It was very cold when I was in Sofia. Like, really cold. So cold in fact that sometimes you had to go indoors or even go back to the hostel because you couldn’t feel your hands through your gloves.
It snowed several times, it got dark very early and it was sometimes literally too cold to be outside. The good thing about that was that there were relatively few tourists, but that didn’t necessarily make up for the very real risk of frostbite.
Sofia does seem a little ‘further away’ than the other cities I visited in Europe. I think it’s because of the alphabet; everything prior to Sofia had used the same letters as English and so even if you didn’t understand it you could figure out some of the easier words just from your knowledge of English and common sense.
Sofia, on the other hand, uses the Cyrillic alphabet which looks quite similar to Greek and is much harder to decipher if you don’t know the language. Most of the shopkeepers and waiters do speak English (more so than in Romania) and a lot of the street signs are also in English so it’s not hard to find your way around, but Sofia does still feel very far away from home.
Highlights from my trip.
The Tea House
I went to a Lacto-vegetarian tea house called ‘Veda House’ on William Gladstone street (about 8 minutes walk from the hostel). It is a beautifully decorated cafe which attracts loads of different people. There were quite a few people eating alone so it was pretty comfortable, and it was also a really good place to work. You know that romanticised idea of a freelance nomadic writer working away in a picturesque cafe in a foreign land? That was me in Veda House and I loved it.
This place was very serious about tea and it had an entire menu full of every type of tea imaginable. I had a ‘beautifying’ tea and they recommended how it should be taken and everything.
I really don’t know a lot about tea, it’s not something I spend my time thinking about, but it was very good all the same and definitely helped warm my cold bones.
The food wasn’t quite what I was expecting (it was rice with various vegetables including Brussels sprouts and carrots) but it was so well cooked and full of much-needed healthy goodness. Veda house is a really good place to go if you don’t feel like day drinking/if you don’t drink/if you just need to get out of the cold.
The Free Walking Tour
The walking tour starts at the Palace of Justice, and as you go around you will see everything from Roman ruins to communist architecture.
Sofia is known as the city which ‘grows, but does not age’, and this is pretty accurate because the modern city of Sofia has been built around (and often over) the Ancient city of Serdica. There are ruins preserved in Serdica II Metro Station, and there are quite a few connected ruins which you can follow underground.
The free walking tour is a great way to familiarise yourself with the city and find out where everything is, plus you gain insights into Bulgarian culture and the history of Sofia.
The tour takes you to see the statue of Saint Sofia, it shows you where all the museums are, and it takes you to see all the churches. Sofia has a huge collection of beautiful and diverse churches which are a must-see for anyone who visits Bulgaria’s capital city.
One of the most interesting parts of the tour was seeing all the communist stuff. I found the communist influence to be more obvious in Sofia than in most of the other cities I visited (apart from Bucharest), but nowhere is it more prominent than at the Largo ensemble.
This is one of Sofia’s major landmarks and it is basically a street which is full of communist architecture.
The buildings on this street are made up of the former communist headquarters (now the offices of the National Assembly of Bulgaria), as well as the Party House building and several others.
This area was destroyed during WWII and so the communist party was able to utilise it for their own purposes. Sofia is probably the closest you can get to seeing what communist architecture and communist life is actually like without visiting a current communist country because many of the buildings, such as the palace of justice and the palace of culture, are still around and are still in use today.
This tour also takes you to the former spa baths where you can taste the hot thermal spring water. It is a little disturbingly warm but it tastes way better than tap water), and it is meant to have healing properties.
Saint Sophia Church
‘My church’, i.e. the church of Saint Sophia, has been around since 343 AD or so. It looks rather small and comparatively unimpressive next to the far larger Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, but it is a real Tardis of a church and is far, far bigger than you would think from just looking at it. It also has an underground museum and a bunch of catacombs.
It’s pretty amazing because the underground area is so big that you end up walking through these underground ruins for ages and, if you go on your own, it’s so quiet and slightly spooky that you feel like you’re really exploring.
There aren’t that many fully preserved artifacts to look at, but there are decorated floors, remnants and various areas which would have been used for different functions. It’s an interesting place, and I’m not just saying that because it has my name on it!
The end of my visit to Saint Sophia Church was a little disturbing. I took my time wandering around underground and when I came up no one told me anything was happening, but I did notice there were now people serving drinks and snacks.
I didn’t think too much of it and so I was walking around the upstairs area admiring the upper church (which is really beautiful) when two men proceed to carry an open coffin into the centre of the church. A coffin complete with the body of an old man with his eyes open.
This was the first time I had ever seen a dead body before and I really wasn’t expecting it, so when I left I ended up wandering around for a bit in a daze.
The Russian Church
I saw the dead body on my last day in Sofia and I still had things I wanted to see before my 16-hour coach journey to Vienna, so in my slightly traumatised state, I went to see the Russian Church. This is a truly amazing building which comes with its very own saint.
When I was on the walking tour I learned that every day loads of people go into this churches crypt to write a prayer/wish for Saint Archbishop Seraphim. They say that if you write a prayer/wish and leave it near his tomb your wish will come true.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
This iconic cathedral is another must-see, although you can’t really miss it. It’s beautiful inside and out, and it’s a very good place to escape from the cold.
In the park close to Saint Sophia Church and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral there is a market full of people selling various objects. What it quite interesting (and disturbing) about this particular market is that they sell loads of Nazi memorabilia including Nazi lighters, original Hitler stamps, SS badges and more.
They also sell knives, steampunk goggles and various items of jewellery. I wouldn’t really recommend anyone buy a Nazi lighter (because why would you want such a thing in your home?) but it is definitely worth seeing if you are ever in the area.
All in all, I had a great time in Sofia. I made friends with those two guys from New Zealand and we ended up spending all of our evenings in the Art Hostels very cheap pub, we had shisha and we had pizza in those outdoor heated areas which I would never have been brave enough to dine at alone.
Unfortunately as often happens when you make friends with guys one of them was expecting more and I wasn’t really feeling it, and I think this guy felt like I had led him. Guys can be quite pushy and don’t seem to understand that a lack of enthusiasm is most likely literally a lack of enthusiasm, not your way of flirting. I know it’s hard to admit that not everyone fancies you, but seriously. Not everyone fancies you.
I don’t necessarily think guys feel ‘entitled’ to a girls attention, but more that they either can’t read the signs that someone isn’t interested or they have been taught from an early age that girls play hard to get and they really are interested even when they don’t appear to be.
It is also (and this isn’t me blaming anyone, just an observation from my own behaviour and the behavior I’ve seen) sometimes down to people not being direct enough about what they do and don’t want or what they are or are not interested in.
It can be really hard to outright tell someone you’re just not interested because you don’t want to hurt their feelings and/or you’re worried about their reaction, but it is something I certainly need to start being stronger on. If you outrightly tell someone you’re not feeling it and they persist then that is a whole other problem.
Anyway. Rant over. The Art hostel is colourful, sometimes crazy, sometimes slightly stereotypical, but I had a pretty good time there. Stay tuned for Vienna 🙂