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Destination: Bulgaria

Sofia, the belle of the Balkans

Long a drab outpost, the city has blossomed in the last few years into a more vibrant place, with affordable prices.

June 12, 2005|Barry Zwick | Special to The Times

Sofia, Bulgaria — 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.

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