Hannah and I have become accustomed to cities having deep reaching histories, but we didn’t know much about Sofia or the country of Bulgaria. Much like the rest of the Balkans, Bulgaria has seen 2 world wars and 2 regional Balkan wars. As we strolled through Sofia, the city unfolded like an onion. Layers of history peeled back at every corner, with each new generation of development building on that beneath it.
Sofia dates back to the Thracians thousands of years BC. It became the kingdom of Bulgaria when the Vlach and Bulgarian people assimilated into one. Over centuries it declared itself an independent country, or empire, three times with take overs and liberation first from the Romans and then from the Ottoman Turks. Fast forward hundreds of years, and the monarchical system dies with communism. The final remaining heir, Simeon II, was 7 years old when he was exiled to Spain. In 2001, he returned to Bulgaria, now a democracy, and won the race for prime minister. After serving for 4 years, he was not reelected, and eventually aligned himself with the present day Communist party of Bulgaria, who ironically exiled him in the first place. That was a bit mind boggling.
One part of Sofia that has withstood the trials of time is its water. Natural springs in the mountains supply the city with warm mineral water. Up until the last decade, the city had public bathhouses, but now the naturally warm water is still available and free flowing from outdoor fountains where locals can be found filling up jugs. The old bathhouses were not only used for cleaning, but also used for a sort of town gossip center, where both aristocrats and everyday folk would use the facilities. We aren’t sure if today’s fountains share the same dual purpose, but we tried the water amid a large of locals and tourist from around the world.
On a different note, we found it nearly impossible to find food in Sofia. Hannah and I love to eat our way through cities and this proved very difficult there. In fact, one night we had Subway, which was almost remarkably exact to what we have in the United States. Nevertheless, the city was walkable and easy to enjoy.
We took a free walking tour that lasted roughly 2 hours. Our guide had high energy and passions, and he indicated that he had studied law and political science abroad in the Netherlands and another country I cannot recall. Our tour group had travelers from Holland, the United Kingdom, United States, Israel, and Serbia. To entice participation, our guide would give the group historical quiz questions. If we gave a correct answer, he would give us a candy that I would liken to a cough drop, but sweeter. He explained that his grandmother always called them “little onions” which we found appropriate as he took us deeper into the layers in Tolerance Square. Here a Jewish synagogue, Eastern Orthodox Church, Muslim mosque, and Catholic Church all peacefully reside blocks from each other.
Between the “little onion” I received for my correct answer, the warm mineral water, and the lack of food, my palate was cleansed and ready for some authentic Bulgarian food in Veliko Tarnovo.