After landing about 1pm, first chore was to get cash from the ABM and head to the hotel. Based on advice from Wikitravel, I decided to get a taxi from the soothingly named “OK Taxi” – and true to name, they were ok! The lady at the counter walked me out to a taxi, who didn’t speak English but we did just fine in French, and he was very curious why I’d chosen to visit his city – even more curious when he found it was for just one day! Wikitravel had told me to expect 10-12 leva for the taxi, and it came to 9,20…wow, a city with an honest taxi system, I was liking this place already.
This is a good place to mention…I was seriously impressed with Sofia, which given how tired and jet lagged I was says quite a bit. Although it was a brief trip, I was perhaps more impressed than with any other place I’ve visited in eastern europe. I can’t wait to go back for a longer trip, and explore more of the country. Everyone was friendly and helpful, and between English, French, and Russian I never once had any trouble communicating…and not just getting what I “needed” but asking enough questions to get what I was really looking for. Huge thumbs up!
That said, in deference to points collecting and status whoring, I decided to stay at the super-cheap and affordable Sheraton Sofia. Was upgraded to a fantastic junior suite which was amazing for the one short night. Friendly, helpful staff that answered all the questions I had, went out of their way to help me find things, and all-around were awesome. Highly recommend this place based on my brief experience!
By this time it was around 3pm, and I headed out for a few hour walk in advance of the 6:30pm tour I was planning to take. Walked a total of around 8km around the city, just taking in sights. Stopped for a couple espressos (I confess, one of them was at Starbucks for all-too-predictable and needed caffeination) and then just camped out for a little bit at a small cafe near the start of the tour for a couple local beers and people-watching.
For a tour, and to see as much as possible in a short time, I’d decided to go on a walking tour with Free Sofia Tour – which was also ranked the number one thing to do on Tripadvisor! Let me just say, it was definitely an excellent choice! They say the tour is about two hours, but our guide was fantastic, and at the urging of our group of approximately 10 he went for nearly 3 hours. That combined with my earlier walk definitely had my feet sore, but it was well worth it! If you get a chance to take this tour I highly recommend it, and our guide Kiril was fantastic!
So, on to the tour! Hopefully I get the names of all the sights right…it was lots to see in three hours!
First stop was the Sveta Nedelya Church.
Built in 1867, in 1925, there was an attack upon this church by the Bulgarian Communist Party who blew up the roof. This occurred during the funeral service of General Konstantin Georgiev, who had been killed in a previous Communist assault on April 14th. 150 people, mainly from the country’s political and military elite, were killed in the attack and around 500 were injured. The church was rebuilt, however, in 1933 and renovated a few times since.
Next stop was the Saint Petka Church. Its age is unknown, but probably built somewhere in the 11th or 12th century. It’s mostly below street level now, since it sits at the previous level of the city, in front of the TSUM department store. We couldn’t get inside that day.
From there it was on to the Sofia Public Mineral Baths. Although not open and functioning these days, there are still a couple fountains on the side of the building where hot mineral water comes out. There are plans to perhaps turn it into a spa or sauna, but it’s still unclear.
After that…we went underground! We saw some of the old city walls which had been partially excavated. There was also a bar mentioned that is underground around some of the city walls, but I didn’t have a chance to check it out.
Next stop was the Presidential Palace. I’m not sure if he was home, but I was impressed just how close we could get, and how friendly the guards were about taking pictures.
We continued on from there to the ruins of Saint George’s Church. This church was built by the Romans in the 4th Century AD, and is the oldest known church in Bulgaria. Unfortunately it’s now surrounded by apartment blocks, but that leant a bit of a surrealness to the whole place.
From there it was a bit of a walk to the Monument to the Unknown Soldier. It was dedicated in 1981, which is also considered the 1300th anniversary of the founding of Bulgaria.
The next and second to last stop was the massive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. There was a long-standing dispute between the Bulgarians and the Serbs about the largest Cathedral in the Balkans, but it was eventually determined that Saint Sava in Belgrade was larger. Regardless, it is a very impressive sight, especially with the large empty areas around it which lend to its feeling of grandeur.
Our final stop on the tour was the Saint Cyril and Methodius National Library. Saints Cyril and Methodius were the monks who are credited with creating the cyrillic (Saint Cyril, get it?) alphabet, and the library has been named after them. I hadn’t picked up on it before this point, but our guide…Kiril…is the Bulgarian version of Cyril. A large statue of them stands in front of the library:
At this point, Kiril told us that in 30 minutes there would also be a pub-crawl organized by the tour…and as much as I wanted to do it…pub crawling with a bunch of tourists when I had a 7am flight wasn’t an overly-appealing idea. Decided to grab a quick dinner al fresco, and call it a night since it was already nearly 9pm.
For dinner, I took the Hotel Desk Worker’s recommendation of Pizza Victoria. Enjoyed a fantastic salad, a couple local beers, a really good pizza, and some ice cream with grappa outdoors while watching the city go by. Perfect ending to an amazing trip…and cheap! The whole thing with drinks was under US$25!
Pizza Victoria Main:
After that it was back to the hotel, where I think I crashed 15 minutes later. It was going to be an early morning!