Life and food can be as good in Sofia's urban retreats as in the country's green spots
My two years here have taught me you can have a very good time in Sofia – because time in Bulgaria runs smoothly. The size of Sofia is manageable and all the urban problems like traffic, noise, pollution and so on, are under control.
There are two things that I particularly like about Sofia. I like downtown, including the fact that the majority of the buildings there aren't renovated. The very old neighbourhoods have a spirit – a special character as opposed to the new areas and developments. And of course, I like the mountain and the proximity of it – in a 10 minute drive you can be in a mountain that is 2,290 m, or 7,513 feet, high and is the biggest national park in the Balkans. What is more, Sofia is among the very few cities where you can get to the mountain by crossing a forest that starts from a downtown park.
In-between visits to the museums, galleries and churches, I enjoy the traditional Bulgarian eateries everywhere in Sofia. The skara, the banitsa, the bean soups, and the pink tomatoes are always excellent, and so is the sarma. I'd find it hard to single out the best venues, but the following are a few of my favourite choices.
I always enjoy La Capannina next to the Radisson (9 Narodno Sabranie Sq, phone: 980 4438) for the location, the quality of the food and the waiters. I can frankly recommend the Niçoise salad, the tuna steak, the spaghetti – particularly when the female chef is there – and any one of the delicious desserts.
I also love the garden of Egur, Egur (18 Sheynovo St, phone: 946 1765, 0896 668 302) and the garden of Beyond the Alley, Behind the Cupboard (31 Budapest St, phone: 983 5581). All the Armenian dishes at the former are good, but I often just go for the eggplant salad and the mini kebapche.
Speaking of kebapche, I really enjoy the ones sold in the streets. The ones at the corner shop in the Borovo open-air market are unbeatable – the best I've had in Sofia. I wish I had a similarly good address for banitsa, but I'm still looking for it.
For sandwiches, I go to the best delicatessen in Sofia, Dar ot Bogovete, or Gift From the Gods (Bellisimo Business Centre, 102 Bulgaria Blvd, phone: 854 8686/7, 17 Cherni Vrah Blvd, phone: 866 2004).
Although I don't have time for lunch, I enjoy the Vinobar (7 Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd, entrance from Rakovski St, phone: 0898 535 355) at any time of day. Besides the excellent atmosphere, what amazes me there is the skill of the cook in his tiny kitchen. If he does the sarma, vine leaves stuffed with meat and rice, I always have it.
I also like Dani's (18a Angel Kanchev St, phone: 987 4548). It may be small but it has a great atmosphere. You eat your delicious soups, salads and sandwiches sitting at the single big wooden table with the other diners.
Right next to it, there is a small coffee shop and patisserie that I never just pass by – 100g Sladki (18a Angel Kanchev, phone: 0886 226 266). They have the best sweets and again, they have atmosphere. If you happen to be around the Radisson, try the mother venue there (100g sladki at Radisson Hotel, phone: 980 18 17). It is easily the best sweet shop in town with freshly made cookies and chocolate.
If you're looking for a good upscale restaurant with traditional Bulgarian food, go for Chepishev (Boyana, 27 Ivanitsa Danchev St, phone: 959 1010). This may come as a surprise, but I recommend the Panorama Restaurant at the top of the Kempinski Hotel Zografski (100 James Bourchier Blvd, phone: 981 0963) as the place to taste Bulgarian caviar. It's a little known fact that this country produces caviar of outstanding quality.
Living in Sofia is good, but stepping outside is where you discover the true Bulgaria. Bulgarian mountains are amazing – all of them. I personally think the soul of Bulgaria is in Stara Planina. Out there, I feel not only the beauty of nature, but the authentic and genuine Bulgaria, the pure Bulgaria. Any ventures outside Sofia have been gratifying in one more aspect – all the small, family-run hotels are very decent and they offer fantastic food. Not only is it homemade, but it is made from prime ingredients. The quality of the fruit and vegetables is excellent, mostly because the production is still not heavily industrialised. As a result, they still have taste as opposed to elsewhere in Europe, where the bananas, melons and the tomatoes all taste the same.
I love Veliko Tarnovo – the old city and the Tsarevets fortress have an amazing beauty. It's the best place in Bulgaria by far. My other favourites are Troyan, Chiflika and the surroundings, and Arbanasi. When in the Tarnovo area, I go to the former residence of the Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, in Arbanasi (Hotel Arbanasi Palace, phone: 062 630 176), sit at the terrace, have simple food like a salad and a schnitzel and take in the magnificent view of the Tsarevets fortress.
When I'm by the coast, I try to get to venues that are close to the beach – with one notable exception. In downtown Varna, I had the best pasta in Bulgaria at La Famiglia (1 Bregalnitsa St, phone: 052 610 290). This fantastic place is run by a Bulgarian who used to live and work in Italy as a cook, but returned to Bulgaria and opened his own place.
To appreciate life, you needn't go to extremes. Simple, fresh and well cooked food in an atmospheric place work fine for me.