30 years ago today, sightseeing in Sofia (photos).


Previously: Five days in Skopje with the greatest seismologist of them all

Thirty years ago today, I arrived in Sofia, capital of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. I’d taken a bus from Skopje in Yugoslavia, probably via Kumanovo and Kyustendil. Nowadays it’s a three-and-a-half hour trip. Back then, navigating the border crossing took at least ninety minutes, and the roads weren’t as good.

I remember very few concrete details from my brief time in Sofia, although I can clearly recall being the only American on the bus, with only seven passengers altogether from Skopje. At the border, the Yugoslavs yawningly waved us through. The Bulgarian police were uptight and seemed about the confiscate my Let’s Go: Europe book, but they relented and the subversive budget travel text remained with me.

The language barrier was daunting. Only Russian was useful as a foreign language, and fortunately I knew numbers and a few words. Like Russian, Bulgarian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. At least I could decipher place names and street signs.

From the bus station in Sofia, I walked directly to the tourist bureau. Following the fashion of many such bureaus in the East Bloc, it wasn’t particularly welcoming. The bureaucracy was stifling, and the terms of the mandatory daily currency exchange were baffling.

In effect, visitors had to have verification of “approved” accommodation for each night’s stay, or face fines. I’d been led to believe that rooms in private homes were available, if dependent on the whim of tourist office staff. I was due for a lucky break, and got one.

My room was in the flat of a pensioner with lots of books written in languages I didn’t know how to read. It was within walking distance of everything I’d have time to see. I slept on the couch, and it cost only a few dollars per night.

Given the mandatory exchange, there was ample cash left over to eat functional meals and drink draft beer in the workers’ cafeteria located on my street. Meat, potatoes, a vegetable and two beers ran three, maybe four dollars. These were marvelous institutions, pleasingly egalitarian and unparalleled for people watching.

The first two sets of “then/now” photos illustrate how much things can change after three decades. In 1987, the expanse of yellow painted bricks in Battenberg Square (called 9 September Square during the Communist era) was filled with people strolling, not cars. The building to the left is the former royal palace, now the National Gallery of Art.

The Google street view images are from 2015.

You can see the structure with columns to the right has disappeared entirely. It was the Georgi Dmitrov mausoleum, where the Bulgarian Communist leader’s embalmed corpse functioned as the main attraction of a pilgrimage site comparable to Lenin’s tomb in Moscow. In 1990, Dmitrov’s remains were cremated and buried, and in 1999 the mausoleum was dynamited.

I desperately wanted to visit the official museum of Bulgarian Communism, which reportedly contained the prison pajamas and shaving kits of Dmitrov and other iconic figures, but it was already closed on Monday by the time I made it there, and it never opened on Tuesday. I’m guessing it has since been liquidated, too.

At any rate, a short walk from the mausoleum brought me to the spectacular Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

“Designed in the Neo-Byzantine style, the church can hold 10,000 people and is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world.”

The cathedral was built in honor of Russian soldiers who died in the war to liberate Bulgaria from the rule of Ottoman Turkey (1877-78). Cultural affinities help to explain why Bulgaria was among the more loyal Soviet satellites.

Next, two buildings facing the cathedral. There is no explanation for my taking this photo apart from a fascination with the gold-painted bricks, mocha stucco and a pleasing overall ambiance of Balkan-ness.

My room was a walk-up somewhere along this street. The group wielding flags was walking toward St. Nedelya Church. There were various aggregations parading through downtown that evening, leading me to surmise an organized propaganda show of some variety.

According to my notes, all museums and churches were closed on Tuesday. There was little opportunity to go inside, and so I must have spent the entire day walking.

In front by the subway stop is the medieval Church of St. Petka of the Saddlers. Up the street is the Banya Bashi Mosque. A synagogue also was nearby, though during the Communist era it rarely opened. For more about the oppression of religion in Bulgaria from 1949 through 1989, this excerpt from the Library of Congress is informative.

Just to the right of the sunken church and a block away was a secular cathedral: Communist Party headquarters, one of three buildings dubbed the Largo, and built in the 1950s. Here the red nerve center can be seen over the rooftops, complete with the standard issue red star.

It took some doing to unravel the next photo. I can’t recall even seeing the seated lion sculpture behind what was intended as a vignette of Sofia street life. In fact, the lion marks the entrance to Bulgaria’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Finally, there is Sofia’s Monument to the Soviet Army — and it still stands in 2017. The main soccer stadium’s lights are seen behind the heroic statuary.

Click through the article at Wikipedia to see what has happened in recent years to the sculpture at the base: “Soviet Army soldiers as the American popular culture characters: Superman, Joker, Robin, Captain America, Ronald McDonald, Santa Claus, Wolverine, The Mask, and Wonder Woman.”

On Wednesday, 3 June 1987, I took a train to Belgrade and unexpectedly ended up in Budapest on Thursday morning. More about this another time.

Next: Sightseeing in Sofia with the ghost of Leonid Brezhnev.