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SOFIA, SO GOOD Sofia is the cool new destination for adventurous weekenders, offering a warm welcome – and the most affordable cocktails in Europe WORDS AND PICTURES CHRISTOPHER NYE


weeping into central Sofia in a bright yellow taxi, you soon realise you can chuck your preconceptions out of the cab window. Depressing sovietstyle architecture? Nowhere to be seen. Sofia was designed and built during the country’s glory days under the tsars in the late 19th century, with wide, leafy boulevards constructed from bright yellow cobbles. There are imperious government buildings with grand pillars, churches with minarets in gold and green, and a statue of St Sofia welcoming you in – and showing a lot more cleavage than the statue of Lenin that used to grace the spot. Once described as a kind of ‘shabby Vienna’, Sofia is currently enjoying a renaissance as massive inward investment places it once again

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Trafik – Market Bus Station Tsentralna Avtogara Bus Station Levski Stadium Zhenski Pazar Market Baths National Art Gallery Gallery of Foreign Art Sofia University City Garden

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Palace of Justice International Bus Terminal Pirogov Hospital Army Museum Yuzhen Park 1300 Years Monument National Palace of Culture Museum of Earth & Man Vasil Levski Staium CSKA Stadium, and Velodrome

among the ranks of the world’s great cities. It has a population of over a million and is the industrial hub of Bulgaria. But don’t let that put you off – these days Bulgaria is a work-hard, play-hard culture. Sofia is also the highest capital city in Europe, and one of the oldest, founded in 800BC, long before Rome. The people are friendly and attractive, and a surprising number of Sofians speak English – which is helpful as most street signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet. A mini-break in the city makes the perfect treat. The welcome is exceptionally warm and a new influx of international businesspeople and diplomats is encouraging a more sophisticated attitude to tourism – in other words, great new restaurants, boutiques and nightspots are opening by the day. Get there before the crowd.






HRS Sofia Airport arrivals hall is gloriously chaotic on a Friday evening, as overexcited Bulgarian mothers wait to welcome home sons and daughters for the weekend. Pushing your way through the crowd, it’s a relief to find a queue of taxis for the £4, 20-minute trip into the city, as St Sofia welcomes you in.

Arrival at the Apartment House Hotel in Borovo, a district just outside the centre, that is to Sofia what Notting Hill is to London. Condominium-style apartments are replacing old-style hotel rooms, and these ones are brandspanking new. A private hotel suite used to be a mark of luxury, yet here they are the norm! The staff in the hotel are all smiles, too, though in their gold outfits they’re reminiscent of Eurovision Song Contest performers circa 1982. Bulgaria may be coming blinking into the light of the westernised service ethic, but its people are naturally hospitable.

ESSENTIALS WHERE WE VISITED Apartment House Hotel Bulgaria, 16 Nevestina skala Str, 00 359 2818 4141; Motto: Aksakov 18, Divaka: 6 Septembre, 41a, Bulgaria Grand Bistro: Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard The Brasserie: Rayko Daskalov Square National Archaeological Museum: The Largo Zhenski pazar: junction of Pirotska and Stambolov  ‚ A PLACE IN THE SUN BUYER’S GUIDE TO BULGARIA


HRS The perfect start to a night in Sofia is a stroll around the old town. The centre of Sofia is perfectly walkable. It’s compact, with little traffic – though beware the trams – and with cafÊs and bars every few yards. One of the nicest is Motto, close to the imposing Tsar Liberator monument. The cocktails are a quarter of the price at home (why does that make them taste so much better?), and it feels pleasingly decadent getting table service in a crowded bar. For traditional Bulgarian food, served in an unsophisticated but fun atmosphere, nearby Divaka is a good choice. On the way, a the lady seeing me getting soaked in the rain, gives me her umbrella but refuses to take any payment. Would that happen in New York or London?

For many visiting Brits, the European breakfast of cold meats and cheese, with tomatoes, cucumber and olives seems a bit, well, healthy. Dr Atkins would be impressed. But the big difference between this and a Full English is the wonderfully light and healthy feeling as you head off for a day of sightseeing‌

number of stalls around the church for just a few lev. Don’t forget to catch the Changing of the Guard – on the hour – at the Presidency, just over the road. The marching may look more Gilbert and Sullivan than Who Dares Wins, but it’s a sight to behold.

HRS ...Or, indeed, sitting in another cafÊ as you wait for one of the sights to open to the public. Most of Sofia’s tourist hotspots are churches, so you may have to wait until services are over, but it’s worth it when the church is as impressive as the Aleksander Nevski Memorial Church, in the centre of Sofia’s main square. Begun in 1882 as a memorial to the 200,000 soldiers who died liberating the city from Ottoman rule in 1878, it is massive, with beautiful floorto-ceiling frescoes. Bulgaria is known around the world for its religious icons, and you can buy your own hand-painted icon at a

HRS Sofia is not yet famous for it’s shopping but, like so much in this city, that’s changing. There are smart shops down Vitosha Boulevard and the streets running off it, and the splendidly named Tzum shopping mall, close to the former communist headquarters on the square named simply as Largo. You may not find an Emporio Armani, yet, but don’t miss Zhenski pazar, the street market with a real feeling of the old-style Balkans, where

3UNDAY you can stock up on evocative commie-kitsch.

of a people who were lounging in palaces while in Britain we were still squatting in mud huts. Most of Sofia’s cultural highlights are around the Largo, including the National Art Gallery and one of the few memories of those 500 years of Ottoman rule, the Banya Bashe Mosque.

Sofia is coming up in the world. For many, this is the perfect time to visit (and buy property) while prices are low and the welcome is genuine. And with the accession of Bulgaria to the EU – even before it, in fact – there is a lot of foreign investment flowing in. That means more and more foreign executives, all of whom need to rent apartments. Already you can see the effects, with Porsche dealerships, futuristic office complexes with multinational names on them and English-language magazines. Sofia is therefore a brilliant buy-to-let option, and a number of British companies are offering serviced apartments. You need to move fast, though, as they tend to sell out quickly, with prices from ₏800 – ₏1,300 per square metre.

HRS HRS A late lunch of ‘Salty Cake’ in the swish Bulgaria Grand Bistro (with a great view of the Russian Church). It’s a savoury in a Scooby Snack style, a tower of pancake layers filled with ham and egg, cheese and olives. Then there’s time for an hour or two of culture. Bulgaria is relatively new to tourism, so don’t expect museums and art galleries to have the brightlycoloured, interactive sophistication of London’s. The Archaeological Museum is a bit special, though – it’s in an ivy-clad former mosque that dates from 1494 at the other end of the Largo from Tzum. It has Thracian and Roman gold artefacts attractively displayed, and tells the tale

HRS Saturday night in Sofia generally means a trawl around the bars, sampling rakia and Bulgarian wine; the dress code appears to be ‘dress to impress’. Fine dining is also coming to the city, with restaurants such as The Brasserie offering old Bulgarian favourites but in a more sophisticated style. It’s time to put your guidebook away and go with the flow. There’s a lively club scene if you have the energy left.

Time to relax and write postcards. There may have been little in the shops under communism but they certainly knew how to do a great park, complete with uplifting statuary of hammer and sickle-wielding Stakhanovites. Try Yuzhen Park, in the shadow of the Ministry of Culture. For a walk on the wilder side, Mount Vitosha, “the lungs of Sofia�, is still home to European brown bears – which (so they assure us) are not dangerous. It’s seven kilometres out of the city, but easily reached by bus. Once there, you can take a cable car to the top then ski down (in winter) or hike down (in summer). Then it’s back to the airport for a glorious flight back over half the capitals of Europe. Not forgetting to grab some duty-free wine!

Apartment House Dragalevtzy, Sofia One-bed apartments from ₏30,750 (£20,720) That’s Mount Vitosha behind the building – just one of the attractions of these sumptuous apartments in one of the most prestigious parts of Sofia. They come with 24-hour security and underground parking.; 0870 428 3567.

Vitosha Park, Sofia One-bed apartments from â‚Ź76,435 (ÂŁ51,500)

A private residential complex at the foot of Mount Vitosha close to Sofia’s business district. Ultramodern apartments with luxury kitchens and bathrooms, wood floors and sports facilities on the complex.; 0870 428 3567. A PLACE IN THE SUN BUYER’S GUIDE TO BULGARIA  ƒ




48 hours in the Bulgarian capital

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