Awakening the Wanderlust
[Sofia, Bulgaria, May 13-14, 2019]
I spent the next few days showing my hometown to B, who arrived in Sofia three days after me. It was his first trip to Europe since 1992, so he was little anxious about the long flight. But everything went smoothly and he popped out of customs smiling and ready to spend the next 2 weeks on the Balkans.
I had a whole day free before his arrival on Monday night, so mom and I ran some errands and walked around the city a bit. One thing I always do nowadays is watch the changing of the guards at the presidency. I’ve seen it many times but it never gets old and I like seeing tourists from all over. If you want to see the ceremony, check out my Instagram highlights.
We also walked by the new catholic church, which was only recently completed. I just missed Pope Francis’ visit earlier that week. Catholicism is the second biggest religion in Bulgaria; my dad is Catholic.
You can see some ruins in the back of the church – so many have been uncovered with all the new construction in the city center! These ruins are believed to be from the Western gate of the city of Serdica, the ancient Roman city that prospered in 5th and 6th century AD, right before the arrival of the Bulgarians from the east.
There are plenty of Serdica remains sprinkled all over the city center. Once B arrived, I took him to the Roman and Byzantine tombs underneath St. Sofia Basilica.
St. Sofia Basilica was built on the site of several earlier churches dating back to the time when it was a necropolis for the Roman town of Serdica. The church was built and destroyed several times, with the current basilica having been constructed under the Roman Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD. A smaller church was already in place at the time that dates to the 4th century AD. Between the 12th and 14th century, during the Second Bulgarian Empire, it became a metropolitan church and in the 14th century, it gave its name to the city.
When Bulgaria fell under Ottoman Rule, it became a mosque and minarets were built. Several earthquakes toppled the minarets and the Turks, believing this was bad luck, abandoned it. The church was returned to its glory after the Liberation (late 19th century), and the necropolis had been found in 2008 when a water pipe was being fixed. Excavations revealed many Roman and Byzantine tombs dating back to the 3rd and 4th centuries, some including frescoes. The floors were made of elaborate mosaics, some very well preserved. The museum has been built by Sofia Municipality and is the first underground museum in Bulgaria. Walkways have been constructed, allowing the visitor to get up close to and above some of the tombs. Photography was not permitted last time I was here, but now we could take photos for an extra fee.
The inside of the basilica itself was pretty impressive, too!
Right next to St. Sofia Basilica is Alexander Nevksy Cathedral, which is probably the most recognizable building in Sofia. It is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, and its domes are made of real gold.
As we were walking towards the entrance, we passed by a bunch of high school senior girls counting loudly from 1 to 12, symbolizing the end of 12 years of mandatory education. All schools in Bulgaria hold their graduations and proms around the same time at the end of May, so we actually saw many groups like this one over the next few days. The girls were all dressed up and were taking photos in front of the cathedral. The party bus they had arrived on stood in stark contrast with the place of worship that was currently serving as the backdrop for a photo session.
The inside of the cathedral is magnificent. Taking photos inside will set you back 10 Bulgarian Leva (~ $6). There is an elderly lady walking around and waving a sign about this in the face of everyone who begins taking photos. The small sign at the entrance informing visitors of this is extremely easy to miss, which is what happened to us.
Another beautiful church in the city center is the Russian church, officially known as the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker. The mosque that stood here at the end of the 19th century was destroyed when we gained our independence from the Ottomans. The Russian church was built as the official church of the Russian embassy, which is right next door. Its distinct Russian Revival style is like nothing else in the capital. The small park next to it is very popular with Sofia citizens, who can be found en masse on the benches lining the terraces of the park in the summer drinking beer, smoking a cigarette, or just hanging out.
Another stop for the changing of the guard at the presidency was, of course, mandatory. After that, we visited the Church of St. George, which is the oldest surviving structure in Sofia. It was built by the Romans in the 4th century and is famous for the frescoes on the dome, which date from the 12th to the 14th century.
The church sits a few feet below modern street level, in the courtyard between the presidency and the Sofia Balkan Hotel (previously a Sheraton), one of the luxury hotels in the center. B, a purveyor of luxury, easily fell in love with its lobby.
In the underpass between the presidency and the Council of Ministers, more Serdica ruins await. These were excavated when the nearby metro station was under construction. The ruins have been incorporated into the design of the underpass, and a giant skylight keeps the space bright and open.
The third building in the area, besides the presidency and the Council of Ministers, is the former headquarters of the Communist Party. In communist times, there was a red start on the top, where the Bulgarian flag now stands. You can see part of the underpass dome in the bottom right of the photo. This area is known as the Largo.
There was a cafe nearby with tables overlooking the Largo, so we sat down for a little pick-me-up. A Viennese coffee for me and a cocktail of some sort for B were all that was needed.
We walked the length of Vitosha Boulevard, the pedestrian boulevard, next. We made it all the way to the National Palace of Culture, another communist-era building. It is the largest, multi-functional conference and exhibition center in south-eastern Europe. It opened in 1981 in celebration of Bulgaria’s 1300th anniversary.
We got some lunch along Vitosha Boulevard as we walked back towards the house. Ugo Pizza, with three locations in the city center and in business for over 20 years, is one of the few places that has earned brand-name recognition. The idea of branding in the food industry is still fairly new here. Most coffee shops’ and restaurants’ names are not prominently displayed, especially if they are a local hangout. People refer to them by whatever distinctive mark the place may have, or sometimes by its location.
In the evening, my parents made a whole leg of lamb. It was almost 10 lbs and it took 4-5 hours to cook. It was a good thing we had walked all over the city that day.