Checking into the hotel on Saturday afternoon, I saw a flyer advertising a walking tour. I realised that that would be the best way to get to know the city. So I got on Google to see what English-language tours were available (I never trust anything advertised at the hotel) and found the Free Sofia Tour. It’s a great business model — you get a super high quality tour by a qualified guide who will take you to everything you need to see in Sofia and then then they tell you about their paid themed tours. I did one of those tours Sunday afternoon and hope to be back for the other one at a later day! Even though the free tour is free, I, of course, gave my guide a decent tip.
The free tour started at the court house at 11AM. It was a huge crowd and we were split into three groups. The tour takes two hours so there is no way I am going to remember everything our guide, Nikola, told us, but I will do my best! Follow the links if you want more information.
Our first stop was the Eastern Orthodox Holy Sunday Church, which was razed during an assault in 1925 and subsequently rebuilt. It was the worst terrorist attack in history up to that point, especially considering that high ranking members of the military and government were assassinated. It was an attempt to kill the king, who happened to be late to the service.
Our next stop was the statue of Saint Sofia, which is an embarrassment since Sofia was not named for this saint, but rather for a church. Adding insult to injury, the statue has pagan symbols and the woman’s dress is too revealing. Sofians are rather divided over this statue being the new symbol of their city. Personally, I love it. 🙂
This is the only Catholic Church in Sofia. It will have importance in a moment.
The tourist info centre is in the pedestrian underpass across from the Saint Sofia statue.
This is Church of St. Petka of the Saddlers. What’s interesting in this location is that you see how Sofia is a city that was built in layers and this is a prime location to see the major layers, from Roman to modern times. I was rather reminded of Seattle, actually. The church was built in medieval times from Roman structures. Those rocks out front are part of those Roman structures.
Sofia lies over the site of the ancient city of Serdica. While excavating for the new subway lines, all manner of ruins were found and delayed the project. The exposed ruins have been made part of a “pedestrian zone” and you can walk through them. We will see more of them shortly!
Behind the ruins is the only mosque in Sofia, complete with a minaret. I had hoped to visit inside, but they are doing renovations and weren’t allowing in tourists this weekend. I would have been welcomed under normal circumstances since I was dressed appropriately. Sofia does not have a large Muslim population and this is why there is only one mosque. There were others in the past, which were destroyed or repurposed.
And here is the roof of the Sofia synagogue.
So there is are an Eastern Orthodox and Catholic church, a mosque, and a synagogue all within sight of each other in Sofia, forming the “Square of Tolerance.” This was my favourite part of Sofia!
Next stop was the former bathhouse where people would come for a day to pamper themselves and chat.
I didn’t have time to go in this weekend, but appreciated my guide’s reaction when I painstakingly read the sign and said, “Oh, it’s the Sofia history museum!”
The bathhouse was left to fall into ruin, but was very recently made into the museum. The inside is apparently glorious. It’s on my list for my next trip!
Here is Nikola filling his water bottle at the mineral spring outside the bathhouse. The water is hot and very stinky!
Now, we come to the three buildings I photographed the day before not realising their importance. That one in the middle used to have a big red star at the top where the Bulgarian flag now flies. It was the former headquarters of the Communist party and now has government offices.
This is the Presidency Building and the one across from it is the Council of Ministers building. Now, we will go underground and see what that glass dome is covering!
Tah-dah! More ruins of Serdica!
This is the eastern gate into Serdica.
Guards standing in front of the presidency building. Let’s see if I can remember what Nikola had to say because it was hilarious. Something along the lines of, “There’s a changing of the guards you can see. It’s not Buckingham Palace, but it’s cute.” Bulgaria has both a president and a prime minister and the latter is the one with real power.
Behind the presidency building is a treasure, the Church of St. George, dating back to the 4th century. Apparently, it’s still the original roof?! The church is known for its frescoes, but I didn’t get to go in on this trip.
This is the national theatre.
I loved this building with its cheery colour!
This former police station became the royal palace…
This is where we stopped to do a bit of a reenactment of Bulgarian governance in the 20th century, with members of the group reluctantly agreeing to be the German and Austrian who would each become a monarch of Bulgaria, the Italian who married the Austrian and produced the first true Bulgarian monarch in a long time, and the Bulgarian monarch. Once all these roles were cast, Nikola asked for someone to play the Communist. Yours truly promptly volunteered. 😀 As it turns out, “I” did better than all the others in governing Bulgaria the longest since “I” was able to transition into democracy. Fun fact about Bulgaria: it is (as far as I know) the only country in the world that democratically elected a former king to be its prime minster!
The tour ended with Sofia’s famous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
There was a wedding at the Saint Sofia Church, from which the city got its name, so we weren’t able to get good photographs of it.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is amazing!
This is where the tour ended. I have not even come close to conveying all the information I got about Bulgaria and Sofia. This is a country with a very messy history and I couldn’t do justice to Nikola’s attempts to unravel it all for us. I will have more when I move to my review of the Communist tour.
Nikola gave me a discount coupon for their the Communist tour later that afternoon and then I headed off to find some lunch.
I found myself back the Council of Minsters building. I will have more to say about these buildings when I review the Communist tour!
The pink building was not part of the complex, but was tied into it.
These ramps are used to move goods up and down into the underpasses. Women also use them for their push chairs.
These are really fancy. I saw some others that were just a metal rail going down the stairs.
I went back and got more exterior shots of the Church of St. George.
I thought this building was neat, with the way the windows were craved out of the corner.
I wanted pizza for lunch, something that is so ubiquitous in Bulgaria that the guide on my next tour said that it’s practically “Bulgarian food.” So I had lots of options on Vitosha Boulevard and only had to try two restaurants before I got service. I ordered a large beer and Margherita pizza (sauce and cheese). I wish I’d had more of that tomato on it because, dang! The pizza was the real thing. Mmm…
I’d walked for nearly three hours on the tour and knew the next tour would be three to four hours, so I decided to go all hog and order chocolate cake and an espresso after eating that entire pizza. I did not need to eat again all of Sunday, not even a before bed snack! So 15CAD for the meal, including a tip, was really good value!
I like how the restaurant built its roof around this tree:
So this takes us to about 3PM Sunday, with my next tour starting at 4PM. More after I do some work today!