Statue of St.Sofia
âIt grows, but never agesâ. Oh if only those words were applicable to yours truly in their entirety. But no, they are the motto for Sofia, Bulgariaâs modern day capital. A city named after itâs protecting saint, the Roman era Saint Sofia. Her statue stands of relatively recent sculpting in the centre of the city. An owl perched on one arm aiding her symbolism of âHoly Wisdomâ.
Bulgaria, gateway of Europe and near the geographical heart of the former Ottoman Empire. Steeped in a history of overrule that reads like the âWhoâs Whoâ of Empire Building ; the Thracians, Hellenes, Romans, Goths and other European tribes peoples (Slavs most notably), Byzantines, most protractedly the Ottomans and the myriad political impositions of the 20th Century.
Sofia Law Courts "Grrr!"
It is rich in the influences of this maelstrom of human history and migration yet one of the youngest members of the modern European Union having only joined on 1 January 2007 with its neighbour Romania.
You find me here with wounded pen (itâs still smarting at Iranâs decision not to let it cross its borders later this year) and wounded knee (its plays up a devil whilst Iâm in Sofia for some reason!) but a smile upon my face. I will be well looked after whilst Iâm here by the caring lights of Nik and Nevena, only my second and third ever Couchsurfing hosts. Nik was even kind enough to come pick me up from the airport when I arrived late from Cyprus last night. Man, there are some nice people in this âere world I tell ya!
âSo how are you finding Sofia?â asks Vladi, one of Nikâs work colleagues as I return to their offices after my first days ramble.
âYeah, Iâm really enjoying it. Itâs a nice feeling city.â âWhat expectations did you have coming here?â. âUm? Well, none really. This is such an unplanned part of my journey. I didnât really know a thing about Sofia, or Bulgaria for that matter and I really like the relaxed atmosphere. Thereâs a good cafĂ©, street culture and nice architectureâ. âThatâs good! I appreciate you saying that. Most people have many bad ideas about Bulgaria. But we are changing very quickly. Everything is very, very modern and improving but most people still think of us as of living in caves, Ha-ha, you know, painting on the cave walls and using fire and candles! I am glad you like it.
Travelling I think helps you view these places withoutâŠ um?âŠ without?âŠ err? How you say?âŠ withoutâŠ prejudice. Yes, you are without prejudice.â
And yes, although I didnât come here with any particular preconceptions I still feel pleasantly surprised by Sofia. Okay, maybe I came here thinking it might be pretty darned ugly as capital cities go, but this is firmly confounded by the city centre. It is spacious. Relatively calm. Apparently the trafficâs usually three times as bad but itâs the month where a large portion of the cityâs population head to the Black Sea coast (Varna etc) for their holiday season. This fact though does not seem to make it any easier for Nik to find a parking space in the morning. Endless automotive meanderings of side streets before weâre able to park up.
Some incident pertaining to spatial awareness prompts the following from Nik : âHey, you wanna here a Russian joke about women drivers! Women drivers are like the stars. They are all around you and you are able to see them but they cannot see you. Ha ha.â
Hey! Donât look at me gals! I didnât say it ;D
Sofia is rich in theological architecture representative of the various religions that have swept over these lands over the previous two millennia. The tiny red-brick St Georgiâs enveloped now as it is in the courtyard area of buildings of high civil office ; Sofiaâs oldest church. The Banya Bashi-Mosque, a Catholic Church and Synagogue all within a stones throw of each other. The historically significant Hagia (Saint) Sophia Church/ Basilica from where the city took its name during the Roman era, then known as Serdika.
This sat just across the road from the impressively large main city Alexander Nevski Cathedral a âmemorial church built with the efforts of the whole Bulgarian people in memory of the thousands Russian, Bulgarian, Ukranian, Moldovian, Finnish and Romanian soldiers who from 1877 - 1878 laid their lives for the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empireâ.
As it seems with a lot of Orthodox Christian the internal play of light is architecturally stifled to sometimes near non-existence in some of the cityâs churches. I ask Nik and he confirms that the effect is intentional. Strange to my mind given the connotations of âheavenly enlightenmentâ that you think natural light would better bring to mind, but the darkness is to augment mystery and contemplation apparently.
St Nikolai Russian orthodox Church
So again the beautiful, bright, bold exterior of the Russian Orthodox St Nikolai Church gives way to a cramped and blackened interior. Great swathes of fresco work and icons cover most of the walls within but it is near enough impossible to discern their qualities and compositions through the combination of darkness, centuries engrimed dirt and votive candle smoke stains. A couple of elderly ladies sit, lopsided on ancient wooden seats besides the church walls, still and silent and almost fused with the shadows.
There are a handful of interesting enough museums in Sofia. The one I really wanted to go to, The Ethnological Museum, was closed but on day two I martyr myself with an agonising knee through the rains to walk to the National Museum of History on the city centre outskirts.
Alexander Nevski Cathedral
10 Leva (ÂŁ4.30) to enter and whilst the collection is impressive and well presented, for English-speaking visitors the translated information is only partial. I happen across a little gallery in town with a 30 print exhibition of an Australian photographer Simon Lewis, a self-titled âglobal nomadâ whose âOne Worldâ exhibition contains âimages [âŠ] created in an attempt to inspire us to look past our own backyards and take a voyage to far away places but also pause and appreciate it once we get to the end of our journey.â
Hmm, echoing certain sentiments of my own, and probably many of us here at TB I suspect.
I have to say itâs just nice to be back in Europe. Well, specifically mainland Europe. No offence Cyprus but I always forget youâre now a slightly geographically removed part of our fold.
Alexander Nevski Cathedral (detail)
The weather is frustratingly variable but this truth is of such nostalgic value to me after 10 months of solid sunshine that I am ready even to embrace the rain when it falls upon me. Clouds balloon and swirl and craft a million sculptures in the air to constantly inspire my eyes and I realise I have missed these too. A rare sight in the clear blues of the East in my journey so far. Cool climates of an evening at least. Such a relief for this over-heated, parched Little Soul. Yes itâs nice to be âbackâ. But more of that sentiment tomorrow I think.
There are a few sights to be seen within day-tripping distance of Sofia. One is the beautiful traditional village of Koprivshtitsa that I shall introduce you to tomorrow.
The other is Rila
Monastery that sitâs a two and a half hour bus ride south of the capital and is one of Bulgariaâs most revered religious destinations. The monastery confines enclose a fabulous Bulgarian Orthodox church covered both inside and out with beautifully composed and coloured frescoes. Worth a trip and thereâs good trekking in the Rila hills and mountains if you have the time and will to stay in the area.
Back in Sofia itâs time for a meal out with some of my new Couchsurfing chums. Nevenaâs best pal Miroâs just flown into town after 6 months in Southeast Asia and another Brit, Phillipâs staying over too so we get the use of his ânew toyâ, a 1982 ex-Russian Army jeep with a 2.
Some of the incredible frescoes that populate all available surfaces of Rila Monastery church
5 litre Volga Limousine engine, an adopted BMW steering column and no seatbeltsâŠ anywhere! âWell, you donât need them do youâŠ if youâre under fire you just wanna be able to jump right out!â.
Um, indeed. So Nevena and I cling on to the fabric grip-loops for dear life, hoping not to dislocate our arms on any over-enthusiastic turns and grinning all the while as we careen and judder through the streets of Sofia central.
âW-w-w-why are y-y-y-you l-l-l-laughing so m-m-much Stevie?!â stutters Nevena, her larynx being juggled as we crash over the cobble-paved roads. âI j-j-j-just l-l-l-love these l-l-l-little m-m-m-moments w-when travelling.
Un-n-n-nexpected things. W-w-w-when l-l-l-life j-just st-t-t-arts t-t-telling l-l-little st-t-tories f-f-for y-youâ. Our jeep adventure. The best ride in town. Heads turning as we travel. The engine growls. Phillip smiles with almost demoniac glee at the fun and curiosity induced by his new âtoyâ. His mountain-chomping judder-jeep, aka âThe Beastâ. We all slip, jolt and slide from side to side as we swerve and screech around, photos aâblur, the jeep seeming to chew up and spit out rather than bother to traverse the road surface as it rrrrrroars along. Great, great fun! (any jokes about irresponsible male driving habits now gals?!) And beautiful traditional Bulgarian food and beer at the end of it to settle the nerves and bones back into place.
Nevena, Miro, Phillip & 'The Beast'
Thanks for happy times Nik (Tania & Teo), Nevena, Miro & Phillip!
âTh-th-th-thatâs all f-f-f-folks!â
[ Rila Info : The main bus leaves daily from the West Bus Station on Tsar Boris III boulevard at 10.20am. (Take the number 260 bus from near the town centre for 1 Leva to get there). The Rila bus costs 10 leva there and 10 leva back (so ÂŁ4.30 each way) - some people stay in the vicinity of the monastery for a day or so ya see. Itâs an 18 seater mini-van only so do get there in good time ahead of departure to get a seat. You pay upon getting on to the bus. By the time you get to Rila you have about 2 hours on site but this is more than enough before the same bus returns at 15.00pm.
The Monastery is free and there is an on site museum to visit if you are happy with the 8 Leva (ÂŁ3.50) entrance fee. ]
Stevie & 'The Beast'