Sofia is as beautiful as its sounds. The mustard fields amidst the vast green expanse come alive as the plane prepares to land on the very same runway the Germans, Bulgaria’s reluctant ally, used to take off for their sorties during WWII. Located southwest of the country at an altitude of 550 M, Sofia is awash with Ottoman mosques, Byzantine churches, Roman ruins and cobbled roads. Its unmistakable graffities punctuate the city’s landscape transforming crumbling walls, tall buildings and quiet neighbourhoods into visual splendour. The greenery is unmissable.
As the bus rolls past the huge baroque building that is Sofia University, our guide Rossen reminds us about the statues of two brothers who sit at the entrance – Evlogi and Hristo Georgiev, the wealthiest merchants in Bulgaria during the 19th century, doled out money to build the first university in the country.
To know you are going to stay in Sofia in a hotel named Budapest seemed funny and surreal. No, this was not Wes Anderson’s luxurious The Grand Budapest Hotel set in fictional Zubrowka, but a real one close to the heart of Sofia, not far away from Serbian border where the Hungarian border police keeps a panoptic watch on the refugees who pour in from several countries. A few uniformed men from the Hungary Border Police checked in at the same time as we did.
The currency exchange kiosk opposite Budapest Hotel wore remnants of a Communist past. It was cold, pale and filled with smoke. The tellers were in no hurry to dish out Leva (Bulgaria’s currency) and basked in the late afternoon sun. Out in the street, the Soviet-era buildings didn’t bear any architectural congruence to the Byzantine or Roman past. It was sheer concrete without any aesthetic sensibility. The roads are wide and desolate.
A blooming forest of yellow and pink tulips around the city’s gardens was a lovely reminder that Spring was still in the air. And so was the snow, up there. The last sheets were spread out thin on the Vitosha mountain, clearly visible from Sofia. The Vitosha boulevard was festooned with eateries, coffee and souvenir shops. Tourists and locals sauntered along. The boulevard was wrapped in fuchsia-pink from the evening sun’s gaze. The benches sat there as solace for the tired visitors. Musicians entertained, the vagrants drank wine.
The trams danced around the cobbled streets of Sofia -orange and green. One way to go around the city . The Bulgarian tram service began in 1901 and still runs efficiently connecting the arteries of Sofia, making the capital city of this East-European nation boast of a well-oiled public transport system. The green trams have been donated partially by the Swiss city of Basel more recently. Then you have the Sofia Metro, where two lines service the city ever since 1998. A lot for a city like Sofia whose population is 1.26 million. The trams dictate the leisurely pace in Sofia.
But Sofia is best seen by foot. You enjoy the beauty of its magnificent architecture, the scent of the famous Bulgarian roses, the stillness of its by-lanes and the tenderly breeze of the mulberry trees.
One of our walks took us to the Sofia City Garden. Where young and old swarm around the fountain listening and gently jiving to a band of old men quartet playing anything from Frank Sinatra to Shankar-Jaikishan songs from Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420. The Bulgarian affection to Bollywood music is perhaps a residue of the former Soviet Union’s affair with Indian cinema, notably with Raj Kapoor and his movies, Awaara and Shree 420 which was then a roaring success in USSR.
A legion of churches dot the city’s landscape but the jewel in Sofia’s architectural crown is Boyana, a medieval Bulgarian orthodox church built in the late 10th century and tucked inside a beautiful park in the midst of towering Sequoias in the Boyana quarter of the city. Famous for its frescoes and paintings depicting the life of St. Nicholas, Boyana is perhaps one of the most well preserved treasures of medieval art in the Balkans.
Bulgaria has other crowning glories as well. Nestled in the Sredna Gora mountains lies the historic town of Koprivshtitsa. It is from here, this peaceful, tiled-roof town where Todor Kableshkov launched an uprising against the Turks, that sparked Bulgaria’s revolution against the Ottoman empire in 1876. Koprivshtitsa, even now hasn’t lost any of its nineteenth century quaintness with its cobblestone roads, ornate mansions and colourful frescoes.
It’s a weekend and the town is getting ready for a fair. The local shops sell anything from fridge-magnets to stuffed mountain foxes playing the Bulgarian bagpipe. The food is delectable. As we try to wrap our heads around the menu, Rossen jumps in to help us place the order. We get influenced by what we see on other tables- salads and cheese, freshly made bread, soup and meat cooked in herbs accompanied by assorted chillies in brine and olive oil. Not to miss the locals and tourists sipping whites and chardonnay on a glorious afternoon. Bulgaria is wine country if you didn’t know. Rossen rattled off a short history of wines and the favourites. The weather and soil from the Balkan range in northwest, to the Black Sea coast in the east makes it favourable for great wine country.
Somewhere between Sofia and the Black Sea coast lies Plovdiv, the second largest city and a modern-day panorama of history. Plovdiv’s deep propensity for art, culture and design is visible in the old town. It has the largest ruins of a Roman arena outside of Italy. The old quarter, leading up to the hill, from where you have a commanding view of the city, is a living inspiration of art and design with cobblestone roads, narrow lanes and erstwhile royal mansions converted to home-stays and places of visit. The old town of Plovdiv is a veritable address for music and design schools, arts and yoga studios. They hobnob with elderly women who sell paintings and sketches of the old town.
Back in capital, my colleagues and I steal the first few hours after dawn to climb up Vitosha, at about 2200 M before we head for the airport. It was cold, silent and beautiful. Just as beautiful as Sofia.