There’s this country on our globe that is kind of special for Russian-speaking people, because they use the same alphabet but pretty different words. Which usually results in something either incomprehensible or hilarious.
That country is called Bulgaria, and I recently happened to visit its capital Sofia, and also to spend a day in the nearby Plovdiv.
If you don’t feel like reading this pretty lengthy article, here’s a short video compilation featuring the highlights of our trip:
It was extremely crowded at the Schiphol Airport because of school holidays in Holland. That’s because every kid under eighteen is obliged to go to school here outside of holiday periods, otherwise their parents risk a hefty fine. Therefore all families with kids rush to escape the country during the first days of holidays. And that heavily impacts Schiphol operations.
Some two hundred people would reportedly miss their flights because of long queues. We were fortunate though to not have any at Bulgaria Air check-in counter, unlike many other airlines. Yet there was a line of several hundred people before the security check.
Since Bulgaria is not part of the Schengen area, you also had to go through passport control. EU citizens could make use of a self-service facility, whereby a computer matches your face against your passport and the whole procedure takes mere seconds. All others had to queue up before the control counter, and that took them a half an hour.
We managed to turn up at the gate just for the boarding time, despite the fact we arrived at the airport two hours before the flight.
The airplane was a bit shabby and old. Apparently Bulgaria Air isn’t investing in its air fleet that much.
Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria and the largest Bulgarian city, has the population of some 1.4 millon people. A curious fact: Bulgarians pronounce the name of the city stressing the first syllable: Sofia.
Sofia airport is located nearby the city and is surrounded by vast green landscape, with slopes bearing mysterious inscriptions. I wonder if they are some sort of letters to aliens, or simply dilapidated design elements.
Once you step outside of the airport building, the view of the Vitosha mountain catches your eye. We’re not really used to this in Holland.
The transport connection between the airport and the city is great thanks to the direct subway line, which brings you to downtown Sofia in about half an hour. The tickets are very affordable: 1.60 leva (€0.80).
These trains look much like those you see in Russia, especially the inside. I found it a bit strange that both trains and platforms were as good as empty by that time of day—Monday afternoon.
A quick-and-dirty floor crack healing method:
The Bulgarian language is hilarious for a Russian because most of the words either don’t make any sense, or look like vandalised Russian. Feel free to skip this section if you can’t read Russian (or Bulgarian).
I loved the design of these waste bins, just look at them:
Алкохоландия (transliterated as ‘Alcoholandia’) reminded me of my home.
Just like Russians, they have some National Front that’s supposed to save the country from someone or something.
And last but not least, there’s the Great Vladaya River, Владайска река:
Bulgaria is a peculiar mix of old and new. On the one hand you see the influences by NATO and the European Union. On the other there’s a good deal of socialist past showing through the new developments, with related issues.
For instance, homeless people and stray dogs.
Sometimes you see Russian cars like these Nivas. What’s the difference between Полиция (Police) and Жандармерия (Gendarmerie) anyway?
This isn’t Soviet, but still socialist: a monument to Trabant:
Souvenir stores often sell tacky Soviet- or Russia-related T-shirts.
I asked the lady at the till in one of these stores about what Bulgarians think of Putin. Quite expectedly, there’s little appreciation of him here.
There’s also a lot of rose-related souvenirs, such as rose oil, soap, perfume etc.
In general Bulgarians come across as more polite and friendly than us Russians. They are ready to help once asked for, although not many of them speak English. The older generation does speak some Russian, but not the youth. And as for my understanding of Bulgarian, it’s almost incomprehensible to me if listened to, however reading it is much easier.
The inhabitants of the city are very proud of its history, which is believed to be 6-7 thousand years long. One of Sofia’s key historical features is that it has seen numerous rulers and regimes over those years. It was part of the Roman Empire at the break of the Common Era, entered the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century, became part of the Bulgarian Empire in the 9th, fell under Turks in the end of the 14th century, was liberated by Russians and became the capital of Bulgaria in 1878, fell under communist regime in 1946, which lasted until 1990, after which Bulgaria became a member of NATO in 2004 and of the European Union in 2007.
To commemorate the beginning of the new millennium the government has presented a statue of Saint Sofia to the city.
The Church wasn’t that enthusiastic about this statue though, considering her a bit frivolous outfit. But a gift is a gift, so the statue is still standing there, in the very centre of the city, although opinions about who that lady is differ.
Back in the Roman years the city was called Serdica. During the construction of the subway in the 20th century remnants of an antique settlement were uncovered in the city centre. The Bulgarians have thoroughly dug out and protected these remnants. Nowadays they are located a few metres below the street level, in an underground passage, and are open to anyone interested.
They are well worth looking at.
A large part of this underground complex has been restored, and it’s sometimes hard to tell what is original here. The bricks are modern I reckon.
This is a forty-metre long fragment of the central street called Cardo Maximus:
It reminds you of Rome as you wander through these ruins. There you also see broken pillars and porticos here and there, but on a larger scale of course.
The Nezavisimost avenue has got three huge convex windows that let the sunlight go through to the underground relics. This looks awesome.
From inside it looks like this:
Sofia has strikingly many Orthodox churches. I guess that helps to fill the municipal budget thanks to pilgrims.
St Nedelya Church
Right across the street from Saint Sofia you find the St Nedelya Church (Света Неделя).
This church is infamous for the assault of 1925 that claimed over 150 victims.
Church of St George
Another famous temple is the Church of St George built in the 4th century.
The building of the round shape is about 1600 years old, and I must say it looks pretty good for its age.
The ancient church is surrounded by modern buildings, amongst which the Bulgarian Presidency (more on which below).
And there’s a night club called Arbat (Арбат) right in front of it!
Church of St Petka
The tiny Church of St Petka built in 1241 is located in the immediate vicinity of Serdica, also below the street level.
Moreover, this building of highly peculiar masonry is partially dug into the ground. The temple was built during the Ottoman yoke, and under Ottoman laws a Christian church wasn’t allowed to be any higher than a Muslim on a horse.
It’s also a perfect example of municipal vandalism because of the ugly air conditioner hung right on its façade.
It’s only big enough for a dozen people.
There’s also a traditional church shop. Which offers, among other things, a “Manual on Immortality.”
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The relatively recent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built in 1908 as a sign of gratitude to Russian soldiers who liberated Bulgaria from Turks in 1878.
This is the biggest temple in Sofia, initially named after the Russian patron and later renamed several times in accordance with the evolution of the relationship with Russia.
There was a lunatic kneeling before the cathedral and yelling something in Bulgarian. Or maybe a religious zealot, which is pretty much the same.
You could freely enter numerous churches in Sofia, but in order to take photos a special ticket was needed. The rule was enforced by a sexton closely watching the crowd and politely offering to buy a permit. This temple has set the price at 10 leva (€5).
The central dome is 45 metres high.
But to be honest, a young building like this one is less impressive than the ancient ones for some reason.
Another example of the Bulgarian language:
I’m always curious about cast iron gates like this one. I wonder how they are designed and manufactured.
Banya Bashi Mosque
Banya Bashi Mosque was built in the 16th century, during the Ottoman yoke. It’s the only functioning mosque in Sofia at the moment, and one of the few that weren’t razed after the liberation.
Fountains, flowers, and lions
Bulgarians are very fond of fountains, which are ubiquitous. Any decent attraction has to be accompanied with one. The same goes for flowers; Holland is the world’s number one tulip exporter, but it seems the streets of Sofia have more of them than ours.
Ivan Vazov National Theatre
A naked girl was taking shower before the Ivan Vazov National Theatre:
These purple tulips are as ubiquitous as fountains:
Ivan Vazov is the country’s main theatre and is perfectly maintained:
I was quite impressed by the cleanliness of the city’s streets. That said, the pavements did reveal some structural problems, as bricks were sometimes missing, sticking out, or wobbly. But in principle for such a poor country as this the infrastructure is quite decent. Mind you, the government had to take a loan to buy these yellow bricks laid in the centre:
Sofians make jokes of the land of Oz in this regard. Which doesn’t diminish the fact the loan is still being repaid.
Museum of the History of Sofia
But let’s come back to our fountains. The city history museum is also in a perfect condition:
Notice the flowerbed with purple tulips. And, of course, a fountain:
Here’s the above mentioned residence of the President of Bulgaria, a quite modest one:
It’s being guarded by a couple of imperturbable guardians. Back in the day these chaps used to be the most desired fiances in the whole city, because they were required to be tall and slim, and were very well paid. However a girl that wished to marry one of them would face an administrative challenge: her candidature would have to be assessed by a special commission over a period of a half-year and subsequently a decision would have been taken whether or not she was an appropriate fit.
And there’s a fountain, too, before the residence. It has nice spinning water jets that twist the water spurts:
Apart from the fountain there stood a large crowd of reporters. As we were explained, people were protesting against something, so the reporters were waiting for them.
But at that specific moment there was no one on the square except the reporters.
National Palace of Culture
The highest concentration of fountains could be found in the park of the National Palace of Culture (NPC). But first an attraction, what do you think this is?
Whatever you think, you’re most likely wrong.
This is 1300 years of Bulgaria monument! This masterpiece has been unveiled in 1981 to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the Bulgarian state. Years later it turned so ugly that it’s been rated 3 out of 10 on the Darkometer scale.
And, naturally, the fountains—they stretch along the entire alley up to the National Palace of Culture.
And flowers, lots of them. No tulips though.
This all looks quite good in my opinion.
Those smaller fountains didn’t seem to be enough to Sofians, so they’ve decided to add another, larger one. In sunny weather you can see a rainbow on it:
The park also features another mysterious, unidentifiable monument. It looks like it’s made of letters. Or maybe not:
The fountains are lit in the dark:
This is Saint George slaying a
The accompanying fountain is a tiny one. Pigeons love to drink from it:
SS. Cyril and Methodius National Library
The most flower you can probably find before the SS. Cyril and Methodius National Library I think. This is magnificent:
Monument to the Unknown Soldier
Yet another artifact of the Soviet era (but not as scary) is the Monument to the Unknown Soldier:
An eternal flame is filling in for the fountain here:
It just wouldn’t be complete without purple tulips:
There’s also some antique site nearby, which I couldn’t find any description for. It’s sunk underground and is covered by an amazingly crafted glass dome. I think its design beats any Apple Store!
And this is what it protects:
This is made so beautifully and precisely that I really adored it!
And here’s another Bulgarian fetish: lions. Lions are all over the place here. Even the national currency is called “lion” (лев):
You can also find lions before the Palace of Justice. As well as numerous reporters:
Free Sofia Tour
Once the Palace of Justice is brought up, I must also mention the Free Sofia Tour. It’s a guided city tour in English that goes along the most famous historical landmarks of Sofia. The tour is held twice a day (three times a day between May and October).
We learned about it by a coincidence as we bumped into it in the street. The next day we joined the tour at 11 AM. So many people showed up that they had to split us into two groups. Our guide was Slavyan Kanovsky, a young resident of Sofia.
You can recognise a tour guide by the plate he holds on the photo above if you come to the Palace of Justice by the designated time.
The tour is two hour long and it ends at the above mentioned Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It’s free of charge, but you can donate any amount you like at the end.
Slavyan took us along the route, telling us all kinds of historical and not-so-historical facts about Sofia. He’s a good narrator, and quite an entertainer.
He would also run a quiz now and then, giving away a candy to the winner.
The climax of the tour was an improvised performance about the modern Bulgarian history, with the tourists as actors (including the author of this text):
If you’re interested, here's a video of that act.
I can definitely recommend this tour. All the necessary details can be found on the organisation’s website.
National Museum of Military History
The major part of the National Museum of Military History’s exposition is open-air. It features numerous military items from the socialist period.
By a happy coincidence we turned up on the last Wednesday of the month when the admission was completely free. We were surprised that all the gates were wide open and no one asked for a ticket.
Instead of a controller we were greeted at the entrance by this furry beast, who is apparently a permanent resident of the exhibition:
Below I’ll show quite a few exhibits from the museum’s collection in case someone’s interested.
Not really military yet quite historical Trabant 601, which commemorates Bulgaria entering NATO in 2004:
Tank T-34-85, 1994. Weight 32 t, road speed up to 55 km/h, operational range 360 km:
85 mm air defense gun 52-K, 1939. Weight 4.3 t, caliber 85 mm, range: horizontal 9,000 m, vertical 15,600 m, projectile weight 9.54 kg:
Bulldozer BAT-1M, 1960’s. Weight 27,5 t, road speed up to 36 km/h, operational range 500 km.
Amphibious transporter PTS, 1965. Weight 22.7 t, road speed up to 42 km/h, floating speed 10-12 km/h, operational range 300 km.
And this is a peculiar one, I didn’t know such things exist: high-speed trench machine BTM-1M, USSR, 1959. It can dig and fill up trenches and ditches. Weight 27.5 t, road speed up to 36 km/h, operational range 450 km.
Minuscule tank Hotchkiss H-39, France, 1939. Weight 12 t, road speed up to 36 km/h, operational range 150 km:
Tank Škoda LT-35, Czechoslovakia, 1935. Weight 10.5 t, road speed up to 34 km/h, operational range 190 km:
60 mm self-propelled mortar FN 4 RM 62 / F.AB, 1962. Caliber 60 mm, weight 8.8 t, firing rate 20-25 shots/min, range up to 1,700 m, max. speed 110 km/h, operational range 600 km:
Mobile radar altimeter PRV-11 Vershina, 1961. Wavelength 8-10 cm, detection range up to 400 km, max. altitude 85 km, resolution 500 m:
Guiding station SNR 1S32 for the air defence system 2K11M SA-4 Krug-M1, 1974. Weight 24 t, detection range up to 150 km, interception range up to 115 km, max. speed 35 km/h, operational range 780 km:
Self-propelled launcher KS-41 2P24 for the air defence system 2K11M SA-4 Krug-M1, 1974. Weight 24 t, missile weight 2.6 t, warhead weight 150 kg, max. missile speed 1000 m/s, range 45 km, altitude range 150-23,500 m, max. launcher speed 35 km/h, operational range 780 km:
Induction mine detector DIM-M, 1960. Four-wheel drive, detection depth 0.25 m, search area size 0.7×2.2 m, speed during detection 10 km/h, max. speed 100 km/h, operational range 420 km:
Mobile neon beacon KNS-4P, 1964. Four-wheel drive, weight 7.5 t, operation modes: Morse code, permanent:
Training/combat fighter MiG-23 UB, 1976. Max. flight weight 18 t, flight ceiling 18,000 m, max. speed 2400 km/h, range 2000 km:
Training/combat fighter MiG-21 UM, 1974. Max. flight weight 9.3 t, flight ceiling 18,200 m, max. speed 2230 km/h, range 1420 km:
Multi-purpose fighter Tornado GR-1B, Germany, 1978. Max. flight weight 27 t, flight ceiling 15,000 m, max. speed 2.2 M (~2400 km/h), range 3890 km:
Multi-purpose fighter MiG-21 BIS, 1983. Max. flight weight 10.4 t, flight ceiling 17,500 m, max. speed 2175 km/h, range 1470 km:And another one:
Training aircraft L-29 Dolphin, Czechoslovakia, 1964. Max. flight weight 3540 kg, flight ceiling 11,000 m, max. speed 655 km/h, range 900 km:
Combat helicopter Mi-24 d/b, 1979. Max. flight weight 11.5 t, flight ceiling 5,000 m, max. speed 330 km/h, range 1000 km:
Transport helicopter Mi-8, 1973. Max. flight weight 12 t, flight ceiling 4,500 m, max. speed 250 km/h, range 465 km:
This beautiful turquoise ball is a floating naval mine B-38, 1938. Explosives: 150 kg of TNT:
Some more floating mines from the early 20th century that were in use during the Balkan (1912-13) and the First World (1915-18) wars:
These look pretty familiar, it’s klompen of a very large size!
Self-propelled missile launchers:
And their historical ancestors:
Phew. This must be the longest post ever.
Next: Part 2. Plovdiv