Bul­garia’s cap­i­tal of­fers bar­gain lo­ca­tion

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - TRAVEL - He­lena Bachmann

SOFIA, Bul­garia – For tourists trav­el­ing on a tight bud­get, many Euro­pean des­ti­na­tions are quite pricey. A ho­tel room and a de­cent meal in Lon­don, Paris or Rome can cost the prover­bial arm and a leg.

But not in Sofia. Two-star ho­tels close to the city cen­ter of­fer rooms for 60 Bul­gar­ian lev (about $40) a night. Win­ing and din­ing in Bul­garia’s cap­i­tal is af­ford­able even to the most money-con­scious trav­el­ers, and there is no need to skimp on the qual­ity, quan­tity or di­ver­sity of lo­cal spe­cial­ties. Bul­garia lies at the cross­roads be­tween Asia and Europe, so many tra­di­tional dishes are a com­bi­na­tion of Turk­ish, Greek, Rus­sian and Mid­dle Eastern fla­vors.

A typ­i­cal Bul­gar­ian meal is sim­ple but de­li­cious, rich in lo­cally grown pro­duce. Among the dishes are luyten­itsa, a thick paste of roasted to­ma­toes and red pep­pers; ky­opoolu, made from chopped and roasted eg­g­plant and gar­lic; shop­ska salad, a com­bi­na­tion of diced to­ma­toes, cu­cum­bers, onions and pep­pers topped with grated brine cheese and pars­ley; and tara­tor, a yo­gurt-based soup of cu­cum­bers, gar­lic, and dill. Served to­gether, all th­ese share­able dishes, ac­com­pa­nied by hot pita bread, cost the equiv­a­lent of $10 to $12.

Tra­di­tional meat dishes in­clude roasted pep­pers stuffed with ground pork and rice, as well as shishche, a skewer of bar­be­cued meat and veg­eta­bles, or ke­babche, grilled minced meat sea­soned with pep­per and cumin. They cost be­tween $5 and $9.

The Balkan na­tion may not yet be fa­mous for its wines, but it grows plenty of grape va­ri­eties. A glass of a de­cent do­mes­tic red wine costs about $1, and a pint of lo­cal beer even less.

To get a sense of how in­ex­pen­sive Sofia is, head to the Ladies’ Mar­ket – so called be­cause once, only women used to shop there. The stalls are laden with a range of fruit and veg­eta­bles, eggs, spices, honey and hand­i­crafts. A pound of pro­duce costs as lit­tle 30 cents.

But what else is there to do in Sofia be­sides eat­ing and drink­ing on a shoe­string?

Bul­garia has been slow in find­ing its feet since the fall of com­mu­nism, so un­like the more pol­ished Eastern Euro­pean cap­i­tals such s Prague and Bu­dapest, Sofia is more low-key.

The pace is more re­laxed, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to get to know the city and its his­tory with­out bat­tling the crowds or el­bow­ing throngs of tourists.

That is not to say that there is no ex­cite­ment. In the cen­trally lo­cated shop­ping district, the pedes­trian Vi­tosha Boule­vard is full of pa­tio restau­rants, out­door cafes and bars that come alive af­ter dark, cre­at­ing a nightlife scene with live mu­sic and mer­ry­mak­ing.

Many of Sofia’s ar­chi­tec­tural land­marks are ves­tiges of its tur­bu­lent his­tory. Dur­ing sev­eral thou­sand years of its ex­is­tence, the city had been oc­cu­pied by for­eign pow­ers, in­clud­ing the Greek, Ro­man and Ot­toman em­pires. Ex­ca­vated ru­ins can be seen through­out town.

Th­ese for­eign in­flu­ences also spilled over to Sofia’s (and Bul­garia’s) re­li­gious life. Like its neigh­bors Greece, Mace­do­nia, Ser­bia and Ro­ma­nia, Bul­garia is pre­dom­i­nantly Eastern Or­tho­dox. A mag­nif­i­cent ex­am­ple of re­li­gious ar­chi­tec­ture is the gold-domed Alexan­der Nevsky Cathe­dral, which strad­dles 34,100 square feet in the city’s cen­ter.

One of the largest Eastern Or­tho­dox cathe­drals in the world, its con­struc­tion started in 1882 and was com­pleted in 1912. The in­te­rior fea­tures 200 icons, as well as paint­ings and en­grav­ings from the 12th to 19th cen­tury, and its walls are dec­o­rated with Ital­ian mar­ble, Brazil­ian onyx and al­abaster.

Nearby stands the re­minder of the Ot­toman reign, which spanned nearly 500 years. Built in 1576, the Banya Bashi mosque is the only one of 70 mosques still re­main­ing in the city.

The mosque’s name, Banya, means “bath” in Bul­gar­ian. That’s be­cause it is sit­u­ated near the old Cen­tral Min­eral Baths, a Turk­ish bath­house which opened in 1913 and closed in 1986. The re­fur­bished build­ing now houses the Sofia His­tory Mu­seum but still has a foun­tain spew­ing warm min­eral wa­ter.

Some traces of Bul­garia’s last oc­cu­pant, the Soviet Union, which claimed Bul­garia in its sphere of in­flu­ence from 1944 un­til 1990, also are present in Sofia. One is the Com­mu­nist Party build­ing. An­gry crowds set it on fire af­ter com­mu­nism col­lapsed in 1990, top­pling the star sit­ting on the spire. The build­ing is now used by Bul­garia’s Na­tional As­sem­bly.

But an­other ves­tige of com­mu­nism had been forcibly re­moved: The statue of Lenin in a cen­tral square was taken down and re­placed in 2000 by that of the city’s pa­tron saint, Sofia. The cop­per and bronze mon­u­ment looks over Sofia’s past and present: a busy street on one side and Ro­man ru­ins on an­other.

With its rich his­tory, ar­chi­tec­tural land­marks, laid-back vibe, and de­li­cious food and drink that are among Europe’s cheap­est, don’t hes­i­tate if you get the chance to visit Sofia.


The Min­eral Baths Build­ing, once a cen­ter for ther­mal springs, is now a mu­seum.

Alexan­der Nevsky Cathe­dral was com­pleted in 1912.

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