Friday, October 14, 2011

Sofia, Bulgaria

Sofia is Bulgaria's capital and is in the western part of the country. With around 1.25 million people it is not only the largest city in Bulgaria but it is also the 12th largest city in the EU.

St. Sofia is the city's patron.

Sofia started off as a Thracian city called Serdica in around the 7th century BC. Later it became part of the Roman Empire and then part of the Ottoman Empire. With so much history it's no surprise that archeological discoveries, such as the old town walls, are commonplace.

Sofia isn't a very big city. You can see most of the city in a single day. Everyday Free Sofia Tour offers two English-language free walking tours of the city. It's a great way to get orientated to the city. Highly recommended.

The biggest attraction is the St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral. It is home to the Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. It can easily hold 10,000 people. It's the second biggest cathedral in the Balkans after St. Sava in Belgrade. However, the locals here will point out that this church is functional while St. Sava's interior is still under construction.

The Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker is known as the Russian Church since it's the city's Russian Orthodox Church. It was consecrated in 1914. While the church is beautiful the crypt is more popular. That's where you'll find the remains of Bishop Serafin who died in 1950. Even though he was never made a saint, many people believe that if you put a hand-written message in a box your wish will come true.

The St. Sedmochislenitsi Church is another Bulgarian Orthodox church. It was converted from an abandoned mosque and inaugurated in 1903. It is named after Cyril and Methodius and their five disciples who in the Orthodox church are collectively known as the Sedmochislenitsi.

There were once 70 mosques in Sofia but the Banya Bashi Mosque is now the city's only functioning mosque. It was completed in 1576 by the same architect that built Istanbul's Blue Mosque. The mosque is built over natural thermal spas.

Across from the mosque are the city's thermal baths. They were built in 1913 but are currently closed while restoration takes place. The only problem is that restoration has been going on for years no one has any idea on when the completion date will be.

I didn't know that Sofia is known for its mineral water. Locals bring empty bottles to fill up at public fountains. The water is warm but it tastes fine once you let it cool down.

Sofia has a yellow brick road. I guess the yellow brick road goes from Oz to Sofia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire gave the cobblestones to Czar Ferdinand I as a wedding gift.

In the city center is the National Theater. It was founded in 1904 and it is the oldest theater in the country.

The oldest building in Sofia is the St. George Church. The red brick rotunda is in the inner yard of the Presidency, right behind the Sheraton Hotel. The 4th century building sits amid remains of ancient Serdica.

One of the large parks in Sofia has a WWII monument to the Soviet Army that was built in 1954. More on this one later.

One thing that I found interesting is that Sofia does not have a centralized traffic light system. At all of the major intersections, there are policemen who sit up in these kiosks and manually control the lights.

All in all it was a good first day of my little Balkan adventure.

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