t expecting that but what a nice way to end the day!
I also notice the staff uniforms have the Unicef symbol on them and ask one of the waitresses what it means but perhaps she doesn’t know enough English to respond to me because she says she doesn’t know about it. Once more Google comes to the rescue and I find out that there is indeed a relationship of some kind but that until I learn to read Bulgarian I would not be enlightened as to what it was! Anyone who can translate the link would be much appreciated!
I couldn’t resist dessert, merely for the fact that I just had to try this taste combination when I saw it on the menu – miso-mascarpone homemade cake with blueberries. And the result – it’s a very soft cake ball, surrounded and mixed in with the mascarpone and covered in blueberry compote. It’s a very different taste, perhaps an acquired taste to some, but as a frequent traveller to Asia, it wasn’t unexpected and I quite enjoyed it.
After such a full day, I am more than ready to hit the sack. We are off again early tomorrow morning to travel to Gorno Draglishte (Where? I’ve never heard of it either!) via Rila. Seems another long day of travel is on the cards.