Walking Tours of Sofia 1: The Essentials
21.06.2012 § 9 Comments
A. Sofia University
Our walking tour begins at Metro station “Софийски университет” (“Sofia University”). The rectory building (ректората) of the university makes for a great taxi destination (every cabbie in the city can find “rektorata”!) and is also the site of the oldest higher learning institution in modern Bulgaria. Founded in 1888 and named after Clement of Ohrid, one of the disciples of St. Cyril & Methodius, the university’s flagship building was completed in 1934 with the generous donations of two Sofia-area brothers – Evlogi and Hristo Georgievi. There’s a boulevard named after the former and their statues flank the entrance to the building.
B. National Assembly Square
This intersection is found on most postcards of the city. You’ve entered the yellow cobbled area, meaning things are about to get official. The yellow cobbles, made in Hungary, were a wedding gift to Ferdinand I from the Austro-Hungarian emperor, and they’ve been an unofficial symbol of the capital since the beginning of the 20th century. The imposing white building ahead is the National Assembly (Parliament) building, bearing the motto “Съединението прави силата” (“Unity yields strength”).
In the semi-circular square is the Monument to Tzar-Liberator. Erected in 1907 in gratitude to Russian emperor Alexander II who liberated Bulgaria in 1878, the monument is a crucial achievement of Florentine sculptor Arnoldo Zocchi. Incidentally, Alexander II was known as “Tzar-Liberator” long before he liberated Bulgaria, as he was also responsible for dissolving the feudal system in Russia and liberating the serfs.
Finally, on the corner next to the National Assembly stands the headquarters of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, built in 1925-29.
C. Alexander Nevski Cathedral
The largest church in Bulgaria (and, until 2005, on the Balkans), the Alexander Nevski temple-monument was built between 1904 and 1912 to commemorate the Russian, Finnish and Romanian soldiers who died liberating Bulgaria and it’s the flagship church of the Bulgarian Patriarchate. Go inside and stand under the main dome for some spectacular frescoes. You should also visit its crypt, now a branch of the National Art Gallery, which houses the gallery’s collection of religious artwork, including unique icons and frescoes from all over Bulgaria. A long souvenir market stretching from the church’s entrance dazzles with original artwork and antique souvenirs such as Communist-era medals, coins, flasks and all manner of memorabilia. This is tourist central, expect to pay more for anything here than pretty much anywhere else in the city.
To the north of the market, behind the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, stands Sofia’s second-oldest church, Sveta Sophia. Named after the virtue of Holy Wisdom, rather than any specific saint, it depicts Wisdom as a woman standing above her three symbolic daughters: Faith, Hope and Love.
D. Russian Church of St. Nikolai the Miracle-Maker
Built in 1913 for the needs of the Russian embassy and diaspora in Sofia, the church is a prime example of 17-th century Russian religious architecture. It is named for the patron saint of the Russian emperor at the time, Nicholas II, the last ruler of Tzarist Russia. The church is open for visitors and you can even write your most sacred wish on a piece of paper and drop it in a box in the crypt as a prayer to St. Nikolai the Miracle-Maker.
E. “Ivan Vazov” National Theatre
The building of the “Ivan Vazov” National Theatre was built in 1906 and its brilliant Neo-Classical exterior houses a main stage with a capacity of 750. It has been restored several times, most recently in 2009 when the gold leaf on the pediment’s sculptures was entirely redone. Named after modern Bulgaria’s first novelist, home to world-class theatre and the site of Valeri Petrov receiving the Sofia award in 2010, this is one of Sofia’s most famous landmarks. The park outside the theatre is a great place to unwind, with cafés and chess tables during the day and groups of beer-holding teenagers at night.
F. Royal Palace
The Royal Palace is a long, yellow building erected in 1882 for Bulgaria’s first post-liberation ruler, the young and idealistic Alexander I Battenberg. It houses two museums – the National Art Gallery, exhibiting classics by Bulgarian master artists and, as its attendants are quick to point out, the Ethnographic Museum. Even many Sofia residents forget that the Ethnographic Museum occupies the older western wing, attributing the entire edifice to the art gallery.
Across the street, beyond a cramped parking lot, you can find the grassy area that used to be the Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, torn down by the government of Ivan Kostov in 2003.
G. The Presidency
An imposing rectangular building houses the Presidency of Bulgaria, as well as several ministries. Aim to get here on the hour to observe the changing of the guard outside the presidency. The two guards flanking the official entrance to the building and the two inside guarding the flag are members of the National Guards Unit of the Bulgarian army, a regiment that is one of the nation’s symbols. Their uniforms are influenced by those of the Опълчение (оpalchénie, the volunteer Bulgarian corps in the Russo-Turkish War). They change on the hour, with a sabre-wielding captain of the guard bringing out replacements from the guardhouse.
Opposite the Presidency is the National Museum of Archaeology, where you can see examples of the archaeological wealth left in Bulgarian lands by five successive civilizations.
Now, this part is important. Instead of taking the boulevard through Nezavisimost square between G and H, look to the left of the guarded presidency entrance. You’ll see a wider gate leading inside the building’s courtyard. Go through it and you’ll see Sofia’s oldest surviving building, the Rotunda of St. George, built by the Romans in the 4th century A.D. Check it out and look for another exit to the courtyard to the left. It will lead you to
H. “Sveta Nedelya” Church
The church of Sveta Nedelya was originally built in the mid-1860′s on the site of a Medieval church known as “Kiryaki”, meaning “The Lord’s Church”. The original building was almost completely destroyed in a Communist bombing on April 16, 1925 that intended to kill Tzar Ferdinand. Rebuilt in the 20′s, the church is active to this day, and the bombing was the largest terrorist act in the country to date, claiming close to 200 lives.