ARTICLES 
Sofia: Following the yellow brick road
Article by Clive Cooper, The Sofia Echo, 29th August 2005

Armed with a camera, a pencil and a notebook, Clive Cooper set out to explore Sofias yellow brick road that runs through the area surrounding Alexander Nevski. A Bulgarian virgin, this being his first visit to the country, and having no knowledge of the language, this stranger in a strange land set forth to roam.

I started from the Alexander Nevski church (2), which was very impressive, and even though it was quite busy with tourists there was a great atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. I bought a coffee and a croissant on the way to Sofia City Gardens (5) where I sat by the fountains. It was a lovely day with only a little cloud, or two.

My next stop was the Ethnographical Museum (4) opposite the gardens. Only one of the two floors seemed to be open. I later learnt that this was commonly the case. Nonetheless, I paid my three leva entrance fee. On display were traditional costumes, photos from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and artefacts such as tools and jewellery, none of which were well labelled, some were not labelled at all.
The shop was full of interesting items, including carved wooden bowls, jewellery, embroidered jackets, etc. The staff were very helpful and spoke good English. I bought some postcards, then wrote them in the City Gardens where groups of men were playing chess.

Finding the post office was harder than I thought as exactly where youd expect it to be according to the map, there is a Postbank. They are obviously used to dealing with deviant tourists as I was directed to the real post office almost instantly. However, once in the real building, my problems had just begun! There are many posters in Bulgarian and French, but none in English. I managed to find timbre on a poster outside one room full of cashier points, but no further information inside. So, I retreated to one of a number of kiosks which appeared to be selling birthday cards and, using sign language, actually managed to buy stamps for my cards. I posted them into what I hope was a general post box; again nothing tells you if it is local, foreign or otherwise.


Next, I made my way to the Municipal Gallery of Art (6), next to the Grand Hotel Sofia. This gallery doesnt charge an entry fee, in common with all the churches, and has temporary exhibitions. The one I saw was on the theme of window. There were lots of modern paintings, mostly by Bulgarian artists. Obviously most of the paintings were looking through or at windows with scenes varying in subject and style. I thought two of the best were those depicting old wooden shutters closed, but painted in very fine detail.

On my way back to Nevski I stopped at the Russian Church (3), which with its golden onion-shaped domes is very beautiful on the outside. Inside it is very quiet and iconic, and in contrast to Alexander Nevski, small to the point of cosiness. From the Russian church I went uphill and turned right through a colourful avenue of local stalls offering an amazingly diverse collection of items varying from Nazi memorabilia to Russian dolls. This brought me back to my starting point and also marked the end of my first day on the yellow brick road.
Day two began with my now ritual coffee and croissant in the City Gardens, but on this occasion an old man decided to sit beside me and opened a little notebook in which he wrote his age, 73. He then proceeded to roll up his trouser leg and show me his very scabby leg. When I expressed no great interest in this, other than a sympathetic nod, he produced an empty pill packet, evidently expecting a financial contribution towards his refill. At this point I decided it was time to move on.

At the top of the gardens I turned left and found the Archaeological Museum (7), which was very cool in both senses of the word. There were quite old-fashioned displays of sculptures and artefacts dating from about the 4th century BCE up to about the 15th century CE. Everything was well labelled in both English and Bulgarian and the staff were very helpful. It cost 10 leva, but was well worth it. One of the most stunning exhibits was a vast piece of bedrock out of which a horseman had been carved. One should allow at least one-and-a-half hours to appreciate the full range of displays.


The Presidents Palace is just opposite the museum, where I saw the end of the changing of the guard and also a mass of media people waiting for somebody (the President?). After a rest in the shade, I walked on to the church of St George (8) a remarkable little red brick rotunda preserved among many modern block buildings. You can still see the murals inside, which were painted between the 10th and 14th centuries CE.

On my walk back towards Alexander Nevski I saw a spider lorry removing a Range Rover which presumably had overstayed his parking time. There seemed to be quite a large number of police, lorry drivers and traffic wardens engaged in the business of capturing motorists. There were two lorries, two police cars and half a dozen drivers and police in a group by Nevski.

I went back inside the church and just sat and soaked up the atmosphere until a large lady came hobbling in, moaning and wailing in a very loud voice until a female warden tried to calm her down. Eventually she wandered out again, and so did I.
Just across the road is the National Gallery for Foreign Art (1). The building is huge; at first I thought it must be some grand governmental edifice. I paid my 10 leva at a desk inside the large foyer and left my backpack and camera. The galleries are very high and rather dark. The ground floor displayed mainly Indian, Japanese and Chinese art. For once, everything was labelled in Bulgarian and English, but only with the most basic details, that is: name of artist, title of work, and approximate date. There was nothing at all to put the works into any kind of context. Another minor irritation was the constant squeaking of the floorboards as I walked around the galleries. Im sure most of the artists would have been dismayed that their works were displayed in such a bleak, unsympathetic setting. There were many European works on the next two floors, even a few Picassos and some of the lesser-known Impressionists, but even these suffered from the poor surroundings.

By contrast, I also visited the Icon collection under Alexander Nevski. Again, I had to leave my bag and camera at the desk, where I paid five leva. But the whole atmosphere was very different from that of the foreign art gallery. The icons are displayed in a large, light room divided into sections and alcoves with low ceilings. Labelling is more comprehensive, though still lacking in detail. The icons themselves are mostly very brightly painted, but at the same time are very similar, with a few notable exceptions. It occurred to me that most of the paintings from the Gallery for Foreign Art would have looked much better in the icon gallery and the icons might actually lend something to the austerity of the former.

As I left the icon collection I was approached by a Bulgarian family who wanted to know the way to the Russian church. At first of course, I didnt understand what they were asking until the English-speaking daughter explained. I was glad to be able to help.

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