Sofia

CITY OF EAGLES

As the official symbol of Bulgaria, lions can be seen everywhere, from the national coat of arms to architectural ornaments to "patriotic" tattoos. But if you look closely at the façades in central Sofia, you might have the impression that the nation has another symbolic animal, the eagle.

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SOFIA'S STRANGE MONUMENTS

Some monuments impress with their size, artistic value or historical significance, and some have a hidden history to match. Sofia, as Bulgaria's capital, has a particularly high concentration of monuments and statues with unusual backgrounds. Some of these are just oddities and curiosities that add a pinch of spice to otherwise official public art and have become ingrained in the city's history. However, others are controversial and have caused various debates through the years.

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LONG LIVE RED ARMY MONUMENT

Other angry citizens have taken to the park, where the MOCHA is situated. They have set up tents threatening they will defend with their bodies the pile of stones which they see as epitomising the victorious Red Army's fight against Nazism, for which the Bulgarian nation should be "eternally grateful." In the agencies of the state pen-pushers of all shapes and sizes scurry to manifest why the Red Army moment cannot be dismantled, at least not in the foreseeable future.

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SOFIA'S TOP 10

Thanks to cheap flights or business travel, for many foreigners Sofia is their first, and last, glimpse of this country. Many prefer to head elsewhere to avoid the heat (in summertime), the slush (in winter) and the pavements (year round), and for those who opt to stay in the city, the capital remains a blur of experiences: the potholes and the noise, but also the pleasingly affordable bars and restaurants, the odd glimpses of interesting buildings, usually the St Alexandr Nevskiy cathedral.

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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO SUGAR FACTORY?

Faux industrial style is all the rage in new development in Sofia: brown and grey façades of fake bricks can be now spotted in both old neighbourhoods and gated communities on the city's outskirts.

But while new construction in Bulgaria aims to achieve the attractive weathered look of the repurposed 19th century warehouses and factory buildings that are now associated with the poshest parts of NYC, London and Hamburg, genuine old redbricks are slowly falling to ruins. Sofia's Zaharna Fabrika, or Sugar Factory, neighbourhood is one of the best – or worst – examples.

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BULGARIA'S BROADWAY?

When the Covid-19 lockdowns put the world into a standstill, in the spring of 2020, photographs and videos of famed and usually busy sites, such as the Eiffel Tower, Times Square and Taj Mahal, without their usual crowds became a powerful symbol of the crisis. The equivalent in Sofia was... Rakovski Street.

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WOODROW WILSON COMES TO SOFIA

Seen from a US standpoint, the 28th American President is usually being put in the "upper tier" of US leaders despite criticism of his propagation of racial segregation. Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who served two terms in 1913-1921, successfully led the United States through the Great War. His foreign policy came to be known as Wilsonianism. He was the leading architect of the League of Nations project.

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FORGOTTEN MAUSOLEUM

The stories of what happened to the bodies of those who ruled Bulgaria post-1878 are as poignant as some of their deeds. King Ferdinand (1887-1918) was buried in 1948 in Coburg, Germany. Ferdinand had abdicated following his disastrous leadership of the Kingdom of Bulgaria through the Great War, and settled in his native Germany. His son, King Boris III (1918-1943) was buried inside the Rila Monastery church, but soon after the 1944 Communist coup his remains were exhumed and lost - or destroyed.

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WITNESS OF TIME

The largest Sephardic temple in Europe is situated in a central Sofia street, in an area where a mosque and several churches of various denominations "rub shoulders" with each other.

The story of how Sofia Central Synagogue appeared is a fascinating one, as it encapsulates the history of Bulgaria in the past century.

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SEARCHING FOR BLOKE

Splendid saints, bosomy beauties in "traditional" costumes, saccharine angels: in the past decade, large scale wall paintings on concrete apartment blocks, business and public buildings in Sofia have flourished. The unveiling of the largest ones, particularly when Boyko Borisov's Sofia Municipality is involved, attracts media attention and results in an avalanche of posts, photos and shares.

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SOFIA'S PARTY HOUSE

"Where is the parliament?" A couple of months ago anyone asking this question in Sofia would have been pointed to a butter-yellow neoclassical building at one end of the Yellow Brick Road. Imaginatively, it resembles the Paris Opera House and has the Belgian national motto, "Unity Makes Strength," above its main façade, looking onto the statue of a 19th century Russian tsar on horseback. This was the place where Bulgarian MPs used to gather to do whatever they were supposed to do.

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EAGLES BRIDGE

In the summer of 2020, a bridge in Sofia has persistently been in the news. Bulgarians demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev barricaded Eagles Bridge, disrupting traffic and attracting media attention.

Why this particular bridge?

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LIONS BRIDGE

Unlike most great cities, Sofia is located neither at a sea, nor near an important river. The Perlovska and the Vladayska, the two rivulets that skirt the northern, eastern and southern boundaries of the city centre, are too small to count. In spite of this, the two bridges that span them, Eagles Bridge and Lions Bridge respectively, are deeply embedded in the life and fabric of Sofia. Besides presenting photo ops, they each have their own history and are conduits for much of the traffic into the city.

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ANGRY SOFIANITES

From job opportunities to entertainment options: living in Sofia, Bulgaria's largest city, has its perks. It also has its downsides. This is why Sofianites are an angry lot, eagerly expressing their frustration at queues, while driving and especially on social media. What specifically drives these people crazy? Like in every big city traffic, infrastructure, pollution and overpopulation play their roles. But like unhappy families, each angry city is angry in its own way. Here is a long, but by no means exhaustive list of the things that force locals off their rockers.

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WHO WAS MAGDALINA STANCHEVA?

Walking around Central Sofia is like walking nowhere else, notwithstanding the incredibly uneven pavements. A mixture of buildings in a range of time periods and styles define the Bulgarian capital: Roman fortifications and early-Christian buildings rub walls with medieval churches, former Ottoman mosques and fine fin-de-siècle residential houses. Over these loom monstrous buildings in the Stalinist Baroque style and soulless glass-and-concrete concoctions built after the 1990s.

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WINTER SOFIA

In winter, as anyone who has ever spent this season in Sofia knows, it is super easy to complain about life in Bulgaria's largest city. Air pollution peaks. The notoriously bad pavements become even more impassable because of snow, or ice, or mud, or rainwater, or any combination of these. Congestion is magnified. Descending the uncleared steps of the subways is at your own peril.

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FALL OF 1,300 YEARS OF BULGARIA

In the summer of 2017, after years of debates, projects and protests, Sofia looked as though it would finally part with one of the most controversial monuments of the period referred to as Mature Socialism (roughly, the 1970s and 1980s in Communist Bulgaria). Everyone knows the monument in question: it is the 35-metre-high angular construction of granite plates and metal, crowned with ghostly statues and disintegrated slogans, in front of the NDK in central Sofia.

Ironically, the name of the monument slated for demolition is 1,300 Years of Bulgaria.

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NDK, COMMUNIST-ERA MONSTROSITY OR CULTURE PALACE TO SHOW OFF WITH?

On its vast square, teenagers skateboard and flirt, elderly people have coffee with friends and mothers stroll with their children, while buskers and icecream sellers vie for customers. In the evening, people heading for some festival or concert at the NDK's Hall 1 flock in front of the main entrance. It has about a dozen doors, but typically just one is open. The bars around are packed, and those who can afford it head for the luxury restaurant on the top floor.

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SOFIA IN THE PAST

Modern Sofia is a city stuck in transition, a mixture of more or less preserved pre-1944 architecture with all its highs and lows, of menacing or just plain ugly administrative and residential buildings from the Communist era, and of striking or, more often misguided developments from the times of the free market. A century ago, Sofia was also stuck in transition, this time between its past as a backwater Ottoman town and the speedily Europeanising capital of an ambitious nation.

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SOFIA'S HIDDEN FLEA MARKET

Once they were the haunt of those who did not have enough disposable income to buy new stuff. They also attracted collectors, fringe cultures, and optimists believing that they would find a lost Rembrandt among all the knick-knacks. With the advent of cheap, disposable fashion (thanks, China), mass travel and mass hipsterisation, however, those with little cash moved to the malls, and the joy of finding some vintage clothing, or a 1960s piece of furniture that would look great in the living room went mainstream.

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