For most American visitors, Sofia is their introduction to Bulgaria. And while the capital city may reinforce a few common stereotypes about the country, it refutes many others.
Bulgaria's image during the Cold War, when it was considered the most loyal of Soviet satellites, was that of a gray and dreary place. Sofia, however, has one of the Balkans' most attractive natural settings. Located on a fertile plain halfway between the Black Sea and the Adriatic, the city is circled by a chain of usually snowcapped mountains.Driving into the city from the airport, you view some scenic countryside but also pass through a belt of shoddily-built, boxlike and virtually identical high-rise apartment buildings. These dormitory suburbs represent the communist system at its most depressing and dehumanizing.
Sofia's city center, on the other hand, has an old-fashioned elegance with broad boulevards, well-kept parks, dignified 19th-century buildings and many richly embellished Orthodox churches.
Red stars and images of Lenin, formerly ubiquitous, are now nowhere to be seen in Sofia. These days, once-forbidden Western pop music blares nonstop from radios and TVs while advertisements for Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Marlboro cigarettes are everywhere.
The old regime's two most symbolic edifices - Party House, headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party; and the mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, first head of the Bulgarian People's Republic - are both conspicuously vacant.
Party House, which looms sternly over downtown Sofia's main intersection, has been boarded up since 1990 when anti-Communist demonstrators tried to burn it down. The walls of the building still show traces of the fire.
Dimitrov's mausoleum was communist Bulgaria's most sacred site, the equivalent of Lenin's tomb in Moscow. Guarded by soldiers in red-braided dress uniforms, the preserved remains of the party boss were displayed behind glass in a climate-controled underground chamber. As at Lenin's tomb, visitors lined up single file and solemnly shuffled past the father figure of Bulgarian communism.
On May Day, senior government officials reviewed the annual massive parade from a grandstand in front of the mausoleum. When the communist system began unraveling - an event Bulgarians call "the change" - Dimitrov's body was removed from the mausoleum, cremated and buried in a local cemetery.
What to do with the old mausoleum, now graffiti-covered and neglected, is an unsolved problem. But speculation is that the old tomb will eventually become exhibition space for the National Gallery of Art, housed in the the former royal palace, across Alexander Batenberg Square from the mausoleum.
Although there are medieval churches and mosques in Sofia, the downtown area was largely laid out in the 19th century, after the city became capital of the newly independent Kingdom of Bulgaria. Most places of interest are within the formally planned city center, a few blocks from the old palace and on or just off boulevards distinctively paved with gold-colored bricks.
Lots of real gold can be seen in the National History Museum, which has an unrivaled collection of gold - and silver - objects crafted by the Thracians, an ancient people who occupied much of what is now Bulgaria in pre-Christian times. Recovered from archaeological sites, these beautifully crafted cups, vessels, jewelry and horse trappings are decorated with richly detailed hunting scenes and imaginative representations of wild beasts and mythological figures.
Gold has also been lavished on what is unquestionably the most impressive building in Sofia: Alexander Nevski Cathedral. The massive church - it holds 5,000 worshipers - is a memorial to the Russians who died helping Bulgaria win its freedom from Turkey in the 1877-78 War of Liberation.
A magnificent structure, Nevski Cathedral bulges with gilded domes and half domes. The cavernous interior glitters with gold, and the walls are covered with icons and huge, brightly-colored frescoes. A museum in the crypt exhibits antique icons from all over Bulgaria.
The cathedral stands grandly in its own square, surrounded by parks and gardens. On Easter and other major feast days, the church is packed and the overflow of worshipers - candles in hand and chanting sonorous Slavic hymns - fill the square and nearby parks.
Overshadowed by the great cathedral, but far more historic, is St. Sofia, a sixth-century Byyzantine church that gave its name to the city in the Middle Ages.
Another small but remarkable nearby church is five-domed St. Nicholas. Known as "The Russian Church," this ecclesiastical jewel box was erected just before the First World War by the czarist ambassador to Bulgaria.
The parks around Nevski Cathedral are popular places for Sofians to promenade on weekends. Now that free enterprise has been unleashed, they are also much-frequented by street traders.
Elderly women selling hand-made lace cluster around Nevski Square, in front of the cathedral and at the entrance to St. Sophia. Antique and crafts dealers favor the daily outdoor flea market in Kristal Park, across from the Russian Church.
The city's liveliest street, the place where young and Western-oriented Sofians congregate, is Vitosha Boulevard. The boulevard starts in Saint Netalya Square, Sofia's downtown hub, and leads directly to Mount Vitosha, focal point of the national park that is Sofia's green lung.
Saint Netalya Square takes its name from the much-rebuilt medieval church that faces it. Known as Lenin Square until "the change," it was dominated by a giant statue of the Soviet Union's founder. The space where the statue stood is now the parking lot of the Sheraton Balkan Hotel, the most deluxe hotel (double rooms start at $285) in Bulgaria.
An interesting day trip from Sofia is to Rila Monastery, largest and best known of Bulgaria's renowned "painted" monasteries. Located some 65 miles south of Sofia, the monastery is in a small valley on a forested slope of the 9,000-foot-high Rila Mountains, highest peaks in the Balkan range.
Behind its towering ramparts, Rila is a place of color, grace and beauty. All around the enormous central courtyard rise arched tiers of monastic cells, the facades boldly decorated with black and white stripes and red-checked designs.
The domed monastery church is covered with superb frescoes inside and out. The interior is lavishly decorated, the sanctuary a wall of icons embellished with carvings and gold leaf.
Recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site, Rila was in the forefront of the monastic movements that nurtured Bulgarian art and culture in the Middle Ages and revived national identity in the 19th century. Exhibited in Rila's treasury are relics of Ivan Rilski, illuminated medieval Bibles, icons by some of the finest Bulgarian masters and artifacts from the war of independence.
But the greatest treasure is the unique Rila Cross. This is a small wooden cross carved with 143 three-dimensional biblical scenes containing 1,500 detailed figures, each the size of a grain of rice. The carver, a monk named Rafael, used only a needle, took 12 years to finish the cross - and went blind.
For information about travel to Bulgaria, write to Balkan Holidays, 317 Madison Ave., Suite 508, New York, NY 10017.