Impressions of Bulgaria

Sofia view

The sun was still shining as I exited the airport in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. It was 6:30 p.m., but on a Saturday in late August, that meant I still had about two hours of daylight remaining. I ignored the touts offering me a ride and instead headed straight to the official taxi stand, where I easily hopped into a yellow taxi. I gave the cab driver the address of my hotel with confidence, speaking Russian that could sort of pass as Bulgarian because the numbers in the two languages are almost identical.

It wasn’t long before the driver rolled down the window and lit up a cigarette. Once upon a time, this would have appalled me, but after traveling around the former Soviet Union for more than a year, it seemed normal. Staring out at my surroundings, they seemed familiar. Towering concrete apartment buildings were scattered across the landscape, many likely never to be finished. Strip malls and billboards flashed now familiar Cyrillic script and I smiled as I could read most of the signs we passed.

It was almost like I was coming home.

It may have been two years since I wrapped up my 13 months in the former Soviet Union, but as I sat in that taxi, it felt like yesterday. Sure, Bulgaria was never officially part of the USSR, but it was a satellite state and for decades it was hidden on the eastern side of the infamous Iron Curtain. Years before that, Bulgaria owed its liberation from the Ottoman Empire to the Russians who fought for them in the Russo-Turkish War in 1877-78.

The Soviet and Russian influence is still clear today, from the cracking, cement-tiled sidewalks around Sofia to the gargantuan government buildings around the capital.

Sofia building

There’s the Russian Orthodox church and the Alexander Nevski Memorial Church – Alexander Nevksi being a key figure of medieval Rus, the predecessor to the modern Russian state.

Nevski Church

There’s the Monument to the Soviet Army, standing in a park in central Sofia but looking more like a skateboard park than a monument of national importance.

Soviet monument

Soviet monument

And as I walked around Sofia early Sunday morning, I almost forgot where I was when a man called me девушка, asked me in Russian to take his photo and thanked me with спасибо afterwards.

But of course, I was in Bulgaria and I soon realized how unique and diverse the country is. Within a few block radius in Sofia, you can find an Orthodox church, a synagogue, a mosque and a Catholic church. Throughout the capital are ruins dating back to medieval times while the main drag, Vitosha Boulevard, has the lively atmosphere of almost any European capital.

Medieval church Sofia

Vitosha

Outside of Sofia, the Rila Monastery is the most colorful monastery I have ever seen, with an idyllic setting in the Pirin Mountains. The town of Blagoevgrad (which inevitably makes me think of former Illinois governor Rod Blagoevich) was surprisingly charming, with a huge pedestrian mall and outdoor cafes juxtaposed against typical Soviet area architecture. With less than 24 hours there, I was wishing I could extend my stay.

Rila Monastery

Blagoevgrad

A day-long train journey took me to Plovdiv, a city that is more than 6,000 years old – one of the oldest cities in the world. Developed around seven hills and with the Maritsa River running through it, Plovdiv seemed to have every quality I love in a city.

Ancient Roman ruins around every corner? Check.

Plovdiv ruins
Remains of an amphitheater right in the middle of town, under the main pedestrian mall.

Narrow, cobblestone streets? Check.

Plovdiv cobblestone

Adorable stray cats? Check and check.

Plovdiv cats
These kitties were waiting outside a church door, trying to sneak inside to get out of the rain.

Cat on ruins

Never mind that it rained most of my second day in town; I still enjoyed a great walking tour, visited a few quaint museums and spent more than an hour exploring the old Roman amphitheater that I had almost all to myself.

Plovdiv amphitheater

Finally, there was Veliko Tarnovo, where I unfortunately found endless rain showers – but only after I managed to check out the famous Tsarevets fortress. Tsarevets was the Bulgarian Empire’s primary fortress from the 12th to 14th centuries, before being captured by the Ottomans in 1393 and has been painstakingly restored, making it an incredible place to visit. I spent a good three hours there, poking around every nook and cranny and taking in amazing views of the town and surrounding hills.

Tsarevets fortress

Tsarevets

Tsarevets view

So Bulgaria was so much more than the former Soviet satellite country that I had pictured it to be in my mind. It is truly a crossroads for multiple civilizations, a place where the Roman, Bulgarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires all collide. Of course, I couldn’t help but compare it to the former Soviet countries I had visited throughout my trip, but for every similarity I found, I discovered a major difference as well. My overall conclusion? Bulgaria is incredibly unique and just waiting to be discovered.

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7 thoughts on “Impressions of Bulgaria”

  1. I was really surprised by Bulgaria – I had expected a distinct Soviet/Russian feel, but, like you said, there are so many influences there that it ended up being totally unique. I loved all the Roman ruins dotted here and there, and Rila Monastery was so incredibly beautiful, too. Definitely a country worth exploring!

  2. Just like you and Amanda I was also really surprised with Bulgaria. Even if I was only in Sofia and Plovdiv I think the country is an excellent off the beaten path destination and I’ll do my best to return there next year to explore some more! I still have to see Rila Monastery as it seems to be stunning, judging from your pictures!!

  3. You should came in Macedonia too! The city of Ohrid is breathtaking also the capital Skopje.This country is full of natural beauty you will be mesmerized.

    1. I’ll be stopping in Skopje for a day this summer – hopefully will have a chance to go back to see more of the country soon!

  4. Have to say my visit to Sofia left me thinking that it was a shame all the beautiful buildings were in such a state of disrepair. Clearly there is a lot to enjoy and it is a fabulous city and well worth a visit. Hopefully as time goes by and the economy gets a boost from various sources, including tourism, they will be able to reclaim some of those buildings and breath new life into them.

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