On the yellow brick road
Surprises in Sofia
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.
Clockwise from left, the domes of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; views over Vitosha mountain; National Library; Vitosha Boulevard