Saturday, October 17, 2015

Sofia and Boyana Church

After tossing and turning for about four hours, I left my London hostel and headed toward the airport (on a night bus that cost an exorbitant £1.50.) Check-in and security went very quick, and I made it to my gate with a good 2 hours to spare.

The flight was uneventful, and I may or may not have slept for about 95 seconds - an astonishingly long time, considering my relationship with airplanes.

One of the first things you'll notice on arrival: Bulgaria is in a whole other world from London, price wise. That is to say, everything is cheap - dirt cheap. A taxi ride from the airport to downtown Sofia - about 10 km - cost about $7.50 USD. My hostel cost about $10 a night - and I could have gone even cheaper. (On a side note, the hostel - the creatively named Hostel Mostel - was wonderful, and it put the overpriced UK and Irish hostels to shame.)  

I asked the receptionist for restaurant recommendations - he suggested one area that had "more expensive" meals that might run you a good "7-10 Euros" (so $7.25-$10.25 USD.) The standard meal at a decent restaurant apparently costs the equivalent of $3-$5. Considering the day before I paid close to $50 for a single meal in London - well, I'm not going to complain about a $5 meal. (I should mentioned that my hostel offered free breakfasts and dinners, so I rarely paid anything at all for my meals.)

In short, a visit here probably isn't going to break your budget.

The next thing you might notice is that Sofia doesn't really feel like a major world city. And it's not. The outskirts have lots of those lovely crumbling communist era apartment buildings that remind me so much of Moscow, but the city center is pretty standard stuff, complete with yellow brick roads and that authentically European mixture of nice looking centuries old churches and not-so-nice looking 50 year old shops and apartment buildings.  

To be honest, Sofia probably isn’t a great destination in and of itself - you wouldn’t want to bother spending a full week or a whole vacation here. However, as a stop along a much longer trip around the region, I found it more than worth the effort. I had nearly 3 full days there (including a day trip to Rila Monastery), and that felt sufficient - I didn’t ever feel bored, and I didn’t leave with regrets about missing any major sites (though it might have been nice to travel up into the mountains that border the city.) 


My first full day in the city also marked the first truly hot day of my trip. And heat tends to suck the life out of me. 

Nevertheless, I mustered up my courage and ventured out into the heat to join a walking tour of the city. It was a great way to get orientated and to learn something about the history of this relatively obscure corner of Europe. My tour guide's enthusiasm for the city was infectious. (He was also considerate enough to find shady places for us to stand whenever he stopped to explain something.)

The tour took us to many of the top sights of the city. 

We visited a lot of the government buildings (many built during the Communist era), including the presidential palace, where we were able to watch the Bulgarian version of the changing of the guard. (But with absolutely none of the crowds of the more famous English iteration of the ceremony.) 

Then we saw some Roman ruins that were only recently discovered during excavations for a new metro line.

A bunch of old stones. 
There were some pretty (and colorful) gardens and fountains.

We saw quite a few churches, including the 1500 year old Church of St. George, which made an interesting contrast to the surrounding modern parliament buildings and hotels.

The fourth century Church of St. George, surrounded by parliament buildings and a hotel.

At the end of the tour, I went inside the amazing Alexander Nevsky cathedral. The interior was disappointingly dark, but you could still see some impressive frescoes and paintings on the walls. More importantly, the exterior is very cool looking. 
Alexander Nevsky cathedral

On the way home, a gypsy with her young daughter on her shoulders "persuaded" me to buy her food by cornering me when I was looking at the displays in a shop window. Fortunately, food here is very cheap, and I'm not really going to begrudge the $3 I spent on food. (And I feel better about buying someone food than just giving money anyways.)

Boyana Church

Tired, sweaty, and worn out by the time I got back to my hostel, I wrestled with the idea of skipping the last stop of the day and just taking a nap. My better side won over (the "you're probably not coming back here any time soon and you're much more likely to regret not going than going" side), however, and I mustered up the energy to take a taxi up the mountainside to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Boyana Church.

The church is located on the foothills of Mt. Vitusha right outside Sofia-proper. Total round trip taxi cost for the 16km journey? 17 lev, or $9.80. Take that New York City!

Ok, the exterior isn't photogenic. It's cool because it was built more than a 1000 years ago

Built around 1000 AD, Boyana Church still has its original frescoes, and they're remarkably well preserved. They're beautiful and bright and vivid. Unfortunately, you can only spend 10 minutes inside, and you aren't allowed to take pictures - so I was content to just stand in awe at the holy images covering nearly every inch of the interior, from floor to ceiling. Since I couldn't take pictures, just do a Google image search for "Boyana Church" to get a decent idea of the interior.

The church itself is located in a peaceful little walled off garden - that randomly has a few Redwood trees growing. It was a nice way to end my day in Sofia. 

A Redwood tree on the Boyana Church grounds

1 comment:

  1. It looks like a pretty amazing city to me. I will definitely have to google boyana church. They knew how to build to last back then. Surprised about redwood trees growing there. One of my favorite posts with your humor and pictures and narrative. Love it.