Sofia, in the heart of the Balkans | The traveler

Within a few minutes of arriving, mountains of deep dark green can be seen from the plane window. We land in Sofia, a European capital located in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula, at the foot of the imposing monte Vitosha (2,292 meters), which can be reached from the center of the Bulgarian capital in just over half an hour. Getting away for a weekend to visit Sofia is a economical option —There are flights from Madrid or Barcelona for less than 70 euros, round trip — and interesting to get to know a metropolis with una millennial history of Thracian, Byzantine, Ottoman and Communist past. In addition, for the more adventurous, it is also a perfect starting point to reach Istanbul by train, in a journey of about 11 hours, or by road in one of the buses that leave daily from here.

9.00. Cathedral, mosque and market

The start of the route is catedral de Sveta Nedelya (1), located in the homonymous square in the center of Sofia. This beautiful temple of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church had to be rebuilt after suffering a terrorist attack in 1925 perpetrated by the Communists at the state funeral of General Konstantin Georgiev. Whoever encounters the cult and style of the Eastern Orthodox Church for the first time will be able to observe the importance of the architecture of the domes —Characteristic inherited from Byzantine influence— green and gold in color, and, if you go inside, it may coincide with the solemn moment of the sung prayer.

Nearby is the Serdika metro station, which takes the name by which the city was known when it was founded by the Thracians in the 8th century BC. C. To get to the mezquita de Banya Bashi (2)The next stop, we stroll among ruins that are part of the open-air archaeological complex of the ancient Roman city that kept the same name – since 50, the Romans controlled the region. A few meters further on you can see this mosque dating from the end of the 16th century during the period of Ottoman rule, which lasted 500 years in Bulgaria, from the late 14th century to 1878. Opposite is the central Market, a good place to buy soaps, creams or rose cologne, one of the most appreciated Bulgarian products. For 5 euros (10 levs, the Bulgarian currency) it is possible to buy a pack full. In a short walk from the market you reach the Sephardic synagogue of Sofia (3), the largest in the Balkans and the third largest in Europe.

11.00. A 4th century temple

It is time to return to the path to the mosque and leave it behind. A few meters further on you can see a beautiful colorful building with several domes of Byzantine airs, the Mineral Baths or Mineralna Banya (4). Until its closure in 1986, citizens flocked here to wash with the area’s thermal water. At all times the monument to Sveta Sofia (Sacred Wisdom) (5), a 24-meter-high statue erected in 2000 where until 1990 there was an image of Lenin.

The walk takes us to Plaza de Nezavisimost (6), where the Party House, Soviet-style and built in 1954 as the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party. At the north end of the square, the Presidency, an imposing gray building housing the office of the President of the Republic of Bulgaria and the Sheraton hotel. Inside the building there is an interior patio where the Rotonda de Sveti Georgi, which is really the church of San Jorge, considered the oldest building in the city (dating from the 4th century).

12.30. Alexander Nevski, monumental

To get to the other Sofia Cathedral, about a 10-minute walk from the Presidency, one option is to go through the National Theater (7), a neoclassical building from the early 20th century. The Alexander Nevski Cathedral (8) It imposes from any angle due to its size and neo-Byzantine style with gold and bronze domes. The sound of the bells is worth listening to. It is one of the largest Orthodox temples in the world – it measures 3,170 square meters – and was built between 1882 and 1924 to commemorate Russia’s contribution to the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule.

Nearby are two must-see churches. Above all, a Christian dating from the 6th century: Hagia Sophia (9). During the 12th and 13th centuries it was the seat of the bishop of the city, which led to the city being given the same name as this church. The other is Saint Nicholas (10), known as the Russian church, located next to the bustling Tsar Osvoboditel boulevard. Built by the Russian community, it evokes Moscow. To eat there is a restaurant 10 minutes walk where you can taste the local cuisine with good value for money: Bistro Lubimoto (11).

15.30. Socialist art

In Sofia there are no large museums about her communist past (1946-1990). However, there are two curious options. The Museum of Socialist Art (Lachezar Stanchev, 7) is a few minutes walk from the Dimitrov metro station. In his garden there is a large sculpture of Georgi Dimitrov, the leader who inaugurated the stage presided over by the Bulgarian Communist Party. This space is full of socialist sculptures and statues or figures of international communism, such as Che Guevara. The other possibility, and perhaps more attractive, is The Red Floor (12): This apartment simulates what life was like for a middle-class Bulgarian family in the eighties.

19.00. The lively boulevard of Vitosha

We walked to the Vitosha Boulevard, the busiest and commercial artery. It extends to the park where the National Palace of Culture (13), a huge building with Soviet aesthetics inaugurated in 1981. Ending the day in Vitosha gives rise to some shopping and dining, as there is a wide variety of restaurants on this pedestrianized avenue. One that is in fashion is Shtastlivetsa, at number 27. A last tribute before leaving Sofia should not cost more than 15 euros. And if we want to go out, a few steps away there is a square dominated by the Rila Hotel that houses covered terraces to have a drink or discos to dance until dawn.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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