On the yel­low brick road

Sur­prises in Sofia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION EUROPE - CAROL LEWIS

Non­cha­lantly lean­ing against a lamp­post, his right hand ca­su­ally thrust in to his trouser pocket, gazing into the dis­tance, “the Lucky Man” is obliv­i­ous to the beau­ti­ful women ea­ger to have a selfie with him. The newly erected statue to Aleko Kon­stanti­nov, the Bul­gar­ian au­thor who gave him­self the nick­name in one of his short sto­ries, is busy star­ing at the peak of Vi­tosha moun­tain.

The statue of the man cred­ited with bring­ing or­gan­ised tourism to Bul­garia more than 100 years ago is about to wit­ness a surge of hol­i­day­mak­ers as the coun­try pre­pares to take the pres­i­dency of the Euro­pean Union next year (a move brought for­ward six months by Bri­tain’s de­ci­sion on Brexit).

There aren’t many tourists when I visit in win­ter, though, when the green and gold domes of the Alexan­der Nevsky Cathe­dral are capped with snow. Which is a shame, given Bul­garia’s af­ford­abil­ity; on a Satur­day evening I buy a ticket in the stalls for the na­tional opera and bal­let for the equiv­a­lent of $20 and eat a three-course meal, with wine, in a fine restau­rant, for $25. There are plenty of good-value shop­ping op­por­tu­ni­ties too in Cen­tral Sofia Mar­ket Hall. Myr­iad stalls, shops and banks are spread over three floors, where you can do pretty much any­thing — drink cof­fee, eat salami, have a pedi­cure, or­gan­ise a mort­gage or buy a fur coat.

Just out­side the mar­ket hall I can see Sofia Syn­a­gogue, one of Europe’s largest, Sofia Cen­tral Mosque and Sveta Petka Church. Sofia is a small cap­i­tal, home to fewer than two mil­lion peo­ple, its main sights packed close to­gether, mak­ing it an easy city to nav­i­gate on foot. Thou­sands of yel­low ce­ramic bricks — an un­usual wed­ding gift from an Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian em­peror to a Bul­gar­ian tsar — line the city cen­tre main streets, which means I can fol­low the yel­low brick road, Wiz­ard of Oz style, around the city.

The city’s mon­u­ments sit not only side by side, but lay­ered one on top of the other. The mod­ern city is built on the ru­ins of a set­tle­ment founded in 2000BC by the Thra­cian tribe Serdi. Later the city was favoured by the Em­peror Con­stan­tine, who claimed,“Serdika is my Rome.” To­day Serdika is less Rome and more Pom­peii. Op­po­site the neo-Re­nais­sance mar­ket hall is the An­cient Com­plex Serdika. This newly opened at­trac­tion con­sists of about eight ex­ca­vated Ro­man streets with vil­las. It’s im­pres­sive, and free, al­though many of the arte­facts that were found here are in the Na­tional Arche­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum.

Far­ther along the yel­low brick road is the os­ten­ta­tious Alexan­der Nevsky Cathe­dral but, af­ter a brief glimpse at the rel­a­tively mod­ern Ortho­dox in­te­rior (com­pleted in 1912), turn your at­ten­tion to the smaller red-brick church be­hind. De­spite its hum­ble ap­pear­ance, this is the place that lends its name to the city — St Sofia Church. Dur­ing the time of the Ot­toman em­pire, St Sofia was turned into a mosque and its fres­coes were de­stroyed. Later re­stored as a church, the sixth-cen­tury build­ing has a cu­ri­ously con­tem­po­rary feel. Peer down through strate­gi­cally placed glass pan­els in the nave, though, and you will see a Ro­man necrop­o­lis be­neath. Some of the peo­ple buried here were so rich the tombs con­tain their own mo­saics and fres­coes. De­spite the city’s ob­vi­ous pride in its Ro­man her­itage, am­bi­tious plans to ex­ca­vate a 25,000seat am­phithe­atre are be­ing de­bated.

The city has a Soviet feel, with its Rus­sian and com­mu­nist ar­chi­tec­ture. Out­side the Na­tional Li­brary stand stat­ues of St Cyril and his brother St Method­ius, who first for­malised the Cyril­lic al­pha­bet, which orig­i­nates in Bul­garia rather than Russia. Al­though Bul­garia has a close his­tor­i­cal re­la­tion­ship with Russia, the young res­i­dents of Sofia are dis­tinctly Euro­pean, an­swer­ing their phones with a cheery “hello”, calling “ciao” as they leave cafes and al­most all pre­fer­ring to use “merci” to the Bul­gar­ian for thank you, “blagodarya”.

There is a vi­brant cafe cul­ture, too, with Vi­tosha Boule­vard lined with bars and restau­rants. To get out and about, though, I rec­om­mend fol­low­ing the Lucky Man’s gaze out to Vi­tosha moun­tain. Af­ter a 15-minute cab ride from the cen­tre of the city, I am at the Sime­onovo lift. In the sum­mer, Sofia’s res­i­dents head here, armed with pic­nics for hikes in the na­tional park. In win­ter, snow sports are the main at­trac­tion.

And as I as­cend through the clouds into the blue skies be­yond, to go for a ski on a Sun­day morn­ing, I think it is me, not Kon­stanti­nov, who is the lucky one.

• bul­gar­i­a­travel.org

THE TIMES

Clock­wise from left, the domes of Alexan­der Nevsky Cathe­dral; views over Vi­tosha moun­tain; Na­tional Li­brary; Vi­tosha Boule­vard

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