After booking an extra night in Sofia, it became my longest stay in one location since Norway, the maiden destination of my summer jaunt. I’d heard a lot from fellow inter-railers about how Sofia wasn’t ‘authentic’ and that there ‘wasn’t much to do’. The use of the term ‘authentic’ almost infuriates me. What does that even mean? Sofia is a modern capital, authentically, and there was so much to do it took me three days to do maybe half of it (I ambled in the heat).
On my first night after a very warm journey from Veliko Tarnovo, I was driven to the hotel by the father of a girl I met on the train and her boyfriend – great hospitality! I relished saying ‘hotel’ and having my own space for a night and made the most of it before getting up to switch luggage to my hostel for the next two nights and going on the Free Sofia Walking Tour. Walking in the 35C heat was a bit tough but water was the key to making it through, as well as the enthusiasm of the guide Vicky.
The tour touched on the city’s communist past, the top historic buildings and religions, and early on, we learnt that Sofia was named after the church of the same name. This came up rather comically as the statue that replaced the figure of Lenin was of a lady called Sofia, with the idea that the city was named after her. Oh dear.
Walking around, the city was obviously very modern and set up for Westerners, but it’s also the booming centre of Bulgaria where many Bulgarians now travel to from villages to work for the best salaries in the country. However, the modernity is literally built on three layers of past settlers, including the Romans and the Ottomans. Down in the Metro you can see Roman ruins and there’s actually a hotel built on a Colosseum just two metres shorter than that of Rome’s. As the tour guide pointed out, history is not preserved as well as it should be, but this will improve in the future.
The way this tour touched on communism, led me to take the communist walking tour run by 365 the next day; lasting three and a half hours, it was fascinating and included a break to help out for everyone in the heat. Some of the most interesting takeaways were learning how secret goods were imported for top officials from Western countries, however banned for everyone else; how fear was used to stopped people going to church but no actual preventive measures were taken apart from mental intimidation and how many communist structures are visually unappealing!
Apart from these tours which were honestly the best way to see as much of the city as possible and to understand what you’re seeing as well with a local, political and worldwide context, I walked some more! Unfortunately, my FitBit managed to stay at the hostel so I’m not sure how much I walked exactly,,, but it was a lot. I sat in the parks, ate a burger, visited churches, the parliament and watched the filming of a new Bollywood movie called Dimwale! A huge crew were setting up a car chase and gun fight and it was a unique way to watch the sunset on the city.
I also discovered (as no one else has found it before) the best fountain in the world:
Sofia was a great place to relax and be educated on an interesting history with key phrases like ‘eastern block’, ‘soviet union’ and ‘hyper inflation’. I didn’t once feel unsafe on my own, although the hostel cleanliness left something to be desired, and every local I met was very friendly as we communicated with gestures and noises. Sofia is worth a long weekend break, perhaps with an extra day or two if you also wish to visit the nearby Plovdiv. An interesting fact to end on, Sofia has the fanciest bus station I have ever seen and the free Wi-Fi connection has a signal strength second to none.
Actually, just to add, visiting Sofia has two annoyances; the taxis won’t take you on if the journey is less than 1km and the pavements are very jagged, uneven and unkind to luggage carriers… which I found out in due course as I struggled with my bag to the train station on my last day. Obviously not deal breakers, but good to know when making plans.