Visiting Sofia With a Dog – Bulgaria
Just to situate you Dear Reader, Sofia is located at the foot of Mount Vitosha in the western part of Bulgaria at the center of the Balkan Peninsula; it is way to the left sort of middle-ish (see map below).
Sofia’s history spans 2,400 years (that is a lot older than Canada’s 146 years as of 2013) and its ancient name Serdica derives from the local Celtic tribe of the serdi who established the town in the 5th century BC. It remained a relatively small settlement until 1879, when it was declared the capital of Bulgaria. As Canadians it’s always tough to get our heads wrapped around that kind of history. Even if new compared to Greece and its ancient civilization (heck they found 6,000 year old wine!! in Greece…) where we had just spent two weeks, the weight of Bulgaria’s timeline is still easily felt.
To say that Bulgaria has had a very troubled past would be an understatement and even its present is still a struggle. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Sofia. With every invasion came a new form of architecture. It’s a way of leaving a stamp on the city I suppose; almost like marking a tree. As a result of this constant change of leadership (and though admittedly tragic), there is an amazing cultural, ethnic and architectural richness to be found as a result. Our visit of the city over the next two days only showed me just how diverse! I saw everything from Christian Roman architecture, medieval fortresses, Neoclassicism, Neo-Baroque, Neo-Renaissance and even some Neo-Rococo and of course the jarringly hideous prefabricated Socialist-era apartment blocks known as panelki. To our delight there were also a large number of ancient Roman, Byzantine and Medieval sites that are carefully preserved in the center of the city and thus easy to access.
Something else I had never seen before were Stalinist Gothic public buildings and I have to add that the end of the old Communist administration and centrally planned system paved the way for chaotic and unrestrained construction, which continues to this present day. It’s both a curse and a blessing. We certainly never expected the large variety and creative expression of the new ultra-modern buildings we saw. Modern, skyscraper-like glass-fronted office buildings, and high class residential neighborhoods, odd and fantastical shapes, massive malls and shopping centers not to mention the Capital Fort Business Center, Bulgaria’s first skyscraper.
But I am certain Dear Reader, you would prefer for me to just get on with what I visited in Sofia, right? Well here is a little breakdown of my favorites (in no particular order):
Sofia Public Mineral Baths:
We did not know this but Sofia is known for its mineral springs. They have existed in the area since the 16th century if not longer. The current building where the springs are was built in the early 20th century near the former Turkish bath (then destroyed). It’s a funny space. First, it is strange to be in a modern city and see people still using healing waters. This water is free and folks show up with plastic bottles to fill up their reserve of the slightly sulfuric water. I had a taste and it wasn’t too bad and interestingly, Mom’s tummy had been upset from something and after a drink, about 15 minutes later it all cleared up!
If you know a little about architecture you can’t help but look around and see that although designed in a Vienna Secession style, typically Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox ornamental elements have been added making it an strange, uniquely Bulgarian hybrid. The north wing was damaged during the bombing of Sofia in World War II, but was restored several years later and continued to work as a public baths until 1986. It was closed then a victim of slow but steady degradation and the threat of the possible collapse of its roof. It was subsequently partially reconstructed and thoroughly cleaned; and the yet to be fully restored main buildings are going to eventually house a museum on the city’s history and a healing center. I hope that happens soon, because honestly the place is too beautiful for it to go to waste.
St. George Rotunda:
The Church of St. George is a very simple, early Christian red bricked rotunda that is considered the oldest building in Sofia. It is situated behind the Sheraton Hotel, amid remains of the ancient town of Serdica. Built by the Romans in the 4th century, it is believed that like so many, it was built on the site of a pagan temple. As I was snuck in, I got to see the famous 12th-14th-century frescoes inside the central dome. You see Dear Reader; three layers of frescoes have been discovered inside, the earliest dating back to the 10th century. Magnificent frescoes of 22 prophets over 2 meters tall crown the dome. Painted over during the Ottoman period, when the building was used as a mosque, these frescoes were only uncovered in the 20th century.
When I was there, there were people singing the most beautiful music… but I could not stay long and enjoy it because I wasn’t supposed to be there and we didn’t want to get caught inside. I was allowed all over outside and really had a lot of fun finding the pagan remains and just soaking in the atmosphere.
The City Garden and the Ivan Vazov National Theatre:
Located in the historical center of the city; The City Garden is Sofia’s oldest and most central public garden in existence since 1872. It has been built, destroyed and re-organized a hundred times over but today The City Garden is not only a popular retreat for the residents of the capital, with spots to rest, beautiful flower beds, a flea market and more; it is also a favored place for amateur chess players, who can be regularly seen in the small garden in front of the National Theatre.
And speaking of The Ivan Vazoz National Theatre, it is Bulgaria’s national theatre, and one of the important landmarks of Sofia. Founded in 1904 by the artists from the Salza i Smyah company, it was initially simply called The National Theatre. Then between 1952 and 1962 it was given the name of Krastyu Sarafov, before finally being named after the prominent writer Ivan Vazov.
It is located smack dab in the center of the city, with the facade facing The City Garden. It’s a lovely Neoclassical building, designed by two Viennese theatre architects (completed in 1907) and when the sun came out, the gold sparkled and really alloyed us to see all the lovely details in the sculptures adorning its facade.
The Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral:
The cathedral for the Patriarch of Bulgaria (sort of like an Archbishop from what I gather for those of whom that correlation makes sense) is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, as well as one of Sofia’s symbols and primary tourist attractions. Oddly it was not overly crowded. There was no huge line up to go in, no tickets to pay for … nothing. Just the bipeds having to take turns to go inside to see, so they could take their time and marvel without risking being kicked out for sneaking in a dog *sigh*. Outside, we did have to be careful because gypsies were on the prowl… but on the whole it was all just fine and worth it!
The place is HUGE!! Occupying an area of 3,170 square meters (34,100 sq. ft.) it can hold 10,000 people. It is the second biggest cathedral located in the Balkans. So I really felt my small size when next to it. It’s an impressive building to say the least. The cathedral’s gold-plated dome is 45 m high (148 ft.), with the bell tower reaching 53 meters (174 ft.). The temple has 12 bells with total weight of 23 tons, the heaviest weighing 12 tons and the lightest 10 kilograms (22 lb.). I got to see the interior for 10 minutes… as I was snuck in at the end and stayed super quiet in my bag only letting my eyes and nose stick out. It’s so beautiful; decorated with Italian marble in various colors, Brazilian onyx, alabaster, and other luxurious materials. The central dome has the Lord’s Prayer inscribed around it, with thin gold letters.
The cathedral is adjacent to St. Sofia Church, the church for which the city of Sofia is named. It really doesn’t look like much and it would not surprise me if most people just walked past it. And that is a shame because it is such an interesting Church. While we were in that area we also saw Sofia’s Monument to the Unknown Soldier, A great set of Lion statues, and the outside of the National Gallery of Foreign Art, the National Art Academy, and the Bulgarian Parliament. I know … I am tired just re-thinking about this too! And imagine poor Dad had the flu at the time! How did he ever manage it?!
The Church of Nicholas II:
Recently restored by the Russian Government, and certainly the prettiest Church we saw in Sofia, it was built on the site of the Saray Mosque, which was destroyed in 1882, after the liberation of Bulgaria by Russia from the Ottoman Empire.
It was built as the official church of the Russian Embassy, which was located next door and for the new Russian community in Sofia. It was named, as was the tradition for diplomatic churches, for the patron saint of the Emperor who ruled Russia at the time, Nicholas II of Russia. The church was designed by the Russian architect Mikhail Preobrazhenski in the Russian revival style (in other words inspired by the Muscovite Russian churches of the 17th century). The construction was supervised by the architect A. Smirnov, who was building the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral nearby. The exterior decoration of multicolored tiles is spectacular and the five domes coated with gold will certainly leave an impression. The bells were donated by Emperor Nicholas II. The interior (what I could see of it behind the scaffolding) murals are superb but unfortunately are darkened by smoke from candles and are in dire need of restoration. Construction began in 1907 and the church was consecrated in 1914. The church remained open after the Russian Revolution and during the Communist period in Bulgaria (1944–1989), though priests and church-goers were carefully watched by the State Security police.
The crypt housing the remains of Saint Archbishop Seraphim is located beneath the Russian Church’s main floor. I saw dozens of people visiting the grave praying and leaving notes asking for wishes to be granted. There is also a sad and poignant plaque on one of the exterior walls dedicated to folks that were shot there (I think during WWII). The countries violent past is omnipresent. Personally the best part is the little garden around the Church, with the massive trees and lush grass. This is where I hung out with a biped while the other went in for a look and then the switcharoo… But … that’s just me. I love me some good thick grass.
The National Museum of Military History:
This museum has existed under various names and has been subordinate to various institutions since 1 August 1914. Its mandate is to investigate, preserve, scientifically process culturally important military valuables, connected with Bulgarias military history.
In its nearly one hundred years of existence (I know … it boggles the mind!), the museum has collected almost a million items related to Bulgarian and European military history. It disposes of 5,000 m² of indoor and 40,000 m² of outdoor exhibition area, and a library. Give yourself time for the visit! Part of it is free (out front) but for about 8 Lever ($2) you can see the rest of the exhibit (outdoors and indoors). That price is steep for Bulgaria, where we found that things were often free or around the 5 Lever mark but it is well worth it; even if you are not really into military history.
Because it really helps you understand Bulgaria and its tragic past.
Indoor displays over three floors tell the story of warfare in Bulgaria from the time of the Thracians onwards, with extensive labeling and information boards in Bulgarian and English. Most space goes to the period from the 1876 April Uprising through to WWI, with cases filled with weaponry, rebel flags and a seemingly endless parade of uniforms and personal belongings of soldiers. It’s a human side of the story.
Don’t let the sound effects startle you by the way. You will hear different sounds corresponding to the period you are visiting: gushing rivers, national military anthems, the Hurray of soldiers, the World War II bombing and more.
The second part of the exhibition is the park where dozens of military “hardware” are stored. For those interested in WWII, note the collection of German battle tanks, including PzIII and Stugs. The outdoor display has more than 230 examples of military artillery, aviation equipment, and marine equipment. Also on display are SCUD, FROG, and SS-23 missiles and missile launchers.
I enjoyed the outdoor display since it also had the bizarre inclusion of a large number of fruit trees! Plums, apples, cherries, and pears added a lovely fragrance to the space. Wild flowers and a lawn gone wild made me enjoy this as a rather lovely walk rather than leaving me to cry at mankind’s resourcefulness at killing one another.
As for being dog friendly this was the one place where no one could seem to be in agreement. The people at the front desk that sold us the tickets said it was fine as long as I stayed in my sling for the indoor exhibit and on leash outside. But the security guard (outside) had a very different perspective and wanted to throw us out. If it had not been for our lovely hosts I am not sure we would have been allowed to stay. But we did and it was a wonderful visit.
There was so much more to see in Sofia, we missed some big ones like the Synagogue of Sofia, the Botanical Gardens, The Communist Monument Graveyard (Mom really wanted to see that!) and of course the famous tiny Church of St. Petka of the Saddlers at the foot of the Sofia Statue; but our Black Sea adventures beckoned and it was time to go where the sun was warmer and the mood lighter!
In review: Sofia is relatively dog friendly. I walked into stores, restaurants and although I could not enter any religious buildings without being snuck in or being handed off to a biped while they took turn; I can’t complain. We have become accustomed to that limitation in our travels. All and all Sofia is a wonderful place to discover if you give her a chance. Under a layer of dirt and unkempt lawns you find more history than you know what to do with. You’ll find amazing spots where a mosque, minaret and church share a city square. You’ll find restaurants of all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, markets with wonderful piles of fresh produce and a wide variety of stores and businesses. Sofia with its tortured but rich history always provides you with something to discover. It’s a city that has been beaten but not killed. Its spirit lives on, and there is still a sense of pride and cautious hope. It’s a gem in need of a polish; but a gem none the less.