Sofia, Bulgaria: a cultural city guideViews on BG | March 22, 2011, Tuesday // 15:31| views
File photo of the Alexander Nevsky cathedral in downtown Sofia
By Gail Simmons
Driving past grey Stalinist apartment blocks, unalleviated by any spring cheer in what used to be the most pro-Soviet country in the Eastern Bloc, I began to think I should have waited a few more weeks after all.
But after a fine dinner and a bottle of the local red, and a good night's sleep, I awoke to a day of dazzling winter sunshine and stepped out to explore the centre of this surprisingly compact, cosy and relaxed city.
Sofia's centrepiece, set in a large cobbled square, edged with trees, is the Aleksand?r Nevsky Cathedral, with golden domes and heavy bronze doors I struggled to open. Adjusting my eyes to the shadowy, incense-fragrant interior, my companion, a local journalist called Zori, pointed out the throne where no king has ever sat and described how the church in Bulgaria was still striving to redefine its role after the collapse of communism.
The building is only a century old, but its crypt displays much older icons collected from around Bulgaria, each one gleaming jewel-like against the whitewashed walls. The cathedral was impressive, though I preferred the smaller Russian Church, with its onion domes.
And I very much preferred the oldest church, indeed the oldest monument, in Sofia: St George's Rotunda, dating from the fourth century, when it was a pagan temple and Sofia was Roman Serdica, the most important city of the Balkan Peninsula.
Emperor Justinian made it a baptistery in the sixth century, but this richly frescoed building had another incarnation as a mosque during 500 years of Ottoman rule – before becoming a place of Christian worship once more.
Sofia's m?lange of East and West, Orthodox and Ottoman, with a dash of communism thrown in, is enchanting. The Banya Bashi Mosque of 1576 is a stone's throw from the synagogue and the Zenski Pazar (Women's Market), with its covered rickety wooden stalls piled high with fresh produce, and shops selling narghileh (water pipes).
But above all I loved my excursion to Boyana, a wealthy suburb. Here, hidden in a wood, was a unique survival: a tiny 10th-century private chapel. Outside it was plain and single-domed. Inside, the walls were decorated with 13th-century frescoes, a tapestry of biblical scenes which art historians suggest anticipate the work of Giotto.
Outside, Zori and I walked along snowy paths among the trees, admiring the views over the distant roofscape of Sofia. "Yes, it is nice," she agreed. "But really, you should come here in the spring." When I mentioned I was visiting Sofia, friends who had been there described the loveliness of Bulgaria's capital in spring, with its pretty boulevards and pavement caf?s. I, however, was going at the back end of winter, when temperatures struggled to reach above freezing and the city was shrouded in a dusting of snow.
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