Unlike other European cities, the Bulgarian capital has managed to preserve all of its two-millennia-long history
Strolling the streets of formerly sternly 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 which 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 centre.
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 into the Bulgarian capital. 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 autumn light is as pure as a senorita’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 colourful fabric stores and stalls selling multi-textured, hand-woven Bulgarian fabrics. They combine to paint this city in a glorious technicolour hue which simply can’t be captured on camera.
Flying to the cheapest – according to many – capital city in Europe cost me just over £20. Accommodation is a snip. I’d packed up and left my stupidly expensive shoebox flat in London. I came and lived here for a while, while I finished my first book, Tripping the Flight Fantastic. It is an account (shameless plug alert) of my adventures flying to ten European cities for £144, using the amazing Kiwi.com search engine.
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 a few quid 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 verdant 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 pounds a night, in a suburb drenched in flowers.
I, however, sat indoors on gloriously sunny days, sleeping on average four hours a night, and ingesting so much thick Bulgarian coffee. In the early hours, I also added vile energy drinks. This lead to heart palpitations. I was champing at the bit. Sofia was so tantalisingly close and yet so far – but I had to wait. I hate waiting.
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.
What you see in those cities is a painstakingly resurrected replica of the past, carefully and lovingly reconstructed by skint 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-coloured facades revealing the ides of time in this two and a half millennia old matron. 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 hodge-podge.
Bulgarian food is a delight, particularly if you are vegetarian. I’m not, but I virtually became one while I was there 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 is a myriad of great main courses. However, Sofia is best for its summer salads and nourishing winter soups.
Possibly the best restaurant in town is the city’s Made at Home. A beautiful place just behind Vitosha 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 soup – a refreshing blend of yoghurt, 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 you they would hard-press you to spend a tenner here come lunchtime and little more for dinner.
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 will be in heaven (but not out of pocket).
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, slap bang in the middle of the city and offering gorgeous views from down on Vitosha Boulevard.
A taxi up this brooding rock will cost you under £10. In the winter you can go skiing, and in the spring and summer just wander through the radiant countryside. Look down on the metropolis below, catch your breath, feel the peace and serenity.
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 pneumatic young Bulgarians gyrating to the local Chalga music. It sounds like a kind of blend of Balkan hip hop and rap with Balkan, gypsy and middle eastern accents, in a manner that would make Rihanna blush.
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 here, when you could be there? Sofia really is the queen of low-cost city breaks.
A lovely, bargain, Bohemian bolthole with a super-nice and helpful crew who will make you feel like you are among family.
Beds in shared dorms from £11
Private rooms with shared bathroom £18
Both with free Bulgarian breakfast.
Offering the best views over a beguiling cityscape, this is one of the best places in town, sporting refined, simple elegance while its rooftop restaurant and bar is one of Sofia’s hippest hangouts. Doubles from £152