After the nonstop stimulation of FISI, I headed back to Sofia where I looked forward to a week of rest and relaxation before my official Fulbright orientation started. However, for those of you who know me best, you know that “taking it easy” has never really been my style. Not surprisingly, my week of relaxation turned into a power nap, and then I was right back at it, soaking in everything Bulgaria’s capital has to offer. Sofia has such a rich and interesting history that this post can hardly do it justice, but I’ll try to hit some of the highlights. Any Bulgarian readers, feel free to correct or interject in the comments section!
A big part of why I came to Bulgaria is because of its location. Situated on Turkey’s northwestern border, Bulgaria is essentially a crossroads of Eastern and Western civilizations. You feel this right away in Sofia as domed churches contrast Ottoman-era mosques. What started centuries ago as a Thracian civilization has since been conquered by the Roman empire, ruled by Byzantium, subjugated by the Ottoman Empire, and absorbed by the Eastern Bloc. What remains is a fascinating history and a complex mix of people, religion, architecture, and cuisine.
I wanted to share a few observations and things I’ve learned about Sofia from taking a couple tours, exploring the city with friends, and doing some hiking.
- Sofia (formally known as Serdica) is one of the oldest cities in Europe. While I’m having trouble finding an exact date, I’m seeing several sources that document inhabitants more than 7,000 years ago. Remnants of older civilizations can be found underneath existing buildings and streets, resulting in a layered feel to the city.
- There seems to be a great deal of religious tolerance here. Standing in the center of Sofia’s main square, you can see a mosque, a synagogue, an Orthodox church, and a Catholic cathedral, all coexisting peacefully. To further substantiate this observation, Bulgaria was the only WWII Axis country that refused to send its Jewish population to the concentration camps during the Holocaust. People here still seem proud of that, and should be!
Banya Bashi Mosque
- One of the most impressive buildings in town is certainly the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Saint Alexander Nevsky was a Russian Prince). It was built to commemorate the Russian soldiers who died liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule during the Ruso-Turkish War in the 1870s.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
- You can still feel the Soviet influence in the city’s architecture. Large, communist-style buildings still line some of the main streets, though the Bulgarian flag now flies overhead.
Former Bulgarian Communist Party Headquarters
- One of Bulgaria’s key historical figures was Boris III, a former Tsar of Bulgaria from 1918-1943. An anarchist group attempted to assassinate Boris by killing a Bulgarian general, and detonating explosives at that general’s funeral (Boris was expected to attend). While almost 200 people were killed, Boris escaped unscathed. But how…? He was late. Bulgarians are sometimes notorious for being a bit late, and point to this as a good indication to why that’s not always a bad thing!
- One of Sofia’s prettiest outdoor areas is the City Garden, located in central Sofia. Ivan Vazov National Theatre, named after one of Bulgaria’s most famous poets, writers, and playwrights, overlooks the park.
Ivan Vazov National Theatre
- At ~2,300 meters, Mount Vitosha overlooks Sofia. I had the opportunity to hike it earlier this week with my friends Valentin and Marta. We took a bus partway up the mountain, and then hiked to the summit. At the top, we celebrated with a beer and some leshta (леща), a traditional Bulgarian soup.
- At the base of Mount Vitosha is Vitosha Boulevard. It’s one of the more touristy parts of the city, and there always seems to be a lot of activity. Outdoor restaurants, bars, and shops line the street on both sides.
Note: I am extremely thankful to my friends Valentin and Alex for being phenomenal tour guides and hosts all week.
Here are some additional pictures of Sofia to enjoy:
Guards in front of President’s Palace
Shop owners often live above Bulgarian “Basement Shops”
Beautification project aims to decorate Sofia’s electrical boxes
Feel free to leave any questions you have about Sofia in the comments box!
My official Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship training started today. It’s been great meeting the other people in my group, and I’m especially looking forward to some more Bulgarian lessons. I spent a couple of days last week in Macedonia, so my goal is to share that experience with you soon!