Another Sunday brings another spotlight, and this week we go to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. When I went there in 2004 I was probably not exactly sure what I was going to get, but Bulgarian cities are very similar to other Eastern European cities and Sofia is actually quite a delight. There are beautiful churches, good public transport in the form of trams, and a great opera.
It feels like a big city when you’re in its heart, but the fact is that it only has 1.3 million people living in it. Combing foot power with the trams and you can quickly and easily get around to most places easily and in good time.
I stayed in Hostel Mostel, which I see happily is still running today, over a decade later. It was run by the friendliest man and was cheap with an awesome breakfast and if you don’t mind dorms, then this is the place for you! And with a name like that, well, how can you forget it?
In the city itself there’s enough for a few days to keep you interested if you’re just looking for tourist sights. It’s a pretty fun city too at night.
Attractions wise, the Banya Bashi Mosque is quite big and impressive, and dates from early 16th century. Then there is the Sofia Synagogue, not far from street markets from memory. I was with a group and we were lucky enough to get inside. Actually I don’t think it takes that much luck but we weren’t let inside until the rabbis saw that we were tourists which was interesting. Two houses of faiths that don’t seem to like each other on the whole, both amazing large spaces, not as dissimilar as one would think inside, and both very peaceful places perfect for reflection. The synagogue is actually the third largest in Europe!
There’s a small but attractive Russian Church worth a photo or two not far from the much bigger and impressive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This cathedral was busy when I was there, with the smell of incense and candle wax mixing with the cool, dark interior, the tourists and the occasional Sofia-ite who had come in for a prayer. Underneath, in the crypt-type area, was the fascinating Icon Museum with icons of all sizes, statues, paintings etc. The location and the contents were brilliant. Even if you, like I, don’t have a penchant for religious icons. Most, from memory, were of the Virgin Mary.
Walk around the city and you’ll get a feel for the place, check out the statue of Saint Sofia, a Sofian landmark, albeit one erected in 2000.
Take yourself out then for a night on the town to the opera. I paid $2.50 to see a brilliant performance of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. Ok, sets were nothing much, but the voices and music certainly were and I was, more than I expected to be, entertained!
All said and done though, the best thing around Sofia is a bus trip southwards to the amazing Rila Monastery. You can even stay the night if you want, it’s a gorgeous monastery in the middle of some equally beautiful woods. Founded in the 10th century, no doubt there has been rebuilding but much of it is still functional although it’s also overrun (by Bulgarian standards) by tourists these days. It’s a wonderful place to explore though, with so many rooms, a church, stairs and some doughnuts that people rave about but to be honest, I didn’t particularly like!
And so basically, that’s Sofia for you. All said and done, it’s pretty nice! May the Journey Never End!