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Sofia, the Unpretentious Beauty of the Balkans

Living in Serbia means being surrounded by a number of countries, all beautiful and special in their own quirky way. However, when I think of visiting my neighbours, I usually opt for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro or Croatia where I can speak the language, and feel more in the familiar. I’ve never had any interest in visiting Bulgaria, nor have I heard stories about its beauty (quite the opposite unfortunately). As luck would have it, my boyfriend had to go to Sofia for work and I decided to visit him, but not in the possessive “Here I am controlling you” kind of way, but more like, just wanted to know where you are, with whom, and what you’re doing in your free time. What I actually ended up doing was realizing for the 1000th time that other people’s experiences and my own experience are NOT THE SAME! While it is quite possible that all the stories I heard about Sofia were true, it is also possible that in a matter of years, the Bulgarian capital managed to turn itself from an ugly duckling into a charming swan. What I know for sure is that the Sofia I discovered can easily call herself the poised and unpretentious beauty of the Balkans.

The National Palace of Culture

This will not be your typical, “here’s what to see in Sofia” account, as you can find hundreds of those online, but I will take you through my experience as someone who went to Sofia knowing nothing about the city. This will be a guide on what to look out for when in the Bulgarian capital, and also the list of reasons why I think the city is such a beaut.

Examples of buildings in Sofia

Getting There

I took the bus from Belgrade to Niš and then from Niš to Sofia. The Serbian company Niš Ekspres might be the cheapest way of getting around Serbia and the neighbouring countries, as this journey of 400 km cost me less than 20 EUR (cheap even for our low standard). The road is great all the way from Belgrade to Sofia, and offers some beautiful landscapes, so I would recommend it for car journeys.

The Metro

Vitosha Metro Station

I’m not used to Metros in Balkan countries. The capitals of Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania do not have Metro systems. On this list I will include Belgrade as well, as it’s less of a Metro and more of a dark disgusting half finished tunnel with two stops in the city. So, imagine my surprise at seeing the beautiful Sofia Underground which this year celebrated 20 years of existence.

Art as part of the Sofia Underground

To build the metro was not an easy task, as the construction took many years to complete due to the fact that Sofia is built on top of an ancient Roman city. The excavations had to be planned around many underground sites which were finely incorporated into the current metro stations. This is best exhibited at Serdika station, where visitors can see the ancient wealth of Thracian and Roman empires. The system has 2 intersecting lines (Red and Blue), and the trains are clean, on time, and cheap. A single ticket costs 1.60 BGN (Bulgarian Lev), approximately 0.80 EUR, or 0.95 USD.

The Taxi Drivers

I have a great love for taxi drivers across the Balkan countries (maybe not so much in Belgrade). In Sarajevo, the taxi drivers take all the colours of the country and the stories they will tell you, you will hear nowhere else. Similarly, the drivers in Sofia are cheerful people, very keen on (Serbian) music. At the mention that I was Serbian, the taxi driver cranked up Lepa Brena (a famous Balkan singer) and sang along the entire way. He talked about everything we saw along the roads, concerts happening in the city, culture, similarities and differences. As for the language gap, it’s as if it didn’t exist. I spoke Serbian, he spoke Bulgarian, (which are rather different Slavic languages) but the messages got across, somehow, with a lot of gesticulation, nodding, and shouting, as is our way. More importantly, the cab fare is super cheap, especially compared to the rest of Europe.

The Parks

City Garden Park

If you ask any Bulgarian to recommend sights around their capital, they will most likely tell you about their parks. Sofia is well known for the vast areas of greenery which give an air of youth and freshness to the city. The largest of all is Boris’ Garden, 2 km long, named after Tsar Boris III. Other notable parks are City Garden, Knyazheska Garden, gardens surrounding the former Royal Palace, and many more. These are the favourite gathering spots for people of all ages. On a sunny day, you won’t be able to find an empty bench as everyone will be enjoying the weather in one of the city’s oases.

Crystal Garden Park

The Architecture

Architecture in Sofia

I’ve spent most of my days in the central parts of the Bulgarian capital, and was quite surprised by the city’s architecture. The buildings are grand and beautiful, and at least in the very center, far from the communist architecture that is visible throughout this region. The sizeable squares reminded me of those in Poland and many streets are still covered with cobblestones. These streets are still in use, so don’t worry about driving on them.

Streets of Sofia

What really stood out to me were the religious buildings. The city is home to a number of well known works of art, such as the Sofia Synagogue, the Church of St Paraskeva, the Hagia Sofia Church, and of course, the jewels of the city, Russian Church (aka the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker), and the city’s most famous landmark, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. These are the prime sights for any tourist, and also the pride of the locals. You will be taken aback by their beauty and grandeur, the diversity of architecture they represent, and the many influences the country has had.

Three of the 70 failed photos in front of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral 🙂

The People

If you have never been to the Balkans, this is the first thing you should know about people from these parts. We really don’t give a shit. People are extremely chill, except when it comes to sports, food, history, why their country is better than other Balkan countries, music, and the national drink of, apparently everyone – rakija/rakia. But on the other things, we tend to be easy going and extremely friendly. This is also true of the Bulgarians.

Parks, people and art in Sofia, Bulgaria

People are genuinely nice, will try to explain everything, give advice, show directions, and want to hang out. So, if in doubt, stop and ask, and you will definitely get an answer.

The Tradition

The way Bulgarians see to their tradition is apparent in the architecture, the food and welcoming manner. However, their keenness on keeping tradition alive goes even deeper.

The National Theatre of Sofia

While walking through the City Garden Park, right in front of the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, I saw trees adorned with white and red yarns called martenitsas. The story goes back to the old folk character Baba Marta (Grandma of March), whose day is celebrated on March 1. As a symbol of coming spring, people make these little adornments and wear them around their wrists, until the day they see the first stork, swallow or tree blossom, when they take their martenitsa and tie them around tree branches for prosperity.

Traditional Martenitsas around Sofia

You can’t not love this story!

The Mountains

European capitals are largely built on the banks of great rivers. The capital of Serbia is the only one built on the confluence of two. As a rare city without a major body of water, Bulgarian capital makes up for it with the stunning surrounding mountains. Vitosha is one of Sofia’s symbols, and with the highest peak of 2,290 m, a great place for hiking and winter sports. The mountain is visible from almost any point in the city, and provides a stunning backdrop to Sofia.

Views from Vitosha Mountain

Vitosha Mountain is also the oldest nature park on the Balkan Peninsula. What’s even more impressive, however, is that due to its proximity to Sofia, the city is the only European capital in the vicinity of which brown bears live.

Tips!

See also: The National Palace of Culture, Ivan Vazov National Theatre (two of the city’s favourite meeting spots), Eagles’ Bridge, Statue of Sveta Sofia;

The currency: The currency is the Bulgarian Lev (BGN), 1 BGN = 0.51 EUR/0.60 USD

Cyrillic alphabet: Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet, so be prepared to be confused if you’re not from these parts. The upside is, people generally speak English, so feel free to ask for direction or translation.

Have you ever been to Bulgaria?? Tell me about your experience below 🙂

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