Sofia

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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SOFIA'S MUSEUMS

A museum is a place where one should "lose one's head," architect Renzo Piano said. Whether Sofia's museums will make you lose your head is debatable. The exhibits, captions, and even the museum shops of most of them have changed little in the past 40 years, and audio-guides, multimedia, captivating captions and quality souvenirs, let alone proper publicity, are still novelties.

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RUSSIAN SOFIA

Many of the most prominent sites and monuments in the Bulgarian capital are dedicated to or bear the names of Russians. The most obvious examples are the nation's principal cathedral, St Alexandr Nevskiy, and the horseback statue of Emperor Alexandr II in front of the parliament. The yellow-brick paved boulevard, which is one of the most prominent features of Sofia, is named after the same man, Tsar Osvoboditel, or King Liberator and, on its way to the Largo, it passes by the picturesque Russian Church.

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LARGO OF SERDICA, ANNO 2016

In 313, a PR trick helped Constantine to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, whence he would go down in history as "The Great." Before a crucial battle he claimed that he had a dream in which he was advised to paint the initials of Jesus Christ, a theretofore forbidden god, on the shields of his soldiers with the promise that this would bring him victory. He did just that. He won, decriminalised Christianity, became a saint, and so on and so forth.

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SOFIA IN AUGUST

When you talk about the Bulgarian capital with one of those people who pride themselves on being "true" Sofianites – as opposed to all the dastardly newcomers who they think have ruined the city – they all state at a certain point that they love Sofia the most in August.

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SOFIA SNOWED UNDER

Sofia and snow do not get on well together. Every year, and with each snowfall, the city council is notoriously "taken by surprise," resulting in even some of the main traffic arteries being blocked by snow. Both citizens and business owners are equally unresponsive and only reluctantly – if at all – clear the narrowest possible strip of pavement, leaving the rest under a thick cover of dirty, compacted snow and ice.

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OTTOMAN BULGARIA

As you travel through Bulgaria you will inevitably be confronted by remnants of its Ottoman past: mosques, water fountains, bridges, forts, baths and public buildings. It would be strange if you were not – Bulgaria spent 500 years under Ottoman domination. It began with the invasion at the end of the 14th Century, which brought chaos to the Balkans and destroyed the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, and ended for the different parts of the Balkans inhabited by Bulgarians between the 1878 San Stefano Peace Treaty and the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars.

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ROMAN BULGARIA

Travellers have for centuries been amazed by the size and magnificence of Roman remains in Bulgaria, and though many ancient ruins have been lost to modernisation, much still remains.

The Romans consolidated their power over today's Bulgaria at the beginning of the 1st Century AD, absorbing the local Thracian tribes into the multicultural and multiethnic empire. Life changed, to an enormous extent. New cities were built and older ones were refashioned, with temples, baths and opulent villas in the latest Roman fashion.

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SOFIA IN THE DETAILS

The Aleksandr Nevskiy cathedral and the Yellow Brick Road, the Largo and NDK: tourists in Sofia tend to gravitate around these focal points of interest. The more adventurous explore the multiethnic bustle around the Women's Market, and everyone is into discovering Sofia's restaurants and nightlife.

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CAPITAL EAGLES

CCTV is everywhere now in Sofia but, about a century ago, the people of the city were followed by the eyes of other creatures – eagles of stone and metal, perched here and there on the façades.The eagle architectural trend took off at the end of the 19th Century, when Sofia was quickly transforming from an Ottoman backwater into an European capital. The fashion peaked in the years before and during the Great War, when eagles spread their wings on ornate Neo-Baroque or fin-de-siècle façades. In the interwar period, the new aesthetics of modernism largely forced the eagles out.

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SOFIA'S BEST KEPT SECRET

"You know, I bought a genuine Genko Genkov! For only 80 leva!," a friend told me, eyes shining with joy at the bargain. It sounded like one, indeed. Genko Genkov (1923-2006) was the artist of primitive, yet vivid landscapes which are sold at auctions for prices ranging from 1,800 to 5,000 leva.

The precious painting was found at Tane's, probably the largest flea shop in Sofia. It is also the most secretive one.

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SOFIA TRANSFORMED

Even the casual walker through the streets of Sofia will immediately notice the many eyesores dotting the city. Death notices and small ads compete for space on lamp posts. Derelict buildings cohabit with rusty newspaper stands and stalls of street vendors selling cheap socks and underwear. Rubbish blooms in the planters originally meant for greenery.

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FALLEN MESSERSCHMITT

There is hardly a visitor to Sofia who has not crossed the vast square in front of the National Palace of Culture, or NDK, and not gasped at the sight of this strange structure that looks as if coming straight out of an urban nightmare piece of sci-fi.

Rising 35 metres from the ground, the tall thing curls somehow at an angle in the air, ending up looking somewhat like a wing. Ghostly human-like figures crawl and pose on its granite surface, where holes gape, revealing the rusting skeleton of steel.

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CHERNI VRAH

Sofia is perhaps an exception to the unwritten rule that every great city should be located either at sea or near a major river. Bulgaria's capital has a rare advantage, though: within an hour you can leave behind the noise and bustle of downtown and be climbing up a mountain.

With its 2,290-metre-high peak of Cherni Vrah, Vitosha is Bulgaria's fourth highest mountain. It is in the southern part of the Sofia Plain, and a mountain view or a house on its slopes command higher real estate prices in some parts of the capital.

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SOFIA'S HIDDEN MUSEUM

It grows but does not age, as the motto of Sofia proudly boasts: judging by the city's history, it is easy to see why. Two Neolithic settlements existed here and, in the 1st Millennium BC, the Thracians created another, which later become the Roman Serdica, the beloved "My true Rome" of Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337). The city then became the Bulgarian stronghold of Sredets, the centre of an Ottoman province and, in 1879, the capital of Bulgaria. For centuries, Sofia was the place where kings and dictators ruled, and artists, composers, writers and architects created.

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BOYANA CHURCH

Shivering in the biting cold of the Boyana Church, you look at the 13th Century portrait of Desislava and you wonder if this image, painted 100 years before Giotto revolutionised medieval art, is truly the earliest Renaissance portrait in the world, or has Desislava (and the tourists around you) fallen victim of hype?

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SOFIA'S THEATRE DISTRICT

In the early evening the streets of central Sofia are alive with crowds. People wait for their dates, groups of friends meet and part, and the buzz of conversations from restaurants and bars fills the air. When it is warm enough you can see beerdrinking teenagers in the parks and on the benches of the pedestrian zone of Vitosha Boulevard.

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CULTURED MINISTER

Despite some failed, and not very persistent, attempts by intellectuals, Bulgaria remains the only former Warsaw Pact country not to have a museum dedicated to its recent past. In fact, it would be safe to say that Bulgaria remains the only former East bloc country where Communism is still debated and any outspoken criticism of it, especially if it involves the Russians, may be looked down upon and discouraged.

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STALINIST SOFIA

More than 20 years after the fall of Communism, Sofia still bears the signs of the regime in its architecture and monuments. The very centre of the city is constructed in the ostentatious style and design popular in the time of Joseph Stalin. The larger parks have monuments of Soviet soldiers, commemorating their feats in the Second World War and the supposed "eternal friendship" between the Bulgarian people and the Russians. Although the old buildings and monuments are despised by many, they bear witness to the country's past, which cannot easily be erased.

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WALKING ON DARVIN, KARNEGI AND VASHINGTON

When walking around Sofia you might have noticed that some of the streets, boulevards and neighbourhoods are named after foreigners. Every so often, you come across American and British names. In fact, there are 21 individuals of American, British and Irish origin commemorated in this way in Sofia. Almost all of these played a part in Bulgarian history in one way or another during the period between the April Uprising of 1876 and the end of the Second World War, supporting the country and its people.

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