Sofia

November 8, 2020: A Spontaneous Trip to Bulgaria

While in Belgrade, Serbia, I realized I didn’t have classes for 3 more days. I looked at nearby countries to see if I could travel based on two factors: COVID restrictions and the ease of getting a flight back to Barcelona. I chose Bulgaria because they were letting Spanish residents in and had nonstop flights to Spain on RyanAir where I already had a voucher.

Sofia is the largest city in Bulgaria with 1.2 million residents. It is known for not having much to see and is usually used as a jumping off point for exploring the rest of the country. However, with only 2 full days (during one of which I had an online class), I determined it would be best to stay in Sofia and the surroundings. The rest of the country will have to wait. I also wanted to prove the Sofia naysayers wrong.

There are busses and trains from Belgrade to Sofia, but I opted to fly. I figured that the airport border guards would be most accustomed to seeing a Spanish residency permit. The flight on the Dash-8 took a very easy one hour.

At the airport, the Bulgarian border guard was extremely suspicious of me. He did not believe that was I was actually a Spanish resident. He asked me how I liked Spain, my favorite things to do and even asked me to speak in Spanish to him (thank you Guatemala). I passed all his tests and he reluctantly let me into the country with the worst passport stamp job ever.

Unlike Belgrade, Sofia has a sleek metro system with four lines and modern train cars. The ride into the city center took 25 minutes. 

The Bulgaria Airport metro station.

I popped out at Serdica station in the center of town. Serdica is the historic name for Sofia. It turns out that Sofia is actually the second oldest capital in Europe- it has been inhabited since 7,000 BC. The first written record of Serdica was in 29 BC when it was conquered by the Roman Empire. The ancient city can still be seen in the metro station and in the numerous Soviet-style underpasses. 

Ancient Serdica underneath Sofia

The city center is chock-full of Communist-era government buildings intermixed with centuries-old churches and ruins. It’s a weird juxtaposition, but I felt that modern Bulgaria wants to be the modern-day successor to the ancient kingdoms of Thrace. 

The Bulgarian president’s office building surrounds an ancient church

The Serdica area is also known for the “Tolerance Triangle”. The city’s most important mosque, synagogue, and second-most important church are all within two blocks of each other. The synagogue is of special note for being the largest Sephardic temple in all of eastern Europe. It remained active during World War II where, despite being ruled by Nazi Germany, no Jews were killed.

The Great Synagogue of Sofia

Like all European cities, Sofia has a walking street full of restaurants and shops. As a tourist you will inevitably end up on this street. The Sofia walking street had more charm than perhaps any Communist city I have seen and was quite lively. 

Sofia’s walking street

The southern end of the walking street has the imposing Communist-era National Palace of Culture. 

National Palace of Culture

I got dinner in a restaurant comprised of 4 restored historic houses (it is called Hadjidraganov’s Houses Restaurant). After a starter of wormwood wine, I ordered a shopska salad. This salad, which I had been eating nearly everyday in Serbia, is actually Bulgarian. The salad was created as part of a Communist-era tourism campaign in the 1950’s. The shopska salad’s ingredients are the colors of the Bulgarian flag: white cheese, green cucumbers, and red tomatoes. 

For the main course, I had an enormous kebab. All totaled up, the bill was about $15 USD- an incredible deal given the epic amount of food. 

Hadjidraganov’s Houses Restaurant

I then tucked into my bizarrely decorated private room which I booked through the Hostel Mostel (which has a great vibe!)

My bizarre room

November 9, 2020: Around Sofia

Today was my full day to explore Sofia. While I had seen most of the city’s center yesterday, there was still a lot to explore. After a run in a park, I headed over to the Monument to the Red Army. This striking memorial commemorates the liberation of Bulgaria from the Nazis by the USSR. I’ve said it before and will say it again, the Soviets were the world’s best monument builders.

Monument to the Red Army
Up-close of one monument panel

Next to it is the Eagle Bridge, a famous bridge that is featured on the back of the 20 lev note. It was built in the 1800’s and features 4 bronze eagles. The bridge is now located at a key intersection in the city, which is probably why it is famous. I was shocked that this bridge is even an attraction because, at just 8 meters long, it doesn’t even look like a bridge. 

Moving back towards the center of town, I passed by the enormous Cathedral of Cathedral of St. Aleksandar Nevski. This is Bulgaria’s largest church and until the year 2000 was the world’s largest Orthodox church (St. Sava in Belgrade and one in Bucharest, Romania are now bigger). The Byzantine-style domes are striking!

Aleksander Nevski Cathedral

The Cathedral was built from 1882 to 1912. A plaque in front commemorates all those murdered by the Ottomans in their 400-year reign of Bulgaria and southeastern Europe. The inside of the church was mural-filed and extremely dark with just a few candles lighting the space. In fact it was so dark that I could barely see the upper reaches. Photos were allowed, but you had to pay $10, so I passed. 

Back outside, I walked through many of the government buildings including the National Assembly. 

I then took my class online. In the afternoon, I took a taxi to the neighborhood of Boyana in the southern outskirts of Sofia. There, I walked to the UNESCO-listed Boyana Church. This small church has perfectly-preserved murals from the 11th, 12th and 13th century. Due to both COVID and conservation reasons, I was allowed 10-minutes alone in the church with a guide (a weird take on 7 Minutes in Heaven). The guide explained the history of the church, the meaning of the murals and the Christian theology that went into the selection of the murals. While small, the church is well deserving of the UNESCO designation. 

UNESCO plaque outside the Boyana Church. No photos inside and the outside is totally uninteresting.

Down the hill from the Boyana Church is the National Museum of History. In additional to containing impressive relics of Bulgarian history for thousands of years, the museum is housed in the former residence of Todor Zhivkov the last Communist dictator of Bulgaria, who ruled for 35 (stable a relatively prosperous) years. The top floor contains an assembly hall where Zhivkov was ousted in 1989. 

Bulgarian History Museum

I walked back to the city center via the swanky neighborhoods in the south of Sofia. From the outside, these buildings looked similar in quality to the nicest apartment complexes being built in Los Angeles. 

I also visited the very modern Bulgaria Mall. 

The beautiful Bulgaria Mall

For dinner, I went to a Communist-themed restaurant recommended by a former coworker whose father lives in Sofia. The food and atmosphere were spectacular. Also, Soviet pop music is fantastic. 

Cheers to the Fatherland!

November 10, 2020: Rila and a Meal to Remember

Having seen most (but certainly not all) of the main sights in Sofia, I decided to rent a car and drive to Bulgaria’s most important monastery: the Rila Monastery. 

Rila is located about 90 minutes south of Sofia. While there are guided tours to the monastery, I decided to rent a car which was not only cheaper but gave me more flexibility. Unfortunately, I had to go back to the airport to rent the car. 

The drive started in the outskirts of Sofia but ended up going through some beautiful mountain scenery. After cruising on a beautiful highway with an incredible 140 km speed limit, I switched to a 2-lane mountain road. After 30 minutes going up a beautiful canyon, I reached the Rila Monastery. 

The Rila Monastery

The monastery was founded in the 10th century by St. Ivan of Rila, the patron saint of Bulgaria. St. Ivan lived in a nearby cave for seven years with no material possessions. While living in the cave, he performed many miracles which caused him to become famous and therefore made it difficult for him to live in peace as a hermit. Students seeking blessing set up camps surrounding his cave. These camps eventually turned into the Rila Monastery.

Word of Ivan’s great deeds reached the king of Bulgaria who trekked 450 kilometers to seek Ivan’s spiritual guidance. Ivan refused to meet him to avoid the temptation of power. Instead they bowed at each other from a distance. Afterwards the king sent many gifts to Ivan- of which everything was returned with the exception of some food. The monastery grew throughout the centuries, thanks to the patronage of many Bulgarian rulers. Miraculously, the monastery survived Ottoman rule where it remained a center of Bulgarian culture and language. Today, it is the most important and most visited monastery in all of Bulgaria and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Only a small part of the monastery can be visited: the interior courtyard, main church, and museum containing relics. The whole visit will take no more than 30 minutes. But it is so beautiful!

Murals at the Rila Monastery

There is also a restaurant and bakery serving Bulgarian donuts, but it was closed when I visited. 

A 5-minute drive up the canyon from the monastery is the trail to the cave of St. Ivan. The walk through beautiful fall colors took 15 minutes. The cave itself was tiny and could barely fit me. I have absolutely no idea how someone could live there for 7 years- especially since the cave was mostly vertical space with little if any room to lay down to sleep. 

At the back of the cave is a ladder leading to a second entrance. I managed to squeeze my way up the ladder and ascend to a beautiful viewpoint of the Rila Valley. 

Outside the cave of St. Ivan of Rila

On the way back to Sofia, I stopped for lunch at a beautiful local hotel. There, I ordered a fresh river trout for lunch. 

At the bottom of the canyon near the town of Stob is a geologic oddity: hoodoos. Called the Stob Pyramids, these pillars of earth are accessible via a 30-minute uphill hike.  

The Stob Pyramids

After that, it was time to drive back to Sofia for the grand finale of my trip. 

Based on the recommendation of my friend Roberto, I made a reservation at a restaurant called Secret by Chef Petrov. It was advertised as a 23-course tasting menu that is a journey through time of Bulgarian culinary history cooked by a celebrity chef. The meal cost 87 lev which is about 44 Euros (it normally costs more, but there was a pandemic special). They also offer wine or cocktail pairings for a bit extra. I know that this type of meal in the US cost hundreds of dollars, so I decided to give it a go!

I arrived promptly at 19:30 for what would soon become the most memorable meal of my life. Each dish was made live by Chef Petrov and his team of 2. In addition to me, there were four Bulgarians. As each dish was served, Chef Petrov would explain the dish in Bulgarian and then in English. 

Chef Petrov and team at work

Here was the menu that I had (as described in an email from Chef Petrov the next day):

   1. Tonic water
    2. Soap flower – A natural disinfectant made just from Saponaria 
officinalis flower  picked up from the forest in Vitosha mountain and 
boiled. It has been used for washing since thousands of years on these 
lands.
     3. Breads – White bread with fenugreek and chubritsa (savory), a 
Bulgarian herb. Black bread with active carbon. Use these breads to eat 
the Map of Bulgaria with your hands.
     4. Map of Bulgaria – Made from fresh cow cheese, nettle and 
ljutenitsa (a red peppers and tomato dip).
     5. Belmuj – ancient Balkan dish made of fresh cow cheese and flour. 
The literal translation is “white man”. Taste it with the bread.
     6. Tomato and cheese – Tomato salad is a popular start of every 
dinner in the Balkans. It stimulates your appetite and makes you hungry. 
Break the icy cheese, mix and eat with a spoon.
     7. The taste of the Earth – A biscuit of different types of root 
purees, ground of mushrooms and truffle. Eat it with your hands while 
you feel the smell of forest.
     8. Check your chance – Find your food which is in one of the covered 
boxes. It is salmon tartar with fermented vegetables. Use the potato 
chips as a spoon.
     9. Elderberry lemonade
     10. Calamari ceviche – made with cherry plum, garlic and cucumbers 
fermented only in sea water, a way of preparation used in the Balkans 
for thousands of years. The blue granite on top is made of cabbage. 
Squeeze the lemon on top and use the tweezers to eat. You can drink the 
juice after.
     11. Garum croquet – Fish oil made with ancient Thracian technique by 
putting blue fish in salt and mixing for about 5 months.
     12. Seafood fide – Shrimp shells. Fide is a popular kind of pasta 
used in our lands for a long time, usually on the seaside. The dish is 
covered with a super crunchy tapioca bread. Break it with two forks and 
mix it: it will feel like you are eating the shrimps along with their 
shells, and it will boost the flavour.
     13. Salmon and pine – Local raised canadian salmon with pine cones, 
pine pollen and its protein. On the side there is a biscuit made of the 
skin of the salmon with caviar and pine cone juice.
     14. Matenitsa – natural yogurt of cow milk fermented just by the 
lactobacillus bulgaricus in the air of Bulgaria.
     15. Kashkaval cheese – One of the first cheeses in history.
     16. Egg burrata – Not-so-raw egg yolk wrapped in kashkaval cheese 
with Bulgarian yogurt. It is our interpretation of the traditional 
Bulgarian dish “Panagyurski eggs”.
     17. Lopuh leave tea – Butterburs, a natural tea from an ancient 
plant with many uses in the cuisine of the old times.
     18. Quail with lichen – cooked on the fire, wrapped in butterburs 
leaves full with morel mushrooms. For garnish try the forest lichen.
     19. Beef with mushrooms – Pastarma, meat dried and conserved in 
butterburs leaves cooked on the stone in front of your eyes. Sauce is 
made with four different forest mushrooms; the dish is covered with 
fairy ring mushrooms and Bulgarian black truffle.
     20. Bread from the future – Black pudding in air bread.
     21. Cheese course – Grilled kashkaval, green cheeses (cow, sheep, 
buffalo). Green walnut jam and green walnut liquor.
     22. Ice-cream lollipop – Banana and sour cherry ice-cream lollipop.
     23. Pumpkin Rachel – The pumpkin is prepared following the old 
Bulgarian techniques in order to become hard outside and soft inside.
     24. Crostata – Crostata with wild pears and sorbet of pears.
     25. Sour cherry liquor
     26. Bulgarian rose and popcorn made of yogurt
     27. Mandarin – Mandarin chocolate, mandarin ice-cream, mandarin 
sauce, biscuit and fresh mandarin.
     28. Soap flower in different way

Course 10: Calamari ceviche
Course 7: Taste of the Earth
Course 26: Bulgarian rose and popcorn made of yoghurt

3.5 hours later, I was fairly full, drunk out of my mind and amazed by the flavors and stories that I heard. Bulgaria has a very rich culinary history due to its many influences and climates. Over the past couple days I had a number of incredible meals, but this one helped bring it all together. 

Bravo Chef Petrov

The next day, I drove back to the airport and flew home. 

Sofia is probably not a top destination for any tourist, but it is a very interesting place full of many levels of history, culture, and yes food. The architecture is interesting and getting around the city is very easy. It is a very worthy destination for a weekend or long weekend. 

I also realized from talking to many Bulgarians that Sofia is just the tip of the iceberg. In the eyes of many Bulgarians, Sofia is the worst part of the country- or said in another way- there is so much more to see! Therefore, I would highly recommend staying in Bulgaria longer to see the rest of the country including: Plovdiv, the Thracian tombs, the Black Sea coast, and the Pirin mountains. I really hope to come back to Bulgaria. 

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