The Bulgarian capital is not one of the main tourist destinations selected by the average weekend traveller of Western Europe, let alone the international wanderers.
People choose to go to Sofia, Bulgaria partly because flights are particularly cheap at certain periods and partly because, at some point, you realize you’ve visited all the other European destinations and feel attracted to the East (just like me, starting some years ago).
But first of all, there’s one thing to know: a visit to Sofia gives you an insight into the way you’ve learned to look at a city in your previous travel years. Once in Sofia, you understand to what extent you are able to leave your aesthetic, historical and cultural paradigms behind and appreciate a place based on what that place is and has been.
This is why the first thing to know and do before leaving to Sofia is
#1 – leave the West and the cities you’ve already visited behind.
There’s nothing more disappointing and (in my opinion) wrong than visiting a place that has changed its name 8 times in history and undergone two dictatorships and several empires…expecting the same things that you would appreciate in Paris/Prague/Rome.
Even just the simple statue of the city (the statue of Sofia) is an interesting bunch of historical misunderstandings caused by excessively abrupt changes. Yet, someone still considers it “ugly”. If you compare this statue with the fountain of Bernini, well, of course it is not pretty; just like the Gioconda when compared with the paintings of Caravaggio.
For the records: the statue dates back to the period after the fall of the Bulgarian Communist Party and represents Saint Sofia. It is yet important to point out that we’re not talking about the Christian martyr Saint Sofia, but the divine Sofia, in the Greek sense, that is wisdom. The post-Soviet administrators, craving for compulsive Christianization, took no notice of this issue and decided to represent the martyr Christian saint. Too bad they adorned her with pagan symbols (owl and laurel wreath) and, according to Christian history, she was actually killed in the attempt to reject them.
Not to mention the explosive sensuality that detaches her from our iconography of martyrdom, making her more similar to Minerva (who, as it turns out, has an owl as well).
Now, I don’t know about you, but I find all this so exciting!
Today also: Where and what to eat in Sofia, Bulgaria
#2 – Beware of people who tell you the city is ugly and unremarkable
I give this advice not just because of what I said in entry #1, but also because…it isn’t ugly at all.
Sofia is a clean city (there’s a very efficient service of garbage collectors who work all day long and you won’t even see a cigarette butt on the ground).
Sofia is a green city (there are several well equipped and very nice parks that you can easily reach on foot from downtown).
Sofia is a city that hosts Jewish, Orthodox and Islamic buildings in the same square and they’re all beautiful.
In this 30 second video, I sum up the beauty of the place.
#3 – When people say “yes”, they mean “no”
Bulgaria is one of those nations where some gestures are different than other countries. Among these, the movement of the head that we use when nodding (bottom-up) means “NO” for them. On the contrary, shaking the head means “yes”.
So, if you enter a pub to ask if there’s a free table and they shake their heads with the place being half empty, it doesn’t mean they want to send you out due to your frizzy hair and drug-dealer look. They are telling you yes, go ahead and sit down.
#4 – Wine is definitely good
If you love wine, ask for the local one. Really good. The barrels where wine is aged undergo a specific and particular toasting process (I’ve recently found out this expert information and a world opened up for me). I probably don’t love Bulgarian wine but their barrels, I really don’t know, but be sure you don’t miss this specialty!
#5 – Take comfortable shoes with you
If you’d like to see the best things this city offers, along with the green, the most typical places and even the more modern and younger ones, and if you want to see the dichotomies that set the main roads (recently renovated) apart from the raised sidewalks of the side streets, walk through it.
#6 – Look out for street markets
When I travel, I’m always looking for open-air street markets. In Sofia, they are full of colours and typical stuff. It is not a quotation from a “Blogger-travel magazine-tourist guide”, I really mean it: I’ve seen the more predominantly local street markets in Europe.
The daily market located in the alleys surrounding the Alexander Nevsky cathedral hosts a flea market where you can find old relics of the war, items carrying socialist symbols, sacred icons and old cameras, along with modern handicraft items.
A specific area of this market is dedicated to the sacred Orthodox icons.
Have you been to Sofia? Do you have something else to recommend? Go ahead, write it in comments!