The Diverse City

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The Lion's Bridge

One of the symbols of the city whose construction started in 1888 has a rather dark history. In the times of the Ottoman Empire there was a law in force according to which the criminals that did not reside in the city were to be hanged in front of the gate they came in from. Thus, four Bulgarian revolutionaries and academics who opposed the Ottoman authorities were hanged at the Colourful Bridge as it used to be known in those times. After the Liberation the four lion figures were placed at the four ends of the bridge to commemorate them. Many hotels of shady reputation were built around the bridge and Maria Luiza boulevard was to become the red lantern quarter of Sofia. There is an urban legend according to which the lions on the bridge have no tongues to guard the scandalous secrets they were privy to.

 

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The Open-Air Farmer's Market (The Women's Market)

The market is one of the best-kept secrets of the city having the charm and vividness of myriads of flavours and colours. It is located in one of the oldest and most interesting quarters of the city  boasting plentiful architectural examples from the early 20th century. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables along with all sorts of trinkets such as spades and rubber shoes, marvellous clay pots and hand-knit socks can be found at the marketplace. This is the Orient of Sofia where Chinese supermarkets, Arabic groceries and Indian stores coexist.

 

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The Sofia Synagogue

The Sofia Synagogue is the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe. Its dramatic history mirrors the history of the Jewish community itself. The Neo-Mauritian building which corresponds very well with the Ottoman architecture in the central part of Sofia was designed by the prominent architect Friedrich Grunanger and completed in 1909. The two-ton brass chandelier purchased in Vienna is a true work of art. Bulgarian society has ample reasons to be proud with the saving of 48 000 Bulgarian Jews from deportation during WWII. This was an endeavour bringing together the otherwise conflicting interests of the Bulgarian King, the Orthodox Church and the Communist Party.

 

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The Central Market Hall

The first indoor marketplace in Bulgaria was built a hundred years ago by the architect Naum Torbov whose design included the pavilion architecture very modern at the time and impressive façade decorations. Before the building of the Market Hall this was the place where a famous Bulgaria Circus used to be and where the first cinema screen in Sofia was put. The citizens of Sofia remember the pre-war market hall as an abundance of vegetable stalls, butcher shops where slaughtered animals – calfs, lambs, rabbits, even deer - hang on three-meter long hooks, and lavish fish stalls selling lobsters, octopuses, eels and crabs. The market hall reverberated with the shouting of the sellers and the bustle of the buyers. In those times the indoor market was visited mainly by men because it was thought to be improper for women to go there.

 

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Banya Basi Mosque

The Mosque of Sofia was probably built in 1566 or 1567 and combines specific features of the Ottoman architecture from the 16th century and elements of the Byzantine style. It is believed that the Mosque was designed by the prominent Ottoman architect Sinan.
The minaret is an exquisite work of architecture which in the 17th century the traveller Evlia Celebi described as the most beautiful in Sofia. After the natural and political turbulences in the 19th century the present mosque remained the only functioning Islamic temple in the capital where the Muslims go for Friday prayers.   

 

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The Central Public Bathhouse

It was for the mineral springs that the City of Sofia was established at this exact spot. The legend is that Princess Sofia, the wife of the Byzantine Emperor Justin, was cured by the mineral waters in the city. The building of the Central Bathhouse started as late as 1906. The design was done by the Bulgarian architect Petko Momchilov and the Austrian Friedrich Grunager who combined modern architectural trends with Bulgarian Medieval elements and created an unrivalled Neo-Romantic style. The Bathhouse had functioned as such for close to 70 years and attracted many residents of Sofia with its healing mineral waters. At present it is under renovation and will house the Museum of Sofia while a part of it will preserve its original function and become a modern SPA centre.

 

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Sveta Nedelya Cathedral

The dramatic history of the Cathedral is enveloped in mystery. In the Roman times it used to house the city court with the first church being erected in the 10th century. In 1460 when the plague ravaged in Sofia the relics of the King Stefan Uros II Milutin of Serbia (1282-1321) were brought to the city. The legend tells that they still protect Sofia from earthquakes and diseases. The place where the relics were laid miraculously escaped destruction in 1925 when the Church was bombed by the underground Communist party in an attempt to assassinate King Boris III. Today the Cathedral is one of the most popular churches in Sofia where in the weekends many weddings and baptisms take place.

 

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Saint Joseph Catholic Cathedral

It was Pope John Paul II who laid the first foundation stone of the restored Cathedral during his visit in Sofia in 2002. The Cathedral was rebuilt at the location where the original Roman Catholic cathedral used to be before being destroyed during the WWII bombings and the ensuing devastating   fire in which however the statues of the Holy Mother, the Holy Virgin of Lourde, the patron saint of the Cathedral St. Joseph and St. Anton were miraculously saved. Catholicism was brought to Bulgaria in the 17th century by Dubrovnik merchants and minors and in 1841 the Capucine Order established the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sofia. Nowadays the Roman Catholic community amounts to more than 5000 people in Sofia most of them belonging to the Capucine Order.   

 

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Vitosha Bulevard

The pedestrian thoroughfare and liveliest commercial street of Sofia attracts both the citizens of Sofia and the visitors of the capital. It mirrors the Roman north-south oriented street – Cardo – providing a fabulous view to the Vitosha Mountain, running by the National Palace of Culture and reaching the South Park. The street features a variety of retail shops and cafes.

 

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Slaveikov Square

The square, one of the liveliest places in Sofia today, used to be described as an “important intersection” as early as in the Ottoman times when the Basi Cafe served as a meeting place of the city notables. The square is named after the prominent Bulgarian writer P.R.Slaveikov whose statue, made by the sculpturer Georgi Chapkanov, is placed at one of the corners of the square.  The place acquired its modern appearance in the 20s and 30s of the 20th century when the most imposing building in the square, the Metropolitan Library, was constructed following a design competition won by the 24 year old architect Viktoria Angelova, graduate of the Vienna Technical School and the Dresden Polytechnic. Nowadays the square accommodates an open-air book store.

 

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The Sveti Sedmochislenici Church

The Sveti Sedmochislenici Church has a long and turbulent history. Until 1900 it used to be known as the Black Mosque commissioned by Suleyman I The Magnificent. According to the legend the Mosque was erected to commemorate the Ottoman invasion in Budapest.   During the Russian-Turkish War the Mosque became a military prison and after the Liberation the prominent Bulgarian statesman Petko Kravelov proposed that it be converted into a church named after St. Cyril and Methodius and their five disciples, known in the Orthodox Church collectively as the Sedmochislenitsi (Seven Saints). Today the Church is also popular with its church choir.

 

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The Monument of the Soviet Army

Before the Liberation the place which later became a park was known as the Sambolov Meadows  - marshlands where in the winter the diplomats and notables of Sofia used to organise musical festivals and skate to the amazement of the local villagers. This was the place where the first Bulgarian rockery was built and in 1891 King Ferdinand provided the funds to establish the first Bulgarian zoo. In the 30s of the 20th century the first royal playground was set up in the park offering a variety of entertainment such as a maze, a swimming pool and theatre performances for children. In September 1944 a Soviet anti-aircraft battery was deployed in the park to salute the Red Army victories. Subsequently, a monument was erected to commemorate the Soviet Army. Today the Monument stirs up heated controversies. The park now has a life of its own having become a venue for alternative culture and sports.  In 2011 the Monument attracted the attention of the world media when anonymous artists painted the sculptures of the Soviet soldiers as characters from American comic books.

 

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The Eagle's Bridge

In 1889 two Czechs – the architect Adolph Kolar and the engineer Vaclav Prosek – started the construction of the Eagle's Bridge, the symbolic gate to the capital. The name of the Bridge comes from the eagle statues placed on both sides. They were manufactured by the Vienna-based company Waagner-Biro owned by the famous entrepreneur Rudolph Waagner. The company also made the  cast-iron rails of the Bridge. The four bronze eagles erected on 12-meter pillars look at the four directions of the world and were placed there to commemorate the exiled Bulgarians during the Ottoman rule. The Bridge itself is situated at the place where they were welcomed by the citizens on their return in 1878. Graduallyq the venue turned into a focal point of the city where political talks, flirtations and business negotiations took place. 

 

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The Roman Wall

One of the few preserved Ottoman relics in Sofia is the wall wrongly known as the Roman wall. This used to be the place where the imam read the so called “hacilar” prayer for those starting their pilgrimage to Mecca.  Later the area around the wall became an open-air market catering to one of the most affluent quarters of Sofia – Lozenec.

 

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Socialist Heritage

The Museum of Socialist Propaganda Art from the period 1944 – 1989 was inaugurated in 2011 more than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Museum exhibits the red star which  used to crown the Party Headquarters Building and the statue of Lenin which had been installed at Saint Nedelya Square now replaced by the Statue of Saint Sofia. Part of the Socialist heritage are also the panel high-rise buildings in the suburban areas of the city.

 

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The Monastery Ring of Sofia

In the 13th century, the times of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, more than 14 monasteries were built in the area around Sofia. The most well – known of the monasteries is the one in Dragalevtsi – the Monastery of the Holy Mother. One of the most famous Bulgarian churches – The Boyana Church included in the UNESCO  World Heritage List is also located in the foot of the Vitosha Mountain. The murals in the Church reflect the significant contribution of the Bulgarian painting tradition from the Early Middle Ages to the European cultural heritage.