SOFIA by Lauren Prokes

Don’t let the outskirts of Sofia fool you.

Don’t let the outskirts of Sofia fool you. Upon seeing some houses that had seen better days, I was then pleasantly surprised to see that the Centre of Sofia was rich in history and boasts pretty Art Nouveau Palaces (well to be honest, one Palace). Sofia is the Capital of Bulgaria and was once a Thracian settlement (4th Century BC) and then later was ruled by Alexander the Great and his father before the Romans conquered in around 29 BC.

I have only been to Eastern Europe on site inspections before but had never visited the Balkans. I believe this was the first time I had seen ruins so ancient, so I was quite excited.

My wonderful private guide Dafine showed me these ruins – first the Christian Church of St George (4th Century) with its yard of former Roman houses, complete with their heated floor structures still intact. Like most of the churches in Sofia, its frescos were painted over during Ottoman rule and used as a Mosque.

Next, we went inside Hagia Sofia Church, which was built on the site of earlier places of worship and was also a Roman necropolis. (I wanted to see this crypt, but it won’t be open until August 2012). Again, during Ottoman rule it was used as a Mosque and the frescos were destroyed. Other Roman ruins include a fortress (located in an underpass) and an Arena, complete with animal footprints on the tiles! (Located in the Arena Serdica Lobby).

We also visited the impressive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the biggest church in the Balkans and styled in the Byzantine fashion (strange to build a church looking like a mosque, especially when Bulgarians describe Ottoman rule as their darkest period in history, worse than the Nazi or Soviet eras!)

We saw the outside of a Synagogue, a Russian Orthodox Church and the last remaining Mosque in Sofia. Lastly, we had a cheap but tasty lunch at an undercover market.

And this was all on my first day of sightseeing!

The second day, Dafine and I travelled with our driver in a private car 2 hours through forest and small towns (complete with elderly Bulgarian ladies selling honey by the side of the road, men working the fields and even a few random chickens wandering about) to reach the famed and holy site, Rila Monastery (10TH Century).

We were lucky enough to witness a baptism of 3 children in the Bulgarian Orthodox style, before visiting the amazingly decorated (inside and out!) church..

The drawcard of the museum is the beautiful, intricate wooden crucifix “Rafael’s Cross”. It was made by a monk who used 1 piece of wood to create 104 religious scenes and 650 figures, all in 3D (and tiny!).

We stopped for lunch (included on the private tour) at a typical Bulgarian restaurant (famous for its trout) and listened to the babbling river, watching the green forested mountains. It was so relaxing and one of my favourite parts of Bulgaria! Well that and the famous Bulgarian donuts with icing sugar we bought just outside the monastery for about 25 cents and CANNOT be found in Sofia! BUY AS MANY AS YOU CAN FIT IN YOUR BAG!

Sofia can be done as part of a group tour (which visits Serbia and Romania also) but the best way to see everything and have a tailor made itinerary is to do it privately with your own driver and guide. The line is a lot shorter for the ladies loo too!

Maverick Travel would like to thank Lauren Prokes at Eastern Europe Travel for this lovely insight into Sofia.