Monday, August 12, 2013

Sofia Underground

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Like our stop in Bucharest, Sofia was a very pleasant surprise.  Sofia has been in the news lately because of their ongoing protests against public corruption.  We witnessed several of these daily protests ourselves and while there was always a strong police presence surrounding them, overall they felt very civil.  One of the larger protests we witnessed, complete with flags, drums, and families pushing baby strollers, could have easily been mistaken for a parade.  These protests were nothing like the more riotous ones that have been the hallmark of public angst throughout the rest of Europe.

Snack time in the (underground)
Ancient Complex Serdika
Sofia has kilometer after kilometer of cobblestone streets, old trams and streetcars operating in conjunction with a modern underground metro system, and architecture that rivals that of other European cities.  There were pedestrian zoned areas lined with upscale stores, large fountain filled parks, and this being a former Communist controlled city, the ubiquitous statues.  And yet, Sofia is definitely international; we heard and saw people from around the world and ate some of our best meals of our trip, including a spicy Indian dinner and a night of sushi, here.  Sofia felt simultaneously old yet modern and with its combination of old blending with new, the word I would use to describe this compact capitol city is spunky.  Her people, her politics, and her history all speak to this.  And while there was some magnificent architecture to be seen throughout Sofia, the biggest surprise for me, and my favorite part of the city, was what laid underground.

I had heard about Sofia's notorious "squat shops", basement level shops where patrons bent down and made their snack and drink purchases from the vendor whose head appeared to be poking up out of the sidewalk, so when I saw them, I laughed but I wasn't surprised.  The underground metro stations we visited were clean and modern to a level I haven't seen in awhile but again, while they were nice, these weren't the surprise. What did surprise me was the underground archaeological sites that served as both passageways under the city and historic landmarks.  The Ancient Complex Serdika was one such site.  From the street level, sandwiched between government buildings, a metro station, and a highway, it was so unassuming.  We stumbled upon it when we thought we were entering an underground passage that would allow us to cross a major traffic artery without having to play Frogger.  It was this, complete with a smattering of kiosks selling knick-knacks, cigarettes, and bottled water.  But upon closer examination the area was also ancient ruins on top of which modern Sofia was built.  Intermingled with the modern conveniences mentioned above were the ruins of partial walls, pottery shards, and even a Roman amphitheater.  Who knew all of this was hidden under the city?  (Actually, no one really did until 2004 when construction workers stumbled upon the ruins).  This was just such a neat surprise.

Looking up into church apse from below
But for me, the most impressive underground site, however, was the archaeological museum housed under the Basilica of Santa Sophia.  This namesake church dates back to the 5th Century AD.  From the outside it didn't appear to be nearly as impressive as the neighboring Alexander Nevesky Cathedral or even the other churches and mosques we visited throughout the city.  The inside of the Basilica had the dark wood, stern soot covered murals, and intense smell of incense that I have come to associate with churches from the Byzantine Era.  The church was still active, with the pious outnumbering the tourists.  We thought the Basilica itself was the highlight of the church but we were wrong; when we noticed people disappearing through a staircase in the floor, we decided to follow suit and we surprised by what we found.  Hidden under the church was a complete archeological museum that had been excavated from the city ruins.  In the cool, dimly lit underground we wandered through narrow passageways as we explored one room after another.  Walking into a new room was like exploring a maze since we never knew when we would reach a dead end and have to turn around or when we would be able to continue on our way.  Some rooms were simply a combination of brick and stone ruins; others held tombs, mosaics, and crypts.  Some walls were plain stone while others were ornately painted.  From the street, I never would have guessed that all of this under here.  And this was the type of surprise I loved about Sofia. On a hot summer day, finding underground treasures was just what these weary travelers needed.

An underground chamber
Wall painting

Pieces of a floor mosaic 
Another above ground treasure- the immaculate Russian
Orthodox Church- the interior was under construction
during our visit

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