Europe, Bulgaria, Sofia

Sights around central Sofia

No Comments 21 July 2010

Sights around central Sofia

The Monkey takes a look at some of the grandiosity in Bulgaria’s capital city. The photos are from various visits he’s made to Sofia.


The Largo, Sofia, Bulgaria
The Monkey rests on a wall in the Largo in Sofia. Behind him lies the most impressive cluster of Communist governmental architecture in the Balkans, symbols of the grand New Bulgaria the Communists aspired to build after toppling the tsar in 1944 (with considerable assistance from the Soviet Red Army). The building in the center is the former Communist Party House, once crowned with a giant red star. On the sides are two government office buildings; part of the one at left contained the Central Universal Market (TsUM), Sofia’s equivalent of Moscow’s enormous GUM department store, now converted to a high-end shopping mall for Sofia’s elites. The one at right now houses this rather odd combination of tenants: the Office of the President, a casino, and the Sheraton Hotel, which charges more per night than most Bulgarians earn in two months.

Rotunda of Sveti Georgi, Sofia, Bulgaria
In the courtyard behind the Office of the President and the Sheraton Hotel (visible here), the Monkey encountered some substantially older structures. The Rotunda of Sveti Georgi dates from the 4th Century, and rests amid excavated ruins of Roman streets from the 2nd Century.

Tsar's Palace, Sofia, Bulgaria
The Monkey sits in Alexander Battenburg Square, a name referring to the Bulgarian royal family (who were actually imported from Germany in the late 19th Century). In the Communist period from 1944-1991, the square was called 9th of September Square, commemorating the day the Communists took power.

Though it’s difficult to tell now, until 1999 these two conflicting approaches to Bulgarian statecraft were juxtaposed quite dramatically on this square in central Sofia. At left, the Vienna-inspired green and white building is the former royal palace, now housing the National Art Gallery and an Ethnographic Museum. Facing it, the void just behind the Monkey and below the space-age lamp post was the site of one of the Communists’ most important monuments, the Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum. Dimitrov was a Comintern activist and the first Communist Prime Minister of Bulgaria, who famously made a mockery of Hermann Goering at the Reichstag Fire trial in Nazi Berlin in 1933. After dying under mysterious circumstances during a 1949 visit to Moscow, Dimitrov’s body was embalmed a la Lenin and put on display in a fine marble tomb where mourners and party faithful could pay their respects.

However, the right-wing, post-Communist government of the United Democratic Forces decided to demolish the mausoleum—by dynamite and bulldozer—in 1999. In so doing, they committed the crime of erasing history just as they had accused the Communists of doing during their reign. Just up the street from the palace and mausoleum, the UDF also let the building that had once housed the Communist Party Museum rot into disarray. It is interesting to note, however, that the Communists actually undertook restoration projects on the tsar’s palace, which had been heavily damaged by Allied air strikes during World War II.

The Monkey contemplated these denials of history at the super-chic bar that is barnacled onto the back of the former tsarist palace, the only place in Sofia (at the time) that imported Brasilian cachaça to serve up delicious caipirinha cocktails.

1300 Years Monument, Sofia, Bulgaria
While Dimitrov’s Mausoleum (discussed above) may not have been permanent, there are other Communist-era structures in Sofia that are hanging on in various states of functionality. Behind the Monkey, the jagged thrust of the 1300 Years Monument, erected in 1981 to commemorate the anniversary of the founding of the first Bulgarian Kingdom under Khan Asparukh, is already losing some of its shine and requires restoration.

Much better built was the National Palace of Culture, or NDK, which is further off in the background here. NDK is a massive concrete and glass complex that houses theaters, convention halls, shops, restaurants, and offices, and it has managed the transition from state-guided to market-oriented economics quite seamlessly.

Were it not so hazy on the day the Monkey visited this park, you would also be able to see the looming mass of Mount Vitosha, the 2,300 meter peak that serves as Sofia’s backdrop, recreation area, and southwestern city limits.

Narodno Sobranie Square, Sofia, Bulgaria
The Monkey sits in Narodno Sobranie Square, with some of Sofia’s principal sights behind him. At left, the yellow building from 1926 is home to the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. In the distance, just above the orange Volkswagen, lies Alexander Nevski Cathedral (more on that here). The large bronze statue commemorates Tsar Alexander II of Russia, whose forces are credited with liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in fierce fighting in 1878. Behind the Tsar’s statue, the white building is Bulgaria’s Parliament, built from 1884-1928.



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Bulgaria

   FAST FACTS


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Population:

7,262,675 (2008)

Land area:

110,550 sq. km.

Capital:

Sofia (pop. 1,113,674; 2005)

Economy:

In 2006, Bulgaria ranked 55th in the UNDP Human Development Index and 66th in total GDP, with a per capita GDP of $4,089.22. Public debt accounts for 10.5 percent of total GDP, while 14.1 percent of Bulgarians are beneath the poverty line.

Main language(s):

Bulgarian

Monkey's name:

Maimunka (my-moon-ka)

Fun fact:

Bulgarians nod their heads up and down to say “no,” while they shake their heads from side to side to signify “yes.” That is, unless they adjust their head movements to accommodate for visitors accustomed to the more conventional non-verbal cues. Either way, head symbols can be a confusing affair in Bulgaria.



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Recommended reading

A Concise History of Bulgaria
R.J. Crampton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
This short book has become the go-to summation of this Balkan country’s long and complex history. A perfect introduction to the country.

Beyond the Frontier: The Politics of a Failed Mission, Bulgaria 1944
E.P. Thompson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997)
A fascinating exploration of a British mission to rendez-vous with Bulgarian Partisans and raise a force against the Nazi-allied royalist dictatorship during World War II. Reads like a spy novel at times, but also a memorial to the author’s brother, who was killed in the effort.

Communism and the Remorse of an Innocent Victimizer
Zlatko Anguelov (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2002)
Part personal memoir, part exploration of the all-encompassing nature of Bulgaria’s Communist government, this book poses uncomfortable questions about the banal, everyday forms of repression and victimization that take root under coercive governments. Anguelov’s observations resonate far beyond Bulgaria’s borders…

The Balkans: A Short History
Mark Mazower (New York: Modern Library Paperback, 2002)
As the title says, a short history of the Balkan region. A helpful intro to this corner of Europe.

The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999
Misha Glenny (New York: Penguin, 2001)
A rather epic undertaking by a former BBC correspondent for Central Europe, this book traces the tumultuous two centuries of the Balkan states’ struggles for independence from the Ottoman Empire, the emergence of pan-Slavic tendencies and their tribulations, and the reign of various regimes of the right and left during the 20th Century. A worthwhile read—don’t let its dimensions frighten you…

Description of a Struggle: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Eastern European Writing
Editor: Michael March (New York: Vintage Books, 1994: Out of print)
A great anthology of short stories from the former Eastern Bloc, providing an evocative snap shot of the early post-Cold War era. Stories are organized by state, with the Bulgarian Victor Paskov’s tale of “Romanian” exiles in the Paris Metro a particular highlight.

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