Thursday, September 29, 2011
Fans of Saint Sofia had some good urban planning ideas when they built the city they named after her. Bursting with churches, cathedrals, parks, palaces, and pedestrian streets, Sofia, Bulgaria is alive with cultural treasures. Even decades of communism and the drab buildings that went up with them couldn’t dampen the spirit of the saint’s pretty city, and my two days in town were a riot of color and culture.
I arrived in Sofia at 1pm after a five-hour-and-15-minute minibus ride from Skopje, Macedonia. My first order of business was to buy a train ticket for my trip to Belgrade the next day. I walked over to the train station and eventually found the tiny international ticketing office. There I was told to wait until the next day if I wanted to purchase a ticket with a couchette reservation for the sleeper carriage.
I hopped into a taxi, which took me through eerily empty streets. I later learned that Sundays in Sofia were an anomaly traffic-wise, and that the same streets my taxi breezed down that day would be choked with cars most other times during the week.
I enjoyed a scenic drive through the empty streets. The golden light of afternoon graced Saint Sofia’s city, illuminating the historic buildings and wide boulevards with its broad beams.
At the end of the ride, I alighted at the Kempinski Hotel Zografski, the tallest building on the highest hill in Sofia. It was also the largest five-star hotel in the city, so much so that a person could live there without ever leaving.
The hotel, which had offered me a complimentary room for the night, had no fewer than five restaurants—including a seafood restaurant with the most opulent decor I’ve seen in awhile, a rooftop restaurant with panoramic views over the city, and a sushi restaurant in an authentic Japanese garden—a fitness center with the biggest hotel swimming pool in the city, a lobby bar and cigar lounge, conference spaces, ballrooms, and of course, guest rooms and suites.
My room was on the seventh floor, and had great views over Sofia. It was a good size, with a large bed, a desk, chairs, and a spacious bathroom. The free WiFi was very welcome when I sat down to get some work done.
After doing so, I met up with some friends of a friend that I went to Mongolia with last summer. They lived in Sofia, and had been kind enough to set aside part of their Sunday afternoon to take me around the city.
We drove down to the city center and parked near the main sights. Our Sofia sightseeing tour started at the Hagia Nedelja Church, which was so popular with weddings that as soon as one couple left the building, another entered. The icon-filled interior was one of the most beautiful in the city, and seemingly everyone wanted to have their nuptials there.
Around the corner from the church was a huge rectangular building that housed government buildings, the presidential palace, and the Sheraton Sofia hotel. The historic exterior gave way to an interior courtyard with 4th century Roman ruins and the Church of St. George, which was from the same period.
Walking out the other side of the building, we continued past the bright yellow National Art Gallery, which was housed in the former royal palace. In front of it was a yellow brick road. Yes, it was just like the legendary street of the same name in the Wizard of Oz, only the bricks came from Austria.
Continuing along the yellow brick road, we passed by a stunning Russian church, complete with onion domes and a mosaic facade. I learned that it was one of the most visited churches in the city, which didn’t surprise me given its beautiful exterior.
On the next block from there, the yellow theme continued with the Military Club, a site that my hosts informed me was now mostly used for private parties and functions. It was located around the corner from Sofia’s most stunning monument, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
This church was one of the largest I have ever seen, and its architecture was as grandiose as its size dictated. The gilded caps of cascading domes and blinding white exterior walls set the stage for a stunning interior replete with beautiful art and iconography.
Next to the church was an antique market that sold everything from old military medals to kitschy souvenir magnets. My guides told me that most of the goods for sale were overpriced, but it was still fun to stroll through and see the wares.
Behind the church were several bars and clubs, one of which, Planet, was fabled to be the chosen hangout for the Bulgarian mafia. I later ended up having drinks there with another friend of a friend, who told me that the owners had paid a whopping 2 million euros to have the interior designed and decorated. Given how stylish the place looked, I wasn’t surprised.
Passing Planet, we rounded another corner and circled back towards where we came from. We walked by the national library, Sofia University, and the national assembly, and eventually came to the national theater. There was a concert going on outside, and music filled the air as we made our way back to the car.
When we arrived at the hotel, I met up with my next host and returned to Planet for drinks. We were met there by one of his friends, and the three of us went to dinner at Spaghetti Kitchen, a nearby Italian restaurant on 6 Septemvri Street.
My hosts insisted I try a traditional Bulgarian drink that loosely translated as “sour milk”. It consisted of yogurt mixed with water, and it tasted much better than it sounded. With it I ate a big bowl of vegetable risotto.
After dinner we walked to a nearby neighborhood with several lively bars and cafes. I returned the next afternoon to see them in the daylight, and ended up having coffee at a cute place called Le Salon aux Fleurs on Oborishte Street. Next door was a new restaurant called Pavilion, and down the street were the French Embassy and the Museum Gallery of Modern Art. It was one of my favorite parts of Sofia.
As I walked back to the main street, I passed by a pretty park and a cupcake shop in addition to several bars and restaurants. Not far from there was the 16 century Banya Bashi Mosque, which was located in peaceful square with a fountain. Near it was the stunning Sofia Synagogue, the third largest in Europe.
It was located close to the medieval Sveta Petka Samardjiiska Church. The tiny building was so sunken into the ground that it was in the middle of a carved-out pedestrian underpass for a metro station. The frescoes inside were badly eroded, but the parts that remained were beautiful.
After exploring Sofia on my second day, I walked back to my hotel. The 45-minute stroll took me along a pedestrian shopping street, through a large park, past the Palace of Culture, and up the hill to the Kempinski.
I checked out of the hotel, hopped in a taxi, and made a quick stop to meet with another friend of a friend at his office by the train station. We caught up briefly before I went to purchase my ticket. It was easy to buy, but the woman that sold it to me told me to purchase the couchette reservation from the conductor on board the train. I was a bit confused by that, but went along with it.
When I boarded the night train from Sofia to Belgrade, the conductor put me in a three-bed compartment. Fortunately, I had it all to myself. Unfortunately, the conductor would only accept euros. I had 3. I needed 10. After a bit of negotiating, he allowed me to pay in a mixture of euros and dollars.
Relieved, I settled in for the 10-hour train trip to Serbia. I was excited to visit Belgrade on my Balkans trip, but sad to leave Saint Sofia and her beautiful city behind. Someday I will follow the yellow brick road back to Bulgaria and spend more time exploring its rich cultural heritage.