Sofia reborn as a cultural crossroads
SOFIA, Bulgaria - For years, East European capitals like Prague and Budapest were the hot spots for travelers seeking to live it up in the decadent post-Soviet bloc, where budding democracy sparked 24-hour parties and developing economies offered cheap vacations.
As the European Union has expanded, however, countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary have gone mainstream. Mass tourism has long since gentrified cities like Prague, for example, which now advertises itself on London Tube billboards as a destination for British stag parties, a sign the gate-crashers have taken over.
To find new European bacchanalias that resemble the old, one has to venture to the periphery of the continent, to cities like Sofia, in the still-untamed Balkans. A thriving bar and club scene and an edginess that’s been lost just a few hundred miles west have partygoers in this charming and ancient city thinking it’s 1999.
Located on busy east-west train routes and served by a new international airport, Sofia is an ideal pit stop for anyone traveling from central Europe to Greece, Turkey, or beyond. In fact, visitors often find Sofia’s history as a city on the crossroads of Europe its most intriguing appeal.
The Thracians founded Sofia in the 6th century BC. Roman ruins still stand in the city center, with structures like the Church of St. George behind the Sheraton Hotel downtown dating to the 300s.
Sofia didn’t flourish until the 19th century, when first northern Bulgaria and then, in 1908, the whole country, broke free of the Ottoman Empire. Today, the imperial influence remains, giving the country an Eastern flavor that owes much to Turkey.
A peculiar Bulgarian trait often ascribed to the Ottomans is the practice of nodding up and down to say “no’’ and shaking one’s head back and forth to say “yes,’’ the opposite of Western custom. I shook my head to say “no’’ when asked if I would like a bag for an apple, and the fruit stall vendor happily offered one.
During the Cold War, Bulgaria was the Soviet Union’s closest ally, and communist-era statues are more common here than in other ex-Warsaw Pact members. Many now provide backdrops for teenage skateboarders.
In 2007, Bulgaria joined the EU and became its poorest member. Some say it never should have been admitted. Brussels (where the EU is headquartered) last year cut off hundreds of millions in subsidies to the country because of concerns about graft. But while businesspeople might encounter corruption, tourists are treated well. Locals want to capitalize on the trickle of tourists journeying to Bulgaria’s ski resorts and Black Sea beaches.
The biggest hurdle to navigating Sofia is the language: Street signs are written in Cyrillic and few Bulgarians speak English. Be sure to pick up an English-language map before venturing out.
By night, the best strategy for enjoying Sofia is to explore the city center and then, when revelers want to turn it up a notch, head to Studentski grad, or Students’ town, where the clubs close only after everyone goes home.
Pod Lipite (“Under the Linden Trees’’) is a traditional, rustic tavern featuring an open kitchen and gaida players performing on their Balkan bagpipes. A four-course meal for two including a few glasses of Mavrud, a thick Bulgarian red wine that was once the toast of the communist world, costs around $40. The restaurant is immensely popular among both Bulgarians and expats.
After dinner, drop by the Black Label Whisky Bar in the stately former Bulgarian Military Club. The lavish, dark wood interior recalls the days when Bulgaria’s army officers were aristocrats, but the hip crowd and experimental deejays remind visitors who controls the place now.
Next door is Chervilo (“Lipstick’’), arguably Sofia’s most chic dance club. Playing ear-numbing electronica, Chervilo’s crowd ranges from wealthy Bulgarian teenagers and 30-somethings to scruffy Australian backpackers who gained entrance because the bouncers believe foreigners add to the cachet of the place.
Another club that lives up to its name is Sin City, an enormous mall-like warehouse frequented by the thick-necked “mutri,’’ or mafia guys, in black leather jackets and shaved heads whose bosses are reputed to really run the country. An American tourist would have to work hard to knock heads with them, but there’s a tincture of danger to the place that some visitors enjoy.
For early morning partying off the beaten path, grab a $5 taxi to Studentski grad a couple miles outside the city center, where students live in towering, socialist-era apartment blocks.
I loved Club Orient 33, which features chalga music, a kind of Balkan folk that’s pumped through a digital receiver. The place is classic: a gaudy interior of green neon and black-and-white Near Eastern motifs, young women dressed in what might generously be called lingerie, and men who have loosened the first 10 buttons on their shirts.
The club is in a cluster of venues. Another good choice is Dance Center Plazza with two places: Disco Legend, which plays contemporary house and ’80s retro, and Folk Idol, another chalga joint.
By day, discover Sofia by starting at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the biggest in the Balkans, whose interior is often filled with smoke from hundreds of candles lighted by the faithful. Under the cathedral is a crypt that serves as a museum for Orthodox icons, relics safeguarded from Ottoman and communist persecution over the centuries.
Walk west of the cathedral and you pass the former czar’s palace, a Victorian-era mansion. Behind the palace is Taba&co, a fin-de-siècle cafe that includes seating in the czar’s Art Deco private chapel. Outdoor seating can be hard to find in summer, but there’s a consistent turnover.
Farther west is the massive 1950s-era central department store, TZUM, the crown jewel of the formerly planned economy, next to an active mosque and public hot springs where Bulgarians fill plastic jugs with water they claim has healing properties.
Don’t miss the 13th-century frescoes on the walls of Boyana Church, an exquisite artifact from when Bulgarian kings waged war against the Byzantine Empire. The church is a 15-minute, $10 taxi ride outside of town.
John Dyer can be reached at email@example.com.