Our next stop in Eastern Europe led us into Bulgaria’s capital city of Sofia. Old meets new in this city of 1.3 million. With over 2,000 years of history including Greek, Roman, Ottoman, and Soviet occupation, Sofia is rich with exactly what we desired, ruins and history to discover around every corner.
Arriving in Sofia
This time a flight on Air Serbia from Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla airport to Sofia’s Vrazhdebna airport was the cheapest option. In a city this large, taxi to our next Airbnb made sense. Our accommodations were located across the street from a very large park that included a quaint church. The curb appeal of the building was lacking, but the inside was completely modern with remote control shades, the newest appliances, and comfortable furniture.
Free Sofia Tour
A non-profit organization called Free Sofia Tour offers English speaking tours of the city twice daily. The tour is a great introduction to Sofia, its culture and history. It is a fun and easy way to get your bearings in such a large city. Tour guides are all local volunteers who have lived in the city for most of their lives, and can tell you things about Sofia that you won’t find in any travel books.
At the beginning of each tour a poll is conducted on where each person is from. We quickly found out that we were the only Americans. Other countries that filled our group were Italy, Germany, Turkey and Mexico. The tour was a two hour walking tour that highlighted the cities best points of interest, giving you the opportunity to revisit any of the sites at a later time.
Sofia Bulgaria was ruled by communism for 45 years from 1944 – 1989. If you want to know what that era looked like in Sofia, Bulgaria we suggest attending the Communism Tour offered by the same Free Sofia Tour organization.
St. Sofia Statue
Located in the commercial heart of the city the Sofia statue was erected to replace Lenin’s monument in 2001 as a symbol of democratic changes. The statue did receive criticism as some felt its representation of Saint Sofia was too erotic and pagan. The statue designed by Georgi Chapkanov is made of copper and bronze. It stands on a 16 meter high pedestal and is 8 meters high.
The Meeting of Faiths
In one area on our tour we come to a corner where four major faiths are represented. Saint Joseph Catholic Cathedral, Orthodox church of St. Petka of Saddlers, Banya Bashi Mosque, and the Sofia Synagogue all reside peacefully located less than one block away from each other. Their motto for this peaceful neighborhood is simple – if you must live within a stones throw of each other, don’t throw stones.
Mineral Water Springs
Located next to the Central Bath people can drink the mineral water free of charge. The city of Sofia has 42 mineral springs with 8 different hydro-thermal zones that allow water to flow at 480 liters per second. The mineral springs are deep underground, are clean, and can not be polluted.
Older generations of Bulgarian’s say the mineral water with a temperature of 30 to 90 degrees Celsius brings healing properties for washing, soaking and drinking. We were allowed to try the water for ourselves.
Amid excavations to expand the local subway system, Roman ruins of Serdica have been uncovered. The subway has been partially converted into a public archeological dig, slash museum telling the story of the history of Roman Serdica.
During the reign of Emperor Constantine (306-337) who granted Christianity a lawful religion in Roman society by signing the Edict of Milan, Serdica was considered a possible alternative capital for the empire. (Constantine’s Edict was a confirmation of a previous Edict of Toleration issued by Emperor Galerius in 311 A.D.)
Basilica of St. Sofia
The Basilica of St. Sofia was built at the end of the 5th century within the boundaries of the Eastern necropolis of Serdica over the foundations of three earlier churches which appeared with the adoption of Christianity in the Roman empire. It was named after God’s Wisdom, and later on in the 14th century A.D. gave the name to the capital city, Sofia.
Beneath the church exists another recently uncovered treasure! The remains of Serdica’s necropolis, ancient buildings, tombs, fresco’s, and mosaic’s can all be found in the excavations taking place under the facade.
Just two hours from Sofia tucked away in the Rila Mountains one can find another UNESCO world treasure, the Rila Monestary. We joined a small group tour with Traventuria that picked us up in front of Sofia’s large Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Surrounded by a beautiful forest located in a central valley of the Rila mountains, the monastery is a UNESCO world heritage site and was founded in 927 A.D. by hermit monk Ivan Rilski. The monastery was vital to the preservation of Bulgarian culture under the Ottoman rule, and turned into a museum during the communist regime.
The site is both extremely beautiful and peaceful. Our guide explained the importance of the frescos covering the exterior of the church representing stories from the bible. The frescos are absolutely stunning! The interior is richly decorated with the traditional Orthodox style.
We climbed the Tower of Hrelja to gain a view of the whole complex.
After exploring the Monastery, our small group was treated to a delicious meal at a nearby village for lunch. The local-caught grilled trout could not have been better! Our trip was perfect thanks to the folks at Traventuria.
In a city founded thousands of years ago, Sofia had a lot more to offer us than we bargained for. There is much more to explore than we had time to cover. We were not even able to visit Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s beautiful “second city.” In 2019 it will be the European Capital of Culture. This stunning city is the oldest inhabited town in all of Europe, pre-dating even Rome and Athens. People have been in Plovdiv since 4,000 B.C.
We hope you consider making Bulgaria a stop on your trip to Eastern Europe!