By Karlie Marrazzo
Once in a while a country or a city will take you by surprise, and Bulgaria did just that for me. Aside from being a natural stopping point on our path from Budapest to Istanbul, Sofia had been on my radar before I ever even left Canada – since 2006 – thanks to my friend Christina who I met on a travel website and have been postcard pals with ever since. I didn’t know anyone who had traveled to Bulgaria, and read some less than enthusiastic words during my research. Many people suggested it was depressing, grey or boring. I know well enough not to trust those Internet doom-and-gloom folks, and I don’t like to go into a new place with many expectations one way or another, but Bulgaria felt like an undiscovered hidden gem.
A late departure from Thessaloniki caused slight anxiety, but the bus ride to Sofia was smooth, if not uncomfortable. It was more than a little cramped and I watched what is possibly the worst, most bizarre movie in existence, Rites of Passage, which left me feeling slightly deranged (sorry Christian Slater). We arrived at the non-descript central bus station after dark and had an easy cab ride to our rented apartment. Gliding silently down the deserted streets and then waiting on the steps of our apartment, I already began to notice how gorgeous and elegant Sofia is.
One of the great pleasures and benefits of traveling is meeting other people, whether locals or other travelers. I’m a bit of a shy person so I haven’t made loads of foreign friends, but tides were turning on this trip and I began to open up. It’s an entirely different feeling when you’ve known someone virtually for years and you finally get the chance to meet them in real life. Christina picked us up at our apartment the next morning and graciously gave us our very own walking tour of central Sofia.
Our first stop was a neighbourhood bakery for a spot of breakfast. The room was quite ordinary, with only a few plain tables, but the savoury and sweet treats glistening in the glass case made up for that. We let the expert order and ended up with banitsa – a popular pastry – and kifla – pastries stuffed with jam or cheese. The bakery is across the street from one of my favourite places in Sofia – the Tsentralna banya, or central baths. There is a beautiful main building that is not currently open to the public, but what drew me in were the many spouts and taps in front, pouring out mineral water, surrounded by local men and women of all ages filling as many jugs as they could carry. I could sit there and people watch all day.
We meandered through the centre and it seemed like we had the whole town to ourselves – there were very few people out and about, and 98% of them were locals. The day was overcast and the old buildings were beautiful and imposing at the same time, giving off the vibe that only former Communist towns seem to have. Even the main roads were wide and paved in cobblestones rather than asphalt, giving everything a very regal look. Some of the highlights of our walk were the impressive Stalinist style former Bulgarian Communist headquarters, followed by the Church of St. George – built in the 4th century, it is the oldest building in Bulgaria and is somewhat hilariously surrounded by a Sheraton hotel. We walked the underpass between the Presidency and the Council of Ministers and stepped back in time to ancient Rome – the underpass houses remains of the East Gate of Serdica and an actual, intact Roman street, along with some other artifacts. We resurfaced and found Sofia’s most famous sight, the imposing and stunning Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral, it’s many green domes bubbling into the sky before us.
Christina showed us one of her favourite places in the city – Tsar Shisman Street. Lined with cute shops, quirky restaurants and great street art, it would have been a great place to spend an evening, and I found myself wishing we had rented an apartment there instead. The day was chilly so we stopped into an enclosed rooftop lounge at Sense Hotel to warm up with coffee and hot chocolate – not at all like the instant hot chocolate we’re used to in North America, but thick, rich, heavy melted chocolate – and enjoy the view over the rooftops and through the trees of the domes of Nevsky cathedral.
We parted ways and Dave and I ventured into Sofia on our own, hopping on the subway to the Museum of Socialist Art. Once we got off at GM Dimitrov station, we had a bit of a hard time finding the museum, tucked in behind some tall office towers. The museum is home to forgotten statues and artwork from the socialist era, spanning from the 1940s to late 1980s. We walked through a garden full of towering Lenins, Che’s serious face staring out at us, and depictions of hard working and long suffering men and women. The crown jewel of the sculpture park is the big red star that used to perch atop the Communist party headquarters that we passed by earlier that day. The paintings inside the gallery didn’t really tickle my fancy – depictions of farm work and union meetings aren’t known to excite me. The most unique and very interesting thing on display was a very rare, intact bust of Joseph Stalin – there aren’t many of those around anymore, as you can imagine. We were excited to see the video exhibit of old Communist propaganda, but discovered that room, as well as the gift shop, to be closed. After some broken communication with the ladies at the ticket booth, we were told the videos only played on certain days, perhaps only Wednesdays. If you’re interested in the history of that era, it is still worth visiting the museum as admission is only 6 lev (about $4 CAN).
The next day, Sunday, brought more relaxing and enjoying Sofia as a local. Dave had read about an outdoor market that was supposed to have cool old car parts and tools along with the regular produce, so we strolled through there on our way to meet Christina and her son. Unfortunately for Dave, the car nut, the market was only produce and regular market items that day, but it was still nice to take a different path. We met again at the mineral spouts, feeding fat pigeons while we waited. The weather was much more agreeable, with bright blue skies and warmth. We sat in front of the beautiful National Theatre, people watching, listening to music by street performers, children chasing a lady with a huge bunch of balloons. We walked by fruit stands and bought snacks of figs and roasted pumpkins, sitting down at another bench in front of yet another beautiful Orthodox church, this one with pale blue domes and a happy wedding party bursting forth from it, releasing white birds into the sky. The day was spent playing in parks and relaxing on benches, and the evening was spent enjoying delicious Bulgarian food with Christina and her family.
Next up: A visit to two of Bulgaria’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Boyana Church and Rila Monastery.