Sofia without a clue

Trip Start Apr 16, 2012
Trip End May 18, 2012

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Flag of Bulgaria  ,
Thursday, May 10, 2012

Often, as a way of getting the feel of a place, I like to strike off on a walk through a new city with the idea of getting lost as quickly as possible, something which comes more easily to me than it does to others. And so it is that I leave the hotel, marching past St. Nedelya, an upright piano covered in vines with a green-tinted photo of a middle-aged couple on the top, and one of the many sleeping and apparently feral dogs I will encounter, and make my way down what seems to be the busiest shopping street, Sofia's 5th Ave., with no compass or plan.

The street is shaded by chestnut trees in bloom and lined with smart cafes, many already crowded with the coffee-sipping cognoscenti , in front of the usual shop windows filled with Dolce & Gabanna this and Juicy Couture that. Struck by a practical thought, I enter a small convenience shop on a side street and ask the guy behind the counter if he can recommend a good rakija.

-For a gift?
-Yes. (Lying is another of my gifts.)
-This Burgas 63 is very popular Bulgarian type. From grape. 13.50 lev. Or maybe you would like this very much older one. It is also from grape. 27 lev.
-I don't like the recipient of my gift that much. I will take the first bottle. And your English is very good.
- I lived in New York for 5 years. I have an apartment there. I have a master's degree in economics but there are no jobs here in Bulgaria. Would you like this gift-wrapped?
-I have a ribbon in my room.

On the sidewalk outside, I pass a row of hobbit kiosks at ankle level. A woman pokes her head out of one; apparently a part of a basement apartment. You would need to kneel to pay for anything.

Sofia strikes me as a very comfortable sort of place, as befits a town just one excess vowel away from a piece of lounge furniture. There seems to be a park at the end of every street where the benches are always full and sidewalk cafes never empty. It's already hot in the sun and the shady side of the streets are the busiest.

The first park I come to is dominated by an unfortunate piece of much-graffitied sculpture consisting of what looks like a metal scaffolding with brutal, scabby concrete humanoids clinging to it like aliens abandoning ship. Very nice if you like that sort of thing. I later learn that it's a tribute to Bulgaria's liberation by the Russian army.

A snow-capped peak, Vitosha, is the backdrop to an enormous civic structure that might be a theater or a sports pavilion. It has fountains in front of it and what might have been either a recessed fountain or a swimming pool, but is now the site of much digging and construction and fenced off. Mariela tells me later that this is the National Palace of Culture, a relic from Bulgaria's communist past.

Back on the street, I pass Sofia's Court of Justice, a columned edifice with a pair of prowling lions. It looks like the New York Public Library with hungrier cats.

Further on, I come to a pedestrian-only street lined with more down market shops. Lots of strange English phrases on the clothing and a surfeit of underwear stores. No risk of a lingerie shortage in Sofia. Must be a great source of comfort in this dicey economy.

Bulgaria is a card carrying member of NATO as of 2003 and the EU as of 2007, with one of the lowest average incomes of any European country. The formerly thick-ankled Stalinist state -- whose security service is thought to have been behind the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II and once snuffed a Bulgarian dissident in London with a poison-tipped umbrella -- was happy to send troops to help out in Iraq and Afghanistan while corrupt officials and organized crime siphoned cash out of its treasury at a rate that makes Bernie Madoff look like a purse snatcher.

The Ladies Market is arranged in neat rows of individual stalls selling produce of all kinds and seedlings for gardens. I try to take a picture at one stall to capture the Cyrillic names for common vegetables, but the owner, an older man with a wooly beard, waves me off - Neh, neh, neh, neh! - thus nipping my industrial espionage scheme in the bud. Outside the food stands are rows of small stalls selling everything from bras to plumbing supplies (though never both in the same stall). One shop offers wines directly from barrels and customers fill plastic bottles from the spigots. At a mobile bike repair shop operated out of a small car, a man is replacing a tire on an old woman's wheelchair. Stray dogs sleep in the sun on the sidewalks.

Navigating back to the main street near the hotel, I pass the former state department store, now a mall of upmarket shops, and the gleaming giant St. Sofia , who replaced a statue of Lenin In 2000. She's tall and buxom and in spite of the owl on her shoulder and the wreath in her hand, doesn't look very saintly at all. More like the Kievan Rodina Mat's slutty younger sister.

I sip a Bulgarian lager and enjoy a bowl of chilled yogurt soup with diced cucumber and radish at an outdoor table in a park off the National Opera House square. The park holds an eclectic array of modern sculptures as seems common in this part of the world.

The afternoon slips by as I follow streets at random, attracted by yet another park or interesting architecture and when I approach the hotel again from the rear, I find the brick dome of the oldest structure in Sofia, the 4th-c. Church of St. George tucked away in its concrete backyard. Built by the Romans when the city was known as Serdica, it was destroyed by bombs in WWII, but carefully restored and still holds Orthodox services today.

The parking area and lobby of the hotel is swarming with uniformed police and security personnel and the entire first floor is closed off for the Israeli reception. But the bar is open and now that I know where to find the best Negroni in town, I avail myself of one and ask Mariela where I should go to eat. She recommends a Japanese place called Sasa and the restaurant at the Kempinski Hotel Zografski , which are both located at the top of high rises and have good views of the city and Vitosha, its mountain backdrop. She marks them on a hotel map and says I should take a cab. I think the walk would be more fun and I set off, discovering half way that it the Kempinski is a good 3km up a fairly steep hill and I arrive hot and hungry in its dark, drab lobby around 7.30. The restaurant is on the 19th floor and after a ride on a full elevator which stops on at least half of them, I emerge in a very lovely room with floor to ceiling windows on all sides and while my table isn't next to one of them I still have a grand view of the mountain and Sofia's suburbs. The waiter pours a grape rakija from a bottle encased in ice that is so delicious that I make him do it again. And from there, as the sun slips down behind the hillside, I dig in to the most delicious meal of the trip so far, beginning with a small plate of foie gras with peaches, followed by tender slices of veal in a lemon sauce with brussel sprouts and topped off with a panna cotta with blueberries and another glass of a darker, sweeter, rakija my waiter served on the house.

Waddling away from the table and listing to the lobby, I prudently take a cab back down the hill to the Balkan and bed.
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