In this journal:
- a Soviet restaurant;
- a chapel coated in 5 layers of history;
- 7 jewels in the sky.
Welcome to the country few have thought about, mentioned, or even known, in Europe. A place where people live happy lives only to be disturbed, again, and again. A region where roses bloom a sweet fragrance, while corruption runs rampant. This is Bulgaria, and I happened to be passing by thanks to some cheap flights that I found. Honestly, without the existence of modern low coast carriers in Europe, I probably would not have made my way to this corner of the continent as easily. As a result, I appreciate the opportunity, and hope you can enjoy this enigmatic place as much as I did. Mostly focused on Sofia, the capital city, this journal will give you an insight of Bulgaria, a country to grows forever, but never ages.
The capital of Bulgaria sits underneath the formidable Vitosha Mountain, a 2290m/7510ft massif overlooking the entire metropolis, from merely 20 kilometers outside the very center. The most prominent walkway in the city, Vitosha Boulevard, gains its name for being straight pointing at this symbol of the city. On the 1-km long stretch of the pedestrian part, you can find virtually all kinds of posh brands and trendy cafes. This is the main thoroughfare that I used every day to get around places, as it was incredibly relaxing to walk on a relatively quiet main street without the interference of noisy traffic or featureless factories. There is always something new every day, be it a busking musician, happy hour in a pop-up bar, or a sale put up in the clothing stores.
Sofia has an incredibly long history of human settlement, thanks to the abundance of the best mineral spring one can get, provided by mother Vitosha. Besides the typical paleolithic traces, the city was officially established sometime around 2000 years before the advent of Christ. Ever since, every generation of Bulgarian had been utilizing the free water source, and that includes today. Bottled water is not a thing here in the capital, as everyone can come up to one of the many fountains that provide clean, potable, slightly warm water constantly flooding out of the aquifer. It was incredibly sweet and definitely beneficial with the rich minerals dissolved, and I could not resist the judging eyes of local elderlies when I decided to chug gallons of free water that you have to pay thousands of dollars for in China.
The first people to drink these waters were a Celtic tribe called Serdets, and during classic antiquity, the Thracian, and later, the Romans took over the land after defeating the Serdics, naming the city Serdica. It slowly became an important city on the route called Via Militarus connecting Singidunum(now Belgrade) and Byzantium(now Istanbul), and quickly blossomed to a recognizable size. Now, underneath the central metro station called Serdika, you can find a vast ruin of the old town, complete with turrets, walls, moats and more. A few Roman emperors were born here, and Constantine the Great even considered to establish the capital of the Byzantine Empire at Serdica instead of Constantinople, claiming “Serdica mea Roma est.” (Serdica is my Rome.) In 4th century, the oldest church in Bulgaria, Saint Sophia Church, was established on the small hill right outside the ancient walls. It slowly gained a symbol status for the establishment because one would always see the Byzantine tower of the church before the walls of the city, hence giving the city its new name: Sofia, an equivalent to holy wisdom in old Christian mythologies.
Another church built during the same period is the Church of Saint George, which is a perfect reflection of the layered history of Sofia. Originally consecreated in 4th century, the small chapel now has 5 layers of internal frescos, each piled on top of another. The Roman-Byzanine floral reliefs are below the 10th century Bulgarian angels, which are covered with 12th century prophets, and that was obscured by a 14th century bishop’s portrait, which is finally layered up with Ottoman Islamic reliefs. Now, this historical monument sits in the courtyard of the Presidential Palace, right in front of a part of the Sheraton Hotel. Yeah, quite a change of pace, eh?
The middle ages marked the destruction of the city by Huns, and later, it was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire. Then, it became a part of the Ottoman Empire, even though most of the Bulgarians do not want to be under Islamic rule, despite the region’s millenia-long relationship with the closeby Turkey. Mostly, the Ottomans tolerated religion diversity, and the strange existence of Church of St. Petka of Saddlers was built. Nobody knew when it appeared in the city center, but it contains paintings from 11th, 14th and 15th century, honoring the paron saint of saddle repairers and makers, Saint Petka, a Bulgarian man. Right behind it, you can see the now city symbol, a large golden Statue of Sveta Sophia, holding a crown for power, a fame for wealth, and an owl for wisdom. To a random visitor, it may seem incredibly ancient, but it was only commissioned to replace a Lenin statue in 2000!
During the 5 centuries of Muslim rule, the city grew quite a bit, and during its heyday, numerous Friday Mosques could be seen, and the biggest one is the Banya Bashi Mosque, which means “many baths”. This is because the city has a lot of natural thermal mineral baths, which were all public and in use until very recently, when the officials have to shut them down due to European Union sanitary regulations. The mosque sits right on top of one, and if you are lucky, you may be able to see steam rushing out of the ground near its walls.
During the 1877 Russo-Turkish War, Russians liberated the city along with numerous armed citizens, which made Bulgaria especially thankful for the Russians. The Russians proposed for Sofia to become the new capital of a newly independent Bulgaria, which was quickly accepted, and maybe welcomed, by the locals. However, the relationship between the two groups of people quickly soured, as the new king Alexandr of Battenberg did not want to be a do-nothing king puppeteered by Russians. He was eventually deposed of his position by pro-Russian military officers after leading a successful defense against the invading Serbians, and he was exiled to Austria upon abdication. He is considered the first ruler of an independent Bulgaria, and has been viewed favorably in the eyes of the people nowadays.
However, the most iconic man of the period is Stefan Stambolov. He launched a counter-coup of those pro-Russian uprisers in the military, and found himself to be the president of a Bulgaria that had neither a king nor power. He struggled to turn the tide around, while wrestling against the ever-present Russian influence in the country. He eventually managed to create a unified Bulgaria under one identity, and stabilized the nation by finding a new king Ferdinand. Stambolov had to use his near-dictator level of power to combat the outside threat, such as superpowers like Russia, Bismark Germany, Great Britain and France. On the domestic side, the new king was constantly confronting him about his abuse of power, which he had to employ due to the extreme circumstances, so Stambolov grew tired of the internal lack of trust. He resigned mere days before his mysterious assassination. This man is widely viewed as the founding father of modern Bulgaria, widely beloved by the people.
Upon the initial victory of the Russians against the Turks, they destroyed every single mosque in Sofia except Bayan Bashi you saw above, and erected Russian Orthodox churches in their stead. The above church dedicated to Saint Nicholas the Miracle Maker is one of them. One other Orthodox church built at the time is probably the most famous symbol of Sofia and Bulgaria as a whole, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. If you have had any idea what Bulgaria is before reading this journal, then you should immediately know the postcard child of the nation. It is the largest Orthodox church built before 2000, and was designed by a Russian architect, while dedicated to the fallen Russian soldiers during the war against the Turks. You can see for Bulgarians, the Russo-Turkish war was a turning point for their national identity, a critical moment in establishing Bulgaria as an independent state.
The name comes from a Russian prince, who is also a saint in Orthodox worship. Its 45-meter tall dome is considered to be one of the most magnificent, especially when you realize the entire roof is plated in pure gold. On the inside, the Lord’s Prayer is written in gold at the highest arch, and numerous relics can be seen in display cases. Now the entire area is cleared to make sure nothing is too close around the building, demonstrating its prominence in the scenes of Bulgarian religion.
Not too far away, one can find the most prominent stage in the country, Ivan Vazov National Theatre, completed around the same time as the cathedral. Designed by the best Viennese theatre architects at the time, this place is where all the most important stage plays and other performances took place, and now still is only admitting shows of the highest production values, mostly choreographed by Bulgarian directors.
One other city landmark completed around this period of rapid expansion is the Eagles’ Bridge. Eagles are the protectors and patrons of Sofia, and this bridge was designed to be a sister structure as the Lions’ Bridge to the north of the city center. It has become a symbolic center of protests during recent years, seeing many congregations of angry people in the past few decades. Next important period of Bulgarian history is the late 20th century. Bulgaria, due to its confrontation against other Balkan states, joined the axis powers in 1941, and suffered heavy ally bombings in 1943. In 1944, the Red Army took over the country, and quickly the new People’s Republic of Bulgaria fell in line with the other Soviet Bloc nations. This began the 50-year rule of Soviet Russia in this unfortunate country. The communists decided to rebuild the city center on top of the bomb-laiden ruins with their socialist classicism style, and installed the Largo.
This architectual complex housed the Communist Party Headquarters in the middle, and the national mall, TZUM, to the left. It was so lavish and centralized that anyone in the country had to come to this specific mall to order anything that would constitute as luxury goods, such as a car, or a washing machine. Per typical communist tradition, the waiting list for a shitty Trabant sedan was a whopping 12 years, while a dishwasher only demanded patience of 3. Next to the mall of forbidden goods, sits the wing where the president’s office is now located. If you visit this building in 21st century, you will find a few guards standing in front of it like in any palace, while I could actually see the guards inside actually lounging in their chairs.
The original building housing the party headquarters had a large Soviet star on its very tip, illuminated at night. This star was removed when the entire USSR collapsed, and is now replaced with a Bulgarian flag. The star was so high and prominent that it demanded to be removed only via a helicopter, and the removal of this ignominious top was a symbol of the end of communist rule in the country. This devil’s pentagram is now housed in Museum of Socialist Art hidden in the city outskirts.
The museum sits in a drab utlitarian building, perfect for the topic of its subjects. Besides stoic faces of Vladmir Lenin and sweating steelworkers holding rifles firmly in hand, the musuem also has a large collection of propaganda items from communist countries around the globe. Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sun, all make appearances in this space a bit too clean to be suitable for human beings, giving me an eerily uncomfortable vibe.
Another symbol of communism built later in the reign is НДК/NDK, which stands for Национален дворец на културата, National Palace of Culture. It is envisioned by the then party leader/country dictator Todor Zhivkov’s daughter, who wished to have a public performance and event venue that can rival any other world class city. This gigantic slab of concrete was created with hundreds of thousands of square foot inside, while featuring a bronze sun at the front, the symbol of theatre houses’ ceilings from old times. It is now still home to dozens of cafes, a giant mall, a few galleries, as well as cinemas, theatres and conference spaces.
To keep up with time, a part of the Soviet constructions had forged quite a notorious name in recent years. In the city center next to Eagles’ Bridge, a large park full of communist propaganda statues has now been taken over by counter-culture skater youngsters. However, these bronze monstrocities, originally commemorating the 10th anniversary of Soviet assistance of the Bulgarian people near the end of WWII, has now been turned into a platform of expressions. On a queit day in 2011, the above scene was painted into a group of American pop figures such as Captain America, Ronald McDonald, and Joker, captioned in spray paint as “in tune with the time” probably as a joking act of vandalism, but quickly it was turned into a political canvas. In the ensuing years, these metal figures were painted pink as an apology to Czech in ’68, yellow and blue for the support of Ukrainian Crimea, and it is very likely that it will be covered in paint again sometime soon in the future.
And upon USSR’s collapse in 1989, Bulgaria entered a new age. Joining in European Union as a means to shed its anti-capitalism past, the country has experienced a new surge of western culture, similar to most of the nations that was part of the Bloc. Graffitis about McDonald’s are as prevalent as actual McDonald’s, and the advent of Wizz Air, the low cost airline of Eastern Europe, ferried workers west and backpackers east, including me. Honestly, every single person I talked to in my hostel in Sofia, especially Johnny who was an older guy living his life on the run, mentioned the existence of cheap flights as the reason to come, not because of the aromatic rose oil, or a love for communist art. Though making swift progress, Bulgaria is still a bit far from fulling integrating into EU, as it still uses Leva as its currency, while its borders are not considered Schengen. As a result, many people I met during my stay simply wanted to spend some cheap quality time drinking cheap quality beer as they waited for their Schengen visa to be revalidated.
Nowadays, Bulgaria is using its newfound position to provide a better environment for the investors and new technologies. It has been nominated as the best place to establish a new tech company in the European Union, thanks to its fast connection speed and even faster speed at adopting preferential incentives for new industries. Hey, maybe, in 5 years, we will all be flocking to this country for the opportunities!
Honestly, I came to Bulgaria with no expectations, especially food. I have never heard of anything about this country’s gastronomy except that jarring yoghurt commercial blasted all over China about their brand’s bacterial culture from the “village of long lives” in Bulgaria. So I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered this small restaurant called Raketa Rakia in a residential district. One big plus: they are not overflowing with yoghurt!
Besides the fact that this entire establishment is covered with mid-century memorabilia that harkens back to the good ol’days of controlled economy, the dishes also are taken straight from a community-standardized cookbook hidden somewhere in the drawers of a grandma, who probably still thinks Stalin was the best thing to ever happen to humanity. Additionally, what kind of explorer am I if I do not try out the famous alcohol this restaurant is named after? Though widely produced in the Balkans as their version of hard liquor, rakia is proudly proclaimed as the national drink of Bulgaria. Made from pure fruits, usually plum, peach, blackberry, apple, pear, or quince, this local specialty is usually 40 degrees alcoholic content on average, while sometimes going as high as 60. While every grown adult men and their third cousin makes it at home in this region, I, as a tourist, could only enjoy the homebrew while chowing down on the local delicacies in this space-race age establishment.
Though served in small glasses, rakia is only enjoyed with small sips, much more sophisticated than vodka chugging that had become a campus-wide pasttime during the final week in my old university. It is sweet, but also very, very strong, and I felt like I was constantly getting bulldozed by a boxer in the cheeks. However, there are also a lot of other alcohol varieties in the country. The eastern part of Bulgaria produces a surprisingly good collection of wine, and I had the opportunity to taste some in a newly-constructed wine-cellar downtown. The center of Sofia is getting increasingly gentrified, and I for one cannot wait for more places like this to pop up!
In a metro station, I also get to try the national pastry known to every single Bulgarian, banitsa. It is a dough rolled up with a kind of salty white cheese unique to Bulgaria, quite similar to feta, and baked in a swirl. It is usually washed down with either fresh yoghurt made with extra salt per tradition, or with boza, a kind of fermented millet drink that is slightly sour and very viscous. The combination of boza with banitsa is a classic for any working class dashing down the train platforms, or a student late for the first period. This iconic duo is basically the bao and soy milk for the Chinese, or donut with coffee for Americans.
I also got to try mekitsa, which is a kind of Bulgarian donut, made from kneaded dough infused with yoghurt, and deep fried in oil. It is usually topped with sugar, and sometimes offered with a myriad of topping ranging from sweet nutella to greasy salty items. This is basically the dirty breakfast for the folks who do not give a fuck about calorie counting, or the guilty snack for highschoolers between relationships.
Yet most people prefer cooking themselves, probably a leftover tradition of the Soviet days. Everyone I met in these markets were extremely friendly, sometimes zealously passionate about my presence. The shop owners will sometimes meticulously explain their items with their broken English, and sometimes just with rapper-speed Bulgarian outright, while some other fellow shoppers would try to help translate. It turned every purchase opportunity into an adventure for sure!
Seven Rila Lakes
For a nice sunny day in the country, I decided to go to the famous Seven Rila Lakes 70 kilometers south of Sofia with a few folks I met in the hostel, including Maita, an Argentinean/Sammarinese girl. (Yes, I have to look up how to call people from the tiny country of San Marino. I now know people living in Nuuk, Greenland as well as with heritage in a country of 30000 people; my travels really bring me strange encounters.) Our first stop was the small town of Sapareva Banya, sitting at the foothills of the Rila mountains. Besides a hot spring that emerged from the ground out of the city plaza in 1957, the little settlement is also famous for its 12th century chapel at the cemetary.
We then stopped at the midway point of the mountains, where we had to take a ski lift all the way up to the base of the lake hike. These are some serious constructions, as numerous ski resorts have sprung up in these tall hills not too far from the capital, and the cheap price tags mean that they usually can attract quite a lot of international traffic as well. However, on this chilly November day, it was just a clear sky and browning bushes, not a crowd or slope in sight. But do not worry, our adventure is way better than powdering!
A chalet sits alone at the top of the ski lift, overlooking the first lake called Долното езеро (Dolnoto ezero), meaning Lower Lake. A quick climb up the steep hills revealed the second one not too far above. Wow, these are truly magnificent glacial lakes, each embroiled in the golden slopes of Rila Mountain, the highest peak of the Balkan Peninsula, like a perfectly refractive jewel of sapphire. The further up we went, the better it became.
In the ensuing hour, we passed by one after another lake, some large, some shallow, some with a rocky beach, and there was even one with a twin-lake system. Each lake feeds another one lower on the hills, and the last one’s exit became the roaring Dzherman River. The highest lake cannot be featured in the above panorama as it was behind me at the point, but the place I was standing at has an altitude of whopping 2535m/8317ft. The ski operator told me that in just a few days, the lakes would begin to freeze over, and they expected snow to fall within a week or so, rendering the view just white, on top of more white.
So this is it, the quick adventure in the capital of Bulgaria, as well as in the Rila Lakes. Unfortunately, I did not have the mobility or time to explore even a bit further, such as the Rila Monastery or further east. However, I can claim with certainty that Bulgaria was beyond my expectation. The history of the nation is unique, as it is one of the few places that had experienced the Celtics, Thracians, Romans, Huns, Ottomans and the Soviets, the whole package. The ancient temples can attest to that with their layers upon layers of frescos. These amicable and friendly people also make some killer food, and not to mention the stunning lakes sitting so high above the plateau as if god bequeathed this nation with countless jewels.
I initially picked Sofia because it had a cheap flight last minute, not because I had a friend in this country, or have known any outstanding sightseeing opportunities, or was ready to devour some serious gourmet shit. However, I was thoroughly surprised. I left with many new friends, understood a rapsheet of impressive sights, and inhaled probably 10 times more calories than I should. This is what going into a place blind can bring: the Law of Surprise. So next time, maybe head somewhere simply because, instead of not going due to your lack of knowledge, because in this world, there are surprises around every corner. It is just up to us to go and check it out.