What I Like Best About Bulgaria
Bulgaria is a country that’s never been high on my radar of places that I wanted to travel to. I was curious about it, but there were other places I would have chosen to go before coming here. Since I hadn’t really thought much about the place, I didn’t really have any expectations.
Having just spent a month in Morocco, I was eager to get back to Europe. I was over the hot, dry and monochromatic feel of the place and was getting tired of seeing an uncountable number of stray cats, being bombarded by taxi drivers blaring distorted Arabic music and being surrounded sidewalk cafés lined with men drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, whiling the hours by, The instant we landed in Sofia on a warm, sunny, late autumn afternoon I felt relief. The air was clean and crisp, and the mountains bordering the southern edge of the city were covered in shades of green, orange, yellow and red.
With a population of about 1.25 million people, Sofia is a relatively small city as far as capitals go. The city centre is dissected down the middle by the pedestrianized Vitosha avenue, and the streets crossing it and running parallel to it are lined with cozy restaurants, cool bars and lots of little shops. The thing that surprised me the most was the number of really good vegetarian restaurants in the city. It didn’t take long to find my favorites, among them Sun Moon and Veda House. Overall the restaurant scene is exciting, and many, if not all of the best restaurants will always have some great vegetarian options. Some of my favorite restaurants in this camp include Made In Home, Little Things and the very traditional but oh-so-good Shtastliveca. Soup is certainly thing here, and during lunch hour Soupa Star and Soupa Bar have queues running out the door.
If you search for an image of Sofia you’ll inevitably come across her crowning glory, the Alexander Nevsky cathedral. Every person who visits the city takes at least one picture of the cathedral and posts it to their social media feed(s). It’s certainly a unique looking building, and even after a month of seeing it from various angles and through various filters, it still held on to its scenic appeal.
In stark contrast to the maze-like medinas of Morocco are the post-communist buildings that outnumber the pre-communism structures of Sofia. While uninspired and overwhelmingly grey, they serve as a constant reminder of the defining political movement of the 20th century. For an interesting glimpse into what life was like during these times, the Museum of Socialist Art has an impressive display of statues and painting which are representative of these oppressive times.
Bulgaria lies in the middle of the Balkan peninsula, which was a heavy traffic area for the Romans. There are Roman ruins all around and under the city. There are also lots of areas where the ruins are still being excavated, and at the main traffic intersection of the city centre, the ruins are being displayed as a kind of open-air museum as they blend with a heavily-transited walking corridor lined with little cafés and shops selling rose oil. Every day thousands of pedestrians pass through this area, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they’re walking on the same stones and retracing the footsteps of the Emperors and Noblemen the inhabited the lands well over a thousand years ago.
Anybody who’s into outdoor adventure inevitably ends up heading south of Sofia to the Rila mountains. One of the coolest hikes done in recent memory took us up to the Rila Seven Lakes. The drive from Sofia to the base of Vitosha mountain is under 2 hours. After a half-hour chair lift ride to the Rila Lake Lodge, we embarked on a 3 hour climb to an elevation of 2,600 meters. As you ascend you encounter a handful of small lakes, one after the other. The climax of the hike comes when you reach a vantage point where you can see all 7 lakes at once. Back down at the base of the mountain and not far away is the nearby town of Sapareva Banya and its mineral springs. This is something that the Bulgarian tourism board hasn’t learned to capitalize on, but for those who seek it out, it’s a rewarding way to end an active day.
Sofia isn’t the only Bulgarian city with Roman ruins, far from in fact. The city with the best-preserved ruins in the Balkans is Plovdiv. In addition to an impressive Amphitheatre you can also see sections of a coliseum 500 metres in length, running under the main pedestrian avenue.
If Roman history isn’t really your thing and you’re more into medieval times, Veliko Tarnovo is a must-visit city. It was the strongest Bulgarian fortification in the Middle Ages – from the 12th to 14th Century – and a large part of the fortress ruins are still very much intact. Even though there’s very little signage in information in English, given the great condition that the site is in it’s easy to visualize what life must have looked like 700 years ago.
In a country steeped in such rich history, one area that most people can appreciate but often overlook is its viniculture. Dating back to 5th century BC, Bulgaria is one of the oldest wine producing regions in Europe. Branching out to the North, East or South of Sofia you’re an easy day trip to a handful of good wineries which offer tastings and tours of the vineyards. My favorite is Medi Valley, just over an hour south of the capital.
Given that while I was in Bulgaria I was holding down my regular job and working full-time hours, most of my time was spent in Sofia. I found it to be a very low-key and livable city full of humble people. It’s a very affordable city and an easy place to call home for a while. The range of activities and sites to see on Sofia’s doorstep is impressive. Since Bulgaria is largely underdeveloped from a large-scale tourism perspective, you always get the sense that you’re in on some kind of secret. Therein lies its charm.