The next morning in Sofia, we had a meh breakfast at the hotel and then headed out into the city and met our guide Reina. Firstly, Reina taught us how to pronounce the name of the city, Sofia, which was more SOH-fee-uh than the Americanized Soh-FEE-uh. Our first stop in Sofia was at the Ivan Vazov National Theater. Next to it was an old yellow building that had previously been owned by a wealthy family. Yellow was the color of the city, and even the cobblestone streets were made of a yellow gold color limestone that is mined near Budapest.
We continued walking adjacent to the City Garden in Sofia and up toward the Palace of National Art and past the Church of St. Nicholas, which was technically Russian property. Here we learned from Reina the significance of the second longer beam on the cross, which was supposed to signify where Jesus’s feet were nailed. Additionally, the crescent below is a symbol of royal power as well as of salvation, representing both the victory of the sun over the moon (light over darkness), but also representing an anchor where the church is a ship. It doesn’t really have much to do with the Islamic crescent, even though it looks the same.
From the church into the park of Alexander Nevsky we passed the monument of King Samuil, with the most intense statue eyes we had ever seen. Specifically emphasized in that way because the Turks had blinded most of his men, only sending back a few with one eye intact.
Near him was another lion statue, one of the multitudes in the region, that we both appreciated. We started asking our guides a question, which became a running joke, “Were there ever African lions in Europe?” It was sort of a trick question – through some deep research the answer to the question of whether there were lions in Europe was “yes” but they weren’t necessarily African lions. We generally were confused as to why the lion statues looked the way they did (African lions) initially, when the questioning first began.
Across from the glaring King Samuil was a monument depicting those people that had been blinded, also with a healthy dose of Communist brutalist style surrounding the area.
From the park we continued into St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, one of the 10 largest Eastern Orthodox churches in the world, finished around the turn of the 20th century. It was large and imposing, filling the huge square/traffic circle as Sofia traffic was allowed around the cathedral. They charged for taking pictures within the cathedral, so we refrained (no church needs extra money!). Not sure why this one was so special to charge when most others don’t, and while the interior was vast, it was anything too different to what we had seen before or would see after. In the traditional Eastern Orthodox style there was no seating except for along the walls, and the space was very open. The only slight difference this cathedral had was a throne for the king and queen though we learned that they had never actually sat there.
Leaving the cathedral, we tracked back towards the park behind The Palace of National Art. There we saw a monument to the Trabant automobile that had been built during the communist era. It comically showed a man’s head sticking out of the top, and Reina shared how it was a cheap, light car, that was loud, didn’t go fast, broke down all the time, and people often joked that when it did you simply needed to pick it up and run with it to get somewhere, much like a “Flintstones” car. Reina also mentioned that the car had been made from cardboard, but we later learned that was an urban myth. Steel and iron were rare though during communism, and while the car wasn’t made of cardboard, it was made of something similarly unusual, which was duroplast. Duroplast was a hard plastic made from recycled cotton waste from across the Soviet Union and phenol resins from the East German dye industry.
After the lovely park in Sofia, we were perfectly timed to catch the Bulgarian changing of the guard, which ended up being the highlight of the morning tour.
Similar to Plovdiv, we enjoyed seeing the layers of architecture from ancient times to modern times, all seemingly arranged in harmony.
We continued along a main road, saw a statue in the street that Brendan and I both really loved, and Reina explained that it was a monument to St. Sofia, the cities namesake, and that the church and therefore the people hadn’t liked it because they didn’t find it religious enough. It had pagan symbols like an owl and wreath, and no Christian symbols. We ended up liking it even more.
Passing by the lower level of some Roman ruins that had been found more recently, we headed toward the Banya Bashi Mosque and some old Turkish baths that had since been turned into art galleries. The name meant “Big Bath House Mosque” in Turkish, and we loved the literalness of it all.
We then boarded the bus again to head to the National Museum of History, a bit outside of the Sofia city center.
The building was an imposing bit of Communist brutalist architecture, and sat on the edge of the city with beautiful, forested mountains covered in mist behind it.
The entryway of the museum held what eventually CJ and I found to be the most interesting “gallery,” and all it was were paper dolls documenting the clothing and styles of the various civilizations throughout history. Starting with prehistoric man, touching on civilizations like the Egyptians, Ethiopians, Babylonians, onto Greeks, Romans, ancient Bulgarian civilizations, into the future of Victorian England, onto modern day. It was very well done and appeared to even include the actual fabrics for many of the designs.
After that highlight we ventured upstairs to Roman ruins. Yay, more ruins. This was not a highlight for us, simply because we had seen so many of these type of museums and their artifacts in our travels, and eventually all the pottery, sword fragments, helmets, jewelry, and burial mounds start to blend together. We started to move more and more away from the group, and the only part we really enjoyed of the museum was the last room that had a beautiful view out to the mountains and a pretty ceiling with the shape of the sun. With some free time, we ended up buying a hand painted bell as an ornament and venturing outside for a bit, and exploring the really lovely garden and grounds.
The highlight of the museum was probably our tour guide, Eronida, who was a good sport and dressed up for the group in some medieval costumes that were available for guests to try on. Eronida was such a bright spot in general for us on our trip, with infectious energy where it was hard to be grumpy around her.
Returning to the hotel we had the rest of the afternoon free to enjoy Sofia solo, which was music to our ears! We couldn’t wait to eat on our own and order off a menu to our own taste.
We headed first to a restaurant we had scoped out for lunch called The Little Things. It was nestled back in a cute little courtyard, and across from it was Mamma Mia, an Italian joint that was our second option for lunch in case The Little Things didn’t look good or work out, but thankfully it did. We entered and had a whole room to ourselves as the hour was a bit strange at 2pm for lunch. We first ordered some homemade sparkling water, I had a gin cocktail while Brendan had a strawberry cider that turned out to be quite refreshing. We started with a salad, maybe the best one of the trip, that had roasted peppers, feta cheese, roasted almonds, olives, parsley, and sourdough bread. It was divine, especially after all the meat we had been having. For our mains, I got the Israeli couscous that was perfectly flavored, with great touches of hazelnuts and dried cranberries. Brendan got the pesto tagliatelle with cheese and breadcrumbs, which was also a great change of pace and very tasty though not quite as good as mine.
Stomachs happy, we ventured out into the old town to explore. We really enjoyed the vibrancy of the city, everyone was out on this Tuesday afternoon and they were having a book fair on the main pedestrian street. We easily fell into the groove of things and both agreed that Sofia was probably the most livable city we had encountered so far.
Eventually we made our way to The Red Flat, which was a Sofia museum that our guide Eronida had recommended to us the day before. We first went to where Google told us the museum was, which actually ended up being a little gift shop, but that did properly sell the tickets to the Red Flat. However, the actual Red Flat was around the corner. We ended up heading that way with a group of others who had also bought tickets. The directions were good, but a bit vague, we were all looking for the proper location when one couple seemed to have figured it out, but unhelpfully didn’t seem like they were going to share with the others, though we noticed this and vocally mentioned that we should all head the same way as we noticed the number ’12’ address that had been in the directions. One of the buzzers under the 12 did indeed say “The Red Flat”, so we were in the right place. We were buzzed in and headed up a few flights of stairs before we got to the Flat.
Upon entering we were given headphones and a digital player and started listening through the 46 different audio guides that ran through the history of the family that had called the flat home, their artifacts, and the times they had lived in. The entrance to the flat was a small entryway with an area to hang your coats (more on that later). To the left you then entered the shared dining area with a table and to the right the living room with built in shelves, an old TV, a sitting area, and a bed. Going around the bed, through the entryway again you then came to a room that had been the room of the son. It also had a bed, a stereo, and various toys, skis, a bicycle, and a desk, along with a wardrobe that kept both his and his mother’s clothes. Back into the entry and down a hall, on the left you first had a sink and shower in their own room, then a toilet also in its own room, and finally came to the cramped kitchen with a balcony off of it. The kitchen had a small two seater table, washing machine, half sized fridge, and range. We learned through the audio that because the man of the house traveled often, it was usually just the mother and son at home. Because the travels took the husband to countries outside the Soviet bloc, he was clearly trusted and in a higher ranking position, so they were are relatively more well off family then others might have been. We learned that the son had to attend communist camps where they would harvest crops during the summers, that you could get in trouble in school for not being a model student/comrade, that you couldn’t wear western clothing, and that you could only take vacations within the Soviet countries, and that most vacations were company sponsored and you had to go with your coworkers, which sounded especially awful to us. The only alternative activity was camping, which might have been a way to get even someone like Brendan to enjoy camping.
We thoroughly enjoyed the “lived in” style, touch everything, approach of the Red Flat, and we would recommend it to everyone! In all I think we almost spent two hours there. There was also a healthy dose of 1980s nostalgia that any elder Millennial or Gen-Xer would love.
While there, we did encounter others from our tour including Shetty and Rose, and Phil and Susan. So far throughout the trip, we had rarely seen Phil without his bright blue NY Giants ballcap on, so when we were the last to leave the Red Flat and Brendan noticed that same bright blue cap staring down at him from the coat hook in the entryway, and we were almost positive that it had to be his. Not wanting him to have to come back and get it, if he even realized where he had lost it, Brendan ended up grabbing it, but also alerting the woman running the museum in case he did happen to come back.
We headed back a different way to the hotel and it ended up being a fortuitous path as we ended up passing a wine bar, Bistrot Montanari, and after inquiring we learned they had Mavrud by the glass! Yay Sofia for coming through with the Mavrud!
We showered and changed for dinner, but then headed back out early to the wine bar and finally got to try and enjoy some Mavrud! It was a very dry, very drinkable, red wine and we both enjoyed it. Everything would have been perfect between the wine and the ambiance if the waitress hadn’t been watching something on her phone with the volume up. I’ll never understand how anyone can be so obtuse as to listen to their phone on full blast in public. That is why they invented these things called headphones! Despite that irritation we didn’t let it spoil our mood, and still enjoyed the wine.
We headed back to the hotel, met up with the group, returned Phil’s hat to him (which he was very appreciative of) and then headed off as a group walking to Hadjidraganov’s Cellars in Sofia center. The interior of the restaurant was lavishly done in intricate wood and stone. Brendan had ordered a potato and cheese dish that ended up being amazing, yet filling. I had the chicken dish, but also agreed that the potatoes were better. Again we could only choose from 2-3 options and were unable to order off of the full menu. Towards the end of dinner we were treated to a band coming through playing classical Bulgarian folk songs, who also ended up playing some traditional Indian songs as well once they found our contingent of Indians. It was a fun little interlude and we all clapped along and enjoyed it! Also, that’s Jayne photobombing our photo.
After dinner, we peeled off to head towards a location we had scoped out the night before, a speakeasy style cocktail bar called 5L in Sofia.
We retraced many of the steps that we had taken from lunch earlier in the day, got to the corner where Google said the bar was and, nothing. We went back and forth a few times, looking and looking, and finally decided to ask a local person who was sitting and chatting with a friend at another establishment. Thankfully she spoke great English and had already noticed us a few times, so she quickly guessed what we were looking for and pointed us around the corner to the left. She also advised us to remember what day it was.
We went back that way and found steps leading down to a single door with a light over it. Above the door was an open window, which appeared to be someone’s apartment. We both hesitated for a bit, but then cautiously knocked on the door. Nothing happened. We knocked again a bit sheepishly. Still nothing. Finally, we got up the courage to gently try to twist the handle and open the door, which it did.
Upon opening the door was another small room with book cases. We were definitely on the right path. We knocked on the bookcase to the left, which was also clearly a door, but nothing happened. Seeing that there was a key ring chained to the door we decided to continue to press our luck and grabbed the keys, chose one that was labeled with a ‘5’ both for the 5th day of September that it was and also maybe for the ‘5’ in the bar’s name, tried the key and voila, open sesame.
We pushed through the door, someone shortly greeted us, and we made our way through the subterranean tunnels to the bar. I’m still not sure if we were supposed to use the key, or perhaps were supposed to wait and give a password, but no matter, because either way we were in! Brendan ended up ordering the “I’m Just Old Fashioned” to make up for the night before and I had the Urban Bird. Both were super tasty!
Brendan finished his quickly and next ordered the Stara Dusa, which was a bit strange and funky, but he enjoyed it as well! We spent a good amount of time sitting, enjoying our drinks and the atmosphere. It had been a full day though, so eventually we got tired and decided to walk back to the hotel. A very successful and enjoyable day in Sofia, a very livable city.