The Bulgarian capital city of Sofia ticks all the boxes of immersive travel. By Neeta Lal
Sofia sits on layers of history. Ruled by the Thracians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottoman Turks, and the Communists over centuries, the Bulgarian capital city of 1.26 million people is today a polyglot mix of races, nationalities, and cultures. The Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Africans, Syrians—all blend seamlessly and ceaselessly into the city’s demographic profile. Also called the ‘Jerusalem of the East’, Sofia gathers three monotheist temples in close proximity.
An Orthodox church (St. Nedelya) in the city stands next to a mosque (Banya Bashi); the two face a Catholic cathedral (St. Joseph), all within sight of and a walk away from the city’s synagogue (Sofia Synagogue).
A free walking tour in Sofia opens my eyes to how many layers of history are hidden in this Balkan jewel overlooking the Vitosha Mountains. “The city was originally called Serdica after a Thracian tribe called Serdi that populated it. It flourished as a trade hub from the 12th to the 14th centuries and was then rechristened in 1376 to ‘Sofia’ after the Church of St. Sofia,” my local guide Lyudmila Borisov informs me while flagging off our city tour from St. Alexander Nevsky Square, the pivot around which Sofia seems to flow. The Square is an ensemble of stunning edifices—the neo-Renaissance-style National Assembly Hall, the National Library, the Church of Saint George, and the neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Regarded as one of the world’s biggest Orthodox churches, the cathedral is also Bulgaria’s most famous landmark and commemorates the 2,00,000 Russian soldiers who died for Bulgaria’s independence during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78). “Building materials for the church were shipped in from Africa, South America, and many other parts of the world,” we’re informed as we soak in the shrine’s glittering domes and magnificent cupolas, sunlight dancing off them.
St. Sofia Church, a terracotta-hued brick basilica, impresses us with its gravitas and lack of ostentation. In this many-layered city, it is hardly surprising to learn that not long ago, from beneath the church were unearthed a phalanx of fourth-century tombs and churches. The city continues to perplex archaeologists with sporadic discoveries. Last year, excavations in downtown Sofia revealed a pithos (Greek earthen jar used to store food) full of 2,974 silver and five bronze Roman coins, dating back to the second and third centuries. Parts of the ancient city of Serdica that have been excavated can also be seen in underpasses and the Serdica Metro Station right next to the Sofia Largo, an architectural complex housing government offices.
THE MODERN AND THE MEDIEVAL
The old and the new sit easy in Sofia. Ancient ruins are woven into the city’s landscape as harmoniously as chic eateries, cafes, bars, and nightclubs. Propelled by a youthful, creative energy, Sofia was also vying for the title of the European Capital of Culture 2019. The Central Mineral Baths, an elegant ochre-hued complex accented with colourful ceramic mosaics, is another blast from the past. Fronted by a park and sparkly fountains, it was built in 1908 in the Neo-Byzantine style by Bulgarian architect Petko Momchilov. It originally housed one large pool with two separate wings for men and women as well as smaller mineral pools. However, the baths no longer exist, and the complex has now been converted into a museum. Locals and tourists flock to the Baths for another reason—to sample free mineral spring water that gushes from taps located around it. “Bulgaria is famous for its mineral springs, and over 200 of them dot the country, the largest number for any one nation,” Borisov explains, as we queue up to have a taste of fresh spring water. Most of these mineral springs were discovered and developed centuries ago as entire towns evolved around them. Some are now popular spa resorts attracting a high footfall from wellness seekers. The most famous mineral springs—Knyazhevo and Gorna Banya—are located on Sofia’s outskirts.
A LESSON IN HISTORY
A lot of history is suffused in the air of this great city. And a constellation of museums and art galleries showcase it to great effect. At the National Museum of History, glass cases overflow with Thracian gold and Roman artefacts. The Museum of Socialist Art offers a peek into life behind The Iron Curtain through its quirky collection of statues, paintings, and propaganda movies. At the National Gallery, Bulgaria’s largest art museum, I soak in the resplendence of some of its 41,000-plus paintings, sculptures, contemporary Bulgarian artworks as well as miniature paintings housed in the Indian section.
Private art galleries as well as internet-based ones are thriving too, presenting expositions of contemporary, modern, and Renaissance art. According to Bulgarian art dealer and gallerist Stephan Stoyanov, after years of tumult and tragedy, Sofia is finally coming into its own. “A resurgent art scene is a manifestation of the city’s assertion of its new identity. Bulgarian artists are expressing themselves through a new vocabulary and increasingly piquing the interest of art connoisseurs across the world. A series of independent art spaces are opening up, all part of an increasingly active subculture.”
Despite the impressive weight of history and the drab-looking Communist buildings, Sofia doesn’t take itself too seriously. Its streets are alive and vibrant with graffiti, writings, and irreverent drawings in myriad styles. The Sofia Graffiti Tour, dedicated to the city’s street art culture and community, acquaints me with this unique art form. Our group of seven tourists (from countries as diverse as Japan, Iran, Hungary, England, and Indonesia), led by our tour leader Johann, ambles through labyrinthine lanes and alleyways to check out the city’s famous graffiti spots, understand its history, its enigmatic vocabulary, and codes of conduct. A lesson on Sofia’s turbulent social and political history comes as a bonus.
Indeed the abundance of art, theatre, and music in Sofia speaks of a society where culture abounds like a contagion. There’s much to soak in. The Sofia Opera House hosts affordable (starting from around INR 350) shows. Visitors and locals flock to watch soaring performances by Bulgarian opera singers who are increasingly attracting a global audience. During summers, some of these performances are held al fresco—in parks or medieval fortresses.
Lush parks pepper Sofia like confetti. Speckled with a riot of flowers, venerable trees, and gigantic bronze statues of Communist leaders, they are ideal for some quiet contemplation. Zapaden Park, Severen Park, Zaimov Park, Doctor’s Garden, Kristal Garden, and the National Theatre Garden criss-cross the city. Borisova Gradina and Yuzhen Park offer misty wooded vistas that transport you straight from an urban jungle to a tropical one. At the Borisova Gradina, I spot horseback police patrol the premises as families picnic, kids frolick, and senior citizens stretch for yoga or tai chi sessions.
The sprawling Vitosha National Park, just 10 kilometres out of Sofia, can best be described as five-star biodiversity. An ecological treasure trove, it is home to exotic flora and fauna including Balkan endemics, the globular yellow blossoms of the Vitosha tulip, and over 30 orchid species. A diversity of mammals, birds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians, and over 200 bird species populate the park. Beautiful forest walks take you through this natural museum as you inhale pine-scented air. Trekking routes open out to breathtaking landscapes. Nipping up to the vertiginous Cherni Vrah (literally ‘Black Peak’) brings its own prize— unhindered 360-degree views of the Vitosha Valley. Come snowy winters and Mt. Vitosha wears a white cloak, inviting adrenaline junkies for ski rides and other fun games. A tea house at the summit makes all that huffing and puffing totally worth it.
Zhenski Pazar (Ladies’ Market) is to Sofia what the iconic Khan-el-Khalili is to Cairo—a colourful but chaotic bazaar that radiates enough kinetic energy to power a rocket. In a nod to Sofia’s inclusive ethos, it has shopkeepers from over 40 nations giving it the feel of a mini United Nations. The place redefines eclectic. Authentic Arabic items (including Halal meat) jostle for space with Chinese electronic items, Iraqi bakeries with Kurdish restaurants, Bulgarian pottery with Syrian grocery. Food shops brim with jars of the famed Bulgarian yoghurt, homemade halwa from Turkey, middle-eastern kunafa, and the unctuous, pistachio-flecked baklava. As I rifle through the wares of the market, located next to Banya Bashi Mosque, I pick up a few as reminders of my visit to this mesmerising country. For marvelling at Sofia’s historic sites, soaking in its sumptuous architecture, and sampling its flavour-charged cuisine had sucked me into a vortex of unforgettable immersive experiences. The city has a calm and laid-back energy. People are friendly and polite, and the streets safe for women even at night. During my stay, I was invited out everyday—to a picnic, a dinner, a party—everyone doing their best to ensure that I left Sofia with a smile. And I did.