Sofia, Bulgaria


This might be the first time I visited a country where I could not read its writing. Hmm… I felt so handicapped as I can’t even read a single sign. I told myself that I would at least try to learn up Cyrillic before I go to another country that uses these alphabets.

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Not many people are able to speak English here. I’m quite surprised that in Sofia, being the capital city of Bulgaria, it’s the exact opposite of Borovets in terms of English literacy. It’s a miracle if you can find someone who can speak understandable English. Suffice to say, I have to resort to body language to imitate animals at the supermarket while buying meat. (And you thought this scenario only happens on TV sitcoms. Haha! 😉  )

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The history of Sofia is too long and complicated and stretches through to the ancient times, probably around 7000 years ago. Many civilizations have come in and out over the centuries, leaving behind marks of their existence in the modern city as we see now. Thracian, Slavics, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Asian Bulgarians, Russians, among others. For a non history buff, there are only few main things you need to know about Sofia – it used to be called Serdika thousands of years ago, it is a spa town full of natural mineral springs, and it is a trading town. Oh, and that Communist buildings are damn difficult to tear down, even by tonnes of dynamites!

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Miraculously, you can still see parts of Serdika in its original form, as you take a walk around the city centre. It is a pretty amazing cityscape, as there are many huge impressive buildings, some hundreds, some thousands of years old standing next to each other. Monuments and worship houses of various religions – Catholic churches and Russian and Bulgarian orthodox churches, Jewish synagogue, Muslim mosque – all within a stone’s throw from each other.

From top, left to right : Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Church, Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker (Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiyski), St. Nedelya Cathedral, Sofia Synagogue, Banya-Bashi Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Church of St Cyril and Methodius.

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Rotunda of St George the Victorious, built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century, oldest preserved building in the city. Located within the grounds of the Presidental Palace in present day Sofia.

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What’s more amazing is that the same building may be a church now but has been a mosque at one time. Or an elaborate bathhouse that turned into a museum and a market now. Or the royal palace that turned into an art gallery now.

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The layers are too complicated to remember or to identify. But it can clearly be seen. While digging to build the underground subway station in recent years, the ancient city of Serdika was discovered right beneath it. They continued building the underground station anyway. So the modern building now sits right on top of and surrounded by the remains of the thousands-year-old city. And in between the modern glass building of the train station and with the background of the huge luxurious Sheraton Hotel, there also nestled a tiny little ancient looking 14th century church, Sveta Petka Samardzhiyska.

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The structural remains of ancient Roman baths from thousands of years ago can be observed right next to you when you are eating your lunch at an underground food court. Right above it is a market place, housed in a building which used to function as a bathhouse.

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There was also the case where the construction work of excavating the foundation for a luxurious hotel brought about the accidental unearthing of the ruins of a 3rd century Roman Amphitheatre /Colosseum, the size of which was only a notch smaller than the glorious landmark in Rome. But who cares about ancient archeological discoveries of priceless historical structures, right? Luxurious hotel brings in more lucrative business, or so it seems; so in the case of Hotel vs. Colosseum, verdict : Hotel wins. So now the Hotel is actually built right on top of the Colosseum and remains but a tiny part of the Colosseum conserved to satisfy the curiosity of tourists.

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Pictures of various saints on sale in the flee markets – this is an eye opener for me. I’ve never seen orthodox churches before, in fact they look just like a normal christian church or catholic church, but somehow… there are just so many saints! Every church worships different saints. Even the brothers that invented the Cyrillic alphabets are sainted and churched. I almost bought a cute little folding picture of these two brothers and put it on my desk to encourage / bless me to learn up the Cyrillic one day. Hahaha. 😉

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Sofia is really a not-very-tourist-friendly city. Other than the poor English literacy among its people, there is a serious lack of literature, maps or information printed in English. Even the subway train maps and signages are all in Bulgarian only. And the ferocious woman sitting in the booth labelled “Information” could only speak Bulgarian and did not even pretend to want to help. Only the very few major attractions in the city have a short English line displayed at the bottom of its main signage. (I suspect they were recently put up too, observing the shiny condition of the sign boards!).

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Other than that, Sofia is also not a very friendly city for the handicapped, babies or old folks. All the pavements seem to be uneven or/and cracked; you would think that Godzilla might have trampled over this city recently. It takes some effort not to trip and fall while walking on these streets. The city is also full of stairways everywhere. There are almost no escalators and rarely any elevators. Normally, this wouldn’t be such a problem for us, who are used to walking miles a day. However, it was exceptionally noticeable and a real challenge for us to explore the city on these particular few days, due to our limping legs, which we unfortunately injured recently.

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Martinitza – red and white strings/ornaments. A uniquely Bulgarian culture celebrated on the 1st March to symbolise peace and health (also the official beginning of spring). One is supposed to wear/pin this little red-white thingy on their clothes, or give it to friends and family for well wishes. If a stork is seen flying by, it is considered good luck, and one is supposed to make a wish, then remove the Martinitza from their body and attach it to a blossoming tree. And voila!…Wish will come true (supposedly)!

Ceramic wares – commonly found and used widely in restaurants and homes when serving traditional Bulgarian cuisines. Available in colourful designs, shapes and sizes.

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Just follow the yellow brick road…. nothing to do with Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz though, it refers to the pavements all around the city centre. Just walk along this yellow brick road and you will be able to see all the important sights of the city. According to one version, it was how the city of Sofia wanted to look and feel like it is part of its other grander and richer European counterparts; yet at the same time wants to distinguish itself as a unique city, hence borrowed a large amount of money from Germany to purchase a large quantity of these unique “yellow bricks” from Austria,…. and voila! – the result is this imported, one-of-a-kind “yellow brick road”. Ridiculously expensive, easy to break, hard to repair, and very slippery in winter. Hmm… Truly unique indeed…

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