48 Hours In: Sofia
For anyone seeking a budget city break with some tempting skiing attached, Bulgaria's capital is a surprisingly elegant solution.
Saturday 13 November 2010
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Sofia, a yet-uncelebrated eastern capital of broad avenues and grand buildings, is both accessible and spectacularly good value when you get there. Bulgaria's capital is well worth 48 hours, and offers skiing close to the centre.
I paid £72 from Luton to Sofia on Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com) ; easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies from both Gatwick and Manchester. From Heathrow, British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) competes with Bulgaria Air (020-7637 2481; air.bg).
Bus services into the city are slow and irregular, while taxis are remarkably good value – if you book at the official kiosk, OK Supertrans, as you come out of arrivals. You are given a ticket with the licence number. Find the driver outside, and pay at the end of the trip – likely to be a maximum of 15 leva (sometimes written BGN15, worth £6.50).
The city centre is indicated by the dramatic Sofia Monument (1), a 24m-high woman of wisdom (the owl on her left arm) and strength (the victory wreath in her right hand). Vitosha Boulevard continues south from here, with Todor Aleksandrov leading to the west, Maria Luiza to the north and Nezavisimost Square extending to the east. The railway station (2) is 1km north-east of the centre.
Public transport mostly comprises trams and trolley buses. You can either buy tickets in advance (1 lev/45p each, 10 for 7.50 leva/£3.30) or pay the driver a small premium. If you can't wait, wave down one of the minibuses that race along the main boulevards (the usual fare is around 2 leva/90p) or hail a cab and insist the driver uses the meter.
Whatever your preferred hotel standard, Sofia is likely to be cheaper than any other capital in Europe (except, possibly, Belgrade). The central Hotel Maya (3) at Trapezitza 4 (00 359 2 980 2796) stands just across from the Sofia Monument. Family-run, it offers comfortable rooms for around 50 leva (£22), excluding breakfast. Don't miss the roof terrace.
Among the growing range of upmarket hotels, the most central and characterful is the five-star Sheraton Sofia Hotel Balkan (4) at 5 Sveta Nedelya Square (00 359 2 981 6541; luxurycollection.com/sofia). The opulence of the surroundings used to be enjoyed by party high-ups; today, you can stay for as little as €150 a night (double, internet rate, excluding breakfast, including free Wi-Fi).
Take a hike
Sofia is best explored on foot, because there is always a mix of humdrum and remarkable on the city's streets. Start at the 16th-century Sveto Petka Samardzhiska (5), a tiny church almost submerged in a clash of broad boulevards. It is worth seeking out: a fascinating little church on Roman foundations. The official opening hours, 7am-6pm, are not always respected. Sveta Nedelya Cathedral (6) just south, is more accessible. Head east along Saborna, but go left almost immediately to see if the Roman remains around the Sveto Georgi Rotunda Church (7) are open; if so, have a good nose around. Continue towards the City Garden. Bear left across the park and the broad Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard to find a small sculpture garden outside the National Art Gallery (8). Follow the boulevard east to Rakovski. Turn left, past a market selling communist-era souvenirs, and right to the vast Aleksander Nevski Cathedral (9) – built in gratitude from the Bulgarians to the Russians, who expelled the Ottomans. Named for a medieval Grand Prince, it was complete in 1913. Wander in to sample the vitality of a busy Orthodox church.
For lunch, the tasty pizzas at Victoria (10) are an olive stone's throw away.
The Sofia retail experience is more fun than you might imagine. The Central Market (11), which celebrates its centenary next year, has been elegantly converted into a mall with cafes and boutiques – a much more attractive prospect than the modern malls. The main shopping drag (and, incidentally, the best place to get a good conversion rate for currency) is Vitosha Boulevard.
To stock up with ski gear at low prices then try Stenata (12) at Bratia Miladenovi 5. Just north of here is the Ladies' Market (13), which straggles for several blocks along Stefan Stambolov.
Dining with the locals
From a dismal start, the cuisine – and dining experience – in Sofia is improving all the time. Cactus (14) (00 359 2 865 7420; cactus.bg, Bulgarian only) is where high standards and low prices converge. It is a spacious, modern setting where plausible Mexican dishes are served – along with some Bulgarian offerings and good salads (7.49 leva/£3.50 for a very precise 300 grams).
Sunday morning: a walk in the park
South-east Sofia has plenty of open space. Start at the monumental Soviet War Memorial (15), in an otherwise ordinary park, then cross the Eagles' Bridge (16) to reach the huge Borissova Gardens.
Out for brunch
Sunday brunch at the five-star Hilton Sofia (17) at 1 Bulgaria Boulevard (00 359 2 933 5000) runs noon-3.30pm, for a flat 49 leva (£22) – including unlimited beer or sparkling wine.
Go to church
Head south towards Mount Vitosha, by bus 63, minibus 21 or taxi (around 8 leva/£3.50) to the village-turned-suburb of Boyana. This is the location for arguably the greatest cultural treasure in the Balkans, a tiny, 13th-century chapel that is the location for some startling murals: Boyana Church (00 359 2 959 2963; boyanachurch.org). From 1259 to 1954, this was a parish church; it is now a Unesco-listed monument, and following restoration of the building's dazzling images, you are admitted to look around for a maximum of 15 minutes. The Last Supper – depicting the traditional Bulgarian diet of bread, garlic and radishes – stands out, as does the Crucifixion, but the deepest impression is made from the expressive faces from more than seven centuries ago. It opens 9am-5pm daily (half an hour later from April to October), admission 10 leva (£4.40) – or 12 leva (£5.30) with the National History Museum, where this itinerary ends.
Walk downhill towards the National History Museum (00 359 2 955 4280; historymuseum.org; open 9am-5.30pm daily except Monday). This was the Presidential Palace (check out the retro light fittings and loose floor tiles) until Communism collapsed. It now houses an odd combination of Soviet-era relics (the only museum in Europe with a helicopter gunship in the grounds), thrilling Thracian treasures and arcane political memorabilia.
Sofia is clear winner in the nearest-ski-slope-to-a-European-capital competition (with the exception of Vaduz in Liechtenstein). This is thanks to Vitosha, rising to almost 2,300m.
It is not a single peak, but a long, tall and beautiful ridge underlining Sofia's southern suburbs.
Not surprisingly, given the rich catchment area, Vitosha has been heavily developed for skiing, and ski areas are even accessible by public bus.
That makes for crowds, especially at the weekends, but there is also the option of illuminated night skiing on the mountain's Vitoshko Lale ski run.
You have to venture south of the capital for ski locations resembling Alpine resorts. The obvious destination is Bulgaria's original ski resort, Borovets. The village is located 1,300m high on the northern slopes of Mount Moussala – which, at 2,925m, is the highest peak in the Balkans.
The main lift is provided by a gondola that rises more than 1km in altitude. Besides 58km of downhill runs, there are 35km of cross-country trails. (Incidentally, in summer this region provides some spectacular and largely undiscovered hiking.)
For what the Bulgaria specialist, Balkan Holidays, reckons is "Eastern Europe's best skiing ... a true alternative to the Alps at a fraction of the price", head further south to Bansko. The International Ski Federation, the FIS, has awarded the resort downhill events on 27 and 28 next year.
The contestants can expect large crowds, with dedicated fans augmented by interested locals. Bansko is far more than a resort, it is a proper, long-established town of 10,000, complete with a historic heart and a railway station. Almost all the skiers, though, stay in the big, modern hotels and apartments that have sprung up since the collapse of communism two decades ago.
There can be quite a crowd for the morning gondola ride, but after that you can spend the day exploring a varied range of runs. Experts will quickly exhaust the possibilities, but intermediates will be happy for a good few days.
Bulgaria's final option involves a longer trek, beyond the second city, Plovdiv, to Pamporovo. If you are seeking a relaxed place to learn, this is as good as, and cheaper than, almost anywhere. It also claims to be Europe's sunniest mountain resort, though the French Pyrénées may challenge that assertion.
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