December 2017

The Balkan state is appealing to travelers looking for bargains behind the former Iron Curtain. But so far, its capital city and rugged countryside have escaped the tourist crush.

On the plane from London, two British men chatted enthusiastically about the killing they expected to make on property investments in Sofia. Huge real-estate company billboards at the airport urged arriving passengers: “Buy the Balkan Dream.”

Less than two decades after the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, was the entire country up for sale? I wondered. Had the place already become a “tourist nightmare” in the grip of speculators?

Not likely. Savouring a Kamenitsa beer on the Happy Bar and Grill terrasse on my first day in the Bulgarian capital, with street cars clattering by, I looked across the main street to the domed Sveta Nedelya cathedral, past the elegant minaret of Banya Bashi, the 16th-century mosque – there wasn’t a tourist in sight. A chimney sweep wearing a battered homburg waved his wire brushes to drum up business among the cafe patrons.

Sofia is 500 kilometres west of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, where new hotels and condos are springing up to attract sun-seekers. It’s also a few hours’ drive from new ski and spa resorts built to transform this fledgling member of the European Union into a top tourist destination.

Such development, however, tends to be confined to a few locales. Beyond these, the tourist infrastructure is limited, meaning that Bulgaria remains an exciting destination for the independent traveller keen to explore historic cities and heritage villages, ancient monasteries, rugged mountain ranges and wide fertile valleys where locals are not yet jaded by endless streams of visitors.

Bulgaria has a rich and complex history. Wandering around Sofia, you can catch a glimpse of its past glories as they merge with the buzz of the new capitalism.

The city was built in a valley settled by the Thracians more than 4,000 years ago, in the shadow of the wooded Vitosha Mountains. Reminders of successive rulers are everywhere. After the Thracians, Romans and Byzantines, the Ottoman Turks dominated the country for 500 years until 1878, when, aided by the Russians, Bulgaria gained its independence. In 1946, it became a People’s Republic and remained Communist until 1989.

Ringed by dour Communist-era apartments, downtown Sofia is built around elegant 19th-century boulevards and squares lined with linden and chestnut trees. Some of the finest-looking buildings have undergone recent facelifts.

Intriguing and enigmatic, the city is full of surprises as it reveals layers of its ancient past in unexpected places. Walk through a pedestrian underpass and you come upon the gates to the original Roman city of Serdika. In a subterranean shopping mall, next to stores selling old swords and guns, there’s the entrance to the tiny medieval church of Sveta Petka Samardzhiiska. The Sheraton Hotel and the Presidential Palace look down on the Byzantine church of Sveti Georgi, adjacent to extensive Roman remains. At a cafe where the tables are chunks of sculpted ancient Greek stone columns, you can drink a coffee in the garden of a graceful nine-domed 16th-century mosque, now the impressive Archeological Museum.

Most major attractions are within easy walking distance of the central area. Follow the yellow-brick cobbled road to the spectacular golden-domed neo-Byzantine Aleksander Nevski Memorial Church, built to commemorate the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died in the 1877-78 War of Liberation. The crypt houses a fine collection of Balkan icons, some 1,000 years old.

Reminders of the past seem to intermingle comfortably with McDonalds, KFC and Benetton outlets that have set up shop along with Internet cafes, Irish pubs, a Buddha Bar resto-bar, a monolithic casino, plus a few escort agencies and nightclubs.

The recent changes have not appeared to diminish the enthusiasm of Sofia’s one million inhabitants for public life. There’s a huge cafe scene, chess players and families congregate in parks, crowds throng street markets, and people line up to fill plastic jugs with steaming mineral water from gushing hot springs behind a bright yellow, highly decorated bathhouse, currently being restored.

On street corners and in pedestrian underpasses, musicians sing traditional melodies while playing goatskin bagpipes, the stringed gadulka and the flute-like kaval. Others perform in popular traditional folk-styled Bulgarian restaurants where the food, heavily influenced by Greek and Turkish cuisine, includes grilled meats, spicy sausages, sirene (feta) cheese and salads. Local wine, beer and brandy are excellent and very affordable for Western visitors.

After a week of city pursuits, it was time to venture into Bulgaria’s jagged mountain ranges to visit some of Europe’s finest monasteries and fortified villages.

Not to be missed is Rila, Bulgaria’s largest and best-known monastery, about 120 kilometres south of Sofia. Founded in the 10th century, destroyed by the Ottomans and rebuilt several times, the monumental three-storey structure with intricately carved wooden balconies sits against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. It encircles a cobblestone courtyard and a reddish-striped gracefully arched church with a 14th-century stone bell tower. Terrifying frescoes on the church walls depict tortures that await sinners in hell. Known as the “Jerusalem of Bulgaria,” the monastery is an important centre of pilgrimage where you can stay the night.

East of Sofia is Troyan Monastery. Built next to a rushing mountain river in a similar style to Rila but smaller. Frescoes on the church’s outside wall show visions of demons tormenting sinners in unimaginably gruesome ways. It’s worth the dramatic drive up the steep, winding Troyan Pass through the clouds. Luckily there’s not much traffic.

Take the road farther east through the Trjavna Pass to Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria’s 12th-century capital, considered one of the most romantic settings in Europe. At least 20 monasteries are scattered in the crags and crevices of neighbouring mountains.

Two are located close by, in the village of Arbanasi, once a wealthy trading town. The churches contain richly painted iconostases and 17th-century murals. Narrow cobblestoned alleyways wind past 18th-century houses built of stones layered with wood. The high walls and heavily nail-studded gates were built as defences against Turkish outlaws and brigands.

Following our plan to visit more heritage villages, we drove farther south to the Pirin Mountains, the highest and most spectacular in Bulgaria. In Bansko, highly promoted and restored as a fine example of national revival architecture, fortress-like houses resemble those in Arbanasi. Many have been turned into cozy guest-houses, restaurants and bars catering to skiers, but out of season, you pretty much have the place to yourself along with the storks nesting in the bell tower.

Closer to Sofia is Koprivshtisa, known for its national revival houses and famous as the centre of the uprising against the Ottomans in 1876. On both sides of the river, stone streets thread their way up hills, past wooden houses painted blue, pink, and yellow and the by-now familiar fortified stone-and-timber houses, many of which offer rooms to travellers.

As we sat in an outdoor cafe in the small main square, breakfasting on thick yogurt and honey, and thin pancakes stuffed with sheep’s cheese, farmers clip-clopped by on horse-drawn carts, a woman rhythmically and endlessly swept the cobbles in front of her house, and the river rushed by under stone bridges a few feet away.

Ann Elsdon

February 5, 2010 by admin · 221 Comments 

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