Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bulgaria – Sofia, A gem nestled in the Balkans

“Bulgaria! Why are you going on holiday to Bulgaria?” That was the questioning exclamation that everyone posed us when we said we were planning a trip there for 11 days. And our answer was: “That is exactly WHY we are going to Bulgaria!”

It’s not on anyone’s bucket list; it’s an off-the-radar-kind of destination. Bulgaria is relatively undiscovered…well until now. So now that the cat’s out of the bag, we’ll divulge our secrets.

First, we were not alone...we did this trip with a group of friends. And yes, it was organized by two friends who live on opposite corners of Bulgaria. So this definitely gave us “insider” privileges. Let’s start with the challenges for the typical tourist: language and writing. Most Bulgarians only speak Bulgarian (or possibly Russian) outside of the main cities and the language is written in Cyrillic script. Cyrillic was even initially adopted and later developed here during the First Bulgarian Empire and has now become the third official script of the European Union!
This also means that Russians and ex-Soviet countries have an easier time exploring as tourists since they can read the signs - even Google maps proved challenging and forget trying to get around by public transport. We did notice a Russian presence (both residents and visitors) on the Black Sea area which was always a popular vacation spot during the time when the USSR controlled the region.

So let’s start with the beginning. We decided to test out an airline called Wizz Air which flies from a smaller airport near to our home in Eastern Netherlands. It is a direct flight to Sofia. For people with hand-carry only, this flight is amazingly cheap. They allow a generous hand carry for free and only were concerned with its size but not its weight! We needed proper luggage and booked 20 kg in advance. The rest of the procedure is like all the other discount carriers…stand in line and rush on board to get a decent seat. All in all, good value at 230 euro in total for 2 people.

The friends joining us graduated with Patrick in his Master's degree (plus a few family members like myself) so we were 12 in total. Mitko who lives in Sofia did most of the arrangements for the first part of the trip and Dimitry who lives near Burgas organized the Black Sea area exploration.

Sofia is a lovely capital city with only about 1.5 million residents. Three mountain passes lead into the city which frame the city nicely and also allow for easy access to hiking and skiing.

There are an abundance of outdoor cafes and we soon discovered that good coffee is part of their culture. Lavazza seemed to be everywhere and an espresso for about 1 euro…well one can never have too many at that price!

Most of the group hadn't yet arrived, so our mini, early-bird group was comprised of Mitko, Clementine, Patrick and Julane. We oriented ourselves in the attractive compact Sofia centrum which is extremely pedestrian friendly. If you want to see the remnants from the Soviet period you need to venture to the outskirts and there you can find those drab, gray block buildings that epitomize the uniformity of communism. We were told that they are now privately owned and more attractive on the inside.

 St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Starting at one of the most recognizable sites: The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which is the largest Bulgarian Orthodox church in Sofia.

Much to our surprise, we arrived to find a brigade of antique cars forming an unusual parking lot. It was like stepping back in time, particularly into the cold war era which is unfamiliar territory for most of us. Mitko grew up with this kind of world and explained how precious it was to own a vehicle. It was a privilege... not a right. The owners were all proudly showing their cars during the course of a few hours.

The cathedral was built in honour of the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, as a result of which Bulgaria was liberated after nearly 500 years of Ottoman rule.

Later in the day, we were again "blessed" by stepping into an evening mass being held at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral . The inside of the cathedral is open and spacious. There aren't any pews or benches; everyone stands for the service. What was especially nice was the choir. The acoustics were amazing and while the singers were hidden above us, their voices filled every nook and cranny.

“St. Nikolay” garden

The Russian Church “St. Nikolay”

Just around the corner lies a much smaller church that has a jewel-like exterior called the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker, or “St. Nikolay”, or more simply: The Russian Church.
The church was built on the site of the Saray Mosque, which was destroyed in 1882 (after the Liberation from the Ottoman domination) and named after the patron saint of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. It is Russian Orthodox.
Wedding Bonanza
This particular weekend seemed to be the big wedding weekend. Bulgarians have again embraced big religious wedding ceremonies.

During the period of 1954-1989, while Todor Zhivkov continuously controlled the Bulgarian Communist Party (under Communist rule), religious practices were more subdued. We definitely saw the Bridal Enthusiasm everywhere. We must have seen about 10 bridal parties wandering about. The young ladies in attendance were decked out in their finest, tightest dresses with staggeringly high heels. With all the cobble-stoned roads, it was a feat of balance and dexterity!

A storm brew overhead...
A "Hen Party" joins the peaceful parade

This weekend also greeted us with an insight into peaceful, political demonstrations. It is a relatively new government created by a hodgepodge coalition of 3 parties which aren't very compatible. It is an unhappy “political” marriage that united a group of disparate political parties. The residents of Sofia were clearly not pleased with some political appointments and they were speaking loudly by arranging protests in the streets. It was well organized quickly (thanks to Facebook) and not a hint of violence; there were even families with babies in strollers. Afterwards, all the litter was cleaned from the streets and placed in the rubbish bins. This was true democracy in action. The next day, the minister whose appointment ignited the fire, promptly resigned.

We found the Bulgarians are very clever in their use of shopping space. Scattered along the sidewalk were little basement kiosks stocking the essentials for a late night out on the town: cigarettes, alcohol and snacks.
They were basically extensions (well, more like a window hulled out of a wall) which converted someone's private home into a business space. The display front was a tad bigger than a vending machine and the window's opening size could comfortably deliver a six-pack of beer.

What was amusing was the height of the stall; it was clearly designed for midgets or people with flexible knees!
Perhaps this was one of the truest example of capitalism: A need creating supply.

While the protest was being organized and a battalion of police were taking their positions, we were exploring the city. Mitko arranged for a local guide, Rumie to show us around Sofia. In our past experiences, we have found that guides can be a bit dry and boring- spilling out dates and data as if there was an examination lurking after the tour concludes. Guiding is a talent that few really have. Ideally, a guide should weave knowledge and tidbits into a story: thus bringing the past to life again! Rumie as this kind of guide, a true storyteller. She was fluent in English and also had an art and history background.

The Orthodox Christian churches in Bulgaria cover a wide gamut of architectural styles…from small chapels to large cathedrals, from modern to ancient edifices. Yet, there is much more religious diversity interwoven into this country. At one vantage point in Sofia, we could see a melting pot of religion within our visual radius: Banya Bashi Mosque, Sofia Synagogue, St Nedelya Church (an Eastern Orthodox church) and with superman’s x-ray vision: the nearby St. George Rotunda even appears.

The St. George Rottonda sits amid the
 remains of the ancient town of Serdica
St. George Rottonda is made from red brick and is considered the oldest building in Sofia. Constructed by the Romans in the 4th century, it is believed to be built on the site of a older pagan temple.

It sits in a peculiar location: in the center of the courtyard of the President's building and the Sheraton Hotel. Truly an amazing view from your hotel's window!

Sveta Petka Samardzhiyska,
a mish-mash of irregular stones
The excavations of a ancient Roman
town that are still in progress

We ended our tour at the tiny structure of Sveta Petka Samardzhiyska, a medieval church that stands beside an upscale shopping mall and withing an area excavated for the subway line. Once again, many worlds merging together.

The wisdom of St Sofia shine down
So here you have it, a cacophony of beliefs all overlapping one another. We end the tour near the Statue of Saint Sofia (Monument to holy wisdom) the namesake of the capital. Luckily the words of wisdom are flowing from the lips of our very alive lady of wisdom: Rumie  The sunset is perfectly timed tonight as we make our way towards dinner.

The one thing that we discovered through this short weekend introduction to Bulgaria is that it is a complex country with a deeply layered history: similar to an onion...peel off one layer and you've got another. From history to religion to cuisine, Bulgaria is a rich stew of many cultures.

We can’t explain the country without trying to understand each flavour though. So let’s start to stir the pot and see what’s inside...the rest of Bulgaria awaits!