SOFIA—A CULTURAL HERITAGE TOURISM DESTINATION
Sofia is one of the most ancient cities in Europe. The town was set up and grew on a strategic crossroads, where the Via Militaris, connecting Western and Central Europe with the Middle East and Asia, intersected with another important thoroughfare, linking the North and the South—from the Baltic to the Aegean Sea.
These were military roads taken by Roman legions, Crusaders and warrior troops, but also sacred roads leading pilgrims of various religions to Mount Athos, Jerusalem and Mecca. These were moreover trade roads used by gold and precious stone traders and merchants selling amber and silk, rare spices and exotic goods, but also travel roads guiding explorers of every kind to the four cardinal points and described in their travelogues.
These cultural routes where the Eastern and Western civilization meet and which today merge with trans-European corridors provide Sofia with an extremely favourable position in the global tourism realm.
The Sofia vast and fertile plain was part of the most ancient European civilization dated back to the 7th–6th millennium BC. An early agrarian Neolithic settlement located in the eastern parts of the present day city, brings evidence that of all European capitals Sofia has the deepest roots in the past and they stem from the earliest European civilization.
A coin from Serdica IIIrd c. ac
In the last millennium BC, the Thracian tribe Serdi set up a town there and called it Serdonpolis—or Serdica. The ancient city was located at what is the heart of Sofia today, close to the abundant healing thermal springs. Archaeological finds show that Serdonpolis had a regular grid of streets and blocks—downtown Sofia today—while the chieftain fortification was built at the highest place of the valley.
In the 1st c. BC the Roman legions conquered the area. In the course of three centuries Serdica turned into a beautiful, well-planned and rich city with numerous public amenities. Archaeological excavations have uncovered parts of main and back streets and authentic sections of ancient lanes can be seen even nowadays. For example, in the underpass between the buildings of the Presidency and the Council of Ministers one can walk on the original surface of the 6th c. busiest town arteries—the main street stretching from the Eastern City Gate to the centre of Serdica. The road was further divided by a natural high terrace along the presently existing Knyaz Dondukov and Tsar Osvoboditel boulevards.
Serdica streets left a deep trace in Sofia urban planning and determined the shape of its infrastructure network. The street orientation is kept in many contemporary lanes and boulevards. Serdica had a water supply and sewerage system. The Serdica thermae were famous throughout the empire. The forum, at the heart of the city, was enclosed to the east by a portico. Public buildings formed the nearby townscape. Remnants of the city hall, the buleuterion, were found under what is today the Balkan Sofia Sheraton Hotel. Remains of the praetorium, whose vast halls were heated by hypocastum, were found to the south of the forum, under today’s Sveta Nedelya Square. Remnants of the building of the gerusia were found in the basement of what is now the building of the Ministry of Culture and these of a civil basilica were excavated under the Law Court building. A temple dedicated to the gods of health and medicine Asclepius and Hygia was built in the area of the city thermae, located to the west and southwest of Sofia Mineral Baths. Valuable information about the gods worshipped in Serdica, their temples and statues, is discovered on the coins minted under the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180).
Serdica was one of the earliest fortified towns on the Balkan peninsula: the construction of the first fortress was completed between 176 and 180. The outlines of the Serdica fortress have been identified rather precisely. The northeastern round tower has been preserved, as well as the northern wall with a triangular tower. Of the main gates facing the four cardinal points, there are only remains from the eastern and the western gate. Inscriptions on the four gates are known to have read: „Good luck! The greatest and divine emperors Caesars Marcus Aurelius Antonius Augustus Germanic Sarmatic, father of the Fatherland, Pontifex Maximus, and Licius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Germanic Sarmatic, gave the fortress walls to Serdonpolis when Governor of Thrace was Aselius Aemilius, Emperor’s delegate as strategus, pointed as future consul“
A new, even stronger fortress with more towers was built over the groundwork of the first fortress in the end of the 3rd c. and the beginning of the 4th c. Considerable areas of lands, also enclosed by a fortress, were added too. The last fortification of the city, before it was included in the borders of the First Bulgarian Kingdom, was made under the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565). A second wall glued to the existing one was added, along with new peaked towers. An outer protective belt was added at a distance of 20 m from the main fortress.
The St. Sofia basilica before its reconstruction
The St. Sofia church nowadays
In Roman times Serdica was one of the pillars of urbanization in the Balkans. In Tabula Peutingeriana, a guidebook about the Roman Empire in the 2nd c. and the beginning of the 3rd c., Serdica (Sertica) was described as a big and significant town which fortress had two towers. The town was particularly famous in the period between the 4th c. and the 6th c. due to the spreading and strengthening of Christianity. Emperor Constantine the Great spent 13 years in Serdica. He used alledgedly to exclaim „Sedica is my Rome!“. The name Serdica is mentioned in Christian writings as the venue of one of the first Ecumenical councils (in 343), which history and religion remember as the Council of Serdica. The Council, which made important decisions about the fate of Christianity relating to Arianism, was believed to have taken place in the St Sophia Church, named after the God’s Great Wisdom, now one of the most important symbols of Sofia.
It was most probably its central location in the middle of the Balkan Peninsula that gave to the city its new name, Sredets (middle part) after Bulgarian Khan Kroum conquered it in 809. Sredets kept the relics of Saint Ivan of Rila, transferred there, in a solemn ceremony in 946 and their presence was believed to have blessed the town.
During the two centuries of Byzantine rule, the town acquired once more a new name, Triaditsa or Tralitsa, relating to the Holy Trinity. There is ample evidence of the city amazing vitality, it was never abandoned, it has risen from the ashes many times, to become one of the eternal European cities.
Today, the territory of ancient Serdica and medieval Sredets enjoys the status of a Historical and archaeological reserve with four protected zones. The historical layers are extremely rich. The extraordinary and universal value of this heritage is further advanced by the proliferation of exceptional monuments of culture from Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the time following the Liberation and the 20th century. The new General Urban Plan of Sofia contains a motion to include Sofia’s historical centre in the World Heritage List.
It is an accepted fact that the central core– the „heart of the city“—is the most valuable tourist resource of the capital. The city has however a great potential for up-graded cultural routes. Within the boundaries of the city centre, 14 group and 829 single architectural and archaeological sites have received the status of cultural heritage monuments. Outside the city centre there are further 110 archaeological and 465 single monuments of culture. Opportunities exist of developing themed routes like „Ancient Serdica“, „Medieval Sredets“, „In Sofia during the 20th c.“, „The Secession in Sofia“, „The Gardens“.
Special events focusing on national holidays, celebrations of patron saints of the capital, folklore festivals, orthodox customs and rites, traditional Bulgarian cuisine and fine wines are resourceful opportunities to promote the destination.
The Boyana church—mural paintings
The Boyana Church with the surrounding reserve area is included in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List The church, built in three stages, is located at the foothills of the Vitosha Mountain. The oldest part was built in the end of the 10th c. or the beginning of the 11th c. The fame of the Boyana Church can the attributed to a large extent to its preserved murals. The frescoes depict the Bulgarian Saint Ivan of Rila, Tzar Constantine and his wife Irina as well as church founder sebastocrator Kaloyan and his wife Dessislava. These are considered the first portraits of the Bulgarian medieval painting.
The St Nedelya church
There are 47 churches with the status of monuments of culture in Sofia and the vicinity, which represent a valuable resource for religious tourism. Amongst the most popular and the most visited sacred sites are the Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral—the biggest temple on the Balkan Peninsula, the Saint Sophia Basilica—which gave the name of Holy God’s Wisdom to the capital, the St Nedelya Church and the St Nikolai Russian Church and two impressive temples of the Muslim and Hebraic religion—the Banyabashi Mosque and the Sofia Synagogue—also the biggest one on the Balkans. Roman Catholics, Armenians, Adventists, Evangelists and other denominations have temples in Sofia as well.
Sofia is festooned with monasteries which, experts say, numbered 100 but only 14 have been well preserved until present time. The area was dubbed „The Sofia Mount Athos“, or „The Small Mount Athos“ in analogy to the famous monastic site on Mount Athos. „The Sofia Mount Athos“ functioned as a religious, cultural and educational centre.
MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES
As a capital city, Sofia has a developed network of national museums and art galleries, which preserve and display the country’s cultural heritage and provide an array of resources for cultural tourism. Listed below are some of the most important sites.
The National Museum of History presents the Bulgarian history from ancient times to modernity. The Museum keeps unique exhibits from Antiquity and the Middle Ages, including gold and silver treasures; ceramic archaeological finds; works of religious arts; exhibits from the Bulgarian Revival period, national costumes a.o.
The Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built in honour of the Russian Emperor Alexander II, also called the King Liberator. The basement of the cathedral hosts the Crypt where about 300 exhibits, mostly icons and also mural fragments are displayed in chronological order, dating to the 9th c.–19th c.
The National Church Museum of History at the Holy Synod shows the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox culture and art. There are here on display a number of manuscripts, valuable icons and templates, church utensils, small-scale models of famous old churches, photo albums.
The National Museum of Archaeology
The National Museum of Archaeology is the oldest museum in Bulgaria. It shows the material and spiritual culture of all the nations that have come across and inhabited Bulgarian lands from the Antiquity to the 18th c. It boasts a fund of 55 000 exhibits, and 300 000 coins and is one of the biggest archaeological museums in Europe.
The Museum of Natural History is also the biggest institution of that type on the Balkan Peninsula, with a rich collection of more than 1 million species of animals, plants and minerals.
The Institute and Museum of Ethnography is located in the building of the former Royal Palace. The museum keeps collections of artefacts of traditional Bulgarian crafts, costumes, fabrics, embroidery, ornaments and musical instruments. It has more than 50 000 exhibits from the 17th until the mid-20th c.
The Man and Earth National Museum
The Man and Earth National Museum was set up in 1986. There are more than 20 000 items, gigantic crystals, natural and industrial minerals, gems and new materials. The museum is a frequent venue for exhibitions and music performances.
The Sofia Synagogue with Museum: the Sofia Synagogue was designed by the Austrian architect Grunanger and is the third biggest one in Europe after the synagogues in Budapest and Amsterdam, opened in 1909.
The National Art Gallery is located in the building of the former Royal Palace and hosts more than 3 000 paintings, sculptures and graphics of prominent Bulgarian artists.
FESTIVALS AND CONVENTIONS
The National Palace of Culture
Sofia has a well developed infrastructure for hosting festivals and conventions as well as different international events—Sofia is home to the National Opera, the National Theatre and to a network of state, municipal and private theatres, concert halls.
Amongst those stands the National Palace of Culture—the largest multifunctional facility in South-Eastern Europe. It houses 13 halls and 55 conference rooms with a capacity from 100 to 4000 seats and over 15,000 sq.m. exhibit grounds. The Palace of Culture is a favourite venue for various events– conventions, conferences, concerts, film festivals, performances, exhibitions, book fairs and expos. Sofia hosts several major annual festivals, which are invariably included in the network of cultural tourism resources. These are: Sofia Music Weeks Festival, Sofia Film Fest, Salon of Arts, New Bulgarian Music Festival, Cinemania Festival, „Praise the God Lord“ festival of Orthodox Chants, the 10th Jubilee Festival of European Co-productions; the International Children’s Folk Festival; the 9th „Vitosha“ Sofia International Folk Festival, the 2nd International Choir Competition, the International Book fair; an exhibition on „Islamic Literature and Art“, the World Architecture Triennial INTERARCH, which has a nearly 20-year history.
GARDENS AND PARKS
The Borisova Gradina (Boris garden)
The Vitosha Mountain
Sofia is rich in opportunities for themed cultural itineraries relating to landscape and garden art. There are 38 monuments of the „green wealth“—one of the most significant ones is the reserve Borisova Gradina (Boris garden) which is a cultural monument of national significance and dates 120 years back.
Another site of interest is the Sofia Zoo, established in 1888. It is the oldest and biggest zoo in the Balkans.
The Vitosha Mountain is one of the symbols of Sofia and the closest site (some 15 km south from Sofia city centre) for hiking, alpinism and skiing. Vitosha has the outlines of an enormous dome, with a height of 2 290 m. The territory of the mountain includes the Vitosha national park which is the oldest natural park in the Balkans.
Roads, alleys, paths, chair and cabin lifts provide easy access to the high mountain peaks. The two biggest tourist centres, located at the northwestern and northeastern slopes of the Vitosha Mountain, are the Zlatnite Mostove (the Golden Bridges) locality and Aleko—Shtastlivetza (the Lucky). There are two reserves in the mountain, the Bistritsa Forest Reserve and the Peat Forest Reserve, and a number of natural landmarks: the Boyana waterfall, the Samokovishte waterfall, the Douhlata cave, which is the longest one in Bulgaria a.o. The Vitosha Mountain also offers opportunities for winter sports. There are two skiing centres with national and international importance boasting a variety of skiing facilities.
SPRINGS AND WATERS
Thermal mineral spring
Sofia has been renowned for the abundance of healing cold and thermal mineral springs since antiquity. The springs are more than 40 and are located both in the city itself—the Central Mineral Baths—and in the adjacent areas—Knyazhevo, Ovcha Kupel and Gorna Banya springs. Bankya is a spa resort of international fame—it is located 17 km away from Sofia, in a beautiful valley at the slopes of the Lyulin Mountain.
The Pancharevo lake and mineral spring zone, 15 km south-east of Sofia, has a beach and is an attractive getaway for water sports, fishing and spa treatment. The rowing centre organises national and international contests.
The Iskar dam recreational zone is located 37 km away from the capital and offers excellent opportunities for a short rest, water sports and fishing.
Sofia enjoys a rich potential of tourist resources Enliven the architectural and urban assets and the cultural heritage of the city through inclusion into networks of cultural routes could ensure an exciting and unforgettable experience for every visitor of the capital and will allow who comes in touch with the centuries old material and spiritual culture to take away the feeling of coming into contact with eternity and God’s Wisdom—Sofia.