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Cultural Day in the Capital

[Sofia, Bulgaria]

Mom is always in-the-know of what is going on in the city from a cultural perspective, and she told me that the National Art Gallery is hosting a unique exhibit showcasing some of the most famous sculptures of Frenchman Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). In addition, just last week a new museum had been opened below the St. Sofia Basilica. Off we went on Tuesday to check out those two things.

The National Art Gallery is housed in a building that was erected in the late 1800s, after we gained independence from Turkey, as a residence for the Bulgarian monarchy. After WWII, the building became a residence for ministers, and in the 1990s was repurposed to house the National Art Gallery and the Ethnographic Museum.

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The Rodin exhibit was indeed a treat like no other. Rodin’s works rarely, if ever, leave Musée Rodin in Paris. Negotiations for these pieces to come to Sofia took 2 years, and it only became possible because Musée Rodin is currently under renovation. The exhibit, called Metamorphoses, included 80 sculptures and 20 drawings, among which were some of his most famous works – The Thinker and The Walking Man. My parents had attempted to go to Musée Rodin in Paris a few years ago, only to find it closed on a Monday. They’d only seen the top part of The Thinker through the gates, so when the exhibit came to Sofia, they didn’t miss the opportunity to see the entire piece.

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The Thinker

Mom told me stories of thousands of people lining up see the exhibit when it first opened. My personal favorite was The Sculptor and His Muse. I also enjoyed looking around the beautiful interior of this building – you could tell it was meant to be lived in by a royal by the adorned ceilings and amazing floors.

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Next up was St. Sofia Basilica. The church 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.

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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 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, but it would have been hard to take photos in this dimly lit place. I marveled at the fact that I was walking around and touching tombs that were 1700 years old. One of the tombs that was excavated was not below the church but just to the side; that one was covered with a glass enclosure so that passers-by could see it. The entry fee to the main necropolis included access to this tomb as well, and one of the staff members came outside to unlock the door for us so we can get down to it. It was more interesting to me to observe it from street level, though, through the glass enclosure. Before this tomb was excavated, people had been walking on the street above for years and years, not having a clue what a historical treasure was buried below.

By the time we were done, it was time for me to meet up with my friend Ina. On my way there, I walked by the old public mineral bath. Back in the day (think middle ages, before indoor plumbing), people came here to bathe in the warm mineral water that flows from a spring. The inside of the building has yet to be renovated, but the outside of it is gorgeous, in the park in front has been completely redone with new benches and sidewalks, and a big fountain in the middle.

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I spent the rest of the evening hanging out with Ina and her daughter Monika, her friend Angela and her husband Momchil. We had fun telling Monika stories about mushrooms (upon her request), eating yummy food and peeking at the TV to keep an eye on the score of Bulgaria’s first qualifying match for Euro 2016 against Azerbaijan (which we won 2-1).

Today had been another exciting day, but switching to beer and wine in the afternoon really does help one go to sleep more easily. 🙂

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