There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 15 October 2010

Sofia and the Master of Boyana

Sofia, Goddess of Wisdom

When it comes to city breaks, normal people go to Paris or Rome or Barcelona. Wonderful as these places are, we decided that for spring 2007 Sofia would be the perfect destination. Are we a little odd? Possibly, but although only a blinkered Bulgarian nationalist would claim that Sofia was one of Europe’s great cities, it has more than enough to occupy a long weekend.

I enjoy visiting places where no one speaks English and it is a bonus if the alphabet is unfamiliar. Goodwill and the local words for ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are ample for survival.

 I am not proud of my ignorance, but we have, so far, practised illiteracy in Arabic, Chinese, Armenian, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada. We made an effort with Cyrillic, but reading remained slow and painful. Sounding out words letter by letter was an experience I had not enjoyed since Mrs Knight’s class in 1957. When the words made sense (like spelling out кафе еспресо and arriving at café espresso) the sense of achievement was profound. Being barely literate was an improvement on our situation in some countries, but the Bulgarians throw in a unique confusion by nodding for ‘no’ and shaking their heads for ‘yes’. Aware that they are out of step, some Bulgarians helpfully revert to European standard when dealing with foreigners. At that point you are truly lost.

Getting fed in Sofia hardly requires a linguistic genius. The Bulgarians are grazers and street food is available in quantity, if not always quality. The best, a full range of the baklava-like filo pastry, nut and honey desserts normally associated with Greece or Turkey, we found in the Halite market near our hotel. The worst, Doner Kebabs (another reminder that the Eastern Mediterranean is not far away) were everywhere - and the less said about the pizzas the better.

The city has remarkably few restaurants for its size. It is possible that we ate in some of the best, though prices were modest by Western standards. Bulgaria has no great culinary tradition, but we were impressed by cooking that was not complex, but respected the high quality and freshness of the ingredients. Once or twice we encountered bilingual menus, which caused the usual amusement. Lynne ordered a dish of ‘lambkin’ mainly because of the translation, and was rewarded with a pile of small and deliciously tender lamb chops. Bulgarian wines, once apparently set to dominate the British market and now almost disappeared, combined high quality with minimal cost. As aniseed lovers we also enjoyed mastika, which looks like ouzo but tastes more like pastis. Salad is the universal first course, and with that it is customary to drink rakiya, a colourless brandy. All restaurants offer a range, based on grape variety, and served in a tulip glass on a tall thin stem. It seemed an unusual way to start a meal, but the Bulgarians having been doing this for generations, and a little experimentation suggested they know a thing or two.

Boulevard Vitosha, Sofia
Sofia seemed in good repair, with the assortment of boulevards, parks and fountains that are mandatory for a capital city. Mount Vitosha, still snow covered in late April, could be seen from almost everywhere, bringing a sense of openness to the city. Traffic was orderly, though the cars tended towards the venerable. Bulgarian registration plates were often stuck over German or Austrian plates, suggesting the cars had been imported second hand. I hesitate to comment on fashion - with good reason - but even I noticed that much clothing looked cheap and poorly made, some young women adopting a style we also saw in Russia which I can only describe as 'streetwalker chic'.

First settled by the Thracian Serdi tribe, the city became Serdica under the Romans, Triaditsa when part of the Byzantine Empire and then Sredets under the Slavs who renamed it Sofia in the fourteenth century.

The Rotunda of St George, Sofia
The Roman Rotunda of St George is the oldest church in Sofia and contains some interesting and ancient icons. Although a pleasing little building, it has suffered from over-enthusiastic restoration.

The Aleksandar Nevski Church, Sofia
The Aleksandar Nevski Church, completed in 1924, is neither old nor small. Squatting like an enormous toad, it dominates its eponymous square and the surrounding gardens. It is impressive, according to some the finest building in the Balkans, though I found it difficult to like. Inside it is dark and sombre. The large pewless space - Orthodox congregations stand or kneel - is sufficient for 5000 worshippers, though the only activity we witnessed was an old man vigorously pushing a broom.

The Banya Bashi Mosque, Sofia
Other religions have equally monumental accommodation. After five hundred years of Ottoman rule, it unsurprising that the Banya Bashi (Big Bath) Mosque is large and prominent. It is still used by today’s much smaller Muslim community. It stands in front of the thermal baths, the Banya Bashi themselves, which were closed for renovation. The warm, brackish water is available from taps in the square. Locals cart it away in buckets, but I contented myself with washing my hands.

Less than 100m away, the bulky synagogue is now disused. Bulgaria backed the wrong side in 1939, but deliberate procrastination in the rounding up of Jews, meant that most of Bulgaria’s Jewish population survived, although emigration to Israel means the community is now virtually extinct.

Compared to its religious monuments, Sofia’s secular buildings are low key. The presidential palace is modest, more a presidential apartment. Two guards, in the sort of uniform favoured for such tasks, are changed periodically in a goose-stepping display that sometimes has to weave between passers-by. Parliament sits in an unassuming building behind an equestrian statue of Prince Aleksandar Battenberg. A nephew of Tsar Alexander II of Russia he became the first modern ruler of an independent Bulgaria in 1879, after his uncle helped drive out the Ottomans. Deposed in 1886, he was exiled in Austria, returning to Bulgaria only to be buried. Just round the corner from parliament, the Battenberg Mausoleum is disappointing. I had hoped it would be covered in marzipan.

Monument to the Soviet Army, Sofia
Now a member of the EU and NATO, Bulgaria seems in denial about its more recent history. The Communist Party headquarters may once have been described as forbidding, but now resembles any other government office block. The monument to the Soviet liberators stands in a park.  With the impressive backdrop of Mt Vitosha, a soviet soldier on a pillar heroically protects a peasant, a woman and a child. Below, skateboarders weave across the flagstones, and part of the park has been boarded off, leaving ample scope for charmless graffiti. It has a sad, neglected air.

The embalmed remains of five* communist leaders have been put on show for their adoring public. Stalin’s body was removed decades ago, but we have seen Lenin and Chairman Mao and hope to visit Ho Chi Minh one day ['one day' turned out to be March the 31st 2012. See here]. Georgi Dimitrov, who ran Bulgaria from 1946 until his death in 1949 was the fifth. Sadly, we were too late to see him. His body was moved to the city cemetery in 1990 and his mausoleum demolished ten years later. We stood on the now vacant site and wondered at the folly of humankind.

If all these sights seem a touch mundane, Sofia does have one little known trump card. The tiny church of Boyana is not only a World Heritage Site, it is an unexpected gem that left me slack jawed with amazement.

Boyana is, theoretically, a suburb of Sofia, but we had left the city for the wooded slopes of Mount Vitosha before the taxi dropped us outside the entrance to a small churchyard. Just a little concerned as to how we might get back, we bought tickets and collected an elderly guide who seemed delighted by an opportunity to practice his English.

Boyana Church
The eastern part of the church is a tiny tenth century chapel. The larger central part was added in the same style three hundred years later.  In the nineteenth century, an even larger lobby was built on the west end. I cannot imagine who thought that was a good idea. From outside it looks like a charming medieval church ruined by nineteenth century meddling, but the real glory of Boyana lies within.

We entered the darkened lobby and waited for our eyes to adjust. Then the main church was unlocked and we stepped into an interior completely covered in frescoes. Some of the work in the older chapel is crude and medieval, but it is the new extension, painted in 1279, that takes away the breath.  The chapel is circular and we stood in the centre, turning slowly to absorb the wealth of detail. The work of a man known, until recently, only as the ‘Master of Boyana’, it represents a break with the flat-faced icons of Byzantine orthodoxy and forms a stepping-stone between medieval art and the Italian renaissance. Recent renovation has revealed that the painter’s name was probably Vasiliy, but I think he should still be known as the Master of Boyana, because that is what he was.

Biblical characters are depicted in medieval dress, the last supper is Bulgarian peasant fair of radishes, garlic and bread. The figures are so lifelike you expect them to move, and each has a real face, probably recognisable to the people of the time, that would pass unremarked in the streets of Sofia today. The king and queen are shown with haloes, and Boyana’s patrons, the Sebastocrator Kaloyan and his wife Desislava hold the church in their hands. ‘Sebastocrator’ is a Byzantine designation meaning ‘venerable ruler’. Kaloyan is the only Bulgarian known to have used the title, which I find strange. If I had been a medieval Bulgarian nobleman, I would have fought anybody and everybody to be able to style myself ‘sebastocrator’.

The lighting is dim and the temperature and humidity controlled for conservation purposes. We were allowed ten minutes, which was not enough. Photography is not permitted, but clicking on this link gives an idea of the interior. The camera rotates, just as we did, to reveal painting after highly coloured painting.

We had been the only visitors, but as we left, a taxi drew up bringing two more and solving our problem of how to return to the city. Like so many places, Boyana could be ruined by too many visitors, but at present it receives far fewer than it deserves.

No, Sofia is not one of Europe’s great cities, but does it provides a fascinating glimpse into the Slavic, Balkan world not so far to our east. It was also the home of the Master of Boyana, and that is almost worth the trip on its own.

* Update - there were, I learn, six. Klement Gottwald, President of Czechoslovakia was on display in Prague from his death in 1953 until 1962. At that point the authorities discovered their embalming technique was not as good as they thought. The mouldy and rather smelly Mr Gottwald was then cremated.

Further Update. Make that 8. We saw Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2013

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