Part 01: Sofia, Bulgaria | Europe, 2015
And so it began! We flew from Vancouver to Sofia, Bulgaria, connecting in Frankfurt. We stayed for just a few days here at first, visiting my husband’s friends. After that we road-tripped for a few weeks to the seaside, and spent the last week, our fourth week of the trip, back here for more visiting with friends & family. Here’s a look at Sofia’s sights:
We had seen the major sights here before, but we always take a walk downtown: the first stop was the amazing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (one of my favorites!)—it’s a huge Bulgarian Orthodox church that was built in the late 1880’s. I love it, it’s gorgeous inside: I feel like the Eastern European churches are a bit, for lack of a better word to describe their mood, darker and a little somber. It’s huge and overwhelmingly detailed and beautiful, there’s so much to take in when you step inside. Pretty close to this one is another favorite of mine, the Russian Church (the same darker mood, but with more pretty gold-plating) and the Church of St. George, which is a little really well preserved brick Christian rotunda, built in the 4th Century by the Romans: it’s in the courtyard of a fancy hotel, now, which I find kind of random, but it is strikingly old, and you can see the remains of old Roman streets around it. By Alexander Nevsky, there’s usually a flea market with cool old military stuff and paintings of icons, and you can walk down by the National Theatre and stop by the fountain and grab an ice cream there. We had time to go to the art gallery one afternoon, too, and it was a really cool mix of Bulgarian art in context of other European works.
Sofia is so nice! And Bulgaria is beautiful. It’s a small country, but—sort of like British Columbia—it has everything from mountains to valleys to the seaside all within a few hours. The cities are pretty typically European, but with a lot more graffitti on everything. Lots of old, old buildings, churches, and Roman ruins: they can’t build anything here because they just run into antiquities under the cities! It’s really hard to explain how old Bulgaria feels. Everyone asks me what it’s like there, and I usually explain it as an ancient place that, quite literally, now has shiny new signs stuck all over it. Or new glass high-rises with giant logos plastered on the front of them, next to blocks and blocks of communist apartments. It has so much contrast. It’s like, after communism fell there (which was not that long ago), they got over-zealous and now things are literally named stuff like, ‘super-buy gas’ or ‘mega-tech’, like in the movies—but across the freeway the cobblestone street is rickety and there’s a grandma in a kerchief selling homemade jam. It’s such a weird/interesting/striking contrast!
Downtown Sofia has lots to see and is very walkable, with lots of parks, fountains and old communist monuments: all of the photos, above, were taken within a few-block radius. The best part? Everywhere you go—in true European style—there is a little coffee/beer stand and/or a bakery where you can get the traditional local pastry of choice, banitsa (a butter-dripping flaky pastry with cheese in the middle), and some boza (a strange wheat drink that smells like malt to me) or ayran (yogurt) to drink with it: there are tons of sweeter baked goods, too, for breakfast. Salad, which varies by region, is also everywhere: the standard to try is a traditional shopska salata. Also good: lyutenitsa (red pepper spread) and, for meat, kyufte (meatball), kebapche (a cumin-spiced sausage), and lukanka (salami-like). Coffee is so cheap and strong and, somehow, so is the beer. And rakia is the national drink of Bulgaria, a fruit brandy: I love it, but its kind of an acquired taste—you drink it with your salad. And if you are the luckiest person in the world, you will come across turkish delight (look for boxes of it on the counters in bakeries): I dream about this stuff, still. Look the for one rolled in coconut! These photos may make it look like we were out and about a lot, but for reals, we spent most of our time drinking and eating and and drinking and eating and visiting.
After our first few days in Sofia, we borrowed a friends van and headed for the seaside:
We missed the beach towns last time we visited, and I had heard they’re beautiful: I was really excited to finally see the Black Sea! It’s a few hours drive to Varna, but we took a little detour to Troyan along the way and also saw some random ruins behind some cute country houses:
The Troyan Monastery is kind of randomly in the middle of a road laced with a few little villages, and most of the beauty is in the courtyard, which might be why we drove right by it at first. It’s still an active monastery, made of a very traditionally Bulgarian-style buildings surrounding a church, dating from the 16th Century. The best? Here, wandering the tiny stairs and now-crooked walkways, we saw—in one of the highest rooms—a hideout cupboard where Vasil Levsky, Bulgaria’s national hero, hid while travelling the country for the liberation he was organizing.