February in Sofia
As is our habit, we generally travel to somewhere cold in February. This year, we decided on Sofia, Bulgaria. Our plan was to spend four days in the capital, and as usual we spent a lot of our time walking around the city. We averaged between 15km and 20km each day. Walking is definitely the best way to get to know a city.
Sofia is a city with many parks. They are all great places to get away from the noise and hubbub of the city. Many of the parks have distinct legacies that track back to earlier eras. In some cases this is 19th Century but many parks are monuments to the Communist era.
I’m a big fan of statues, and Sofia’s parks are full of colossal works celebrating the heroes of the Communist era. Whatever your politics, there’s no doubting their power and beauty. The picture opposite and at the top of this post are images of Borisova Gradina park.
We saw Black Squirrels, Nuthatches and Green Woodpeckers in a number of the parks for good measure.
The InterContinental Hotel is not the cheapest option, but we chose to stay there because of previous good experiences of this chain. The hotel has its own restaurant and bar, Floret which is a good option. An even better bet is the Captain Cook restaurant next door. You’ll need to book ahead for a table here at the weekend, but the food and service is excellent.
The hotel is well-placed for the main tourist sights in Sofia, the rooms are comfortable and the service excellent. The concierge found us a table for Valentine’s Day — which it turns out was no mean feat. The statue in front of the hotel is of the Tsar Liberator, Russian Emperor Alexander II who liberated Bulgaria of Ottoman rule during the Russo-Turkish War.
High City of The Balkans
Sofia is located on a high plateau and is surrounded by mountains. At an average altitude of 550 metres it is the fourth highest city in Europe.
Mount Vitosha is the most important of these mountains, and Vitosha Boulevard (opposite) faces towards its peak. Vitosha Boulevard is full of restaurants and bars and at the far end has another brilliant park — South Park. This is a sun trap at the end of the day and fills with people skate boarding, strolling and soaking in the warm February sunshine.
As mentioned above, Vitosha Mountain is a prominent local landmark. There’s a cable car that operates at the weekends during the winter months, and we enjoyed the amazing contrast between the grey urban cityscape and the sudden immersion into a winter wonderland.
The top of the mountain was full of families tobogganing, skiing and strolling through the snow clad forests. Absolutely magical.
As a by-the-way, we were told that Sofia is usually far colder than we experienced. The temperature was -2/0 C at night and as high as 14 C during the day. Apparently it’s normal 10 C colder than that.
There were three big surprises for us in Sofia. The mountain landscape, the geology (its an active earthquake zone with a lot of thermal springs) and the history.
Sofia was formerly known as Serdica and was an important city for the Romans, the Greeks and the Ottomans (modern Turkey). Sofia is strategically located on the way from Europe into Asia.
In the centre of the city there’s a huge excavation of largely Roman ruins which is topped off by a glass dome. It makes a very impressive centre-piece to the city.
Growing up, the Soviet Union (USSR) was a significant feature of the world’s geo-politics. Back then, the USSR was on the other side the Iron Curtain, and we often saw the big military parades on TV. It was fascinating to visit The Central Bath (Tsentralna Banya) which now houses the City Museum.
Here, you can travel through the ages, including the Soviet era and see posters and other artefacts of this oddly compelling time. The poster opposite includes a picture of Leonid Brezhnev, (an iconic figure of my childhood and the Soviet premier from 1964-1982) as it was marched through the streets of Sofia in the 1970s.
Architecture in Sofia
Rila Monastery and Boyana Church
Boyana Church dates back to the 10th Century and is a World Heritage Site. The murals inside are very precious, and beautifully preserved. After swooning over the quiet majesty of this church (replete with bullet holes in the door from the Ottoman war) we then set off into the mountains to visit Rila Monastery. There has been a monastery on this site since the 10th Century, and the current building houses many treasures. Of particular note are the amazing murals that completely cover the face of the Church.
There are lots of good restaurants in Sofia. We particularly enjoyed the Arbat Russian restaurant which looked onto the Russian Church of St Nikolas. I’ve always through the idea of drinking neat vodka to be a vaguely appalling idea, but that all changed when I sampled the Beluga Vodka. Smooth, tasty and very drinkable. The food was great here and the waiters very helpful in directing us to some typical Russian options.