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Bulgaria Is the Answer for a Unique Destination


By Robert Selwitz

If you're seeking a place that's safe, uncrowded, intriguing and affordable, then Bulgaria should definitely be a possibility. Bordered by Romania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, Bulgaria blends millennia of colorful history with what is today a nation rebounding from decades of suffocating Cold War communist rule. Best of all, the locals are friendly toward Westerners.

Start in the capital of Sofia, home to approximately one-fifth of the nation's 6.5 million people. Sofia's most notable structure, the Alexander Nevsky Memorial Church, reflects Bulgaria's long love-hate relationship with Russia.

While today Bulgarians relish their post-communist freedoms, this church was erected between 1882 and 1912 to honor critical military support that Russia provided to help Bulgaria end centuries of Ottoman Empire rule in 1878. While the golden rooftop domes are its most visible feature, the interior, covered with fine frescoes and icons, also begs to be explored.

Then stroll over to the nearby St. Sophia, the city's oldest Christian church. Built by the fifth century Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the church gave its name to the city -- which earlier was called Serdika -- in the 14th century.

Hours can easily be spent here examining the impressive interior. Also not to be missed is the basement necropolis, where Roman-era mosaics can be viewed by following wooden covered walkways. Here frescoes depict all manner of ancient life and times. Descriptions in English and explanatory videos enhance the experience. Explore Sofia's downtown center, where remains of the city's protective fortress walls have been incorporated into the heart of the business district. A highlight is a pedestrian passage where the remnants of the original second century Serdika settlement still stand. Major landmarks here include the fourth century St. George Rotunda, Sofia's oldest existing building, covered with medieval frescoes.


Beyond central Sofia are two must-sees that can be easily experienced via frequently operated day trips. They cover both the Rila Monastery, 72 miles from the city, and the world-famous, fresco-filled Boyana Church in Sofia's outskirts.

More than 1,000 years old, Rila evolved from a sanctuary for hermits and ascetics into a powerful center for ecclesiastical life. Main sections standing today were constructed in the early to mid-19th century. These include hundreds of dormitory rooms and halls, as well as archives and museums of history and ethnography.

Today you'll still see Rila's walls and towers, but what dominates the site are the remains that survived and reconstructions that followed a devastating 1833 fire. The Church of the Nativity, where construction began in 1835, features distinctive black-and-white archways and three huge domes. These allow maximum light for seeing the interior walls covered with biblical frescoes. Outside frescoes, however, depict chilling views of the horrors demons have in store for hell-bound unfaithful.

The 13th century Boyana Church is one of Bulgaria's smallest yet most valuable due to 90 frescoes covering the interior space. Because the church is so small, visitors are limited to 10-minute visits if others are outside waiting to enter.


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