Saturday, 17 December 2016

Sofia - capital of churches and contrasts


Bulgaria's capital Sofia is full of churches and contrasts. It wasn't love at first sight, though... so was it me or the city itself?

* * * 

Melancholic Slavic tunes from an accordeon echo in the metro station's corridors. I pick up a greasy sausage pasty from one of it hole in the wall-bakeries and make my way onto the streets. In the corner there's an old woman selling flowers. She seems about 100 and doesn't seem to have much in the way of teeth. 

I respond to a friend's Whatsapp message by sending her greetings from Romania, until I remember where I actually am. Though... perhaps this part of the world looks exactly the same, no matter which country one's in?

Run-down rusty and rugged.






Unlike with, say, Plovdiv, my first impression of Bulgaria's capital Sofia isn't too glamorous. 

In all honesty, at this point of my Bulgarian tour I am worn down by tiredness, too. And missing  - both Cat Blogger and Gothenburger. Perhaps my days of travelling alone are over?

Or perhaps the somewhat ambitious three wineries a day- schedule of the past days is catching up with me?





The city is full of contrasts, though. Only some tens of metres away there's Vitosha Boulevard, the main shopping street with its flashy stores. 

The street's named after Vitosha mountain that towers over the Sofia, so in less than half an hour you could actually hit the slopes, too.






Bulgaria is known for its hot mineral springs so it doesn't come as a surprise that the building that's now Sofia City Museum; one of Sofia's architectural landmarks, initially housed city's central baths.




Mainly Sofia's archtectural merits comprise of churches and cathedrals. And there are a lot of them: nearly 60 in all. One of them; the medieval church of Boyana located in the outskirts of the capital, is even one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

One of these is Sveta Nedelya; St. Nedelya's Bulgarian Orthodox church.






Another charming example is Church of St.Nicholas the Miracle-Maker, also known as the Russian Church.




But the biggest and boldest is (as seems to be the case everywhere in the region) Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Its namesakes can also be found in Tallinn, Moscow, Novosibirsk and Paris (!)

But who was the man that warranted all these grand commemorations? Well, a 13th century Russian prince, who the Russian Orthodox Church went on to canonise as a saint. He was particularly praised for his bravery in the battle of Neva against Swedish conquerors. 

Strangely enough, this being the era BGASM (Before Google And Social Media) no records other than Alexander's own show this battle ever even took place.





As I'm standing at the traffic lights, trying to decide which way to take, I'm surprised to be awoken from my thoughs by the prayer call from the minaret next to me.

As I observe the men rushing into the mosque I once more have to remind myself where I am - it's not often one encounters that while travelling outside North Africa or Middle East. Last time must have been in Albania, and it felt every bit as foreign and peculiar there, too. 

If I am brutally honest, the events of the recent years mean that no matter how I try to fight off these thoughts in my seemingly liberal, tree-hugging leftist mind, I can't help but realize that I do find the sound a little unsettling.  





Coexistence between different religions in Bulgaria has been a peaceful one (for more on the subject, see a previous blog post here) and a testament to this fact is the way that within a stone throw from each other you'll find not just Orthodox churches and a mosque, but also a Catholic church...





... and a synagogue. 

In spite of its impressive size and architecture (and Bulgaria's incredible history during Holocaust) I have to skip a visit there and the adjacent Jewish Museum, as I find myself in the city during Shabbat.






So, I decide to head over to the antiques market next to the Alexander Nevsky instead with the hope of some finds.

Antiques, though, seems a bit too grand a word to apply on the lackluster Soviet era relics that fed-up vendors are lazily trying to flog. 

With some intriguing twists, mind you...







I retire to a wine bar for a glass of local rosé (which is only a couple of euros - how's that for something good about this city!) to ponder my next move.

I manage to avoid the temptation to have another (the place has a WiFi, after all!) and head over to the market hall - those never let a foodie raveller like me down, right?





Yeah...no. 

Originally opened in 1911, the market hall was renovated in the late 1980's with Israeli funding (which explains the fountain prominently laid in the ground floor, shaped like Star of David).

The result is clean... yet generic.






While the hall is surprisingly small, it does stock everything you'd expect to find: local food, pastries, souvenirs, flowers, everything and anything made of amber...




... somehow it just lacks the genuine ambiance that I love about Riga's Central Market for instance.





But if you do find yourself here, what should you buy? Well, Bulgarian salami, that I've fallen for, definitely.

Warmly spiced, they come made of pork, beef, horse and a combinations of thee three. Oh, and then there are patés. And that delicious local Elena ham





Another great Bulgarian food love of mine is lyutenitsa, a paste made of roasted peppers.

Don't you worry - a recipe for this gem coming on the blog, too!





Bulgarian wines have been an intriguing voyage of discovery - biggest surprise has been the quality of their rosés. 

I will take you on a tour of some of my favourite wineries laer on the blog, but some of the names you should keep an eye out for are Villa Yustina, Medi Valley, Dragomir and Salla Estate.





Another thing Bulgaria has long traditions in making of is rose oil: the country produces approximately 85% of the world's rose oil.

Used mainly in cosmetics and perfume industry, the harvest takes place in May-June and is seriously hard work. Flowers are picked by hand and in the middle of the night as the essential oils vaporate by morning. 

It's certainly no bed of roses: 1 litre of rose oil requires a staggering 4000 kilos of rose petals. Price it sells for is equally staggering too: a litre costs around €5000.





Bulgaria is also known for their tea, which is one of the growing sectors in the country's economy.





Honey is another widely manufactured product and comes with a wide range of aromas flavoured with different herbs, flowers and even wine (!)





Vendors here, much like at Alexander Nevsky's flea market shoo angrily at my camera, so I give up. Perhaps Sofia just isn't for me?

Since even the market hall failed to win me over, my last resort is a leisurely lunch somewhere nice. This time luck's on my side: the restaurant turns out to be one of the absolute highlights of the entire trip

Hey - any of you been to Sofia? What did you make of it?


* In collaboration with Viinitimo and European Trade House Ltd *

___________________


ANYONE FOR SECONDS?


Bob Chorba_bulgarialainen papukeitto_vegaani_gluteeniton_kosher_2     


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