Thursday, April 17, 2008

Sightseeing in Sofia

When I mentioned to one of the developers that I would have the best part of a day to do some sightseeing in Sofia, a look of concern passed across his face before he replied: "One day? It is too much..."

I did have one obvious target to aim for: the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevski, whose gilded domes had glinted invitingly up at my from amongst the stacks of more monolithic buildings as I passed over Sofia in the Airbus. It features a Byzantine-style basilica layout complete with heavy duty chandeliers hanging down from all the main concavities. Interestingly, it also has a couple of high niches in the Ojo de Buey form typical of Iberian baroque.

Around the cathedral there are some pleasant grassy areas and a street market specialising in Soviet and National Socialist memorabilia. You can also get an old brass telescope if you want one, and some Bulgarian tipicos, some of which are reassuringly similar to native American designs. I purchased a couple of small squares of cloth to take with me to Guatemala and a rare, polished egg-shaped stone intended for adding to V's miscellaneous rock collection.

Behind the cathedral lies the National Gallery for Foreign Art, housed in a gleaming white neoclassical building which used to be the Royal Printing Office. More on that later..

There are a couple of other interesting religious spaces. There's the church of St Nikolai the Miracle Maker built contemporaneously with the cathedral on the orders of a senior Russian 'diplomat' who suspected that the local Bulgarian flavour of Orthodoxy was schismatic. On entering I had to carefully dodge men and women backing out whilst crossing themselves.

There's also the fourth century rotunda or church of St George the Martyr, a delicate round building that at some point in the last century became entirely surrounded by a rather unbecoming rectangular one.

Sofia has to be one of the most unashamedly tatty urban spaces I have ever visited. I guess it is a bit like Zona 1 in Guatemala City, lacking both the out and out manginess of Zone 16 ('the body dumping zone'), and the smart elegance - and even pavements - of Zones 9 and 10. I haven't seen this much rust and grime fronting onto busy streets anywhere else.

Here the most visible cadavers on the streets are the rickety skeletons of a defunct planned economy. Guatemala, it has to be said, never really had this kind of heavy industry lodged within its more populous cities.

Stefan tells me that in the fairly recent era when Sofia was a tenth of its current size, before it was "invaded by barbarians" from the sticks he adds, it was a city noted for its fine roads and all round spotlessness. Today some of the the least bedraggled parts of the centre are the numerous and almost unnecessarily chic Lavazza coffee joints. No Starbucks in evidence yet, but the Golden Arches flaunt themselves pervasively in the consumer heartland like a luxury brand.

Another unusual feature of the city are the almost pavement level kiosk windows that seem to have been designed for servicing nicotiene addicted hobbits.

At the end of our first evening we were washing down some fine dishes from the Krim with a beer at Pizza Palace on Vitosha Blvd. An Englishman with east-enderish inflections politely asked for an entry into our rambling conversation, introducing himself as a 'tradesman' with business interests in China and Thailand, but resident for some time in Bulgaria. Why Bulgaria? we asked. "You can't knock the girls," he replied, conveying quite the opposite meaning with a lascivious grin.

Pizzas in Sofia have wonderfully expressive names like The Grandfather's Glove (a calzone??) and The Capricious Boss.

On the Saturday night up in Bansko I went to a small local venue near the hotel where Kiril Marichkov was to appear. "The Bulgarian Paul McCartney," I was informed. The set that he and his group performed was truly exhilarating because all the young BGs around were responding to their anthemic rock tunes exactly as their Chapin counterparts would, by jumping up and down and by screaming out the chorus lines with joyous enthusiasm. (Group of Londoners in bars never seem to break through into such universalist pleasures.) Marichkov was followed by the resident band whose performance of Hotel California (including phonetically sung lyrics) I'd give anything right now to re-live.

I picked up on one other pleasing similarity with Guatemala: the fugacious presence of humble-looking street dogs, eléctricos and semi-eléctricos, the friendliest of all patrolling outside the doomed Elektronika building. We wondered what would happen to him when the demolition men move in later this year.

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