Sofia: Cathedrals and Old Soviet Buildings
Sofia, for being Bulgaria’s largest city and capital city, is an extremely calm place. At least in August. August in Bulgaria means vacation, and vacation means heading to the beach, usually the Black Sea on the east coast of the country. This left Sofia seeming like one of the relaxed capitals of the world.
When I lived in Prague in 2011, I had met a girl named Simona who was from Sofia, Bulgaria. By chance, she recently moved back to Sofia, so we had the chance to hang out with her several times while we were in Sofia. Our first night in Sofia, she took us to a nice restaurant called the Hotel Nikey. There, we tried some typical Bulgarian foods like yogurt soup and a huge pile of roasted vegetables with pork and chicken over a clay pot. Another night, we went to a place called the Ale House, where each table has its own tap with local, unfiltered beer. We went there with Simona and two of her Portuguese friends who were passing by.
Sofia Free Walking Tour
A non-profit called Free Sofia Tour (http://www.freesofiatour.com/) offers a completely free walking tour every day at 11am and at 6pm. The tour lasts about 2 hours. Of course, tips are welcome and that is how they are able to function financially. Essentially, you just pay whatever you think the tour was worth. There are many cities around Europe that have this type of tour, and they always draw a lot of people.
Our tour guide, Dessi, took us around the city, explaining the history from 4,000 years ago all the way up through the fall of communism in 1989 and now into a “transitioning” democracy. Technically, it’s already a democracy, but many Bulgarians feel that there are still many ties to former communist leaders. Just a month ago, the entire government resigned as they faced strong pressure between different pulling parts between the EU and Russia. Elections will be held again in October.
Some of the highlights around Sofia including the Hagia Sofia Church, the Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, the former communist building complex, the president’s residency, and the natural mineral water fountains. These fountains are located in the city center and are always flowing with clean water, so anyone can drink the water or fill up bottles to take with them. The temperature of the water is about 99 degrees F.
The tour ended at the Alexander Nevksy Cathedral, the city’s largest and most famous cathedral and was built in the early 1900s.
Many people seem to think that Sofia is a boring city and don’t give it a chance; however, learning about the city’s history was very interesting and, while I admit there isn’t too much to do, the sights are nice to see. No doubt that our trip was enriched by hanging out with Simona, a local who taught us a lot about the local culture, food, and people. However, it’s still a fun city worth exploring a bit.
Boyana Church and Hiking
We met up with Simona in the morning and took local bus 63 to Boyana, which left us just downhill from the Boyana Church. The Boyana Church is a famous church, although very small. The maximum amount of people allowed inside the church is 8 at one time and for only 10 minutes each group. No pictures are allowed, and a gentleman lets you inside the church and watches you the entire time. If you talk to him, he will excitedly give you great information about the place. The entire inside of the church is painted with frescoes, with a total of 89 scenes. It is thought to have been built in the early 11th century. In 1979, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. I paid 10 levs ($6.50) to get in. I really like how restricted it is, as this will really help preserve the frescoes. It also gave a very different feel. We arrived early so Chika and I were the only ones in there. The silence and lack of photography made me really take it all in.
Afterwards, we headed up the mountain to the Boyana Waterfall. After a two hour hike, we finally made it to the waterfall, where many people had brought up a picnic and beverages. Being a Sunday, there were plenty of people there. We relaxed for about an hour there, eating our lunch, and enjoyed the waterfall. Afterwards, we headed back down the mountain and back to Sofia.
Many people say that Sofia is a boring city and they try to get out as soon as possible. Maybe it’s because we were able to meet up with Simona, my friend from Sofia, that we ended up enjoying the city. It was the perfect place to start our trip in Bulgaria, to learn about Bulgarian culture, and to try some new foods. The free day tour was a great way to see all the main sights in just a few hours. Boyana was a nice day trip just on the outskirts of Sofia to enjoy a different church and some hiking. And on our other day In Sofia, we took a day trip to the RIla Monastery (which I’ll talk about my in next blog post). We stayed for three nights in Sofia; any less would’ve been insufficient and any more probably would’ve been too much!