Tuesday, August 18, 2015


It came time for me to take some vacation days. As an American, this isn't something I'm particularly used to. The way Europeans all take, what seems like, the whole summer off is confusing and frustrating. I'm getting a little more used to it though.
At first I wasn't sure where to go. I just wanted to get out of town. So if booked a long weekend to Budapest. I like it there and I decided I would go to the Formula One race they have every year. Easy. Then I was talking to some Bulgarian friends and trying to get them to come with me.
"Come to Budapest," I said. "It will be fun," I said. They said no and told me I should instead go with them to Bulgaria when they traveled home to see family. So I said okay.
And that my friends is how spontaneity works. Kind of, I booked most of my journey about a month in advance, so I'm not sure how spontaneous it really all was.
So, my two biggest discoveries on the trip were that Sofia is extremely old. It's older than Rome old, not really. This is not something I knew. We don't study a lot of Thracian history in high school in the States. I'll touch a lot more on that later. The other thing that surprised me was how the "Eastern Europe" stereotype was insanely accurate in some ways and totally wrong in others. I wasn't prepared for some stuff and other things were more civilized than Prague (the Czechs will tell you they live in "Central Europe").
For me one of the most important things when I'm traveling is to have some sort of map that doesn't rely on mobile data to get you around. There used to be these things made from dead trees, but they aren't super durable and instantly make you look like a tourist. You might be able to pull off staring at your smartphone and kind of look like you know what you're doing. I also don't like to advertise for anything, but if you go to Bulgaria get Triposo's free app. It had maps for Sofia, Burgas and Sozopol all in the same place.
Another disclaimer, I have about a billion more photos than I can use here so you may see another Sofia post. There will already be one post for Sofia and one for the Black Sea.
Let me begin with an example of how old and new intersect in Sofia and then see where my stream of conscience flows.

This is the Church of St Petka of the Saddlers a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church. It is basically in a subway station that is about ten years old and isn't quite complete yet. Stay tuned for more. That super, ultra commie looking building there in the back is the Largo  built in the 1950s. Evidently, it is one of the best examples of Socialist Classicism architecture in Europe. You will get no argument from me on that fact. It's also where the president's office is. Behind the church on the left is a shopping mall. A big, empty shopping mall with a tremendous amount of vacant spaces.

Here is St. Petka from another angle, and more HDR goodness. What you can see stretching all the way to the Banya Bashi Mosque is the excavation of the ruins of Serdica. Serdica was basically the first city in the area. It happens to be in the center of Sofia, so I'm going to go out on my own and say it's ancient Sofia. Constantine the Great was from Serdica.
The excavation is huge and ruined my romantic, movie-generated idea about what an archeological dig is supposed to look like and be. Sadly, there were no super-hot, scantily-clad female graduate students running around. Neither were there grid lines, or anything resembling careful excavation. I expected to at least see people with brushes and dental tools diligently working to unearth the thousands of years old city. Nope, it was regular construction workers with wheel barrows, picks and shovels digging away all knowing the nearby motorized earth-moving equipment would make things much easier, not a single fedora in sight.

So, there you have it. Fat, sweaty construction workers doing double duty as archeologists. This is actually impressive. You can see the city and metal pipes, or perhaps clay they didn't really let me get a close-up look. This city was built thousands of years before Christ was born. Some estimate that Serdica, or parts, is 7,000 years old. 
This also happens to be a metro station. There is a church on display in the metro station, or the ruins of one anyway. The church is from around the 4th century A.D. so there is a lot of history stacked on top of itself.
 Because the Serdicans enjoyed a bit of sport there was a colosseum just outside Serdica, it was nearly as big as The Colosseum in Rome. Someone built a hotel on it, and a few embassies as well as a few other things. Hey, progress what are you going to do?

Fortunately, the hotel opens its doors to tourists most days, except Monday, so that people can see the preserved ruins of the Serdica Colosseum. It's not particularly impressive, but it is pretty cool nevertheless. 
If you want a better view of the Lasko, I have included one here. The architecture isn't my favorite but I suppose it is important. If you look at the flag pole it looks like someone was trying  hard to build something cool and then said, "screw it" and stuck a flag pole on it. I'm told that is because there used to be a big commie star there and the best solution was to just plant a flag in the pole and call it a day.

The color of the road here, and in much of the city center, is important too. The bricks are yellow. I read somewhere that they were specially made and that no one really knows the formula to make the exact color again. You can read a little about it here but it looks like the bricks are now a national heritage. So, yes, to Bulgarians they are kind of important. I think to most people they are just bricks.

Not far from the Lasko, across the street actually, are some important government offices. I believe it's parliament, but I'll have to ask a Bulgarian to be sure. There was a small card table set up across the street from this building with a person sitting there in protest with what I assume was some sort of petition.

There is a changing of the guard here once an hour I think. I walked by while it was happening once and decided it wasn't really worth my time to go back and see it again. Either way, guarding this building must be intolerably difficult judging by the expression on the face of the guard on the left. This building has a courtyard inside it, as most buildings in Europe do.

Inside the courtyard is the Church of St. George. Built by the Romans some time in the 4th Century it is the oldest building in Sofia. In front of it, or more accurately, behind it you can see more ruins from the city of Serdica. Read the wiki, it's interesting. People still go to church here and they were holding vigil inside when I went in. No photos, like every church in the country so far. 

If you're walking from the Church of St. George to the Nevsky Cathedral you will see the "Russian Church" in the photo above. It has a real name too, you can read the wiki for that. It's a pretty church and minuscule inside. It is full of beautifully hand-crafted woodwork though and that alone is worth the trip inside. From what I read, the Russian Church was built at the same time as the Nevsky Cathedral. 

Above is the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church. There is a fruit market in front of it and it ties the neighborhood together quite well. This church is where I realized that the Bulgarians not only made the church the center of their lives in a spiritual capacity, but in a physical one too. Almost every neighborhood has a church, some of them a few hundred meters from one another. Churches have small markets outside and playgrounds and parks. They are places to worship, yes but they are also places for people to meet and rest and feel safe. Most churches also had some sort of drinking fountain out front too. It really made me feel that the Bulgarian Orthodox church made an effort to be a stable element of community life. It was a refreshing thought. There was some sort of service going on when I took this photo, as you can see from the priest blessing people in front, so I didn't venture inside.
You can't mention churches in Sofia without bringing up the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. I think the Sofians are really proud of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Some of them might also be tired of it. My friends for example. We met one night for beers and one of them asked me, "did you go to the cathedral? I've been to that thing like 100 times." She was happy that she didn't have to show me that particular landmark.
It is a monumentally impressive structure, literally it is a monument. Of course it looks like every other Bulgarian Orthodox church, but there are differences. I think the Bulgarian Orthodox Church saved a lot of money on architectural costs by using tracing paper after they designed a church they really liked. 

I have a similar photo I took from the other side on a different day. It basically looks like a mirror image. If you want to see it, comment. The inside of the church is dark and the whole inside is painted. It looks dingy to be sure. 
This was the first Bulgarian Orthodox church I had ever been in, not the last mind you because they are everywhere. I was shocked to notice that there are no chairs, or very few. This cathedral has capacity for over 5000 people. I can't imagine standing in this place for a one-hour mass with 5000 of my closest friends. 

Theses are photos from the inside, which I don't think you're supposed to take. It is intimidating with its emptiness and size, but it isn't a warm or inviting place. I imagine the church is protective of the icons inside. There is a relic in this church and it might be from Alexander Nevsky, the guy the church was built for. The acoustics are amazing for speaking and holding mass, but horrible for trying to sneak photos with a super-loud DSLR with a mirror that sounds like a firecracker every time it goes off in a quiet place. There is a crypt turned museum under the cathedral and you are allowed to take photos in there. 

Stepping away from the churches for a moment, and staying with the history theme. The city was founded because there were hot springs there. I'm not sure why, but ancient people all wanted to stick a city on top of hot springs. 

These are the Sofia baths. They used the water from the hot springs. They are closed now and the building has been turned into a museum. Allow me to show you what is currently in the museum.

What is that you say? You can't see it so well?

So, yes the place is basically empty. I'm not being fair though. There is a horribly inadequate exhibit about architecture upstairs above the hall where this car is parked. I would have loved to get closer to the car, but the glass door to the exhibit hall was locked. I image this place will make an amazing museum once there are actual museum pieces in it. It is an enchanting building and it still smells a little like a bath. 

Very near the building for the baths are the public fountains for the springs. There are public fountains outside the baths too. These are across the street and they were almost crowded. 
The water that comes out is mildly hot and I drank some and didn't feel any ill effects. Some people brought large jugs to fill so they could take the water home. It's similar to what people do in Karlovy Vary. The difference is that in Karlovy Vary it is recommended that you drink the water hot. I didn't see any such recommendation here. 

The dog on the right in the above photo is a stray. Sofia has a feral animal problem. There are stray cats and dogs everywhere. No one really seems to care about it and I saw some people feeding stray dogs like pigeons in the park, it was kind of strange. Mostly the stray dogs are just lying around not bothering anyone. If you haven't seen a stray cat before please tell me where you live in the comments and if there are job and housing openings there. 
The cat problem isn't as bad as Greece, nothing in Bulgaria is as bad as in Greece fortunately, but it is still a problem. 

As you can see outside one of the central food markets stray dogs just hang out and lie around. There also happens to be a feral people problem in Bulgaria too. Trust me the further east you go in the country the worse this becomes. I realize that it may not be fair to say horrible things about Gypsies and I don't think that I have, but then you see something like this and it is difficult to not take note of it.

What you see there is a Roma (Gypsy) family dumpster diving with a home-made horse cart, and an uncooperative horse, literally a few dozen meters from the busiest and most high-brow shopping pedestrian street in the center of Sofia. It's almost like if you saw this on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. 

All over Sofia there are parks. People like to visit them and relax. It makes a lot of sense. Prague is very similar in this respect. I think it has something to do with the fact that everyone lives in apartments and nobody has a yard to chill in. If you don't have a yard you might as well head to the local park. I have three parks a stone's throw from where I live, I don't chill in them as much as I should.
One of my favorite parks in Sofia is the one in front of the National Theater.

This is the National Theater. The huge fountain helping keep things cool and there are many trees around the park. It is a meeting place for a group of old men who were always in the same spot and arguing about things. They may not have been arguing, but when you don't understand a language so well it often sounds like people are arguing. 
It's not just a place for retired guys to meet, drink beer and discuss (argue) politics or whatever it is they talk about. It is also a place of people to meet and play chess, I assume for money. There are parks in San Francisco where this happens.

This guy is a few feet away from the usual chess spot. Maybe he is the bargain teacher, or maybe he is really just in it to enjoy some games. It doesn't matter to me, anyone who brings pillows in addition to his chess set is committed. Next to him is a public drinking fountain.
On the other side of the fountain is where the serious chess action happens. I saw a few pretty big crowds around some of the games and there were at least four games going on every time I was there. I had a "one that got away" photo moment in this park with a guy who brought a chess set, table and chairs and set it up next to the fountain. As one of my photo professors always used to tell me, "show me, don't tell me." So I will shut up about that now.

There is also the park near the National Palace of Culture. Everything is a "palace" in Sofia, if it's a government building that is. In that park several interesting things were going on. It is a busy park and it is under construction which makes it even more crowded since 50% of it is fenced off. 

In the park by the palace is this dilapidated sculpture in it. My friend told me it is controversial. Some people want to restore it, others want to tear it down. I just took a picture of it. 
In this park, and others, people rent electric cars for kids. At first I thought all these parents were schlepping heavy, battery-operated toy cars to the park for their kids to play with. Then I saw that there were guys renting them. Its one of the funniest things I've ever seen and one of the coolest at the same time. There isn't any way a kid at the park would not be completely intolerable until his parents bought him some time in an electric Big Foot truck.

Finally, because I have run out of words to accompany the photos I've placed here, I will show this photo of the monument to the Russian soldiers who liberated Sofia. This isn't the whole monument. It is, like a lot of places in Sofia, a huge park. It is also a skate park. I actually love seeing gigantic communist monuments turned into skate parks. It is how you truly know capitalism won.

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