Unbeknownst to me, I've been consuming a part of Bulgaria all my life, specifically the pro-biotic bacteria Bascillus Bulgaricus found in all good yoghurt. As a major consumer of yoghurt, it was only 'natural' that I explore the 'culture' of the country of its bacterial origins.
Bulgaria's population has been shrinking since the fall of the Soviet Union and is now about 7 million, of which 1.2 million live in it's capital, Sofia. My first impressions of Sofia were good: an original but new-looking Soviet style metro train taking me to a clean, vibrant and compact city centre. The metro stations are new but still retain a Soviet design style, which works really well and I thought would be great for 'street photography' (turned out it's not allowed).
Sofia and surrounds
Most of what I learnt about Sofia I got during a Sofia Free Walking Tour that has been running three times daily for 10 years, not missing a single day! I did however almost freeze during the 4hr walk (80% standing still), it was 3c but with a strong wind the apparent temp was well below freezing. Later during my stay I also did the Communist Walking Tour, ironically not free, but very interesting. Of what I remember, some things I found interesting:
one of Europe's oldest capitals, dating back to 4,000 BC
although it's had many names, the name Sofia originates from the Hagia Sofia Mosque but also originally apparently translated to "Jesus"
Emperor Constantine wanted to make Sofia capital of the Eastern Roman Empire but settled on Constantinople (Istanbul) due to its access to the sea (Sofia has no river)
the largest Colosseum after that of Rome lies beneath the streets and buildings of Sofia, if it were to be excavated
known as a city of layers: literally Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Bulgarian, Communist structures built on top of each other
some of the benefits of the socialist regime have carried through, maternity leave is up to 3 years, women have very high levels of equality in terms of position and pay, and medical care is essentially free (token 1-2 euro)
current unemployment: 2% (countrywide, 4%) ... things are going well
Sofia was ranked in the top 10 cities to begin a start-up business and has become a hub for digital nomads (internet speeds are some of the fastest I've seen).
There is a lot to see in Sofia, luckily it's all contained in a relatively small area that's very much walkable. There's excellent examples of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman architecture and buildings with more still being excavated.
I was hoping for snow and fog for street photography but turned out to be bright sunshine and relatively warm temperatures (4-12c) every day. Sofia is Europe's second highest capital city at 550m above sea level and also sits at the foot of the 2,300m Mt Vitosha. Usually it's pretty darn cold in winter, not this year apparently.
I did get a nice dose of snowy weather after taking a 30min (1,600m altitude gain) cable car ride up to the top of Mt Vitosha; you can do this from one of Sofia's outer suburbs. As you ascend you pass through a thick layer of smog that hangs over Sofia; it's in a valley and gets frequent inversions in winter making the smog among the world's worst.
Mt Vitosha is a popular ski spot but having no gear I just went for a hike from the upper hut; quickly learning not to leave the compacted trail as the surrounding snow was 40cm deep powder and it instantly found its way into my inadequate shoes. Cold (windy and below freezing) but stunning scenery; I can understand why Bulgaria is popular for hiking.
Plovdiv and Asenovgrad
From Sofia I took a train to Plovdiv, the second largest city in the country, known as the City of Seven Hills. Sofia train station is over-sized for its task, sterile, unwelcoming and at times unpleasant (touts). I had read that train travel in Bulgaria should be avoided because it's antiquated, subject to major delays and lacks connectivity across the country. Well I'm used to that in Brisbane so all good. The train was actually quite modern and while for 80% of the 150km it didn't really get over 60km/h, it was a scenic trip in parts and comfortable, the same can't be said for a bus on the motorway.
Plovdiv is a literal breath of fresh air after Sofia. It's cleaner, quieter, prettier and retains a lot of original Bulgarian architecture. It's also Europe's oldest continuously inhabited city (6000 BC) and considered one of the oldest cities in the world. It's importance related to its position in the Thracian Valley, basically an intersection between the East and West. It's seen a lot, having been invaded by Persians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Slavs, Rus people, the Crusaders, and Turks. Each of these left their mark within the 12 metre thick cultural layers of the city! It's had many names too: Odryssa, Poneropolis, Philippopolis, Kendrisia, Tiberias, Trimontium, Eumolpias, Pulpudeva... Another place with historical depth that's just impossible to summarise.
Plovdiv has a lot to keep you occupied and it's all in a very small centre. A must do is getting lost in the old/ ancient town, known has Kapana, which translates to "trap" - once you're in it's hard to find your way out. Kapana has excellent examples of Bulgarian revival houses and streets; you can enter three houses to see traditional Bulgarian cultural artefacts and living conditions in the 1800s. Kapana is also full of cafes, restaurants and art/craft shops.
Some of the Roman sites here rival those of Italy. The 1st century AD Theater of Philippopolis sits above the city, wedged between two hills, seats up to 7,000 and is still in use! Beneath the pedestrian mall is a 200m long Roman Stadium with seating for 30,000. One end has been excavated and you can see stadium seating in the basements of shops; excavating the entire thing would require demolishing the core of the city.
One of the many hills of Plovdiv, Keeping an ever watchful eye is a colossal (18 metre) yet controversial statue of a Soviet soldier, a communist monument.
From Plovdiv I did a side trip to Asens Fortress and the Bachkovo Monastery in the Rhodope Mountains. The fortress is mostly in ruins, dating to the Thracian era (well into BC). It's seen its fair share of action including having been conquered by the Crusaders. Just one part of the fortress is in good condition, the church, which is two stories (crypt and church) and contains well preserved 14th century frescoes.
The 10th century Bachkovo Monastery was also full of frescoes, and by full I mean there's no an inch to spare inside, anywhere. I learnt a lot from my guide about Eastern Orthodoxy and their rules for placement of Biblical figures in churches! There's also a fragment relic of the Cross here.
It was unusually hot in Plovdiv; three days in a row it neared 20c with sunshine when the average at this time of year is 5c and snowy. The strange thing is, people continue to wear their winter gear. It was almost t-shirt weather yet nearly everyone sticks to their heavy winter coats. Didn't quite understand this, in The Netherlands people would be naked. Summer in Plovdiv averages 33c so it's not like that they don't have warm weather clothing.
From Plovdiv, I returned to Sofia for a few days before leaving for Ukraine. On the final day it was glorious weather and the park was full of elderly men playing cards and chess, with quite the passion I might add, each chess piece was placed and each card was thrown with force, often to ensuing shouts but always ending with a laugh and drink. Bulgaria.