“The self-explorer, whether he wants to or not, becomes the explorer of everything else. He learns to see himself, but suddenly, provided he was honest, all the rest appears, and it is as rich as he was, and as a final crowning, richer.”
Elias Canetti (Bulgarian playwright and novelist, 1905-1994)
Sofia isn’t hilly like Lisbon, at least not in the city itself, though it is hemmed in by the lovely Vitosha Mountains. However many of its streets are cobbled, broken and precariously jumpy when navigating them with a baby in a buggy. There are also quite a few steps. But my experience of the city was of a laidback, friendly place, so I was never short of assistance in carrying said buggy up and down steps. Whether outside the iconic Aleksander Nevski Cathedral or on the way into the luxurious Sense Hotel to glory in the views from the Rooftop Bar, there always seemed to be a pair of hands willing to help.
The city centre is an appealing and jumbled mix of the old and the new. I drank in the bright colours and glowing gold of the ceiling frescoes inside Sveta Nedelya church and the gloomy yet atmospheric interior of Aleksander Nevski Cathedral, built at the end of the 19th century and apparently one of the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals. I admired St Sophia Church, an unpretentious domed construction of warm tan-coloured bricks and was slightly disappointed that the underground museum was closed on the day we visited (Monday).
The city contains plenty of chunky, Soviet-style architecture, as you might expect. On the fascinating Communist Walking Tour, which I did on a bitterly cold evening with a warm bunch of fellow tourists, we trundled round the obvious destinations, such as the brutalist National Palace of Culture, the presidential palace and the socialist party headquarters. More interestingly, we peeked into the past by hunting out hidden churches (such as the tiny 13th century church of Saint Nicholas Mirlikiysky on Kaloyan street), a former hard currency department store (from the period when most people could obtain dollars only on the black market) and an interrogation centre turned nightclub (perhaps not surprisingly the latter was unsuccessful as a venue). Another remnant of a bygone era is the Natural History Museum, recommended by my Bulgarian friend Elena as a ‘bit of a throwback. I bought my ticket, handed it in to a guard sitting two metres away from the ticket office and then, as there were no lifts for the buggy, carried the baby globetrotter in my arms round three floors of exhibits. Awake and alert, she was strangely fascinated by the serried ranks of glass cases housing stuffed animals!
There are also lots of graceful, gently coloured buildings like the National Theatre. And I was surprised at just how many parks there are, offering green space, clusters of trees, statues and, since I was there in November, a soothing riot of autumnal colour. Churches and mosques are mixed in with public office and ministry buildings, and there is a thriving café, restaurant and shopping culture on the pedestrian Vitosha Boulevard, popular with tourists and locals alike.
Having seen the city on our first day decked out in its autumn finery, we awoke the next day to see that an unexpected coverlet of snow had been laid down overnight. Dodging the rivulets flowing from the edges of the roofs as the snow melted quietly away, I whisked around to admire the muffled beauty of the streets. The city looked even prettier with a clear blue sky and the sun glinting off the domes of the Russian Church and the Aleksander Cathedral.
Overall, I was captivated by my taste of Bulgaria, especially by the welcoming helpfulness of the people. The old town of Plovdiv looks gorgeous, so I’m adding that to my list of future city breaks!
Food & drink – definitely the Rooftop Bar at the Sense Hotel for its commanding views over the Cathedral and its extensive drinks list. Social Café and Kitchen for its friendly staff, welcoming space and tasty Italian food, very reasonably priced. Also very well-located on Vitosha Boulevard. Moma for delicious, interesting food in a delightful traditional setting. Barista Coffee & More – I think it’s a small chain, a sort of Bulgarian version of Starbucks. The (decaf) coffee wasn’t great but the filled mini-croissants and French macarons were excellent. Crepes de France – shamefully I didn’t actually try the crepes but the coffee was good and it was conveniently close to my hotel.
Culture – the Museum of Socialist Art – a bit out of the way but you can easily take the metro there and it is an especially interesting adjunct to the Communist Walking Tour, which I’d highly recommend to provide some political and historical context to your visit. The National Museum of Natural History, if you like slightly weird exhibits! The National Art Gallery, housed in a beautiful former royal palace, is meant to be rather nice, but I decided not to subject the baby globetrotter to it on this occasion.
Sleep – with the arrival of the baby globetrotter, sleep is at a premium, so I’ve decided to add an occasional new feature with places to stay. While in Sofia I stayed at the Hotel Thracia, a Best Western hotel which was very conveniently located just off Vitosha Bld. The rooms are comfortable though with a certain Soviet air to them; the buffet breakfast is good. If I went back with a bigger budget I’d want to stay at the Sense Hotel.
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