Project Description

Capital city of Bulgaria and a thousand-year-old city, Sofia has a rich and eventful history. It hosted Thracians, Romans, Byzantines, Magyars and Ottomans. In return, the city of which Constantine the Great is said to have called it “My Rome” was endowed with beautiful buildings and its fame crossed its borders. Antiquity, Middle Ages, great museums of archeology, ethnography, fine arts, geology, military and natural history… Sofia is a city made for all amateurs of heritage sites. “Grows, but do not age” is its motto.

TRUE CROSSROAD OF CIVILIZATIONS

Another country that is not on every list of travel destinations! As mentioned above, Bulgaria has a fascinating story and I will be able to discover some aspects of it through a few days of travel.

Let’s hit the road with a direct flight from Zurich. I landed very late at night in Sofia (cheap flight, so schedules are not the most accommodating). It seems that they expect me in the hall of arrivals at this late hour: a person carries a sign with my name. This is my driver who takes me directly to my hotel (included service). Indeed, my hotel, Suite Hotel Sofia is quite far from the city center, but nothing that can not be reached by bus (bus stop right outside the hotel). However, the shuttle service from the airport is very welcome because I doubt I could have managed to reach the hotel alone at night and without any knowledge of the area… I could have also used a taxi, but one must be very careful with them: always book one from the terminal provided for this purpose in the arrival hall of the airport and do not follow anyone approaching you in the airport and offering you a price supposedly attractive.

  • Very new hotel, to all points of view.
  • Spacious (!) and bright rooms, tea / coffee facilities.
  • Free WiFi.
  • Friendly and professional staff.
  • Outlying district, a little creepy at night.
  • Carpet in the room (they still do this in new buildings?)
  • Breakfast a bit pricey (CHF 12..-).

hotelsofia

It’s late, so I’m going to bed in order to be ready for a few days of sightseeing which are waiting for me! In fact, I planed not only to visit the capital city, but also to roam around the country to see some attractions like Plovdiv, Rila Monastery or Koprivshtitsa. I chose to book all these excursions with the agency Traventuria, based in Sofia. The agency promotes responsible travel and has environmental, economic and social objectives. Also offering many other trips throughout Bulgaria, I used their service several times and have been very pleased overall. Some of the excursions are not cheap, but for the proposed service, I think it’s worth it! The more people are participating, the less it costs per person, which explains why solo travelers like myself have to put a more consistent amount of money on the table.

First day of visit. I booked a city tour. Simon, my guide of today, whom I’ll see a few times in the next days, pick me up at the hotel around 9 a.m. and take me to visit Boyana Church.

This church is a site not to be missed during a visit to Sofia. We reach the small park where the church is located when it barely opens. Just the time to go around the building while my guide tells me the story of the place. Located at the foot of the Vitosha mountain, it is one of the few monuments of the Bulgarian Middle Age, dated 10-11th century and built on one floor. Additions and rearrangements have been made thereafter with an extension under the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (about 100 years after its construction) and another 600 years later. The church opens and we go inside. No pictures here, even without flash (I have no good picture of the outside of the church, shame on me). Air conditioning running constantly to maintain a low temperature, so it makes the inside very cool. Indeed, the frescoes are fragile and fresh air helps to preserve them.

The portraits of the patrons of the church, King Kaloyan and his queen Desislava, sovereign of Sredets (former name of Sofia), are drawn in fresco on the north wall of the church. It is thanks to its frescoes that Boyana Church is so precious. In fact, these frescoes are considered one of the first traces of the Renaissance style in Europe. You can see the portraits of King Constantine and Queen Irina Assen, granddaughter of King Ivan Assen II and daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Theodore Laskaris. The frescoes are wonderful to see. It shows all the details of the royal attire and even impressive facial features. Historians assume that they have been drawn “nature”, the subjects being presents on site. The frescoes have a total of 240 drawings, knowing that there is a visible layer of paint, and a previous layer below it. The frescoes of Boyana are dated for most from the year 1259.

In the dome of the church of Boyana is drawn the face of Jesus Christ. Below him are drawn angels and the 4 Evangelists John, Mark, Luke and Matthew. Are also drawn scenes of great Christian celebrations and Week passions. Among the representations of saints, we can also see 10 soldiers. On the altar is drawn Holy Mary with the Christ, surrounded by archangels. For a complete description of the fresco, you can visit the official website of the Boyana Church.

The interior of the church is very beautiful and frescos are remarkably well preserved and the explanations of Simon were great. We then go back to the city for a short tour of the center. We start with a visit of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

It is the largest orthodox temple in Bulgaria and one of the most famous monuments of the Bulgarian heritage. Nevsky Cathedral is one of the Bulgarian Patriarch church and the surrounding square has the same name. “Alexander Nevsky” is called a memorial because it commemorates the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 (Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878), including the blood shed by the liberators and the liberated. The decision to build the Cathedral was taken as soon as the war ended and the establishment of the Bulgarian state in 1879. At the first place, the Cathedral was supposed to be built in Veliko Tarnovo, but after choosing Sofia as the new capital city of Bulgaria, the location changed accordingly. Patron saint of this great temple is knyaz Russian Alexander Nevsky, renowned for his victory over the Teutonic Order and sanctified by the Russian Church. Alexander Nevsky was the patron saint of the Russian Emperor Alexander II and the choice of this appointment was an expression of recognition of Bulgarians towards Russia, represented by its Emperor.

The temple was built with the help of donations, following an invitation from Bulgarian Knyaz Alexander. The first stone was solemnly laid in 1882, but the construction did not begin until 1904 and was completed in 1913. The highest point of Sofia (552m of altitude at that time) was chosen as the construction site. With an area of 3170 square meters at the time of its construction, the building became the first and largest cathedral in activity on the Balkan Peninsula. In 1924, it was classified as a heritage monument, and it became the seat of the Bulgarian Patriarch in 1953.

No photos inside, although it is not really clear if it is allowed or not. The interior is beautiful and worth the visit. One can realize that over the years, the constantly burning candles contributed to blacken the walls and ceiling. Besides, I’ve noticed this in almost all bulgarian churches that I visited. Then we walk from the cathedral to the center of Sofia. On our way we pass by the National Theatre Ivan Vazoz.

It is between a few banks and a large luxury hotel that you see this red building. This theater bears the name of the greatest Bulgarian writers: Ivan Vazov, best known for his major work, the novel “Under the Yoke”. It was inaugurated in 1907. Red is everywhere! Its large room with velvet sofas and its quaint balconies show a late 19th century style. The theater burned to the ground in a terrible fire in 1923 during a celebration. The fire broke out on stage and then quickly ravaged the main room and eventually the whole theater. It was necessary to rebuild it from the foundations. The new building was constructed six years later, in 1929. Opposite the theater you can admire a public garden with fountains and large trees. It is also the place where you can see chess players who spend the whole afternoon playing, carefully watched by other people. Photography exhibitions are often held in its aisles.

We continue our way into the city center.

We pass a few large buildings (see gallery above) and then a little further, we enter the backyard of the building of the Presidency and the Sheraton Hotel, in which is located Rotunda Church of St. George.

This rare “survivor” of the Bulgarian Middle Age is a Roman church dating from the 4th century, surrounded by Roman ruins and is called St. George. It is known for its clean and simple architectural style. Inside, you can see some frescoes which have managed to cross the troubled centuries of Balkan history.

We slowly go back towards our car, passing other buildings in the center along the way before going to the National History Museum, a bit far away from the center.

SCHEDULES

April to October : Open from 09:00am to 06:00pm
November to March : Open from 09:00am to 05:30pm

PRICES

Adult : 10 leva
Combined ticket including a visit to Boyana Church: 12 leva

The National History Museum is the largest museum in Bulgaria. It was created in 1973 with the aim to preserve the best of the heritage of Bulgarian lands from prehistory to the present. Its funds are home to over 650’000 items! His first major exhibition was held in 1984, set in the framework of the celebrations of 1300 years of the establishment of the Bulgarian state (681). At that time and until 2000, the museum was located in the building of the current Courthouse of Sofia. It then was moved to the former residence of Todor Zhivkov, First Secretary and Chief of Communist Bulgaria, in Boyana, at the foot of Vitosha mountain. On the ground floor are organized exhibits from the Neolithic to the 19th century. Upstairs are exposed ethnographic clothes, carpets, rooms and accommodation for the period of the Bulgarian Revival.

This museum is really great. We spent two good and very interesting hours, and my guide even offer me coffee and pastry at the museum cafeteria. This earned him special recognition and a good tip at the end of trip. Moreover it is about 2 p.m. and as said, the trip comes to an end. My guide suggests to go eat with him in a small tavern. With pleasure, sir! The food was very nice and quite cheap, however I do not remember the name or address of the place, second “shame on me” of the day. My guide then takes me back in the late afternoon at the hotel. After a good shower, I eat at the restaurant of the hotel and enjoy the view from the terrace. Again, it was excellent food and very affordable.

I’m going to bed early as the first day of visit outside Sofia starts tomorrow!

REVIEW OF MY TRIP TO SOFIA

As I expected, Sofia is certainly a capital city, but one can go around it in just a day. The few buildings that are worth a visit are almost all within walking distance of each other. As long as you have the chance to get an extremely friendly guide to show you around, you can see what there is to see quickly and easily. If I return to Sofia, it would be only as a starting point to go on an adventure in the Bulgarian countryside. If, like me, you come to see the country in the first place, you will certainly stay no more than a day in Sofia and it will be enough.