So, fed up with being at home, I travelled again, and went to Bulgaria, a country I didn't know much about, so I didn't have any expectations. And it was quite a pleasant surprise. It's a very nice country - as soon as we arrived in Sofia, I felt totally at home, somehow it reminded me of Lisbon as it was some 10 to 15 years ago, before we were "fashionable".
We stayed at a very nice hotel near Vitosha Boulevard, the main street of Sofia. After the long flight, it was a pleasure to have a first taste of Bulgarian cuisine, somewhat akin to the Greek one - shopska salad, grilled meat, stuffed peppers, good wine.
On the next day, we walked around the city and visited the main sites. Vitosha Boulevard is a lively street. lined with shops and café terraces full of people chatting, drinking and smoking. The Sveta Nedelya cathedral is a beautiful Orthodox church, in neo-Byzantine style, with a lavish interior of candles and icons, all gold and colours. It was Sunday, so there was a baptism - we actually watched a number of baptisms in the several churches we went in that day - with family and guests on their Sunday clothes, bearded priests singing the ritual, that includes the removal of the child's clothes, her bathing in the baptismal basin and then donning a new set of clothes.
A little further North, there was the ancient Serdika ruins - Serdika was Sofia's Roman name - and the small church of Sveta Petka, where a witch-like old woman barred us entry, claiming that there was a service going on, and that there were no visiting times.
So off we went to the more welcoming Banya Bashi Mosque, a beautiful building with a simple and elegant interior, totally empty. From there, we crossed the Central Market and reached the imposing building of the Sofia synagogue - the biggest Sephardic synagogue in central Europe - that was closed.
We passed the beautiful building of the Sofia City Museum, an ancient bath building, and walked along elegant streets lined with 19th century National Revivalist buildings towards the Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral - a huge 19th century neo-Byzantine church, that somehow reminded me of the Sacré Coeur in Paris. There is a nice street market outside, with Communist memorabilia and icons side by side; the interior is extravagantly lavish, and the Icon Museum in the crypt is very interesting and worth a visit.
After a stop for a coffee in a garden overlooking the National Theatre, we walked to the Stalinist centre - with the Presidential palace and its good-looking young guards looking bored while being photographed by tourists (guess they choose the best looking boys for this role, and maybe they later pursue a career in modelling, after all the experience of being photographed looking bored) and the massive Communist Party building.
In the courtyard of the Presidential Palace - whose building is oddly shared with a Sheraton hotel - there stands the beautiful medieval church of Saint George Rotunda, where a mass was taking place, officiated by a priest that looked straight out of a Dostoiewsky novel.
Then we visited the wonderful Archeological Museum, housed in an ancient mosque, and filled with beautiful artifacts from Thracian, Roman and Medieval times. Thracian gold, lots of Greek and Roman depictions of the Thracian rider, the mythical local hero still depicted in coins, and medieval icons and paintings.
The Russian Church is another beautiful building, a kind of small and colourful jewel, both on the outside and the inside. On the darkened interior, in a side apse, a surrealistic detail: an ironing board with an old electrical iron on top. I would like to have photographed it, but "no photos allowed", so I respectfully didn't, which was a pity. But one felt taking this kind of instructions seriously - something that impressed me in all these Bulgarian churches was the apparent high degree of piousness of the people: they made queues to cross themselves in front of the icons, one by one, bending down to kiss them, and not only little old ladies but also young girls and young men. Guess the long period under Communism, when religion was persecuted, made it look desirable and that's why now people are so much into it.
After all that sightseeing, we had a wonderful dinner of grilled meats and salads, and the next day took the subway to visit the Socialist Art Museum. It's very interesting, with all the Stalinist statues in the garden, the big red star that used to stand atop the Party building and the "revolutionary" paintings.
The Zensky Pazar - the Ladies' Market - is a wonderful street market, with fine looking vegetables sold by women and men who don't speak English; we bought some delicious grapes and enjoyed the hubbub of an old-fashioned European market.
Then we visited the synagogue, a really impressive Jewish temple, lavishly decorated.
The train trip to Plovdiv was not very interesting, mostly sunflowers' plantations. But Plovdiv, the ancient Philipopolis, is a very nice town. There are some very interesting Roman ruins, and the Old Town features beautiful buildings with Ottoman influence, with the protruding balconies.
There are Orthodox churches - the Saints Constantin and Helena is stunning - and mosques and café terraces with lovely kittens asking for food and Roman ruins and mosques.
So I really liked Bulgaria, where men dress mostly in black, food is great and people are waking up to the outside influence after a long isolation - in vain did we look for banitzas in the cafés that lined the lively streets (we only found them on the subway foodstalls); what the locals ate everywhere was pizza! Guess it will take a while before they discover that the local staples will be highly looked after by tourists, and then everywhere will bloom "gourmet" and "boutique" places, as has happened in Lisbon. Until then, let's enjoy a genuine and lively Bulgaria that lives mostly for itself and not for sale.