Sofia's city centre is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, largely rebuilt after WWII bombings and complete with a yellow-brick boulevard. Like any other major capital city, Sofia has its problems, including drug-related crime and some of the world's nastiest drivers; however, the EU's 'beautiful Bulgaria' campaign is sprucing up historic buildings and energising old neighbourhoods. The city's compactness and diversity make it a great place to get your bearings before heading off to discover the real Bulgaria.
Mt Vitosha, the rounded mountain which looms just 8km south of Sofia, is a popular ski resort in winter, while in summer a chairlift operates for the benefit of sightseers.
1 Mar 2009 - Sofia, BulgariaAfter returning to Sofia I had the rest of the day to explore before the flight back to blighty. Getting the bus was in itself an event as the bus to the airport did not depart from the main bus or train station. The customary poor customer service and disinterest at the bus station was no surprise so as I wandered the bus station and train station looking for someone able to help I attracted the usual sharks offering me taxi ride for a stupid price.
However, outside the train station and 100m from the bus station there are more buses and a number of cabins which sell tickets for other buses and after finding a Bulgarian Spanish speaker with some English, my Spanglish mix got me the information I needed and several more enquiries later I worked out how to get the bus to the airport. This was no straight forward matter as it involved a change at the Hotel Plisca and then another bus. Still, the cost of getting to the airport was only about £2.
Sofia - Church of St George
I love it when you explore a new city and then stumble across a hidden gem. This church is one of those gems. Hidden behind the Sheraton hotel and only just viewable from the road when walking past is the 4th century Roman Christian Church of St George - the time of Emperor Constantine the Great and visitor to the city many times. It is considered to be the oldest building in Sofia and stands in the remains of ancient Serdica, the Roman forerunner of Sofia.
Sofia - Serdica foundations besides the Church of St George
The church is mainly famous for the 12th-14th century frescoes inside the central dome. Three layers of frescoes have been discovered, the earliest dating back to the 10th century. Magnificent frescoes of 22 prophets over 2 metres 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.
Sofia - Hagia Nedelja Church i
The original church was built in the 10th century and survived remarkably long until destroyed in an earthquake in 1858. It was rebuild but then destroyed in 1925 as a result of a communist terrorist act against the Royal family. The church we see today was build in 1931.
Sofia - Hagia Nedelja Church II
Sofia - The Largo
This is regarded as one of the prime examples of Socialist Classicism architecture in Southeastern Europe, as well as one of the main landmarks of Sofia. The former HQ of the Bulgarian Communist Party
Sofia - Banya Bashi Mosque
The mosque derives its name from the phrase Banya Bashi, which means many baths. The most outstanding feature of the Mosque is that it was actually built over natural thermal spas. One can even see the steam rising from vents in the ground near the Mosque walls. The Mosque is famous for its large dome and the minaret. The mosque was completed in 1576, during the years the Ottomans had control of Sofia.
27 Sep 2008 - Sofia, BulgariaTwo years after purchasing my off plan ski resort apartment and much hassle later, it was finally time to return to Bulgaria to take possession! Many travel from Sofia to Bansko via taxi or arranged pick up which is costly. I elected to get the bus which was a much more daunting prospect particularly because in Bulgaria they use the Cyrillic alphabet and reading signs and destinations is near to impossible to the linguistically ignorant.
Tourist information was your usual Bulgarian poor customer service. The agent sat behind a glass screen and let me stand in front of her for 2 minutes before acknowledging me. She advised me which bus I needed for Sofia Central Station (bus) but did not go anywhere near the proverbial extra mile; just the bare minimum information and then back to sit behind her glass screen. What a welcome awaits the traveller to Bulgaria!
In the end the bus I needed seemed some time off so I got a minibus into Sofia. This did not go to the station but with much effort, someone told me I would be able to get the number 7 tram to the station. Getting the tram was a challenge after being dropped off but after getting it and being the smiley, stupid foreigner some women helped me as best they could and the driver and one of the female passengers advised me where to get off. My new friend then escorted me to the station which entailed a 5 minute walk.
In the station I was confronted with dozens of kiosks for different bus companies and this is where the ability to read Bulgarian would have been very useful. In the end I went to what appeared to be an information point and an English speaker there sold me a ticket for the bus to Bansko and the rest was straight forward.
Sofia - Through the streets of Sofia
One advantage of taking the bus is that you get a glimpse of 'real' life and not necessarily just that where there are tourists or in the centre of the capital. As I travelled, I took photos of scenes which I thought were typical from the centre of Sofia and through it's suburbs.
This doesn't present a flattering image of the city. Next time I am in Sofia I hope to tour the capital focusing on some of the more impressive buildings.
Sofia - Casinos and Sex Shops
I wanted to capture Sofia at rush hour but when I viewed the photo at home I noticed what there are plenty of in Bulgaria; casinos and to a lesser extent, sex shops. Known to be high on the scale of corruptness, casinos are a fantastic way to wash all the dirty money that Bulgaria is supposed to be awash with and the fact that I captured these in this photo without even looking for them says a thing or two.
Sofia - The old and new
To the right there is a relatively new looking apartment block but this 'napket', which I think means market, shows the old and rotting buildings of which there are many.
Some of these pictures are a little blurred because I have taken the pictures from behind glass though have done my best to filter out fhe effect that this causes.
Sofia - Horse and cart
Sofia has come a long way since I first came here in 1999 though it still has a long way to go to reach the levels of wealth and development in Western Europe. Despite how far it has travelled, scenes like this still make my day and Bulgaria is one country which feels very different to any other country I have been to. This picture of a horse and cart in the capital city is one reason.
10 Feb 2006 - Sofia, BulgariaAfter retuning from Bansko I had to return to Sofia airport to fly back to the UK. While here though I had enough time to make a flying visit to the city to sort out some financial affairs. Buying property in Bulgaria also means having a bank account and this had to be set up before leaving.
Sophia - Banya Bashi Mosque
A mosque whose history tells of Bulgaria's former occupation by the Islamic Ottoman Empire.
24 May 2003 - Sofia, BulgariaAt he reception, the devious Richard kept all his friends on separate tables to minimise trouble. This was actually for the best as it allowed us to meet and speak to Bulgarians though in my case conversation had to be conducted through an interpreter. One thing that didn't need translation though was the drinking. Our wine glasses were kept filled with a delicious wine from the bride's father's own vineyard as well as a shots glass that contained a foul spirit called rakia. This spirit is regularly consumed and ensures much merriment by the time the dancing begins. All in all the dancing had a very Greek feel to it but as Greece shares a neighbour with Bulgaria and both were ruled by the Ottomans it is probably no surprise that there are some overlaps in culture.
The night ended with a nightclub but after this we retired to our hotel at about 4AM to play in the casino. I've never been in a casino so I can't compare but there was no shortage of women in micro skirts either bringing around free food and drink or dealing the cards. Our game was 21 and we played this till 7AM and rarely lost!
After we exchanged our chips and then made to leave, a heavy approached us asking 'You want girls? Coke?' Its 7AM and he's asking me if I want girls and coke!
A couple of hours later we had to get up to check out. What a hangover! Our flight home was in two days but Hywel and myself just wanted to go home. We wasted £200 and bought another ticket basically because we had a hangover. Idiots.
23 May 2003 - Sofia, BulgariaFour years after first visiting Bulgaria I was back! The reason will be explained later but first, let's go back eight years to my student days. Sitting in the front room of our dirty student house was often the setting for all sorts of intelligent and often not so intelligent discussions. On one particular night in our final year the topic turned to who out of the nine of us would get married first. Form suggested the Cornish surfer, Stuart as he had been with his girlfriend from home since the first day of uni. In fact she was in Exeter so often that it took me over a term to realise that she wasn't actually an Exeter student.
The fact that when she did visit, Stuart spent most of his time playing Street Fighter II on his Sega Megadrive with all of his future house mates should have indicated that things might not have lasted. Anyway, after Stuart it was hard to decide who would be next. In fact it was easier to rank who would be one of the last to marry. In this case all the sensible money was on the hilarious and unpredictable Richard.
Reasons for this are many and will remain private. However, after the first year, whatever charm Richard did possess he soon lost in a haze. I remember one occasion in the second year when he started seeing 'Jo'. They went out a few times and she actually quite liked him. All well and good so far. To add to his good fortune he even had a double bed though one side of this was covered with essays, handouts and text books. Anyway, she stayed over one night but when we entered his room to interrogate him the next morning his bed was exactly the way as it always was - one side slept in and the other like a desk. 0/10 for effort Mr Chamberlain.
Those days are long ago however and since then Richard has certainly improved his female acquisition skills. He finally found a girl to love him and this reason is why I forcibly banished all memories of my first visit to Bulgaria when I felt permanently hungry and returned to be a guest at Richard's Bulgarian wedding!
14 Mar 1999 - Sofia, BulgariaDespite the changes since the fall of communism, Bulgaria still has the feel of a Cold War relic. One of things that I found so different to back in the West was the way that some shops are no more than basements with their pavement level openings converted in to shop counters. Some shops have flimsy glass cases containing spirits outside. At night these can be easily smashed or opened and the contents carried off but no, the respect for law seems to be quite strong - or maybe they are filled with water.
For a westerner, prices were very good though as a foreigner, getting outrageously fleeced was not uncommon. Even price lists stated a separate price for a non Bulgarian.
As someone who loves to sample new foods, I was most disappointed and went for days feeling unsatisfied. MacDonalds featured quite heavily for once but I just felt worse after eating there. We visited a Mexican restaurant but despite ordering meat dishes the meat had to be searched for. More 'sin' carne rather than 'con'.
Taxi drivers! While the quality of driving varied, the quality of the cars varied far more. Some were modern cars while others were 'tin can' Trabant deathtraps. Putting on a seat belt elicited a response of damaged feelings with the driver telling that he his a very good driver and there is no need for a seat belt. Other taxis drivers were just scammers. Its always a good idea to ask the price before you start your journey but doing this can bring out a ridiculous amount. One one occasion we decided to go to another taxi. The driver from the first taxi then ran past us shouting to his colleagues to set a price. The c*nt.
13 Mar 1999 - Sofia, BulgariaThree days prior to my visit, several stray missiles landed in the Sofia suburbs fired from NATO bombers during the campaign to oust the Serbians from Kosovo. It seemed that many people thought that the Serbs should be left to get on with their genocide and after a visit to the Museum I could see whyl. What was NATO's right to get involved in an internal affair? I say internal because it seems that Kosovo has belonged to almost every country in the Balkans at some point within the last 100-200 years.
The Serbians claim that Kosovo is part of Serbia and that it is Serbia's right to put down revolutionaries and separatists - as did Russia in Chechyna but they are a nuclear power so we will let Russia do as it wishes. Anyway, sovereignty, a long complicated history and politics, ethnicity plus morality all make for a long discussion not suitable for here.
Our first night was at a party in a halls of residence at Sofia University. As tourists we were also the centre of attention from a few of the ladies. Far more attention than back in the UK - a passport to the West I wonder? After that it was a cab (they were so cheap) to some club where Richard had a dispute over the price of a round of drinks. We were overcharged (not by much) but Richard would not stand for this.
'Security' was eventually called and Richard got wrestled into a headlock, dragged down the stairs and thrown out onto the road with a kick in the ribs added. Indignant, he got back to his feet, brushed himself down and offered the gorilla more money either as thanks for the kicking or in hope to regain entry. It got another kicking.
Sophia - On the road to Belgrade
I have very few pictures taken in Sofia for reasons that escape me. Here is quite a representative one from the part of the city that I was staying in - rotting concrete buildings. I'm probably being a bit harsh but that is the enduring memory that I have. Other sights made me feel like an extra in a Cold War era bond film. I'm pointing at this sign to Belgrade because at this time NATO missiles were flying into it!