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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager

    £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager required for ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator

    £25000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator A...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones