Travel: City of boulevards and errant trolley-buses

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)

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
Arts and Entertainment
tv

Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife
film

Matt Smith is set to join cast of Jane Austen classic - with a twist

News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmWhat makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes hobby look 'dysfunctional'
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week