Whenever we land in a new city, the first thing we do is check out the free city tours. We’ve done them in Split, Berlin, Seville, Madrid… but I think the one in Sofia is my favourite so far.
It was miserable and raining and freezing on Friday when we gathered in front of the Palace of Justice to meet our guide.
Viki is a very proud Sofian, who studies law when she’s not showing strangers around her native city.
The tour takes in the major sights of Sofia, which are mostly churches and communist-era buildings. Viki was an excellent guide, carefully shepherding us across busy streets and sharing her umbrella with an elderly woman who’d forgotten to bring one.
One thing she was particularly proud of is that Sofia is a very religiously tolerant city. The Catholic cathedral, Orthodox church, synagogue, mosque and Macdonald’s are all within a few hundred metres of one another.
Terrorists planted 25 kilograms of explosives in the roof of this church in an attempt to kill the then Tsar. Un/fortunately, the Tsar was late (as Bulgarians frequently are, apparently) and was spared, but 150 people lost their lives and another 500 were injured.
This is Saint Sofia.
She replaced Lenin, who used to be on this site.
The statue is considered a bit of an embarrassment, as this is not the Sofia for whom the city is named. She’s Italian. Awks.
She’s also very, very sexy for a saint…
Underground church and ruins
This church was something to do with saddlers, I believe. Nearby are some excellent Roman ruins of ancient housing – the discovery of which has meant the new metro line has had to be re-routed… again.
The oldest building in Sofia. There are five layers of frescoes on the walls. I was amazed that such an old building could remain intact – not only through the centuries, but through communist rule, which generally speaking is kind to neither religion nor history. The building surrounding it is actually the Presidential palace, built by the communists. A church in their midst?
It was free and I liked it.
Haga Sofia belltower
This was my favourite thing of all. When the Russians liberated Bulgaria from the Turks, it was customary to ring the bell of the largest church in town. This church, which is the actual namesake of the city, had no bell to ring when Sofia was freed. So an enterprising parson ran one up the tree and there it remains to this day (the bell is the same bell as in 1878. But the tree is new.)
Hot springs (& the dog)
No wait, actually maybe this was my favourite thing. Sofia is built on some hot springs. Rather than, I dunno, leave them where they are, the city has built these incredible taps where the water bubbles out all day. People come from all over the city to collect the water in plastic bottles to take home.
On the tour, we also met a stray dog who apparently joins the tour every day at this spot. He walked with us for another 15 minutes and then disappeared.
Finally, we ended up at the crown jewel of Sofia, the Alex church. It’s a very pretty building and, again, it’s free. I saw a woman walk straight up to an icon and rub it for – I dunno – luck? Churches, of any description, are a bit weird.
Free tours are never actually free. You’re asked to ‘leave a donation’ if you enjoyed yourself. We did, so we did.
Viki was great, and I highly recommend the Sofia 360 free city tour.