Bulgaria; not a place I had ever imagined I would visit. Would I go back? Probably not. Do I regret going? Absolutely not!
The country was relatively unknown to me and even after two days exploring the capital city, Sofia and its nearby rural towns, I still couldn’t quite put my finger on it. So while sitting at an upper class restaurant in the centre of Sofia we decided to read up on the Balkan city we were in. Needless to say we were less than comforted by the first headline we saw;
Right, well I guess that explains why I couldn’t put my finger on this place then. We obviously knew we were a long way from the wealthy Scandinavian nations who can – & have– so easily bankrupted us on our much-loved city breaks, but we also didn’t find ourselves feeling as unsafe as the headline would have you assume. While we read that corruption in Bulgaria is at least three times higher than the EU average, we didn’t feel like or seem to have noticed that we were in a seriously corrupt nation. But, after only an afternoon we had definitely noticed how prevalent poverty was.
The cityscape of the Sofia wasn’t exactly instantly visually inspiring, however in between blocks of Soviet-era buildings, many in a state of disrepair surrounded by homeless beggars and opportunists, there were gems to be found; Ottoman mosques and grand Stalinist architecture. Each neighbourhood seemed to have a different look and feel, yet each seemed to home a stunning building of its own kind, proving that this city has been sculpted over more than two thousand years by Thracian, Roman, Ottoman and Russian influences.
The two-hour drive between the Aleksandâr Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia and the Rila Monastery seemed to visually represent the thousands of years of not only the architectural, social and political influence within this country, but also the severe poverty.
While we knew we had seen poverty in the city, if anything was going to see the sad poverty truth ring true, it was the drive through the countryside on our way to Rila. From smoking power plants, to some of the worst looking slums I have ever seen, to the eerily quiet towns where the only traffic was in the form of horse-drawn wagon’s, it made it hard to stay focussed on driving.
Rila Monastery was one of the most awe-inspiring buildings I have ever seen. With its location set 1,147 meters up in the middle of the Rila Mountain forest, combined with the end of season’s snow, it looked like something straight out of a film. Bulgarians believe that the creator of the monastery, Ivan Rilsky, chose to live a hermit like life as a mode of spiritual perfection to make a stand against the suppression of the high morals and rules of Christianity. The monastery has been in the now famous Rila region for over a millennium but has been rebuilt, destroyed and rebuilt time and time again. To say it is impressive is an understatement and within less than a minute of seeing it, you forget the poverty and corruption at the foot of the hills and in Sofia.
Back in the city, the high-end restaurants and bars may be few and far between, but if you can find them they’re great. Between Kosmos and Made in Home we found good food, good wine and friendly service however after reading the article about extreme poverty and corruption while indulging in a bottle or two of wine and too many courses for the two of us to comfortably eat, we came down from our western world, generous currency conversion cloud feeling rather ashamed and a bit guilty. Here we were spending what we would usually spend on a cheaper end meal out in London, in an upmarket, trendy restaurant with the bill equating to more money than most of the people we had seen over the two days in this Balkan nation earn in a month.
Corruption, poverty, architecture and turbulent social & political history aside – a very interesting country to visit.