And this is only the beginning
01.06.2017 - 01.06.2017 28 °C
Day 8 Wednesday June 1 2017
Sofia, Bulgaria - Rest Day / 0 km
- We actually need 2 days to work out how to use the various features of our hotel room.
There are design flaws: the lighting system is only operable from one side of the bed - SG has to stay in the dark, whatever she wants to do ( light controls are AG's side ). In the bathroom, towels must remain scattered on the floor because there are insufficient hooks. Towel rail? How old fashioned.
- Breakfast has a roof top view. The chefs are keen to introduce us to local Bulgarian food.
- Yes, you've guessed - it's hot & sunny.
- Today is titled 'Rest Day' but of course it isn't. Rest Days are usually packed with activity, but importantly for AG there is no driving.
- June 1st is Children's Day - the younger generation are having a day's holiday and so must the people who look after them. It's party in the park time. Apparently museums & art galleries offered reduce prices today - for everyone.
- We head to the Court of justice to meet up with the guide of Free Walk Sofia @ 11 a.m. We arrive around 10.45 and already there is quite a crowd. In fact at this time of year there are 3 guides available. The first large group leaves around 10.50. To avoid the disadvantages of large numbers we hang back for a later departure. Don't bother. There are numerous latecomers and all groups are of a similar size.
- Our guide Stanislav is an actor by trade, so he is currently either impoverished or out of work or both. But it means he can tell interesting stories. And this is the beauty of the 2hr free city walks - you are introduced to the basics and then given the options to explore deeper. Our group is predominantly young and mixed nationalities. It's an interesting collection of people.
- We learn many seemingly unconnected facts that help build the picture of Sofia today. We see several old & historically significant churches, some of which were converted into mosques when Bulgaria was assimilated into the Ottoman Empire (14-19C ). Bulgaria was finally freed from Ottoman control in the aftermath of the Russian / Turkish war which forced the re-drawing of the Balkan map.
- Sofia is blessed with the source of about 40 different mineral waters. Sadly although the Romans & Bulgarians used to love to bathe in them, no public bath houses remain functional in the city. Our tour does take us to the Old Mineral Bath House but it has recently been converted into a History Museum & no bathing facilities remain.
- After World War 2 Bulgaria became a Communist state for nearly 45 years, closely allied with the Soviet Union during the Cold War period. In the centre of Sofia there is much architectural evidence of Communist Neo Classical style which is surprisingly grand and attractive. Lenin's statue has long since been removed and been replaced with one of the legendary Saint of Sofia.
- In amidst these massive Communist era buildings, surrounded, some might say hidden, stands the diminutive St George Rotunda Church. Built in early 4 Century it is the oldest place of Christian worship in Sophia. A daily service is still held according to the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is worth looking inside too to appreciate the interior of the roof - the paintings you see are original from the 6 th Century.
- Our guide explains that Sofia lacks an 'old part' in the same way as in Zagreb or Belgrade for example. The city has been built in layers - on top of each other rather than outwards from an older core. This is why so many ruins of previous eras have been excavated in relatively recent times as new infrastructure is being built. See for example the ruins of Roman Baths in front of the Banya Bashi Mosque which was itself built in 1576.
- There were once 70 mosques in Sofia but today the Banya Bashi Mosque is the only one still in use. About 12% of Bulgarians are Muslims but they mostly live in SE Bulgaria nearer to Turkey. This city mosque was designed by one of the greatest Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan, who also built the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The similarities, albeit on a smaller scale are obvious to even the tourist's eye.
- As we walk towards the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral we pass through a park area adjacent to the National Theatre. It is crowded with children enjoying their special holiday. The trees are heavy with blossom of one sort or another. SG recognises the fluffy yellow mimosa flowers . Ahhh, this explains the surprisingly beautiful aromatic smells in the evenings in both Belgrade & Sofia. It has been a mystery until now. During the day there is no fragrance.
- Also under a certain type of tree are lots of red & white cords hanging from branches. Stanislav explains that the cords & ribbons are called martenitsi which symbolise health & happiness. The tradition on Baba Marta Day, March 1st, is to exchange with your nearest and dearest a martenitsi. You must keep your collection until you either see the first Stork of the season or the first plum tree in blossom. You should then tie a martenitsi onto a plum tree.
- The plum tree is also known as the Rakhia tree, from that lethal Balkan brew that is fermented from plums.
- En route to the cathedral which dominates the skyline in downtown Sofia, we pass by the small Russian Orthodox Church of St Nikolas, built in honour of the Russian Expulsion of the Ottomans in 1878. The multiple tiny golden domes, exterior mosaic decoration and the double bar cross are all - well, Russian in design.
- Pretty much opposite the cathedral is the much older, smaller & humbler St Sophia Basilica with its famous underground museum. Down there are remains of tombs & earlier churches built on this same site, one on top of the other. The first church was built in 4 th century after the Edict of Tolerance was issued by Emperor Constantine. Thereafter religion was tolerated within and by the Roman Empire. There followed a massive scale of conversion to Christianity in the region. When the Ottomans arrived in Sofia they first used the Basilica as a warehouse before later changing it into a mosque.
- The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is worth seeing by day & by night when it is beautifully illuminated. It was built between 1904-16 and is said to represent Bulgarian & Byzantinian architectural influences. It was formerly the largest cathedral in the Balkans, until the Serbians went and spoilt things by building an even bigger one in Belgrade.
- It will be obvious that our visits to churches & other places of worship have started here in Sofia.
And since we are heading to the cradles of Christianity, Armenia & Georgia, we will no doubt have many more on our agenda.
- After a bite to eat at Moma's just off the main shopping street, Vitosha Boulevard we head back to our hotel for a couple hours of catch up with life and stuff back in the UK. And another swim for SG before an early supper up in the Roof Bar of Sense Hotel.
- Tomorrow we are on the road again with sightseeing en route and at our end destination - so a busy day ahead.