Tue 8 Aug 2006
Sofia by night is a rather limited experience. Few major streets are decently lighted; smaller ones are dark and uninviting. So we wandered around the main shopping street, Vitosha, from a park on one end to an orthodox church on the other. In the park there were some people walking near nicely lighted fountains. And besides the big church there was something really strange – a very small and old orthodox chapel, squeezed into a shopping passage between two major streets. It looked like a refugee from another time that forgot to run away and was surrounded by those who took its place.
Another interesting sight was people queuing to a window in a cell operator’s shop at 11pm. It looked like they were there to pay their bills or buy pre-paid access. In a country where more than 80% of population doesn’t have bank accounts it is not as weird as it sounds. Interestingly, you see bank branches everywhere you go and opening a bank account is reportedly a simple matter of filling a form and presenting an ID. But the locals see dealing with cash everywhere as perfectly normal and give lots of reasons why it is better.
During the day we had a chance to see a bit more of the city as we were driven to a meeting in one of the suburban neighborhoods. A huge, forest-covered mountain dominates the skyline of the city. It is about 8 miles away from the city and its peak is 2000 m / 6500 feet above the sea level. Despite that the city itself is completely flat and quite small. You can walk the whole length of the main street, Vitosha, in 10 to 15 minutes – on the city map it looks much longer. I was really surprised when I was told it has 2 million inhabitants. As our country manager explained most people are living in blocks of flats – MDUs – in the city outskirts. In a sense they are stacked in those 8-12 storey structures occupying little space.
However, despite being visibly a poor city it is rather nice. You feel rather safe, especially during the day and on those streets that are well lit. Even in the evening you don’t meet many drunk or aggressive people. There are some very nice historic buildings, some of them renovated, some not. And for a city that was under communist rule for decades it has remarkably few ugly, imposing buildings so typical in other countries of the former soviet block. Compared to nearby Bucarest, who had most of its historic parts destroyed and replaced with grim commie buildings Sofia looks almost untouched.
Anyway, it was interesting, but I’m glad I’m leaving for a more civilized place. Especially since the Internet stopped working at the hotel in the morning, they don’t know why or when it might be fixed and I had to hack around to get connected via my cellphone to post this.