Travel: City of boulevards and errant trolley-buses

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The Independent Travel
Most of us have a fair idea of what Eastern European capitals are like: they are ringed by uniform graceless and faceless apartments and their centres are architectural battlegrounds where office blocks, housing bureaucrats insulated by grubby net curtains, have smothered any semblance of history and style.

Sofia must be worst of all, I thought. Bulgaria was the last of the Soviet satellites to embrace democracy, and its former leader, Todor Zhivkov, even toyed with the idea of turning his state into the 16th republic of the USSR. The only Bulgarian joke anyone knew was the factory worker's one-liner: 'We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.'

Cut to Paris - or rather a brighter, hillier and more spacious version of it. Sofia is the great, uncelebrated Eastern European capital. It specialises in boulevards, seemingly dozens of them, each broader than the last and graced with slender plane trees. (They are also, it must be said, fouled by the exhausts of unreconstructed Ladas and Trabants).

During the years of Communism these arteries must have been dour in the extreme, judging from the faded smears announcing Magazin (shop) above concrete hulks. Now, however, Vitosha Boulevard - the Champs Elysees, without the arrogance - is making a good show of being somewhere you would want to sip a glass of the local wine.

Most of the city's landmarks are strewn around the Vitosha Boulevard axis. The mixture of humdrum and historic has a certain charm, resembling a film studio lot where sets for a tale of urban angst have been jumbled with a Middle European fairy-story.

The National Museum is a good place to get a political fix on the city. Wander around the back of this Italianate palace to the patch of waste ground where the statues of those who have fallen from favour are stacked.

The building that does the most damage to Sofia's skyline is the one for which the statues were commissioned: the former Communist Party HQ, a spectacularly Stalinist structure which casts a long and still-threatening autumnal shadow. But it is now a cinema, and was showing Eddie Murphy's Coming to America when I was there.

By no means everyone is trying to leave Bulgaria. Indeed, plenty of human traffic is coming in. Spivs and speculators from all over Eastern Europe converge on Sofia. The main marketplace is between the station and the city centre. You thread through parked cars, with numberplates from half a dozen Balkan nations, being offered anything from Moldovan dope to Serbian dinars.

Democracy does not just mean the freedom to elect the leaders of your choice - it also appears to mean that you can drive your trolley-bus as fast as you like. The public transport system is cheap and alarmingly hasty, with the whirr of an electric motor the only sign that another trolley-bus is about to swoop down the boulevard in a shower of sparks, scattering small dogs and tourists.

Trolley-buses cannot scale the massif that slopes sharply up from the city. Mount Vitosha is not a single peak, but a long, tall and beautiful ridge underlining Sofia's shabby suburbs. Find the bus which wheezes upwards, and you arrive at the cable-car station. Sofia is clear winner in the nearest- European-capital-to-a-ski-slope competition (with the possible exception of Vaduz in Liechtenstein). You can buy suspect Romanian skis from the spivs at noon and be on the piste by one.

In autumn, though, the dominant colour is gold rather than white. A lattice of paths draws you along the slope through trees which could not have been spray- painted more effectively. Eventually you descend to the stylish villas of Boyana, where the tiny 11th- century church conceals a painting of the Last Supper depicting the traditional Bulgarian diet of bread, garlic and radishes.

Apres-hike, you can hope for something a little more appetising. The city market is bustling with people and bursting with colour, and the cuisine in the restaurants is truly nouvelle compared with the 'if there's a 'd' in the day it must be cabbage' years of state socialism: overweight olives, fresh bread, spicy meat and gentle salad. The Communists have long gone west; I shall go east again soon.

With the Independent/Lufthansa offer two people can travel from London, Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow to Sofia for pounds 299. The Bulgarian National Tourist Office is at 18 Princes Street, London W1.

(Photograph omitted)