A Travellerspoint blog

Discovering Sofia

Bulgaria day two

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My bed at the Hotel COOP was very comfortable and a good night’s sleep proved just what I needed. The hotel’s breakfast was also good, although the room used so small that I had to wait a while for a table. Several VT friends joined me, and we had a good chat about plans for the day.

Breakfast room at the Hotel COOP, Sofia

Taken from my window

A number of us had decided to join the free walking tour of the city offered by tour company 365 (because they operate every day of the year) but we split into two groups so as not to overstep their numbers (with ten or more people you must book a private tour). I went with the first group, leaving the hotel at 9.30 to walk to the Palace of Justice where all the tours start.

Outside the Palace of Justice
- I assumed this man was staging some sort of one-man protest


City walking tour

We met up with our guide, Deni, who proved to be knowledgeable, personable and with excellent English. She started by telling us some of the history of the city, which dates back 6,000 years, although nothing remains from that time. There are, however, significant remains from Roman times, as we were to see.

Our guide Deni outside the Hagia Nedelja church

Sofia wears its history in layers. It is possible to stand in several spots in the city centre and see in a single view, remnants of ancient Roman houses, medieval churches, a 16th century mosque, solid Communist era buildings and more recent post-Communist developments.

Outside the Hagia Nedelja church Deni told us how it had been destroyed in a terrorist plot in 1925 to assassinate the king, Boris III, while attending the funeral service of General Konstantin Georgiev, who had been killed in a previous communist assault on 14 April. A group from the Bulgarian Communist Party blew up the church's roof during the service; the king survived, having arrived late for the ceremony, but around 200 innocent people were killed. So the church that stands here today was built between 1927 and 1933, but is just the last of several to occupy the site. The first was a wooden church, probably built in the 10th century and remaining wooden right through to the middle of the 19th century, unlike most other churches in the city. Its stone replacement was opened in 1867 and renovated in 1898, with new domes being added. It is that church that was blown up by the terrorist group.

The Hagia Nedelja church

Statue of Sveta Sofia

We passed the column on which stands Sveta Sofia, a sort of emblem for the city. Deni told us its story. In the past a statue of Lenin stood here, but after the downfall of Communism the city was naturally keen to get rid of such reminders of the past, so in 2000 the mayor commissioned this statue to take its place. As a result most visitors to the city assume that it is named for this Sofia, who is said to have been the mother of three daughters (Faith, Hope and Charity) who were martyred for their faith. But this is not the true origin of the city’s name, which was taken from the Saint Sofia Church which we were to see later on this tour. Locals were rather annoyed with the mayor and his choice of monument, partly because it distracts visitors from an awareness of the true origins of the city’s name but also the more so because this Sofia looks more suggestive than saintly, with her low-cut dress clinging provocatively to her body!

Banya Bashi Mosque

Our route then took us past the remains of some Roman houses to the city’s one remaining mosque. We were standing in what is known locally as Tolerance Square, because it is surrounded by four places of worship for four different faiths - an Orthodox Church, a Roman Catholic Church, a Jewish synagogue and this 16ht century mosque, known as Banya Bashi. There were once very many mosques here, due to the 500 year-long Ottoman rule of Bulgaria, but this is the only one still functioning as such. The name means ‘many baths’ – the mosque was built over natural thermal springs.


The next significant building on our route was the early 20th century Central Mineral Baths. This functioned as the city’s public baths until as late as 1986, when it was closed due to the poor condition of the structure. It has since been restored and now serves as Sofia’s history museum. Deni told us that there are 40 mineral water springs near here and people still come to drink the water and take bottles for use at home. I was to come across a large number of these the following morning, but today we passed only one, on the corner of the bath house. And no, I didn’t taste the water, as drinking warm water on a hot sunny day didn’t really appeal to me!

The Central Mineral Baths

Beyond the baths we descended to the level of Roman Serdica where Deni pointed that whereas the houses we had seen earlier on our walk were those of the poorer inhabitants, the ones beside this road were larger and would have been home to more prominent citizens. Or it may have been the other way around – unfortunately I omitted to make a note at the time! But either way, the presence of these ancient streets just below the surface of today’s busy roads is a perfect illustration of the layering of Sofia’s history. The bricks on top of the stone walls, by the way, were put there recently to protect the historic remains.

Remains of Roman houses

To my surprise we could actually walk on the short stretch of Roman road we had seen yesterday evening on our way to dinner. This is the Decumanus Maximus or Principalis, one of the two main streets of Serdica which connected the east and west gates. It would have been lined with porticoes supported by columns (remains of these were found near the east gate). In the nearby subway passages are examples of Roman masonry such as tombstones, and again it surprised me that these were so accessible.

Decumanus Maximus, and a Roman tombstone

Next we came to what was once the heart of Communist Sofia, with the former Communist Party Headquarters at one end of the large square, in typical Stalinist style. Deni pointed out where the carving of the hammer and sickle had been erased from the central shield on the front of the building. It now serves as the offices of the National Assembly, while other buildings around the square, which was constructed on the rubble of WW2 bomb-sites, have been repurposed as government buildings housing the Council of Minsters, the Ministry of Education and Science, and Presidential Palace which we had also passed yesterday evening.

The former Communist Party Headquarters, and Presidential guard

Tucked away behind one of these buildings is the small church of St George the Rotunda, the oldest in the city and indeed in the whole of the Balkans. It is also the oldest building in the city. It is no coincidence that it is so hidden, as this was the Communist powers’ way of making religion as invisible as possible, by hiding it behind their imposing civic structures.

St George the Rotunda and Roman remains

The church stands on the site of a former Roman hypocaust system, and was founded by the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, whose mother was from Sofia and who lived the city. In front of the church are more Roman remains. This is one of several buildings I wish I’d had the time to return to during my Sofia stay, as it is famous for the 12th, 13th and 14th century frescoes inside its central dome.

From here we walked through the City Gardens with its attractive fountains to the National Theatre, named for the renowned Bulgarian writer Ivan Vazov.

The Ivan Vazov National Theatre

The Ivan Vazov National Theatre, and detail of the City Gardens fountain

One of the trees we passed near here was festooned with small plaits of red and white wool, and Deni explained their significance. These tokens are a relic of a pagan custom. They are exchanged each year on 1st March. The recipient must wear them until they see the first stork or swallow, then place them on a blossoming tree - this is plum, one of the first to flower. The custom is linked to fertility and to the coming of good weather.

On a tree in the City Garden

One of the side streets near here had a striking piece of street art.

Street art near the National Theatre, and view back to the Communist Party HQ

Outside the National Gallery, the former Royal Palace, I spotted an interesting statue, and Deni told me it was of another famous writer, Yordan Raditchkov. I have since found out that he was a significant 20th century author and playwright who died in 2004, and this monument to him was erected three years after his death. An admirer had given him a rose to hold, reminding me of the statue of Bach which we had seen in Leipzig last year.

Statue of Yordan Raditchkov

On the northern side of the gardens around the former palace my eye was caught by an ornate building which today houses a bank. Its information plaque was all in Cyrillic and beyond my limited skills to make out, but I could at least identify that it dates from 1913-1920. A bit of subsequent digging around on the internet reveals that it was designed as a house in 1914 by the architect Fingov and is a nationally protected building. It was restored for use as the DSK Bank’s head office between 2009 and 2012.

The DSK Bank head office building

Our next to last stop was at the church of Saint Sofia - this time, the saint who did give her name to the city. There has been a church here since the 4th century and it was always the first building of note that travellers used to reach when arriving here – therefore, on arriving here they had reached Sofia, and the name of the church became the name of the city. The church is also known as ‘God’s Wisdom’.

St Sophia Church, and bell

This is the second oldest church in the city and was built without a bell tower, so the enterprising locals placed a bell in the tree opposite. As with all buildings on the free walking tour, we didn’t go inside, but this was one that I did come back to later, as you will see below.

Burrata with guacamole

Our tour finished in front of the Alexander Nevsky cathedral which some of us had visited yesterday. It had been a very informative and enjoyable couple of hours and well worth the tips we gave Deni.

By now we were all in need of a break so we all headed to the Cafe Victoria again for lunch, as it was nearby. I had an excellent burrata with guacamole on delicious seven grain bread.

Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski

After the meal our group dispersed. I went with my good friend from Portugal, Teresa, to visit the Russian Orthodox Church, Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski or in English St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker, as its gold domes had caught my eye and we hadn’t seen it on the tour.

Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski

This church was built on the site of a former mosque, which was destroyed in 1882 after the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule by Russia. It was built to serve as the official church of the Russian Embassy, next door to the church, and of the Russian community in in the city. It was named, according to the tradition for diplomatic churches, after the patron saint of the then Tsar, Nicholas II. It was consecrated in 1914 and remained open throughout the period of the Russian Revolution and during Communist rule in Bulgaria, although priests and church-goers were carefully scrutinised by State Security police as they were everywhere in the country.

Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski - details

It was disappointing that no photos are allowed inside as there are some beautiful icons and the interior of the central dome is stunning. No photos were allowed either in the crypt which holds the remains of Saint Archbishop Serafim, known as the Wonderworker of Sofia, who died in 1950.

This saint is clearly of huge significance to local people, several of whom were visibly moved in his presence. Slips of paper, pencils and wooden tables were available for the faithful to write prayers asking for wishes to be granted by the saint.

We walked back through the park with the flea market stalls, again stopping only for photographs rather than to buy. My eye was naturally caught by the Peppa Pig Russian doll among all the more traditional designs!

Russian dolls

Google Maps labels the striking and rather haunting sculpture in this park as ‘Liberation from Communism’ but I’ve not been able to find out anything more about it under that name, so it may or may not be correct.

Sculptures near the Holy Synod building

Saint Sofia church

In Saint Sofia church

From here we returned to Saint Sofia church, which had sounded interesting when Deni described it. Here the theme of Sofia in layers became apparent again, perhaps even more clearly than elsewhere. The church is believed to be the fifth structure to be constructed on this site and was built during the era of Byzantine rule, in the middle of the 6th century. Beneath it lie the remains of Roman temples, a Roman theatre, and several earlier churches. Under Ottoman rule it was converted into a mosque, its 12th-century frescoes destroyed, and minarets added. In the 19th century two earthquakes (in 1818 and 1858) destroyed one of its minarets and the mosque was subsequently abandoned. According to legend this was because during the second earthquake the two sons of the imam were in the building and died, and the local Muslims considered this to be a bad omen. The mosque was deserted for a long time, but after the liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878 it was turned into a warehouse.

It was restored for use as a church in the early 20th century, and more recently (1990s) underwent more substantial restoration and renovation to a design as close as possible to its original Middle Ages appearance. It is now considered one of the most important examples of early Christian architecture in South Eastern Europe.

I was pleased that here at least photos were permitted, and with no fee to pay either. And there was plenty to photograph. Much lighter than the cathedral we had visited yesterday, or the Russian church, Saint Sophia has a relatively plain and simple interior, following the medieval design, with brick pillars and arches, and a roof also of bricks, beautiful in its own way despite the lack of decoration.

Brick ceiling

It also of course has its fair share of icons and religious paintings, and a stained glass image of Christ above the doorway from porch to the main church which can be viewed from either side.

Icon with flowers

More icons

Stained glass panel above the door

We paid the 6 lev fee to visit the archaeological remains beneath today’s church. Today’s Saint Sofia rests on the foundations of an earlier 4th century church, the first major Christian church in ancient Serdica. Sections of the mosaic floor of that time haves been preserved and can be seen here. A sign explains that they date from different periods – the part with a geometric design is from the beginning of the 5th century, while the smaller lower mosaic, with floral and animal motifs, is from the middle of the 4th century. There are also the remains of a tomb with painted walls, dating from the late 3rd or very early 4th century.

Mosaic floor

Mosaic floor, and wall-painted tomb

Mosaic floor

It has to be said that much of the rest of the archaeological remains here are harder for the uninitiated eye to interpret and appreciate. There are a number of plainer tombs ranging in date from the 3rd to early 5th centuries, only really distinguishable by the style of their roof, either arched or flat. We did however watch an interesting five minute film about the history of Sofia.

Archaeological remains

We stopped for cold drink on our way back in the Opera bar, sitting on the very pleasant terrace which is shielded from the busy street. My lemonade with mint and honey was really refreshing and reminded me of other recent journeys in Abu Dhabi and Oman.

On the terrace of the Opera Bar

Opera Bar flowers


Fancy dress shop near the Opera Bar

Back at the hotel I bumped into more VT friends so joined them for another drink in the hotel bar before heading to my room to rest and refresh before dinner.

Dinner at Izbata Tavern

In the evening we strolled past the Alexander Nevski Cathedral and a short distance beyond to the Izbata Tavern. Here we had a really delicious dinner (I especially loved my ‘eggplant caviar‘ starter, and the homemade fig and pistachio ice cream), although the warmth of the basement room was a small downside.

Alexander Nevski Cathedral with stormy skies, and the entrance hall of Izbata Tavern

Sharing a taxi back to the hotel, this time in one called by the restaurant, only served to emphasise the extent of last night’s rip-off, as we were charged less than 4 lev!

Posted by ToonSarah 11:18 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged churches buildings people food architecture mosque monument history statue city friends details street_art sofia bulgaria customs euromeet street_photography virtual_tourist

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As I had a different tour guide this day, who took us on a different route to your Deni, I have thoroughly enjoyed having a second (even if virtual) tour of Sofia. Many thanks Sarah for your fantastic photos and wonderful descriptions.

by Yvonne Dumsday

Thank you Yvonne :) I guess your route was different because you were on the Cultural Tour - that sounded very interesting too!

by ToonSarah

Lovely to walk through the streets of Sofia with you, Sarah. It was late autumn, almost winter, when we were there - no chance of sitting on a terrace then - our post-walk drink was hot chocolate in a cosy cafe!

by Lesley Russell

Sarah, I really enjoyed reading about your tour of Sophia. Interesting details and great photos.

by Kay FullerAyoub

Sounds like you had a fine tour with an excellent guide — and then went back to some of the places afterwards for a closer look. Fine photos and texts, as always.

by Nemorino

How do you keep notes for these walks?

by Rich Kolar

Thanks for your wonderful and picturesque story, Sarah!

by Vic_IV

When I was in Estonia there was considerable resentment by Estonians against the Alex Nevsky Cathedral as it was regarded as an attempt to "Russify" them. Was there anything similar WRT the Alexander Nevski Cathedral? (Is that just a different way to spell Nevsky/i?)

by greatgrandmaR

Great memories of my free walking tour in Sophia. Was there a story attached to the bell on the tree across from the church? Loved your photo's and descriptions too!

by katieshevlin62

A very interesting read, I learned some new facts myself, maybe I should join the walking tour some day too! Greetings from Sofia :)

by Christina

Fabulous writing as usual Sarah.
My group had a different guide so was great to get your comments to refresh me of the stories.
Looking forward to more memories of our trip.

by lorraine

Thank you all so much for reading and for the lovely comments :) I wish TP allowed me to reply under each one but it doesn't, so this is for all of you

Some of you asked questions:

Rich, I try my best to take in and remember the info from the guide, write up what I can recall later the same day if at all possible, and then research the places online after I get home to fill in the gaps in what I can remember and add anything else I find out that I think is interesting. That's one reason I don't blog as I travel but prefer to wait till I return home (the other main reason is that I like to sort through and edit my photos before publishing!)

Rosalie, yes Nevski and Nevsky are the same - just different Anglicised spellings of the original Cyrillic. The Bulgarians have an ambivalent view of Russia compared to many previously Eastern Bloc countries. They remember with gratitude that it was Russia who helped them overthrow 500 years of Ottoman rule, which they see as definitely a good thing (and which this cathedral was built to commemorate), and they also remember that initially at least they were equally grateful to the Soviet Army for defeating the Nazis and ending their occupation of the country - and even if the subsequent Communist regime had its major downsides, some older people (according to Deni) can be a bit nostalgic for the security and certainties of that period.

Katie, Deni told us that the bell was put in the tree because the church had no steeple or bell tower. I think her explanation was simply that it was in order to call the faithful to prayer after the church was restored as such, although I have also read that it was originally for a specific celebration of some sort.

Christina, hello :) It was lovely to meet you in Sofia! Isn't it funny that we don't always explore our home towns as thoroughly as we do those we visit on holidays?!

by ToonSarah

Really fantastic photos of such an interesting city! Between seeing photos/stories from Lesley here in Perth to now your blog, I feel that Bulgaria is a place to add to my must see list!

by Anna

Lovely blog, Sarah! It is always interesting to see your own country through the eyes of a traveler. It was great to meet you! :)

by Lilyana

I had 3 visits to Sofia in the 90s for work, so it is interesting to see/read how the city has emerged from those difficult years.

by IainT

Great blog and photos, Sarah. While Deni, our guide, did a fabulous job of explaining the history of the places we visited that day, it was also a lot to take in. You did a great job of filling in the blanks where my memory was fading a bit because of overload or missed because I was trying to take photos!! So thanks for that! Looking forward to your next installment.

by starship VT

Thank you Lilyana, Iain and Sylvia :) Lilyana, it was so lovely to meet you too - I hope t see you again one day

And Iain, that must have been interesting. From what we learned from our guides the country has certainly changed and made good progress since those times.

Hi Sylvia - I missed or forgot quite a lot from the tour too, but I found that when I did a bit of reading as part of my research for this blog, some of the facts and stories Deni told us came back to me :)

by ToonSarah

You happened on an excellent tour here Sarah. Like you, I would have been frustrated not to be able to get into St George the Rotunda, in particular, as the frescoes sound as interesting as the shape of the church. Looking at what you describe as haunting sculpture in this park, based on the first picture which appears rather brutalist in style - though not the others - I would have actually thought they were communist as opposed to something celebrating liberation from communism!

by Wabat

You may have a point about the sculptures Albert - the first one is set slightly apart from the main group so could conceivably date from an earlier period

by ToonSarah

What a day ... never been to Sophia, but thanks to this entry it certainly got my attention! :)

by Ils1976

I can definitely recommend the city Ils, it's somewhat underrated imho

by ToonSarah

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