Bulgaria · 2 Days · 32 Moments · December 2013

The Modest Charm of Sofia

9 December 2013

Serdika Shopping Centre On your way back to the hotel, you might have time to drop by Serdika Shopping Centre. Fancy place where you could buy some Christmas presents. The Shopping Centre works daily from 10:00 to 22:00. Inside are shops to be found from chains like Peek&Cloppenburg, Zara, H&M, New Yorker etc. Spaggo is a cosy restaurant where I had delicious dinner. Parking is free of charge for the first four hours.
Local cuisine Pick one of the numerous restaurants in the resort, to try crispy baked potatoes with dill and garlic. A bowl of yoghurt with home-made blackberry jam is a must. Other local specialties are the Shopska salad (made of tomatoes, cucumbers, onion and cheese), Sarmi (rice wrapped in a cabbage leaf), Mish-Mash (mixture of cooked tomatoes and peppers with eggs and cheese) and Banitza (kind of salty bread with cheese and eggs inside). The traditional strong drink is called Rakia - a kind of plumb brandy, but even stronger.
Kings' Hunting Hut After parking take a walk on the snow and visit the hunting hut (called Tsarska Bistritsa in the local language) of the former Bulgarian kings Ferdinand and Boris.The small castle is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 to 15:00.
Secure paking lot You could find a secure parking place by Rila Hotel. It costs 10 Leva per day, but you will find your car, where you left it.
Borovetz Ski Resort Two days in Sofia are more than enough to get an idea about what's the city like. But just 70km away, in the Rila mountains is a ski resort, worth visiting. So be courageous and take out the car of the hotel garage. It takes not more than an hour to reach Borovetz.

8 December 2013

Public Transport The one-way ticket is 1 Lev and a bunch ot ten costs 10 Leva. They could be bought from kiosks on the street and from the driver as well. But if you have the opportunity do miss to use the public transport in Sofia. The buses and the trams are old, cold, overcrowded und full of pick-pocketers.
Another Local Feature Be careful when you want to cross the street. Some drivers don’t even slow down (not to mention stop) at a zebra crossing areas.
Cultural Peculiarities Bulgarians shake their heads up and down, when they mean NO and nod left to right for YES. Just the opposite way the rest of the world does. Furthermore, in Bulgaria as in Russia, people use the cyrillic alphabet, which is quite different from the Latin. That could be quite confusing sometimes.
Nightlife Still in a party mood after dinner? Just a kilometer away, which is a refreshing 10 to 15 minutes walk is the disco-club Briliantin. Simply go back to the National Theatre and then cross the yellow-paved street. It is open from 21:00 until 6 in the morning. The address is 3 Moskovska St. Phone for reservations: + 359 889 245 515 If you are not satisfied with the music from the 80s and 90s in Briliantin, take another ten-minute walk on the yellow-paved street, pass by the Parliament and on the opposite side you find another disco, with the seductive name Bedroom. The club is open from 22:00 to 5:00. Phone for reservations: + 359 888 764 422. But in case you want to listen to some local hits, which genre is called 'chalga', you can try disco-club Night Flight (Address: 25 Knyaginya Maria Louisa Blvd. Phone: +359 877 775 775 or Sin City (Address: 61 Hristo Botel Blvd, Phone: +359 888 00 55 66). In both places be prepared to mix with people who just love showing off.
Ale House Sofia Only two kilometers of the healing water, or some twenty minutes walking is a pub, where you could try another magical beverage - the live beer. It is called that way, because it is home-made in the pub and doesn't contain any artificial or preservative substances. The beer is stored in fermentation tanks and circulates through pipes, ending at each table with a beer tap. You can pour as much as you like and you can read the quantity on a digital display, just above the tap. The idea of pouring a glass of beer by myself, instead of waiting for the waitress to bring me a drink, impressed even a spoiled wine-lover like me. The wide range of dishes is a nice supplement to the fine beer. By all means try the Perfection Salad. If you pay closer attention to the menu you could read on the left page the history of the live beer and on right is the actually the menu card.
Healing Thermal Spring Water Just 300m away from the Synagogue are the water taps with natural thermal water. From the Juwish Temple continue walking on Ekzarh Josif St. ,cross Knyaginya Maria Louisa Blvd. On right is the Banya-Bashi Mosque and on left is the healing spring of hot water. Take a small bottle with you so that you could taste the high quality of the liquid, coming straight from the ground. After trying it you will better understand why Emperor Constantine the Great was contemplating making that place capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Sofia Synagogue and Jewish Museum Just behind the Market Hall is the Sofia Synagogue – the largest synagogue in Southeastern Europe. If you are not short of time pay a short visit not only to the sacred Jewish place, but also to the small one-room Jewish museum. The Synagogue is open for vistiors from Monday to Friday from 9:00 to 16:00. And the museum from monday to : Monday-Friday 8:30 – 12:30 and 13:00 - 16.30, closed on Saturday and Sunday. The entrance for the Synagogue is 2 Leva. The museum fee is the same.
Centralni Hali /Central Market Place/ If you go from the National Palace of Culture, along Vitosha Blvd., you reach the St. Nedelya Church. From there, pass by the Statue of St Sophia, represented be a woman, blessing the city. Continue on Knyaginya Maria Louisa Blvd. and you reach the Central Market Place where you could have a lunch and buy some souvenirs. You may really need some food, as the walk from the National Palace of Culture is almost two kilometers. You may as well pick up one of the numerous cafes and restaurants on Vitosha Blvd., but I preferred something more traditional. The market is open daily from 7:30 to 20:30. A suitable gift from Sofia is a natural cosmetic, made of the famous Bulgarian rose.
Taxi Two kilometers away from the church is the National Museum of History. It is really not a suitable place for a walk and a lot of taxi drivers will refuse to take you to there. Not only because of the small distance, but also because they don’t speak any foreign language. But if you get a combined ticket for the Museum and the Boyana church you pay just 12 Leva (6 € or 8 $) instead of 20 (10 € or 14 $) entrance fee. I personally missed that museum and went back to the centre of the town, to the National Palace of Culture. From the Boyana Church I called a taxi and somehow managed to explain partly in english, partly in russian where I want to go. As I found during my stay, Radio CB Taxi (phone: +3592 12 63), O.K. Supertrans (phone: +3592 931 21 21) and Yellow Taxi 333 (phone:+3592 91 119) are some of the reliable companies.
Boyana Church The Boyana church is part of the Unesco World Heritage since 1979. It is situated on the foot of the mountain Vitosha, in the middle of a small pine-tree forest. The cheapest, but not very convenient way to get there is with tram Nr. 5 from the Palace of Justice (the stop as at the back side of the building on Lavele Street near Positano Street) to Tsar Boris III Boulevard and from there further with Bus Nr. 63. It is much better to take a taxi. I even asked at the reception desk at the hotel to order a taxi for me. Originally the Boyana Church was devoted to St. Nicholas and that’s why the frescos depict 18 scenes of his holly life. Anyway this place of interest owes its world fame to the frescoes dating back to 1259. They include the portraits of the donors Sebastocrator Kaloyan and his wife Dessislava (see picture), and of the Bulgarian Tsar Constantine Asen Tih and Tsaritsa Irina, significant politicians in the medieval Eastern European history.
Parking in the downtown area Parking in the centre of the town is not free of charge. The streets are divided into two zones: blue and green. Parking in the Blue zone costs 2 Leva (less than 1 €), for up to two hours. You could stay in the Green zone for no more than four hours. The price is 1 Lev per 60 Min.
Pick-pocketers Be aware of pick-pocketers, not only on the street, but also in cafes,restaurants, shops and even churches.
Change Change money. Bulgaria is part of the European union since 2007 , but not part of the Eurozone and just a few places accept payments in a foreign currency. Ask at the reception desk in the hotel to recommend you the nearest place where you could exchange cash for a good rate. Approximate rates: 1 EUR ~ 1,95 BGN. 1 USD ~ 1,42 BGN 1 GBR ~ 2,32 BGN 1 CHF ~ 1,60 BGN
National Theatre Ivan Vazov Next to the Christmas market is the building of the National Theatre. So if you are not pleased with the service at the huts, go to 5, Dyakon Ignatij St where the National theatre is. If you are already tired of sightseeing and walking, as I was, you could easily reach the hotel from that point. It's just a kilometer away.
Christmas Market If you are visiting Sofia before Christmas you could even go to a typical Christmas Market which will remind you of the ones in Vienna or Munich & Nürnberg. It would be open until 22th December. Twenty-two small huts offer food and beverages similar to those in Germany and Austria. A cup of Glühwein (hot wine with spices) costs 3,5 Leva or 1,8 €, but unfortunately the quality is not that high.
St Nedelya Church After Saberna St, on the right side is the 5 Star Sheraton Hotel and opposite it is another church full of history. St Nedelya Church was probably built in the 10th century and ten hundred years later, on 16th of April 1925 it experienced the worst day of its long history. On that date a group of communists put a bomb in the church in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate King Boris the Third. He was not at all in the church at that time, but the ongoing fight between his supporters and the communists, trying to come into power, took the life of more than hundred innocent people. Entrance is free of charge, but if you want to take pictures you have to spend 5 Leva. The church is open daily from 7:00 to 19:00.
Luxurious cars Be aware of expensive cars with four identical numbers on the registration plate. They belong more often than not to a 'mutra'. The word stands for rich, uneducated and unfriendly guy from the local underground world. If you drive, let them go first, even if you are on a major road.
Some expensive shopping If you leave the churchyard from the other gate, you would have the chance to see the street with the most expensive boutiques in Sofia. That is Saborna St, where world famous brands like Valentino, Gucci, Dior and Armani sell their elegant outfits.
St George Rotonda Just opposite the coffee shop you will see two watchmen, but don’t be afraid, go straight towards them, they will not even move. The moment you pass the open gate, you are already in the churchyard of the Rotonda of St George. The place is famous for its dome frescoes from 12-14th century. The church is open daily from 8:00 to 18:00. Entrance is free of charge, but taking pictures is forbidden. However, on the church door there is a notice, encouraging the visitors to buy souvenirs. Which reminds that nowadays the church is concerned about its commercial profit to the same extend that it is worried about the saving of our souls.
Coffee Time If you are already tired of sightseeing, next to the Archeological museum you will find the nice café Art Museum Club. There you could sip a beverage, read a newspaper, or even write a Travel Box for miavia, encircled by ancient objects. Actually there are more than enough ancient stones in the garden of the café and even inside. Working time: 24/7
Archelogical Museum Cross the street and head to the small fountain. Right next to it is the National Archeological Museum, housed in the building of a former mosque. The museum is not big and there are some interesting golden jewels and ancient stones in it. Working time: see picture Price range: adults-10 Leva, students and retirees - 2 Leva.
Russian Church and Etnographic Museum If you want to visit another orthodox church, take Moskovska Street and then go to Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard. Right you will see a small temple with golden-plated dome. That is the Russian church St. Nicholaus. After that continue your walk on the same road and on the same side you will find the National Gallery and the National Ethnographic museum, situated in the yellow building of the former king’s palace. Actually the building is more interesting from outside, than from inside. And the most impressing object in the museum is a spinning loom, so that you could get a better idea how once carpets were produced. The museum works from March to October from 10:00 to18:00 and from November to February from 10:00 to 17:00, closed on Mondays. Entrance fee for adults - 3 Leva, for students and retirees – 1 Lev.
St Sophia Church and the Underground Museum inside The next stop of the our tour is St. Sophia Church, which is just half a kilometer away from the Parliament. Open from 10:00 to 17:00, closed on Mondays, free entrance on Thursday. Entrance: Adults: 6 Leva, Students 2 Leva (to take pictures is not forbidden, but costs an extra charge of 15 Leva) The museum presents the story of the ancient town Serdika above which ruins was built the modern town of Sofia. Two short movies, which you could watch in the museum will give you a notion of the importance of the Bulgarian capital 18 centuries ago. Historians claim that Constantine the Great was considering making Serdika, the old name of Sofia, instead of Byzantium (nowadays Istanbul,Turkey) the main city of the Eastern Roman Empire. The emperor was attracted by the location, naturally protected by the surrounding mountains and the abundance of healing thermal springs. It is considered that the first Christian emperor Constantine the Great had said 'Serdika is my Rome'.
The Parliament Right next to St Alexander Nevski Cathedral is the Bulgarian Parliament. Opposite the state building is the monument of the Russian emperor Alexander the Second, called 'The liberator' by the local people. He helped the Bulgarians defeat the Turkish troops in the Liberty war of 1877-1878. To be even more grandiose, the emperor is represented on his horse. You will certainly notice the yellow pavement of the streets in the centre of the city. But though cheery, the pave-stones are pretty slippery if wet. So watch your step! Anywhere you go the Bulgarian streets and roads are well known for their bad condition.
Where to start a walkng tour in the centre The most advantageous place to start a walking tour in the capital of Bulgaria is the St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral. Let's say at 9:00 in the morning. The cathedral is open daily from 7:00 to 19:00. Entrance is free of charge. The cathedral was named after the Russian prince Alexander Nevski and was built in honour of the soldiers who died in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878. The construction of the building took place between 1882 and 1912. It is the second-largest cathedral located on the Balkan Peninsula, after the Cathedral of Saint Sava in Belgrade. The most precious item of the St Alexander Nevski is the 45-meter high gold-plated dome. The bell tower reaches even 53 meters. Other valuable parts are the Italian marble and the gates produced in Munich and Vienna.
Where to stay Key location, garage for the car for only 5 € per day, free wi-fi, nice staff. At that place the visitor has everything he needs. But book in advance as a lot of people like it. The price per night for a single room is 60 €. The double one is 70 € per night.
To Sofia by car Driving in Bulgaria, and particularly in Sofia is a challenge. The streets are narrow, the quality of the paved streets is is low, the traffic is heavy and the drivers not always obey the rules. So, if you travel by car, you'd better leave it in the hotel garage Especially, if the number plate is not local, the danger to be stolen or damaged is not to be underestimated. And don't forget to buy a vignette when you cross the border. One-week vignette costs 10 Leva, which is appreximately 5 €.