My Free Sofia tour was led by Dino, a newly-graduated and talented actor. There he is, telling us about the importance of lions in Bulgaria and the mistake made by the artist who created these sculptures (the other of the pair has its legs positioned in a way that is just not how lions actually walk).
Three layers of history can clearly be seen here in Liberation Square. The building at the back used to be Tzum, an up-market department store in Bulgaria that was the only place to buy luxury items during the socialist decades. Today it is still a shopping destination but with brands like Laura Ashley and Timberland. The middle building is the Sveta Petka Samardzhiiska, a quaint little stone church built half underground that is still a place of worship and was built in the 14th century during Ottoman rule. It sits on top of much-older ruins that go back to roman times and probably beyond.
In behind the imposing state buildings is the St George Rotunda. The building directly behind the church is now used as presidential guest rooms. In soviet times these suites were the height of luxury with underfloor heating from the underground mineral waters. Below the church is a 4th century crypt, and around it there are excavated roman ruins. The rotunda has been used as church from the 6th century and is famous for having the oldest surviving roof in all of Europe.
The hammam building is not so old. The mineral baths were rebuilt in the 20th century on the site of an older hamman. The building is now used as part of the history museum, but a luxury spa is being developed in part of the building.
Now, here is Sofia herself, a huge statue in the middle of a busy road.
Dino told us it all part of the mix that typifies Bulgaria. To reinforce his theme, he pointed out this map outside the main Metro station. It is designed for tourists but is all in cyrillic. And see which way is North?
The Saint Sofia church is lovely.
Something else that hangs in trees:
Baba Marta (Grandmother March), on 1 March, is a pre-Christian holiday welcoming spring, on which people exchange martinitsas , good luck charms made from red and white threads. On the first sighting of a stork for the year, the martinitsa has to be hung on the nearest blossoming tree to ensure lasting love.
Two more churches that I loved are the Russian Church of Saint Nicholas or
St. Nikolaj the Miracle maker, and the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church.
The interior is Bulgarian Orthodox. The church was created by converting an abandoned Ottoman mosque, which is reputed to be another Sinan design, dating from 1528. He is also the architect of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul and many other mosques all around the region.
The walking tour ended at one of the most well known landmarks of Sofia, the Alexander Nevski Cathedral. so does this post.