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Hot on the heels of Michael Palin, the no-frills revolution has spread further into eastern Europe this month with the launch of a new EasyJet service from Gatwick to Sofia.

And while the Bulgarian capital cannot claim to be another Krakow or Tallinn in waiting, it has a subtle appeal all its own. Here are 10 reasons to visit.

In praise of Alexander Nevsky
The towering, gold- and green-domed, neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevsky church is the main religious symbol for Bulgaria's Orthodox believers and a Sofia landmark. It was built to honour the Russian soldiers who died liberating Bulgaria from the Turks in 1878. Its five naves boast stained-glass windows, Italian marble, mosaics and wood carvings, while the crypt houses stunning icons from the 9th century. In the square, vendors hawk hammer-and-sickle badges.

Taking the waters
Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Macedonians and Turks made a beeline for Sofia, drawn by the life-giving properties of its waters. Today, these naturally warm - sometimes scalding - springs gush out of 45 spouts in a park near the Largo.

At the weekend the streets are blocked with parked cars as people come from miles around to fill plastic bottles with free mineral water, sometimes 100 litres at a time. Then it's time to gossip and crack open the pistachios.

A salad fit for heroes
Hadjidraganov's Houses is a popular restaurant containing four rooms, each decorated in a regional 19th-century revival style. Try the the Hero's Salad for four, served in a vessel suspended above the table.

Chicken stuffed with sausages and wild mushrooms cooked in an egg-shaped clay container are also good. Traditional folk music, with singing, Balkan bagpipes, accordion, flute and tupan (drum), is provided by top ensembles.

Cheers, Sir Winston
Homer sang the glories of Thracian - now Bulgarian - viticulture, and Churchill had cases of Melnik red shipped over. Bulgaria's wines today remain unjustifiably consigned to the bottom shelf.

Head for Vinopolis and be guided through a tasting of superb reds from the producers Damianitza and Brestovitza, some bottles using one of three indigenous grape varieties: Mavrud, Wide Melnik Vine and Gamza. Brands to seek out include Uniqato, Todoroff and No Man's Land.

Chess al fresco
In the City Garden you can challenge would-be masters to a quick game of al fresco chess. Quick is the word: some players delight in playing express chess, taking only seconds over their move.

Passions run high as they slam the timer down after each turn. The game is enjoying a surge in popularity because Bulgaria boasts the world chess champion, Veselin Topalov. Crowds, including MPs on their break from Parliament, gather in the gardens to watch.

Early rebirth
Twenty years of restoration in the tiny Byzantine church in the suburb of Boyana have revealed remarkable frescoes from 1259 that pre-date those of Giotto, suggesting that the Renaissance emerged in the Balkans earlier than in Tuscany.

The unknown master breathed life into both religious and secular subjects. There are 240 figures from all walks of life, some in royal apparel, others in traditional costume. The portrait of Jesus at 12 preaching in the temple is among the best depictions from any era.

Mountain high
The foothills of Mt Vitosha are just four miles from the centre of Sofia. In winter, the slopes around Aleko are packed with skiers of all abilities. Equipment can be hired at the summit for Ј6 a day.

Buzz of the Pazar
Wend your way through the cobbled alleyways of the old quarter to Sofia's buzzing 1,640ft-long bazaar in Stefan Stambolov Street.

Zhenski Pazar is farmers' market and Petticoat Lane in one. You can buy anything from honey, fruit and veg to Troyan pottery and musical instruments. Enjoy a banitsa (cheese and spinach pie) and coffee for 30p.

Famous five
Stand at the north-west corner of the Sheraton Hotel on the Largo and search out five buildings that point to Sofia's multi-faceted past. Tick off the Party House, a 1950s ziggurat to Communism (legend has it that Bulgaria applied to be the 16th Soviet republic); the Banya Bashi mosque, legacy of 500 years of Turkish rule; the Central Synagogue (the country's protection of its Jews from the Nazis was exemplary); the ancient Orthodox church of Sveta Nedelya; and the new Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph.

Umbrella tips
The dissident Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov was killed as a result of an encounter with a poison-tipped umbrella in London on Waterloo Bridge in 1978.

A stash of these Cold War artefacts came to light in the Interior Ministry in 1989, but in democratic Bulgaria demand has dropped off. People do still need protection from downpours, though, and as the late-autumn rains fall, salesmen set up trestle tables stacked with umbrellas for one BGN (33p) apiece, but beware: they are liable to collapse under the first shower.

by Robert Nurden

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