a stroll around Sofia
After the tournament in Kigali, we stayed an extra day in Rwanda to go gorilla trekking. In Uganda, we combined Ultimate frisbee with a visit to a chimpanzee sanctuary and a rafting trip down the Nile River. Though Sofia did not hold out the promise of similar adventures, we made sure to schedule enough time before the tournament started to see the city.
As the crow flies, Sofia is not far from Chisinau — a mere 400 miles. However, as there are no direct flights connecting the two cities, we had few attractive options to reach Bulgaria. The flight through Bucharest was the most geographically direct, but it left before dawn and included a six-hour layover. The Austrian Airlines route through Vienna, in addition to making no geographic sense, posed the opposite problem. We had only 35 minutes after landing in Austria to clear customs, change terminals, and go through two additional security screenings to make the connection. Foolhardy though it seemed to attempt it with an infant, this option still was preferable to spending half a day in the Bucharest airport. We made the flight with about 5 minutes to spare, and the plane started taxiing out of the gate before we were fully seated.
Arriving late Thursday night, we met up with a friend from our Nairobi days who is now in Afghanistan and managed to work the Discs of Peace tournament into her R&R travels. We had earmarked Friday for sightseeing — not enough time to get out of the capital to see Bulgaria’s famed monasteries or its beautiful countryside, but more than enough to get a good feel for Sofia.
D had emailed a couple of Bulgarian friends for Sofia suggestions, and while his Bulgarian-born Foreign Service colleague came through with some excellent restaurant recommendations, we did not get much in the way of sightseeing advice. Sofia has a number of reputedly excellent museums, but given the fantastic weather, we chose to skip them in favor of a pedestrian exploration of the city. We wound up spending pretty much all day ambling around the streets, leaving the hotel after breakfast and only returning when it was time to put Munchkin down for the night.
Sofia has quite a number of well-preserved religious buildings, as well as a few architectural gems sprinkled throughout the downtown area, but they’ve all been swallowed up by the capital’s modern sprawl. There is no tidy historical center, as is the case in so many other European capitals. The older buildings, though not far from one another, appear on the verge of being completely engulfed by the new construction.
We made a big loop around the center, criss-crossing some parts twice, and stopping to see Sofia’s diverse array of religious buildings. The iconic Sveta Nedelya church was a stone’s throw away from a mosque, which was around the corner from a synagogue. We visited a small Russian Orthodox church and paid our respects to the grandeur of the Alexander Nevsky memorial church.
Our favorite was the small St. Sofia Basilica that was nearly lost in the shadow of the Nevsky’s immensity. Dating back to the 6th century, the basilica is an austere brick building that is quite striking for its lack of embellishments. It stands on the site of several earlier churches. For a small fee one can visit the necropolis beneath it and get lost in the maze of tombs that date all the way back to the 2nd century and which have been carefully preserved after excavation.
Of all the sites we passed, we were most excited to visit the synagogue. Unlike Europe’s other synagogues, which have either been pillaged and destroyed, or which are tiny and squirreled far away from the gaze of most passersby, Sofia’s synagogue proudly beams its magnificence. Built in the Moorish style that is more common to modern Muslim buildings than to Jewish ones, the Sofia synagogue is Europe’s second-largest.
Imagine our disappointment then when we couldn’t get in to see it. The sign posted outside the synagogue indicated that it was open to visitors Monday — Friday from 9am to 5pm, but when we came around midday on Friday we found the gates locked. From her brief and broken conversation with the guard, S deduced that the synagogue was closed for services because of Sukkot, the Jewish harvest holiday. Undeterred, she asked D to explain that we were Jewish and also wanted to pray. D said as much in Russian and the guard stepped aside to let us pass through the gate. It was a Pyrrhic victory, however. Services were being held in a tiny, windowless room adjacent to the synagogue’s great hall, so we did not even get to peep inside the padlocked doors.
S was so crestfallen that we determined to try again on Monday on our way back to the airport. With an 11:30am flight to catch, we had a tight window to pack, eat a hurried breakfast, and try to sneak in a visit right as the synagogue opened. We timed things beautifully, arriving at the synagogue a few minutes after 9am. D stayed in the cab with Munchkin while S went in. She was gone a good 20 minutes, so D was surprised to see her shaking her head in disappointment when she came out. Though the guard let her into the compound, S again found the synagogue’s doors closed to her. The Sukkot holiday was over, but the congregation was cloistered in its regular Monday morning prayers and, the visitors’ sign notwithstanding, the way in was barred.
Some things are just not meant to be. We tried twice to see the synagogue without success and though one can never be sure what the future holds, we don’t envision a third attempt in ours. We enjoyed our time in Sofia, but it’s not a city we’d put high on the list of places to visit more than once.