With its seasonal food, stormy weather and 2,000 years of history, Andrew Fraser tells of his experience in Sofia, one of the cheapest capital cities in Europe
Weird and wonderful, city and country, old and new, you can travel miles and centuries in Sofia without even leaving the city limits. And for pennies. What are you doing, caught in the tourist traps of the more in-your-face European capitals, when you could be here? Sofia really is the queen of low-cost city breaks. Let me tell you all about the places to go, the fantastic food, and its gritty but very loveable character.
First impressions: what to look out for
Strolling the streets of formerly Stalinist Sofia, you can’t escape the unnerving feeling that somebody’s watching you. But in these days of freedom, it’s not the Communist Committee for State Security keeping tabs on you. It’s the pupil-less mannequins that seem to adorn the shop fronts of every other store in town. These strange, blank Bulgarian idols, male ones, female ones, fashionista ones, one of a lady in a long flowing gown sporting a gas mask, creepy child ones… They follow you as you meander the streets of this extraordinary city. My friend Greg, who fears mannequins as I do clowns, would have a seizure within ten minutes of arriving in the city center.
The next thing you notice in this ancient Balkan citadel is the light. Don’t get me wrong — when storms hit Sofia, they smash like Mike Tyson’s fist. Simmering, apocalyptic maelstroms of flashing lights, torrential rain, black skies and thunder so loud it seems to have been summoned by the gods from the bowels of the universe. It even drowns out the crashing notes of the city’s roaring trams as they pummel the cityscape.
But, oh boy, when the sun finally emerges, this strangely fascinating city is bathed in a sunlit clarity I have never, ever seen before. Not even on the sparkling Norwegian coast or in Madrid, where the spring and fall light is as pure as a señorita’s sigh.
There are blooms everywhere, the most scarlet apples, reddest peppers, yellowest pumpkins and herbs as green as Sting and Trudie Styler. Then there are the countless colorful fabric stores and stalls selling multi-textured, hand-woven Bulgarian fabrics. They combine to paint this city in glorious technicolor, which simply can’t be captured on camera.
The budget city break
Sofia has a reputation for being one of Europe’s very cheapest capital cities. With several budget airlines operating at the city’s airport, even just getting to Sofia is cheap — a one-way ticket can cost as little as €20. I came to live here for a while while I finished my first book, Tripping the Flight Fantastic. It’s an account (shameless plug alert) of my adventures flying to 10 European cities for €170, booking with Kiwi.com. Writing a book was an incredibly rewarding experience, but unless you’re JK Rowling, it ain’t ever gonna make you rich. I reckoned Sofia might save me money while I made the finishing touches. I was not wrong.
What I was mistaken about was the amount of work that goes into finishing a book. I fondly imagined myself sitting in Sofia’s sprawling South Park, scribbling away. But for the most part, the first month was spent as a prisoner in my excellent and lovely Airbnb apartment, which cost just a few euros a night, in a suburb drenched in flowers. Indeed, accommodation is also a snip. If you’re really on a budget, stay at Hostel Mostel — a lovely, bargain Bohemian bolthole with super-nice and helpful staff who will make you feel like you’re among family.
Sofia through history
When I finally made it out of my literary confinement, I found a city where the flakes of history are layered, one on top of another. Just like the air-light crusts of their famous delicacy, burek — a sweaty heap of fragrant, lemony Bulgarian sirene cheese and herbs, or ground lamb and intricate local spices, wrapped in golden filo pastry parcels.
Sofia is not pristine, like the old towns of Prague or Budapest. It wasn’t flattened to dust like Gdańsk or Wrocław and then rebuilt beautifully from scratch. What you see in these cities is a painstakingly resurrected replica of the past, carefully and lovingly reconstructed by broke governments who were determined to ensure that all traces of savagery were restored and repaired. Beauty must win, they collectively decided.
But Sofia, despite being caught in the middle of two World War conflagrations, somehow survived relatively unscathed. It’s the real, real deal. Much has been repainted and polished. But for me, Sofia’s most beautiful corners are frayed around the edges, a bit crumbling — ramshackle, even. It’s the same ravishing decay you see in Havana.
Sofia’s fading multi-colored facades reveal the passage of time over two and a half millennia. Conquered by Romans, followed by Byzantines, then Ottomans, then liberated by Russia in 1878, there are reminders of all these past invaders and liberators all over this fascinating city. As well as the old Bulgarian Empire, plus the stamp of Stalin following World War II. It makes for a beguiling architectural hodgepodge.
Eating, drinking and dancing
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Bulgarian food is a delight, particularly if you’re a vegetarian. I’m not, but I virtually became one during my stay, thanks to the fabulosity of the local produce. Organic food is the only food in Bulgaria. There was never any need for mass, artificial food production in this verdant land. There’s a myriad of great main courses, but Sofia is best for its summer salads and nourishing winter soups.
Possibly the best restaurant in town is Made in Home. A beautiful place just behind Patriarh Evtimiy Boulevard, with a sophisticated yet simple menu printed onto what looks like fading children’s books.
Everything is seasonal and the menu is never the same twice. But highlights on my visit included the pink tomato salad, and tarator — a refreshing soup of yogurt, walnuts, cucumber, herbs and lemon juice. Fish soup with chorizo offers an Iberian tang, and the cheesecake with raspberries and blueberries is divine. This is one of the city’s most revered eateries, but they would hard-press you to spend 20 lev (about €10) here come lunchtime, and not much more for dinner.
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Done up like an American diner on steroids, the city’s chain of Happy restaurants offers a vast menu of ridiculously good fresh food and banging cocktails. Go for the Bulgarian staple of shopska. The salad brims over with dressing, iceberg lettuce, cucumber and the feta-like sirene cheese. Or try the Caesar salad with crispy calamari, and you’ll be in heaven (but not out of pocket).
Then, if you feel like it, head to one of Sofia’s super plush nightclubs, where invariably you will be treated to a view of partygoers gyrating to the local Chalga music. It sounds like a blend of Balkan hip hop with Balkan, Roma and Middle Eastern accents, in a manner that would make Rihanna blush. It really is a particular experience that you’ll only have in urban Bulgaria.
Like all European cities these days, Sofia offers the usual, tedious mall experience. And sure, there are bargains to be had, but unlike most cities, Sofia boasts its very own mountain, Vitosha. Just a short while away from the city center, you get a gorgeous view of it from down on Vitosha Boulevard.
A taxi up this brooding rock will cost you under €15. In the winter you can go skiing, and in the spring and summer, simply wander through the radiant countryside. Look down on the metropolis below, catch your breath, and take in the peaceful and serene side of the Bulgarian capital. You’ll be glad you came.
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