Sofia is one of the oldest cities on the continent. Hardly any capital offers such a history as the Bulgarian capital or so many serious problems. Which capital city has an impressive mountain range right next door? Sofia. What offers does ‘Hollywood Light’ offer? Sofia.
Sofia, Bulgaria, March 16, 2019. Update: April 2, 2022 (The Berlin Spectator) — Getting to Sofia is easy. Simply hop in this vehicle from Western Europe, fire up the eight cylinders and head south-west. Keep going even if you think you’ve already crossed it. At some point, just before the Serbian city of Niš, you need to turn left or east.
Away from the rising sun
From Istanbul it should be the north-western approach for 550 kilometers. Drive three hours down the Trakia Freeway from Burgas on the Black Sea, away from the rising sun. Sofia will be right in front of you. Enjoy.
Sofia is horrible and wonderful, unhealthy and inspirational, loud and romantic, ugly and a sight to behold. It’s the place to be, the place to leave asap for some, and home for many.
This city, which was called Serdika thousands of years ago, got hipper by the minute. There are a lot more hipsters on the streets today than there were fifteen years ago. Back then, the barely existent, tiny middle class had to deal with existential questions like “How the hell am I going to pay my next rent?”. It’s hard to roll onto your hips in a situation like this.
push for progress
Today, hip youngsters work in the business park in the south of the city or study at the University of Sofia. For lunch, they went to Fabrika Duga on Veslets Street, one of the few hipster-friendly places in Sofia. Here you have the choice between “homemade” cake, hot asparagus soup and unidentifiable things with lots of herbs on top. Your politically correct food actually tastes good.
The hipster men with long beards and Led Zeppelin T-shirts somehow seem less natural than the women who wear most blouses and skirts. But they all seem like very nice people. The existence of hipsters in a city is a sign of progress. Also, they are usually peaceful.
Mayor Yordanka Fandakova and her people in the city of Sofia are pushing for progress. They use funds provided by the European Union, and they must. Since there hasn’t been a transport policy for several decades, things need to be changed, repaired and built, like the third subway line that is now operational.
Fish doesn’t kill
All measures that could help improve the air quality in Sofia must be implemented urgently. In most other European cities, alarm bells go off when the concentration of fine particles in the air reaches 40 to 50 μm, which is already an unhealthy level. Values between 150 and 1,000 μm (no typo) are often registered in Sofia in winter. That means Sofia’s breath literally kills.
But not fish. Neither are the cherries, clothes, pots, pans, herbs and honey jars for sale at the women’s bazaar in the center of town, a great spot for breaks from over-the-top fruit consumption.
The Great Synagogue is about 200 meters down the road. It is one of the meeting places of the small Jewish community, the place for Shabbat and high holidays, and a place to see for tourists. The history of Bulgarian Jews is more than interesting.
Largest temple by far
Together with the big mosque and two churches, the synagogue is part of the so-called tolerance triangle. Harmony probably wouldn’t be the right word, but these temples belong to three religions (or four, depending on how they’re counted). These communities seem to accept each other.
In recent years, the only acts of hostility, including verbal and physical violence, have come from far-right parties and groups who did not want to hear the mufti’s prayers through those loudspeakers on the minaret, and who continued to stage the ‘Lukov March’ in honor of a Nazis of that name.
By far the largest temple in the city and country is located on the other side of the center of Sofia: the Aleksandar Nevsky Cathedral. It is Sofia’s main tourist attraction and belongs to the Orthodox Christians, who form the largest religion in this predominantly atheistic country of Bulgaria.
Toothbrushes on construction sites
Sofia is much older than any other capital in Europe. It is since the 8th millennium BC. an area of uninterrupted human habitation, which is much easier to believe when you look at the 4000-year-old walls and other stones at Serdika Metro Station or the Museum of Archaeology.
There is so much history in Sofia, especially underground, that it annoys even people. Whenever a large new building is erected, workers find parts of old walls or even old treasures. Most of the time, they have to pause their construction until archaeologists invade the site with their small shovels, spoons, and toothbrushes to examine the finds.
Depending on what exactly they find, this can delay a building’s completion by a year and completely mess up the architectural plans. In some cases, the Ministry of Culture orders builders to incorporate parts of the city wall or other finds into the objects they build.
The Doner Lawyer
In terms of its inhabitants, Sofia, the city with that beautiful name, is probably the least international capital in the European Union. However, thanks to low-cost airlines, some tourists came for weekend breaks before the pandemic followed them.
The diplomatic corps is obviously made up of foreigners. The cultural institutes, some schools and some companies employ people from abroad. There are also some foreign students. But the foreign community is tiny in comparison.
Hussein B. is one of them. The Syrian lawyer is one of the few refugees who have chosen to stay in Bulgaria and one of the few foreigners running small businesses. He offers kebabs with built-in fries and excellent felafel on the corner of Vestelts Street and Czar Simeon Street.
surface of the moon
Poverty is a big problem throughout Bulgaria. Most Bulgarians of Roma origin are unemployed, uneducated, marginalized and discriminated against. Retirees are in trouble too. Most of them have to live on the equivalent of around 100 euros a month, which is simply impossible. Many sell chewing gum, honey or flowers at markets or on the streets to raise some extra money for food, heating and medicine.
The infrastructure is slowly improving. Until recently, central boulevards and intersections were almost impassable because they were full of huge potholes, thousands of them. For decades nobody had really cared about it. Recently, Mayor Fandakova began to address these issues. While many streets still resemble the surface of the moon, many major boulevards are now fine.
city of extremes
Back then, fifteen years ago, the whole city was full of stray dogs. They controlled Sofia city center at night and attacked pedestrians. Some people were even killed. Today there are still hundreds of stray dogs in the outskirts. NGOs like Animal Rescue Sofia take in many dogs, neuter them and ship some of them to Western Europe. Some are lucky enough to find a new home there. (Read the separate article “Unlimited Love in a Dog Kennel in Bulgaria”).
Sofia has hospitals that look more like garbage dumps. On the other hand, there are seven elegant shopping centers that have a very American feel and offer all the brands that are available in Western European cities.
In the Fakulteta district or in Orlandovtsi, Sofia’s Roma slums, families live under Third World conditions. On the other side of town, at the foot of the Vitosha Mountains, some of the richest Bulgarians have built themselves palaces with the most luxurious interiors imaginable. Sofia is definitely a city of extremes.
Low rents are high
One of the special places in Sofia is also in the expensive Boyana district. Nu Boyana Film Studios offers all the services Hollywood is known for, but at a fraction of the price. Big film shoots, even in the center of Sofia, are the order of the day. Nobody should be surprised if they meet Morgan Freeman or Gerard Butler in the Bulgarian capital.
Compared to Western Europe, prices in Sofia are still relatively low. A decent meal at “Happy” costs around 6 euros, or 8 euros with drinks, unless it involves more courses, sushi or steaks. Rents are also low, energy costs almost the same as in other parts of the continent and far too high for many residents whose salaries are scandalously low. Due to this aspect, the low rents are actually high from the point of view of most Bulgarians.
Using public transport in Sofia is an adventure. You’ve bought dozens of new buses with WiFi and air conditioning and a few new trams, but there’s nothing quite like being stuck in a traffic jam on an old bus in 42 degrees Celsius (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit) with 100 other passengers. Even the most modern trams, including 28 gifts from Switzerland, have to slow down to walking speed because the condition of the tracks is so bad that the vehicles are damaged.
Kind of exotic
Sofia is not Budapest or Prague. It’s not Bucharest either. But because it’s still kind of exotic, because it has good nightlife (except when the corona infection numbers are high) and because there’s so much history, it’s also worth a visit for hipsters. In the vicinity of the small Doctor’s Garden Park there are two other places that offer “homemade” vegan cakes or similar delicacies. Those cafes played over and over again the only Janis Joplin CD they had.
Welcome to Sofia, on the south-eastern edge of Europe. You say your capital is old? think again Sofia is the city where no means yes and yes no, also because shaking the head means yes and nodding means no. It’s the place where you have to lie down on the street to be able to buy a can of Coke through a basement window.
Sofia is where the strong win and the poor are largely left behind. But it is also the sexy capital that hardly anyone knows and a capital with a thousand-year history. Enjoy it. Just don’t breathe too much.