April 30, 2006,The New York Times
THE storm had just broken, taking with it the August mugginess. I looked up from the balcony of my hotel across the dampened city of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Directly in front of me, the golden domes of the huge Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral were set against the dark sky. Twin rainbows arced above them as though the sky itself were part of the building's design. Sofia is that kind of place.
There has been a settlement here near the Iskar River for at least 4,000 years, since the ancient Thracians settled a broad valley overshadowed by the towering Mount Vitosha to the south. A succession of empires, including the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, molded Sofia, and their influence remains in the old buildings and ruins scattered around the city. The modern era of Bulgarian independence began in the 19th century when, with Russian help, the Ottoman Empire was expelled. The cathedral is a monument to the 200,000 Russians who died in the campaign.
During World War II, Bulgaria flip-flopped its allegiances, and was ultimately occupied by the Nazis. After the war, the country fell on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. As a result, cheerless apartment blocks ring the city, but the center is a charming mix of ancient and modern. Under post-Communist renovation campaigns, paid for by the government, foreign donors and investors, this city of just over a million has become a delightful gateway to an undeservedly little-known country.
For visitors, Sofia offers a pleasant combination of urbane relaxation and awe-inspiring buildings and museums. In the summer, stylish Bulgarians fill the leafy boulevards and parks. Cellphones are everywhere, still juxtaposed with the occasional donkey cart. Hip teenagers, indistinguishable from their Western counterparts, shred the skate park that surrounds a Communist-era monument.
The depth of the history here is palpable. In front of the cathedral, antiques dealers line the plaza with the bric-a-brac of 30 centuries: Byzantine coins next to Lenin busts; Howdy Doody toys alongside Roman lamps; German martial instruments atop old Turkish encyclopedias.
Modern Bulgaria reflects this rich and complicated heritage; although most of the people are Slavic Bulgarians, there are robust, if disadvantaged, minorities of Turks, Macedonians, Pomaks (Muslim Slavs) and Roma (Gypsies). And even though its history is littered with horrifying episodes, modern Bulgaria seems, since its refusal during World War II to turn over local Jews to the Nazis, to be through with the darkest side of human nature. Communist rule was marked by disappearances and repression, but the country completely escaped the tragic animosity and carnage that plagued its neighbors in the 1990's.
The country's polyglot core is reflected in Sofia's streets. A short walk from the marketplace is the Byzantine Church of St. George, which sits atop the ruins of the Roman settlement here. Nearby is the Banya Bashi Mosque, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century. Around the corner is the Sofia Synagogue, Europe's largest Sephardic synagogue. Near all of this is a surprisingly elegant complex of Communist-era administrative buildings.
Bulgarian cuisine -- a hearty blend of European and central Asian -- underscores the country's diversity: salty sirene (or feta, as it is known in Greek) and yogurt share the table with grilled meats and, especially in summertime, salads of juicy tomatoes, cucumbers and olives. These salads are traditionally eaten at the start of a meal, accompanied by chilled rakia, the local white brandy, a distinctive firewater similar to grappa.
Throughout the summer, all across the country, families gather at tables under grape arbors or fruit-laden trees for their evening meals. You can enjoy the warm nights under the city's leafy lindens at any of the innumerable restaurants with outdoor seating. At Victoria, near the antiques market, the food is a stylish blend of traditional and modern: try the shepherd's salad and the kebapche -- sausage-shaped spiced meatballs. This is also a perfect place to sample the new generation of excellent -- and amazingly affordable -- wines that the nation's reawakening industry is beginning to turn out.
Summertime in Bulgaria is spectacular, as the countryside is filled with sumptuous fruits and vegetables. In Sofia, you can get a taste of this bounty at the farmers' market along Graf Ignatiev, a verdant boulevard of cobblestones and trolley cars, where vendors' tables groan with piles of figs, melons, plums, peaches and grapes.
In spite of the modernization of Sofia -- or perhaps because of it -- the city enjoys a vibrant public life. Parks abound, and are filled with Bulgarians and visitors strolling along the fountains, exploring the sculptures (it seems that every park features a bronze sculpture of a friendly deer, its back worn golden by generations of children) or lingering at the plentiful cafes. The parks are also great places to hear Bulgarian music -- like the local food, a lively cross of Eastern and Western.
For those more inclined to explore the monuments of past cultures here, or to escape the occasional downpour (summertime is warm and sunny, but clouds do roll through from time to time), Sofia provides plenty of opportunities. The Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral is home to an unusually comprehensive collection of Orthodox icon paintings, some a thousand years old. For the treasures of antiquity, the Museum of Archaeology houses an extensive (though sometimes insufficiently explained) collection of artifacts from the Roman, the Greek and the Thracian periods.
And, when the clouds clear, you can go back outside to the well-appointed cafe at the museum, and sip espresso amid the detritus of antiquity. This blend of the very oldest with the very newest epitomizes Sofia today: the city just beginning a renaissance, grounded on the bedrock of its past.
Sofia is a short flight from Western Europe, with regular service on major airlines from London, Paris, Munich, Rome, Vienna and elsewhere. Taxis are cheap, plentiful and metered. Most trips within the city center will cost the equivalent of $3 to $5.
Sofia's English-language newspaper, www.sofiaecho.com, has the latest information on local events, and plenty of helpful links.
The Radisson SAS Grand Hotel (4 Narodno Sabranie Square, 359-2-9334-333; www.radissonsas.com) and the Sheraton Sofia Hotel Balkan (5 Sveta Nedelya Square, 359-2-9816-541; www.luxurycollection.com/sofia) are both within the city's old center and offer Western amenities and comforts. Standard doubles at the Radisson start at about 180 euros ($227) weekends, 250 euros ($315) weekdays, plus tax, at $1.25 to the euro. At the Sheraton, they are about 145 euros ($180) to 350 euros ($440) weekdays, 130 euros ($164) weekends, plus tax, with special rates often available.
The Pizza-Restaurant Victoria, 7 Tzar Osvoboditel Boulevard, near the Alexandr Nevsky Cathedral, offers sumptuous variations on local dishes in a stylish and casual setting. Entrees like kebapche and kultzanitza (a lamb and veal dish) are under $4, at 1.63 leva to $1. A glass of Bourgas 63 rakia can be had for little more than a dollar; bottles of excellent Bulgarian wine start at $6.
The Cafe Theater sits between the National Theater and a leafy park. Illy espresso or a hoppy Zagorka lager can be had for less than a dollar late into the night. In August, classical music performances are projected on a huge screen hung from the theater's colonnades, making this a favorite spot to linger.