This past weekend, a few friends and I took a trip to Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria. This trip was filled with amazing new experiences, an abundance of knowledge, and the best food that I’ve had in my life. When we first arrived, we took the metro into the heart of the city and were immediately surrounded by the “triangle of power”: a brick square with a skylight of the ancient city of Serdika. Serdika lies underneath the ground, and is encompassed by the buildings of the Council of Ministers, the Parliament, and the Presidency. At one end of this center stands a 20 meter (just over 65 feet) memorial of St. Sofia. Erected in 2000, this statue controversially replaced one of Vladimir Ilich Lenin and now stands over the city representing wisdom, peace, wealth, and success. These can be seen through physical features; in her left hand she holds an owl, in the right hand she holds a wreath, and she is presented with a gold crown and skin. Finally arriving in the city and seeing these structures illuminated against the darkness, I knew I would love the city and all the history that Sofia holds.
I previously mentioned that the ancient Roman city of Serdika lies below street level in Sofia. Walking through the metro system, it truly felt like we were walking through a different time period; the streets have been almost completely and perfectly preserved, walls and water systems wove throughout the ground, a brick amphitheater that had a skylight looking up at the city, ruins of Christian churches, and beautiful mosaic floors. I am still baffled that they were able to preserve this ancient city and still manage to build an entire metro system. This also is completely free access to the public, again begging the question, how have they kept it so clean and intact? I’m convinced Sofia is magical and I cannot wait to go back.
Learning about the design of the city as well as the corruption that it faces was wildly interesting. My friend from Bulgaria served as our tour guide as he pointed out the federal and royal buildings, most of which had some form of protest put on by the public. Specifically the court building, there were signs and displays objecting to vaccines and Covid protocols. Within the past year these protests have gotten so big and frequent that the court’s employees are unable to use the front doors and instead have to use a private entrance just to avoid the conflict. Bulgaria currently has one of the lowest vaccination rates among European countries, so while these protests aren’t necessarily surprising, it is interesting to see how permanent they are and the government’s responses to them.
Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve found that my interactions with culture shock ebb and flow. During my trip to Sofia, I only experienced one new shock: Bulgarians love the heat. I first encountered this with my friend’s roommates who keep the rooms at a minimum of 22 degrees celsius. At first, I didn’t really understand the conversions, so when I was told 22 degrees celsius, I did not realize that it was over 71 degrees Fahrenheit. At first, I thought I was making up the problem with the heat, especially since Bulgaria has a similar climate to Maine. I was not expecting to be living in buildings that are regularly up to 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and I certainly was not expecting the fact that many students don’t open their windows at all throughout the semester. On the bus ride to and from Sofia, my friends and I seriously thought we were all going to either pass out or get sick from the heat: there is no possibility that the temperature was below 85 degrees. By the time we stepped off the bus, we had all shed all of the jackets and sweatshirts that we brought in anticipation of the snow and freezing temperatures, a few of us had taken off our shoes, and we were all drenched in sweat. This is a problem that I am constantly running into, and now that it has been addressed and validated by my Bulgarian professors, I am not sure it will ever leave my mind. This is definitely one of the culture shocks that I will not be getting used to.
The new experiences from my trip to Sofia are plentiful and incredible. The dishes in Bulgaria are widely known as being bland and at times boring, but beginning with the first meal I ate at Constantinoff RestoBar in the heart of the city, I knew I was eating some of the best food I ever have, and ever will eat. As a parmesan truffle french fry connoisseur, I was intrigued to try them in Bulgaria and I was not disappointed. Though the cheese was not really parmesan, but rather a traditional Bulgarian cheese, these were by far the richest and most balanced fries that I have ever eaten. I’m usually not a big fan of mushrooms, but as a vegetarian, there aren’t many options here. That’s why I was so surprised by my main dish which was mushroom, green bean, almond, and pistachio gyoza. Everything was grown and made from across the country and was fresh within the previous day. This was seriously the best meal I’ve ever had. Not to mention, the presentation and overall quality of the food, restaurant, and experience were amazing.
I also experienced one of the most beautiful cathedrals I have ever seen. Alexander Nevsky’s Cathedral, built over a period of eight years between 1904 and 1912, stands in the middle of Sofia and memorializes the over 200,000 Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Bulgarian soldiers who died in the Russo-Turkish War. With gold plated domes towering over the streets, this cathedral is one of the biggest Orthodox cathedrals in the world and holds so much history within it. The interior and exterior designs were beautiful, though dimly lit, and at night it is illuminated by street lights further emphasizing the cultural importance it has over Sofia and Bulgaria as a whole. Throughout this trip, it was clear just how much there is to learn about this country and its history and I cannot wait to continue with these experiences and knowledge.
We had one of our first snowstorms on campus this week, and while it was beautiful and welcoming, it reminded me so much of home and I felt homesick for one of the first times. Thankfully, the students around me are all in the same situation which resulted in playing in the snow like children. One of my favorite moments from the storm was building snowmen at midnight, snowball fights, and watching my friends use cafeteria trays as sleds to slide down hills. Looking at the week ahead, I have a few big school assignments, and a few friends and I are looking forward to planning weekend trips. We are currently looking to plan a trip to Plovdiv, a town known as the cultural capital in south-central Bulgaria, where new or modern buildings are not legally allowed to be built. According to a few Bulgarian students, visiting this town is like stepping into history. I’m excited to visit these new places and revisit Sofia, and most importantly, I’m excited to learn more about the history and culture of Bulgaria.