Less than 200 kilometers to the west and south of Sofia lie the borders of three other Balkan countries: Macedonia, Serbia and Greece. To the north and southeast lie Romania and Turkey, both of whom share parts of the Balkan Peninsula but are located mostly outside it. The three mountain passes feeding down into the Sofia area are ancient routes connecting the Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea and the Aegean.
Bulgaria’s borders are largely natural; the Danube River forms much of the northern boundary with Romania, the entire eastern border is the Black Sea and the rest of the borders are bound by other rivers and mountain ranges. There is plenty of water, arable soil, protective mountains and trade access to the east and the west; for all these assets, and for various purposes, Bulgaria has been an attractive place to settle in or to battle over for millennia. Sofia is geographically in the center of the greater Balkan Peninsula, and like her sister city, Plovdiv, has been subjected to invasions, wars and occupations, and for the most part has given as good as it got. There are indications everywhere of Bulgaria’s pride in her combative past and her present status, including being one of the two newest members of the European Union.
When the five of us (Bev, her husband Craig, Chantel, Lütfü and yours truly) left Plovdiv after only one day we were sorry we hadn’t planned more time there, but were optimistic about seeing Sofia, given what we had read about the city and its history. Trains run regularly from Plovdiv to Sofia, a journey of two hours. The Sofia train station was noticeably larger and more modern than that of Plovdiv, but it had its own issues. Briefly (and discreetly) there was an all-male work crew in the Ladies’, who had torn out most of the existing facilities but were kind enough to point out the two that remained on offer, although they saw no need to vacate the premises while ladies were present.
The other funny thing about that train station was right outside the impressive entrance. There was a nice little restaurant there with outdoor seating, which provided a great place to rest, sort luggage and consult the Lonely Planet; it also had friendly service, snacks and good coffee. The odd thing was, at least to us foreigners, a proud sign in red neon proclaiming “Sex Shop” in English letters right next to the restaurant. So, were we in a red light district? Or was the neon light a tongue-in-cheek symbol of free spirit, like graffiti? The name of a bar? Bev, Chantel and I tried to get the men to go look and see if it really was a sex shop, but they wouldn’t do it. So, little mysteries notwithstanding, we headed out refreshed for the capital of Bulgaria by 10 a.m., looking for adventure.
My mother always said if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. The nice things I will say about our hostel, to which we went first, are that it was nicely located and didn’t look bad at first glance. We dumped our backpacks and headed for downtown. Sofia is a big, modern city, and compared to Los Angeles and İstanbul it is much more accessible and better planned by far. Wide avenues run into huge squares and parks; monuments are actually visible because the city is so well laid out. You can see all the way to the end of several of the bigger streets, and many have snow-capped mountains nicely lining the far horizon, which had to be intentional on the part of the city planners. (One of them is surely Mount Vitosha, 2,290 meters, Sofia’s most famous mountain.)
Something to remember
The most memorable event of that first day was our adventure at the cafe we went to. Recommended by our hostel staff, the pizza was very good, as promised, and the sidewalk location was great for people-watching, but that wasn’t what was memorable; it was the freak storm that came out of nowhere on an until-then beautiful day. Natives from Sofia told us later that they had never, ever seen such a cloudburst, and it went on for an hour. The weather was nice and warm, so while Craig and Bev sensibly went indoors to await their pizza, the rest of us huddled in our more or less dry spot under the umbrellas and watched the deluge. The good-natured wait staff actually brought our pizza out to us, equipped with their own umbrella, and served us in the rain; we definitely didn’t expect them to do that! We weren’t the only ones, by the way -- the mood outside was jolly, and people were amazed at the sheer quantity of water; pedestrians were sheltering up and down the street in nooks and crannies, while they could easily have gone inside. Only one or two cars dared drive down the street during the whole hour! The difference between this and İstanbullus or Angelinos in a storm was compelling, to say the least.
The next day was a national day of some sort, and also a Sunday. We stumbled into a very serious military parade, with several different types of uniformed soldiers represented, which lasted a good hour. Crowds lined the streets, but I wouldn’t call them festive; everyone was pretty serious. After the parade we got a chance to see the now more cheerful Sofia residents utilizing their downtown; parks, fire engine displays, ice cream vendors and playgrounds all served to entertain families who seemed very relaxed and satisfied with life. Sofians generally appear to be healthy, thoughtful and attractive people and they were a pleasure to watch.
Our good luck holding, we ran into a small group of young volunteers who give free English-language tours of Sofia. They call their project, interestingly enough, the “Free Sofia Tour.” I have to agree with TripAdvisor, where I later read that they are the number one free attraction in Sofia. We had never heard of them, and wondered at first if they were going to sell us carpets, but no; we just tagged along with a small group that grew as we proceeded, and just tore up the center of Sofia; these kids are PROS! They knew the history (thousands of years’ worth); they weren’t afraid of being politely forthright about the love lost during the Ottoman period, although they knew some of us were Turkish; they explained the whole World War II Axis-Bulgaria-Allies-Russia puzzle that is a confusing and sadly touching part of Bulgarian history. They did it all while gently guiding us across streets, through underpasses and over pedestrian walks to see the attractions from the right angles, and getting us back to see the changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace just in time. We saw churches galore, Roman sites, a mosque (actually, THE mosque), Russian communist buildings, National Revival buildings, statues and monuments. Two hours of fun and facts, all from volunteers who don’t even ask for donations. What a wonderful idea! These people are obviously dedicated and in love with their city. For some reason, my friends and husband seemed to prefer this method of seeing Sofia to following me and my Lonely Planet; the FST covered all of my knowledge and then some, I must admit. Bev was so fascinated she didn’t even notice her shoelaces were untied for several blocks. I don’t know what it is with that woman and her shoelaces!
Having seen a lot of Sofia’s sights in one day, thanks to our FST friends, it was time for us to start thinking about our favorite time of the day: dinner! So far, eating in Bulgaria had ranged from nice (especially the fried chicken legs in Plovdiv) to ho-hum (the pizza-in-the-rain episode notwithstanding). We aren’t sure who it was, but someone SMART directed us to a place called Mehana Izbata, which is a little bit out of the way, but once you find it, it’s easy. There, we had the very best dinner any of us had eaten since the last Greatest Dinner Ever, at the Kino in Şanlıurfa, a year ago. Besides the inestimable braised lamb, the perfect creamed chicken and mushrooms and the potato-white-cheese-tomato dish prepared in a clay pot, all of which were beyond good, we were introduced to something we think is peculiarly Bulgarian -- a way of preparing boiled potatoes (for heaven’s sake!) with a lot of absorbed butter, transforming a homely dish into pure ambrosia. The restaurant used to be an old wine cellar, and the atmosphere is just “cultural” enough to be interesting, but modern enough to be relaxing.
So, dear reader, look up the history of Sofia if you dare -- it is fascinatingly complex, more so even than İstanbul, maybe. We only had two days, but a week would have been better. And you’d better go before it gets too crowded and expensive; if historical importance, nice people, good food and a beautiful, well-laid-out city are any criteria, Sofia is definitely a must-see.
Next stop: Rila
*Elsie Alan lives in Gebze with her husband.