24 hours in Sofia

Morning – Spend the morning in the hilly outskirts of Sofia, visiting the ancient Boyana Church with its 11th century frescoes, walk through the atmospheric Vitosha Forest to Boyana Lake and onwards to the secluded Dragalevtsi Monastery (1hr 45mins walking on steep rocky paths, description below).

Lunch – Recover from the walk with a late lunch in central Sofia at the quaint Made in Blue house or, if full, at The Little Things which is tucked away in a courtyard just around the corner.

Afternoon/evening – After lunch peruse the quirky boutiques, coffee shops and bars around the restaurant before heading to the Palace of Justice. This is the starting point of a free 2 hour guided tour with the Free Sofia Tour company. English speaking tours are held everyday and start at 6pm (morning options also available). Learn about the ancient and multicultural city of Sofia from your local guide, who will show you all the main sights, including:

  • Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, where communists tried unsuccessfully to assassinate the King of Bulgaria;
  • Sveta Petka Church, built, despite severe financial difficulties imposed by the City’s then Ottoman rulers;
  • Banya Bashi mosque, happily coexisting alongside the Sofia Synagogue, the third largest synagogue in Europe;
  • The different hot mineral springs with healing properties, where locals fill up their water bottles;
  • Communist architecture, the President’s Palace, locals dancing the Hora dance outside the National Theatre, the ‘wedding gift’ yellow paving stones in the old city and the Sveti Nikolai church and Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral.

Dinner – try more tasty Bulgarian food in either Moma’s (booking highly recommended) or Dobro’s outdoor gardens.

After dinner – if you have any energy left after doing all of the above then try one of the many shisha lounges or go clubbing at Gotham.

The morning walk in Vitosha:

Below I have included a description of the morning walk. The paths in the forest can be confusing in places and secluded – I didn’t meet anyone else on the walk in August. You should wear trainers or walking shoes and be confident walking on your own over rocky, forested terrain.

I took a 20 min taxi from my Hotel Marinela to Boyana Church for 10 lev. The Boyana Church sits on the flank of the forested Vitosha Mountain and is surrounded by a small park. Entry costs 10 lev and includes a ten minute tour with an English speaking guide. Taking photos are not allowed inside and you have to leave all bags/handbags just inside the entrance before going though into the climate controlled and dark inner chambers.

The church was built in three main stages and the earliest frescoes date back to the 11th century. The central chamber from the 13th century is the most vivid, depicting Bulgarian royalty in the company of Jesus (the king and queen with haloes) and a series of panels illustrating thirteen miracles, including ‘the miracle of the carpet’…

Leaving the church, I turned left and headed uphill past a series of villas in various states of disrepair and decay, one scrawled with the graffiti ‘Macedonia is Bulgaria’. At the T-junction on the edge of the beech forest, I turned left and continued to an information board about the Boyana Waterfall, which is a 1hr 45min walk (one way).

I initially followed the trail markers for the waterfall, steeply climbing leftwards on a rough and rocky forested track for approximately 15-20mins. At the crossroads, I followed the signpost left for Boyana Lake and not the waterfall. The path climbed steeply before reaching a fork underneath some electricity pylons. I turned left and 15 mins later reached the shore of the small Boyana Lake.

I turned left and followed the path clockwise around the water’s edge, from the reeds to the small muddy beach and notice board (in Bulgarian) on the other side. From there I continued gently uphill (ignoring the prominent left hand fork upon leaving the lake). The path slowly curved leftwards, at times worryingly narrow and at other times much wider and reassuringly well trodden. At a narrow point in the path I passed a small meadow surrounded by Brothers Grimm-sequel twisted vines and trees.

After approximately 5 mins I reached another fork where I turned left onto an unlikely looking narrow and slightly overgrown path. Shortly after the turn off, I passed a dried up spring with ‘959’ etched into one of the stones that had once provided a drinking bowl for travellers (was the spring discovered in 959, perhaps?). Almost immediately afterwards the narrow track opened up onto a meadow full of dewy long grass, pink flowers and huge thistles. In better weather the clearing probably has good views towards Sofia and would make a good picnic spot.

Heading back into the forest, I passed a small rocky outcrop but the view was again shrouded in mist. The path widened and soon on a gentle bend in the hillside was a little spring trickling out of a narrow white plastic pipe next to some benches made out of stripped beech branches nailed into a ‘V’ shape between two trees.

I hadn’t seen anyone at all up to this point and could feel cobwebs break over my legs as I walked along the not very oft-trodden path. This didn’t bother me at all and I enjoyed the silent embrace of the forest, broken at intervals by the sound of sparrows and other small birds’ wings as they happily flew from tree to tree.

Coming up to a rockfall that cut across the path, the birds overhead started to call to each other in increasingly shrill alarm and I suddenly distinctly felt that I was being watched. My first thought was whether there were any bears in Bulgaria. I couldn’t remember but the feeling only intensified as I cautiously started crossing from one side of the rocks to the other. Suddenly every hillock or twig breaking became a stalking bear and source of terror. I picked up the pace, lump in throat, crossing another two scree slopes in close succession.

Not long after, the path started to head gently downhill and 20 mins later, the path met the side of a cobbled road. The path hugged the road for the last 5 mins or so before crossing a small wooden plank onto the road. As I was coming down the path I heard screeching and then a black car with tinted windows turned at speed round the bend and disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared. I crossed the road and followed the signpost for the Dragalevtsi Monastery.

A young girl of nine or ten wearing a pink tracksuit and Mickey Mouse t-shirt was sweeping the path outside the monastery with a homemade brush. She didn’t pay me any attention so I entered through the side gate and walked past the piles of neatly chopped firewood and up to the tall white-washed monks’ quarters. These were built over three or four levels and each balcony was framed by a red and orange decorated arch. I couldn’t see anyone but I could hear and smell onions frying on one of the lower floors.

Walking closer to the church I noticed two men in suits lighting thin candles in the glass covered entrance, having to twist them in threes to get them to sit happily in the wider candle holders and not topple over. They crossed themselves and left as I hesitated at the entrance.

Looking behind me I saw a aged bearded monk leaning against the balcony railing on the top floor. He didn’t show any sign of paying me any attention either so I stepped inside the church. The inside was quite modest and had a series of wooden panels and pretty icons as well as two white and grey dappled cats happily licking themselves clean on the seat that is usually reserved for the head priest. I lit a candle and made my way out of the Monastery, following the road downhill.

After the first steep bend, there was a signpost for Dragalevtsi District and I followed this path, crossing another road a few minutes later. After approximately 10 mins the path finished and turned into a potholed tarmaced road to some lovely and some overgrown villas on the hillside above Sofia. I continued walking downhill past a hotel and a restaurant out of which sidled a very portly gentleman and walked over to his car the roof of which was adorned with a pig for roasting. I reached a main road opposite a cemetery. There I hopped into a passing taxi, which took me back into central Sofia for 10 lev.

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