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Cities in the Spotlight: Sofia, Bulgaria

Updated: Mar 11

Today we are travelling to Sofia, Bulgaria. Bulgaria is a Balkan nation with diverse terrain encompassing Black Sea coastline, a mountainous interior and rivers, including the Danube. A cultural melting pot with Greek, Slavic, Ottoman, and Persian influences, it has a rich heritage of traditional dance, music, costumes, and crafts. At the foot of domed Vitosha mountain is its capital city, Sofia, dating to the 5th century B.C.


Sofia City Information

Sofia is the capital and largest city of Bulgaria. It is situated in the Sofia Valley at the foot of the Vitosha mountain in the western parts of the country. The city is built west of the Iskar river, and has many mineral springs, such as the Sofia Central Mineral Baths. It has a humid continental climate. Being in the centre of the Balkans, it is midway between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea, and closest to the Aegean Sea.

Known as Serdica in Antiquity and Sredets in the Middle Ages, Sofia has been an area of human habitation since at least 7000 BC. The recorded history of the city begins with the attestation of the conquest of Serdica by the Roman Republic in 29 BC from the Celtic tribe Serdi. During the decline of the Roman Empire, the city was raided by Huns, Visigoths, Avars and Slavs. In 809 Serdica was incorporated into the Bulgarian Empire by Khan Krum and became known as Sredets. In 1018, the Byzantines ended Bulgarian rule until 1194, when it was reincorporated by the reborn Bulgarian Empire. Sredets became a major administrative, economic, cultural and literary hub until its conquest by the Ottomans in 1382. From 1530 to 1826, Sofia was the regional capital of Rumelia Eyalet, the Ottoman Empire's key province in Europe. Bulgarian rule was restored in 1878. Sofia was selected as the capital of the Third Bulgarian State in the next year, ushering a period of intense demographic and economic growth.

Sofia is the 14th largest city in the European Union. It is surrounded by mountainsides, such as Vitosha by the southern side, Lyulin by the western side, and the Balkan Mountains by the north, which makes it the third highest European capital after Andorra la Vella and Madrid. Being Bulgaria's primate city, Sofia is home of many of the major local universities, cultural institutions and commercial companies. The city has been described as the "triangle of religious tolerance". This is due to the fact that three temples of three major world religions—Christianity, Islam and Judaism—are situated within one square: Sveta Nedelya Church, Banya Bashi Mosque and Sofia Synagogue. This triangle was recently expanded to a "square" and includes the Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph.

Sofia has been named one of the top ten best places for start-up businesses in the world, especially in information technologies. It was Europe's most affordable capital to visit in 2013. In 1979, the Boyana Church in Sofia was included onto the World Heritage List, and it was deconstructed in the Second Bulgarian Empire, holding much patrimonial symbolism to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. With its cultural significance in Southeast Europe, Sofia is home to the National Opera and Ballet of Bulgaria, the National Palace of Culture, the Vasil Levski National Stadium, the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, the National Archaeological Museum, and the Serdica Amphitheatre. The Museum of Socialist Art includes many sculptures and posters that educate visitors about the lifestyle in communist Bulgaria.


Sofia Historical Significance

The history of Sofia, Bulgaria's capital and largest city, spans thousands of years from Antiquity to modern times, during which the city has been a commercial, industrial, cultural and economic centre in its region and the Balkans. Sofia was inhabited since at least the 30th millennium BC. A Neolithic settlement discovered in Slatina, north-eastern Sofia, is dated to be from the 6th millennium BC. Another Neolithic settlement around the National Art Gallery is traced to the 3rd–4th millennium BC. The earliest tribes who settled were the Thracian Tilataei. In the 500s BC, the area became part of a Thracian union, the Odrysian kingdom.

In 339 BC Philip II of Macedon destroyed and ravaged the town. The Celtic tribe Serdi gave their name to the city. The earliest mention of the city comes from an Athenian inscription from the 1st century BC, attesting Astiu ton Serdon, i.e. city of the Serdi. A local inscription and Dio Cassius recorded that the Roman general Crassus subdued the Serdi and beheaded the captives. Around 29 BC, Sofia was conquered by the Romans. It gradually became the most important Roman city of the region and became a municipium, or centre of an administrative region, during the reign of Emperor Trajan (98-117) and was renamed Ulpia Serdica.

The city was burnt and destroyed in 170 by the Costoboci and the city was rebuilt, this time with its first defensive walls between 176-180 under Marcus Aurelius as evidenced by inscriptions above the gates. The city expanded again, as public baths, administrative and cult buildings, a civic basilica and a large theatre, were built. When Emperor Diocletian divided the province of Dacia into Dacia Ripensis (on the banks of the Danube) and Dacia Mediterranea, Serdica became the capital of the latter. Roman emperors Aurelian (215–275) and Galerius (260–311) were born in Serdica. In 268 a Gothic raid ravaged and burned parts of the city including the theatre which was abandoned.

The city continued to expand and became a significant political and economical centre, more so as it became one of the first Roman cities where Christianity was recognised as an official religion. The Edict of Toleration was issued in 311 in Serdica by the Roman emperor Galerius, officially ending the Diocletianic persecution of Christianity. The Edict implicitly granted Christianity the status of "religio licita", a worship recognized and accepted by the Roman Empire. It was the first edict legalising Christianity, preceding the Edict of Milan by two years. Moreover, in the Edict of Milan, only one sentence was dropped: “Ne quid contra disciplinam agent.” So the Edict of Milan preached unconditional religious tolerance where the Edict of Serdica stated a conditional tolerance (meaning of disciplinam here is: unless they, the christians, disturb the good or social order of the State). Serdica was the capital of the Diocese of Dacia (337-602).

An amphitheatre was built over the remains of the theatre under Diocletian (284–305) and later under Constantine the Great (306–337). For Constantine the Great it was 'Sardica mea Roma est' (Serdica is my Rome). He considered making Serdica the capital of the Byzantine Empire instead of Constantinople. The Tetrarchs' and Constantine's efforts to secure a large supply network for the Danube army by building a large number of horrea in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries appears to have included Serdica as a principal gathering base due to the 8 horrea discovered by excavation.

In 343, the Council of Sardica was held in a church located where the current 6th century Church of Saint Sofia was later built. The city was destroyed by the Huns in 447, but was rebuilt by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century and was renamed Triaditsa. Serdica again flourished during the reign of Justinian I, when its defensive walls were reinforced by doubling their thickness and adding more towers, and whose remnants can still be seen today. Although also often destroyed by the Slavs, the town remained under Byzantine dominion until 809.


Travel to Sofia

*taken from Lonely Planet*

Bulgaria's pleasingly laid-back capital is often overlooked by visitors heading to the coast or the ski resorts, but they're missing something special. Sofia is no grand metropolis, but it's a modern, youthful city, with a scattering of onion-domed churches, Ottoman mosques and stubborn Red Army monuments that lend an eclectic, exotic feel. Excavation work carried out during construction of the metro unveiled a treasure trove of Roman ruins from nearly 2000 years ago, when the city was called 'Serdica'. Away from the buildings and boulevards, vast parks and manicured gardens offer a welcome respite, and the ski slopes and hiking trails of mighty Mt Vitosha are just a short bus ride from the centre. Home to many of Bulgaria's finest museums, galleries, restaurants and clubs, Sofia may persuade you to stick around and explore further.


Must See Sites

Aleksander Nevski Cathedral; One of the symbols not just of Sofia but of Bulgaria itself, this massive, awe-inspiring church was built between 1882 and 1912 in memory of the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria’s independence during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78). It is named in honour of a 13th-century Russian warrior-prince. Designed by Russian architect Alexander Pomerantsev, the church was built in the neo-Byzantine style favoured in Russia at the time and is adorned with mosaics and gold-laden domes. The cavernous, incense-scented interior is decorated with naturalistic (though now rather faded) murals, pendulous chandeliers and elaborate onyx and alabaster thrones.

Boyana Church; Tiny 13th-century Boyana Church is included on Unesco’s World Heritage list and its 90 murals are among the very finest examples of Bulgarian medieval artwork. A combined ticket includes entry to both the church and the National Museum of History, 2km away. Highlights include the oldest known portrait of St John of Rila, along with representations of King Konstantin Asen and Queen Irina. There's little English signage and visitors are limited to 10 minutes inside.

Archaeological Museum; Housed in a former mosque built in 1496, this museum displays a wealth of Thracian, Roman and medieval artefacts. Highlights include a mosaic floor from the Church of Sveta Sofia, a 4th-century BC Thracian gold burial mask, and a magnificent bronze head, thought to represent a Thracian king.

Turkish Mineral Baths; The history of Sofia is presented on two floors of the magnificent former Turkish Mineral Baths, just behind the mosque. Exhibitions are divided thematically over eight chambers, with the most interesting rooms dedicated to the Bulgarian royal families of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the findings of recent archaeological digs around town. There are plenty of signs in English. The Mineral Baths – also known as the Turkish Baths – was completed in 1913. Its elegant striped facade and ceramic decorations recall the designs of the medieval churches in Nesebâr on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast.


Must Try Food & Drink

Banitsa with Cheese; The Bulgarian pie banitsa made with cheese is the main version of this traditional pie. It's made by layering sheets of buttered phyllo pastry with a combination of eggs, yogurt, and cheese such as sirene and feta. There's an optional ingredient in the preparation of banitsa and it's baking soda, which makes the yogurt rise and makes the pie fluffier and richer in flavor. Traditionally, banitsa with cheese was prepared and served on Christmas and New Year's Eve, but nowadays it can also be bought throughout the year at grocery stores, street vendors, kiosks, and pretty much everywhere. Apart from this basic variety, there are also other types of savory or sweet banitsa pies filled with various vegetables and fruits.

Ovcharska Salad; Ovcharska salad is a simple variation of the famous Shopska salad. Essentially, it is Shopska salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and cheese) with the addition of mushrooms, eggs, and ham. The salad is typically tossed with vegetable oil, left to rest for a few minutes, and it is then ready for consumption. It is especially popular in summer due to its refreshing flavors and the usage of seasonal vegetables.

Mish-mash; Translated as a mixture of different things, this traditional Bulgarian dish is prepared with eggs and typical summer vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers. Other ingredients include sautéed onions, salt, pepper, and Bulgarian white cheese. There is also a winter variety of the dish that is usually made with frozen roasted peppers. Mish-mash is typically served alongside crispy slices of bread or toast, and is enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Although the origins of the dish are not familiar, it is an integral part of traditional Bulgarian cuisine.

Shkembe chorba; Shkembe chorba is a nourishing Bulgarian soup made with a combination of tripe, water, flour, milk, red wine vinegar, garlic, paprika, and hot chili peppers. When served, it is recommended to garnish it with chopped parsley, then consume it with beer or rakia on the side. This soup is well-known in Bulgaria for being a great hangover cure after a night of clubbing in chalga clubs or mechanas.

Tikvenik; Tikvenik is a traditional Bulgarian pastry consisting of thin sheets of dough that are filled with grated pumpkin, coarsely ground walnuts, sugar, and cinnamon. This pumpkin dessert is a sweet version of banitsa, a phyllo pastry pie that comes in numerous varieties. When baked, tikvenik is sliced and usually dusted with powdered sugar. Tikvenik is often associated with winter season, and it is commonly served on Christmas Eve, but it can be enjoyed throughout the year, either as a delicious breakfast or a hearty dessert. It is recommended to pair tikvenik with a glass of yogurt on the side.

Banitsa; Banitsa is a traditional Bulgarian dish made by layering sheets of buttered phyllo pastry with a mixture of eggs, yogurt, and white cheeses like sirene and feta for the simple and classic version of banitsa. Besides the classic cheese filling, this pie can be made with a myriad of different fillings, either savory or sweet. Pies with a vegetable filling, such as zelnik, are especially popular. Zelnik can be made with a filling of leafy greens like spinach, nettles, marigold, parsley, and cabbage, praznik is made with leeks, while luchnik is a type of banitsa filled with onions. When it comes to sweet versions of banitsa, there is tikvenik, made with pumpkins, an apple-filled variety, shtrudel, or mlecna banitsa - made by soaking pastry sheets with a mixture of milk, eggs, sugar, and vanilla. Bulgarians sometimes fill banitsa with lucky charms, coins, or pieces of paper that have wishes written on them, a practice that is especially popular during the festive winter season. The pie is typically served as a breakfast dish with yogurt or boza on the side.


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