A while ago, I mentioned that in Macedonia, I bought 3 litres of excellent local beer for $4 and that therefore, Macedonia was the best country in the world.
I’m sorry Macedonia, but you are now only the second best country in the world, as I got 2 litres of excellent Bulgarian beer for only $2!
Some of you will have seen my Colin’s Notes Facebook post where I was mentioning my plan for a road trip from Athens to Belgrade. I was doing it to ask for advice, and my friend Valentin sent me not just advice, but a detailed itinerary! I had met Valentin in Ethiopia (he had also travelled to the incredible – and somewhat dangerous – Danakil Depression, and he was inviting me to visit his city, Sofia.
Apart from the good beer, by having the guidance of a local resident I was also able to sample local traditional cooking outside of tourist-oriented restaurants. This delicious chicken and vegetables were all grilled on a gigantic BBQ right in the dining area of the restaurant. The BBQ is so big that, with a day or two of notice, you can ask them to roast an entire pig or lamb for you (and hopefully, a lot of your friends). Also note the dish in the centre, Bulgaria’s version of Quebec’s poutine (french fries with soft white cheese, covered with a brown gravy – no gravy in the Bulgarian version). Another time, I also tried the rice with chicken lungs. That is the last thing I will ever say about chicken lungs (although it doesn’t beat the time I ate caterpillars in Zambia).
I went to Valentin’s apartment and he described the view I had from the kitchen window as: “A typical communist neighbourhood”! After walking around a little, I thought the area was a lot better than I had expected. I think it is a Western bias, since in North America and some Western European countries, several ill-conceived low-income housing projects were built based on the same Soviet model in the second half of the 20th century. Nowadays, these neighbourhoods are almost always dumps and the worst part of town. But this is not the case at all here, those are perfectly normal neighbourhoods, and almost all the apartments are occupied by their owner. So, while the architecture is depressing, the area is not. The parks are filled with kids playing, not gangs and junkies, and the streets are full of people going somewhere, not sitting around doing nothing.
I headed by myself for the university town of Veliko Tarnovo. It reminded me a lot of the Canadian town of Kingston: similar size, old (a relative term when comparing Bulgarian and Canadian towns), with a major university and a military college. It was a lovely town to just walk around in, and I met several week-end tourists from neighbouring Romania.
For a city of less than 70,000 people, Veliko Tarnovo has a very impressive art gallery. In front of it, the monument to the Asen Dynasty, the 12th and 13th century Second Bulgarian Empire.
During that Second Bulgarian Empire, Tsarevets was the main fortress of the dynasty, until the Ottoman Empire destroyed it, in 1393. It is only a short walk from the city centre. I headed over to accomplish my life-long dream of dancing on the walls of the Tsarevets Fortress.
Darned! They banned it! That was not the only problematic signage. What was installed by the Bulgarians was in Bulgarian and English. But some of the restoration was paid by the Germans, but probably the old East Germans. Therefore, the explanatory panels for tourists are in Bulgarians (of course), German (fair enough, they paid for it), and Russian! Not very useful for 90% of the World’s tourists.
The Palace of the Patriarch, on top of the fortress.
The town, seen from the Palace.
Back in Sofia, Valentin took me on a city tour. In front of all the important Government buildings, this statue of the city’s patron saint keeps watch. A few years ago, this was a statue of Lenin!
The former Communist Party Headquarter, on Independence Square, across from Saint Sofia’s statue.
This monument honours the “Tsar of Liberation”, Alexander II, who led Russian troops against the Turks in 1878 and liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule.
This important historical relationship with Russia led to a very strange fact in Bulgarian history. Bulgaria was part of the Axis Powers during World War II and declared war on the United States and the British Empire. However, against much German insistence, it refused to declare war on the Soviet Union. Eventually, the Soviet Union declared war on them and entered the capital without any battles taking place. They then built this very awkward monument commemorating their victory over Bulgaria, in Bulgaria! Odd location, but also odd concept to build such a heroic looking monument to commemorate a “battle” in which nobody got hurt!
There has been much discussion about tearing it down, or keeping it as a part of the country’s history. If you’re visiting with a Bulgarian, you will realize that the place is controversial. The erased graffiti reads something like “Russian dogs”.
The lion is the National Symbol of Bulgaria. This one keeps watch on the tomb of the unknown soldier.
The Alexander Nevski cathedral, the church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria. The angle I photographed it from actually hides its true size; it can hold 10,000 worshippers.
The beautiful Ivan Vazov National Theatre.
And the ugly! This horror was supposed to be some modern creation celebrating the nation, but it turned out to be unstable or otherwise unsafe. Construction was halted, parts of it were taken down, and now a lot of arguments go on about what to do with it.
Unfortunately, it is located at the entrance of a very beautiful and popular plaza (top right). These fountains are apparently quite nice, but I was there too early in the year to see them in operation.
Residents of Sofia love their parks and go there in droves, even in the middle of the week (Valentin attributed that in part to the presence of students and high unemployment).
Another park, in front of the old public bath house. Officially it is currently being renovated, but that really means it is closed indefinitely, as politicians can’t agree on what to do with it.
The baths used to be fed by thermal sources and you can still collect the hot water in a nearby fountain park. As my road trip was accelerating furiously, that was all time I had in Bulgaria and I boarded a night train to Serbia.