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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

9/27: Sofia's Historic Split Personality

10/2 N.B.  Oops! Hit the 'Publish' button yesterday without proofreading the post as carefully as I should have, even misspelling the city's name pretty well every time too. With thanks to my honorary editor - much appreciated! AEB

It was still very dreary weather but at least it wasn't raining as we explored downtown Sofia on foot from the hostel using information I had found in guidebooks back home and brought with us.

 Sofia was little more than a market when it was declared Bulgaria’s capital in 1879 but its history dates back 7000 years, making it one of the oldest cities in Europe. Because of its strategic location in the middle of the Balkan peninsula, it was the main intersection of land routes from Europe to Asia and from the Danube to the Aegean. It was named Serdica during the 1st millennium BC after the Thracian Serdi tribe settled around the hot springs. It was renamed Ulpia Sedica in 100 AD under Emperor Trajan (remember his naked monument from a couple of posts ago!). The city became known as Sredets in 809 when it was incorporated into the 1st Bulgarian kingdom, then Triaditsa in 1018 and finally achieved its current name of Sophia in the 12th - 14th centuries.
Palace of Justice: Often this trip it's been tough trying to figure out what some of the buildings are because their names often vary fairly significantly from map to guidebook to the signs. This was easy though as it was also called the Court House so we could figure this one out even though Steven and I each had different maps and reference materials!
Christine: Thought of your Jack here. We've seen so many Jack Daniels' signs all over Europe; perhaps we're just noticing them more this trip because Steven and I toured the Jack Daniels' distillery in miniscule Lynchburg, Tennessee in late June.
 Then on a couple of blocks to see the lovely Church of Sveta Nedelya located on the square of the same name. It was built at the end of the 19th C. In 1925 it was largely destroyed in a bomb blast, an assassination attempt on Tsar Boris III, in which over 200 people were killed although the intended victim was spared by his late arrival. In contrast to other Orthodox churches we’d seen in Budapest and later in Sofia, Sveta Nedelya was very well lit and also had many vases filled with flowers, again different from other orthodox churches.

All the major downtown street signs were both in Cyrillic and Latin alphabets so we could figure out both where we were and where we wanted to go.
 A ten minute walk away from the Church was the beginning of the Zhenski Pazar or Women’s Market where we saw everything from fruit and vegetables to fake designer track suits for sale. There were also a few tiny shops selling men and women’s underwear and socks. We each bought some of the latter since it was darn chilly and our tootsies were cold. The interior of pretty well all the shops in this area were very dark, just as I remember seeing in films of Eastern Europe; it had been the same in Romania too once you got away from the touristy shops where you might as well have been shopping in any major city in the world. We came to the market area to see the local shops, not to see what we already know.

Ever since being in southern Poland we've often seen older women, and sometimes men, selling a few items on the streets, generally right in front of stores.

There seemed like there about 20 meat shops in about a 4 block area!

In the market area was the small Church of Sts. Kiril and Metodii that we popped into for a few moments to warm up. No idea why there was this wall of small portraits as we entered the church - hadn't seen anything like that before.

An elevated pulpit which we've noticed is so common not only in Orthodox churches but also in Christian churches.
Did some more window shopping and people watching in the market area after using the market's facilities below. We considered ourselves 'lucky' in that at least we could flush the toilet and not have to  pour water from a bucket to flush it as we'd had to do in many places in SE Asia last year. It's the glass half full perspective!

Beautifully hand knit socks

Checking out the meat prices.
I was taking a photo of this meat store when one of the women inside so kindly gestured for me to come in and take a picture!

Suellen: How would Ron like buying his wine here rather than at Costco?! In the top picture did you notice you could buy any size wine you wanted?
Saw this woman several times in the market; this was the best photo of her.
From the market area, we walked down the few, block long pedestrian street over to Halite, a market hall that was built in 1909. It's a 2 story building selling clothes, fresh produce and a mouth watering array of local deli items as well as a huge drugstore selling every brand of cosmetics, etc known to North Americans. We stocked up on a number of items there.

Behind the market hall is the vast dome of Sofia Synagogue, designed by a Viennese architect in 1909, and intended to symbolize the Jewish contribution to Bulgaria’s burgeoning capital. Jews comprised one fifth of the city’s population at the time. The area around the synagogue was turned to rubble by Allied bombing although the vast majority of Sofia’s Jews survived the war emigrating to Palestine in large numbers in the late 1940’s. The enormous brass chandelier, weighing over 2.25 tons, hangs from the octagonal dome. Much of the ceiling space around it is painted to resemble a blue, star-filled sky.

The Synagogue was closed that day so we went back for a little 2 days later to visit the interior.
The synagogue was across from George Washington St.!

Only steps from the synagogue was Banya Basha Mosque that was built in 1576; it was open to non Muslims so we removed our shoes as required before entering a mosque, and stopped to admire the beauty within. It was my first time entering a mosque so I was honored to be allowed to enter. There were only a few worshipers saying their prayers. Unlike many of the churches we’ve visited, there was no admission charge and no policy against taking photos so I was happy!

Unlike the synagogue where we had to be buzzed in to enter, there was no visible security at the mosque.
Banya, the Bulgarian word for bath, refers to the adjacent magnificent Public Baths that were derelict but are being restored to their former splendor and will be reincarnated as the Museum of Sofia. In front of the Baths are mineral springs where Sophianites (bet that’s new word for you!) often form long queues to fill up their plastic bottles with free mineral water.

A different look for a McDonald's sign, wouldn't you say! I like it was a Mac, not a Mc, as many of you may know my maiden name was MacDonald! It was diagonally across from the mosque.

Walked a fair piece to reach a number of churches on our list. On the way we saw the large Statue of St. Sofia, the nearby Communist Party Headquarters…

I had bought the hat that morning in a second hand shop as it was CHILLY out. We ended up needing to wear our dollar stretchable gloves most of the day; they may not have been a fashion statement and certainly not the warmest ones we could have brought with us but were lightweight, an important consideration when traveling for a long time.
The entire square had lovely mosaic patterns.
While at the unmistakable Russian Church with its exterior of bright yellow tiles, 5 gilded domes and an emerald spire, we were fortunate enough to witness a christening taking place. One of the church employees, a youngish beautifully attired man kindly said I could take a few photos as long as I was very quick even though there was again a no photo policy. Since he went out of his way for me, I wanted to buy a token at the gift shop. Being in a rush as Steven was waiting for me, I quickly bought yet another gaily painted egg which I ended up exchanging a half hour later when Steven wisely said it was probably not the best thing to have purchased because of its being fragile. When I went back, I pantomimed to the lady in the tiny shop that I was worried about breaking it; the man, hearing me, came over and said that I needn’t worry as the egg was in fact wooden. I felt like an idiot and decided to exchange the rather hideously colored egg for a small tryptich icon that is far nicer and more expensive, so therefore a greater contribution to the church. He and I both laughed at this. I shall always associate the icon with his kindness and my stupidity!
The church, also called St. Nikolai the Miracle Worker, was built to appease a Russian diplomat afraid to worship in Bulgarian churches!

First time we've come across anything like this before: a traffic warden monitored traffic in the intersection below him; don't know why he was needed as the traffic to us was negligible there and at the other intersections we saw them. Sounds like a make work program to me.

Then walked a few blocks to the massive, awe-inspiring Alexander Nevski Memorial Church (above), a symbol not just of Sophia but of Bulgaria itself. It was built between 1882 and 1912 in memory of the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria’s independence during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.
The Basilica of Santa Sofia, above,is the oldest Eastern Orthodox church in Sofia and it is in fact this church that gave the city its name to the present day capital back in the 14th C. The church though dates back to the 6th C. Roman area; it was said that the church could be viewed from’6 hours away’! During Ottoman rule, it was turned into a mosque but after an earthquake toppled the minaret in 1818 and another one killed the Iman’s 2 sons 40 years later, it was abandoned and later restored as a church. We spent some time in the new, below ground museum that revealed layers of the Basilica’s history, including 3 earlier temples.

In the museum below the church.

The National Assembly; its slogan on the facade above the entrance loosely translated means 'United We Are Strong'. The building, the scene of regular public protests, was stormed and damaged in 1997 leading to the eventual downfall of the then ruling Socialist Party.

Couldn't resist taking these pictures inside the lobby of the hotel opposite the Assembly when we used their facilities! Steven was quite happy to reenact his role as the Sherpa!
A 100% electric car in front of the hotel I mentioned above; it was minute inside, enough for one seat only in the front and possibly a car seat or a few grocery bags in the back. Do these exist yet in the US or Canada, does anyone know?
 Near the entrance to Borisova Gradina, one of Sofia’s more attractive parks, is the Monument to the Soviet Army that was built in 1954 and is described ‘as a prime example of socialist realism of the period. The place of honor goes to a Red Army soldier atop a column surrounded by animated cast-iron sculptural groups depicting determined gun-waving soldiers and grateful, child-caressing members of the proletariat.’

It was amazing and, quite frankly, disheartening seeing lots of young men performing bike tricks, skateboarding, etc just feet away from the massive sculpture. I must be getting old as that part of the park just didn't seem the 'right' place for it. 

A tiny memorial chapel to the Victims of Communism located by the Palace of Culture. The chapel was adjacent to the long wall, below, that had thousands of names on it. It reminded both of us of the similarly shaped Viet Nam Memorial in D.C.

Inside the wee chapel.
The Communist Times Memorial

How nice to call it a day after all this and head back to our hostel for some nice hot tea. We sure needed to put our feet up and get warm after a long day of sightseeing in Sofia.