Bulgaria – Sofia & Plovdiv

Thursday, 21 September 2023

I visited Bulgaria twice in recent years and enjoyed both visits so much that I recently returned, with Maureen and a group of friends. We flew in to Sofia with Wizz Air from London, travelled by land between the two cities – regrettably by minibus rather than train – and then flew back from Plovdiv with that handy Hungarian airline again. Ryanair also offers direct connections between London and those two Bulgarian cities.

Juno Restaurant, Sofia – think of Bulgaria and bright, cheerful, modern, stylish are not the first words that spring to mind are they? In fact they all apply and dinner for our group at this new restaurant conjured up all four adjectives. My previous visit to Sofia was in 2015 when I did a little circuit of the former Yugoslavia slices of the Balkans, plus Bulgaria.

◄ Monument to John Atanasoff, Sofia – name a well-known Bulgarian inventor? Well how about this gentleman, check his Wikipedia entry, he’s credited with being the inventor – or one of them – of the digital computer.

▲ Regional History Museum, Sofia – apart from the starkly modern Sofia has some fine older architecture, palaces, churches, theatres and this elegant museum

▲ Site of the Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum, Sofia – on my previous visit to Sofia I went on an excellent Free Sofia Walking Tour, no booking necessary, just turn up in front of the Palace of Justice. The Bulgarian Communism Walking Tour is not free, but also definitely worth doing.

Bulgarian Communism – well it’s complicated and the mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, the first Communist leader, pretty much sums it. It was erected in the Sofia City Garden in 1949 with remarkable speed and it was deliberately placed to block the view of the old Royal Palace.

Then in 1999 it was destroyed with equal speed and ever since, 24 years now, it has just been a patch of concrete wasteland. There’s been no attempt to replace it with anything new, not even with some park planting, but nor is there any indication of what used to occupy the space. Even the graffiti doesn’t really tell the story. Bulgarian Communism? Well it’s complicated.

◄ Plovdiv Sign, Plovidiv – yes there’s a free walking tour of Plovdiv as well and also definitely worth taking. I stopped in Plovdiv in 2017 on my Bangkok to London Silk Road drive with a group of old British MGB sports cars.

▲ Graffiti winner 2023, Plovdiv – the city’s annual graffiti contest is an indicator that for all it’s history, going back to the extensive Roman ruins including the Odeon, the Forum, the Roman theatre and the stadium this is also a modern and very energetic city.

◄ Roman stadium seating under HMV – Plovdiv’s stadium could seat 30,000 spectators, but apart from the turn at one end the whole thing has disappeared under the pedestrianized Kynaz Alexander I St, the centre for the town’s busy tourist crowds. Gradually stretches of the stadium are being brought to light including the basement level under the HMV fashion store. You can descend to the stadium seating and look up through the glass floor to the fashions.

▲ Spiral stairway, Bishop’s Basilica, Plovdiv – The Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis, also known as the Great Basilica, is a really terrific site. The 4th century church site was only discovered in the 1980s and its excavation and presentation in a huge new building, was only just getting underway when I passed through Plovdiv in 2017. The museum opened in 2021 and it’s notable for the huge expanse of mosaics, particularly the great number of birds.

▲ stag mosaic, Small Basilica, Plovdiv – there are a more wonderful mosaics, the stag mosaic in particular, only a short walk from the Great Basilica.