Words: Len Rutledge.
Photographs: Phensri Rutledge.
A spectacular cathedral, Roman ruins, restored markets and delightful gardens are just a few of the joys of central Sofia, Bulgaria’s interesting capital. My wife and I arrived knowing little about the city and we discovered a place which we really enjoyed. Sofia’s main sights are nearly all located within a short walking distance of each other. After some sightseeing, dining and relaxing we left vowing that we would return to explore further before long.
Tsar Osvoboditel Monument.
This monument portrays the Russian Tsar Alexander II on horseback. It was erected in gratitude for the liberation of Bulgaria in 1878 from Ottoman rule. The 14-metre high statue is by the Italian sculptor Arnaldo Zucci. Around the pedestal are statues of Russian and Bulgarian fighters. In the spring the small garden around it is covered with flowers. The monument was restored in 2012 to its original condition.
National Assembly Building.
Across the road is this grand Neo-Renaissance style white structure from 1885 which houses the parliament. It is depicted on the Bulgarian 20 leva banknote. In 1997 the building was stormed and damaged, leading to the eventual downfall of the then ruling Socialist party. The words on the facade translate to something like “United we are strong” while on the roof are a row of Grecian-style urns. The interior has been refurbished several times but its original appearance has been basically preserved.
Alexander Nevski Cathedral.
This is without a doubt the most spectacular building in Sofia. The Neo-Byzantine style building is said to hold 8000 people. There are five aisles and three altars, some lovely stained glass windows, Venetian mosaics and dramatic murals. It is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. It was started in 1882 but was not finished until 1912. The crypt below the cathedral is part of the National Art Gallery and there is art from the 4th to the 19th centuries. The focus is primarily on icon painting.
It is just a hundred metres or so to another important church. This is the oldest Eastern Orthodox church in Sofia and the contrast in style between it and the cathedral could not be starker. The simple red brick church dates back to the 5th century and it gave its name to the present day capital back in the 14th century. During the Ottoman period, it was turned into a mosque but it was restored as a church after the liberation. Just outside the church burns the Eternal Flame of the Unknown Soldier where we watched a dignified military tribute taking place.
Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd., known locally as the ‘Yellow Brick Road, is where you find this small and beautifully ornate Russian Church with its five golden onion domes. It was apparently built for a Russian diplomat who was afraid to worship in Bulgarian churches. While the outside is lovely, the interior, which is currently under repair, is quite dark. You can see the box where people place notes and wishes hoping for a miracle.
National Art Gallery.
This former Royal Palace has been partial renovated in recent times. It houses the national Art Gallery and the Ethnographic Museum. On entering the building you will see the impressive staircase that leads to the rococo-decorated rooms. The gallery space is very limited but there are some nice works on display. We hear that a brand new museum of art is being built. After viewing the art, go to the cafe at the back of the building which serves good tea and coffee in the peaceful garden with old trees.
Ivan Varov National Theatre.
Cross the road and walk through the park to the neoclassical theatre building which opened in 1907. It is imposing from the front with its large pediment supported on six white marble columns. Behind this, rise twin towers crowned with sculptures of the goddess, Nike. On a nice day, the area outside has stylish street cafes and when we visited there was an orchestra playing. The theatre has three stages with the main one able to seat 750 people. The building has been damaged by fire and bombs over the years but a restoration project a few years ago has returned it to excellent condition.
A little further west along the yellow brick road is this museum, the oldest in Bulgaria. It has been in this location inside the old Bujuk Mosque since 1899. The mosque itself dates back to the 15th century. The highlights include the Valchitran gold treasure from the 14th century BC, pre-historical monuments, many icons and the more recent Thracian gold discoveries. Quite a few of the exhibits have English descriptions, but the Thracian gold room has excellent and extensive English explanations.
St. George Rotunda.
Cross the road and enter the courtyard of the Presidency building. The 4th century round red brick church sits amongst the excavations of an ancient Roman town called Serdica. This is Sofia’s oldest preserved building and it is open to the public. The highlight is the three layers of frescoes under the dome, the earliest dating back to the 10th century. These were painted over during the Ottoman period when the building was used as a mosque.
Along the way he has started a newspaper, a travel magazine, a Visitor and TV guide and completed a PhD in tourism. His travels have taken him to more than 100 countries and his writings have collected a PATA award, an ASEAN award, an IgoUgo Hall of Fame award and other recognition.
He is the author of the Experience Guide ebook series which currently includes Experience Thailand, Experience Norway, Experience Northern Italy, Experience Myanmar, Experience Istanbul, Experience Singapore and Experience Ireland.