For atheists, we go to a surprisingly large number of churches. This, admittedly, is in search of art and décor rather than any form of spiritual comfort, and Orthodox churches tend to have more bling than a successful hip-hop star could accumulate in a lifetime.
When it comes to showpiece churches, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral takes some beating. Built in the 19th century, it is a tribute to Byzantine style and can apparently accommodate 10,000 people. The multitude of domes is topped by a vast golden one and approaching the church from the small park behind the cathedral produces even more of a ‘wow factor’ than seeing the place from the front because the whole thing rises into view as you climb the steps, rather than approaching on the flat.
At the opposite end of the scale is the 4th century, Roman built, St George Rotunda, Eastern Europe’s oldest Orthodox church. This much smaller church is not without its fine art, however, boasting ancient frescos from the 10th century. The 6th century St Sofia church, near the Nevsky, seems positively modern by comparison. The outside appearance may be more basic, but the interior contains a floor with stunning flora and fauna themed mosaics.
Behind Nevsky Cathedral is a splendid neoclassical building that houses the National Gallery for Foreign Art. It holds a wonderfully diverse collection; there is a vast range of European art from the 15th to 20th century, but also – and unusually – a substantial display of Asian and African art. There is a small admission charge (around three euros at the last count), making the gallery outstandingly good value.
Also well worth a visit is the National Archaeological Museum, housed in a former Ottoman mosque. The collection is impressively large and impressively laid out, with helpful displays and information in English. The museum contains the extraordinary Valchitran gold treasure, a collection of Thracian jugs and plates believed to date from the 12th century BC. There was also a very good collection of Byzantine culture and art, though this appeared to be a temporary exhibition. Entry was a little more expensive than the art gallery, but the amount on offer was well worth five euros or so.
Architecture in the city comes in an array of styles, though the emphasis is on the neo-classical. One of the more unusual subsets of this genre is Socialist Classicism, epitomised by the former Communist Party headquarters. This rather overblown, though far from awful, building is now used as Government offices.
Much more pleasing to the eye is the Central Market Hall, a fantastic mix of neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque, with a touch of neo-Byzantine lobbed in for extra flavour. It’s a gloriously ornate affair and well worth a look inside as well as out. The ground floor sells pretty much any kind of food you can think of, and is cheaper – and a good deal more enjoyable – than shopping in a soulless supermarket.
Across the road, you cannot miss the equally splendid Mineral Baths, neo-Byzantine in style and built at a similar time to the Market Hall, National Theatre, Military Club and several other public buildings. The first decade of the 20th century truly marked a golden age for architecture and design in Sofia.
Next to the baths is Sofia’s only functioning mosque, Banya Bashi, a typically Ottoman affair from the 16th century. It’s possible to visit, outside prayer times, and the interior is certainly worth viewing, notably for the beautifully restored domed ceiling. Around the bath and mosque, there is a honey market, and it’s quite surprising to a non-expert just how many different types of honey you can find.
Wandering around Sofia, there’s every chance you’ll encounter someone playing bagpipes. There are a lot more varieties of this instrument than most people realise and the Balkans remains a stronghold. The version you’re likely to see in Bulgaria is the gaida, or its larger cousin, kaba gaida, a low-pitched instrument played by mouth rather than elbow.
Sofia isn’t the cheapest place in the Balkans, but by Western standards, it’s far from expensive. Even at the Grand Café, part of the five-star Grand Hotel, it’s possible to have a meal and a couple of drinks without looking anxiously into the wallet. It’s also a nice place to linger for a while, especially in the garden on a pleasant day, with a view of the delightful National Theatre across the small City Park.
While Sofia may not be the most scenic of Eastern Europe’s capitals, there is plenty to see. There is an intriguing mix of architectural styles – often in a single building – and there is much of interest to the historian. The centre is relatively small and packs in quite a selection of sights for the visitor. It’s not especially expensive and there is a decent public transport system, though it’s worth noting that while there is an airport bus, it does not, bizarrely, serve the central bus station. Even so, taxis are not expensive and a trip from the city centre to the airport shouldn’t cost much more than five or six euros. The city has a good range of bars and restaurants and there isn’t really a bad time to visit, as even in the winter, a snow-covered Nevsky Cathedral makes for a lovely photo.