Greetings from Sofia,Bulgaria

Sveti Beti and the Price of Fish
2nd June 2013

I woke up ridiculously early considering last night's excesses. So I tip toed around the apartment as not to wake Julie. I always wake up hungry, always without fail. So I made myself some toast with jam and a nice cup of tea.

Whilst stood at the window I saw for the first time the rooftops of Sofia. It came as a surprise to see old red tiled roofs. I wasn't expecting that kind of character. I thought it would have been a dour concrete jungle but I was pleasantly surprised by its dilapidated charm.

The big McDonalds sign in the distance made me chuckle though.

When Julie woke up we had breakfast, toast with a very tasty cream cheese. The coffee we made from one of those pod machines was also acceptable.

We congratulated ourselves in having the foresight to have bought the groceries pack. It would have been quite inconvenient having to hunt for breakfast on our first morning.

By the time we unpacked and filled the dishwasher it was 11am when we left the apartment. The shakey elevator was not an option for Julie so we walked down the 5 flights of steps.

In the broad daylight the trendy Vitosha Boulevard looked more like a building site. I was surprised neither of us had fallen or twisted an ankle last night.

Much of it's length was dug up and in the process of being paved into a pedestrianised street. We tread carefully as not to come to any harm.

There wasn't much chance of a cafe culture possible amongst the piles of bricks but I'm sure it'll be a very nice shopping experience once it's completed.

Infact the final third of Vitosha hadn't been broken up yet. This section of the street was lined with trees and the parasols of pavement cafes.

There was a really pleasant atmosphere here. So much so we stopped at one called Cafe Davidoff and enjoyed a large black coffee each watching the people go by.

Whilst this section hadn't been paved yet Vitosha had effectively become a no through road which by default made it all pedestrianised.

The sky was ominiously grey. It had rained overnight but thankfully it was holding dry this morning.

When it came to pay for our coffees we were impressed by how great value for money they were at only 3.98lv (£1.70) for two Lavazza coffees.

Moving on we we past the Supreme Court of Justice with it's imposing bronze lions stood outside on the steps.

It was quite ironic that we had safely navigated the obstacles of Vitosha Boulevard's building site only for Julie to stumble whilst stepping off the kerb here outside the court room.

The trip jarred her leg quite badly and she was in some discomfort walking. She hobbled along valiantly to the square of Sveta Nedelya where we found a park bench to sit down for a while.

There was a noticeable presence of homelessness on the streets of Sofia. I know that every city has a problem but we'd hardly been out for an hour and had already experienced half a dozen people come up to us begging. It was very sad to see their desperation.

Looking across the square we saw the Cathedral Church of Sveta Nedelya. It wasn't the most attractive of churches with an unconventional dome. It was more of a roofed drum.

Although the arches of the loggia were quite pretty. A young married couple thought so too and were having their photographs taken in the arcade.

Having rested for a while we moved on, continuing our journey North.

With the Sheraton Hotel Balkan to our right we looked left to see this dramatic statue on top of a column.

It was a very striking image of Sveta Sofia, robed in black with her skin of gold, crowned by what looked like Xmas party hat, holding a laurel wreath in her right hand and resting on owl on her left arm.

Saint Sofia wasn't a real historical figure (or at least this one wasn't) she was more of a personification of the city.

The inspiration came from the Tsarkva Sveta Sofia which translates as the Church of the 'Holy Wisdom' and in the 14th century it gave its name to the city.

This sculpture was only erected in 2000 replacing a statue of Lenin which was removed ten years earlier when the fall of communism swept across Europe.

Not everyone liked the Sveta Sofia monument. Bulgarian sculptor Georgi Chapkanov must have been so disappointed after all his hard work to read that some people were upset by the over sexualised image of their saint, in paticular the meticulous detail of her breasts.

We came to a wide road but it was actually known as plaza Nezavisimost or Independence Square. The buildings that framed the square were collectively known as the Largo.

At the far end was the impressive neo-classic Former Communist Party House. It was such a strong and powerful building representing the might of the communist regime. It used to have a large red star perched on top. Now it's used as the National Assembly and the red, white and green flag of Bulgaria is flown from the pole.

The other buildings that flanked the square were now shared between the Presidential Office and the Sheraton Hotel to the South and by the TZUM department store to the North.

We crossed the road and walked down some steps into an underpass which then in turm became a shopping centre. There was also an entrance to the city's metro system from here.

It opened out into a square where in the middle we came across the 11th century Church of Sveta Petka Samardzhyska.

It was a very small and ancient looking building resembling more of a barn than a church. It looked so peculiar surrounded by all the modern concrete development.

What appeared to be the front door to the church was closed but there was an entrance into the crypt below. Julie waited outside whilst I went to have a look. The door was open but an old lady appeared from the shadows to tell me that it wasn't open to the public just yet. "Afternoon" she kept on saying.

"Blagadoriah" I replied trying out my Bulgarian "Thank you" for the first time. "Molyan" she replied.

The church was dedicated to St. Petka Paraskeva a young Christian girl from Asia Minor matyred at the command of Roman Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century. Parts of the crypt is believed to have originated from that time.

In fact a little further along were some archaelogical digs uncovering old Roman walls from the original city of Serdica.

The second part of the Church's name translates as "Saddlers" which is reference to a group wealthy saddlers who during the 16th century under the Ottoman rule financed a renovation project.

As I rejoined Julie a loud siren rang across the city. It wailed like an old air raid warning. We looked at each other with some concern about what the hell was going on!

Further adding to the cofusion was the sight of every one else standing still. They stood like statues totally motionless facing the direction where they stopped when the siren began. It was as if they had all been hypnotised.

Not wanting to be the odd ones out we followed suit and stood rooted to the spot. After three minutes the siren stopped and everyone jolted back to life and carried on with where they were going.

It was such a strange experience.

It turned out to be a country wide 3 minute silence to commemorate the 137th anniversary of the death of a famous Bulgarian revolutionary poet called Hristo Botev who fought against the Ottomans during the late 19th century.

Having caused no offence to a National hero we continued with our day moving further North reaching the distinctive and surprinsingly ornate Mineral Baths.

The garden to the front with it's large fountain was very pleasant and we sat down briefly to appreciate the architecture and also give Julie's sore leg a rest.

It was a very colourful building, mostly mustard yellow with a red and white stripped trim and a red roof. As we got closer we were surprised even more by the vivid detail of the tiles above the windows.

The Romans and Ottomans had built public baths on this site. The buildng that stands today was built in 1913 and certainly very Art Noveau but it also had an almost religious feel to some of the images.

Unfortunately it wasn't open to the public because the roof wasn't safe. Apparently has been like that since 1986! At least the revovations are finally under way with plans for a city musuem and a spa.

We didn't remain sat for long. Park benches do attract the homlessness. I suppose it's the only furniture to which they have access. We soon found ourselves surrounded by a troop of homeless men. It felt a little intimidating although they were in deep discussion and didn't bother us at all.

 

Moving on, alongside the Mineralna Banya were public access to the healthy mineral rich water. It was busy with people drinking from the free flowing taps whilst others were filling large containers full on an almost commercial scale!

We walked around the facility looking for a spare tap to try some of the water but they were all taken. The strangest use of the communial water was this guy merrily shaving!

Directly opposite the mineral baths was the Central Market Hall.

The building was built during the same period (1909) and had a similar Art Noveau style with the red and white stripes theme running throughout.

Whilst it was less colourful in comparisson it didn't lack in architectural interest. The main entrance was especially impressive, topped with an ornamental clock tower.

We crossed the road and went inside. Julie and I always get excited when visitng food markets whilst we're away from home. For us it's an important part of visiting any city.

It was much bigger than expected with three floors of traders selling all sorts of produce. Its vast wrought iron structure gave it the feel of a train station.

It was so big we didn't know where to start so we began with nearest to our left and to sweep across the market in a clockwise fashion.

We immediately hit upon our favourite. It could be described as a delicatessen I guess, selling prepared meals, grilled meats, fresh salads and much more.

We continued past fruit & veg stalls, bakery, fishmongers, dairy products, cheeses, a wine shop. We were having a wonderful time.

On our first circle we hadn't bought anything but had noted down all that we had seen. We then sat down in the centre of the hall at a cafe called Tosca.

Whilst I popped to photograph the old clock mechanism previously from the tower but now preserved inside a glass cabinet Julie ordered us some toasties for lunch. I returned to our table before they arrived.

When they came and were placed down in front of us it was apparent that the order had been "lost in translation". The first cheese toastie was topped with ham, or luncheon meat (to be more precise) and the second toastie was topped with salami!

Julie's not a big fan of either and of course for me, being a vegetarian, they were out of the question.

Forunately at only 2.60lv (£1.10) they were cheap enough to accept them and then have another attempt at ordering. The second time around we were more succesful.

My cheese toastie arrived topped with a layer of more cheese, a white crumbly cheese called Sirene similar to Feta.

The slices of toasted bread were over a foot long as if the loaf was cut horizontally. It made for an interesting toastie. Mine was really tasty and was devoured in under a minute. Julie shook her head in disapproval. "You do eat far too quickly" she pointed out.

All I could do was smile as I knew it was true. In my defence I never suffer from indegestion and I do enjoy eating tremendously.

Julie enjoyed her salami toastie but left most of the spam topped one.

Having eaten we shopped. A large fresh loaf from the bakery, some fresh apricots from one fruit and veg stall, a bag of potatoes from another, some lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber from yet another one.

We were really enjoying the whole experience.

We also picked up a decent looking bottle of red wine. It seemed to imply that it was made by local monks and was one of the more expensive bottles but at 8.10lv it wasn't at all overpriced.

Finally we ended up at the delicatessen which we first came across when we entered the Central Market Hall.

Despite the language barriers we left laden with two bags full of goodies!

We had stuffed peppers in a yogurt sauce, a chicken and potato dish, a shopske salad (a Bulgarian version of a Greek salad) and a potato cake.

This may seem a bit odd but we had brought some large shopping bags from home with us. They came in handy!

With Julie's aching leg we decided not to walk any further out of the city towards the Zhenski Pazar flea market past the Sofia Synnagogue. Instead we headed back towards the city centre, passing on the way a mosque.

The Banya Bashi mosque was built in 1576 when the Ottomans ruled most of Eastern Europe. Today it was the only mosque in the city.

We walked up to the arcaded porch wondering if we could enter. A little unsure and not wishing to offend (being non-muslim) we left wthout stepping inside.

Our route brought us back to the Church of Sveta Petka Samardzhyska, the one in the middle of the shopping centre.

Despite not being Christian either we thought at least we could pass if confronted, although perhaps we wouldn't get away with being Russian Orthodox. Anyway we walked down into the crypt below the church.

It was very dimly lit by candle light with a gallery of framed religious images. There was also a small gift shop served by the little old lady I had met earlier.

We continued through into an empy room with some poison ivy growing on the wall and a lot less in the way of religious images.

However one of the few that were there really disturbed Julie. It was of Christ with the crown of thorns on his head. But it was his eyes that gave Julie the heebee geebees!

We could here the sound of prayer and the sweet smell incense wafting down from upstairs. Weighed down by our shopping Julie decided to wait in this dark room despite the eyes of Christ following her every move whilst I went up a spiral staircase into the main church.

I emerged into the smallest of churches in the middle of a service. There were two rows of chairs, enough for only ten people. I joined the congregation, a couple and their son and an older man. I discreetly slipped in at the back.

The priest's reading was quite mesmerising, the smell of incence was overwhelming. The 16th century frescoes were superb. Their antiquity alone impressed. Unfortunately some large pieces of plaster on which frescoes were painted had fallen off the walls.

I found myself doing the spectacle, testicle, wallet and watch sign of the cross before taking a photograph. In a way I was asking for forgiveness for what I was about to do, getting my camera out during a service.

I didn't stay too long. I was mindful of Julie downstairs waiting for me in the crypt, being spooked by Jesus. How ever brief the moment it was an incredible experience.

We left the Church of Sveta Petka. Our intention was to return to our apartment but along the way we took a slight detour by the Sheraton Hotel and found the Rotonda, another ancient church surrounded by modern buildings.

In this case the Rotonda was in an inner courtyard of a building that was one half hotel and the other half the President's Office (and other municpal uses).

In one corner there was a cafe where we decided to take a "comfort break". To allow us to use their facilities we of course had to be customers so we ordered some drinks and a snack.

I wanted to go and have a closer look at the Rotunda but first Julie thought it would be best if I ordered just in case she ended up with a plate of sheep brain!

With a bowl of fried potatoes safely requested I walked across to entrance of the red brick Rotunda. It was unfortunately closed today.

I walked around the church also known as the church of Sevti Georgi (or St. George). It was quite plain although had some wonderful brick work around the entrance. Similar to the Church of Sveta Nedelya its cupola was formed by a drum shape.

It's believed to have originally been built in the 3rd/4th century during the Roman period. Within its grounds there was further evidence Serdica with uncovered archaelogical remains of the city.

As I walked towards the Presidency end of the courtyard I noticed a group of fancy dressed soldiers gathering.

I was just in time to witness the changing of the guard. It takes place on the hour every hour throughout the day.

Five soldiers in ceremonial uniform slowly goose stepped their way from the side entrance to the Ministry of Silly Walks (sorry I mean the Presidency) out in a loop towards another two soldiers who were standing guard outside the front door.

Following on from their avine inspired walk they wore hats topped with a black and white feather that must have been almost 2ft long.

Once they reached to guards on-duty the two in the middle of the gaggle exchanged places and then they escorted the two now off-duty guards away.

I wondered how you became a ceremonial guard? Is it a like a cushy semi-retirement reward for their most accomplished soldiers too old for active service?

I'm sure it's the highest honour but what a tedious and pointless job!

Once the high kicking entertainment was over I rejoined Julie back at the cafe.

I was back in time to share the bowl of roasted potatoes. They clearly were reheated in a microwave but they tasted good garlic infused and sprinkled with fresh dill.

We sat sat outside in a covered patio area on comfortable seats. It was quite a cool little cafe, subtly lit, nice vibe and Living Channel's Extreme Fishing on the TV. Inside it even had a pool filled with terrapins. I do hope they weren't on the menu!

We left relaxed and refreshed and walked back to Vitosha Boulevard, negotiating the loose cobblestones and pot holes.

Despite being ladened with shopping already we decided to find a supermarket. But first, as we were so near to our apartment I quickly ran up to unburden ourselves from the Central Market Hall groceries.

I was a little annoyed after keeping everything in the fridge I noticed that the chicken we had bought for Julie's supper was missing. I hate it when that happens, usually with take away meals and you only find out when it's too late to go back and complain.

Anyway, back down we turned off Vitosha at the very English named Ulica William Gladstone, so called after a British MP who published an open letter in support of the Bulgarian April uprising against the Ottomans during the late 19th century.

Within a short distance we came to Slaveykov Square where we came across a second hand book market. The vast majority of the books were Bulgarian although there were a few banana boxes filled with English language books mostly about Bulgaria.

We walked up to the top of the square where we found another celebtraion of Bulgaria's liberation in the statues of political activist Petko Slaveykov and his poet son Pencho sat on a park bench.

Looking at them I wasn't too sure which one was which, they looked more like brothers to me!

There was room for another to sit on the bench which made it a great photo op. There was a constant stream of people sitting down with them, touching them in various places. They were both worn to a brassy shine in all the popular touching spots.

The one with the hat and the walking stick, which I took as being a clue that he was the oldest, was shiny on the left hand and both his knees. His son had a highly polished left arm and a well rubbed right thigh. Perhaps it was comon for many to sit on them?

Anyway we continued back down Slaveykov Square alongside a tramline that ran through it.

We crossed the tracks and looked down ulica Graf Ignatiev a long straight road that cut its way through the city. It reminded us very much of San Francisco only with less hills.

All the streets in this area appeared to be related to the country's struggle against the Ottoman Empire. Graf Ignatiev was a Russian count who was instrumental in negotiating Bulgaria's independence.

We crossed it onto ulica Georgi S. Rakovski (another important 19th century Bulgarian revolutionary).

This morning we had searched Google for the nearest supermarket and there was one on Rakovski street and within a minute we found local chain Billa. We always enjoy browsing through supermarkets when we visit somewhere new. It's an interesting reflection of the country's eating habits.

We picked up a few supplies, including a roast chicken to replace the chicken we had bought earlier but was absent from our shopping bag. When I came across the burek I couldn't resist.

If there was ever was an answer to the question "What did the Ottomans ever did for us?" then probably burek would be the universal answer!

Julie and I still remember when we first tasted this pastry dish in Istanbul a few years ago.

Here they sold it in a large spiral large enough to fill a 20cm plate. It was like a very long cheese filled "sausage" roll. It also came in smaller U-bend portions which was the type we bought.

All stocked up we left and returned to our apartment.

On our return through Slaveykov Square we stopped for a coffee at the Bar & Dinner Cafe. We sat outside watching the trams go by and people sitting next to the Slaveykov statues.

It began to rain and everybody opened up their umberellas. I told Julie the famous story about a Bulgarian umberella.

In 1978 Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian writer and political dissident was assasinated whilst walking over Waterloo Bridge London by the Bulgarian Secret Service of the then Communist regime using a poisoned umberella with a modified tip with which he was stabbed. A toxic pellet of a radioactive substance called ricin was insterted and he died a slow and painful death within three days. It sounded like something straight out of a John le Carré novel.

We waited until the rain past before continuing our way back to the apartment.

Settling in for the evening we rearranged the furniture by bringing the dinning table to the window for a better view of the sun setting over Sofia. Then we improvised by filling a stock pot with cold water to keep our champagne nicely chilled.

Supper was delicious.

The burek got it first, all of it! You can't go much wrong with cheese and pastry but it was full of flavour so comforting.

Next the shopske salad which was arguably tastier than a traditional Greek salad because instead of large lumps the feta-like cheese had been mashed into the mix and in doing so covered all the salad veg in its saltiness.

We reheated the "stuffed peppers in a yogurt" dish.

After tasing the stuffed peppers I decided not to eat anymore. I was convinced that the rice filling had flecks of some kind of meat.

I couldn't see any, nor taste any but there was an odd fibrous texture to it. I had plenty more to eat though. Julie and I shared this cheese filled potato cake which was wonderfully tasty and we had plenty of potatoes which I had roasted in the oven.

We opened the bottle of red wine from the Melnik region of Bulgaria. The religious icon on the label made us feel almost righteous whilst drinking alcohol!

A little later we lounged on the sofa and watched a film called Mission London.

It was a Bulgarian comedy and was at times difficult to follow but essentially it was about the attempts of a Bulgarian ambassador in London to get the Queen to attend a concert to celebrate joining the European Union.

It descended into a farce involving Royal lookalikes, including Princess Diana dressed in a French maid outfit vacuuming a hotel room floor!?

Before we knew it midnight arrived. We were surprised to be still awake at that time of the night and agreed it was probably best that we weren't.

Next day >>> 

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