• Sofia, Bulgaria — Part One

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    September 14th, 2010adminBulgaria, History, Religion, Touristy Stuff

    Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Sofia, Bulgaria), named after the medieval prince who defended Rus from nasty German and Swedish invaders. He was also a clever politician who allied with a Mongol khan.

    My short visit to Bulgaria was very nice. I arrived knowing practically nothing about the country, save for a basic historical overview. And I’ve returned feeling like there’s a lot more than people give it credit for. “I really didn’t expect much from Bulgaria,” explained a touring Brit from my hostel. “Really, I thought it would be depressing post-Soviet grayness. But it’s quite lovely and, as a city, Sofia has nice, big, open spaces.”

    Though it may appear very old, even Byzantine, the Cathedral is rather new. Construction began in late 19th century. Regardless, it's still impressive.

    Of course, life wasn’t all roses, either. I saw that many people lived with very little. Jaded, chain-smoking transexual prostitutes loitered and lingered infront of my hostel. I was definitely cheated (at least by a small amount) at one restaurant. Some streets were dead empty, which was a creepy prospect at 3 am. And there was a huge population of utterly desperate gypsies, begging for change at any opportunity.

    But there were many points of interest, history and beauty. For five centuries, Bulgaria was under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire (in fact, one of the most famous Bulgarian books, titled “Under the Yoke,” depicts exactly this). As a result, the country is over 10% Muslim today — a population that includes ethnic Turks and converted Slavs. In Plovdiv (which I will describe in subsequent entries), there stands the oldest mosque in Bulgaria — the first built by the Ottomans. It’s grand, big and white inside. There is an official placard from the city of Istanbul, as well.

    But the majority of the country is Bulgarian Orthodox, their own distinct brand of Orthodoxy. I asked some teenagers, “Is Bulgaria religious?” They said, “No.” I then asked, “Are your families religious?” They smiled and said, “Oh, we go to church maybe twice a year.” Nevertheless, Bulgarians today seem to take great pride in their independence — both from Ottoman and Soviet control. Their official coinage, the lev, has a guy (I don’t know who!), holding a cross.

    The country has its own Bulgarian Orthodox Church, officially established when Tsar Boris adopted Christianity in the 9th century. The Tsar took special measures to make the religion Bulgarian, rather than Greek, in orientation. In  fact, he “expelled the Greek clergy from the country and ordered the replacing of the Greek language with the Slav-Bulgarian vernacular,” according to handy Wikipedia.

    "Oh, a grandfather," said my Bulgarian friend, who I met on the bus from Plovdiv to Istanbul. She smiled. "This," she said, is what many grandfathers in Bulgaria look like. Just like him."

    When I walked down the streets, I definitely felt the Eastern European culture. In the United States, I grew up in a neighborhood bordering a Chinese/Russian community. I grew familiar with the elderly Russian ladies on the bus, coated in heavy make-up and stiff hair, talking about life in Moscow, or their groceries, or their grandchildren. No doubt, Bulgaria is very different than Russia. But I felt the general Eastern European cultural element.

    Near the train station. Just a street. Nothing special, which, of course, makes it more interesting.

    There’s a lot more to say about Bulgaria — the people, the food, and the other city I visited, Plovdiv. But I’ll save those insights and photos for another day — tomorrow, maybe. For now, here’ s a few more photos of everyday streets…

    Street art in Sofia. I found these pieces in a neighborhood full of street art, artist's boutiques and little restaurants -- "artsy," I guess (well, kind-of). There were some aimless-looking dreadlocked dudes...

    CENTER -- Former Communist Party headquarters. Notice the Bulgarian flag on top? I have a sneaking suspicion that a massive Soviet symbol once stood on top. To the left, you can see the current parliamentary building. Behind it, there's an old Roman fortress.

    Just a pretty building.

    I was really drawn to this advertisement. It looked so outdated -- like something I would see in 1992. I wondered if it has actually BEEN there since, like, 1992. Or is the lady's power blazer and poofy hair undeniably hip in Bulgaria?

    But some parts were very nice...

    A disgusting-looking meat advertisement that, for some reason, brought a smile to my face. It's interesting when advertisements from another country do NOTHING for you. So, I think: Is the ad really bad? Or am I just from a really different culture?

    A final cathedral shot.

    I don’t think I have met anybody in the States who has gone to Bulgaria. Many expatriates in Turkey have made the trip. But it’s not so common for the average American college backpacker. Why is that? Why does everybody just go to France, Italy, Spain and Holland?

    Of course, many people go to Hungary and Croatia. Those are popular tourist destinations. But maybe there is an added level of interest and excitement in visiting a country “off the beaten path.”

    While Bulgaria was, in many ways, quiet and not very exciting, it was also a beautiful, green country with a unique history and culture. Not to mention, the food was damn good.

    So, expect more entries related to Bulgaria — including a visit to a beautiful monastery in the mountains — in the days to come!

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