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Settling into Sofia, no guidebook required

Sofia may not be strikingly beautiful, or orderly, or sparkling clean – but it is eclectic, congested, vibrant, chaotic, and crowded, full of secret nooks and dark corners, full of life, colors, noise, and contrasts. It is neither the West nor the East – together with the rest of Bulgaria, it has stood at the crossroads of Europe for over 13 centuries. The ancient Bulgars came from Central Asia, mixed with the Slavs inhabiting the Balkan peninsula and formed a state in 681 AD – and since then, Greeks, Ottomans, Jews, Armenians, Roma, and innumerable smaller tribes have walked Bulgaria’s mountains and sailed its waters, have fought battles, laughed, built homes, traded and massacred, have fallen in and out of love, have raised families, integrated, destroyed, and created, leaving their mark on Bulgaria, the second oldest country in Europe to still stand at its original spot.

St George's Rotunda

St George's Rotunda

Sofia was there even before Bulgaria came around – it has existed in one form or another for over two millennia, starting as an outpost of the Roman Empire called Serdika. This is why the city lacks a unified look – it has traded it for layer upon layer of history, an architectural nightmare of styles and materials where every major building comes with a story. Bulgarians, too, lack a unified look – 13 centuries of living at the crossroads of Europe has made possible every combination of colors, features, and shapes.

When my Australian friend Kevin comes to visit, my first order of business is to declare myself his bodyguard. Bulgarians firmly believe that the seven plagues will descend upon their guests all at once the moment the guests in question are left alone on the street. I have never heard of anything bad happening to anyone visiting Bulgaria – but Bulgarians, myself included, tend to be hospitable, overprotective, and convinced that foreigners, especially the ones from developed countries, lack both basic survival skills and common sense.

My second order of business is to put Kevin’s guidebook in the trashcan. It describes the Ladies’ Market as “charming” and the hotels around the main train station as “good value for money”. Oh, what a load of crap! The area around Lions’ Bridge and the main train station is one of the worst areas in Sofia where all negative stereotypes about Eastern Europeans come to life, although it is technically the historic heart of the city. It used to have elegant, richly decorated buildings that evoked nostalgic images of Sofia of old times, the one where romance was in the air, where parasol-clad beauties walked under the blossoming trees and young, restless poets with messy hair fought for their ideals; the one that was before communism and its egotistic obsession with massive proportions came and encased the city in a utilitarian casket of glass, concrete, and steel. However, years of neglect (deliberate or not) have left this historic area in ruins, with peeling, discolored facades and abandoned buildings interspersed with petty criminals, illegal immigrants, mafiosos, and hookers with diseases yet unknown to medicine. It now stands as a sad monument to yet another cultural heritage site fallen victim to political ideologies, economic hardship, and misconstrued values. However, Kevin has never seen an Eastern European ghetto, so I have to promise him to take him there tomorrow just so he wouldn’t go by himself tonight.

St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Having left Kevin with no guidebook, my third order of business is to promote myself from his bodyguard to his guide and take him on a tour of downtown Sofia – not a simple one to follow, because the mix of ancient ruins, early 20th century buildings, and communist landmarks requires a lot of explaining and constant jumping back and forth in Bulgaria’s history.

We start in the heart of present-day Sofia, in front of St. Nedelya Church – a major landmark, a popular wedding venue, and also the site of the only terrorist attack in Bulgaria. It stands on a hill under which the ruins of the Roman town of Serdika remain. In 1925, the then-underground communist movement (the foundation of the future Communist Party that had its grip on the country from 1945 to 1989) assassinated an army general so that King Boris III and his ministers would gather in the church for the funeral service, thus creating the perfect opportunity to kill many birds with one bomb. A bomb placed under the dome exploded, killing 193 people, injuring about 500, and significantly damaging the church, but not killing the King who was running late because of his unruly horse.

St. Nedelya Church is part of the “square of tolerance” – within a hundred meters of each other in downtown Sofia stand a church, the Banya Bashi Mosque, the Sofia Synagogue, and the catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph. Before the issue was politicized, people got along just fine and Bulgaria was an example of religious tolerance – and to a large extent, it still is, although now it has its small group of ultra right-wing freaks, like most other European countries nowadays. We walk down one side of the square, past the statue of St. Sophia after whom the city is named. Opinions are split as to whether the Sophia that gave the city its name is the Christian saint or the Greek goddess of wisdom, but the former theory seems to be winning, because Sofia celebrates on September 17, the day of St. Sophia and her three daughters – Faith, Hope, and Love. However, with its ample cleavage (which was a source of controversy when first revealed) and golden crown, the statue looks more like a Greek goddess. The statue itself stands where the statue of Lenin stood prior to 1989. We also pass by St. Petka Samardjiiska Church, built in the 11th century and still functioning, where, according to the legend, one of the most important Bulgarian national heroes used to hide from the Turkish in the 19th century while traveling the country to organize an uprising against the Ottoman rule over Bulgaria.

Across from Banya Bashi Mosque is the former Turkish bathhouse, now reconstructed and housing the Museum of Sofia. It was functional well into the 1980s, even though by this time, apartments in Sofia had their own showers. Sofia sits on hot mineral springs – this is one of the reasons why the Romans founded a city here. Water comes out of the ground at about 60 C, tastes really good once it cools down, and brings health benefits – people from all over town come to the little park with Roman ruins and drinking fountains next to the bathhouse to fill up bottles and take them home.

Our next stop is the building of the former Communist Parliament. It no longer serves as a parliament, but still houses government offices. In 1989, it was set on fire during the street protests that toppled Bulgaria’s communist regime and started the transition period to capitalism and democracy. A red star – the most prominent Soviet symbol – used to decorate the top of the building, but was removed in 1990. It was supposedly made of rubies, and rumor has it that during its televised removal, the cameras went out just as they were to show where the helicopter was to take it to. Now it is said to be in the vaults of the Bulgarian National Bank, but the public has not seen it since 1990.

There is an underground passage in front of the former Communist Parliament -underground passages have been built under busy streets in Sofia to provide a safe way to cross without adding traffic lights. In this underground passage are the ruins of old Serdika – sometimes I forget they are more than 15 centuries old when hurrying by in an attempt to catch up with a busy life. Crossing it, one gets to the present-day President’s Office – an enormous communist-style building that also houses the Ministry of Education and the fanciest hotel in Sofia – Sheraton Hotel Balkan. My mother worked for the Ministry of Education when I was little and I loved going to her office – I felt like Cinderella in the spacious hallways with ornate ceilings, marble floors, red carpets, and winding staircases – the remains of the glory of communism when the party elite knew how to live the good life (but was otherwise equal to the common people). Crossing under the arches of this enormous 3-in-1 building is a step back into Sofia’s ancient history – the 4th-century St. Gerorge’s Rotunda, the oldest building in Sofia, sits amid the ruins of Serdika to the backdrop of the finest example of 20th century Stalinist architecture.

The Bulgarian National Theatre

Right behind the Communist Parliament is the former royal palace, with musical notes on the roof – these are the opening tunes of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy which serves as the anthem of Europe and were added in honor of Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union on January 1, 2007. The palace itself is a rather modern one compared to most other European palaces – it was built in 19th century, after Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman rule, when the flamboyant designs of earlier times had already given way to functionality (much to my dismay). My grandmother remembers the last royal family of Bulgaria standing on the balcony of this palace, waving to the crowds who had come out to celebrate the birth of a male heir to the throne. So happy was the king to have a son that he ordered the final grades of all students to be bumped up by one grade – no one failed that year, or so my grandmother says. Two years later the king died of a heart attack and the prince, at the age of two, was still capable of little more than eating and pooping – so the communists took over and exiled the royal family to Spain. More than 60 years later that same prince, already a grown man, but still capable of little more than eating and pooping, came back to Bulgaria, formed a political party and was elected prime minister. He used his time in office mainly to change the constitution to allow him to reclaim all his family property that had since been converted to public parks and museums, then ran the country to the ground and went back to Spain. The palace in Sofia is one of the few he didn’t reclaim – I guess he either figured it would be hard to sell, or actually didn’t dare take it away from the Ethnographic Museum currently housed there.

Across from the palace, in what once was the palace’s gardens, used to stand the Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s equivalent of Lenin. It was built in just 6 days in 1949, in Stalinist style, all in marble, and the location was chosen to make the point that Georgi Dimitrov is equal to the former king (although, in [communist] theory, we were all supposed to be equal). My mom has told me stories about how all middle school students, including her, were required to go on a field trip there to pay their respects to the great leader. They were all terrified – first by the smell, and then by the sight of the mummified body in a glass box. However, the building itself was one of the few beautiful communist buildings in Sofia. After communism fell, the body of Georgi Dimitrov was buried in a regular grave, and the mausoleum stood empty and covered in graffiti for years. In 1999 the government decided to demolish it – it belonged to a part of history the country was trying to forget. The demolition was like a show – it was televised and a crowd gathered in anticipation. There was a big explosion that rocked Sofia, and when the cloud of dust and smoke settled, nothing had happened – the mausoleum stood undamaged. Reportedly, it was designed as a secret bunker for the communist elite in case of a nuclear attack. It took three more explosions to bring it down – the second caused the building to slightly tilt to one side, and the final one brought it down. The empty space was turned back to a garden, where open-air opera performances are staged in the summer.

The Russian Church, Sofia

Our next stop is the National Theater, a beautiful Sofia landmark built in Viennese style in 1906. It was designed by an Austrian architect – the Austrian school of architecture was the best at the time and its influence is visible in many pre-communist buildings in Sofia. A fire destroyed the building in 1923 and during its reconstruction, it was discovered that the balconies in the main salon were built to withstand earthquakes, which was not in the original plan – the construction workers must have taken the initiative. Theater is very popular in Bulgaria – theater tickets are not much more expensive than movie tickets, performances are often sold out, and the audience is a mix of all ages. The garden in front of the fountain is a popular venue for Sofia’s chess and backgammon enthusiasts – people gather to play, watch, and gossip around the fountain to escape the summer heat.

We continue with a stroll down the main thoroughfare of the former royal Sofia, paved with signature yellow bricks and lined up with the embassies occupying the former houses of the aristocracy. Official history says that the bricks were a wedding gift to one of Bulgaria’s kings (that’s gotta be the weirdest wedding gift ever), but rumor has it that they were the king’s gambling night earnings (and that’s an even weirder thing to bet). The material for their making came from a mine in Austria that ran dry shortly after – so the bricks remained unique in the world. Also on this street are the Russian Church built for the needs of the Russian immigrants in Bulgaria and finished just before World War I (at night it looks like taken straight out of a Russian fairy tale), and the Military Club, an important cultural venue in royal Bulgaria and another nice example of early 19th century building designed by a Czech architect. In early 20th century, the yellow-bricked stretch we are walking was where the cream of society went out for evening walks on warm summer nights so women could show off their jewelry, men could show off their women, and parents could show off their daughters in an attempt to find them a good husband, preferably an officer or a close friend of the royal family.

The yellow brick road at nightOnce I am done showing off Kevin, we head to St. Alexandar Nevsky Cathedral, the biggest one on the Balkans. It was built between 1904 and 1912 in honor of the Russian soldiers who died for the liberation of Bulgaria in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 – 1878. Russia of course had its own agenda and it was not fighting a war just to liberate Bulgaria – but it did indeed kick the Ottomans out of Bulgaria, so Bulgarians still honor Russia as their liberator. Ironically, the Russia who liberated us is universally loved; the Soviet Union into which it later turned is a symbol of either a repressive regime or a safe haven, and thus a subject of polarized opinions. So different are the images of the two Russias with their respective Russians that it is as if we are talking about two completely different countries. The Cathedral was named after St. Alexandar Nevsky, the patron saint of Tsar Alexandar II who led the victorious Russian army in the war against the Ottomans. The bells were made in Moscow and took almost a year to travel to Sofia; the domes are sheathed in gold, and rumor has it that one of the artists who were decorating the walls had his wife hang on ropes off the ceiling so he could model an angel after her. The Eternal Flame, a monument to the unknown soldiers who fell defending Bulgaria in numerous wars, burns in front of the cathedral, guarded by a statue of a lion – the symbol of Bulgaria.
The last stop for the day is the Parliament, a modest, almost insignificant building compared to the colossal communist one we saw at the beginning of our tour. In 1884, the government of the newly liberated Bulgaria wanted a building that was “beautiful and solid, but not too expensive, with no unnecessary decorations on the outside” (“unnecessary decoration” is an oxymoron, you aesthetically-challenged utalitarianists!). Back in 1884, it was in the outskirts of Sofia, at its highest point where a Roman necropolis used to be. An old Bulgarian superstition says that a building built on top of the dead is cursed, because the dead can’t rest in peace and come back to bother the living. In 1997, the Parliament was raided during a wave of street protests following an economic crisis that saw the inflation rate soar to more than 1,000% in a year. In pre-communist history there have been several floods and fires, and three Heads of Government have been assassinated, the most famous of whom was attacked with an ax nearby.

Across from the Parliament is the Monument to Tsar Alexander II of Russia who liberated Bulgaria from the Ottomans. This is where Bulgarians gather on Liberation Day (March 3rd) – Bulgaria’s equivalent of 4th of July – to celebrate more than 13 centuries of undying national pride. The monument offers a beautiful view of classic Sofia, with the golden domes of St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral glowing softly in the sunset while a warm summer night descends upon the yellow bricks.

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