After a fun weekend at Oktoberfest in Munich, it’s time for Maggie and I to fly to her homeland. I’m really excited to see where she grew up, meet her grandma’s and some of her childhood friends. As the largest city and capitol of Bulgaria, our first stop is Sofia. Our friend Todor (who I of course met through Maggie) has moved back to Sofia from Seattle to work for an IT startup and has graciously let us stay with him.
Our first full day in Sofia, Maggie has lunch plans with a friend, so I take a free walking tour of the city through Free Sofia Tour. The company that runs this tour also offers free tours of Plovdiv and Varna and are a great way to get to know the city and learn a little of its history. I will end up doing the Plovdiv tour as well, but since Maggie grew up in Varna, I have my very own built in tour guide. Anyway, if you find yourself in Bulgaria, definitely check these out!
Our tour begins in front of the Palace of Justice (the courthouse) at 11am, underneath this lion statue. We won’t go into any of the buildings, just view them from the outside, but there’s still a lot to see and learn. I won’t bore you with details of every single stop and area of interest, but I’ll give you the highlights!
Our tour guide’s name is Martin. He’s very engaging and knowledgeable. He tells us he has a bachelors degree in history and you can tell he’s very passionate about it.
The first stop after the courthouse is Sveta Nedelya Church. It was built at the end of the 19th century and blown up in the 1920’s in an attempt to assassinate a Tsar. 200 people were killed, but the Tsar survived.
Just down the street at a busy intersection is the statue of Saint Sophia. She was erected in 2001, controversially replacing a statue of Lenin. Martin tells us that apparently the officials who put her there made a mistake. They thought the city of Sofia was named after her, but it’s actually named after the Hagya Sofia church we’ll see later!
In the bottom right corner of the picture above is an open air museum of ancient Serdica, the Roman name of Sofia. Everything is covered while we’re here, but you can still see the Roman ruins and get a feel for what the city once was like. Behind them is the Banya Bashi mosque, currently the only working mosque in Sofia. It was built during Ottoman rule close to the nearby mineral baths.
An interesting history lesson Martin tells us during the tour is that Bulgaria managed to save the lives of 48k of it’s Jewish population during WWII. You can find the full story here, but the short version is that Tsar Boris had heard rumors that Jews were being mistreated by the Germans, so when Nazi Germany requested Bulgaria send their Jews to Poland, Bulgaria basically hmmed and hawed, dodging and delaying sending its Jews until eventually the war was over. Even more interesting is that this information was repressed by the Soviet government after WWII was over as they didn’t want to allow any credit to be given to the former rulers. It wasn’t until the Cold War ended that it was revealed what Bulgaria had done.
Another well preserver Roman Serdica site is the St George Rotunda. This church dates back to the 4th century and is the oldest preserved building in Sofia. The building around it is the St George Hotel.
The building below is the former Communist Party headquarters. During protests of Communist rule in 1990, the building was burned. Today it is mainly used for government offices.
Attached to the Communist Party headquarters is the Council of Ministers. Martin shows us a balcony about 2 stories up that supposedly communist officials tried to jump out of to escape the protests in 1990.
Next door is the former royal palace of Bulgaria, where the royal family lived before Soviet rule. Today it’s the National Art Gallery. It’s located on Battenburg square, with its yellow brick roads. Of course any time I see this road, I start singing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” from the Wizard of Oz.
We walk through a small park on our way to the Ivan Vazov National Theater at its center. The theater is the most ornate building in Sofia, built in the traditional Greek style and adorned with statues of Apollo, the muses and the goddess Nike. Plays are only shown in Bulgarian, so it probably wouldn’t be worth seeing one unless you speak the language, but there are cafes all around and the atmosphere is very relaxed.
Finally, we’re here. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. I’ve wanted to visit here ever since I first met Maggie a hundred years ago. I’d seen pictures, but seeing it in person is so much better. It looks like it was built layer on top of layer. You aren’t allowed to take pictures inside the churches, which is why I don’t have any, but trust me, they are even more ornate than outside.
The tour ends here, at the Hagya Sofia church. It is very plain, but very important in the history of the city. There has been a church in this location, the highest point in the city, since the 4th century, though the current structure dates from the 6th century. Nearly a thousand years later, the church gave its name to the city. Also worth nothing that while it shares the name Hagya Sofia with the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, the Hagya Sofia in Sofia is older.
Interestingly, the bell the belongs in the tower isn’t actually in the church. Our guide says it’s located on the grounds somewhere, can anyone find it? We look all over, and eventually someone points up in a tree-
But why is the bell in a tree?? According to Martin, the church didn’t originally have a bell tower, so they placed the bell in a tree nearby to ring it. I haven’t been able to find any information on if this is true or not, so that’s the story I’m going with!
After the tour is over and we’ve all tipped Martin well, I wander around the cathedral a bit on my own, taking more pictures. Just across the street are these adorable old Bulgarian ladies selling handcrafts they made. They set up shop anywhere in the city and I end up seeing little tables like this everywhere.
I wander around until my stomach can’t stand it anymore and find a little restaurant nearby where I order some pizza. Apparently pizza is very popular here, though I suppose that’s possible to say almost anywhere in the world. Who doesn’t love pizza? Maggie meets up with me here and we spend the rest of the afternoon searching for a camera charger for me as I left mine at home. Turns out though, I just couldn’t find it in my bag and the wild goose chase was all for nothing. But don’t tell Maggie that, she still gives me a hard time for freaking out about not being able to take pictures!
Tomorrow I’ll visit the Rila Monastery while Maggie heads directly to Varna to visit her family. I’ll meet up with her in a few days, but for now, it’s time for some exploring on my own!