Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city, turns out to be a fascinating city to visit. Alive with the bustle of people rushing here and there, groups of tourists scurrying from shop to shop, young and old promenading along the Vitosha pedestrian boulevard, high heels tip tapping down cobbled streets, vagrants sleeping on benches, people dancing in the park (I’m not sure why)…the city bursts with activity, with contrast and contradiction, with culture and spirituality.
It is a short walk from our hotel toward the glorious golden domes of the striking cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky, probably the most recognizable symbol of Sofia. Yet, in making this short walk we must pass the 16th century Banya Bashi Mosque, a synagogue, and Saint Joseph Catholic Cathedral; few other European cities can boast such noteworthy Christian, Islamic and Jewish monuments in such close proximity to one another.
Right next to the mosque, we pass through a series of fountains, which are bustling with people filling all manner of jugs and plastic vessels with free water. At first what is most interesting is the motley collection of water collectors: backpackers and beggars, young women and old men, robed priests and scarf-wearing Muslim ladies, the poor and the well-off… all gathering to fill their bottles. And I’m thirsty, so I go to do the same.
However, I’m shocked to find the water is hot! Really hot! And smells mildly of sulphur. And now this becomes the point of interest, as these are mineral waters, believed to be a source of vitality and health, bubbling up from the depths of the earth for millennia. In fact, these very mineral springs are the foundation of Sofia around which ancient Thracians 7000 years ago settled and established what is now the city of Sofia (making Sofia the second oldest city in Europe). Unlike most other European cities, Sofia does not have large rivers or bridges, her life source bubbles up from no less than 49 mineral and thermal spring. Since the days of antiquity dwellers of this area have gathered at the springs to collect water and present-day Sofia still embraces this tradition making the spring waters freely accessible to all who pass by. It is rather wonderful.
What is so fascinating about Sofia is how the old and the new mingle together so thoroughly and seamlessly that one blends in with the other. Still on our way to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral we pass by a stairway leading down to the newly constructed subway station and are surprised to find at the bottom of the stairs (below street level) a stunning, old, stone, 11th century church: Sveta Petka Samardzhiyska… just sitting there, fully in tact and absolutely charming. But we just look over the railing and hurry by on our way to the cathedral as the sun is beginning to set and we want sunset photos of the cathedral.
Bubbling out of the sidewalk ahead of us are three very modern looking glass domes, which we assume must bring light into the subway station below. The colours of the setting sun blaze in the glass and they look very slick and beautiful and alien all at the same time. Reflected in their surface we see the statue of Sveta Sophia from one side and the Former Communist Party House from the other: a bit of the past reflected in the present. It will take until the next day for us to discover the real treasure resting beneath these bubbles…definitely the best surprise in all of Sofia.
We cross the street, pass a five star hotel and a few cafes and come upon a large opening between the rows of shops and literally stumble upon the oldest building in Sofia. Saint George Rotunda church is a charming red brick structure. It is believed to have been built by the Romans in the 4th century on the site of a pagan temple and has, during the Ottoman rule, also served as a mosque. Humble and unassuming from the outside, the inside is splendid with detailed frescoes.
What is wonderful, is this amazing old structure sits as an island unto itself, surrounded on all four sides by present-day buildings, including a 5 star hotel and the Presidency Building (the offices of the president). A small jewel from the past protectively encircled by the present.
The cobbled streets of Sofia’s central district are now golden with the light of the setting sun and we hurry on toward our destination.
We pass by perhaps the prettiest church in Sofia, the Russian Orthodox church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker. Its steep pointy roof with shiny, multi-coloured tiles and gleaming golden domes are so magnificent you cannot pass by without pausing to admire it.
Finally, the cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky. Sitting prominently at the top of a small hill in the heart of Sofia, this grand monument to Christianity is hard to miss. One of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world at over 3,000 square metres, it is able to hold 10,000 people and is the second largest cathedral on the Balkan Peninsula. It is grand and regal and makes for memorable photographs, but maybe doesn’t quite hold the charm of the older more modest churches we have passed on our way.
However, it is the next evening that we make our most remarkable discovery…remember the glass bubbles bursting through the sidewalk near the ancient mineral springs and the brand new metro? Well, beneath these bubbles lies the newly discovered Ancient Complex of Serdika—the Roman city predating Sofia today. Uncovered only a few years ago during the construction of the metro system, these ancient ruins date back to the period between 1st and 6th century AD. Having been painstakingly unearthed and partially restored, a full 9000 square metres of the ancient ruins have been preserved and displayed in place, right in the metro station.
Most remarkable to me is the long stretch of old Roman road in which pieces of even older buildings have been embedded as paving stones and the extraordinary frescoes that have been preserved and displayed for the public. It is a remarkable tribute to Sofia’s historical roots and the sleek glass domes create striking shapes and lines that we spend hours photographing. Now we look up from the ancient roots of Sofia through the glass domes to the present-day Former Communist Party House. The old and the new forever entwined.