Sofia Sunday snippets: scenes of Serdika

I lived in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, for over 30 years. In that time, the entire city was transformed into a modern, buzzing, cosmopolitan complex which, by and large, was a constant joy to experience.

In the early 70s, the city council mounted an exhibition of drawings and illustrations to show off their ‘grand plan’ for rejuvenating the place (you had to go to the Central Library to see it – no internet, no snazzy animated artist’s impressions in those days!). I was not alone in scoffing at the grandiose concept, but… I was, happily, wrong.

Apart from the fact that almost all the old ‘classic’ pubs have disappeared. Here’s an exception, weirdly preserved outside its social and architectural context.

Te Golden Cross pub, Cardiff, Wales

The Golden Cross, Cardiff

So, it struck me on Friday, as I walked through part of Sofia’s centre, that a similar transformation is underway.

The City Garden, with its devoted chess players, lone musicians, kids in playgrounds, now lives up to its name. It was beautiful: the grass was well-tended and incredibly green, given the summer we’ve had; there were flower beds everywhere; the ornamental pool facing the Ivan Vazov theatre sparkled in the sun; youngsters played on climbing frames that looked more like lovely modern sculptures.

Only one year ago, the place was scruffy, dirty, with broken seats and ugly bins. It was now a pleasure to stop, sit and contemplate for several minutes.

Sofia City Garden

The City Garden, Sofia

There was an even better surprise in store. I made my way to Serdika metro station, crossed by the pedestrian underpass from the Presidency to the Council of Ministers, emerged from walking on Roman-laid paving stones, to discover this area has been reclaimed – for the modern pedestrian.

I mentioned just over a month ago that redevelopment of the area was almost complete, ready to be publicly opened by Boyko ‘Scissorhands’ Borisov.[1]

serdika largo sofia

People take their proper place again! (despite the lamp-posts)

Well, it’s superb! Where multi-laned traffic flowed (or not) throughout the Largo, one is now free to walk, surrounded by more flowers, and – wonderfully – to examine the recently exposed Roman street remains. The entire area, that used to be a claustrophobic series of passages leading to the metro, has been opened up. The tiny C14 Church of St Petka of the Saddlers can now ‘breathe’, even though the industrial staircase and some of the surrounding concrete are rather unsympathetic.

Sveta Petka, Sofia

An historic cameo, free to breathe again

Turn away from the church, look down Maria-Luisa Boulevard, and the sight is even more astonishing. The cluttered car park outside Tsum has gone. Now, you can walk along a wide paved gallery, looking down at more Roman excavations, and watch the archaeologists who are still busily working there.

Maria-Luisa Boulevard, Sofia

They say the Romans invented concrete

There were grand words expressed about making this part “the emblem of our city”. For once, this is truly realistic. Bravo, Sofia! But, please, spend some time and effort on finishing off a pleasing, aesthetic presentation of these historic treasures.

New metro line

The discovery of this Roman street resulted from the excavations required to construct the second metro line in Sofia. Well, that was duly opened at the end of August with a great flourish by – you know who, accompanied by none other than José Manuel Barroso, European Commission President. (The EU funded some 50% of the costs of this development.)

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to take a leisurely trip along the new line, but hope to do so shortly. The price of a single (unlimited) metro journey remains at 1 Lev (about €0.50). To travel from Oxford Circus to Baker Street in London today would cost the equivalent of €5.30. And yet, there’s a new pressure group formed here that wants to see free travel on the metro. They’ll probably also want the five-pointed star returned to the top of the former Party House that looms over the opposite end of the Largo.

The pleasures of motoring

Since the middle of August, drivers in Bulgaria need to keep their car headlights on at all times – day and (obviously) night. The increase in road-user safety this provides is still debated. Here, it’s been quite ridiculous – a summer of non-stop high-intensity sun, and you need to remember to switch your lights on (and to switch them off when you leave your car – a few of our acquaintances have returned to their vehicle, only to find the battery flat!)

One local motoring organisation reckoned that this move would lead to the additional annual consumption of over 31 million litres of fuel…

the price of Bulgarian fuel

Record Bulgarian fuel prices

… which is great news for the likes of Lukoil! The current price of Bulgarian fuel, when compared with salary purchase power, is among the highest in Europe – indeed, worldwide. The same is true of the cost of a normal postage stamp, on that basis. And the postal service is c**p.

Belly aching about Belene

The constant row over Belene, that ambitious but ill-fated nuclear power project Bulgaria embarked upon way back in the 70s and 80s, and that has never come anywhere near completion, is at the centre of multi-interest infighting once again.

The opposition BSP party is making the most of what it calls a purely political decision finally to kill off the project; the ruling party (GERB) retorts that it was the lack of positive action of the previous (Socialist) government that led to this mess.

Meantime, Russia threatens to sue Bulgaria to the tune of $1 billion or more for cancelling; Bulgaria then defiantly lashes out in turn at Russia; the whole thing is referred by the Bulgarian PM to OLAF, the European anti-fraud agency, who reply that they have no jurisdiction in this case, as it does not involve EU money.

So, our national politicians have managed yet again to make a heavy summer over their constant sniping on the subject. It’s probably always been a question of political will and influence, rather than a genuine concern for providing Bulgarian citizens with a cheap (?), reliable (?), safe (?) source of power.

On a domestic level: we had the usage meters on our centrally-supplied central heating radiators changed, a few days ago. Cost? 132 Leva for 4 devices, including labour. Reason? The monopoly heating supplier for the municipality had decided the old meters’ batteries (installed only a few years ago) were worn out, and inaccurate. Choice to consumer? None. Is this 2102, excuse me?

Speaking of Russians

Opposite the Bulgarian National Assembly, there’s a rather grandiloquent equestrian statue of Tsar Alexander II, the Liberator. (This term refers to the Russian role in supporting Bulgaria’s move to liberation and independence [2] in the 1870s.

Russian Tsar Alexander II, the Liberator

Liberator renovated, but not necessarily restored

Well, he’s gone – for the time being, whipped off to the suburbs for a while, back in a few months’ time. The statue, which was officially inaugurated in August 1907, has suffered considerable damage ever since. Cracks began to appear in the bronze statue as early as 1930, and the damage was exacerbated by Allied bombing of Sofia during WWII.

A team of Bulgarian and Russian restorers will make extensive repairs and replacement of damaged parts of the bronze statue. Meanwhile, the base and pedestal, of black granite quarried on Vitosha Mountain, will also be restored, along with the decorative bronze friezes.

Very good, one would think. Not so, not according to one MP, who wants the renovated structure moved to some less central position in the city, and for a new statue of Khan Asparuh, founder of the original Bulgarian Empire in 680/681 AD, to replace the image of the Russian Tsar. Well, he may have a good historical point… whereas Russia supported Bulgarian Independence in 1878, it certainly didn’t feel the same about Unification in 1885.[2] And, let’s not speak about 1944-1989, in that context.[Also 2]

The main thing that struck me was that, whoever/whatever power ruled the country during the last century, nobody, but nobody, could be bothered to repair such a memorial for over 80 years.

Oh, the cost of heritage… and (I promise, forthcoming) the general attitude to maintenance.

So, finally, the weather

The Bulgarian Orthodox calendar is crammed with annual celebrations that are, basically, to do with old superstitions about nature, weather and the seasons.

Friday (14th. September) saw an important event – the Orthodox Day of the Cross. It’s associated with [a] the folklore change from summer to autumn and [b] attendant preparations for harvesting grapes and the production of wine and rakia. Traditionally, producers prepare and repair all equipment needed for these processes, starting on that date.

So, the Orthodox faithful must have been well-pleased to see the weather change dramatically. Yesterday (thankfully, after my stroll around the city centre), it actually rained in Sofia, for the first time since the end of July. What’s more, it’s again rained heavily today, and the temperature has dropped considerably. We’ve had to eat indoors for the past two evenings – I tell you, it’s tough!

Sofia temperatures, September

Oh, so cold – and wet!

(In my forthcoming roundup of the summer weather over here, I’ll include a couple of other examples of this religious assimilation of old, pagan beliefs about the seasonal cycle.)

Finally, finally

Here’s a thought:

“Never look at the trombones… it only encourages them.” (Richard Wagner).

[1]: From Serdica to Sofia

[2]: Bulgarian Day of Independence


Tags: , , , , ,

Please leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: