Йордан (Jordan), a middle-aged man working in a 24/7 small market down our Airbnb, told us how Serdica came to be Sofia thanks to a legendary Christian widow called Sofia, who had three beautiful daughters whose names were those of the three Christian virtues: Faith, Hope and Love. At the end of the Turkish dominion, the country became part of the Christian Orthodox Church and took inspiration from the legend of Sofia to name the city.
One of the first things we visited in Sofia was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which dates back to 1882 and was built in a neo-Byzantine style. From the outside the many green domes are imposing but the gaze is quickly stolen by the two bigger golden domes with crosses on their top – like macarons. Once inside, a cascade of warm lights from the huge chandeliers, gold, and a sweet perfume of the many candle lit by the believers wrapped me in an aura of opulence which gave a welcoming feeling.
Because the cathedral is in the heart of Sofia, any other building worth of visiting is just a few steps away. Examples of them are the National Gallery right behind the cathedral, or the St. George Rotunda, close to the Palace of Justice.
A few kilometres away from Sofia towers the Eastern Orthodox Rila Monastery, built on Rila mountain. It was founded in 927 by St John of Rila, an hermit whose tomb became a holy site and was transformed into a monastic complex. The beauty and historical and artistic values of this monastery granted it an inscription with UNESCO in 1983. Having visited it during December, all was white and frozen, even the little waterfall anticipating the glacial realm that was awaiting us. Interestingly, the stream around the walls of the Monastery, was not frozen, and graced our ears with a gentle melody of fresh cold water flowing over soft stones and pebbles towards the forest. A few meters from one of the exits, there is a tavern, where tourists usually go to grab a quick bite before going back to Sofia. However, the staff there were extremely slow, but somehow it fits within the drowsy wintery postcard.
The day of endless churches and imposing buildings did not tire us out, so we decided to take a last stroll in the wide city centre roads of Sofia. We bumped into the underground Roman ruins of the old Serdica, which were especially suggestive at night, with the artificial lights of the city valorising their centuries old Decumanus Maximus and Cardo Maximus.
Because faking luxury was what we were looking for, the Sense Hotel Rooftop Bar did the trick. At the ninth floor, it has an amazing view on the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: the only building fully illuminated around that area. As I was gazing through the wide windows to catch a last glimpse of Sofia before the New Year’s Eve celebrations, I was amazed by how such a simple expedient as covering the roof with fairy lights, created the beautiful illusion of a thousands of fireflies floating above our heads just outside of the glass walls. Of course, the cocktails were just as good.
Exe was the club we chose to celebrate the last hours of 2018 and to welcome the young ones of 2019. The club welcomed us with red velvety stairs leading to the entrance in the basement of the building. Behind the register was a young man who looked like a putto wearing a jacket made of golden mosaics – a putto ready to party. Hard. The inside of the club has a retro vibe. In the back of it blue velvet couches hidden behind beaded curtains were waiting for lucky people; a table with a spinning glass bottle attached to it was a spin-the-bottle game ready to be used; and an aquarium was stored inside of an old television illuminated by violet led lights. The bartenders were of the nicest kind, not only did they give confetti to every costumer to pop them at the stroke of midnight, but the cute blonde lady also gave us little sweet and juicy strawberries, while placing her index in front of her mouth and winking at us. The first thing I learned in 2019, is that to make a tequila shot taste even better, you should use a slice of orange, not lime!
Sofia is no Vienna, Paris or Milan. It has a feeling of greyness and sadness which overwhelms the people walking around you. But as we were leaving, my friend Luca wrote on the fresh and soft snow of our balcony “We <3 Sofia”, and in that moment I realised how true that statement really was.
Words and Photographs by Vittoria Zerbini