We returned to Sofia Bulgaria for one day before leaving the country to head to France for the next few weeks. On our first day in Bulgaria, a week earlier, during the walking tour given by our friend Teddy, we had picked out a few things that we wanted to explore in greater depth. So this day we went back to see more of St. Sofia’s Church (and its incredible ancient crypt) and the National Archaeology Museum.
We started it all off by taking a taxi to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. When we arrived there, I discovered we were early for St. Sofia (just across the plaza from the cathedral), which wasn’t set to open for another half hour. So I took advantage of the beautiful weather (with a lovely blue sky) to take some pictures of the cathedral.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral reminds me a lot of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, with all its domes piled seemingly one on top of the other. So I was happy to have the chance to snap some photos. I also took the opportunity to take another look at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, right across the street and in fact right up against the side of St. Sofia Church.
There was a woman selling handmade linens nearby as well, and Therese spent a couple minutes looking through her offerings and chatting with the woman, before selecting a lovely piece (I believe it was a tablecloth).
Finally, the church was open, and so we walked over to see it.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral may look like the Hagia Sophia, but this building is actually as old as that Istanbul monument, dating from the middle of the 6th century. At one time, its interior was decorated with murals, but unfortunately, those murals were removed when the Ottoman Empire overran Bulgaria in the 16th century (at which time the church was converted to a mosque). As a result, the interior is rather plain; nevertheless, I think you will agree that the ancient stonework, while austere, is breathtaking.
Considering the building’s antiquity, it is remarkable how much of it has survived. There are spots where white plaster has been used to fill in areas where the stonework has been lost, and there are metal posts holding the sides of the buildings together (or keeping them from collapsing inward?); nevertheless, there is much of the original building to admire.
More wonders have been preserved below the street level, in the church’s crypt. There are the treasures discovered during archaeological excavations, of the several buildings that were erected on the site before the present church, sacred spaces dating back to the second century. Numerous early Christian burial chambers (including one that was ornately frescoed) and gorgeous mosaics floors are on display, making a trip downstairs a must.
Our next stop was not far away, at the National Archaeology Museum. From the outside, this building is rather unassuming, a squarish former mosque.
But the wealth of treasures filling the wide open interior made this a very worthwhile visit for us – we spent a couple of hours there, and could’ve easily stayed longer, there was so much to see!
In addition to the wealth of material on the main floor, there are also several rooms rimming the structure on the second floor, filled with display cases covering specific aspects of the museum collection, like treasures made out of gold. One of the most impressive pieces I saw there was a Peytral, or piece of armor that is strapped to the chest of a horse to protect it when riding into a battle (although this Peytral is so beautiful that it can only have been ceremonial).
After a few hours of serious intense culture, we were ready for some lunch. Teddy had taken us through Vitosha Boulevard on our first day in Sofia, which is the city’s most celebrated pedestrian-only street. Later in the week, when we were in Veliko Turnovo, we had eaten at Shtastliveca, a fantastic restaurant. So when Teddy told us there was another Shtastliveca on Vitosha Boulevard, we immediately decided to make that our lunch destination for that last day in Sofia.
Now I must apologize that I don’t remember what the dish was that I ate for lunch that day. I do remember that it came with a garnish of scallions and red peppers, and that it was a stew (of pork I think). It was definitely quite delicious and completely dairy free (made that way special for me, thanks to our waiter’s – and the chef’s – good work). Though we sat at the outside terrace, this restaurant showed many of the same signs as its sister in Veliko Turnovo – great food, great sense of style (just look at the tablecloth below). A fabulous final meal in Bulgaria!
And thankfully, while it was still hot that day, it wasn’t quite as blisteringly scorching as it had been for most of the week – now that we were leaving, Bulgaria’s weather was finally starting to settle down. While we looked forward to our time in France, we had enjoyed our time in Bulgaria, maybe even more than we thought we would – and so we were a bit sad to leave.