Monday, May 27, 2019

Sofia Bulgaria - Stunning. All you need to know.

This is a long read. Lots of pictures. All you want to know about Sofia.

Sofia, Bulgaria. We are here for 3 nights.

How many famous Bulgarians do you know? I could not think of any to be honest. I do know that Bulgarians are great Olympic Gold Medal winning weightlifters, wrestlers, shot putters and boxers, but unfortunately all these are anonymous to us Indians. Grigor Dimitrov is a 2017 ATP World Number 3 tennis player. I have heard of him in passing. We can conclude that Bulgaria is an unknown quantity for most of us.

We had read that Sofia the capital of Bulgaria is a great place to visit. After some research we decided to take the plunge. Geographically Bulgaria is pretty far from London. In fact, much to my surprise, it is East of Croatia, and East of Greece. Bulgaria shares a border with Greece and Turkey. The flight is 3 hours, which is relatively long for a European destination. There is a 2-hour time difference between London & Bulgaria. It is that far East of London.

We were booked at the Intercontinental which had recently opened after a change of owners, rebranding from the Radisson Blu and a massive renovation. This was a good property, thoroughly modern and absolutely brilliantly located. A walk from almost all the sights that Sofia has to offer. If you do come to Sofia, stay here or at the Sofia Hotel Balkan which is a Marriot Luxury property, also well located.

Bulgaria is part of the EU, so a Schengen Visa is good to enter. Unfortunately, they don’t use the Euro as yet but the Bulgarian Lev. This is a bit of a challenge as getting the currency and getting rid of it is difficult. You waste a lot on either exchange rates or you waste it on buying rubbish at the airport when departing simply to get rid of it. Thank God for those airline promotions of gathering loose change from flyers and giving it to charity.

The city has a decent airport, excellent roads and a decent taxi system. Compared to London, taxis are very cheap. You do need taxis to go to a couple of distant sights and to the airport. There are trams as well as an underground. Language is a bit of a challenge, but the bigger challenge is signage. Almost all signs are in Cyrillic which is as useful to me as Bengali. You have no clue what is written.

We were cheated once by a taxi driver. He spoke enough English to hold his own, did the old Delhi trick of driving around in circles, and then said the meter was 13 Lev which is a lot. On questioning him to show us the meter reading all comprehension of English stopped, immediate fluent Bulgarian commenced. We must have paid 8 Lev extra. Not damaging but upsetting. I point this out as Bulgaria is rated as one of the most corrupt in the EU.

Bulgaria has had a tumultuous history. Somewhat like us in India. Bulgaria has been ruled by a succession of invaders. Originally the locals called Bulgur’s held sway. Then the Eastern Romans or Byzantines came in. The Byzantium Empire was then overrun by the Ottomans [the chaps from Turkey] who ruled for over 500 years. The Ottoman Empire itself started to weaken which led to the rise of Bulgarian National movement. This soon became Communist with Russia having a dominant influence in all things. Finally, with the fall in the Berlin Wall in 1989 Bulgaria became a Republic with its own constitution in July 1991. The bottom line is that Bulgaria has stepped out of Communism only in the last 30 years.

The result of these various rulers Bulgaria has a diverse architecture clearly visible.

Bulgaria is a relatively poor country. On the streets of Sofia, you don’t see many expensive cars, by expensive I mean upwards of Rs 50 lakhs. Hardly any BMW or Mercedes and certainly no Rolls Royce. I did see a Porsche but that was about it. Most cars are humble. Things are cheap by European standards. Not may fancy upmarket shops, no big brands that I could see, just a few Italian clothes shops. The fact that Bulgaria is a poor country is clearly indicated by (a) most maids and housekeeping staff in London Hotels are Bulgarian and (b) while I hate to write this, newspaper reports show that many of the beggars/tramps in London are Bulgarian.

The sights in Sofia are simply superb. Almost all, as I have written earlier, are located right in the centre of town walking distance from each other and from the Intercontinental Hotel. From the outside these were remarkably well maintained. On the one hand you had the really old Churches, to the more modern palaces and the still more modern Russian/Communist structures. All of them were very impressive. As far as the Churches were concerned, this is similar to what happened in Spain. Churches were converted to Mosques and back to Churches with the change of the “dispensation” as we love to say in India. Other Churches were turned into Hospitals and libraries. Churches were built upon and expanded and the newer construction is clearly visible, especially in the Boyana Church.

St Alexander Nevski Cathedral.

                                                             St Alexander Nevski Cathedral.

St Alexander Nevski Cathedral.

St Alexander Nevski Cathedral.

St Nikolas Russian Church

St Nikolas Russian Church

St Nikolas Russian Church

St Nikolas Russian Church

Catedral de Sveta-Nedelya

Catedral de Sveta-Nedelya

The Churches are all small compared to many of the magnificent Cathedrals and Churches you have in Europe like in Cologne, Aachen, Paris and so on. Not only are these smaller but they are simple in architecture and construction inside. No stately organs, no statues and elaborate altars. I am unsure whether this is due to the fact that the religion is Christian Orthodoxy or due to the fact that Bulgaria is poor and has been so historically.

There was a Roman walled city in existence in the center of Sofia. This was uncovered when the underground was being constructed. The route of the underground was altered and the excavated are has been preserved and integrated into the stations. Well done. In this area you also have 4 religious monuments standing cheek by jowl. The Bulgarians take great pride in telling you that this shows tolerance and secularism. These 4 are a Synagogue, a Mosque, an Orthodox Church and a Roman Christian Church.

Also, in this area stood a statue of Lenin. In 2000 after the fall of Communism, the Lenin statue was removed and replaced by a huge statue of a lady symbolizing Sofia, as a sort of dedication to the city. Of course, much like in India, much scandal was associated with this statue. The allegation was that the face of the statue was very similar to the face of the Mayors wife. The initial praise of the statue by the Orthodox Church soon turned to criticism as the Owl and the Laurel Wreath held by Sofia were Pagan symbols. Further “Sofia” had her cleavage showing with very prominent nipples. Horrors! The lady could not be a Saint!

Sofia also has hot springs. Around these springs a “Hammam” or public bath was constructed. Very beautiful building. Today the building houses a Museum, not very big nor impressive, unfortunately. The springs still exist and the water is channeled into several outlets. The water is drinkable and comes out warm at 38C. It has a slight metallic taste. People come by and fill large bottles, like our Bisleri 25-liter bottles and take the water home as it has medicinal values. The liver and kidneys are benefited drinking this. I had a few glugs, not feeling better!

Above: 4 pictures of the former Sofia Mineral Baths. Now the Sofia Regional Historical Museum

Buildings in Sofia were schizophrenic. At times you saw beautiful well preserved well maintained old buildings. At times there was simply a sprawl of poorly maintained concrete building much like what we have back home in Mumbai. In fact, these buildings were a lot like Mumbai buildings. Lots of abandoned under construction buildings too, like in Mumbai. I could not discern any pattern of upmarket streets, just a hotch potch of good buildings and poor buildings along the street. Some streets had no good buildings at all, just what seemed to be run down housing. Of course, in the outskirts, i.e. near the airport as well as on the way to the Boyana Church we saw large modern office buildings.

Above: The beautiful

Above: The ugly.

Above: Some Soviet era buildings. All government offices

Much is made of the Boyana Church. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located a few kilometers out of town up in the hills. You need to take a taxi to and fro. Ask the cabbie to wait. Now I have a very dim view of something that is branded a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I have always found them subpar, with wheelchair access being the most notable feature. These also happen to be “Note Chaaapne Ka Machines” if you know what I mean. The Boyana Church is small, I mean small. To enter costs 7 Euro or 14 Lev. Only 8 people are allowed to enter at a time for 10 minutes. Crowds are huge. We got there by 10.30am and were informed that we could enter at 1.45pm. We simply abandoned the idea and had a walk around the Church. That took all of 3 minutes. What a huge let down. Let me clarify, on looking on the Internet, the insides of the church are really nothing to get excited about. In retrospect no regrets at all in not going in.

Sofia is famous for its yellow or golden cobblestoned streets. These cobblestones line many of Sofia’s roads. They are treacherous when wet or icy, cars skid and pedestrians slip. If you wish to practice orthopedics Sofia is the place to be. The story behind these cobblestones shows once again, the historic corruption in Bulgaria, much like our own Bharat. The King Tsar Ferdinand believed the muddy streets would be beautified with the installation of these gold cobblestones. He claimed that the cobblestones were a gift from the Austro Hungarian King who was his cousin. It turns out that this was bollocks, the State was paying for these cobblestones. Sound familiar? They are now being steadily replaced with the less slippery grey variety.

Sofia, with its years of Communism as well as under the Ottoman Empire, has several rather grim statues. The city has several open spaces and parks. It is a green city and people have lots of benches to sit and relax. It is quite pleasant. These statues, a few of which I have photographed are quite a contrast to the idyllic parks they are located in.

No one plucks flowers for "Pooja".

To conclude, we thoroughly enjoyed Sofia. If you are efficient and methodical in your sightseeing, 2 nights are enough, 3 if you want to be relaxed. Do visit as a second-tier city. In some ways Sofia is like a mini Budapest. These old former Communist cities have a lot to offer. Recommended as a short break.

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