“Bulgaria has many secrets, many layers. To understand Bulgaria, you must live here a long time, be intimate with people, live like a Bulgarian, and speak our language. Even then I don’t know how close you can be to real truth. All you see is what is left of us.”
– Annie Ward, The Making of June.
This summer, I finally read Rana Dasgupta’s acclaimed novel, Solo, which is set in Sofia and recounts the life of a 100-year-old Bulgarian man. I barely had any knowledge about Bulgarian history prior to that moment and, as I read more, my fascination with the Bulgarian capital grew and I knew I had to visit. The novel vividly characterises the various historical events and upheavals that the city has faced, and reading it added depth to my own journey through Sofia. And by some delightful coincidence, starting in September, RyanAir happened to offer round-trip tickets from Cologne to Sofia for a measly €20!
A (very) Brief History: In 1908, Bulgaria declared independence after nearly five hundred years of Ottoman rule. During the first World War, the Kingdom of Bulgaria aligned with the German Empire and the rest of the Central Powers for territorial reasons. The interwar period in Bulgaria witnessed constant struggles between the authoritarian regime, the military, revolutionary national liberation movements and the Communists.
Later, under the rule of Tsar Boris III, the country remained neutral at the onset of World War II but eventually allied with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Pro-Russian sentiment within Bulgarian society remained strong, and thus when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, it led to the rise of an armed internal resistance movement within Bulgaria that opposed the Axis powers. In 1944, Bulgaria switched sides and aligned with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. The end of the war saw the Soviet invasion of German-occupied Bulgaria, leading to a Communist regime that eventually lasted from 1946 until 1990. Sofia remained the capital of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. During this period, the country underwent rapid industrialisation; dissent was often brutally suppressed and information was censored.
Built during the 1950s, the Largo in the city centre of Sofia is a complex of three edifices considered to be a prime architectural example of Socialist Classicism (or Stalinist architecture). Although the communist symbols have been dismantled since then, it continues to serve as a reminder of a different time.
The Statue of Saint Sofia, erected in 2000, stands tall in the centre of the city, replacing the Lenin statue that once occupied the same spot. Sofia is also rich in mineral springs, and locals flock to these fountains/taps to partake of some pure water from the earth at no cost. I found this to be a rather charming spot, and it is particularly soothing to have hot water to drink on a cold autumn night.
Ulrich has sometimes wondered whether his life has been a failure. Once he would have looked at all this and said yes. But now he does not know what it means for a life to succeed or fail. How can a dog fail its life, or a tree? A life is just a quantity; and he can no more see failure in it than he can see failure in a pile of earth, or a bucket of water. Failure and success are foreign terms to such blind matter.” – Rana Dasgupta, Solo
The Vitosha Mountain forms a spectacular backdrop to the city. While Bulgaria continues to occupy one of the lowest spots in a number of categories (monthly wage, freedom of press, corruption etc.) in comparison with other EU countries, it has nevertheless undergone a transformation from its predominantly agrarian past. The University of Sofia was founded in 1888. Sofia is home to the largest museum collections in Bulgaria, and performing arts, particularly theatre, and cinema are popular pastimes. I, for one, loved that English movies are usually screened in the original language; that’s hard to come across here in Germany!
Bulgarian cuisine is too diverse for me to have sampled it all in a few days, but it does share a number of dishes with other cuisines, namely Greek, Russian, Middle Eastern and Italian. At this point I must admit that although I love exploring new things, when it comes to food I’m a creature of habit and usually stick with what I know and love. Something to work on, I suppose!
Anyway, during my first night in the city, I chanced upon what appeared to be an authentic little Israeli restaurant and feasted on one of my favourite dishes, some good ol’ shakshuka. But really, how can something made out of simple tomatoes and eggs taste so good?
“So long time has passed since those days, and since that story, which is still vivid in my memory, and even more vivid than all the rest. Some times I stay alone in my work-room here, in my father’s old mansion in Pasadena, and I look through the old, yellow pages again and again. Then I go back to the north part which is furnished in my style, with many colored Bulgarian carpets and blankets (special kind of Bulgarian blankets with long fur), I make my coffee in a cooper coffee-pot, which has been brought from there, and my thoughts wonder to those absurd memories of mine…Very often some friends ask me – what is that unusual memories of yours? I can’t explain to them, better say I don’t want to, and I always avoid the answer by saying – a la Bulgaro – in a Bulgarian way…’Oh, yes, yes’…”
– Aleksandar Tomov, A la Bulgaro
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals, a recognisable symbol of Sofia and a major tourist attraction. Completed in the year 1912, it is said to have been created to honour the many lives that were lost during the struggle for independence against the Ottoman Empire.
During the Holocaust, there was public uproar and widespread protests in the Kingdom of Bulgaria against the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. Ultimately, Tsar Boris III refused to comply with German requests for deportation and not a single Jew from within Bulgaria was deported or killed by the Nazis.
Sofia charmed me. It’s no Berlin or Paris or Rome, but I definitely believe that this Balkan city is worth a visit.
The one downside? The airport. It’s not the welcome you’d hope for!