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WHY GO TO SOFIA?
Sofia is Europe’s most affordable capital, where your hotel options show a night in a four-star hotel goes for less than $100. The dinner tab for two with a bottle of house wine runs about $40. And cab fare costs less than $1 a mile. The city ranks tops on several travel affordability indexes, including TripAdvisor’s TripIndex Cities 2013, which tallied daily expenses at $158.42. That’s 73% cheaper than in Oslo, the priciest destination, where the per diem came to $581. But low cost is only one reason to visit this little-known — to Americans, anyway — Balkan capital.
The city is full of delightful surprises, from the yellow brick roads in its historic center to the partially exposed, 1,800-year-old Roman city that lies beneath. You can enjoy a 60-minute Bulgarian rose massage in the ruins of a 3rd-century coliseum for about $55, or take in an outdoor opera performance for less than $10. There’s hiking and skiing on 7,500-foot Vitosha Mountain, the highest of the peaks surrounding the capital. Within the city are dozens of lovely parks, where on any given day you might happen across tango dancers perfecting their moves or old men contemplating a chess board.
Like every big city, Sofia has something for every taste. There are a great many luxury hotels, including those that are part of international hotel chains. There is also a wide variety of hostels and smaller family guesthouses. There are a multitude of discotheques, restaurants, bars, piano bars, folk clubs, taverns, soda fountains, fast food outlets and many other kinds of entertainment. Sofia and the immediate vicinity also boast a great many spa complexes. The hot springs at Bankya, a nearby resort offer wonderful facilities for rest, recreation, and wellness. There are ten spa centers within the capital’s city limits offering peace and relaxation, along with therapeutic and beauty treatments. One of Sofia’s favorite spots for both visitors and residents is Vitosha Boulevard. Here theee are shops carrying world-famous brands, and since it s a pedestrian zone, it a very pleasant place for strolling and relaxation. In general, the capital is a shoppers delight, since Sofia is still one of the major crossroads on the Balkan Peninsula for trade of all kinds
THINGS TO SEE IN SOFIA
Lying 8km (5 miles) southwest of Sofia, this is one of Bulgaria’s most cherished treasures and an absolute must-visit. The tiny medieval church was closed to the public for 38 years while it underwent restoration work, finally reopening in 2000. It is best known for its exquisite 13th-century frescoes, depicting scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints. These are renowned for their realism and considered among the best examples of the Bulgaria’s medieval art. Boyana is one of nine Bulgarian cultural monuments included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. It’s so hallowed that admission is restricted to 10 minutes in the company of a guide. Accessed by minibus 21 from Bulvard Patriarh Evtimly.
Probably Sofia’s most photographed monument, Alexander Nevski is a magnificent neo-Byzantine cathedral-sized church, topped by copper and golden domes. Built between 1882 and 1912, the church takes its name from Alexander Nevski, credited with saving Russia from Swedish troops in 1240 and the patron saint of the family of the tsar at that time, Alexander II (also known as Tsar Osvoboditel, the ‘Tsar Liberator’) who led the army that drove out the Turks. The inside is even more impressive; a darkened interior with vast domes covered with delicate murals. The central altar is dedicated to St Alexander Nevski, the southern altar to St Boris (who brought Christianity to Bulgaria) and the northern altar to Saints Cyril and Methodius (who created the Cyrillic alphabet). The Icon Museum, located in the crypt, has over 300 icons and mural frescoes tracing the development of Bulgarian icon-painting from the late ninth century up to the end of the 19th century.
Once there were 70 mosques in Sofia, but today this is the only still functioning. It was designed in 1576 by Mimar Sinan, who also built the Sultan Selim Mosque in Edirne and Istanbul’s infamous Blue Mosque. The mosque’s finest feature is the domed ceiling, restored to its original design after the fall of Communism. Loudspeakers call the city’s Muslim minority to prayer five times a day – on Friday there can be as many as 400 worshippers in attendance. The mosque is not officially open as a tourist attraction but visitors are welcome outside prayer times, including women – just be sure to dress respectfully.
The inside is decorated with fine blue tiles and calligraphy, citing texts from the Koran, as the portrayal of human figures is banned in Islamic art. The mosque is also known as Banya Bashi, which means ‘many baths’, and outside are the small remains of the original hammam (Turkish baths), unearthed in 2003-2004.
Opened in 2011, this new addition to Sofia’s cultural scene boasts a fascinating collection of Socialist sculpture, paintings and other art. The main spectacle is the outdoor sculpture park, where visitors are greeted by the vast statue of Lenin that once stood in the centre of the city. The red star taken from the top of the Socialist Party headquarters is also here as well as over 70 other relics that are inexorably linked to Bulgaria’s past. Uplifting and melancholy in turn, the most frustrating part of the museum is that it lacks a sign. Look for the statues in the garden instead.
Located inside the former Tsar’s palace, Sofia’s National Art Gallery houses Bulgaria’s largest art collection, with some 60,000 works. Its creaky wooden floors, original marble fireplaces and high ceilings ensure the building is a sanctuary from the Sofia heat which can feel quite sticky in summer.
When Sofia was conquered by the Turks in 1382, this building became a konak (headquarters) of the local Ottoman administrators. At one time these were used to interrogate Bulgarian rebels. These days it charts the development of Bulgarian art from 1878 to the mid-20th century, beginning with the Revivalist period and portraiture with painters like Zograf, Dospevski and Pavlovic. Moving into the early 20th century, examples of the popular 1930s movement includes scenes by Nikola Tanev, a Gaugin-esque Stoyan Sotinov and wonderful paintings of old Plovdiv by Tzanko Lavrenov. There are also regularly changing exhibitions from international artists.
If small, wriggly things are not your bag, you probably won’t enjoy the National History Museum. After being greeted by two long-dead ostriches, the rest of the first floor is a combination of winged beasts, creepy crawlies and snakes. The line between stuffed animals and animal statues then becomes increasingly blurred, until a quite ridiculous scene between a tiger and a bear with two cubs having a stand-off in front of a row of Christmas trees. Similar scenes then continue throughout – don’t miss the python sinking its teeth into a baby deer’s neck.
Situated behind the Hali, the Central Sofia Synagogue is the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe. Designed by the Austrian architect Grunanger, the synagogue was built to resemble a former synagogue in Vienna, which was destroyed by the Nazis. The century-old building is a square block of Spanish-Moorish design, with a large central dome lit by a showpiece 2,250kg (4,960lb) chandelier. The outer walls are ornamented with floral and geometric motifs. The synagogue was originally intended to accommodate 1,300 worshippers, but nowadays services are only attended by 50 or 60 people, and services on regular Sabbaths are usually held in a small room off the main gallery. Visitors must ring the bell on the gates for entry.
After entering Hall 1 of the Ethnographic Institute Museum you’ll be greeted with step-by-step instructions on how to make kirpich (bricks). It’s around this point you’ll probably consider the entrance fee money badly spent, but don’t give up. Ethnography is the study of different cultures, and how they behave and evolve, and in this sense the museum mirrors its aims completely. After starting with the building blocks of Bulgarian rural life, things progress into an exhibition about the town of Yugavo in the Rhodope Mountains. It includes some beautiful black and white pictures from the village including men in fezzes and straight-backed woman, all with darkened skin from a lifetime in the fields. In the next rooms you will see a different kind of building block: looms and knitting needles the size of pneumatic drills. There are also children’s toys and dolls that would not out of place in a horror film today. Certainly one of the city’s less trumpeted attractions, it’s without doubt one of its most charming.
Standing in the courtyard of the Sheraton Balkan Hotel, the tiny sunken redbrick Rotunda of St George is the oldest preserved building in Sofia, built in the fourth century as a Roman temple. Careful restoration work has revealed three layers of exquisite medieval frescoes, which had been hidden by plaster during the 500 years of Ottoman rule. The impressive cupola bears a 14th-century portrait of Christ the Pantocrator, surrounded by four angels and symbols of the Evangelists. Beneath, 12th-century fresco work depicts 22 prophets holding scrolls, with texts alternately in Bulgarian and Greek. To the east lie excavated foundations of an octagonal-shaped Roman public building and paved street.
If you need an antidote to garish, golden Orthodox churches, visit the three room crypt underneath the Church of St Nicholas. The walls are decorated with typically Orthodox imagery throughout and unsurprisingly St Nicholas is depicted as the star of the show. Visitors can write out prayers and drop them into the box at the end of the third room, where believers kneel and kiss the grey coffin, offering marks of the cross for St Nicholas or loved ones. A genuinely powerful setting, the only thing you’ll be asked to pay for is a candle, should you wish to buy.