Sofia or “Wisdom” in Greek, the capital of Bulgaria and over 2,500 years old although it has gone through several changes which might not make it apparent. The city is not considered a highlight of Bulgaria, indeed a few Bulgarian friends have told me they considered the capital too crowded and too polluted. I would have to say this would be relatively speaking. For a capital city Sofia is fairly small, also most of the sites are in a compact area of the city centre which makes sightseeing very walkable. My first few days in Sofia were one of mild disappointment, however after 5 days I grew to love the city. While it might not have the sites inside city limits to keep one occupied beyond a few days, despite the busy traffic the city has a charm and ambiance, the backdrop of Vitosha mountain as well as a selection of nice architecture and I hope to return.
The hospitality of the Bulgarians is certainly the kindest I have come across anywhere in Europe and as kind as anywhere I have been. I really hope Sofia does not go the way of Riga and get ruined by drunk British tourists. It will be a shame if it does.
I arrived at the very inhospitable time of 3 am (or thereabouts). I took a taxi from the taxi desk at the airport. The only recommended way as the taxi drivers at Bulgaria have a reputation for being like taxi drivers in many other countries.. sharks. The Sofia Guesthouse was not where the driver dropped me off it seems like the number is often of the block and I had to walk to the left a hundred meters or so to find the entrance.
I stayed in a private room which was rather small and just OK. The shower was OK but clean and but the staff were wonderful and the location was good for orientation around the city.
Sofia has several beautiful churches from its long Orthodox Christian heritage. One church which impressed me was the 4th Century church Rotunda “Sveto Georgi”. Considered to be the oldest church as well as building in Sofia. The interior is full of beautiful frescos and icons. These were painted over during the Turkish (Ottoman) occupation and the church turned into a mosque. Now it is being used again back for its proper function of a church and liturgy is held regularly there. I wish I had attended liturgy there but will another time.
The cathedral is huge and the centre of Orthodoxy in Bulgaria. It was my first time to attend the Divine Liturgy outside the UK. I didn’t attend as a tourist being an Orthodox (catechumen) however there were also tourists during that time (some churches close themselves to tourists). Some who wandered in between the standing laity during the liturgy perhaps not aware of the etiquette of visiting an Orthodox church. The cathedral has a beautiful iconostasis and is immense inside and out.
The most beautiful church inside though has to be the Boyana church. Another old Orthodox church but a rarity for Sofia, not in the centre but rather in the outlying district of Boyana.
The church has beautiful frescos and along with the Nativity Church in Arbanasi. If there are must see places in and around Sofia, Boyana is top of the list. The frescos are beautiful. I didn’t pay for the guide (the price seemed prohibitive for the 10 minute timed entry allowed). Do not make the same mistake, take a tour as you will be able to get a much deeper insight. In fact I was forced to join a tour (due to the limited people allowed inside at one time) in Spanish…
Yes means No, No means Yes!
Nod your head it means Yes, shake your head means no right? Well no..not in Bulgaria. Nodding your head means No! Shaking your head means yes!
And it is best you get used it. I was introduced to this interesting difference through Romi who gave me a funny map with the customs. I was to find out how true it was when I went to Arbanasi . getting a bus backed I asked a Bulgarian man if I was in the right place for the bus, shaking his head I was about to wonder where I should be but as he kept me where I was I understood he meant yes. As the minibus almost passed me by without me noticing he waved it down and pointing me in the direction, I indicate is this one, he shakes his head.. I hesitate.. he then gestures for me to go and I hurry to get on the bus.. of course shaking means yes!
Real cultural difference!
I was very fortunate to meet wonderful friends.. I was not so lucky with the weather which was damp, cloudy, and rainy throughout. It didn’t stop my enjoyment though and the local people were friendly. I had to take two buses on the way out where a kind Bulgarian guy directed me. Getting off at the stop was the easiest part. However the journey to Boyana church was not signposted from the stop.. don’t miss the turning.
I was directed to walk straight up the hill / mountain road but if you do unwaveringly you will come to a military checkpoint or rather be yelled (not in an aggressive way) before you reach it.On the way back from the point I noticed a tour bus was parked outside along one of the small turnoffs. This led me to the church.
In Sofia I was due to meet my wonderful friend Ani, but due to a series of miscommunication our meeting almost never happened fortunately it did happen.
First I met the very kind Didie who I also met via Couchsurfing. She introduced me to the traditional Bulgarian drink which I liked, probably Boza. After talking for a cafe we walked around the centre before she kindly offered to introduce me to her friends , two sisters Tedi and Tina, the following night. Which I accepted.
That evening I met Romi, a student and actress. I went with her and two of her friends to another nice cafe and we had a nice time talking . Romi gave me a fun Sofia city map.
The next morning I met Stasy. I took the tram in the early morning from where I stayed. Stasy was very kind, fun to talk with and I had wanted to meet her earlier at the weekend but I had arranged to (but not met) Ani on the Saturday due to a misunderstanding, and problems communicating via Skype. Skype using a local number other than my phone.
Stasy was very flexible and offered to meet me early before my work. It was so great to meet her, and far too short. After Stasy went to her work I decided to stay in the area and found a beautiful church where I went inside to venerate the icons. Inside many Orthodox churches it is not just the most famous that are beautiful. The non famous churches are too. There was a small park, and I guess the statue of a patriarch or metropolitan
As I was meeting Tedi and Tina later, we had a short but very enjoyable time to meet and hope to meet up for longer in future.
For my final day in Sofia I had planned to see the museum of Totalitarian art. Another site not in the centre.
Unfortunately I was not aware that it was closed that day and made the long journey.
However despite not seeing the museum I did not egret the joinery one bit.
I used the metro for the first time and sought help when the station names did not match my lonely planet guide..
It was while seeking help I met the lovely Zlatina. She spoke good English and was very friendly and kind and helped direct me. We could talk until my journey ended the stop before (If I remember correctly) but decided to keep in touch. Zlatina was my first friend I was to make by chance in Bulgaria. Bulgarians are very hospitable and I was to make a few more friends later in my trip.
That evening I met Tedi and Tina as well as Didie. They were all so kind and we walked to a restaurant where I could try traditional Bulgarian food such as Tarator. Which is a cold soup made of yoghurt and cucumber .
The dishes were all great, one of the nice things I liked were the chips which were covered with cheese.
Bulgarian food is nice and I wonder why I don’t see such restaurants here in the UK. Whether it is healthy as Lonely planet say, depends on what you order. There are plenty of salads such as Shopska salad but plenty of calorie filled meals too.
Food tends to be nice and inexpensive.
There are additional things to do in Sofia. The city being a primarily place for restaurants, parks, and nightclubs. There is a lot to do to which more than offsets the relatively small sightseeing list.