So Much to Like in Sofia

Sunday, April 22, 2018 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Balkans & Beyond, Days 26-28:  Odessa, Ukraine to Sofia, Bulgaria.  With different rules and practices from one country, or even one airport, to the next, it's difficult to know what to expect, especially in the security screening process.  In excruciatingly thorough Amsterdam, I was called out for not removing my curling iron from my bag, among many other items.  At the beginning of the line in Odessa, we were told we didn't even need to remove liquids, so it looked as if this would be an easy one.  Then one of the agents ferreted into my day bag in search of a dangerous weapon, and that was when I lost my cuticle nippers, an item not even noticed on our previous five screenings on this trip.

When we boarded a Bulgaria Air Embrarer 190 for Sofia, we were pleasantly surprised at the plane's layout.  Our coach class seats were wide and offered significantly more leg room than is typical on so many of today's aircraft.  The flight crew provided outstanding service, and when we landed in Sofia, we realized the positive flight experience was a harbinger of things to come.
View from our hotel window near the city center
Sofia (pronounced SOH-fee-ə, with emphasis on the first syllable, not the second) is Bulgaria's capital and largest city, with a population of 1.3 million.  Sitting in a bowl surrounded on three sides by mountains, Sofia and its predecessor cities date back 7,000 years.  The first Bulgarian Empire was established in the year 681, and Sofia became its capital some 300 years later.
St. George Rotunda
Sofia's oldest building is the St. George Rotunda, an early Christian church dating back to the 4th century.  Almost hidden by the Sheraton hotel and several government ministry buildings, the ancient rotunda was built by the Romans and sits amid the ruins of the ancient town of Serdica.
Saint Sofia Church (Sveta Sofia)
Only slightly newer is the Saint Sofia Church, originally built in the fourth century and rebuilt several times after invasion and destruction by Goths and Huns.  The current church was built between 527 and 565 with several subsequent modifications and additions.  In the 14th century, the church gave its name to the city.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Despite its long and illustrious history, the Saint Sofia Church is overshadowed (both literally and figuratively) by the massive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral across the street.  Designed in the Neo-Byzantine style, the cathedral is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox churches in the world with a capacity of 10,000 people.  Named for a medieval Ruthenian prince who was canonized in the Orthodox church, the 34,000 sq. ft. structure is sited on a large plaza in the city center.
Old medals and currency for sale
When we walked to the cathedral on Saturday afternoon, a nearby park had been transformed into an antiques and collectibles market.  Several dozen kiosks displayed items from cameras to military medals to obsolete coins and banknotes.  Old jewelry and silverware, trading pins, street signs, and even Russian nesting dolls were on offer in this eclectic outdoor bazaar.
Saint Nedelya Church
Since 85% of the country's population follows the Bulgarian Orthodox religion, all the churches we visited—which are among Sofia's most famous and revered landmarks—are Orthodox institutions.  The St. Nedelya Church is another medieval cathedral.  The original structure was built around the 10th century but was demolished in the mid 1800s and replaced by the current church.
Iconostasis of St. Nedelya Church 
Unlike most Orthodox churches, which prohibit photography inside, St. Nedelya permitted it, offering a view of the iconostasis, or templon, an ornately decorated wall at the front of the nave, where worshippers stand during services (there are no pews).  The templon is covered with icons of saints and always adorned with gold leaf.
Frescoes in St. Nedelya Church
Walls and ceilings in Orthodox churches are almost always completely covered with paintings that depict saints and their lives as well as other Biblical stories.
Monument to the Soviet Army
Of course, we could not leave a former Eastern Bloc nation without seeing what the Russian overlords always leave behind—a gargantuan monument to the Soviet Red Army for "liberating" the country from Germany in 1944.  Of course, in the process the Soviets always sank their Communist claws into each country they "saved."  Sofia's memorial, like others we've seen, is set on an enormous plaza.
Monument to the Soviet Army
No longer forced to revere the spot, locals have made good use of it as a skateboard park and, at times, a focus for political statements.  Below a massive Russian soldier with a raised rifle on the tall central obelisk, the sides of the monument nearer ground level are adorned with relief sculptures of charging army forces.  In 2011, the military on one sculpture were painted to look like icons of American pop culture from Superman to the Joker.
The original 2011 painting  (photo from
Though perhaps more prank than political statement, this original decoration inspired followers.  The Bulgarian government promptly cleans the sculpture, and the Russian government apparently grows more annoyed with each instance, but the trend continues.  The figures were covered in pink to commemorate the anniversary of Prague Spring and in the colors of the Ukrainian flag to protest the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Vitosha Street
As should be evident from the photos here, Sofia is a city that values its trees, and green spaces abound, many with meticulously maintained flower gardens.  Even Vitosha Boulevard, the city's main commercial thoroughfare (pedestrian only!) is lined with trees and flower boxes as well as restaurants and shops.  Our visit to the city was on a weekend (NOT Easter, for the first time in a month!), and the outdoors were teeming with thousands of locals enjoying the beautiful spring weather.
National Palace of Culture
On Sunday we hired a driver to take us to Rila Monastery, Bulgaria's first and largest monastery.  Situated at 3,763 feet elevation, the monastery adorns a river valley in the Rila Mountains.  Founded in the 10th century, the monastery has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, most recently in the 1800s.  During periods when Bulgaria was under the rule of outside forces, like the 500-year Ottoman occupation, Rila Monastery served as a lighthouse to Bulgarian people, a symbol of their faith and their history.
Nativity of the Virgin Church at Rila Monastery
Today the monastery is housed within fortress-like walls.  In its central courtyard sits the Nativity of the Virgin Church, with a colorful exterior influenced by Ottoman architecture.  Below the porticos, the exterior, like the interior, is covered with brightly colored frescoes by master Bulgarian painters, portraying scenes from heaven and hell.

Residential buildings overlook the courtyard.
Along the outer walls of the monastery are more than 300 chambers for resident monks and for pilgrims and other visitors who go for a small glimpse into the monastic life.  Rila Monastery has become a national symbol of Bulgaria and is even depicted on its currency.  Despite its remote location—at the end of a narrow, winding mountain road two hours south of Sofia—the monastery attracts upward of a million visitors each year, including one from Pope John Paul II in 2002.

Though our time in Bulgaria was limited and we did not see much of the country, we saw enough to make us want to return.  When we commented to our driver on Sunday how impressed we were with the city's cleanliness and attractiveness, he explained that much has changed in Bulgaria in the last ten years, dating back to its admission to the European Union in 2007.  Roads have been vastly improved, he stated, and an explosion of construction has given the city a modern look.

Tomorrow we'll take our leave of Bulgaria, for now, and fly to Belgrade for a few days in the Serbian capital city.

3-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Odessa, Ukraine
    •  Ended in:  Sofia, Bulgaria
    •  Miles flown:  440
    •  Miles driven (as passenger):  175
    •  Miles walked:  20.19
    •  Weather:  45° to 78°, sunny
    •  Visitors at Rila Monastery:  9,025
    •  Wedding parties in Sofia:  21
    •  Restaurants on Vitosha Boulevard:  46
    •  Tulips in Sofia parks:  237,901

Loved:  Sofia has been on our 'want to go' list for at least seven or eight years.  It was great to finally get here and to find it to be so much better than we ever expected.

Lacking:  Our original plans called for visiting several other Bulgarian cities, including the Black Sea coast, but plans to meet family in Italy were shifted from early June to late May and we decided to limit our visit to Sofia.  More time to see other parts of the country would be great.

Learned:  Although we knew that joining the European Union had a positive political influence on its eastern members, we had no idea that the economic impact was so significant.  At least it seems to have been in Bulgaria.

More Photos from Today
A wedding inside St. George Rotunda, one of many we encountered on a spring weekend in Sofia
Another wedding party, this one at Saint Sofia Church 
The main entrance of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Guarding Saint Sofia, this majestic lion endures thousands of photo ops daily with people climbing on his back.
Sveta Sofia statue erected in 2000 to replace an oversized Lenin statue removed ten years before.  
The absurd bathroom gender debate settled:  All together with floor to ceiling stall doors.
Pretty display on a Sofia street
One of many McDonald's locations in Sofia, very popular with locals
In the distance, signs for McDonald's, Subway and Coca-Cola.  We see them almost everywhere in Europe.  
Another view of Rila church
Back side of the church at Rila Monastery