It’s not always possible, but it usually is the best – if you can arrive at a destination with no expectations. For me, I find when I am faced with a blank slate of a destination, it becomes a favorite, as everything is new and fresh and surprising.
And suddenly, Sofia is that surprise.
I’ve never talked to anyone who has visited Sofia, and I approached the city and the country of Bulgaria with very little information or preconceived conceptions. If I expected anything I thought of it both geologically and culturally perhaps like Germany.
But it’s not. It feels very Russian while being surprisingly Greek. It’s both old-fashioned and cosmopolitan. It’s bright and sunny, with grey and dark edges. It’s delicious! Oh, the food makes me happy!
Surprisingly Bulgaria’s largest city of Sofia is not on a river. Unlike most European capitals, this city sits in a valley protected by mountains – where it has sat since it was founded 6000 years ago by the original people known as the Thracians. Sofia was then known as Serdica.
Today’s Sofia has been through the ringer – three times Bulgaria’s independent state was taken away; the Byzantine Empire took over until the second Bulgarian state. Then the Ottoman’s took over until the Russo-Turkish War in 1877 when Bulgaria gained its independence. Following the second World War Bulgaria became a communist state with USSR assistance, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In less than three decades Bulgaria and Sofia have risen again. Today the country is a member of NATO and the European Europe. Current population is 7million in an area roughly the same size as Virginia. (This is my VERY abbreviated history of the region. Learn more details here.)
Sofia reminds me a bit of Budapest, but less refined. It has a brand new subway, a decent airport (although the info center desk staff was rude and a taxi driver tried to swindle us), lots of shops and plenty of fresh produce. Food is cheap and so is alcohol. Lots of young, sharp-looking people enjoying the sidewalk cafe’s with wine or coffee – just like any other European city.
The streets are clean but many of the sidewalks are in terrible condition. Yet there are some beautiful pedestrian areas and green and lovely parks.
It appears that many different religions live amicably in this city – within a hundred yards of each other you will find a beautiful mosque, a large synagogue, a Catholic Church and several Orthodox Churches – all operating side by side for the people of Sofia.
Sofia has what I consider the best outlook on history. When digging for the new subway in 2012 an entire former city was unearthed dating back to the third and fourth century. Sofia has made this an open air museum and it now weaves in and out of the subway area and can also be found inside some businesses and even a local bar. Our tour guide from Free Sophia Tours
explained that the people of Sofia love history but believe it should not be locked up in a museum or surrounded by fences. It is their history and they want it to be a part of their lives. I love that. More cities should think like that.
We did a Cultural Tour where we learned so much
amazing history about the people, the language, the food, the traditional dress, music and even dance. It was well worth the 10 Euro cost. Our tour guide, born and raised in Sofia, was articulate, interesting and
so enthusiastic about her country. The future is in good hands it seems!
And then the food. Yes of course I am going to talk about the food. I look forward to discovering more regional dishes as we head north and east, but so far the food has been amazing. Beautiful produce of the season is ripe and fresh and cheap. Right now it’s cherries and strawberries and tomatoes and basil and melons. Gorgeous.
Bulgarians love nuts and dried fruits and these items can be purchased at kiosks all over the city. Bulgarian yogurt is amazing and the local cheese called sirene is similar to feta but firmer and less salty and made from cows milk. It appears in nearly every dish from pork knuckles to anchovies, to salads, to veal, to lamb. The cuisine has a very
mediterranean feel with lots of herbs and olive oil and fresh vegetables.
Given that Bulgaria’s southern border is almost all with Greece and a small section with Turkey the cuisine similarities should not have been a surprise. The Ottomans ruled here for 500 years and they left a big impression on the cuisine.
Bulgaria also borders Romania to the North, Serbia and Macedonia to the West and it’s Eastern border is the Black Sea.
But of course it’s not perfect. I mentioned the sidewalks – tripping hazards everywhere and so we haven’t tried to run here. But unlike many countries we have been in, drivers are courteous to pedestrians. Most people are friendly, but we have had a few encounters with rude people. My friend Helen who is an expert on the Balkan region tells me this is just a throw back to the communist era and not to take it personally. Everybody smokes. I mean everybody. But we just try to steer away if we can. Since
the weather has been fine we have been outside most of the time so it really hasn’t been too much of a problem. We don’t know the language at all – still trying to figure out hello and thank you. We smile and point and most people know a little English and we are grateful to them for that. Bulgarian uses the Cyrillic alphabet so even that is a major adjustment. It helps that I know my Greek alphabet.
Suddenly Sofia is my surprise. A very nice way to begin our month in Bulgaria. I’m so glad we started here. Tomorrow we head to the mountains for ten days – to the former capital of the second Bulgarian Empire, Veliko Tărnovo, known as the City of the Tsars. I hear it has amazing antiquities and architecture surrounded by mountains and on a river. Sounds perfect!