Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Bulgaria: the gateway to Europe

Sofia is not well known for tourism. The capital of Bulgaria has no recognizable icons like the Eiffel Tower nor commercial attractions like Disneyland. In fact, most people will be hard pressed to place Sofia - or even Bulgaria - on a map of Europe.

Nonetheless, for any traveler proceeding to Europe from the East by land, Bulgaria is unavoidable. On their march to siege the city walls of Vienna, Ottoman Sultans proceeded westwards into Europe through Bulgaria. The road to Vienna traveled through Sofia and while borders may change, geography does not. Hence, it was through Sofia that I went westwards, deeper into Balkan Europe.

Sofia's impressive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The Bulgars are a predominantly Eastern Orthodox people following their own church, the Church of Bulgaria. The Church of Bulgaria is one of the oldest churches within Christianity, formally recognized by the Constantinople hierarchy in the early 900s. Not surprisingly, one of the top sights in the city is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, catherdal church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria.

The Nevsky Cathedral in just over 100 years old. The structure was completed in 1912. The cathedral has a capacity of 10,000 persons and is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals in the world. The cathedral is named after Alexander Nevsky, a Russian prince. The cathedral also honors Russian soldiers who died in the Russo-Ottoman war of 1877-78, following which Bulgaria obtained its independence after almost five centuries of Ottoman rule.

During Ottoman times Sofia had over seventy mosques but today only one remains, the Banya Bashi Mosque. The remainder were destroyed once the Ottomans were vanquished by Bulgarian nationalists. The Banya Bashi Mosque is one more marvel of Ottoman Master Architect Sinan. The mosque was completed in 1576 and, unusually, was built over natural thermal spas. The mosque serves the city's Muslim minority. Muslims comprise almost ten percent of Bulgaria's present population.

Sofia's sole surviving mosque, the Banya Bashi Mosque, completed in 1576
Outside of Sofia there is a beautiful monastery located high in the Rile mountains. The Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila or the Rila Monastery is located approximately 120 kilometers south of Sofia and at an elevation of 1,150 meters above sea level. The monastery was founded in the tenth century and also houses a museum. A visit to the monastery makes for a pleasant day trip.

A view of the Rila Monastery as seen on the back of the One Lev banknote
Undoubtedly, Bulgaria is European. Indeed, for railway enthusiasts Sofia is also the perfect starting point for any rail journey heading west into Europe. So while Bulgaria has been part of the European Union since 2007, the nation is anything but mainstream Europe. The remnants of decades of communism and political isolation are still pervasive – though slowly disappearing - making Bulgaria an unique travel experience.
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

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