Travelling Light

Sofia, Bulgaria, August 28-29, 2014: Even more WOW!

After an excellent lunch, Marta took us to see the first cathedral built after the liberation of Bulgaria from the Turks – The Alexander Nevsky Monumental Cathedral. It is built proudly above ground, with domes covered in real gold.

The Bulgarians were liberated from the Turks in 1878, but the cathedral took a long time to build. It was completed in 1916, and consecrated in 1924.

Inside, it is lavishly decorated, as are all Orthodox churches. It has three naves, and there are smaller altars in the side naves. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, but we did get one in the narthex (entry area).

Like Catholics, Orthodox Christians light candles both to remember their dead, and for the fulfilment of their wishes. There were quite a few ornate candle stands full of sand, glowing with light.

The image in the central dome is designed so that no matter where you stand in the church, you can see the eyes of God, watching you. This seems to be a comforting notion to Orthodox Christians, whereas it has a more frightening implication for Catholic children.

Beside the Alexander Nevsky Monumental Cathedral is a quiet, unassuming red brick building known as Basilica Hagia Sofia, or St Sofia Church.

Alert readers may prick up their ears at the mention of red bricks. This is, indeed, a church built in Roman times. It was, in fact, the first Christian church in the area, but as it has been expanded several times, the building itself as we see it now dates back to the 5th century, rather than the 4th century honours claimed by the church of St George.

This diagram shows the footprint of the original church, and where it sits relative to the current-day church. They can be so precise about it, because the original church is still on the site – archaeologists have been exploring under the church, where they have found mosaic floors from the first and second churches, and tombs dating back to the second century.

There are several windows in the floor, where you can look down into the excavations, and through one of the windows we saw people down there! The search was on to find the stairs downward. We found a few sets of stairs which were closed off, but finally, in the front corner of the left nave, we found an open set of stairs.

There was an entry fee (worth it at almost any price) and an additional fee if you wanted to take photos (which always feels a bit offensive). And, as luck would have it, there is free entry on Thursdays, which today happened to be! How good is that?

The below-ground tour began with a five-minute video about the ancient Roman settlement of Serdica, and Emperor Constantine, which is on Youtube, so you can watch it here:

We then explored many chambers and corridors (so many!), which have been set up with viewing portals into the excavated tombs (no bones or bodies), displays of items found in the tombs, and explanations of the different levels and when they were built.

In some places, we were walking on the actual walls built 1700 years ago or more. (That can’t be good for conserving them, can it?)

This tomb is one of the earlier ones, as demonstrated by the almost total lack of traditional Christian iconography. Instead, it has pagan floral and plant motifs. The ratio of Christian to pagan symbols increased across the decades, with the later tombs being almost devoid of floral emblems, other than the occasional stylised lily in a corner.

The earlier tombs are from the second century AD, while the lastest one is from the fourth century. By then, the necropolis was too full for any more burials, even though they had been building new tombs over old ones for a hundred years or so, and they started another cemetery elsewhere.

This is a piece of the original mosiac floor from the second church (essentially a rectangular extension tacked on the back of the original church, which was only about nine square metres plus a curved semi-circular alter area).

At first, we couldn’t believe this was the original. For a start, it had steel bars in a grid behind it. And then there was the standing-on-its-side business. And the fact that it was in the open, where anyone could touch it (and Jenny did).

However, we found out from one of the staff hat it is, indeed, original. The steel bars were added when it was found in the early 20th century, because that was how they preserved such things in those times. It is only a piece of the original, and the rest is off being properly restored and preserved. We didn’t specifically ask, but we assume this piece will ultimately join the rest of the floor and be properly maintained.

Words cannot describe how fortunate we feel to have passed through just as this exhibit was opening, and before everything was hermetically sealed away.

We were politely asked to leave when the staff wanted to go home for the day, and reluctantly left the fascinating excavations. Nearby, we found an astrnomical observatory tower, with a herioc statue in front of it. Even after reading the Bulgarian inscription, Marta coudn’t enlighten us as to its function. The statue looked good, though.

Nearby, we passed by this. Doesn’t that look just like a Roman-era tomb? Just sitting there – no plaque, no explanation. They just built the paved area around it. History is so close to the surface here, you can literally fall over it …

We popped in to see the Russian Orthodox church (it’s nice outside, but nothing much to see inside, we were told -!!-), and even though the outside was being renovated, the gold balls on the roof were pretty dazzling. The inside was beautifully decorated, Orthodox style. The people here seem to take this stuff for granted.

They are similar, perhaps, to those Sydney commuters who spend their journey with their faces in their iPhones, and completely fail to register the gobsmacking natural beauty of Sydney Harbour as they cross the bridge or ride the ferries.

Tuckered out from all our church appreciation, we sat for a while in one of the multitudinous parks, and then headed to the pedestrian mall in the city centre to have dinner at a restaurant there. Notice it is still broad daylight – summer in the higher latitudes is marvellous.

Vitosha Boulevarde used to be a street of exclusive clothing boutiques, but the advent of large suburban shopping malls has made life difficult for shops on the streets, which are hot and dusty in summer, and cold and windy in winter. The street has been closed to traffic, and all but one block have been paved, so it is a great location for ourdoor dining (at least in summer). The shops are progressively being replaced by upmarket bars, cafes, and restaurants.

There are a number of street performers along Vitosha Boulevarde, and some of them, like this one, we considered talented enough to encourage with a donation. Tom spent quite some time trying to figure out how he was suspended. The best we could figure was that there was a seat attached to the stick via a support inside his sleeve, but the physics of the weight distribution were impressive anyway, even if that was the case.

He could move both legs, and the fingers on the stick (but he never lifted the hand from the top of the stick). Bonus points to anyone who can come up with an explanation of how this is done …

We just had time to get down and look at the National Palace of Culture at the end of Vitosha Boulevarde before dinner. It is a 1970s communist-era building, again not a horrible block of concrete (Bulgaria and Romania had more artistic communists than Hungary, Serbia, and Macedonia, clearly!), and it has a large monument to the communist struggles outside it, which is falling apart. Literally, pieces are falling off it, and there is a safety fence to keep people away from possible concussion.

Since Sofia is applying to be nominated a Capital of European Culture in 2019, they are going to do something about the sculpture. There is a design competition under way to come up with a replacement. Well, not exactly a replacement, because they don’t really want to carry on remembering the communist struggle, but something else to go there.

We had a great meal with Marta’s family and friends (including a chicken tortilla wrap which went a long way to repairing the wounds Tom was still nursing from The Great Burrito Betrayal Of 2014), and headed home way too late for people who had to pack and check out the next morning.

Our train to Bucharest left at 6.45pm, so we had plenty of time after we checked out to catch those last few sights, get inside a couple more churches, drink some hot chocolate, and buy fruit and bread for the overnight train journey.

This last mission was the one in which Tom dropped an apple in the produce market, prompting the vendor to have a temper tantrum and refuse to serve him, even though he was offering to buy the one he dropped. It has been nearly twenty years since the end of communism, but communist-era customer service still prevails in Sofia!

We had a final Bulgarian kebab and pancakes, and then saddled up with our bags and walked to the station, just a few hundred metres from Hotel Cheap. We found the train in plenty of time, despite there being no platform on the indicator board, and even had time to spend our last few Bulgarian lev on two mediocre ice creams before the train departed.

Next stop – Bucharest!