03.10.2018 36 Hours in... Sofia
Bulgaria is not a country that has enjoyed the warmth of good publicity in recent years. Its admission to the EU was seized upon by mud-slingers keen to stoke fears of a looming UK invasion of Bulgarians. In the end, however, the exodus of Eastern Europeans never happened - and a trip to the capital of Sofia may yield a few clues as to why.
From the air, the cityscape is not immediately inspiring. Rows of Soviet-era buildings – many in a state of disrepair - pepper the fringes of the city. Yet at the centre Ottoman mosques sit side by side with grand Stalinist architecture, and artists find spaces in the cracks in between. This is a proud city that has been sculpted over more than two millennia by Thracian, Roman, Ottoman and Russian influences.
This is a proud city that has been sculpted over more than two millennia by Thracian, Roman, Ottoman and Russian influences.
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The local drink rakia is a fermented fruit distillate that comes in several varieties, all equally potent. With an average alcohol content of around 40 per cent – and maybe double that for the popular home brew – it is alarmingly drinkable. A glass with salad is a typical (and rousing) start to any evening.
The food, meanwhile, is consistently good, and while there remains an impatient disregard for ostentatious presentation, it is possible to eat and drink well for very little.
For this reason Bulgaria has become a popular go-to for stag and hen parties, but their influence on the capital should not be overstated. The bars and casinos they frequent can be easily avoided, and the best drinking dens are tucked away in this old city.
Bulgaria Air operate comfortable return flights from London Heathrow to Sofia’s centrally located airport; returns this month from around £200. Easyjet flights start from around £66 return
Head to the rooftop bar of Sense Hotel to catch the sun setting over the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and see the city sprawled beneath your feet. Possibly a good time to sample your first glass of rakia, too.
Make a beeline for Hambara, tucked away down an alleyway behind an unmarked door on Septemvri street, in the north western corner of the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church. It has no website, no telephone number and inconsistent opening hours, but if you take the time to track down this smoky, candlelit converted barn your persistence will be well rewarded.
Get in a taxi and head straight out of the city to the wealthy suburb of Boyana in the south west. From here you should make for Boyana church, a 900-year-old private chapel hidden in a copse. Its frescoes are dazzling and the views overSofia are beautiful.
Make your way back to the city and ask the taxi driver to drop you at Sofia's centrepiece: the Aleksandâr Nevsky Cathedral. Dim, hushed and cool, it is 100 years old and, at 174 feet tall, imposingly cavernous.
Wander towards the centre of the city down Tsar Osvoboditel, pausing to take in the charming bauble-capped Saint Nikolas Russian church on your way. Head to the very centre and pause for a drink in the sun outside the gilded Ivan Vazov National Theatre.
Make for the Rotunda of St George - the oldest monument in Sofia. This early Christian red brick rotunda hidden in a courtyard dates from the fourth century, when it was a pagan temple. It is itself a potted history of the city, housing layers of frescoes dating back to the 10th century.
Around the corner from the Rotunda you'll find the National Archaeological Museum - easy enough to stumble on because of the smattering of stone relics that litter its fringes. The facade of the museum belongs to a 15th century Ottoman Empire mosque, and its interior holds artefacts from the many empires of old that have occupied the city.
The Hagia Sophia Church is the landmark that gave Sofia its name, and this angular 6th century landmark has a simple elegance that is a neat contrast to the dramatic Aleksandâr Nevski Cathedral.
Jump in a taxi and head Hadriganov's Houses, a kitsch but charming restaurant serving traditional Bulgarianfare. Built in 1866 and spread across four restored houses, the stylings are theatrical but the food is good. Three course meal £40.
Avoid the stag parties at the Bavarian beer hall and head to the Thirsty Dragon instead - a pub that also sells very fine margaritas which can be had for around £2.
Start the day with a visit to the Central Market Hall to pick up some Bulgarian cured meats and cheese for your friends and family.
There's enough time to drop into the natural history museum and witness its fantastic assortment of taxidermy that includes a stuffed bear, a two-headed tortoise and hundreds of birds. Entry £2.
At the other end of the scale from the aforementioned Hadriganov's Houses comes Made In Home - a modern, hipster-ish restaurant with doors for tables and an ever-changing menu. Antonio Banderas is reputedly a fan.
Spring is a fine time to visit Bulgaria, when its boulevards are peppered with flowers and pavement cafes. In winter tourists face freezing temperatures.
Taxis are the best way to get around the city and are cheap to hire at around 30p a kilometre.
In restaurants and taxis, tipping is generally expected. Rounding up is sufficient.
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