Bulgaria is bordered by the Black Sea on one side, Serbia and Macedonia on the other, Romania to the north, and Greece and Turkey to the south. In the 1940s, it was part of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc, but when the wall came down in 1989, democracy ruled. It’s not even half the size of New Zealand, with a population of seven million, and it’s not a wealthy country – a bummer if you live there, but a bonus for a tourist because it’s cheap to travel. And it’s close to other European hot spots. In one hour, you can fly from Sofia’s very nice airport to Istanbul or Athens; in two, you can get to Rome or Berlin; and in three, you’re in London.
I think Sofia’s fabulous, if a little sad, with pockets of historic loveliness mixed with rundown communist weirdness, plus the bits that were built after the city was bombed in World War II. Bulgaria started out neutral, but then backed the Germans – big mistake. Sofia was pummelled by the Allies as a result and the architecture suffered. But its quirks aren’t all bad. When you walk around the many parks, you find relics of the Soviet era – statues of freedom fighters holding up rifles etc. Turn a corner and you might come across an abandoned, ivy-covered Olympic swimming complex. Or on a drive in the hills, you might stumble on a disused gondola. Weird and fab!
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, with its shiny gold domes and central position, is a must-see, but so is the pretty Russian Church of St Nicholas the Miracle Maker. The exterior’s spectacular, the inside not so much, but if you go downstairs to the crypt, there’s a room full of people scribbling away on pieces of paper, which are then dropped into a box next to the tomb of a former bishop. He’s believed to make your wishes come true! We loved our day trip to the charming nearby town of Plovdiv, and also a weekend away at Starosel winery and spa – what a good combination that is!
We were staying in the embassy district near a lovely park, the Doctor’s Garden, just a five-minute walk from the cathedral. There’s a handful of bars, cafés and ice-cream shops (of which Sofia has no shortage) and a block away, a great bistro, Atelier. Food can be hit-and-miss otherwise, but there’s no shortage of wine and it’s very cheap if you drink local, as is the beer – which everyone drinks in the summer, especially on the street. And I mean everyone. The Happy restaurants are not bad for a chain – the Happy Victoria even has a swimming pool. Summers are hot here and in the winter, there’s skiing in the nearby Vitosha mountains.
Vitosha Boulevard is the main shopping street of Sofia, but it’s also a city of malls – locals love ’em. The one we kept ending up at was Sofia Ring Mall because it had a cinema complex and an Ikea next to it. It’s a bit out of town, but taxis are super-cheap. One thing to remember – most Bulgarians do not speak English. You either need to show drivers on a map where you’re going or have the address written in Cyrillic as our alphabet is rarely used.