The squirrels are gone from the Borisova Garden, but the lion-head water fountain at the back of the National Bank still stands proof of the grandeur of this great city
When i returned to Sofia as American ambassador in 2005 after a 20-year absence, I wasn’t sure how much change I would see. My wife Jocelyn and I had got to know the city fairly well during our assignment to the embassy in 1985-87, and although we had followed the political transformations from abroad during the intervening years, I had no idea how much remained of the Sofia that my memory had somewhat romanticised. Were the unique yellow bricks now covered with asphalt? Was there finally an underground metro? Had Western fast-food chains displaced the smoky, seedy cafés I used to patronise? What had become of that grandiose hero-project, the NDK?
The two years since our return have afforded us ample opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the remarkably adaptive city that manages to celebrate its heritage as one of the oldest settlements in Europe while struggling to meet the challenges of growth, development and change familiar to all European capitals. Some of these challenges I’ve simply resigned myself to: the unpredictable quality of road and pavement surfaces, or the frustrations of traffic and parking. Other changes, however welcome they might be, still seem to resist growing familiar. I never pass through Battenberg Square, for instance, without sensing the absence of the massive hulk of the Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum that dominated what used to be called 9th of September Square.
Alexandr Nevsky Cathedral
Like everyone who calls Sofia home – even if only temporarily – I have my catalogue of favourite sites and haunts. Many are themselves the emblems of Sofia and Bulgaria: the incomparable Boyana Church frescoes, the towering spire of the Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral, the public baths (especially when the restoration is finally complete), a mixed grill at Pod Lipite. But others are more personal, tied to memories of our earlier stay here, or linked to styles of art or aspects of life that simply appeal to me. The following is my somewhat random, idiosyncratic list:
The Red House Centre for Culture and Debate
This is for me the epitome of successful mixed-use architecture: a relaxed home with a touch of country spirit; a centre of Bulgarian intellectual and artistic life; an unpretentious place for food – and food for thought. Jocelyn and I have attended a number of debates and discussions, film showings or exhibitions at the Red House over the past two years, sometimes hugging the back wall of the large hall in a usually successful effort to remain incognito. Discovering that the derelict structure I recalled from the mid-1980s had been rescued and rehabilitated became for me something of a metaphor for the redemption of Bulgarian civil society as a whole.
One thing about Sofia that is truly millennial is its proximity to the mountain; few world capitals are so blessed. The Vitosha National Park is full of life, and a great way to take a break from the commotion of the city. The autumn scenery is best: the “Panoramen Pat” trail, running from Dragalevtsi to Simeonovo, Bistritsa, and Zheleznitsa, is a fiery riot of dying yellow, red and orange leaves, supremely serene. If you are lucky enough to get some sunshine on this path, it feels like being in a temple. For me the most breathtaking spot on Vitosha is one of its most visible landmarks – Kopitoto. This naturally formed “horseshoe” is famous for its panoramic views of Sofia when the air is clear, but be sure you visit it at least once in the dead of winter, when Sofia is at its gloomiest. As you break suddenly through the smog, the sky looks impossibly, blindingly blue. And from the observation deck, look off to the east: on the clearest day, with a good pair of binoculars, you might see Botev, the highest peak in the Balkan Mountains (7,795 feet, or 2,376 metres, above sea level) poking up through the cloud blanket, a hundred miles away.
The Palace and the Mausoleum
The palace of the Bulgarian kings and the now-demolished mausoleum of the first Communist dictator Georgi Dimitrov stood directly opposite one another - logically, since their fates were also linked.
When Sofia became the capital in 1879, the city had no residence worthy of Prince Alexander Battenberg. Construction of a new palace on the site of the Ottoman Court began one year later, and King Ferdinand ordered further expansions when he ascended to the throne in 1887. In 1944, however, everything changed. After the Communist coup the new Prime Minister Georgi Dimitrov moved into the palace.
The elegant wood panelling was ripped out and the decorations adorning the walls were painted over. Two years later, the palace's right wing became the Ethnographic Museum, while the National Art Gallery was established in the left wing. In 1949, Dimitrov died unexpectedly and in three days a white marble mausoleum was hastily constructed in the square in front of the palace. The dictator's embalmed body lay in state until it was removed in 1990. Nine years later the government demolished it after three unsuccessful attempts. Supposedly, it was designed to withstand a nuclear attack.
Every big city needs a central green refuge – the bigger, the better. Borisova Gradina (it was called “Freedom Park” when I first walked through it in 1985) is enormous. It feels bigger to me in relation to the size of Sofia than Central Park does to Manhattan. The contrast between the more traditionally landscaped western end and the “wilder” section southeast of Peyo Yavorov Boulevard, merging with Loven Park, is wonderful. The park is full of statues celebrating famous and less-famous Bulgarians from politics, science and the arts, as well as historical monuments. During a recent walk, on a gravel path between the Levski and Bulgarian Army stadiums, I discovered a gem of a Socialist Realist statue depicting a scene truly classic of that genre: a father (he looks like a partizan), returning home with a rifle slung across his back, greets his young son and daughter in a tender embrace. One thing in the park is missing, though. In the 1980s we used to encounter hedgehogs or tree squirrels: where have they all disappeared to?
The squirrels may be gone, but Sofia is still overrun with lions: guarding bridges, adorning portals, capping archways, even giving name to the national coinage, the lev. One of my favourites is a bronze lion’s head, part of the water spout of a small fountain at the back of the National Bank building on Saborna Street. I used to see it every day out of the window of my office in what was then the American Embassy chancery, and is now the Cervantes Centre. Today, as then, I never fail to stop for a quick drink when I pass by.
The First American Diplomats
Outside the entrance to our embassy chancery in Lozenets stands a sculpture of some of our founding fathers. Titled “The First American Diplomats”, it depicts Benjamin Franklin – the first American representative to France; Thomas Jefferson – Franklin’s successor in France and the first American secretary of state; and John Adams – the first American representative to England following our revolution. Bulgarian artist Emil Mirchev created the sculpture for us; admired by the thousands of visitors to our embassy, it is one of many pieces by Bulgarian artists that we have on display. Passing by this sculpture every day, I see a clear reminder of the importance of my job here – and knowing that Bulgarian hands brought these figures to life makes me even more proud of the connection between our two countries.
* John Beyrle is the American ambassador to Bulgaria