Our first time in Bulgaria was a surprise. We found the old towns well-kept and charming. This didn’t always apply to the newer quarters, much of which seemed to be in the rigid Communistic mode.
Most of the signs, whether of streets, restaurants, bus stations or tourist information of any sort, are written in Cyrillic letters (example – Pectopaht (Restaurant), or Makgoha^gc (McDonald’s), and how about To^^ethn (this one you’d better know if you’ve got to go – toilets).
We start off in Vitosha Street, a wide pedestrians-only street. Dragging our wheeled suitcases, we walk down the middle with all the other (mainly young) people.The street still has tramlines from some previous period. The shops look good, it’s a nice central spot, and by chance, we’ve come to one of the smartest parts of Sofia. There is an expensive-looking luxury hotel fronting the street.
"In a small side street," a young man tells us, "there is a place around the corner, parallel to super-smart Vitosha," - and that is how we find the Baldjieva, in Tzar Assen Street. It is a guest house with two stars, but only because there is no lift, and for us walking up two flights is nothing. We get a large room and a small balcony which overlooks the narrow street and interesting houses - 35 euros, no breakfast. We later find that this is fairly high by Bulgarian standards, but it suited our budget. We like the place so much that we always come back to the Baldjieva whenever we stay in Sofia. In between return visits we take off a day here, three days there, to tour around.
The courtyard at the entrance to the guest house also leads to a small garden with canvas tables and chairs surrounded by shrubs, plants and trees. This place turns out to be a very good Italian restaurant. Their only advertisement is a small sign at the front gate leading to the guesthouse, which reads: “The best soup in town”.
The actual cooking is done in a building across the street, and the waiter carries the dishes you ordered across the road. As residents of the guest house, we get a 20% reduction on meals. The food is excellent, and we eat there often.
Two minutes walk away, down the narrow street, is a popular Bulgarian restaurant, with a band playing in the courtyard every evening. The restaurant is called Yafata, after the man who originally built the place almost 80 years ago. As he imported his oranges from Jaffa, he was nicknamed ‘Yafata’.
In this central part of Sofia the shops, restaurants, cafes and streets look new and well-kept. Streets are treelined, and are framed by russet-colored leaves. Most of the shops are at the height of fashion, as are the young people sitting at restaurants and bars all along Vitosha Street, but I wonder how they keep going, as the customers seem to be few and far between.
Bulgarian cooking is excellent and rarely were we disappointed wherever we went to eat. In fact, I would say to potential tourists that the time to go to Sofia is now, before this sleeping beauty is woken up by the kiss of world tourism and becomes expensive. We were paying one half, and even two-thirds less for lodgings and restaurants than we paid in Paris or Israel.
At the one end of the street (not the end going towards the mountains) there is a complex of churches, a mosque, a synagogue and a bathhouse. Sofia’s history, we learn, goes back 7,000 years – according to the remains of the Thracian civilisation found in the area.
Not far from Vitosha Street, but not easy to find as it is encircled by a massive modern building, is a 4th century church known as the St. George rotunda, the oldest building in Sofia. It is built over ancient Roman ruins and has been much restored. It is a beautiful red-brick building, and perhaps the biggest of the ancient churches I have seen.
The Agia Ndelja Church, 10th century, is a Byzantine structure of gold and blue, a round church. Not far away the large bathhouse buildings, beautifully painted in thin horizontal red and white stripes on the outside walls, are closed for restoration. The bathhouse is on the site of thermal springs which were used by the ancient Romans.
We pass through an open-air market, with thousands of jars of honey stacked up, and beyond that find the Turkish mosque, built in 1567. Unfortunately it’s closed.
Once through a large shopping arcade and a short way down the street, we find the Moorish-style synagogue (according to the blurb it is built in the 'national Bulgarian romanticism' style). It is the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe and was built in the early 1900s, with the Tsar’s family attending the opening. The hall can seat more than 1,000 people. Hanging from the ceiling is a 2-ton chandelier said to be the largest in Europe. I’m told that not many more than 50 people make up the congregation on Saturdays (there are about 6,000 Jews still living in Bulgaria).
Further off, but this time going the other way towards the mountains, is the Alexander Nevsky cathedral. On our way there we stop over at the international art gallery where we see some interesting local art shows, and visit the neighboring ethnographic museum where we watch women doing intricate bobbin-lace work and are given a short explanation of the art.
Later in the day our general direction of walking in the city is towards the Vitosha Mountains. We pass spacious parks and squares surrounded by long, solid, low buildings. In the distance looms the mountain, which we climb a few days later.
Later in the day we take a long walk to the giant St. Nikolay Russian Church with its five golden 'onion' domes.
Other places we saw and liked in Bulgaria – the Rila Monastery (2 hours bus ride away), the most beautiful monastery I have ever seen (you can stay overnight at one of the hotels in their little village), Plovdiv (the old town) with a surprise around every corner, Velikov Turnova, a beautiful old town (the Nomad Hostel in General Gurko Street is especially recommended). And 8 kms away from Velikov Turnova is the amazing Etar Valley open air museum.