Travel: Sofia, Bulgaria

I'VE travelled to some unusual places in my time, but never been asked by friends why I was going there. That was until I announced I had booked a trip to Sofia for my daughter and I.

Had I said I was going skiing in Bulgaria or to the coast for a beach holiday, no-one would have batted an eyelid. The reaction to the mention of virtually any other former Eastern Bloc capital city would have been recommendations of restaurants and galleries.

But Sofia, it seems, is tourism's maiden aunt – no one seems interested in going there. Yet the city also appears to be booming: many of the big international hotel chains are in existence and doing quite well, thank you very much.

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Luxury private housing is going up as quickly as my friends' quizzical eyebrows in the smart residential area between the Kempinski hotel and the US Embassy to the south of the centre.

While there is no getting away from the poverty in some areas, there are obviously many locals who have been making a nice living in the decade since the red flag was pulled down once and for all.

Arriving in Sofia is not the most auspicious of entrances to a country. The airport is small and there is not much in the arrivals lounge apart from a few dodgy taxi drivers offering a "good deal" to get you into town.

At first sight they weren't the type you'd want to meet in a dark alley. Then again, after three days of taking the ludicrously cheap taxis around the city, we discovered the drivers actually have an appealing dry sense of humour. Well, some of them do anyway.

So what is there to actually do in Sofia? First, it's a good idea to get to grips with the Cyrillic alphabet. While the Roman one is used in some shops, billboards and touristy places, the streets are not so marked.

Armed with an English map but no sat nav, compass or innate sense of direction, getting about took a lot longer than it should, considering the centre of the city is fairly small. Stopping for a delicious cappuccino in the monochrome cafe and restaurant Artisti, I handed the map to the waitress and, in sign language, asked where we were.

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Obviously looking at the street names in English, she was as confused as us but after a short staff meeting she pointed it out and we realised we were heading in completely the wrong direction.

The drawbacks of travelling with a 14-year-old – no forays to check out the nightlife and general rolling of teenage eyes whenever I attempted to talk to anyone – were outweighed by her having a mind that can soak up information like a dry sponge and within about half an hour she could translate any street sign. Had I been travelling with my husband we'd probably still be sitting in the cafe suffering from a caffeine overdose.

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With a teen in tow, shopping was obviously on the agenda. The main drag, Vitosha Boulevard, doesn't have much worth splurging your spotinkis on; a few western shops interspersed with local ones that seemed very keen on neon shoes and matching bags. Prices are on a par with UK high streets.

There are a few designer names on the square where the Hotel Rila sits but certainly not enough to keep a WAG satisfied for more than half an hour.

However, the place to go for real atmosphere is the Ladies Market just north of the central square. Originally a fruit and vegetable market, this half-mile of stalls sells virtually everything; perhaps not the kitchen sink but the plugs and pipes with which to install it. Flanked by shops selling belly dancing outfits, second-hand power drills, dog collars and soft furnishings, you can pick up some lovely woollen slippers and traditional Bulgarian pottery in between the old-fashioned brooms and nylon knickers.

It's more than just a market, providing a meeting place for many – in between the stalls there were men playing cards and others having a beer as the day neared an end. However, it is not glitzy; for bling you have to head to Sveta Nedelya Cathedral.

With gold murals decorating the walls and enormous red and brass chandeliers with gold-framed icons swathing the altar, Bulgarian churches don't do minimalist. The tiny Sveti Nicholai Russian church was similarly crammed with artefacts, but with a little old lady pulling my daughter's shirt across her skimpy vest, a sense of decorum is definitely in order.

Bulgarian artists may not be as well known as their Italian counterparts, but at the former Royal Palace there is now a perfectly sized gallery with fantastic paintings hanging in what was obviously an opulent building. Upstairs, past the beautiful minstrels' gallery, which we hadn't noticed from below, is a range of local sculpture.

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One of the reasons I think Sofia hasn't hit the big time is that the words 'biggest', 'best' or 'only' don't feature in much of what there is to see. The one exception is the icon gallery below Sveta Nedelya, which they say is the biggest in the country, although I can't imagine there are many bigger in Europe.

Of course, all that culture (I didn't mention the archeological museum or the Sveti Georgi Rotunda) works up an appetite. Again, Bulgaria is hardly renowned for its cuisine.

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There are the obligatory Italian and international restaurants, but our favourite food finds were Divaka (there are three in the chain, at Karnegie Street, William Gladstone Street and 6th September Street), where the local specialities, which included breaded cheese and stuffed peppers, were absolutely delicious.

For the best read in town don't miss the menu at Manastirska Magernitsa (Khan Asparuh Street). Once you've got over the completely mad interior, which is described as "traditional taverna style", chortle at the dishes that include 'A Deer Munches Apples', 'Pheasant In Hooded Cloak' and 'The Tender Scallops Of The Long Eared One'.

I'm not sure if it was the retsina effect, but the house wine in all the restaurants at which we ate was actually extremely passable and, like the food, very good value.

Perhaps the Bulgarians keep the best for themselves and export the rest to put us off visiting. So don't let a dodgy bottle of plonk put you off, this is a capital city that has retained as much of its local character as is possible in these days of easy travel and global sameness.

In fact, I'm going to write to the Bulgarian Tourist Board and suggest a new slogan. Sofia – why not?


Where to stay: Kempinski Hotel Zografski Sofia, 100 James Bourchier Blvd 1407 ( Rates are from 57 a night for a single standard room.

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How to get there: Flights from Edinburgh to Sofia start from 209 with First Choice. Fiona Duff flew from Manchester with Easyjet (

Currency: The local currency is the lev, but euros are generally accepted thanks to the growth in tourism.

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• This article was first published in The Scotland on Sunday, April 18, 2010