Sofia explained

Trip Start Apr 16, 2012
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Trip End May 18, 2012


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Flag of Bulgaria  ,
Friday, May 11, 2012

At 11, I loiter in front of the Palace of Justice where the Free Sofia Tour (http://www.freesofiatour.com/) begins twice daily. No sign of a guide or a group of potential tourists, but a few minutes later, Filip arrives with apologies that Bulgarians are always late and about 8 or so other people in the vicinity congregate around him; a couple from Indiana, another from Canada, a Bulgarian and his two guests from Cape Town, two blonde girls from Helsinki, and a young woman from Holland here in Bulgaria for her third visit.

Filip, originally from Skopje, Macedonia, has lived in Sofia for six years and is going for his masters degree in interior design. He and other volunteers lead these tours 365 days a year. We follow him to St. Nedelya which he explains means St. Sunday in Bulgarian. He tells the story of the 1924 bombing. The communist terrorists first killed a general, knowing that his funeral would be held here and attended by King Boris. They managed to load the dome with dynamite and detonated it during the funeral, killing 200 and injuring 500 more. The king wasn't there.

He was late.

Here we are joined by several students and faculty from the American University in Bulgaria who were also late.

The tour lasts until almost 3pm, almost two hours longer than billed, and I'm now able to put names next to so much of what I just stumbled across yesterday. Here a few of the things I find out from Filip:

*Sofia has no old town because each city was built on top of the last He shows us a place in one of the under-street subways where excavations have revealed the 2nd century walls of Roman Serdica, topped with medieval walls of the first Bulgar Kingdom.

*My good friend Constantine the Great's mom hailed from here and he was quite fond of Serdica and lived here for a few years before he got into the Emperor game. Supposedly, he called it his Rome. Seems like I'm tripping over him everywhere I go.

*Sofia has no river. It was first settled by the Thracians because it was a major crossroads in trade routes between Western Europe and Constantinople. Hence its hard knocks from Romans, Bulgars, Byzantines, Turks, Germans, Russians -- even the Hapsburgs took a shot at it, but were repulsed.

*A red communist star used to top the Stalinesque party headquarters, but was lifted off by helicopter when the communist government gave up its monopoly in 1990, and ended up in a dump behind the public baths. Years later, a photo of a gypsy boy pissing on it generated enough controversy that it was moved to a local museum.

* Not so lucky was the former communist leader Georgi Dimitrov who had been entombed in a colossal mausoleum, a la Lenin and Mao, in front of the old Royal Palace. The mausoleum had been built in six days. In 1990, the new government loaded it with dynamite and detonated it on TV. The charges exploded, but the structure was undamaged. Three more attempts failed before it was finally pulled down and bulldozed from history. Dimitrov's body had been exhumed and buried by the communist faithful. Today the site stands empty.

*The town baths, located in a 19th century neo-Byzantine building, have been closed for 25 years owing to Bulgaria's teetering economy, but the adjacent drinking fountains are busy as locals fill plastic jugs with the warm thermal mineral water, thought to be good for all that ails you. I try a few handfuls. Soft, mineral taste, but not bad at all, though drinking warm water out of a public fountain seems particularly insalubrious. Let death not come early.

*During the early years of communist rule, the powers that be decided to destroy the city's remaining 50 or so mosques. Because no mosque can be used for worship if its minaret is ruined, they placed dynamite in all the minarets, save one (Sofia's single active mosque today), and blew them all up one night under the cover of a thunderstorm. The party line is that they were destroyed by the storm.

Two of the university students are from Russia - St. Petersburg and Kazan -- and both will be working in restaurants in New York this summer for tuition money. Two other lovely students are from Ulan Bator in Mongolia. One will be working her second summer in a shop on Martha's Vineyard. All four speak excellent English. Apparently, nearly all of the students at the American University in Bulgaria are Russian or from the former Soviet states.

After the tour, I stop at the terrace of the Art Club Bar and sip a gin fizz in the shade of an umbrella and a flowering chestnut tree. Bits of Roman antiquities are leaning against the stone walls of the place, on loan from the archeological museum. Enough with the fancy members receptions and free hors d'oevres. Why don't more of the world's great museums consider renting out their collections to bars and nightclubs? Bulgaria blazes the way in creative fundraising opportunities. I read my book for an hour or so until it begins to rain and the waitresses scurry about moving the seat cushions indoors and everyone asks for their check at once.

Back at the Balkan, I order a martini from Mariela and for the first time anywhere I have traveled in Central Europe, I don't need to offer instructions. It's well, shaken, crisp and delicious and I am dazzled. This sort of thing could put Martinis Without Borders right out of business. I didn't even mind the olive. Mariela, is clearly a barkeep without peer in this corner of the planet. I mention the erasure of Dmitrov's mausoleum and say that it's unfortunate that relics of that era were destroyed so wantonly. She tells me that the history she learned in school is completely different than the history her 11-year-old son learns today. As always, it's written by the victors.

I look up a nearby restaurant that looks promising -- Pastorant, a small Italian place with good reviews -- figure out its coordinates on a map and set off for dinner. Two stray dogs are lounging on the square in their usual spots.

On the way up Vitosha Blvd., I pass a younger man on crutches, bearded and pony-tailed with intense dark eyes. I glance down at his leg where a filthy loose bandage has slipped off a deep, gaping, ulcerous hole in his calf down to the exposed bone.

On the corner, a man in a well-cut dark suit and red tie asks me something in Bulgarian and realizing I'm clueless, asks for the time in English. I show him my watch and after a pause he reaches into his wallet and says, 'Perhaps I give my my business card.' The card reads 'Sofia's Most Beautiful Girls.' As I say, it's a friendly town.

Peering at the street signs for the small Latin rendering of the Cyrillic names, I find Tsar Assen and start looking for Pastorant. The place at the address I have is clearly a restaurant, though the sign is entirely in Cyrillic. I step inside. It's completely empty. The waitress gives me three valuable pieces of information: it is a Serbian restaurant, they have no English menu, and she speaks very little English.

This is not Pastorant.

But I would feel bad somehow just leaving and I take a table and order a Serbian salad , and at her recommendation, the grilled pork.
I ask if I may also have grilled vegetables, but she says, 'Too much food.'

Have you wandered into some small obscure little place, almost by accident, and discovered to your delight that it offers a truly memorable meal? Sadly this is not one of those occasions.

The salad, a variation on the ubiquitous 'sherpska' is a large plate of cucumber, tomato, red onion, pepper, covered with sheep's cheese. It's okay, but the grilled pork is a slab of meat as big as my face with a mound of coleslaw parked next to it. I I eat half my salad and saw off a few bites of the pork, which puts up a good fight, before I realize that I have ordered far too much food and that it is not very good.

Then I remember the dogs. While the waitress is out of the room I cut a good two thirds of the pork into pieces, wrap the bites in several napkins and slip the fat wad into the pocket of my sport coat. Now perhaps I won't look like a complete idiot for not touching much of the week's supply of food on my plate, or hurt the chef's feelings, and I can make a couple of street dogs' day.

-Very good! I lie as I pay the check and depart. Just outside the door I look up and see the sign for Pastorant on the very next building.

With a pocket bulging with warm meat, I make my way back to the square outside the hotel where I find to my surprise and consternation exactly NO DOGS in sight for the first time since I arrived in Sofia.

Lots of well-dressed Sofians strolling through the gathering twilight, no trash cans anywhere, zero feral canines and a pocket of meat, the juices of which I am now imagining are beginning to seep through the material of my pocket.

I wander about a bit, thinking things over. I could dispose of it my room, but then what would the maid think tomorrow morning upon discovering a pile of neatly sliced pork in my bin?

Minutes pass and still no dogs. I make for the periphery of the square and after a quick glance around, furtively shake my napkins free of their contents next to a concrete planter. Tucking the greasy wad back into my pocket, I look up to icy stares from a smartly-dressed older couple I'd somehow missed, who then turn and walk briskly away.
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