Sofia–Bulgaria’s beautiful capital

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!

DSCN0277Bulgarian Court of Justice

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.

DSCN0281Statue of Sveta Sofia (city is named after her)

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.

DSCN0290Remnants of the Roman Empire underneath the streets of Sofia

  • 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!

DSCN0286Banya 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:

DSCN0279Lion in front of Court of Justice

DSCN0298Flowers in City Garden


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!

Current Events

As I mentioned in the “About this blog” section, one of my key responsibilities as a Fulbright grantee is to enhance understanding between Americans and Bulgarians.  In my mind, a crucial part of this entails sharing updates on current events in Bulgaria.  Back when I first started my Fulbright application, I signed up for Bulgaria Google Alerts.  Essentially, this service sends a consolidated e-mail every day summarizing the top news stories in the region.  Several major stories impacting Bulgaria and the Balkan region over the past few weeks jumped out at me, and I wanted to give a quick summary of the most impactful ones.

1. Heavy flooding in June killed 12 people and caused significant damage along the coast of the Black Sea.  Varna and Dobrich (the 3rd and 9th largest cities in Bulgaria) were amongst the hardest hit, with many people losing electricity or experiencing extreme property damage.  A national day of mourning was declared on June 23rd to remember those lost.


 Cars and even homes were swept away by the force of the flooding

2. A massive pipeline project in Bulgaria has been delayed due to considerable political pressure from the European Union.  The South Stream pipeline is planned to run directly through Bulgaria, and pump natural gas from Russia to the rest of Europe.  There is rising concern in the US and EU that completion of the pipeline would increase European dependency on Russia for energy, and ultimately give Russia too much power.  There are also ramifications for the current crisis in Ukraine, as the pipeline would allow Russia to limit energy to Ukraine without impacting the rest of Europe.  This Wall Street Journal article gives some interesting historical context about why that’s important.

ImagePlanned route of South Stream pipeline

3. Five people were arrested yesterday for their involvement in a plot against some of the top banks in Bulgaria.  The conspirators used text messages and e-mails to spread false rumors about the instability of banks, which led to a mass withdrawal of ~$550 million in just a matter of hours.  The government quickly approved an emergency credit line of more than $2 billion, which restored stability.  President Rosen Plevneliev has been working to increase confidence in the banks, saying “We have sufficient reserves, means and tools to deal with any attempt at destabilization, and we stand behind each bank that becomes the target of an attack.”

Thank you Dave Gross for sending me the NYT article about the South Stream pipeline!