“There’s this lady you should meet her // She’s calling in the street // Inviting the attention of everyone she meets // Yet she seems to go unnoticed // By most who pass her by // Despite her best attempt to look us in the eye.” -Andy Rogers, Sophia Sing to Me
Cold rain welcomed me late in the evening when my 12-hr train ride delivered me to the doorsteps of the capital of Bulgaria.
I fully expected to dislike Sofia.
I walked to my hostel and was greeted by the owner. She showed me my room and although I wasn’t tired, I certainly wasn’t in the mood to maneuver my way around an ole Eastern bloc of Europe in the middle of the night in the raining.
I opted for some tea and check the interweb for the best way to travel from Sofia to Istanbul. Originally, I wanted to take a night train from destination A to destination B, but since I had spent a whole day on one, when I saw there was a cheap flight (only 1 hour!) to Istanbul, I snatched it up. The downside was the flight was leaving late the next day so it left me with little time to get to know Sofia and Bulgaria.
After getting my fill of tea, I fell into a deep sleep.
Waking early so I could get to know as much of Sofia as I could, I joined the hostel owner for breakfast (toast, homemade jam, and cheeses) and she gave me all the details to what would be best to see in her great city in less than 12 hours. She then informed me of a free walking tour that takes place every day at 11 am outside the courthouse. Knowing it would be the best way to get to see much of the city and get to know its history, I made plans to go.
Since I was setting off much earlier than 11 am, I spent some time discovering Sofia for myself. Really, this consisted of me looping around the center in a disorderly fashion until the tour began.
The Free Sofia Tour happened to be the best thing I could have done in the city. Not only did it uncover most of the secrets of Sofia and highlighted the most notable landmarks in the city, I hit it off with the tour guide who gave me more insight to the city than I ever dreamed possible.
Get this: Sofia has been the place of human habitation for just around 9,000 years! That’s right, there’s evidence of human inhabitants dating back to 7000 BC. It’s said to be the second oldest city in Europe (First oldest being a competition between Athens, Greece and Plovdiv, Bulgaria).
The city of Sofia has an interesting dynamic. The city is made up of layers of destruction and history. Each layer uncovered by archaeologists revealed a new piece of Bulgarian past.
To come eye level with ruins of Romans past, one would need to only descend below the street (the same way you would go to get to the metro). One level higher, and you’re standing in front of a 14th century church. One level more and you can have a drink from an old fountain outside one of the original thermal bathhouses brought about during Ottoman rule.
The old medieval church of Sveta Nedelya suffered from years of destruction and reconstruction. It also is the site for one of the worst terrorist attacks of its time.
The story goes, back in 1925, the Bulgarian Communist Party wanted to overthrow the government. They came up with a plan to assassinate the monarch. The monarch was a hard guy to assassinate, so they started killing off different government officials. By doing this, they would know the exact location of the monarch and be able to assassinate him. On April 16, 1925, explosives were set up in the Sveta Nedelya in order to take out the monarch who would be attending a funeral there that day. 150 people were killed, 500 injured, and the monarch remained unharmed. Why?
He was attending a different funeral for another official that was killed by the same communist party. This funeral kept him from arriving to Officer Nachev’s funeral.
Needless to say, the terrorist attack was a complete fail. Except now Bulgarians use it for their excuse for always being 10-15 minutes late: you never know when it will save your life.
During the tour, we saw Sveta Nedelya, Church of St. Nicholas (or Russian church), Banya Bashi Mosque, Mineral Bathhouse (now a museum), Parliament building, Hagia Sofia, and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Free walking tours are like a party platter: you get to sample all the goods without getting a stomachache. I felt pretty aware of Bulgaria’s history and Sofia’s charm.
The real experience happened after the tour ended.
I went with my tour guide to a little Bulgarian restaurant where we spent a good long time talking about our cultures, experiences, and ambitions, discovering our similarities and differences.
He then took me on an adventure to the top of one of the surrounding mountains.
Of course, being the middle of winter, the sky was overcast. But the view was still breathtaking.
He told me this was his favorite spot at night. Not only because it’s gorgeous, but because at night is the only time you can see the city at its best: without divisions of social or economic status. Everyone becomes equal.
His love for his city made me regret booking my flight to Istanbul so soon.
Like Romania, bits of it’s communist past stuck out. It’s still a country behind it’s EU counterparts and still overcoming it’s repression. But, it has made progress and will continue to make progress.
I chose to go to Bulgaria because of it’s lack of tourists (or really, less likelihood of mass tourism). Unlike Paris, there weren’t huge lines of people crowding around historic monuments. I was surprised to find a tourism sector that was well established.
I fully expected to dislike Sofia, yet, the city captured my attention and I cannot wait to find myself there again.