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Sofia, the Belle of the Balkans

Source: Barry Zwick, Los Angeles Times
Published Date: 11 Jun 2005

Just another Saturday night in this capital so long disparaged as a Balkan backwater. Just another wine bar with a 24-page wine list. Just another grand opera. Just another glamorous piano bar.

Before my eyes, scaffolding was coming down all over the city, like a box of bonbons being unwrapped.

I arrived in Sofia one Friday night in October with a plan to spend most of two weeks visiting Bulgaria's historic villages, riding the rails and rooming in mom-and-pop inns. I was in Bulgaria because I had heard it was cheap, pretty and fun. I started in Sofia only because that's where the airport is.

After 24 hours here, I scrapped my plan. No trains, no historic villages. Just Sofia.

What captivated me was a lovely, vibrant, stylish city, filled with flowers, fountains, statues, monumental architecture, broad boulevards, richly landscaped parks, good restaurants, friendly people - all for a bargain.

Prices were a third of what they were at home in Los Angeles, a fourth of what they were in most of Europe. A cup of coffee costs about 20 cents in Sofia, a fine three-course meal with a couple of glasses of good wine, $9 to $12.

"I thought of Sofia as a run-down Vienna when I first arrived here three years ago," international accounting consultant Bernard J. Thompson told me one day at breakfast at the Sheraton Hotel Sofia Balkan. "But that was before the reconstruction commenced."

Sofia and, to a lesser degree, the rest of Bulgaria, awoke from a slumber of many centuries only four years ago, when voters tossed out most of the remaining Communists in the National Assembly. Parliamentarians chose as their new prime minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the former boy king who had lived in exile in Spain since 1946.

The new prime minister brought in a brain trust of young Bulgarian expatriate bankers from London and New York and turned the tax code upside down. International investment poured in. Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and is hoping to be admitted to the European Union in 2007.

"Things are going well," Thompson said. "They have some distance to go in terms of rooting out corruption, but they speak our language."

At the peak of Sofia's colossal makeover in August, the city's unemployment rate had dropped to 3.26%, and international tourism had increased by 50%. After the city's massive face-lift, the once-cratered sidewalks and the pitted streets are smooth, the dome on the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences golden again.

Exploring on foot

You won't need a car or a taxi if you visit, and you can save the colorful trolleys for rainy days. Sofia was the most walkable city I have found in more than 30 years of foreign travel.

The walker's Sofia is shaped like a gull with wings outstretched, with the Balkan Sheraton and the neoByzantine St. Nedelya Church forming St. Nedelya Square as its head. The lobby of the Sheraton, the grande dame among Sofia's six ultra-luxurious hotels, is a tourist attraction in itself, filled with antique chalices, ornamental clocks and expansive oils. A boulevard that changes official names from block to block but is called the Yellow Brick Road - paved in 1917 with yellow bricks from Vienna - is the gull's right wing.

Fashionable Vitosha Boulevard, where you'll find shops bearing names such as Versace, Ermenegildo Zegna, Chanel and Donna Karan, is the left wing.

On my first morning in Sofia, I followed the Yellow Brick Road. Nearly all of Sofia's landmarks are on or near this boulevard, which is seven-tenths of a mile. The first three blocks, called the Largo, are lined with bright green lawns and the flags of NATO nations.

At my left was TSUM, once a grim department store modeled after Moscow's GUM. Today, it's a gleaming glass-and-marble four-story complex of elegant shops - Swarovski, Nautica, Calvin Klein, Limoges, Victorinox.

I walked down the Yellow Brick Road until it became an aisle through a valley of Hapsburg wedding cakes, white and yellow neo-Baroque buildings including the Presidency, the National Art Gallery, the National Ethnographic Museum and, ahead on my left, the onion-domed emerald-and-gold St. Nicholas Russian Church.

When I peeked in, the church was filled with smoke from pots of burning incense and packed with worshipers, mostly young people.

I soon came to an enormous black equestrian statue of Russian Czar Alexander II, who freed Bulgaria from the Turks in 1878. Alexander faces the National Assembly on his right and the stunning Russo-Byzantine St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the symbol of Sofia, on his left. At his backside is the Radisson Grand and Flannagan's Irish Pub, a hangout for parliamentarians as well as tourists.

No walker should miss the Theater District, just south of St. Nedelya Square, a pedestrian haven surrounding the red, white and gold neo-classical National Theater Ivan Vazov, set amid a pool and fountains and filled with sidewalk cafes. Whenever I was lost at night, which was often, I could count on a customer at the outdoor Caf Theater to point me to my destination.

Crossing the Yellow Brick Road is Rakovsky Street - party central, with nightclubs, restaurants, bars and the National Opera.

Early one afternoon, I headed to Rakovsky Street in search of wine and a light lunch.

I found both at Vinobar, which was to become my hangout. I checked out the 24-page wine list, gave up and turned to the bartender, Milana Harlacheva, for help. She recommended the No Man's Land merlot, a full-bodied wine from Melnik, heart of one of Bulgaria's five wine regions. "No Man's Land" was the name for the barren three-mile-wide strip between Bulgaria and Greece to which refugees from Communism once fled, risking death at the hands of Soviet soldiers. Today, No Man's Land is filled with grapevines.

Another history lesson came with dinner, at chic Checkpoint Charly's in the shadow of the National Theater. Place mats were copies of Cold War-era front pages from the Bulgarian Communist Party newspaper, Rabotnichesko Delo, or Workers' Daily. Mine led with student demonstrations in Warsaw against U.S. actions during the Vietnam War. The room was painted half black, half white, with a sign in the middle saying - in English, Russian and German - "You are entering the American sector."

As a jazz trio played "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," I feasted on katak - red pepper stuffed with feta, yogurt and walnuts - and chicken seasoned with parsley, dill and cilantro and baked in yogurt. I had a bottle of fine Cabernet Sauvignon from a vineyard near the Black Sea and, for dessert, a huge caramel sundae. My bill: $21.

The city's dawning

Bulgaria, a Cinderella forced to scrub the floors while her sisters were having a grand time at the ball, is trying to make up for a lost childhood. Under the Ottoman heel from 1393 to 1878, the Tennessee-size nation was bypassed by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Isolated from the West by the Soviet Union from 1946 to 1989, Bulgaria missed out on the Age of Aquarius as well. The rest of the country is still in the horse-drawn-cart age, but not Sofia.

Its better hotels and restaurants are full much of the time. Sophisticated, Modernist works fill its art galleries. When I attended a performance of "Aida" (front row center, $12) at the opulent National Opera, every one of the 1,200 seats was taken.

Theater is flourishing. Nightclubs are packed. I needed a reservation 24 hours in advance to sit on a barstool on a weeknight at Jack's Piano Bar on Rakovsky Street.

Its all-Bulgarian clientele was smartly dressed, with all the hallmarks of the country's trendsetters - flame-red hair and leather jackets with fur collars on the women, frosted hair and cable-knit preppy sweaters on the men.

Most Sofians earn an average of only $250 a month, so how do they live so well? Many live rent-free in three-room apartments that their families received under Soviet rule. Their sophisticated wardrobes come discounted from a rabbit warren of hundreds of tiny shops under the National Palace of Culture, the city's main convention and entertainment hall, on Vitosha Boulevard.

There I found beautiful men's silk ties for $4, designer sunglasses for $3 and gorgeous women's ski sweaters for $13. My fellow shoppers were full of good cheer: "Hello, mister. You speak English? Have a nice day."

Sofia's cosmopolitan flair was evident at Machu Picchu, a bustling Mexican restaurant. Before I left the States, I had studied the Cyrillic alphabet and memorized a few hundred phrases in Bulgarian. But I didn't have to. The waitress handed me a 32-page menu in English and asked me whether I wanted corn or flour tortillas. The guacamole was rich and dense, better than I usually get at home.

I put Sofia's cuisine to a test at L'tranger, Bulgaria's top French restaurant, where I stopped one day for lunch. L'tranger looked like a small-town bistro in Provence, France, with an ancient dumbwaiter down to the kitchen and walls painted tomato and lemon.

My starter was a superb terrine of salmon on a bed of tomatoes, arugula and peppers. My entre, beef Wellington with foie gras, arrived steaming, wonderfully fragrant. The crust was crispy and browned. On the side in five symmetrical mounds were perfect pures of carrots, eggplant, peppers, zucchini and potatoes.

"I buy all my ingredients at the supermarket," owner-chef Olivier Roche told me, "except for the duck. I have to go [300 miles] to get good duck."

Roche had been an accounting major in France and fell in love with a Bulgarian exchange student. They married and opened L'tranger.

For dessert, a waitress brought me grapes flambed in Cointreau with slices of prune and pear and a dish of cinnamon ice cream with orange peel. And finally, some of Roche's father-in-law's homemade apricot brandy.

The meal cost $29, including a bottle of No Man's Land.

A lunch like that called for a long walk. I walked past the laughing coffee vendors of St. Nedelya Square, the serious old men who played chess in City Park in front of the National Theater, the booksellers at Slaveikov Square, who wished me "dobur den," or good day, past the schoolgirls filing into the cathedral, the fruit seller at Doctors' Park, the icon-sellers on Shipka Street, the accordionist at the Serdika Metro station, the tequila-sunrise tipplers at the Happy Bar & Grill, the young artists painting portraits at the entrance to the Museum of Foreign Art.

Sofia was a feast not only of food and wine but, above all, people.