Sofia #2: Walking & Food Tours

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March 2nd 2020
Published: March 28th 2020
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Since the free Sofia walking tour didn't start until 11 am, so that let me have a leisurely morning and saunter up to the meeting point. I was surprised when I turned up at the meeting point, the Palace of Justice, to see so many people. I haven't been on a walking tour with so many people since I did an evening Ghost tour in Krakow. There were three guides at the meeting point and they were offering two different two tours; the normal free walking tour or a Bulgarian Experience tour which was more hands on and you had to pay for. It did sound interesting, apart from the dancing bit, but I decided to stick with the regular tour. I was a bit sadden that they counted the group of people and that they decided to just go with one guide. It would have been nicer to have been in two smaller groups, but I suppose it is technically 'free', so I can't complain too much. We headed over to St. Kyriaki Cathedral Church, which I had seen yesterday. Outside the church, our guide gave us a brief rundown of the history of Bulgaria. It was interesting to hear about the different civilisations and empires that had lived and laid claim to the land. From here, we continued to Serdika subway station. Serdika was the old name for the city before it became Sofia at a later date. I really like the mix of old and new in Sofia. Here, there is a major subway transfer station and also some of the oldest examples of the city's history. Sveta Petka is a rather small church nestled in the middle of the subway station. It is a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church. I am used to seeing rather large and grand church and this one was a nice change as it seemed a lot more unassuming. The guide explained a bit about how churches had to be built lower than mosques during the reign of the Ottoman Empire and that the church had a rather low door was so that people were forced to bow on their entrance to show their respect to God. Our guide also pointed out that Sofia was a city of religious tolerance as not too far from the church was a both mosque and a synagogue. Across the way from the church, there were the foundations of the old city that had been excavated. We also saw the St. Sofia Statue, which I had seen yesterday. I thought that the city was named after the statue, but found out that this was a common misconception and it was some guy who was in charge of the city that decided there needed to be a statue of St. Sofia because he liked looking at pretty looking women.

We headed back up and on the other side, we came to the regional history museum of Sofia, which is housed in the former city baths. The building is stunning and I was looking forward to visiting the museum later on my trip. The guide was saying that some people would like the building to be returned to its former use and become a bathhouse again. I kind of agree with them, it would be nice to visit it as a bathhouse. We continued on and came to the very Sovietesque government buildings. I really like how large and gleaming they are. We headed to the government office of the Bulgarian President and saw the guards standing guard by the door and I think there were some more inside. The guide explained a bit about the criteria you had to fulfil to become a presidential guard. It does not look like a fun job, having tourist gawk at you and having to still wear your winter uniform on a boiling hot day like today. We headed into the inner courtyard of the Presidential Building. I was quite surprised by what I saw inside. There were some foundations of the old city and at the back was a small church. This church is the oldest building in Sofia and is called St. George Rotunda. I really liked how cute the church was. It would have been nice to see inside, but we didn't have time on the tour and I never ended up going back in my own explorations of the city.

We continued on past the archaeological museum and we came to the Ivan Vaaov National Theatre. That was a really beautiful building that is the oldest theatre in Bulgaria. The theatre is set at the edge of the City Garden, which was teeming with people out enjoying the midday sun. On our way to the last stop the guide explained a bit about Baba Marta Day and why people hang their bracelets or ornaments on trees. The final stop on the tour was the two main churches in Sofia. We went to St. Sophia's Church, which is the oldest church in Sofia and I think this is what the city is named after. The church looks quite unassuming from the outside and is a complete contrast to Saint Aleksandar Nevski Cathedral, which is just next door. Tour now over, I had some time to kill before my next tour. Since it was hot out in the midday sun, I decided to head to a Starbucks I had seen earlier to escape the heat and get a caffeine and wifi fix. I was surprised at how quiet it was, Starbucks are normally always packed in China, so it's nice to be in quieter ones in Europe.

My hostel had told me that there was a free food tour in Sofia. I am a fan of food tours as they let me try lots of local cuisines in one go and since I normally travel alone it is hard to sample so much stuff in one go. This way, I get to try more and then the ones I really liked I can eat again. Less chance of getting a duff meal. Plus, I had never been on a free food tour before, well not a tips based one, so I was excited to see how it compared to a paid for one. The tour is called 'Balkan Bites' and meets everyday at 2 pm at the monument of Stefan Stambolov in Crystal Park. The tour is limited to about 15 people and I hadn't booked a spot. I was hoping that it wouldn't be too popular, although given the amount of people on the walking tour that morning, I wasn't holding my breathe and made sure I got to the meeting point early. I spotted a few faces from the morning walking tour there, too. Luckily, there were only about nine or ten of us. The guide was a really nice guy and explained how the tour would work, while giving us a wristband and red and white bracelet for the Baba Marta holiday the day before. He told us that the tour is a Balkan food tour as the food is not exclusively Bulgarian and that many countries in the region have similar dishes. We would visit five places and sample a dish in each one.

The first place we visited was a short walk away. One of the first things I noticed on this tour was that we headed for the smaller backstreets to explore the restaurants there, not somewhere I probably would have ventured myself. The first place we went to was called 'Supa Star' and it was restaurant that specialised in soups. Now, soup is not one of my favourite foods so I was hoping that this place wouldn't disappoint. The restaurant was rather busy when we arrived, so we headed into the alleyway next to it to sample the soup. The soup we tried was a traditional Bulgarian cold soup called Tarator. The soup is made from cucumber, yogurt, dill and garlic. Our guide explained that yogurt starters from Bulgaria are shipped all over the world. Learn something new everyday. I liked the soup, the consistency was quite watery, but it was very tasty, not too heavy, very light and refreshing. It reminded me of a watered down version of tzatziki and I could definitely see myself enjoying it on a hot summer day. We walked further on and to an underground shopping arcade. I'm not sure if it was a subway station or just an underpath, but I do like these little underground worlds that exist, it reminds me of the huge underground shopping centres that were attached to some of the subway stations in Seoul. We came to a little bakery, where we sampled banitsa (баница). This is a popular food throughout the Balkans, and is known as burek in other countries in the region. Banitsa is sheets of flaky pastry wrapped around sheep's cheese. It was similar to the thing I'd had the day before, but that was traditional bread not flaky pastry. The banitsa was delicious, this one was still warm from the oven, which I think made it taste even better. I had been impressed with the bread one the day before and this one was a million times better. I think if I spent an extended period of time in Bulgaria and the Balkan region, these would feature heavily in my diet.

On the way into the underground shopping mall, we passed some cool artwork adorning the walls and as we continued on we came across some more. One piece of artwork had a poem written next to it, which our guide was kind enough to translate to us. I really like all the artwork on the streets, it makes the city feel really vibrant. We had took a break from traditional Balkan cuisine as we headed to 'Skapto', a small chain of burger and beer joints with branches in Sofia and Plovdiv. The branch we went to was rather small and I really liked the vibe inside. It would be a great place to come back to with friends to chill with beers and burgers. I didn't get to sample of any of the beers, but the burger we got to try was very nice. The meat wasn't overcooked and there was a lot of salad, and the sauce had a spicy kick to it. It was very yummy. There was a bit more walking involved in heading to our next stop, not that I minded at all, as we came to Church of Sveti Sedmochislenitsi, a Bulgarian Orthodox church that is built in a former mosque. The church and the park surrounding it was really busy with people out enjoying the beautiful weather. Our next restaurant was a short walk from the other side of the park. This was a vegetarian place called 'Sun and Moon'. Here, we tried two popular Bulgarian spreads that people eat on bread and we did the same. The first one we had was Lyutenitsa, which is a relish made from tomato, pepper and garlic as well as other ingredients. I am not the biggest fan of tomato, but there wasn't too much in this. I realised that I had seen jars of Lyutenitsa in the supermarket and had mistaken it for pasta sauce. Now I know better and have tried it, I would buy a jar. Our guide told us it is great student food and I could happily eat it on bread or toast when I didn't fancy cooking. A simple, easy meal or snack. We had another spread, which I think was Kyopulu, but I'm not 100% sure. Kyopulu is made from eggplant and peppers. It was tasty, just not that memorable, definitely no Baba Ganoush.

We made our way to our final restaurant, which was a traditional Bulgarian place, Hadjidraganovite Izbi. Yeah, that was a tongue twister to pronounce and our guide made it try a few times, just to be evil. We had the same spreads as we'd had at the previous restaurant plus another one, which I think contained egg. I tried to look it up but the restaurant's website now only has their limited delivery menu due to the Corona virus lock down. I really enjoyed the spreads we tried here and they were different to the ones in the previous restaurant. Each person, family or restaurant must have their own recipes that are all slightly different. We also got to sample a sweet rakia, that was tasty and I think not too alcoholic. Once we had finished we got to try a traditional Bulgarian dance. There weren't too many steps in it, but it was still too much for my two left feet. At least we gave the other patrons in the restaurant a good laugh. From here, we headed to the main pedestrian street to finish the tour. I really enjoyed the food tour, there wasn't a huge amount of food, so i wasn't stuffed like I would have been on a normal food tour, but it was still really good and I enjoyed all the food we tried and all the different restaurants that we had visited. I really wish more cities offered these tours. I had done quite a bit of walking, but since I was only really one metro station away from where I was staying, I decided to just walk back. Another great day in Sofia.

Additional photos below
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Traditional SpreadsTraditional Spreads
Traditional Spreads

Hadjidragana Tavern

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