A Bulgarian Adventure to Sofia & Plovdiv
Where: Sofia, Plovdiv. Bulgaria, Eastern Europe.
When: June 2012
What: Communist Party House, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St Nikolai Russian Church, Museum of Socialist Art, National Palace of Culture, Vitosha Mountain, NDK Square, Plovdiv Revival Architecture and murals, Thracian Hill, Ethnographic Museum.
How: International flight, walking, intercity coach.
Country counter: +1 country
Illnesses or mishaps: Acquiring a touch of 'Bulgarian Belly'; narrowly avoiding a giant (and poisonous) Balkan centipede which scurried across my bare foot at an outdoor café.
What things spring to mind when someone mentions "Bulgaria"? Do your eyes glaze over? Do you search for a symbol, landmark or historical event? Bulgaria was certainly an unknown quantity to me too and remained so right up until the moment I stepped foot on Bulgarian soil. It was to be one of those 'make it up as you go along' adventures. As a result, my visit to Bulgaria had to adapt several times. The sticking point was what to do with a spare day. One half-formed idea was to visit a large abandoned UFO concrete structure sitting on Mount Buzludzha in the central Balkans Mountain Range hundreds of kilometres from the capital. It would have been rather incredible to have seen it. The distance from Sofia, and the country's embryonic public transport system, meant that travelling to and from the site was in no way possible. The only option would have been to hire a car and risk driving there. Thus, Buzludzha was reluctantly consigned to the box marked 'perhaps next time' (update: I made it out to Buzludzha in 2013 - see here). We were left with the only viable alternative - a safe and simple trip southward to Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city. Aside from a touch of "Bulgaria Belly" on the first day, which luckily didn't develop into anything too nasty, most of the trip went to plan once the plan for the trip had been decided...
Bulgaria lies at a cultural crossroads between Eastern Europe and Muslim Europe surrounded, as it is, by countries such as Turkey, Romania, Greece and Serbia. The country also allied itself closely with Soviet Russia when Europe was chopped in half by the Iron Curtain (Bulgaria was never part of the Soviet Union but was Communist). Bulgaria, therefore, promises to bestow upon visitors a heady blend of the Mediterranean and eastern European. Indeed, this heritage is written in the faces of Bulgarians themselves: olive skin and bright blue eyes. Additionally, the heat makes Bulgaria feel like a Mediterranean country, whilst its dilapidation in places locates it firmly within the communist aesthetic of eastern Europe, as does the country's use of the Cyrillic alphabet. This caused a issues when we arrived in Plovdiv - there were three bus stations but we could not work out which one we had arrived at. Pathetically, like a real travel novice, I resorted to writing out the Cyrillic letters on my hand and trying to translate it in to Roman script and then cross-reference it to the map in the guidebook. Five minutes later, we were still none the wiser.
As regular readers of my site have probably gathered by now, I am often drawn to countries which have, rightly or wrongly, a poor international image. It is these kinds of countries which intrigue me and which, in my experience, have the most to offer travellers. I believe that every country has an interesting story to tell; no place is immune to the greater changes and events happening around it and so whether it is innately dynamic and interesting, or whether it is simply swept along by broader socio-political forces outside of its borders, countries cannot help but have a story worth listening to. I attest that Bulgaria is one such place.
Sofia is the Bulgarian capital with all the noise, dilapidation and gentle hustle and bustle this inevitably entails. Sofia was generally unkempt and dirty, but no more so than some of the other eastern European nations. An architectural hallmark of Communism was the almost obsessive use (or should that be 'abuse'?) of concrete. The phrase "concrete jungle" could have been coined here as everything seemed to be constructed of the stuff: benches, bins, statues, bollards, fountains and walkways. However, concrete degrades quickly and thus much of Sofia appeared to be crumbling all at the same time. A saunter around Sofia is like watching a city's destruction in ultra-slow motion. Indeed, the city's 1300 Year Monument in the main NDK Square, built in 1981, had been cordoned off to protect citizens from falling concrete as they passed by. Not exactly a fitting tribute to the 1300-year anniversary of the forming of the first Bulgarian state but, I would suggest, nevertheless symbolic. I have noticed that such grand commemorative gestures like this, so cheaply executed, seems to be a recurring motif in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc that I have visited. If Sofia's crumbling concrete architecture is the city's body, then surely the incredible Alexander Nevsky Memorial Cathedral must be its soul. Its giant green and golden cupolas punctuate what is one of the largest eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. Amid a cityscape of largely functional architecture it is unsurprising that the cathedral is the undisputed landmark of not just the Bulgarian capital, but also of Bulgaria more generally. By extension, if Bulgaria's concrete buildings is its body and the cathedral its soul, then the former Communist Party House building in central Sofia is Bulgaria's memory and conscience. Sometimes the story of a place can be determined not just by what is there, but also by what isn't there - by what is omitted or removed or missing. Indeed, there are some in Bulgaria doing their very best to erase the country's past mistakes - and this endeavour is written, more specifically not written, on the capital's buildings. The red star, ultimate symbol of communism, which once graced the central column of Communist Party House has been removed, was unceremoniously dumped in an abandoned indoor pool. By the same token, the hammer and sickle relief rendered in stone above its entrance has been chiselled away. To complete this historical deletion, all Lenin busts and statues have been removed from public spaces. It is a fair assessment to say that Bulgaria is dealing with the mistakes of its past...by pretending they never existed, an exercise in collective amnesia where the symbols and icons of communism too difficult or unsettling to bear witness to are vaporised in a unified act of forgetting.
However, a recent addition to the Sofia tourist landscape is the Museum of Socialist Art, the final resting place for many of the now unloved and unwanted communist statues and symbols dismantled following the country's troubled and difficult transition to a market economy. Even though these are merely statues, a wander around this place feels like a visit to Bulgarian communism's own graveyard, the final resting place of a socio-political system that buckled under the weight of corruption. The huge red star top, which once adorned Communist Party House now stands at the entrance to the museum - no longer looming large over citizens from the city's most prominent building, rather, but cut down to size. Literally and metaphorically. Indeed, visually the museum adopts the appearance of a graveyard, with each statue given its own grey stone plinth, respectively laid to rest amid a field of green and lined up along paths like they've been laid to rest. Ironically, or befittingly depending on your politics, the open-air area of the museum is overlooked by a large modern building occupied by the banking group Fibank. Positioning yourself with your camera pointing at an impressive statue of Lenin, it is just possible to photograph both together; a symbolic juxtaposition of both systems within the same frame.
One unfortunate by-product of Bulgaria's communist days is that it now struggles with poverty more than many other countries in Europe. Sofia could possibly have some of the worst sidewalks on the continent. I wonder how many visitors head home having twisted an ankle - or both? My Sofia sightseeing was interspersed with flicking my eyes back to the pavement every few seconds to make sure I wasn't walking into a mangled piece of upturned iron or a cavernous hole from which I might never escape. Another sign that all is not well here is the prevalence of the homeless: whilst few in number, when I did see such street characters in Sofia they looked particularly desperate.
Plovdiv just goes to show that you should never try to second guess a second city. We travelled from Sofia to Plovdiv using the local coach service. The journey was rather unremarkable, except for the geographical punctuation marks of the Sredna Gora Mountains and Valley of the Roses. Plovdiv was a real departure, pun intended, from my experience of Sofia; it was cultural and the tourism market positively fizzed and popped. The revivalist architecture, characterised by organic swirls and flowery details, was in stark contrast to Sofia's grimly functional concrete communism. Here there was a focus on the ornate, the delicate. In Plovdiv, things can exist simply because they are beautiful; they do not need to justify their existence by having a specific function or purpose. The ornate detailing on buildings in the historic area of the city are there because they can be. It's as simple as that. It's just as well that I took the trouble of travelling the 130 kilometres from Sofia to see them and to bear witness to Bulgaria's 'other face'.
The green and golden cupolas of the Alexander Nevsky Memorial Cathedral, Bulgaria's undisputed landmark building. It is one of the largest eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world.
Orthodox religious paintings aregiven extra sparkle by the afternoon summer sunshine.
The St Nikolai Russian Church in central Sofia whose golds and greens mimic those of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral nearby.
The former Communist Party House, former headquarters of the Bulgarian Communists. Its red star has long been removed and replaced by the Bulgarian flag. The building's design imitates key characteristics of the Stalin Palace.
Bulgaria's collective amnesia: the hammer and sickle symbol has been removed from the former Communist Party headquarters building. Right, the red star cut down to size and now at the entrance to the Socialist Art Museum.
The eastern European aesthetic: this fountain may be devoid of water but its cosmic globes, beige colour and mosaics are key traits of communist design.
The floral and ornate patterns of buildings in Old Plovdiv.
Old Plovdiv's Regional Ethnographic Museum.
Plovdiv's architectural beauty; the cultural heart of Bulgaria.
The Bell Tower in Old Plovdiv.
A contented cat shelters from the sunshine in Old Plovdiv.
travel tips, links & resources
- Travelling between Sofia and Plovdiv is simple and inexpensive. There are regular departures and the journey takes around two hours.
- It is quite possible to see all Plovdiv has to offer as a day trip. Make sure you find time to walk to the top of Thracian Hill to enjoy views of Plovdiv from a higher vantage point.
- Check out the ever-useful Bulgaria pages of the inyourpocket guide here. You can be assured of relevant, interesting and accessible travel tips. Better still, download the free pdfs for both Sofia and Plovdiv to take your guides offline when travelling.
- Many online reviews about Bulgaria cite a range of scams operating in the country which visitors should be aware of. Those coming in for particular ire were taxi drivers, whose copying of logos and mimicking of the telephone numbers of legitimate taxi firms is a clear attempt to ensnare unsuspecting tourists into their cabs in order to charge them several times the fare. Update: on my second visit to Sofia, later in 2013, this practice seemed largely to have been dealt with by authorities.
- A hurdle most tourists face in Bulgaria is the Cyrillic alphabet. This is not surprising as the Cyrillic alphabet was invented here during 10th Century AD (by a man called 'Cyril'). Getting by on memorable logos and Roman alphabet translations is far easier in Sofia than it is outside of the capital. In Plovdiv, writing was almost exclusively Cyrillic. Plan ahead and download a translator app if you feel you will need it.
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