We finally arrive in Sofia Bulgaria at 4:30am after a 6 hour overnight ride from Skopje. I catch a cab at the deserted bus station to the stately Sofia Hotel Balkan (a Luxury Collection/SPG hotel), praying that they will be willing to check me in this early. Starwood status pays off again and I am checked right into a lovely suite.
After two weeks of roughing it in the Balkans, I cannot tell you how happy I am to see this suite. The first thing I notice when I walk in (other than the cool flowing air from the A/C) is the office…complete with printer. I almost cried. I have been in serious need of a printer for a while but it’s tough to find one around here.
Further exploration revealed fluffy towels, a robe & slippers, an expansive array of toiletries, a hairdryer and even an iron. It was heaven.
Now, all of these things are standard in the average US hotel but in the hotels I’ve been staying in across the Balkans, they were non-existent. The A/C is especially welcome as several of my hotels haven’t had it. I briefly consider spending the next 36 hours right here in this room but realize that I should probably at least get out and see a little of Sofia.
But not yet, it is after all only 5am. So, I cranked up the A/C as high as it would go, buried myself in the fluffy pillows and duvet and crashed for about 5 hours.
When I awoke, I was refreshed and ready to see what Sofia, Bulgaria had to offer.
Situated on the Balkan Peninsula, Bulgaria shares borders with Romania, Greece, Turkey, Macedonia and Serbia. To the east, its border on the Black Sea is lined with summer resorts. Sofia is Bulgaria’s capital and largest city with just over a million people.
I headed out of the hotel into a perfect summer day. Gone was the oppressive heat I’d become used to in the rest of the Balkans, replaced by a cool breeze. I decided to start at the top with Sofia’s most famous landmark, and the biggest temple on the Balkan Peninsula, Alexander Nevski Cathedral.
After just a short walk from the hotel, I arrived in Parliament Square. The massive, gold-domed cathedral was constructed between 1882 and 1912 in the neo-Byzantine style typical for Russian churches in the 19th century. It is named after a Russian tsar who saved Russia from invading Swedish troops in 1240. The interior is an artistic masterpiece of onyx and alabaster and can hold up to 7,000 people.
From there, I walked through the artist’s market in the park nearby and visited Sofia’s oldest Eastern Orthodox Church, St. Sofia. Outside the church burns the eternal flame of the Unknown Soldier, set up in 1981 to honor the nation’s casualties of war.
I spent the rest of the day walking all over the city – past the National Theater (where I stopped to sample a delicious & inexpensive Bulgarian beer), the adorable little Russian Church and the Baths that are currently being completely renovated.
I stopped at the Presidency to watch the changing of the guard with the former Communist Party headquarters looming in the distance. My last stop was the Church of St. George, right behind my hotel, that dates all the way back to the 4th century.
All in all, it was a splendid day.
Sofia gets sort of a bum rap by the tourism industry. Even my Lonely Planet guidebook made it sound somewhat uninspiring. But I guess that’s why it’s important to see things for yourself and form your own impressions.
I found Sofia to be a lovely city with a lot of history and charm. The only thing I thought it was lacking was a good café scene like most of the other Balkan cities. The hotels were nice, the people were friendly and everything was really cheap.
It’s big culture with a small price tag. What more do you need for a one night stay?
I’d love to visit Bulgaria again someday to see the Black Sea resort area. I hear it’s beautiful. And I’d return to Sofia again without hesitation.
On another note, I realized while I was in Sofia that Bulgaria is the 100th country I’ve visited. A pretty impressive milestone if I do say so myself. It’s hard to believe I’ve been lucky enough to see so much of the world in just the 12 years since my first trip overseas.
I look forward to 100 more.
Next up, back to Greece for a lazy weekend on the island of Corfu!