Bulgaria is a country with a 1300+ years history. During the 7th century, the crown prince Asparouh led part of the Bulgars, who had settled in the area known as the Ukraine today, south and settled in the Danube Valley where they founded the First Bulgarian Kingdom. From the late 7th century until the late 14th century, Bulgaria went through the First and Second Bulgarian Empires and generally controlled most of the Balkan Peninsula and part of Romania. It was during this time of development that the Cyrillic alphabet was created and widely adopted by King Boris Ist as a vehicle to better promote the new Christian Religion. In the late 14th century, however, Bulgaria fell under Ottoman control until the Russians defeated the Turks in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. From there, Bulgaria got involved in the Balkan Wars and later the World Wars. With the severely weakened economy, Bulgaria joined the Communist bloc. While there was less variety on the markets, the communist leadership did wonders providing free education for all. Finally, the Communist bloc fell in 1989 and again threw the Bulgarian economy into disarray. Through all of those changes, Bulgarians showed great resilience. They were able to hold on to their unique culture and traditions and start rebuilding one brick at a time.
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Founded after the liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1888, Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski" (Софийски университет „Св. Климент Охридски“,
Sofiiski universitet Sveti KLiment Ohridski) is the oldest and largest university in Bulgaria. It's also the hardest one to get into and consistently ranks among the top 5% of universities internationally.
Monument to the Tsar Liberator is an equestrian statue dedicated to Russian Emperor Alexander II for liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman Rule. Beyond its historical significance, if someone tells you "let's meet under the horse's tail" (Да се срещнем под опашката на коня,
Da se sreshtnem pod opashkata na konia), this is the location that Sofiantsi are referring to.
The National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria (Народно събрание на Република България,
Narodno Sabranie na Republika Bulgaria) houses the Bulgarian unicameral parliament. My favorite part about the building is the slogan: Unity is what creates strength (Съединението прави силата, Saedinenieto pravi silata). The slogan managed to stay relevant through several different political regimes. It reflects on Bulgaria's tendency, as a small country, to team up with other countries without losing its independence.
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was completed in 1912 as a thank you to the Russians for their help in various wars. It is considered the tallest church on the Balkan Peninsula.
The statue of the best known Bulgarian writer Ivan Vazov, often referred to as "the Patriarch of Bulgarian literature". The reddish building in the background is Temple Sveta Sofia (Храм „Света София“). It was constructed in the 6th century on top of existing places of worship, which dated all the way back to the Roman city of Serdika, during the second century. It is believed that during the 14th century, it gave its name to the capital. Finally, the church peeking through the trees is St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
National Art Gallery (Национална художествена галерия,
Natsionalna hudozhestvena galeriya) was formerly the royal palace. After the fall of the Monarchy as part of the settlement at the end of the Second World War, the art gallery moved into this building as its initial building had gotten bombed during the war.
The Ivan Vazov National Theatre (Народен театър „Иван Вазов“,
Naroden teatar „Ivan Vazov“
) is the oldest theater in Bulgaria, dating back to 1904. Unfortunately in 1923, a major fire destroyed the interior of the theater. The government invested in getting a rotational stage that includes a swimming pool underneath. It was reopened in 1927 and all of that technology is still being used. The reconstruction of the stage was made by Germans so would you expect any less? (This is an example of a common joke showing Bulgaria’s high regard for German engineering.)
During the restoration of the façade of the theater, the gilder took a couple creative freedoms. You see, the artist’s wife was pregnant and the artist wanted a boy. He was told that if he painted the penises of all the boy angles in gold, he would have a boy. Do you think he took that advice?
Currently, this building houses the National Archaeological Museum (Национален Археологически музей,
Natsionalen arheologicheski muzey
). The building, however, was first built as a mosque in 1494. It then served as a library and only in 1893 (five years after the liberation) did it start to be converted into the National Archaeological Museum. It was officially opened as such in 1905.
If you look closely, you will notice that the ground floor of the building has actually completely sunk underground. This is because the mosque was built on swampy lands. A door was created on the second floor and it now serves as a main floor.
Guard change in front of the Presidential Offices.
The triangular structure in the middle of the picture is the Former Communist Party House. It now serves as administrative offices for the National Assembly. The Former Communist Party House is flanked on both sides by identical and rather controversial buildings. The building to the left houses the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues, the Ministry of Labour and Social Politics and the Agency for Social Assistance. In contrast, the building on the right houses a gentleman's bar, a casino, a luxury hotel and the offices of the President of the Republic of Bulgaria. As if that wasn't odd enough, in the courtyard of this second building, you will find the Church St. George Rotunda. Why did the government and businesses chose to have such different organizations right next to each other? Most likely because those were the buildings available at the time and most appropriately located.
The Central Mineral Baths (Централна минерална баня,
Tsentralna mineralna banya) was built in 1908. It served as the city’s main public bath using natural thermal water springs until 1986 when it was closed for restoration. In September 2015, it was reopened as the Museum of Sofia.
Right in the center of the Bulgarian capital, we call this the square of tolerance as four of the major religions are represented. Some even joke to say that five major religions are represented, if you include McDonalds representing the capitalism religion.
The Sofia Synagogue was opened in 1909 in the presence of Tsar Ferdinand I. It is the largest synagogue in southeast Europe and the third largest in all of Europe. Despite the massive size, only about fifty people use it regularly.
The Synagogue also houses the Jewish Museum. During the Second World War, Bulgaria was on the side of the Germans due to familial ties of the Royal Family. Regardless, when Hitler demanded that all of the Bulgarian Jews be deported, the Bulgarian people did not like the news. Seeing the unrest among his people, the Bulgarian Tsar lied and said that he had created a concentration camp to help Bulgaria with the war efforts. It was a ploy to earn more time. The day after Tsar Boris came back from a meeting with Hitler, he died. It is rumored that Hitler poisoned him. Nonetheless, the war ended before Hitler could check whether or not the concentration camp actually existed and Tsar Boris is estimated to have saved 50,000 lives.
In the foreground of the picture to the right is the Banya Bashi Mosque (Баня баши джамия,
Banya bashi dzhamiya), built in 1566. To the left are the Roman excavations found during the construction of the second metro line. Finally, in the background on the left is the Sofia Synagogue.
These are the excavations of the second and third century Roman civilization. Eight roads were discovered along with these remains. (To get a sense of where we are, the Sveta Petka Church is in the far left and the mosque was behind me when taking the photo. Later, we will head to Holy Sunday Church which is the building with the two domes in the skyline).
This tiny church is a medieval Orthodox Christian Church named Sveta Petka Church (Църква „Света Петка Самарджийска“). It was named so because saddlers built the church little by little with stones that they found. That's the reason for the various different stones on the facade. Moreover, Friday is considered a holy day for craftsman and St. Petka is the saint of Fridays (
Petak means Friday in Bulgarian).
The Statue of Sveta Sofia (Света София) was created in 2000 and replaced the statue of Lenin after the fall of the communist bloc. She stares in the direction of the Former Communist Party House, just like Lenin did. Now it’s a symbol of freedom while before it used to be a sign that big brother was watching.
On her left arm an owl is perched, referring to the goddess of wisdom. In her right hand, she's holding a wreath, symbolizing Nike, the goddess of victory. Finally, on her head, Svata Sofia is wearing a gold crown symbolizing the goddess Fortuna. While many believe that the capital is named after Saint Sofia, no part of this statue has anything to do with Bulgaria. The capital most likely got its name from the Temple Sveta Sofia.
Just behind the statue is the final temple in the square of tolerance. The cross from the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Joseph is peeking out from behind the column of the statue.
The Holy Sunday Church (църква „Света Неделя“,
tsarkva Sveta Nedelya) was built during the tenth century. In 1920, there was a plan to assassinate the monarch, Tsar Boris, by blowing up the church. The 25 kilos of dynamite killed 135 people but not Tsar Boris. Ironically, Tsar Boris survived because he had a tendency of being late. By 1925, the church was reconstructed.
The Palace Of Justice (Съдебна палата,
Sadebnata Palata) was started in 1926 and completed fourteen years later. The building served as the Bulgarian History Museum for a few years before reverting back to house the Palace of Justice.
While it looks a bit empty during the winter when it's -10 degrees Celsius, during the summer, boulevard Vitosha is brimming with life thanks to the outdoor cafés and the popular shopping venues. It became even more popular a couple years ago when the government removed the tram tracks and made it a pedestrian zone.
In Bulgaria, you will see plenty of trees decorated with
martenitsi (мартеници). During the month of March, Bulgarians wear a martenitsa (мартеница) and hang it up on a tree when they see a stork pass by. It's a sign of good health and a very sweet tradition in my book. If the tree blooms later in spring, it’s a symbol of good fortune for the person who left their martenitsa there.