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Greece meets Russia

Sofia, Bulgaria

Christmas time in England is great, but it's only a short hop from Europe, and some of the best skiing in the world, and yet I still decided that Bulgaria was the place to take my boyfriend for his Christmas present. Well, there was no snow anywhere, so we may as well choose somewhere interesting :-)

The original holiday was from Manchester Airport, to Plovdiv in Bulgaria, with a transfer from the Crystal Ski group to Bansko. Jason and I thought that it would be a shame to come all the way to Bulgaria and only see the inside of a ski resort, so we booked an earlier flight to Sofia, the capital, and stayed there for two days. As it turns out it is a good job we did, as the hotel is a characterless spa holiday destination that scrapes it’s four stars from its facilities, not from it’s comfort, its charm, or the friendliness of its staff!

Sofia, however, was one of the most intriguing cities I have ever visited. With its long, chequered history, from the Romans, to the new, month-old membership of the European Union, with communism less than a decade away, the flavours of all still remain. The looming, imposing, big-windowed, be-balconied heirlooms of the Soviet era nestle between tall accommodation blocks, in what could be seen as affluence proximal to poverty, but all is now in a state of decay. The grand facades are peeling, and wrought iron rusts on balconies. In another city this may infer a downturn of the economy, but the consumerism appears to be booming. At street level, the shops sell high end fashion at full prices. Chic, designer clothing and classy footwear boutiques line the main-streets, with up-market eateries in the alleys. By night, the streets are humming and prosperous, but by day, the signs of an up-coming economy, rather than an established one, are evident by looking up.

One of the amazing things about Sofia is that the past has never been eradicated. Despite having been bombed to bits in the war, and several raisings to the ground in the past, Roman walls, gates and churches still remain. The old city of Serdika is still there, although much is buried beneath the city. In the main square, the very centre of Sofia, ‘The Largo’, a long park, lined with flags, headed with a huge black and gold statue, surrounded by monumental buildings and the Soviet Party Headquarters, there is a huge hole in the ground. In the middle of this hole, an old stone structure raises its head to the world. It is one of the side towers to the original gate to the Roman city of Serdika. Similar holes exist all over the city: Roman walls, wells, churches. Where the subways have been excavated under roads, Roman structures have been unearthed, and lie open for everyone to walk though.

Lennin lies down in the park of statues, signifying no more than the lack of urgency to re-erect him after a fall, but other communist symbols are prolific. The war statues, the opera house, the university, they all tell a story of heroes fallen, but the culture has a distinctly southern European flavour. The neighbours, Greece and Turkey reflect the same family heritage; the food, the dancing and the music. The national costume and national dance is still part of a proud culture, but the language is more northern in origin, and the writing, Cyrillic, is of Russian decent. The overall impression is a ‘Greece meets Russia’ in capital letters for both sides!

The people seem hard to relate to. Maybe they are just wary, or weary of tourists, but in two days there was no way to get a real impression. On our second day, however, we were lucky to stumble on a delightful display of real life Sofia. In one of the parks, a skating rink had been constructed. When we arrived the groomer was clearing the surface, so we paused awhile to see what was going to pass. It happened that the junior team was about to have practice. We watched for nearly an hour while tiny tot, after tiny tot whirred and spun their way around the ice. The better ones had routines that they were trying to polish, and each had their turn on the ice. Little ones, not even out of nappies, were practicing skating backwards at speed. One little lad, whizzing backwards at top speed, skated straight into the photographer. There was much laughter and many proud parents, but one of the highlights for me was three young girls in the audience. Not thinking anyone was watching them, they stood back from the rink, and jigged a national dance with each other, just for fun. These dances are not just something that entertaining groups do for the tourists in cliché-ed ‘local culture’ nightspots. Every little child learns how to dance this way.

In two days we saw as much culture as we were going to see for this trip, but how glad we were to have had these two days. Sofia is a gem of a city with a wealth of history and culture, and is worth far more than the brief visit than we afforded it this time.

permalink written by  Chickadee on January 15, 2007 from Sofia, Bulgaria
from the travel blog: Bulgaria
tagged Sofia and Culture

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