It is undeniable that there is a shivering, thrilling magic in the first steps in a country where one has never been before. That is why I realized that the time had come for me to discover a new domain, as a perfect ending for this year: my choice was Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Last time I promised you that I will guide to see what other monuments can be seen related to different churches and religions, but afterwards I will also introduce other miracles of the city to you.
As a matter of fact, the most wonderful discovery about Sofia in terms of church architecture is the diversity of cultures and religions.
It means that apart from the Orthodox and Catholic churches, there is also a synagogue in the city (smaller than the one in Budapest, but the largest one in Southeastern Europe and the third largest one in Europe), and even a Muslim mosque (Banya Bashi Mosque) which is still visitable if one respects the Islam's rules.
I had never been to a traditional mosque before, so I will never forget the magical carpets everywhere, neither the blue celestial flames nor the golden Arabic quotes on the walls.
I also have to add that nearly all of these buildings could be visited for free, although based on my experiences, the people are way more religious in Bulgaria than how I saw it in other Christian countries.
Maybe it is just a false observation, but for sure I could notice a higher rate of people going to churches and participating in social events from public markets to open air folk dance performances (which we also witnessed by the way).
You might think that the reason lies in the fact that the people are interested in such things because they are older in general and they were upbrought in different times, but they are not: regardless the age, people of many different generations attended the holy mass and the religious activities.
You will definitely notice another extraordinary building not so far from the mosque, just behind a huge fountain: well, it could be even an incredibly beautiful railway station, but it's not. It is the former Central Bath (Tsentralna mineralna banya), which indeed reminds one to Széchenyi fürdő in Budapest.
After comparing photos of the two I realized that not just the colors, but even the shapes of them are different; yet they create exactly the same atmosphere with their bricks and facades, if one analyzes the street view.
Such a building was needed back then, because Sofia, just like Budapest and many towns in Hungary, is extremely rich in thermal water; therefore, since the Ottoman times, having public baths became a local tradition.
However, the Central Bath is turned into the Regional History Museum of Sofia today, and believe it or not, you can barely find public spas in the very center of the city, unlike in the case o Budapest. So what happens to the thermal water then?
Well, basically it remains unused in terms of baths, apart from some hotels, while the pedestrians are able to take it from the street like tap water from underground, and they sometimes wait until it gets cold to drink it - although, apart from the minerals within, the hot temperature is the key point of this treasure.
It sounds an insane amount of waste of natural resources, so I do not want to spend false information about Sofia, because for sure there are some thermal spas in the outskirts or for those who can afford it. We just could not find a public version of it like in Hungary: one which is cheap and where everybody is able to go to easily.
Continuing our walk towards Serdika station and Saint Nedelya from the Central Bath, you will pass by the ancient ruins and Saint Petka's Church, but the main road also hosts plenty of cafés and hotels which makes this part of Sofia the modern business and touristic core of the city.
If you look to the other side of the road, you will find a golden headed statue on a tall column: she is Saint Sofia (Sveta Sofiya), who nowadays takes over the place of the former Lenin statue standing there before.
If you turn towards the Nezavisimost (‘Independence’) square opposite this monument, there will be an elegant building at the crossroad of two streets.
That is called Largo, which served as the headquarters and Party House of the former Bulgarian Communist Party. It also worked as a temporary building of the National Assembly, because the original one mentioned above, close to the Tsar Liberator's statue was severely damaged in World War II.
Although Largo lost both of its previous functions, its side edifices still host the Council of Ministers and the President's Office in today’s republic.
It seems that the complex cannot lose its role as a unique symbol connected to Bulgarian politics, and the guards in front of the entrance hall, standing under a huge coat-of-arms of Bulgaria, just confirmed this theory.
Here or there it is inevitable to see this beautiful coat-of-arms appearing from official buildings to souvenir shops everywhere.
The national symbol of the country has already existed in many different shapes: sometimes with the communist red star, sometimes with a crown, but one thing was for sure: no one ever dared to remove the golden lions, who are also the supporters of the shield itself.
The animal had such a great influence on the Bulgarian national myth that even the national currency’s name, leva comes rom the old Bulgarian word for lion (in plural, to be honest). That's why Sofia is full of signs of the king of animals who symbolizes courage, strength and freedom.
The most remarkable one among these is the famous Lion Bridge (Lavov Most) bending over the tiny river of Vladaya. The concept is very similar to the one of Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana or to our precious Chain Bridge in Budapest, since there are four beautiful lion statues in the four corners of the bridge.
However, there is also another Lion Monument in the park in front of the National Palace of Culture (Natsionalen dvorets na kulturata, shortly often NDK), and I found an old Renaissance-like lion in front of St. Sofia's Church, and inside the cathedral as well.
I added the suffix ‘-like’, because the human faced medieval heads of the statues reminded me to the Renaissance representations I knew from Venice and Veneto region and ultimately also from Ravenna and Rimini.
These creatures always took me back to the codex pages full of mythical beasts. One of the most magnificent buildings, the Court House (Sadebna Palata) could not be perfect either without the two lion statues guarding the stairs.
Apart from the Lion Bridge, there is also an Eagle Bridge (Orlov Most),which we unfortunately could not see due to the lack of time. We also missed some other sights for the same reason, just like the Brotherly Monument: a heroic socialist artwork commemorating the partisans of World War II, or the Levski Stadium, which are all located close to Borisova Garden.
However, I witnessed the impressive crimson, white and golden facade of the Ivan Vazov Theater or the fabulous walls of the St. Clement of Ohrid University – Ohrid, where he was from, by the way, used to be the capital of the medieval Bulgaria for a while.
I also noticed that in general there are plenty of theaters like the Army Theater (formerly most probably offered for military officers), or another one which is called Satirical Theater – most probably its preferences are rather comedies.
It is a pity that we also missed the National Gallery, the City Gallery and the Archeological Museum, where I could have seen the mesmerizing bronze head of king Seuthes III, who was the king of Odrysa (Odryssians were one of the Thracian tribes).
During the national revival of Bulgaria, just as Illyrians were kind of 'predecessors' for Yugoslavs or Dacians for Romanians, there was also a sort of Romantic connection between Thracians and Bulgarians based on the territorial heritage that makes the ancient Thrace relevant to recall.
Not to mention that the best known gladiator and slave leader ever, Spartacus was also said to be Thracian as a matter of fact - or, at least, he wore the type of armor during gladiator fights which was called 'Thracian'.
Romanticism and heroism keeps other surprises in the map of the Bulgarian capital, especially if someone comes from Hungary: it is not so particular maybe that there is a Budapeshta street in Sofia, since there is also a Szófia street in Budapest.
It is more interesting that our accomodation was just a little bit further from Lajosh Koshut (Lajos Kossuth) street, while later, by accident, not so far away from there, we discovered a Shandor Petofi (Sándor Petőfi) street as well: two iconic heroes of the Hungarian revolution and war of 1848-49: the governor and the poet, whom I never expected to be so known in the country.
Bulgaria, by the way, also had ‘its own Petőfi’: just as the famous Hungarian poet, his Bulgarian ‘colleague’, Hristo Botev also devoted his life and work for the cause of the nation, until he died in a battle among the mountains against the Ottoman Empire due to a shot on his heart.
Apart from his similar poetic character (ars poetica), romantic style and personal visions, Botev had the same age and similar mysterious circumstances of death as Petőfi did; with the slight difference that he was born more or less in the time, when the legendary Hungarian poet died near Segesvár (today: Sighișoara, Transylvania).
Nevertheless, it is also a difference that Botev was found and buried, but Petőfi disappeared forever which rose many theories about his death.
Sofia has plenty of pleasant boulvards like the Knyagina Maria Luisa Boulvard crossing the Lion Bridge, the Makedonia Boulvard or the one named after Botev himself, but it also has its own market streets for pedestrians, just like Budapest (Váci utca) or Vienna (Mariahilferstraße) do.
The more traditional one among them is called Zhenski Pazar (‘Women's Bazaar’), where we could see one of the greatest vegetable markets ever: the huge and healthy cucumbers, tomatoes, oranges, onions, apples, peaches, grapes, plums and so on really proved why Bulgaria is so famous for gardening.
If someone is not satisfied with the dozens of fruits, honey, cheese, fish, nuts, souvenir shops and other delicious goods in the market, the hustle and bustle and chatting people mean a nice starting point in order to feel the local vibes and see how Sofians live their everyday lives.
Of course, the traditional market is only one aspect of the city, and it does not mean that one cannot find anything modern: for such discoveries we have got Vitosha street, which is full of bars, restaurants, stores and pubs and is one of the most touristic parts of the city.
The famous market street is not the only place though which I visited in Sofia with the name Vitosha; if you would like to know what exactly I mean by that and what else I saw in the neighborhood of the city, don’t forget to follow my Bulgarian adventures next time!