Thursday 19 May 2011, Blavoevgrad
After my encounters with store security and several narrow escapes while attempting to cross the road on the assumption that drivers actually stop at pedestrian crossings, Jill was reluctant to release me on Bulgaria’s capital city, but by 9.00 this morning I was at the coach station and paid the 10 Lev (about £4.50) for the 100 Km trip to Sofia. It was through pleasant countryside with the snow-capped Rila Mountains to the east being succeeded as we approached Sofia by the Vitosa Mountains which stretch to the outskirts of the capital and form a national park which is the weekend retreat of the people of the capital.
After an hour of rapid progress the tramlines appeared and the last half of the journey was a crawl through shabby suburbs to the modern bus station north of the city centre. Sofia is not exactly a world city; its historical centre is compact and the number of places of outstanding interest limited. It is rather unkempt, the pavements broken and hazardous, many of the national revival houses uncared for and large areas are building sites, particularly road intersections, with no clear indication where pedestrians might venture amidst the traffic. Perhaps they are constructing another metro line.
Churches form many of the main sights in Sofia, but the first buildings encountered as I approached the centre were a mosque and a synagogue. The 16th century Banya Bashi mosque, still in use so I had to remove my shoes, is yet another work of the prolific Sinan, but much smaller than those in Istanbul and Edirne. Its interior is a riot of blue tiles but the painting of the dome is relatively restrained. Behind it there is a pleasant square where fountains play.
Almost opposite is the synagogue. Dedicated in 1909 in the presence of the Tsar’s family, it is the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe and can seat almost 1200 people. It is the work of an Austrian architect in the so-called Bulgarian National Romantic style.
Between the mosque and the synagogue stands the Hali or covered market, built in a similar style at the same time. It is a product of newly discovered municipal pride - the city only became the Bulgarian capital in 1879. It is really quite an up-market market with chic stalls and inviting eating places on the gallery. The fruit and veg sellers had been ousted to a much livelier street market in the nearby pedestrianised Stefan Stambolov Boulevard. It would appear too that many of the people of Sofia obtain their water in the open air. Not far from the market was a series of public fountains where people were busily filling plastic bottles, sometimes on a semi-industrial scale. Do they know something about tap water quality or is this a special spring, perhaps channelled directly from the nearby hills?
Street market in Stefan Stambolov Boulevard, Sofia
The first church I came across was incongruously perched on concrete supports and sunk in an underpass in the middle of a traffic intersection. It was also much smaller than the synagogue and the mosque. Sveta Petka Samardzhilska Church was built in the 14th century, during the early years of Ottoman rule, so had to keep a modest and inconspicuous profile. Much grander, but still not enormous, was the nearby Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, dating from 1863, the period of Bulgarian National Revival, but before complete independence. Its dark interior was crowded with people praying and rich with icons in a more realistic style than the old Orthodox tradition.
The oldest building still in use in Sofia is the brick-built St. George's Church. Erected in the fourth century as a rotunda, it later became a church, then a mosque and later once more a church. Small in scale, its walls are covered with many layers of paintings which have been restored to reveal murals from several periods, the earliest substantial remains dating from the tenth century. The church is surrounded by archaeological remains dating from the late Roman and early Byzantine period. The whole sits in the courtyard of the massive Sheraton Hotel, an example of Socialist Classicism dating from the 1950s.
Neo-classicism was the style of choice when the communists began to develop the Largo, a massive socialist complex in the centre of Sofia in the early 1950s. The complex includes the former Party House, sacked in 1990, when demonstrators tore down the communist symbols - the empty wreath of wheat stalks can still be seen atop the façade. It is planned to transfer the Bulgarian Parliament into this building. Across the square are the Presidential Offices, another building from the communist era, guarded by sentries in Ruritanian costumes.
The sentries stare across to the Archaeological Museum, housed in the former Buyuk Djami or Great Mosque, erected in the last years of the sixteenth century. Its collections reflect Sofia’s long history, founded by the Thracians as Serdica, an important centre under the Romans as Ulpia Serdica, then under the Byzantines as Triaditsa before being renamed during the Second Bulgarian Empire after the church of St Sofia. It was then a regional administrative centre under Ottoman rule before becoming the capital of newly independent Bulgaria in 1879.
This history explains why so many of the public buildings date from the late nineteenth century, with few monuments from before this period. This is the case with the former Royal Palace, dating from 1893, an elegant neo-Palladian building facing Battenburg Square which now houses the Ethnological Museum and National Art Gallery. The square is named after the Battenburg family (rechristened Mountbatten in England), imported as monarchs after independence. Interestingly Tsar Simeon II, exiled as a child in 1946, returned to Bulgaria in 2001 to form a new political party, the National Movement, and was actually elected Prime Minister, a unique situation for a deposed European monarch. Opposite the Palace is the City Garden, one of several open spaces in the centre of the city and well used by workers and families.
Continuing towards Alexander Nevsky Square I passed the enchanting St. Nikolai Church, its green decorations and gold cupolas set off beautifully by the spring foliage of the surrounding trees. It was funded by Russian émigrés in 1914 on the site of the Saray Mosque for Russian diplomats who found the Bulgarian Church to be schismatic and did not wish to attend their services. Inside too it is very ornate with older icons and murals from the Novgorod School.
Finally I reached Alexander Nevsky Square, a monumental piece of planning containing various war memorials and, more importantly two very contrasting churches. The red-brick St. Sophia originates in its present form in the sixth century and is due to the Emperor Justinian, who was also building Agia Sofia in Constantinople at the same time. It is on an even older Christian site with many tombs and foundations dating back to the fourth century and earlier below the present structure, which became a mosque and was heavily renovated during the twentieth century. Inside it is very austere with exposed brickwork and few icons. It was very busy with stalls distributing food and drink to groups of people. Unlike in Çanakkale I was not invited to join in.
The other church, grandly placed at the end of the main avenue of the square is Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, constructed between 1904 and 1914 as a national monument to the 200,000 Russian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Moldavian, Finnish and Romanian troops who died in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8. It is the largest Russian Orthodox church in the Balkans and a riot of domes which presents an ever-changing perspective as you walk round it. The interior was vast and gloomy, covered with religious and historic murals. Visitors were urged to be quiet and respectful, an atmosphere which was completely broken by a young visitor who insisted on making his trainers squeak loudly on the inlaid marble floors despite the attempts of his parents to stop him.
I had reached the end of my tour and seen the main sights before one o’clock, much to my surprise. Attracted by an impressive curved roof looming above the trees in a nearby garden where a Balkan bagpipe player was performing, jangling sheep bells hanging from his waist, I discovered the rectorate building of Sofia University which was built between 1924 and 1934. Founded in 1888, the University had been closed for six months in 1907 by the authorities after students booed Prince Ferdinand when he opened the National Theatre. It must have been back in favour by the 1920s as the building is very splendid, inside as well as outside.
Next to the University I noted the severe classical façade of the National Library, the present building opened in 1953 after bomb damage in 1944. Originally established in 1878, it is appropriately named after Saints Cyril and Methodius, those two ninth century men of letters - literally in the case of Cyril, who bequeathed thirty of them to the Slavs to become the basis of their alphabet. They are commemorated by a monument in front of the Library where gardeners were busily planting the flower beds with pansies. I entered and was immediately confronted by a turnstile. The attendant, far from being a jobsworth, gave me a copy of the admission rules in English and then opened the turnstile for me to take a quick look without the need to register. It does not seem to have moved far from the 1950s. Huge banks of card catalogues full of carefully typed cards created a feeling of nostalgia. Shelves were rickety and tables and chairs utilitarian. A number of medieval manuscripts were on display in the catalogue hall. Some computers were in evidence and I learned that there was a digitisation programme under way, funded by the Big Guns - the national libraries of Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein! There are three main strands: manuscripts from the fourteenth century - the Bulgarian golden age, newspapers from 1879 to 1940 and, most interestingly, registers of the Ottoman shariat courts from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries in which there is apparently a great deal of interest.
On my way out, feeling decidedly hungry by now, I noticed a label on a side door labelled кафе and pushed it open. Rather dismayed I descended a worn and shabby staircase and along a gloomy desolate basement corridor and through a door, emerging into another century. The café was the most modern part of the library! Slick black décor, low lighting, decorations with literary quotations and cheap drinks and snacks.
Refuelled, I retraced my steps to the bus station, caught the 3 pm bus home and surprised Jill by my early return after an enjoyable day. Sofia may be a little rough around the edges, but it is not a daunting city to see. Had it been raining there were several museums which would have merited attention, particularly the Archaeological Museum and the Ethnographical Museum, but there was certainly enough to occupy a visitor for a day. In the meantime Jill had been occupying herself by firing off missives in various directions regarding the disinfection of vehicles and their occupants by the Bulgarian authorities.