Greetings from Sofia,Bulgaria

Sveti Beti and the Price of Fish
2nd June 2013

This morning turned out to be a perfectly lazy start to the day. We didn't get up until gone 9am and even then we pottered about the apartment, grazing on a "continental" breakfast as we seem to call it.

 We made the most of the free wi-fi available and used the iPad's Facetime app to contact Hannah. It was such a joy to see our little family still bleary eyed at home.

Rory was acting cool and trying to look unfazed by the event; Tyler was waving frantically whist piroetting head first off the arm of the sofa; Freya was sucking on a bottle of milk turning all coy. And last but not least Harley was in his play pen protesting slightly, wanting to get in on the action, then when he saw us on the screen he beemed a wonderful smile.

Today's planned itinerary wasn't much different to yesterday, just a stroll around the city only in a slightly different direction. At the top of Vitosha, (the boulevard not the mountain) and at the crossroads with ulica Alabin VI we turned right walking towards the City Garden park, a former Royal garden.

I'd been looking forward to visiting here because of a spectacular fountain in its centre. The skies were blue and perfect for photographs. But ... the water feature was closed for essential maintenance!

I had built up such expectation that when we arrived to an empty pool I was bitterly disappointed.

"May be when we come back this way this afternoon it'lll be working" said Julie trying to inject hope back to the situation.

To get over it we sat down at a cafe outside the glorious Ivan Vazov National Theatre. It was a suitably dramatic building with its Neo-classical facade standing proud like the Greek temple of Apollo, the god of music, song and poetry (amongst other attributes).

We ordered two diet cokes. I don't usually drink cola. I've never liked the stuff but having twice tried to order sparkling mineral water yesterday and ending up with Club soda I decided to play it safe.

It was a bright and sunny morning, so much so the sunglasses had to come out as we peple watched.

Directly outside the theatre they were preparing for a private function with a reception area and buffet. We hung around waiting to see if any fancy theatrical types turned up to the party.

None did so we moved on.

At the top end of the park beyond a large car park also known as Prince Alexandur Battenburg square was the former Royal Palace.

It was actually built by the Ottomans in 1873 but only a few short years before they were defeated by the Russian Army and an independent Bulgaria was born.

The first monarch of the new Bulgaria was chosen as German aristrocat Prince Alexandur Battenburg but he was forced to abdicate by the Russians and replaced by another German, Prince Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg the second cousin of Queen Victoria's Prince Albert. It's surprising how all these European royals were related in one way or another!

The West wing of the palace is today home to the National Art Gallery.

We weren't in the mood for art today.

Instead we were drawn to the golden onion domes of the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker some distance down a busy Boulevard Tsar Osvoboitel. It's popularly known as the "Russian Church" and despite looking like a 16th Russian Orthodox Church it was built for the Russian community in Sofia only at the turn of the 20th century.

It was a small church but so full of character. The ornate carved gilt edged fretwork of the porch's peaked roof shimmered in the sun resembling a Thai pagoda.

Captivated by its beauty we walked up the steps and inside the church without concsciously deciding to do so as if ordained by a higher power.

Unfortunately once inside the spell was broken as much of the interior was hidden behind scaffolding and what was on display was hardly visible as it was very dimly lit.

Despite this there was a steady flow of people coming in to light a candle. Apparently in the crypt below lay the sarcophagus of Archbishop Serafim, a real 20th century saint, which worshippers believe can work miracles and grant wishes.

I have to admit to being cynical when it comes to religion. I've never had much faith in such traditions. I find them more superstition than anything to do with religion. I suppose even believing in God could be described as superstition.

Then again we all need something to believe in to just get us through the day.

We left the Russian Church walking up hill to where we could see the golden domes of our next church the enormous Alexandur Nevski Memorial Church.

Crossing the road was quite an experience. There weren't any traffic control lights, no familiar pelican or zebra crossings, only a path mapped out in dotted lines on the tarmac.

We were very hesitant to cross but eventually we found the courage following closely behind an old local woman shuffling across the four lane avenue.

Safely across the road we looked straight down the Moskovska avenue towards the majestic church.

Instead of taking the direct route we walked through a small park filled with many statues, mostly flag bearing soldiers celebrating Bulgaria's proud independence but amongst them was a sculpture of a group huddled together with haunted expressions serving as a memorial to the suffering endured during the second world war.

It was done in a modern interpretation of that hard edged Soviet style and left a lasting impression.

At the end of the park there was a small flea market aimed at tourists visiting the Alexandur Nevsky with a large selection of the usual bric-a-brac, Russian dolls, soviet-era medals, copious amounts of lace doilies etc.

One stall sold nothing but images of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus creating quite a striking collage. I was a little concered about taking its photograph but the stall owner was deep into a game of chess with a fellow trader so I took advantage of their distraction.

We left the market through a break in the fence, it seemed to be an often used short-cut.

Our approach towards the Alexandur Nevsky Memorial Church was unconventional as we walked through the car park of the Holy Synod, apologising on our way to a passing Orthodox priest for our trespass.

Stepping out of the car park to the full glory of the cathedral was a wonderful moment. Its enormity was breathtaking made even more apparent by its isolation in the cenrtre of this wide open square.

Moving closer its sheer size became almost overwhelming. Trying to take it all in was dizzying.

Its front facing facade was like any other familiar church only super-sized, whilst behind it looking East was a cascade of gold and copper green domes that reminded us of the Byzantine Istanbul.

It was no surprise to learn that it took over forty years to build in what must have been such an exciting period for the country in the aftermath of their independence.

It was named after a legendary 13th Russian ruler to acknowledge their debt of gratitude to Russia's role in securing Bulgarian independence.

We walked inside the cavernous church, our eyes struggling to adjust to the dim light.

The first room we entered was the hall of candles where the flickering candlelight didn't offer a great deal of illumination. Sunlight struggled to get through the opaque windows and what little light there was seemed to be absorbed by the dark red and black tiles of the floor and the granite walls.

 

By the time we entered the main church our eyes had acclimatised. Bathed in the warm glow of a hundred candles from two large candleabras the interior was quite a wonder. Despite being built in the early 20th century it had the look and feel of a far more ancient church.

To our left was the Tsar's throne, a large marble canopy guarded by two lions at the base of the columns.

In front an even more elaborate marble structure, like a minature church within a church, complete with its own dome, was the I assume could be called the altar piece.

As we walked around all the saints in all the world were looking down on us with every square inch of the walls entirely covered by frescoes of religious icons. Each one had a halo, a circle of light around their heads.

I don't know what a halo represents but they did look like they were wearing space helmets.

We raised our eyes up to the heavens and there he was, the main man himself, an image of God as a wise old white haired bearded man seperating the clouds, with Jesus as a child in front.

It was interesting to note the absence of any reference to the crucifixion. The Eastern Orthodox church doesn't portray Jesus on the cross.

There didn't seem to be anywhere to sit to contemplate and absorb the splendour of it all so we continued to walk around from one corner to the next marvelling with each step.

Having seen all that there was to see we left the Alexandur Nevsky Memorial Church and headed downhill to the National Assembly Square or Ploshtad Naradno Sabranie, a semi-circle of a square, if you know what I mean.

The curve of the cirumference was mostly taken up by the Radisson Blu Grand Hotel. It's wall of windows 70s architecture overlooked the square.

All their rooms would have had a great view of the Alexandur Nevsky Church in the distance and the National Assembly, another municipal building constructed after independence.

In the centre of the square was a mounted statue of Tsar Alexander II the Russian emperor who lead Russia into the war against the Ottoman Turks which incidentaly liberated Bulgaria.

He was also the Tsar assasinated in St. Petersburg in 1881, the site on which the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood was built, which Julie and I visited ten years ago.

With map in hand we were on the search for lunch and had somewhere in mind. It was an Armenian restaurant called Egur Egur. We found the address, 10 ul. Dobrudzha but we didn't find the restaurant. Well, we found a restaurant but it was called First and certainly wasn't Armenian.

I was so disappointed. So much so we decided against eating there.

On the way here we had passed a small cafe bar called "Bar" which sold itself as a place that did Food and Music. A great combiniaton we thought, so we headed back to ul. Aksakov.

Inside "Bar" had the look and feel of a nightclub all dark and musty so we sat outside.

It was begining to get a lttle overcast now but it was still warm enough to dine al fresco.

The menus were thankfully bi-lingual which was more than could be said about the waitress. I pointed to the Shopska Salad and she said 'Ne' quite firmly with a nod of the head and a dismissive wave of the hand.

Next we tried the grilled pork chops. With an expressionless face she shook her head. We sighed at another dish not available.

Noticing our reaction she laughed and said "Da, da, da" whilst shaking her head again as if to say no.

I knew "Da" meant "Yes" and then remember reading about the curious Bulgar quirk of shaking the head to mean yes, and nodding the head to say no. A complete reversal of the norm. How on earth did that anomaly happen?

Anway with the confusion sorted we finished our order and the food arrived.

I was expecting a toastie but I must have completely lost it in translation. (Although I'm sure it said bread!) Fortunately it was a delicious spinach, cheese & potato bake with the bonus of not having any specks of meat in it.

Julie enoyed her dish, although on the continent a pork chop is never a thick cut but a thin slice. There were no grounds for complaint though as it was just so cheap. Our bill, at 10.80lv (£4.50) which also included a beer, bowl of fries and a glass of wine, was ridiculous. They must have made a mistake somewhere!

We left shaking our heads in wonder.

Walking back towards the centre we passed a hole-in-the-wall style store. It had the usual shelves folding out like a box of tricks but it all opened out from a window level with the pavement.

Customers had to bend over at the open window and bellow their request into a dark basement below from which a hand would then appear with the items.

There were quite a few of these dotted around Sofia.

We came across a small park called Kristal, not far from the the Russian Church.

In the centre of the park was the Stefan Stambolov Monument a sculpture of a very large head with a deep gash down the forehead and another cut on the cheek. Stambolov was the newly independent Bulgaria's 9th Prime minister but in 1895 he was assasinated, brutally stabbed in the head.

In the late 1980s with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe Crystal Park became the focus for much of the pro-democracy protests.

We moved from one park to the next reaching the City Garden Park.

This is where we first noticed red and white woven thread tied to branches. They were everywhere.

We thought perhaps they were the equivalent of yellow ribbons in memory of fallen soldiers but it turned out to be a Bulgarian traditional known as Martenitsa.

It's a celebration where friendship bracelets or other red and white yarn ornaments are exchanged during the first few days of March.

They are then worn for the month before being tied to the branches of a tree when the first buds of Spring appear.

Just the other side of the City Garden Park, opposite the Presidency, was the Archaelogical Museum.

It was housed in a former Grand Mosque although you probably wouldn't have guessed. No minaret survived and we couldn't see any dome. Although out of sight it did have multiple smaller domes and the stone/brick work facade and the arched windows reminded you of it's 15th century origins.

Dotted around the outside were several slabs of marble giving the area the look of a cemetary. They were brought here from all over Bulgaria spanning centuries of history.

We entered a large whitewashed hall, a perfectly light and airy space for a museum. The slabs of stone theme continued inside but these were far more detailed and absolutely fascinating. There was even a sarcophagus on display.

There was a no photo policy which I flaunted. An undercover staff member who was sat down like any other visitor caught me and asked me to stop.

She was extremely politely about it and even smiled and joked about it. We continued to browse all the artefacts. As Julie tired, her injury begining to nag, she decided to sit down on the benches whilst I continued to explore.

As interesting as all of this masonary and pottery was the hightlight of the museum was undoubtedly a small room off the upper level, known as the "Vault".  It contained Bulgaria's most valuable archaeological finds. 

The bronze helmet of a 6th century BC Macedonian chieftan was incredible. A predecessor of Alexander the Great!

 The golden funeral mask of a 5th century BC Thracian King was even more captivating.

I stared at it for ages, marvelling at its detail, its antiquity, its rich colour. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that anything in the centuries BC were just people living in caves but this was a reminder that there were rich civilisations all across the world that flourished for a milenia before.

The Thracians were a fearsome tribe of red haired warriors who dominated this area of Europe. The most famous was probably Spartacus who met his death at the hands of the Romans.

There were some great pieces on display. A strong Thacian bronze breast plate was impressive.

My favouirte piece of the whole exhibition was a rather phallic gold helmet with a dragon embossed onto it. Once again it was Thracian in origin.

All the items were well-displayed with Bulgarian and English captions which helped me understand what I was studying. I forgot the photo ban and took some as covertly as possible. I justified myself by saying I would spread the word to encourage everyone who sees them to visit this wonderful museum".

Leaving the museum we crossed the square towards the Presidency where two soldiers were standing guard waiting for their turn to be exchanged.  The plume on their fur hats looked so out of place. They could only have come from an ostrich they were so long!

They were only halfway through their hour duty waiting for the next ceremonial changing. I later read that the fancy goosestepping I saw yesterday was just a basic hand-over.

Once a month they perform a special full-blown changing of the guard. It was only after we came home did I find out that it was on the first Wednesday of every month, which was this Wednesday! It's a shame we missed it.

As we were in the vicinity we went to see if the Rotunda of Sveti Georgi was open today and it was. It was free to enter but it had a no photo ban. Damn!

Inside it was no longer an active church, although there was an altar piece. Only fragments of a 10th century fresco remained but the cupola itself had better coverage by a later fresco.

To the left there was a small kiosk selling souvenirs so whilst Julie distracted the member of staff I took a photo.

On the way out we donated quite genrously to the church in a self-imposed fine on our photo misdemeanour.

With today's itinerary now completed we headed back towards our apartment via the Billa supermarket stocking up on supplies for our day trip out tomorrow.

Back on Vitosha Boulevard we stopped at a pavement cafe called Bisou and enjoyed a glass of wine/beer whilst watching the world go by.

It was a really nice cafe with purple rugs to cover our knees when the temperature dropped. They were actually Thai Air rugs! Either the owner is a frequent flyer to Bangkok or he had bought a bulk load from someone he met in the pub.

It was a very pleasant way to spend the late afternoon. A few kids who reminded us of the Goonies cycled up and down trying to earn a few extra levs by performing card tricks. We shooed them away.

Then when we wanted to part with some money after a busker gave us quite an incredible performance on the violin he didn't come around cap in hand.

We moved walking up the back street of Tsar Asen I where we came across a shop called Bread and Cheese. It was called that because all they sold was literally bread and cheese! We bought a huge pot of garlic cream cheese for about 60 pence.

Having deposited our shopping back at the apartment we decided on one more round at a local bar that was literally across the road from our apartment.

We walked inside into an empty room bar the bar staff. We had noticed it had a balcony upstairs so we gestured if we were allowed to go up.

They shook their heads ever so slightly and smiled which we took as an affirmitive. Up the wooden staircase we went and we came out into a wonderful outdoor seating area. It was surrounded by pastel coloured apartment blocks which was much of a view but did create a cosy ambience.

We sat on a bench at a table covered in that plastic wipe clean table cloth. After ordering a small and a large beer we set about decyphering the menu which was wholly in Cyryllic. I made quite a good attempt working out the Bira, Vino, Whiskey and Vodka.

I was only unsure of Rakiya which after asking turned out to be Raki the Greek drink similar to Grapa. I was even reading the words for Merlot and Chardonay which impressed Julie.

What I couldn't decypher was the food menu. I was sort of able to decode the cyrillic but I couldn't then translate into English. Google translate couldn't help either as I couldn't type in the cyrillic word as the source. Oh, well, never mind, we improvised.

Sat on white plastic "garden furniture" opposite us were a group of burly men tucking into some sausage and chips so we and used the point and grunt technique of ordering.  "We'll have what they're having"

They had a pile of grilled wurst on one plate and a mound of fries on another. Moments later our order arrived; two plates of grilled sausages and chips!

I was so hungry that I had to eat some of the chips furthest away from the wieners. I did the same on Julie's plate so in the end I had a whole portion . Julie struggled to eat the 4th sausage.

We ended up ordering a beer and a chardonnay only to show off my grasp of the cyrillic alphabet!

As in other bars and cafes when we came to pay the 10.30Lev price was incredibly reasonable. We were going to struggle to spend all our budget on this trip!

Back in the apartment we settled in for the evening. A few hours of flicking through countless TV channels later we both felt a little hungry so I cooked a late supper. Julie simply has boiled potatoes and a chicken breast. "My idea of heaven" she said. I made myself a cheese omelette which even if I do say so myself was epic!

Six eggs mixed, fried and folded over a pile of cheese and fried onion. It was knowingly undercooked. The cheese had only just melted and the omelette was still quite soft just short of runny. It's how I now always cook a cheese omelette trying to re-create the one I had in a square in Tourettes, South France. Now that was f*ing sublime!

It was an early night tonight in preperation for tomorrow's early start for our big day out.

Next day >>> 

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