This project is sponsored by Sofia Culture Programme of Sofia Municipality for 2013, and is in support to the Sofia and the South-west region nomination for European Capital of Culture for 2019
Catherine Barber is deputy head of the British Embassy in Sofia. An economist by training, she has taught at Oxford and Harvard Universities, and as a researcher for Oxfam, the UK’s largest international development charity. As a civil servant she has worked for the Department of Business and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where she focused on the economic issues of globalisation, trade and climate change.
How long have you lived in Sofia? Why did you come here in the first place?
I came to Sofia for the first time in 2002, when I spent a summer working as an economist in Bulgaria’s Agency for Economic Analysis and Forecasting. In those days the Currency Board was relatively new and we were looking at whether the exchange rate was sustainable (I’m happy to see it has been!). I enjoyed my stay in Sofia a lot and spent my weekends travelling around the country. A few years later I joined the UK Foreign Office, and when the possibility of a posting in Bulgaria came up, I jumped at the chance. Sofia has been my home since 2010.
Your favourite cultural venues in Sofia - and why are they favourites?
My favourite pastime is music, so my favourite cultural venues are mostly related to music. I am a big fan of Sofia Live Club, where I’ve attended several fantastic events – Argentinian tango played by virtuoso harmonica; the Asian Dub Foundation; and City-to-City Cabaret sponsored by the British Council. As I live on Vasil Levski Boulevard it also has the advantage of being my nearest venue! I love the acoustics in Bulgaria Hall and regularly attend concerts there, most recently a performance of Fiddler on the Roof in the chamber hall. And Sofia Opera impressed me hugely this summer with its production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. My partner and I went to all the performances.
Is Sofia a cosmopolitan city?
Not in the sense of being a world city like London or New York. One doesn’t hear the same variety of languages spoken on the streets, or see people from so many different races. Having said that, my friend Zvezda Vankova who runs the Multi-Kulti Kitchen project, tells me that migrants from dozens of different countries live in Sofia. Every month Multi-Kulti celebrates the culture and cuisine of a different country, hosted by migrants who are living here. So there is clearly a mix. I would say that Sofia feels, culturally and architecturally, like a European city with some influences from further away.
Your favourite hangouts in Sofia?
My favourite place at the weekend is the Sun and Moon cafe at the Small Five Corners crossroads. It’s just round the corner from my house. If I have time, I settle down there with a good book, enjoy the wonderful vegetarian food and soak up the atmosphere. Alternatively, when I’m with my partner (who is decidedly not vegetarian) we tend to hang out in the beer gardens that can be found all around the centre of town. Finally I like the cafes on Vitosha Boulevard. I find it very relaxing to sit there, drinking coffee and watching the world go by. I usually pop in to Greenwich book store as well.
Three amazing things about Sofia?
Living in Sofia, we are lucky to have so many parks. It’s a really green city, and lovely to walk around. My favourite occupation at the weekend is to take a map of the city, draw myself a route including a park, and walk for several hours. The best way to become properly acquainted with a city, in my experience, is on foot. Sofia’s parks contain many fascinating little monuments and statues, which if you stop to read them, offer a window into the place and history. Apart from these green spaces in the city, I’d have to count Mount Vitosha as one of Sofia’s amazing things. We are unbelievably lucky to have such a beautiful place to hike and relax, so close. I always take visitors to one of the churches on the foothills of the mountain. And lastly, though not so dramatic, one of Sofia’s attractive attributes is the proliferation of small cafés, bars and restaurants. I think it would be possible to go to a different “zavedenie” (establishment) every evening and never repeat a visit, as new places open so often.
Three things you dislike about Sofia?
Hmm, it’s wouldn’t be very diplomatic to criticise my host city! The one improvement I’d make would be the pavements. Several of my visitors have gone home with stubbed toes or twisted ankles. This would be a cultural investment because pedestrians could keep their heads up and admire the city, instead of keeping their eyes on the hazardous paving!
Apart from local culture, are there any other events that visitors and residents should take a note of?
The international festivals. The Sofia International Film Festival has an excellent reputation, for example. I regret to say I missed it this year because I was away on holiday, but I won’t make the same mistake in 2014! Many embassies and cultural institutes put on festivals too. I particularly enjoyed the events organised by the Japanese and Belgian embassies in the last year. And we had an excellent response to our British Weeks festival this season. The highlight for me was our Open Day at the British Ambassador’s Residence – hundreds of people came to visit us, many of whom were neighbours who’d never been inside the Residence before. Next year we will celebrate the 100th anniversary since it was built, and I’m sure we’ll organise several events for Sofia’s visitors and residents.
Does Sofia deserve to be named European Capital of Culture in 2019?
Yes. The city has plenty to offer. Bulgaria receives many European visitors but they don’t always come to Sofia – it would be a great opportunity to show guests how attractive the capital can be. I’m confident that Sofia would put on a great programme.