Monday, April 11, 2016

Free Sofia Walking Tour

The not-for-profit 365 association runs walking tours in many cities around the world, including Sofia in Bulgaria. Every day of the year, regardless of the weather, there will be a volunteer tour guide waiting at the appointed spot to show you and however many others as turn up on the day around their city. The guides are lovely young people who have a wealth of knowledge to share. They don't get paid, but tips are welcomed.

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).

The relief lions grace the doors of the Presidential Place. I was more interested in the soldiers on guard, standing motionless with their rifles at the ready. Get too close, Dino warned, and a guy dressed all in black would appear and blow a whistle to warn you off. I wasn't game to try.

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.

Today's Independence Square, the Largo, used to be called Lenin Square. The Largo is surrounded by buildings that showcase socialist architecture. The picture above shows the old Communist Party House, completed in 1955, which is now used by the Bulgarian National Assembly. There used to be a massive red star atop the rocket-shaped spire of the building. When Bulgarians attempted to torch the building in 1990, the star was judiciously removed. Now it flies the flag of Bulgaria, and around the Largo fly all the flags of NATO.

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.
St. Sofia is the city’s patron. Sofia means “wisdom” in greek. In this statue she holds a an owl in her left hand and in her right hand she holds a laurel wreath, a symbol for peace, success and honour. Sophia was erected in 2001 replacing Lenin’s monument, but the statue was considered by many to be too erotic and pagan to be referred to as St. Sophia.

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.
Church Saint Sofia has been used for worship since the 6th century, although it also has ruins underneath that are much older. It is the oldest church in Sofia, but Saint Sofia has no belfry. The bell is hung on the old tree in front, placed there when Russia defeated the Ottomans in 1878 and rung to announce Bulgaria’s liberation.

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.

Everywhere in Sofia people are sitting outside, in cafes, bars and parks.
 The building in the background here is the National Theatre. A craftsman who was hired to redo the gold gilding was fired when the authorities noticed that he had painted a gold penis on the cherub.

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.

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