Monday, 28 October 2013

Getting to know Sofia, the host city of your EVS

Largo, Sofia, Bulgaria. Why two buildings from different historic periods [1920s, the bourgeois era, and 1950s, the socialism] and of different architectural styles were fused into one? You can find out on a 'Sofia (Architecture) Walks' tour...
An important part of the EVS experience is getting to know the host country. Many Bulgarians are patriotic and will spend long hours informing you about their homeland. They have reason: Bulgaria is very old and has an interesting history.   

So does their capital. Although to an inexperienced eye it might appear as yet another character-less modern age city, Sofia actually existed even before the ancient Romans arrived. A big misfortune was brought to Sofia by the WW2 when much of the city centre was destroyed by the bombings. Those were also the times when Sofia lost much of its external beauty.  

Nowadays it is one of those cities that not everyone falls in love with easily. Before you start to like Sofia you need to know it. And, in order to know it, you need to explore and dig a bit deeper as the city hides much of its charms in secret yards; underground; in peoples' memories.
Because Bulgarians are so patriotic, there is no shortage neither of tourist materials nor of guided walks here (as well as plenty of cultural events to choose from). Let me introduce you to a few:
  • Free Sofia Tour (also operating in Plovdiv) is a good option to those who have just arrived as it gives a nice overall introduction to the city centre's major (and major hidden) attractions. It lasts around two hours, leaving at 11am & 6pm every single day from the Palace of Justice (the building with two lion sculptures at the northern end of the Vitosha Boulevard). The tour is unpaid but it is customary to give some tips to the guide afterwards.     
  • Sofia (Architecture) Walks - a bit heavier option, ideal to those who are already familiar with the surface of the city and want to dig deeper. These guides organise their walks mainly on weekends, and each walk has a different topic, e.g. Socialist Sofia; Romantic Sofia; Eastern Orthodox Sofia; Sofia Cemetery; etc. The tours are grouped into four 'collections': Pieces of a City, Styles and Ages, Religions, and Influences - according to the topic. Each month they announce a walks' calendar on their website so you can book in advance. These are paid tours (BGN 20/10 adult/student); the meeting place is at the entrance of Sheraton Balkan Hotel.
Then there are a couple of recommendable travel agencies (these, though, are not the only ones in Sofia):
  • Lyuba Tours - a small, rather high-brow travel agency that concentrates on cultural tourism and knows a lot about even obscure topics. These were the people who took many famous and serious foreign officials around Bulgaria. They do some public group tours (advertised on their website) as well as tailor-made private tours.
  • Zig Zag Holidays / Odysseia-In 'travel boutique' - also a personalised, responsible, knowledgeable etc. travel company. As far as I know they were consulting one of the Lonely Planet travel authors as he wrote the guide to Bulgaria some years ago. Plus, they have been on the market for around 20 years now.
True, hiring travel agencies might not exactly be for a volunteer's budget but it's good to know where to go in case, for example, your rich relatives arrive to Bulgaria, or you are organising an event for international delegates.

Some 'real' travellers are snobbish towards any travel publishers, guides or agencies; I used to be one of them but I am not anymore; now I think that selecting bits of what you find useful/interesting from all available sources is the best way to be.  
  • If you, however, only want a free map of the city you can get one at the local Tourist Information Office at the underpass + metro station 'St.Kliment Ohridski' (the Sofia University).
Good luck exploring. You can also check my personal blog about life & travels in Sofia. Yours, AgnÄ—.

The sausages are not mine. Associative photo.
Some of the current EVS volunteers at Matka Canyon, Macedonia (July 2013).

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