I really loved Sofia, and I’m still not entirely sure why. There was the fact that signs were written in Cyrillic, of course, and that I had the opportunity to speak Russian with people. Or the book market, where I spent hours poring over children’s books in Russian, and bought my copy of The Little Prince in that language (Маленький Принц). There’s the fact that the city itself is quite majestic, or there’s the history: but I think my favourite thing of all was the water fountains.
The water fountains are actually natural springs which have been built into a tap-and-fountain system. The water bubbles up from below (at 28 degrees Celsius, from recollection) and is funneled out into taps in a series of fountains throughout the city. Every day, sometimes several times a day, I’d join the locals to go and fill my water bottles. The water was delicious, and renowned to have healing powers. More to the point though, it’s a big part of the reason Sofia was founded where it was. The springs, and the fact that it lay on the trade routes between Europe, the Med and the East, meant that it was a thriving trade town. Under the city, you can still find the remnants of its past, such as this Roman road which was the main route into the city:
The whole area, including Bulgaria, Romania and former Yugoslavia, have this thing about lions. They say that the area looks like a lion on the map, and currencies are named for it: thus in Romania, the currency is the leu, and in Bulgaria, the lev (лев)–each meaning ‘lion’. I’ve just spent ten minutes staring at a map of Europe and I either see no lions, or far too many lions, but whatever. Lions are cool.
I went on a free walking tour of Sofia with a very proud local man in his early 20s. We learned about some hero of Bulgaria, who started a movement to free his country from Ottoman rule: Vasil Levski, or Vasil the Lion/the Leonine. We saw one of many monuments to him, by the oldest Christian church in Sofia (pictures in the gallery below). The walking tour was quite late at night and it was cold, so I don’t remember much from it. So, here are the wikis for the history of Bulgaria and Vasil Levski.
Hm, I’m looking to make a broad generalisation (is there any other kind?) about Bulgarians. It seems they’re not very good at picking sides, for a start: they aligned with Germany in WW2, and were part of the Soviet Union Советский Союз during the Cold War. Come to think of it, I think that’s what the tour guide said. He then went on to speak at some length about Bulgaria during WW2 before speaking about the country under communism. He said that it’s a matter of vast national pride that none of Bulgaria’s Jews were executed: requests kept coming through from Hitler’s regime, but people would hide their friends and protect them in any way they could. Actually, the place seems very religiously tolerant, and Sofia is filled with mosques, Orthodox and Catholic churches, and synagogues alike. Plus one great big pagan statue in the main street, a goddess representing wisdom and justice. She stands where дедушка Lenin’s statue used to.
Another matter of pride for the people of Sofia, continued our tour guide, was how much of its national heritage they managed to save from Soviet destruction. Unlike Bucharest, buildings and monuments hundreds and close to a thousand years old still stand in some places. A lot of archaeological ruins are also to be found beneath the city, and care is taken when building transport infrastructure to build around them. The guide showed us the old Party Headquarter buildings, and told us how a great big red Star used to sit on top. When the Communist Party was defeated, some locals (one man?) climbed the building and threw the star off, at which point it disappeared for years. Something like that, anyway. Tell you what, go on the tour yourself and get back to me 🙂
I’ve not a lot else to report from Sofia really. There are lots of stray dogs, again, and lots of homeless-looking people: the weekly wage was even lower than that in Romania, at just 100 euro a week. Like Romania, it gets a lot of EU assistance.
People seem to love or hate Sofia, but apart from the terrifying train station, I would definitely go back. I really thought I might get kidnapped for a little while there, but (as you can see) it all worked out in the end.