11.04.2015

Touring 6,000 years of History in Sofia


Sofia has been such a pleasant surprise, and a lovely start to my backpacking trip. I wasn't expecting Bulgaria to be as beautiful as it is, nor was I really expecting much of Bulgaria at all; but it's not only gorgeous, but the food is excellent and the people friendly. I'd even hazard to say that Bulgaria has been my favorite country I've ever visited - although Paris will always hold a special place in my heart.

The other day Spencer and I wanted to do a day trip to another monastery and do some hiking, but since I cut my leg cast off the other night (I broke my foot two weeks ago, if you didn't already know), I decided to take it easy to avoid further destruction of my foot, so we took a walking tour of Sofia instead.

Sofia has a very European feel to it, yet also extremely influenced from its Balkan, Turkish and Russian neighbors, so it has quite a unique feel. The tour of Sofia was extraordinarily informative, and our guide was chipper and knowledgeable. Not to mention, I'm quite a nerd and I love walking around endlessly, so a historically informative walking tour was really right up my ally.

Lion Walking Incorrectly

The tour convened under the spotless blue sky at the courthouse with about 20 other folks, Europeans, Ausies (always those dang Ausies everywhere), and Bulgarians. The Sofia courthouse is a popular meeting place for locals given its centralized location in the city center. The courthouse is riddled with small bullet holes - souvenirs from World War II - and flanked by two lions, which are the national symbol of Bulgaria. Our guide explained to us that many statues in Sofia are problematic, including these lions. Since Bulgarians don't have much contact with lions, and therefore have no idea how they walk, the lion to the right side of the building is walking incorrectly while the lion to the left side is walking correctly. If you look closely, you can see his steps are completely wrong.

St. Sveta Nedelya

We moved on from the courthouse to St. Sveta Nedelya, which is directly next to the courthouse. Sveta Ndelia is an Orthodox Church that was the site of Sofia's largest terrorist attack, which is clearly a fact that piqued my interest given my unique obsession with the history of terrorism. The Cliff Notes version of the story says that a leftist terrorist group wanted to overthrow the Bulgarian monarchy, so they took 25,000 kilos of dynamite and planned to bomb the entire church during a funeral while the monarch was meant to be present, but as fate would have it he was running late because he was attending another funeral, and therefore escaped the whole ordeal unscathed. Even though the monarch didn't die, they still managed to kill 100 and wound 500.

St. Sofia

We turned the corner and arrived at St. Sofia, a black and gold statue built in 2000 as a symbol of Sofia. When it was built, many people mistakenly took Sofia to be named after St. Sofia, but she actually has nothing to do with the naming of the city. In the Eastern Roman Empire, Sofia and her three daughters were Christian and therefore persecuted. When they were eventually executed, Sofia was canonized. The presiding officials of Sofia decided to make her the millennial face of Sofia (she took the place of a statue of Lenin), and while the people of Sofia have no problem with a statue of St. Sofia, they do, however, have an issue with what she is carrying. The statue holds an eagle, wreath, and crown, all of which are pagan symbols and therefore offensive to her memory. Yet another example of the problematic statues in Sofia.

Oh, it's just an archaeological excavation of thousand year old history

Sofia is an extremely old city, 6,000 years old to be exact. The first people to settle in Sofia were the Thracians, and they eventually created the ancient town of Serdica. As contemporary Sofia expands and builds subways, they keep running across Serdican ruins and have to stop work in order to excavate and preserve the ruins. Across the city you'll see excavation sights. Even in many of the Metro stations there are glass windows to see live excavations for you to view already excavated ruins. It's planned to eventually connect all the ruins, yet that will be in the far future.

St. Saddlers Church

Adjoining an excavation site is St. Saddlers church, which was built in the 1400s by men who saddled horses. Since so many people rode horses back then, saddlers were pretty well-off gents. They eventually wanted to build a church among them, but in the Ottoman Empire churches had to obey by certain rules, such as that they had to be on holy land (St. Saddlers was built on ruins of ancient Serdica, which were considered sacred) and the church couldn't be taller than a mosque. After a few years of saving funds and paying bribes, the saddlers gave up and decided to build the church with free materials, which is why the church is made from a hodgepodge of random stones collected from all over.

Banya Bashi Mosque

Nearby is the Square of Tolerance, which it is so called because sights of all major religions and denominations can be seen from this one square, such as a Catholic church, and Orthodox church, a synagogue and a mosque. The mosque that sits at the crossroads of the square of tolerance is the only mosque in Sofia to service the city's 10,000 Muslims. Although Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule for centuries, a very small percentage of the population converted to Islam. As for the Jewish community, there are about 5,000 Jews in Sofia today. In fact, Bulgaria is one of the only three countries in Europe that tried to save its Jews during the Holocaust. When Hitler called on countries to hand over their Jewish population, the Bulgarian monarch said he needed the Jews for labor for 6 months, and when the 6 months ran out, he extended the time frame, and he did this for as long as he could. In sum, Sofia, and Bulgaria in general, is a very multi-cultural and tolerant country.

Central Baths


Behind the Banya Bashi Mosque are the Boyana Baths, which used to be what they sound like: public baths. These baths used to be the meeting place among Sofian residents. Sofia sits above large amounts of mineral water, and the baths used and heated this water to provide public baths for the city's inhabitants. The building is designed in the colorful traditional Byzantine style, and it now serves as the Sofia historical museum. Despite Sofia having such vast access to mineral water, the infrastructure and capability to exploit the mineral water is actually low, a fact that reminded me a bit of Cameroon.

Former Communist Party Headquarters
Further down the main road is what is known as the Largo, a formation of three buildings from the 1950s in the Socialist Classicalist style. The center of the three buildings used to be the headquarters of the now defunct Bulgarian Communist Party, and now serves as offices for Bulgaria's ministers. Also along the Largo is the Presidential office, which the Bulgarians also refer to as the White House. On top of the former Communist Party headquarters, where the Bulgarian flag is now placed, used to sit a big red star, which was torn down by helicopter after the fall of Communism. Even though the turbulent history of Communism has subsided, that doesn't mean Bulgarian politics are calm - the day we toured Sofia, a protest was being held outside the former Party headquarters to protest a current government minister.

Ivan Vazov Theater

Sofia is one of the most green cities I have ever seen - practically every corner you turn, you can see a large garden equipped with free wifi (step up your game America!). The City Garden is the largest garden in Sofia, and a small library was recently placed in the middle of it so visitors could check out and read books while they relax in the park. Sitting at the edge of the city gardens is the Ivan Vazov Theater, which was named after a famous playwright during the Ottoman Empire. Rumor has it that Mr. Vazov was popular with the ladies, and while the official story says he died of a heat attack, the unofficial story says he died in the arms of a much younger woman. The theater burnt down during one of its shows, after a smart man thought the shows would be more enjoyable if candles flanked the stage curtains. After it was rebuilt, gold trimming was added to some of the figures on the building, which ended up costing one man his job after he tried to be clever:

Oh, I see what you did there...

Tsar Samuil

Down the road is the statue of Tsar Samuil, the last ruler of the 1st Bulgarian state, and in 1015 he sent troops to fight the Byzantine empire, but they were outnumbered and ill-equipped so the Byzantine army captured the Bulgarian army and blinded 99 out of 100 men, and with the other 1 out of 100 men they only blinded one of the eyes so they could lead the troops home. In total, 14,000 men were blinded. When the Tsar got the news, it is said he died immediately. Bulgarians particularly don't like this statue because not only did Tsar Samuil cause the death of thousands of Bulgarians, but also because the eyes of the statue glow at night, yes, you heard me, glow. There's an LED light inside the statue which gives the eyes and ominous light during the night, so if the presence of the Tsar Samuil statue wasn't offensive enough, now every Sofian is reminded of the horror that the Tsar's leadership caused.

Creepy Eyes

Alexander Nevski

Lastly we arrived at Alexander Nevski Cathedral, which is the postcard image of Sofia, if you will. Alexander Nevski is a giant mass of cascading domes of green into the lonely square below. The Alexander Nevski Cathedral used to be the largest cathedral in the Balkans, but is now beat by one in Macedonia. It's an impressive, if not imposing cathedral, whose gigantic bells are rumored to break all nearby windows if rung together was constructed in the 1800s by only donations and it is named after a Russian saint.

The tour ended and Spencer and I went out in search of sushi. Our time in Sofia came to an end and it's hard to pack up and leave. Even though we've probably seen everything, Sofia was a beautiful city with a fun atmosphere, good food, and gorgeous architecture. I'm not sure I could ever get tired of Sofia and her mountainous beauty, and I couldn't have chosen a better place to launch my two month trip, but alas, it's time to move on, North to be exact, to Veliko Tarnovo. We move from the current capital of Bulgaria to the former capital of Bulgaria, and even further back in time. Stay tuned.

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