Bulgaria day one
28.05.2019 - 28.05.2019
Virtual Tourist Euromeet traditions
The Virtual Tourist community was born from the website of that name, and when the website was closed down in 2017, the community survived, still communicating online (these days mainly via Facebook) and meeting up when we could in groups large and small. And the annual tradition of a big Euromeet also survived, with members stepping up each year to volunteer to organise the meeting. This year we were to be hosted by a Scottish member, John, in a city he knew well and was sure we would enjoy – not in the UK as we might have expected but in Bulgaria – Plovdiv.
Following another VT tradition, much discussion ensued among members planning to attend about other places we might also visit, and a group of us settled on having a couple of days in Sofia before the main meeting - what in VT vernacular is known as a Pre-meet.
Travelling to Sofia
My friend Yvonne had stayed with me the night before our departure. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 8.05 which meant a very early start from home at 5.30. We were super organised and were up and out in good time – the only hiccup being that I realised on arriving at the Tube station that I had forgotten my phone which I had left charging overnight. Luckily we live very close to the station so I was able to go home for it without delaying us too much, while Yvonne waited with our bags at the station.
We arrived at Heathrow T5, dropped off our bags and once through security met up with two more friends who were catching the same flight, Colin and Josephine. There was time for a coffee before boarding and for a few photos together to mark the start of the meet.
Waiting to board at Heathrow
The photos my friends are holding are of 'Virtual Attendees' (VAs), a VT tradition whereby members unable to attend the meeting in person are brought along by those going, in pictorial form, so that they feel included in the fun. We take photos like these (you will see more in subsequent entries) and share them online, e.g. through Facebook. The VAs can see what's going on at the meet and feel part of it even though they may be many miles away!
Then we were off, flying with British Airways over southern England and across the channel.
Taking off from Heathrow
Yvonne, who wanted to doze en route, had kindly let me have the window seat, but for much of the flight the view was only of thick cloud below us and blue sky above. It was only when we were less than an hour from our destination that the cloud began to break up and I could see the land beneath – farmland with stripy fields, a sprinkling of small villages and the odd slightly larger town. Later a striking escarpment marked a change in the landscape to wooded hills and a sea of green.
As we descended towards Sofia there was a fair bit of turbulence and at one point the plane gave quite a lurch! We were impressed therefore by the pilot’s gentle landing. There was a bit of a queue at passport control, but once through our bags were already on the belt and we were soon heading out of the airport to the taxi rank to take one of the recommended yellow taxis (a ‘big yellow taxi’, in fact) to our hotel, the Hotel COOP.
We were quickly checked in and initial impressions were good – a comfortable-looking lobby downstairs and above a large room with all the usual facilities, a modern bathroom, free WiFi etc.
Lobby of the COOP Hotel
A first look at Sofia
I didn’t linger long as I’d arranged to rejoin my friends Yvonne, Colin and Josephine for a stroll around the nearby streets. Our walk took us along the street where the hotel is located, Ulitsa Georgi S. Rakovski. We found a few interesting details to photograph as we went, including some colourful street art painted on to what seemed to be electrical or telephony cabinets of some sort. I was to find quite a few examples during this trip of such decorated bits of street furniture, both here and in Plovdiv. I found it a great idea to make the mundane look so attractive!
Street art in Sofia
We also passed the Opera House, with a large statue outside with the name of Alexander Stamboliyski carved (in Cyrillic letters) on the plinth. I assumed he was a composer of operas, but have since discovered that he was the prime minister of Bulgaria from 1919-1923. He served under the Tsar Boris III, whom we were to hear about on our city walking tour the next day, but was overthrown in a coup and murdered by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO). I am not sure however why his statue should be placed outside the Opera House.
Statue of Alexander Stamboliyski, and outside a nearby café
Sofia seems to like its monuments and statues and there were plenty to be seen, but I was struck in particular by a relatively modest one of St George killing the dragon which stands on a short column near the church of St Sofia. I am not sure why it stands in this spot, as the church dedicated to this saint is some distance away, and I’ve not been able to find any information about it online.
Statue of St George
We came quite soon to the area in front of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The cathedral stands in the middle of a busy thoroughfare (I had to stand in the middle of the road to get this photo!) and its green and gold domes make it a striking landmark in the city.
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Leaving the cathedral itself for later we strolled through a small park, the path lined with stalls selling bric a brac from the Soviet era, religious icons, jewellery and souvenirs.
Icon stall and St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Distracted for a short while; we quickly realised that shopping only an hour into the trip was perhaps not the wisest thing to do, so we carried on to the café we could see beyond the stalls, the Victoria. Here we had a light late lunch and a nice chat.
After our break we went to have a look at the cathedral we had seen earlier, passing an interesting building on the way which one of the stall holders told us was a church synod building. My subsequent research confirms this – it is the home of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the body that governs church affairs.
Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
This is the city’s Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral and its scale is impressive indeed. In fact, it is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals and church buildings in the world. It covers an area of 3,170 square metres (34,100 square feet) and can hold 5,000 people inside.
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
It is not a particularly old cathedral, having been built in the early part of the 20th century. The Russian Army had liberated Bulgaria from the rule of the Ottoman Empire in 1879 and it was decided that the most fitting tribute to all the brave men, Bulgarian and Russian, who had fought and died for the country’s freedom would be a magnificent cathedral. Construction took 30 years, and various wars delayed the official opening of the cathedral for yet another 12 years, until 1924.
Children on the steps
The cathedral is dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky who was a 13th century Russian prince. He took monastic vows just prior to his death in 1262, and it is said that a miracle occurred at his burial, when he supposedly extended his hand for the prayer of absolution. St. Alexander Nevsky was the patron saint of the Emperor Alexander II of Russia, ruler during the liberation war, and was therefore chosen as patron saint too of the cathedral offered in gratitude for his support.
Although we knew the cathedral would be included in the city walking tour we planned to do tomorrow we decided to go in nevertheless, in case tomorrow’s visit proved too brief. In the event this was a good decision, as the walking tour turned out not to include the interiors of any of the buildings visited. I also decided to get a photo permit [10 leva, about 5€) for the same reason, even though it was quite dark, even sombre, inside.
Inside the cathedral
The interior is in Italian marble of different colours, but the years of smoking candles have taken their toll and the colours are dark and muted (our guide for the city tour the next day told us that the cathedral is in line for cleaning and restoration).
Looking up into the dome
What impressed me most was its grand scale and an atmosphere of genuine reverence, with candle-lighting locals outnumbering tourists.
On leaving the cathedral we turned back towards the hotel, again taking photos as we strolled. We passed Sofia’s monument to the Unknown Soldier, with its eternal flame, opened on September 22, 1981, the 1300th anniversary of the establishment of the Bulgarian state. The reason for the delay in erecting such a monument here, when others around Europe were established soon after the end of WW1, is interesting. Apparently some Bulgarian intellectuals argued that a monument to an unknown soldier is a slight against those who served, since it infers that the names of the soldiers have been forgotten. The inscription on the monument is from a poem by the national writer Ivan Vazov, whom we were to encounter several times on this trip.
Monument to the Unknown Soldier
The monument is guarded by the sculpture of a lion, the work of Andrey Nikolov. I felt it looked rather mournful, or perhaps just sleepy, rather than a fierce guardian. This too was the object of some controversy at the time of its installation, as people thought that a sitting lion could be seen as a metaphor for surrender.
Lion guarding the Monument to the Unknown Soldier
Near our hotel an amusing incident occurred. Someone was coming towards us dressed in a white duck costume (I have no idea why!) and when Yvonne pointed this out to the young boy walking just ahead of the duck, oblivious to its approach, the boy leapt in surprise and laughed with delight.
He hasn't seen the duck ...
... But now he has!
First evening in Sofia
After the very early start to the day I was glad of the chance to rest up in my room for a bit, especially as I seemed to be starting a cold - rotten timing at the very beginning of a trip.
In the evening a local member, Liliana, had kindly arranged dinner for a group of about 15 of us in a local restaurant, Shtastlivetca. She called for us at the hotel and we had a very pleasant walk through a different part of the city to our earlier stroll, passing the President’s Palace, the archaeological remains of the Roman city of Serdica, the Palace of Justice and other government buildings. All of these we would see and learn about in more depth on our city tour tomorrow. For now it was enough to enjoy taking photos in the golden light of early evening.
Government buildings in Sofia
At the Presidential Palace
Group photo outside the Presidential Palace
In a subway we saw some interesting shops selling souvenirs entirely made from roses, the national flower of Bulgaria, and another theme that was to run throughout our visit.
Shop selling rose products
We also passed groups of young people celebrating the end of school, many of the girls in prom dresses, blowing whistles, chanting and letting off flares - just like rather over-dressed football fans!
Celebrating the end of the school year in Sofia
At the restaurant we met up with a few more members who were staying at different hotels and enjoyed our first taste of Bulgarian cuisine, which was excellent - shared platters of different salads, cheeses, yoghurt with herbs, vegetable rissoles, a selection of meats and garlic bread. Perhaps it was a mistake to order main courses to follow all this, as I don’t think any of us managed to finish these, but I certainly gave my tasty lamb meatballs a good try!
Shtastlivetca Restaurant sign
In Shtastlivetca Restaurant
At dinner in Shtastlivetca
As we came to the end of the meal my stamina started to run out, thanks to the triple whammy of a poor night’s sleep, very early start and the beginnings of that cold I mentioned. So as soon as our bill was paid (never a quick task with such a big group) I opted to share a taxi back to the hotel with three friends. The lovely evening was slightly soured when the driver insisted on overcharging us, but as we had made the classic first day error of forgetting to agree the price up front (in my case lulled into a false sense of security by the ease and reasonable price of our earlier ride from the airport) it was hard to argue too much, so we just had to chalk it up to experience. At least it got me back to my room in time for the early night I craved!