Travelling Light

Sofia, Bulgaria, August 28, 2014: Sofia – wow. Wow. WOW!

Sofia is one of the most beautiful European capitals we have seen to date. It has a long and impressive history, with the area being inhabited since prehistoric times.

The Romans conquered the Thracian inhabitants of the area (we have now moved from the stomping grounds of ancient Illyria, which was centred on the Adriatic, to ancient Thrace, which was centred on the Black Sea), and established a settlement here, which they called Serdica. Serdica was a favourite city of Constantine, who became Emperor Constantine (of Constantinople fame), also known as Constantine The Great.

He made Christianity an official religion of the Roman Empire, and when the empire split, Constantine ruled the eastern part, which became Byzantium – an empire which lasted a thousand years, and whose legacy includes all the Eastern Orthodox churches. While Byzantium was the capital, Constantine spent a lot of time in Serdica, which he called “my Rome”.

This church is one of the first Christian churches built in Serdica. The above-ground part is unchanged since it was first built. Who would have imagined the Romans building in red brick? Like the Australians, they quickly adopted the notion of rendering over the red bricks, at least on the inside of the building …

We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the church, where the render is painted in intricate detail, with pre-Christian symbols overlaid with more orthodox iconcography in later layers of plaster.

Sofia is a city which cares about beauty. Even though there was a communist government, and rows of ugly concrete blocks were thrown up on the city fringes, the lovely older buildings in the city centre were left intact.

Even the new underground metro stations are designed with grace and beauty in mind.

This mosque dates back to the fifteenth century, when the Turks conquered, occupied, or enlightened the region (depending on whose history you read).

The inside was almost completely tiles with lovely blue and white designs. Here and there were panels depicting plants and flowers. Even though it was being renovated, it was still quite beautiful, and it was the first fully tiled mosque we had seen in Europe.

In Bulgaria, as in other countries in the region, there are ethnic tensions. One group particularly reviled are the gypsies. Although they are called “the Romany” in Western Europe, they are not ethnically Romanian. In both Hungary and Romania, the theory is that the gypsies originally came from India. There is also a theory we have heard elsewhere that “gypsy” is derived from “Egyptian”.

Either way, the main criticism of the gypsies seems to be their work ethic. They don’t like working regular hours for someone else – they prefer marginalised entrepreneurial activities like collecting scrap metal, busking, or selling flowers. We can understand the desire to have the freedom to determine how you spend your time.

During excavations for the second metro line, workers came across the remains of the ancient city of Serdica. Work halted, archaeologists were called in, and the metro was rerouted around the area. It is fortunate that the metro was built in this century, and not in the communist era, because the result may have been different!

Next to the ruins of Serdica is one of the first Christian churches built during the Ottoman period (the Turkish occupation). At some point during the five hundred years of Turkish rule, moderate rulers allowed the Orthodox Christians in their territories to build churches – as long as they were set at least a metre deep in the ground, to ensure their spires remained lower than the minarets of the nearby mosques.

This answered a question which had been niggling at us since we started seeing these small, half-underground churches in Kosovo! Although we later spoke to someone from Turkey and … well, that’s a tale for another day, another city, and another note …

Also in the same block is an Orthodox cathedral, which dates back to before the Turkish occupation. The stones in the outer walls are honeycombed with holes – there was obviously a softer stone mixed with a harder one in the original blocks. We can foresee structural problems developing eventually.

It is spectacular inside, as are all Orthodox churches. Tom speculates that if the Catholic churches he went to as a child were are colourfully decorated as Orthodox churches are, he might have been less bored and resentful about having to attend Mass every week.

Sofia also has some spectacularly beautiful public buildings that were constructed during the communist era. This one now houses a government department, a business centre, and a police station.

There are also a lot of parks around the Sofia city centre. This particular park was built on the site of a former communist edifice. The public decided that they would rather have a pleasant recreation area than remember the heroes of the Communist Revolution.

After walking through the park, we discovered the Bulgarian National Theatre building, where there was a group of local musicians busking. Yes, that’s gold on the mouldings!

By this time, we needed to go and meet our friend Marta, who lives in Sofia during the summer, for lunch. So much amazement, in just half a day. But there was more to come!

(No, not the flashing elephant. Something much more exciting.)

For more photos of all the amazing things in Sofia, check out the album: