Back in Europe! We have been traveling around Asia for about the last six months and have really enjoyed it. But yesterday we arrived from Dubai and we are starting our journey across the continent. We haven’t been in Europe since 2017, and we are looking forward to seeing some different sights. Ironically, both of us sunburned a little today because it was too hot to go outside in Dubai, and so we haven’t gotten any sun for a while.
We spent our first day in Europe walking around Sofia for 7 hours, the beautiful capital city of Bulgaria. As we walked, we were most impressed by the number of parks, fountains, and statues, several of which are included in this entry. It is also a city of flowers, flowers everywhere we looked, which we adored. Quite lovely!
Sofia has been inhabited since at least 7000 BC. The city is located in the center of the Balkans, roughly midway between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea, while being closest to the Aegean Sea to the south. The recorded history of the city is sad, as it is one of many invasions and conquests. Beginning in 29 BC and through the end of WW II, it was conquered by the Roman Republic, the Huns, the Visigoths, the Avars and Slavs, the Byzantines, the Pechenegs, the Magyars and Serbs, the Crusaders, the Ottomans, and the Soviet Union. Today it is one of the 10 best places for start-up businesses in the world, particularly in information technologies.
So we begin with statues…first up, the ferocious-looking Tsar Samuil, one of the great Bulgarian rulers. His eyes are made of a special material so that they shine in the dark, but we were here in the afternoon, so we missed that. Next up is Stefan Stambolov, also looking quite stern. He was Prime Minister from 1887 to 1894, and was known as the Bulgarian Bismarck. In 1895, he died when four assassins attacked him, shooting at him and stabbing him. Because he wore a protective vest, they stabbed at his head and fractured his skull….thus, the statue’s slashed cheek and head fracture on the left side! After that are various statues that we liked, followed by the fountains leading up to the National Palace of Culture. After walking by the fountains, we saw what looked like a tiny, cute chapel. It is the Temple of Bulgarian Martyrs, and the photo after that shows a peek at the very small interior.
The beautiful Russian Orthodox Church that you see next is known as the Russian Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker, built in 1914. It was built as what was known as a diplomatic church, adjacent to the Russian Embassy at the time. As was the custom then, it was named after the ruling tsar, Nicholas II. The two photos following those of the exterior were taken inside. It was small but beautifully decorated with icons.
Next up is the most famous attraction in Sofia, St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It was primarily built between 1904 and 1912, and until the year 2000 was the world’s largest finished Orthodox Cathedral, being the Cathedral church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria. The three photos are of the outside and inside. The interior is decorated with Italian marble in various colors, Brazilian onyx, alabaster, and gold. You can see the beautifully painted dome and walls of the interior, along with some very impressive chandeliers.
The next two photos are of the origin of the city’s name…the Basilica of St. Sophia. It looks very plain, just a brick building, right? But its history is astounding. It was erected amidst the ancient necropolis of the city, above 50 burial structures dating from the 3-5th centuries AD. The earliest temple was constructed in 311 AD, with mosaic tile work depicting the Garden of Eden and other biblical motifs. For several centuries, more temples were constructed over the original one, and the present basilica is the product of the fifth building period, in the 6th century AD. During the Ottoman occupation, the building was transformed into a mosque, but since 1930 it has been an Orthodox Cathedral, its original function.
After that are photos of a beautiful building we liked, a manhole decorated with colorful lions, and the main pedestrian street, Vitosha Street. After all of that, we took a food tour, but this one was unique…a FREE food tour! Called Balkan Bites, we walked and ate for two hours. We thought we might just get small samples of food, but the portions were generous at the 5-6 stops we made, and it was equal to food tours we have taken around the world costing, usually, $40 to $80 or so per person. We learned a lot about the city and its history, as well as a lot about Sofia’s foods….always, it is yogurt and cheese, first! We had fabulous yogurt/dill/cucumber soup, cheese nibbles, Bulgarian wine, local donuts, and more. The last five photos are from the food tour, including one of the cheese dishes on small rounds of bread that were so tasty! We end with a short video of some participants learning a Bulgarian dance! We must say….in just two hours, we felt very comfortable with all 11 of the very nicest people we met on the tour. They were from Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands, Italy, and Israel, and couldn’t have been kinder about offering to show their countries and culture if we ever visit. Hospitality lives!