Sofia #1: An Abortive Attempt at Rila Monastery, so a Graffiti Tour instead

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March 1st 2020
Published: March 21st 2020
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I booked a tour through the place I was staying to visit Rila Monastery. I waited to be picked up and was a little concerned when the driver was late, actually the pick up time had been changed and I could have had longer in bed. A little late we were on our way, just down the street we nearly hit a car as the other driver just opened his door without any regard for passing cars. We drove out on to the motorway and left the city behind. We got about half an hour out of the city and then the engine made a loud noise. That was the end of the trip, there was no way the car would last the distance, and we turned around headed back to the city. I was a bit annoyed as by the time we got back, it was too late for me to make the walking tour for that morning. However, I saw a poster for the graffiti tour that would run later that afternoon. After chilling with some tea and an early lunch, I headed out to explore the city.

I was staying a bit of a walk away from the city centre. I could have taken the subway in, but decided that I would see more walking and get a better feel for the city. The first place that I came to was the National Palace of Culture. There is a nice park surrounding the building so I had a walk around there, which was nice. From there, I headed across to bul. Vitosha, the main pedestrian street in city. The street was filled with shops, cafes and restaurants with lots of outdoor seating. Most of the outdoor seating was covered and heated, so you could be outdoors yet indoors. It was quite quiet for a weekend afternoon. At the top of the street, I came to the St. Kyriaki Cathedral Church. The building was very beautiful and there was a board outside with some information about the church on it. However, it was the view opposite that really impressed me. I could see the street that I had just walked along and the mountains behind it, it looked beautiful and the sunlight helped it look even better. I continued on and saw the Statue of Sofia, which I presumed to be the namesake of the city, and which I would find out more about the next day. This was where my tour would start later, so I knew the general area, where I would have to be. I walked along another street near the statue. There were a lot of official looking buildings here, all quite grand examples of Soviet architecture. One had a display on the outside of two figures, one red and the other white in honour of today being an important day in Bulgarian tradition.folklore. Today was 1st of March, and although not an official holiday, it is known as Baba Marta Day which translates to Grandmother Marta Day. Generally, people give and wear Martenitsas, these are red and white bracelets, small dolls or tassels. People wear them until they see a stork or the trees start blooming and then hang it on a blooming tree. It's a nice tradition that I'm glad I got to see/experience.

I walked past the Bulgarian Archaeology Museum, which had some pieces of old carved stones laying out in front of the museum. I liked that these were out on display for everyone to see and not locked away. The next place I was the very cute looking Russian Orthodox Church Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski. While it did look rather small compared to many other churches in the area, it was absolutely gorgeous. I continued along the street and came to Tsar Osvoboditel, which is a sculpture that honours Alexander II. He was the Russian Emperor who liberated Bulgaria from the rule of the Ottoman Empire during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. The statue was built in 1903 and is pretty impressive. I liked the smaller pictures around the base of the statue that told the story of what happened at the time. I was just kind of wandering, when I saw a tourist information board that had a couple of places that looked interesting on it that were just down the street so I decided to visit those places. The first was the Soviet Army Monument and the Eagle Bridge was just a little further behind it. The Soviet Army Monument is located in Knyazheska Park. I found the entrance to the park and the monument a little off putting as there is a skate park there filled with young kids on their skateboards and bikes. However, they weren't the evil anti-social idiots that you would find in Britain, so it was all good. I headed over to the large statue, which was built in 1954, on the 10th anniversary of liberation by the Soviet Army. I think now that it is quite controversial, due to what happened after the war, but I was interested in seeing the monument and the smaller statues that surrounded it. I liked seeing the different scenes that they depicted. It reminded me of North Korea and the stuff I saw near the Juche Tower, when I visited there. The Eagle Bridge was not as impressive as I thought it would be. I think it was because the bridge didn't really feel like a proper bridge as the Perlovska River that runs underneath it is rather small and the eagles weren't too big and were a bit dwarfed by their surroundings. I started to make my way back to the meeting place for the tour, but I stopped off at Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski, which is one of the most famous cathedrals in Bulgaria and I can see why. The building is absolutely beautiful. The blue skies also helped it to look even more stunning. In the little park near the church, there seemed to be a flea market going on. There seemed to be a lot of books for sale and I could also see a big gramophone.

The graffiti tour started at 3 pm, so I headed over to Statue of Sofia at Serdika Metro Station. It took a couple of false starts before I found the correct exit to take me to the statue as it is on a kind of island of land between two roads of traffic and the exits from the metro station are not labelled with the statue on the exit boards. It seems that I am not the only one that struggles with the exits at Serdika metro station as lots of people appeared from the exit rather confused and walked around a bit. The guide for the tour was lovely as she kept telling the randoms the right way to get to where they wanted to be. The tour was small, there were only four of us on it, perfect! The guide was really nice and although not a graffiti artist herself was very knowledgeable and involved in the scene. We took a short walk to the first site, Antrakt (which is what google maps) calls it. The actual site is a parking lot, but the walls surrounding this parking lot are rather special. On one of the large buildings there is a giant Chupa Chups mural. Chupa Chups is a brand of lollipops, and what I didn't know is that it originated in Spain and Salvador Dali designed their logo. I don't think Dali painted this mural in Sofia, but I liked that it looked like it had been there for a long time and was rather worn and faded. It made a good contrast to the more recent graffiti was on display lower down. There were some great pieces of art here, really imaginative and, to my untrained eye, very skilful. One of the walls had been used in a kind of graffiti contest, where artists from different places came to exhibit their work. Our guide also went into the history and origins of graffiti and how to spread to Sofia.

From here, we took a walk to see a different kind of street art. These were pictures that had been taken from galleries and blown up and attached to the sides of buildings. We saw one example of this, but there are others around the city, this had a really different vibe to them and their appearance was different as well as the picture looked really texturised, like you would be able to feel the grooves on it, but actually it was the pixelisation as the original pictures has been blown up so large. Next, we came to some old style, or probably what would have been called propaganda back in the day or at least under the Communists. I can't remember if the example we saw pre-dated that kind of stuff, but it was very simple and stylish. We continued on and entered a rather less touristy area of the city. I think that this neighbourhood had a larger concentration of artists in it and/or was an area where more graffiti artists frequented. There were a few smaller pieces of graffiti on shops' shutters and buildings. We came to a really nice piece of art, that had a lot going on. This piece was created by Mary Ann Loo and was part of her '100 Dream Trees' series. So far, she has completed eight of these murals in different cities around the world. I really like the concept of mixing art with travel, if only I had some creativity, I really wish I could do something like this. The dream tree depicted lots of Sofia's famous sights and penguins. I did some research after my trip and found out that Mary Ann Loo created a dream tree in Skopje, I wish I'd known as I would have loved to see it. Well it gives me another reason to return to Skopje.

We continued on and came to a massive piece of street art covering the whole side of a building. I love how different this was to the previous piece we had just seen. I like the variety and how people express their creativity differently. This piece was, predominantly, a man and woman hugging. It was really beautiful. It was created by Nasimo, who happens to be one of the top graffiti artists in Bulgaria. However, someone had added their tag to the bottom of the artwork. I guess some people don't respect others' work or want the attention or notoriety of adding their name (vandalism) to a famous piece of artwork. I also liked that the smaller walls near Nasimo's work were covered with more 'traditional' style graffiti. We headed over to see a piece by an artist called Stern that wasn't too far away. This was another beautiful piece of a woman with lots of other smaller details. This one was on the side of a bar/restaurant. I can't remember if they had commissioned the piece or not. But it would be nice to sit outside the bar with a beer and a burger taking in the art. Something, I learnt on the tour is that when artist sign their work, the better/more well known ones add a halo or crown to show that they are a king. This can be for two reasons; the quality of their artwork or that they do it in more dangerous places so add risk to what they do. Another interesting thing, I saw when walking was that a lot of electricity boxes had been painted. I think it started in another city and now is a country wide tradition. I really like it as it adds a bit more colour to the streets. The next large mural we came to was a giant burning candle on the side of a building adjacent to the fire station. Then we saw some other more traditional graffiti that was on the other side of the buildings.

We walked onto a busier main road and came to a really cool piece of graffiti by an artist named Bozko. We had seen one of his pieces earlier at Antrakt. Our guide was explaining how his style and message has changed over time and if we preferred this picture or the other one. They were both really good, but I liked the first one better, it was just more vivid and used more colour. We headed back to the quieter side streets and came to the Goethe Institute. Here, they have a wall that is regularly covered with different pieces of art, I think they commission it. I really liked the doughnuts that were there. From here, we wandered up some steps to a derelict looking building that covered in more amateur graffiti. It might not have been as stylised but I still really liked it. From here, we wandered to the end point of the tour. I really enjoyed the graffiti tour, it was not on my itinerary, but sometimes things happen for the better and I think that this was one of those times. I haven't done any street art tours in other cities, but I would in the future. By this point my legs were knackered and I still had quite the walk home to my accommodation, so I decided to get the subway. I love how cheap the metro system is here. I was also starving, so I went to the small take away bakery in the subway station. I ended up with a big bread thing filled with sheep's cheese, which was delicious and held me over until dinner time.

Additional photos below
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21st March 2020

Nice Review of Sofia
Too bad that you didn't make it to Rila Monastery due to your guide's car trouble. When we were in Bulgaria last May, we missed the time for meeting up with a day tour of Rila so that was disappointing too. The graffiti tour sounds interesting. It would have bee nice to see some of your photos it. I remember seeing several good pieces in Sophia while walking around. Nice photos!
23rd March 2020

Thank you!
Sofia has lots of interesting graffiti. There are some photos of the tour on the 2nd page. Sorry that you missed out on Rila Monastery, too.
23rd March 2020

So sorry! I don't know how I missed those extra photo pages! Thanks for pointing me to them. I do remember seeing the "Chups..." one and I believe the one by Stern. I believe I have one or two painted walls on my own Sophia page but they are different from yours. Thanks!
25th March 2020

No Worries!
I often forget about the other pages of photos. I shall check out your pictures. I am looking forward to seeing the different pictures. :)

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