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In Untouristed Sofia, Fresh Front Seats On The Capitalist Revolution

May 26, 1996|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER: Gordon is a Metro reporter for The Times

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia's cozy version of Rodeo Drive, was bubbling with post-Communism shoppers. In the crowd cruising the Panasonic store windows, cellular phones and CD players quickened the pulses of even unreconstructed Marxists.

Then, into the scene ambled an odd duo. Both seemed to me to be in costume, but Sofians knew otherwise. They made room for a wiry Gypsy and his very real and very large brown bear, chained with a ring through its nose. For a few minutes, the bear's jaunty dance to plunky mandolin music grabbed attention from the coveted electronics. Bulgaria's past and the future embraced on the cobblestoned street.

Sofia is that kind of place. Bulgaria's capital and largest city (population 1.2 million) displays its cultural confusions up front and peacefully. Forty-five years of ultra-orthodox Communism did not erase a past of gold-domed cathedrals, an imposing mosque and dancing bears. A Marlboro Man billboard has replaced the Lenin statue that loomed over Vitosha's north end, but the uncertain drift into capitalism since 1990 has not displaced other Marxist monuments.

Beautiful and rumpled, Sofia today offers the still-authentic spectacle of Eastern European transition at astonishingly low prices and without crowds. The city is not the Westernized and tourist-mad place that Prague and Budapest have become (Sofia's first McDonald's opened just before Christmas, joining a sole KFC and Pizza Hut). That also means Sofia is more challenging, and ultimately more satisfying, to master than those cities. The tourism information offices are inadequate, hotel service can be spotty, the phone system is infuriating, credit cards and ATMs are pretty rare, and the sad-sack airport requires sharp elbows for crowd control. Yet, despite all that, Sofia is not as difficult a backwater as, say, Romania's Bucharest and Albania's Tirana remain after Communism's collapse. The rhythms and residents of this mountain-valley city are gentler than, say, Moscow's. Even random wandering can be a joy.

A visitor to Sofia's compact downtown can walk among shrines of Bulgaria's five great religions: Orthodox Christianity, Turkish Islam, Sephardic Judaism, Russian Communism and, most recent, American-style Consumerism. That odd blend rewards travelers, perhaps on a side trip from adjacent Greece or Turkey, whose histories are entangled with Bulgaria's anyway. A Sofia tour can be combined easily with stays at Bulgaria's ski resorts or Black Sea beaches. (The whole country is only as big as Louisiana.)

I recently taught journalism for four months at the 5-year-old American University in Bulgaria, located in Blagoevgrad, two hours by car south of Sofia. My wife, 6-year-old daughter and I spent a lot of time exploring Sofia's boulevards of Oz-like yellow bricks. We became friends with Sofians on both sides of the confusing socialist-capitalist split; both factions serve the same strong plum brandy called rakiya, black espresso, delicious tomato and cheese salads known as shopska, and honey-drenched baklava desserts.

True, I had the advantage of knowing Russian, a sister language that shares the Cyrillic alphabet with Bulgarian. But Sofia's young people are studying English furiously and want to practice. We felt welcomed, despite the exasperating and sometimes downright lying neyama ("We don't have . . . ") attitude at some state-owned hotels and stores. Mercifully, privately owned hotels, shops and restaurants have blossomed fast, and Western consumer goods are increasingly available.

We were never bored in Sofia, except when tromping through the monotonous high-rise neighborhoods with which Communist planners encircled its historic core. We felt safer than in Los Angeles, except as pedestrians pitted against some insane motorists. (A good way to rebel against the political system throughout the former Soviet bloc was behind the wheel. That seems hard to shake.)

Of course, we were delighted with low prices for everything but the most upscale hotels.

For example, a good seat at the national ballet costs less than $1 and a children's puppet show about half that. The National History Museum charges $2 to tour its celebrated collection of ancient Thracian gold jewelry and treasures. A 25-cent candle is all that's needed to see the glittering icons of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Six dollars buys a fantastic dinner of veal soup, mountain lake trout and grape-stuffed blini pancakes at the elegant Krim Restaurant. Carved wooden jewelry boxes cost $5 at street markets.

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