Bulgaria’s capital will dispel a few misconceptions and is the best place to buy a vintage typewriter
Despite its alluring name, Sofia rarely figures highly on tourists’ itineraries, which is a pity. The most recent addition to the EU gang, along with Romania, the capital of Bulgaria is a charming, unexpectedly soft city. Once past the high-rise, Soviet-era housing blocks that ring the outskirts of the city on the journey from the airport, Sofia reveals itself to be a city of low-slung buildings, with chestnut trees on the main streets, parks, and open spaces dotted with men playing chess and – a throwback to British cities of 50 years ago – vast flocks of songbirds.
Membership of the European Union has brought significant inward and external investment in tourism, with many churches and landmark buildings now boasting their first dab of paint in one, possibly two, generations.
Sofia’s major tourist attractions give an instructive insight into the Bulgarian mentality, for the country was once arguably the most slavish satellite of the Soviet Union, which, when you consider the competition included East Germany, is no little achievement. So slavishly did Bulgaria follow the line from Moscow during the Cold War that it was often referred to as the 16th state of the Soviet Union. Yet for Bulgarians, Russia has always been viewed as historically friendly, and Sofia is home to what is thought to be one of only two statues of Tsar Alexander II. The plinth is located on National Assembly Square along the eastern part of a main road called Bulevard Tsar Osvoboditel, which translates as 'Tsar Liberator'. The tsar sits proudly on horseback above a huddle of heroic Bulgarian liberators. The reason for this affection is the military support that the Russian tsar gave to Bulgaria in its fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire in the late 1870s.
Just across the road from the statue stands the city’s major gem, the Aleksandar Nevski church, all cupolas, frescoes and gold leaf onion domes. The rich decorations include 300 murals and 80 icons, while the mosaics, incense, alabaster columns, low incantations of a priest and the marble iconostasis all remind you just how far east towards Byzantium you have travelled. In Soviet times, said Sveta, my guide, she and her friends had to walk past the church with their eyes firmly focused on the ground; to look up and remark on its beauty would risk expulsion from school. Another church worth visiting, for entirely different reasons, is the Sveta Petka Samardzhiiska, possibly the only church in the world to be located in a metro station, in this case Serdika station, adjacent to Tzum, the central state shopping arcade and Sofia’s answer to Moscow’s GUM department store.
Media reports in the West tend to focus on the widespread corruption that continues to bedevil everyday life in Bulgaria, but the visitor gets little or no sense of this on a short visit. That said, irritations are commonplace. The National History Museum is a must-see, the largest museum in the Balkans, with 530,000 artefacts on display, ranging from delicate Thracian vases to medieval frescos and Roman pottery. Unfortunately, only a cursory attempt has been made to translate anything into English. This makes it difficult to put things in context and can be irritating, as foreigners pay around £4, and Bulgarians just 11p. The principle of Westerners paying more in entrance fees is now well established around the world, but it seems a little strange to come across a two-tier scheme within the EU.
Despite its dour reputation, Sofia has a vibrant cultural scene, too – Bulgarians know how to party and the colourful nightlife offers something for all tastes. In good weather, make for the Art Club, where the swish modern bar has a long list of cocktails, and you can drink or eat in the courtyard, surrounded by ancient Thracian tombstones.
Bulgarians are hugely proud of their cuisine and feel it has been overlooked by the gastronomes of the West. They take their meals seriously and one of the most popular dishes is gyuvich, a rich stew of peppers, aubergine and beans, mixed with meat. The meal is served in an earthenware pot (or gyuvech) and, like other traditional Bulgarian meals, is fresh, hot and delicious. Also look out for stuffed vine leaves and Black Sea brandy.
Nightclubs tend to be of the western variety, which is something of a pity. Leafing through the listings of the English language Sofia Echo, I came across concerts featuring open-throat singing, popularised in the West by Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares. Although I missed the performance, I picked up a CD of the music from the excellent souvenir shop at the Ethnographic Museum. And yet, 20 years on from the collapse of the Berlin Wall, remnants of the Soviet era continue to linger. Browsing through the flea market on Aleksandar Nevski Square, I came across an East German typewriter. I was tempted to buy it, thinking it would make a good vessel for a potted plant. The price? The haggling started at £20, so I declined. Clearly the market for such vintage vessels is keener than I had presumed.