urban Bulgaria

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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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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BULGARIA'S STREET CATS

Seeing your car surrounded by a crowd of people, peering inside it and crouching down to look underneath it, is rarely a good sign, even in a small place like Malko Tarnovo, the only town in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha mountains. But this was what greeted the Vagabond team this summer, on leaving a 30-minute meeting.

"You have a cat in the car!," the crowd said with indignation, because the day was hot and the windows were up.

"No, we do not!," we protested and that was the truth. None of us owned a cat.

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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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BURGAS THAT WAS

Sometimes it pays not to have a very long history. Despite some claims that Bulgaria's largest city on the southern Black Sea coast is ancient (related in some way to Troy, I was told recently), most would agree that Burgas is quite new.

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THE BULGARIANS*

Later on, unless you go on to become a member of a nationalist party, you don't feel any particular need to remind yourself of "I am a Bulgarian." Such a statement, despite its straightforwardness, could invoke a measure of uncertainty, like the invisible steps on the front cover of this book. It is not because you could be something else than a Bulgarian, but because the affirmation presupposes a previous agreement between yourself and your compatriots about what it is that makes you Bulgarian and what makes Bulgarians a community.

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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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HEART OF BURGAS

A few years ago, the citizens of Burgas voted for the symbol of their city. Unsurprisingly, they chose the pier. Jutting out from the beach, the pier is the 280-metre long 1980s reincarnation of an 1936 original.

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5 CITIES

To centralise or not to centralise was not the crucial question in all the 1,300 years of Bulgarian history. Born in the mighty shadow of glorious Constantinople, Medieval Bulgaria was always striving to create its own shining capital. The 700 years of Byzantine and Ottoman rule did little to ease this attitude, and when freedom was finally achieved in 1878, the matter of the new capital became the focus of attention.

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