Ahhh, Sofia, the beauteous capital of Bulgaria. One is never far from a green space with profusions of flowers, fountains and benches under shade trees. And then there is the alluring pedestrian-only street with its array of cafes where music and laughter drifts from under canopied seating …cocoons of enjoyment!
“Saint Sofia” reigns at the next intersection. This 8m female figure of bronze and copper standing on a 16m pedestal was erected in 2001, on the spot where a statue of Lenin once stood. She symbolically wears a crown (power), and holds a wreath (victory) in one hand and on the mid-section of her other arm she balances an owl (wisdom).
Our Bulgaria Photo Gallery
We move on to Party House. This Stalinist structure built in 1953 was once headquarters for the Communist Party of Bulgaria; now government offices.
Around every corner is yet another gem, which has Rick commenting, “I’d love to have a pedometer to gauge the miles we’ve covered!” I smile, knowing my ‘to-see’ list is still lengthy.
It is onward to the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, beautifully fronted by gardens that would please the most ardent landscaper.
The ground breaking for Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Sveti Aleksandar Nevski) took place in 1882 and surely understand why it took 30 years to complete…it occupies 3,179sq m, and can hold up to 10,000 people!
Okay – what is this?! In yet another park we come across “something” rising from behind a broken fence and among weeds strewn with litter. We learn it is the “Monument to the Bulgaria State”, and to say it has seen better days is an understatement. As well as not pleasing in design, it’s been neglected for years – making it all the more fascinating. The soviets erected it in 1981 to celebrate the 1300th anniversary of the Bulgaria Empire; the regime’s mistake was demolishing the memorial to the country’s beloved Tsar Boris III that stood on this spot since 1934 – hence, “since post-Soviet times, the lack of maintenance is a statement”, according to locals.
Near the entrance of the Serdika Metro Station, we arrive at Sveta Petka Samardzhiyska Church (Saint Petka of the Saddlers). This tiny church has been around since Ottoman rule in the late 14th century; the unpretentious inside holds icons and a small gift shop. I leave with a “must-have” cross necklace embedded with pale mauve stones.
We move further along to Sofia’s newest tourist draw – a Roman city discovered while digging for a new underground metro line! Serdika Archaeological Complex dates back to periods from 1st to 6th century AD. It is a heady feeling to walk among the ruins of six large buildings, see others including a medieval church and early Christian basilica behind glass, and to stand on a well-preserved 2000-year-old stonework road.
After swirling around the sights of Sofia, it is time to venture out from the capital, and since our hotel offers a private car and driver for a better price than a tour – it’s a done deal!
On our day-trip to Melnik, officially the country’s smallest town, our friendly driver Asen suggests a stop at Baba Vanga’s, a prophetess and healer of international renown. The grounds of the site are most pleasant with fruit trees, gardens and ponds with paddling turtles and darting fish. Other ponds are fed by hot springs, each increasing in temperature; the hottest at 75-degrees Celsius emits a steamy countenance. A statue of Baba fronts the small church where her followers and visitors gather before a tiny alter backed by murals and where offertory candles can be placed for good intentions.
I had previously not heard of this famous Baba (Grandmother) born in 1911 and who died in 1996 leaving behind a legacy of 85% accuracy in her multitude of predictions about future world events. Over the years a long line of statesman, historians, economists, and scientists came to tap into her ability to foresee the future – an ability that began for Baba Vanga (born Vangeliya Pandeva Dimitrova) when she was tossed kilometers from her home in a vicious electrical/freak tornado storm at the age of 12, which also left her blind for life.
Years before events occurred, Baba gave voice to predictions; such as 9/1l, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Fukushima nuclear spill, the birth of ISIS, the 44th president of the US being African American.
Behind the church where she is buried is her humble home. I walk through the rooms where this Nostradamus of Bulgaria lived for most of her adult life and until her last breath. A riveting experience!
Tiny Melnik in wine country
It is onward to Melnik which is nestled below huge jutting clay mountains at the southwest end of the Pirin mountain range. It’s well known as a wine centre, with lots of family-run taverns which boast their own varieties. One can walk away with wines in professionally labeled glass bottles or in plastic jugs sold along dirt streets.
Most of Melnik was burned down during the 1912-13 Balkan Wars, as evidenced by the many ruins of family homes along some of the cobblestone streets.
Up on a hill stands Kordopulov House, now a museum. Built in 1754 by one of Melnik’s former Greek wine merchants, Manolis Kordopulov, it has been carefully restored. We navigate through rooms with couches along the walls backed by 19th century murals, carved wood ceilings, stained-glass windows in blends of Bulgarian/Viennese/Ottoman styles. At the top of the four levels Rick inspects a stone sun-dial clock on the large deck area.
Many revolutionaries took cover from the Turks here, including the National hero, Yane Sandanski, who liberated Melnik from Ottoman domination. The last of the Kordopulov family was killed in 1916, wherein the house was passed to Agnesa, believed to have been a family maid or friend. The current owner is one of her descendants.
Sunday is High Mass Day, and a good time to visit Rila, the mother-of-all-monasteries in Bulgaria (a UNESCO site). Rila was founded in mountainous surrounds by hermit monk Ivan Rilski in 927AD. In 1335 a grander monastery was built, which was repeatedly restored after several plundering’s at the hands of the Ottoman, and rebuilt following an accidental fire that burned it to the ground in 1833.
The monastery complex is spell-binding. Church of the Nativity dominates the central courtyard. Every inch of the exterior is muralled with religious figures, and the inner sanctum of iconoclastic statues and biblical scenes. How perfect to stand transfixed while chanting voices rise to the heavens during the service underway.
Around the edge of the courtyard is a four-storey structure containing 300 monk cells, as well as small museums and souvenir shops.
On our way back into Sofia, we drive to the peaceful and prosperous suburb of Boyana, to check out the tiny 13th century Boyana Church, holding medieval art works of Bulgaria to round off a great day!
Our wind-up in Sofia
Back in Sofia, one more church is on our agenda, Sveti Sedmochislenitsi with its unique lead-covered domes, and named after Cyril and Methodius and their five disciples, known in the Orthodox Church collectively as the Sedmochislenitsi (how’s that for a tongue twister?) It was created between 1901 and 1902 through the conversion of an abandoned Ottoman mosque. I enter the church and see many people holding lit candles. When I ask the gentleman greeting people at the door what is the event, he says, “It’s been 40 days.” My puzzled look prompts him to elaborate, “My mother passed away 40 days ago.” I now notice a large photo of a woman by the altar, and realize this is a memorial. I quickly express my sympathy and retreat from this private ceremony.
Later I learn about the Eastern Orthodox belief that after death the soul roams the earth for 40 days; coming back to the places they have lived throughout their life and to the new gravesite. Rituals take place with their family; such as leaving food and a glass of water for the deceased, leaving the door open, etc. The memorial service signifies the release of the deceased soul to the great beyond, and the home is cleared of their belongings and the mourning for the departed is over.
Our last evening looms – time for our feast of national dishes. At Hadjidraganovite Kashti we find ourselves in an atmosphere of stone walls, old wooden wine barrels, and servers dressed in garb from the 18th century. On the outside patio we dive into the most delectable pork sausages, spicy potato wedges, bean dish, baked chicken and ham smothered in white cheese…and vouch that anything ordered in the quaint restaurant will be superb!
Our visit to Bulgaria is an exceptional cultural experience, with gracious locals at every turn. The historic sites are many and varied, and the country is indeed favoured in natural beauty. We leave with fond memories of our time here.