Like most southeast European countries, Bulgaria has a long history. It was first settled about 7,500 years ago in Neolithic times and began to divide into tribal fiefdoms about 3,000 years ago. Then came the Eastern, or Byzantine branch of the Roman Empire (about 50 A.D.) All through and after these periods, the country absorbed countless tribes from other Slavic areas. By 681 A.D. they had all congealed into a single Bulgarian nation that gradually expanded almost to Constantinople by the end of the 10th century.
The Ottomans halted and immediately reversed this expansion when they conquered and ruled Bulgaria for over 500 years, from about 1390 through 1877, when Russia helped the long-suppressed country regain its independence. This independence, however, was quickly followed by a number of ill-conceived wars (as with Serbia and Greece) and alliances (initially with Germany and then, in desperation, trying to switch to Russia) during WWII.
We all know how that ended up. Bulgaria became part of the Soviet Bloc for the next 45 years. But even when it regained its independence, things went from bad to worse with an economic collapse that ended only a couple of decades ago. The country hopes for better times after its 2007 admission into the European Union.
OK, enough history. On to Sofia
Sofia Bulgaria is a city of about 1 million residents. This capital city is mostly about religion: its Cathedral, its Byzantine churches, its synagogue, its Russian Orthodox churches, its churches that were converted into mosques and then back into churches and outside the city, and its monasteries.
And even if you don’t look to these institutions for religion, they represent much of the city’s history and its architectural diversity, either exemplifying, or more typically integrating influences from styles ranging from Roman to Byzantine, Ottoman to Russian Orthodox, and Jewish to Art Nouveau. And then you can throw in a bit of monumental, drab grayish-brown Russian Communist influence for flavor.
These and many other forms of diversity are tied together in some of the city’s museums, such as those dedicated to archaeology, natural history, and art.
Not surprisingly, our tour of Sofia began, and for the most part, ended our exploration of the city at its religious institutions.
Visiting Sofia Religious Institutions
Here are some of the highlights of our tours of Sofia’s religious buildings.
- Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built in honor of the Tsar that helped the Bulgarians drive the Ottomans out of the country. The exorbitant cathedral adds layer upon layer of gilded gold and oxidized copper domes to form a Russian Neo-Byzantine showpiece. Inside are mosaics, frescos, lovely screens, and a marble throne built for Tsar Ferdinand.
- Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker (aka, the Russian Church), a flamboyant, early 20th-century Russian-style church with gilded gold domes, oxidized copper spires, and frescoes based on 17th-century Russian paintings.
- Saint Nedelya is a 19th-century church built on the site of a 10th-century church that was almost totally destroyed, but rebuilt in the early 20th century. Its interior frescoes and marble floor, redone in the 1970s, makes for an even more contemporary feel.
- Saint Sophia is an Eastern Orthodox church built atop the foundations of a 6th-century church which, in turn, was built on the site of an even older, 4th-century church. The Christian, Byzantine-style church, which was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman reign, has distinctive interior brickwork, but virtually no other ornamentation. Most interesting is the museum beneath the church, which provides a tour of the foundations of the earlier churches and a number of these churches’ tombs.
- St. George Rotunda is a 4th-century, Roman Empire-era round brick church. It has frescoes dating back to the 10th century and is the city’s oldest preserved building.
- Sofia Synagogue is a huge temple with something of an incongruous, but very attractive reliance on Moorish architectural and design elements including Moorish-style arches, pillars, and mosaics, and supposedly, for those times that you may be able to enter, a huge brass chandelier.
- Banya Bashi Mosque is a 16th-century, domed roof structure. After centuries over which the Ottomans converted churches into mosques, it is now the only operating mosque in the city. It was designed by the same architect that designed Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque.
Sofia’s Non-Religious Attractions
Although we may make it sound like churches compose the city’s entire look-and-feel, this is not entirely the case. Other than for the moderately irregular angles of the streets in Sofia’s public gardens, almost all the central city’s streets are laid out on a grid. This provides something of an enforced regularity on the feel of this city and makes it feel somewhat newer than its buildings may otherwise appear.
Some structures and features provide a degree of diversity other than that among its grand churches. Among its more secular attractions are its:
- Ivan Vazov National Theatre is a grandly ornate early 20th-century building. Although we only saw the exterior, its interior is supposed to be just as an extravert. The building is also located in a pretty, apartment building/hotel-lined park and is fronted by a pretty water fountain.
- Serdica Archeological complex is a 9,000 square-meter open-air site of an ancient Roman city. It is next to the central underground station and consists of remnants of eight streets, an early Christian Basilica, and a few large buildings.
- City and Botanical Gardens, which are nicely landscaped and maintained and are home to some interesting, relatively contemporary sculptures.
- Architectural diversity combines a mix of flamboyant Art Nouveaux buildings, French Renaissance-style mansions, monumental, boxy, and generally plain Communist-era buildings, and a small mix of Moorish structures (especially, and somewhat ironically, the city’s synagogue).
- Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is located next to the Church of Sveta Sofia and marked with a bronze lion, recognizes the Bulgarian soldiers lost in WWI.
- The Presidency, built in the 1960s, with its guards always at the front entrance.
- Public monuments including the Tsar Alexander II equestrian in gratitude for his help in expelling the Ottomans from Bulgaria; Sophia, a rather erotic copper and bronze statue that replaced a Soviet statue of Lenin and the Soviet Army Monument (commemorating the Soviet troops who entered the city at the end of WWII, which as clean when we were there, is the subject of constant graffiti.
The city also has a number of what appeared like they could be interesting museums including those of Art, Ethnography, Archeology, Bulgarian History and Socialist Art. Unfortunately, we had only one day in the city—a Monday, when all the museums were closed.
Grozd. We don’t know whether it was a representative introduction to Bulgarian food and service, but it certainly wasn’t a good one. Our concierge highly recommended Grozd as an introduction to Bulgarian food and we found a number of interesting dishes on the menu. Our experience began when our server (with whom we had both language and communication problems) told us they were out of the wine that we ordered and pushed us to accept another from a different region and with different varietals than we originally requested. We eventually relented and reluctantly agreed to the wine, a 2016 Nota Bene (a blend of Merlot, Malbec, and Syrah) from Medelidare Estate). The wine was fine and so was our first course of a sampling of local sausages. Given language issues, we were unable to effectively ask or understand which sausages were which, but that was our issue since we didn’t speak the local language.
Our big problem, however, was the server’s issue: Despite numerous, polite requests, he kept saying that our next course would arrive in 5 minutes, and then two minutes. It finally arrived an hour after we finished our appetizer. In fact, he was just coming out of the kitchen with our food as we were about to tell him the cancel the order.
The food was certainly not worth the wait. On the positive side, the porcini sauce with Tom’s veal scallop, and both of our potatoes (mashed and roasted slices) were quite good. Tom’s veal scallop, meanwhile, was so overcooked as to be virtually inedible. Joyce’s veal meatballs, on the other hand, were almost raw. After a few bites, we left our food and asked for the check. With full plates and no questions about the meal from our server, we paid and left. Not surprisingly, it is no longer in operations.
Made in Home, is a popular spot for contemporary takes on traditional Bulgarian dishes. We began with cold yogurt soup with chopped walnuts, sunflower seeds, and celery, followed by two main dishes: Black Sea mussels steamed in white wine, garlic, celery, and onions; and lamb/beef kebabs with cucumber, pepper, onion, and mint salad, tahini sauce, and pita. All were quite good.
InterContinental Hotel was right in the middle of all of the main tourist attractions. It was a very nice hotel, with very comfortable linens and pillows. Bathrobe, slippers, hot pot, kleenex, and washcloths. Incredible concierge. The only negative is when we asked at the front desk if we could use euros in stores and restaurants, we were told no. Wrong. You don’t get the best rate, but it works if you run out of the local currency. All in all, a great place to stay