Sofia – the city which grows, but never grows old

Centre for Social Practices – Sofia


Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, is bereft of a navigable river, unlike the bulk of Europe’s capitals. The river Danube is some 250 km to the north, beyond the Balkan mountain range, which runs the entire length of the country from west to the Black Sea coast in the east. Unlike any other capital, however, Sofia has an entire mountain, Mount Vitosha, as an integral part of the city.

Minstry of AgricultureThe city also possesses a cluster of more than a dozen mineral water springs, out of Bulgaria’s total world record of more than 2 000 such springs. The thermal springs in today’s centre of the city were what attracted human habitation in the first place, as far back as the 8th century B.C. At that time, a Thracian tribal formation known as the Serdi were settled around the springs and when the area was taken over by Rome, the Romans established a town named after its natives – Serdika.

During the 1st-4th century A.D. Serdika was a flourishing Roman city, the capital of the Inner Thracia region. Following the religious reforms of Constantine the Great, Serdika became the seat of a bishop. By that time the city boasted a major Christian church, St. Sofia, where in 343 A.D. the crucially important Serdika Ecumenical Council was held. It confirmed the rejection of the Aryan heresy at the First Council of Nicaea (325) and reaffirmed, following turbulent debates, the Nicene creed, which to this day forms the basis of affirmation of faith in all versions of Christianity.

St Nedelya ChurchThe visitor can still visit some of the places where the Council took place, such as the St. Sofia church, next to Parliament, and the St. George’s Rotunda, currently in the courtyard of the Sheraton Hotel. Sections of the Serdika fortress wall can be seen in several parts of the city. The pedestrian subway crossing, which links the President with the Council of Ministers, features the East Gate of the fortress. Pedestrians walk on the very flagstones which were part, some 1,400 years ago, of the main city thoroughfare. Less than a kilometre to the north-west, near the Halite shopping centre, parts of the North Gate have been uncovered, insribed with praises to the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. Currently, work is under way to uncover for visitors more of the old fortress at the Serdika metro station.

During the great migrations of the 5th and 6th centuries, Serdika was frequently sacked by Huns, Goths and other barbarians. From mid-6th century onward, under Justinian the Great the city, re-named into Triaditsa, recovered its status of regional capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

In 809 the Bulgars, who had swept in from the shores of the Caspian sea to establish a state to the north of the Balkan mountains, added the city to their land, re-naming it into the Slavic “Sredets”. It was later, as the rest of Bulgaria, re-absorbed into the Byzantine Empire, but recovered its independence and re-joined the resurgent Bulgarian state following a series of uprising in the 10th century.

Between the 14th century and the late 1870s the city, as the rest of the nation, was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was re-named “Sofia”, after its oldest church, sometime in the 15th century. By 1440 Sofia was again a major regonal Imperial centre, administratively in charge of 25 provinces. The Ottomans built on the foundations they found in place, re-establishing with lavish scale the Roman baths in the centre and re-structuring a number of churches (not, however, St. Sofia itself) into mosques.

The city went into decline with the rest of the Empire from the latter half of the 18th century, to meet Liberation (1879) as a large village, complete with chickens, pigs and cows, and with a population shrunk to under 20,000. Due to its dejected appearance, Sofia almost missed being voted the capital of newly freed Bulgaria. The infrastructure inherited from three great Empires lay in ruins. There were no cobbled streets and the Members of the newly established National Assembly regularly lost their galoshes in the legendary muddy puddle at its main entrance, in today’s National Assembly Square.

After Liberation, the Sofia managers made a strenuous effort to turn the city into a European-style capital in the shortest time. Czechs, Poles, Italians, French and other Europeans flooded in to set the city on course. In 1907 the centre was paved over with its legendary yellow bricks – the dowery of Austrian Princess Maria-Louise on her marriage to Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-and-Gotha, chosen as Bulgaria’s Prince and, from 1908, King. His grand-son, King Simeon II was to return to Bulgaria in 2001, following a 46-years-long exile imposed by the Communists, win elections and become Prime Minister of Bulgaria. By 1913 the Roman baths, closed for centuries, were re-opened in a city that already had re-established a modern water supply system using Mount Vitosha’s rivers.

By the late 1930s Sofia had modelled itself after the great Central European capitals, consciously imitating above all Vienna and Budapest and employing leading Austrian and Italian architects to achieve the desired effect. From the beginning, the city’s elders decided to make it as green as possible, laying down its major parks (Borisov Park, South Park, Loven Park, Vrana Park, West Park) in the inter-war period. A string of smaller parks, such as the Doctors’ Garden, Crystal Garden and others, still punctuates the city centre. The city had major male and female schools, a University, a tram-based public transport service. It also came to take pride in its ethnic and religious tolerance. To this day, the visitor can still capture in one camera frame the city’s major churches, the central mosque and the central synagogue, all within a stone’s throw of each other.
Sofia did not manage to entirely escape the political turmoil of the 20th century. In 1918, as the army on the Western front was roundly beaten, the conscript soldiers revolted and marched on the capital, to be defeated with much bloodshed on its outskirts, near the sugar refinery factory established by the Belgian Solvey Group. Seven years later, in 1925, Sofia became the scene of the world’s biggest (until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) terrorist act, as Communist Party militants blew up the St. Nedelya Church during a crowded funeral service for a general they had killed previously for this purpose. In 1923, 1934 and 1944, Sofia was the scene of army coups, the latest establishing the 45-years-long Communist regime.

During the decades of forced industrialisation, undertaken by the Communists, Sofia grew more than two times in population, breaching one million (one-eighth of the national population) by the end of the 1980s. During the 1940s and 50s most of the urbanised Sofia population was deported to the provinces. The tenor of the city’s life became dominated by the incoming peasant-workers and Communist Party functionaries, while the skyline was crowded with factory chimneys and high-rise concrete blocks of flats. The economy of the city was severely skewed in the direction of heavy industry, with the Kremikovtsi Metalworks alone employing some 60,000 in the early 1980s.

As infrastructure degraded and pollution became unbearable, Sofianites began staging “Clean Air” protests from late 1988, in spite of stiff opposition from the regime. By the autumn of 1989, the protests had become mass anti-regime rallies. The long-serving Communist dictator Zhivkov fell on 10 November 1989, just as the Berlin Wall was being demolished by Berliners.

Eagle BridgeFrom then on, Sofia has taken pride in being a “European” and therefore “non-communist” city, refusing to follow the Socialists’ lead even when the rest of the country voted them into power. When this happened in 1990, a year-long protest was launched, with tent cities and barricades becoming a stable feature of Eagle Bridge, Alexander Nevsky Sq at the back of parliament, the National Assembly Sq in front of it, the square linking the President with the Council of Ministers, and Independence Sq, opposite the National Gallery (formerly the Royal Palace). In the winter of 1996-7, Sofianites re-ran the revolution at an even larger scale, ousting another Socialist government, whose attempts to revive the state-run economy led to an inflation of 2,000 per cent, to bread shortages and a 10 per cent contraction of the economy. Early on during the “transtition” a gigantic granite monument of Lenin, which dominated the administrative centre of the city, was torn down and replaced by a statue dedicated to the Goddess of Wisdom, Sophia.

During the 1990s, Sofia’s artificial Soviet-type industry collapsed, as it did all over the country. Unlike most others, however, Sofianites used the newly arisen opportunities for private initiative and so the capital avoided the severe economic depression, which drove into poverty the provincial cities and de-populated a good number of them. Although Sofia also periodically faced penury, it not only managed to preserve, but expanded its cultural life during the 1990s, adding several private theatres and troupes to its already significant number of theatres (eight state theatres, one state opera and one state operetta). A private University (New Bulgarian University, established in 1991) became the second-largest University in Bulgaria (lagging only behind Sofia state University) and a stable feature of the life of the city. The visual arts were boosted by a dozen newly established private galleries. Although the capital’s cinemas fell victim to privatisation, by the opening of the new century three major multi-screen cinemas were built by private enterprise. By the end of the decade, a whole “street of nightclubs” took shape along Hristo Belchev St.

Vitosha BoulevardIn 2005-6, the phenomenon of the “Mall” had arrived, with two major ventures opening within days of each other, following the establishment, over the previous years, of international retail outlets such as METRO, Billa, Kaufman, Ramstore and others. The hotel and conference trade boomed from 1999 on, with a dozen new hotels and centres opening up every year.

By the 21st century, Sofia was reaping the fruits of its dogged survival of the 1990s. As the nation’s overall population fell by a million to 7.7 million, Sofia expanded to more than 1.3 million, with an estimated another 400,000 people coming in to work (and shop) every week-day. It has acquired the reputation of being able to absorb into its labour market all newcomers, with durably negligible unemployment figures, standing currently at under 7 per cent. Sofia also has 4,000 businesses established by foreign migrants. On 1.7 per cent of national territory, Sofia has collected almost one-fifth of the entire working population of the country.
Sofia has come to differ sharply from the rest of the country, acquiring, in just a decade, a clearly post-modern, global profile. Starting out from an economy based on heavy industry, currently Sofia is driven by services, which form over 71 per cent of its economy (2002 figures). The capital also attracts the bulk of Bulgaria’s direct foreign investment – 56 per cent of all foreign investment into Bulgaria over the period 1992-2002, rising to 64 per cent from 2002.

GDP per head produced in Sofia is two-and-a-half times higher than in the rest of the country. Sofianites produce just under one-third of the national GDP and about one-third of the government’s revenue. Nevertheless, the GDP per head produced in Sofia is still significantly less than in all EU capitals. Business conditions are still fairly onerous, with an average business needing an average of 6 separate licenses in order to open up, with the process requiring up to 3 months and up to 500 Euro in various payments. International research indicates that this situation is close to that in Kazakhstan, and that the conditions for doing business in Sofia are 3.5 times more onerous than they are in Riga.

By the early 21st century property prices were rising steeply as Sofia became a desirable place of residence not only for Bulgarian provincials, but also – for international migrants. First to establish a major social and cultural presence were the Irish, forming a distinct community based, as is to be expected, around Sofia’s dozen “Irish Pubs”. The Irish were followed by the Chinese, who opened restaurants, by people of Middle-Eastern extraction, who took over the open market trade in lamb and beef and, later, by the English. The new communities have added to Sofia’s already existing ethnic tapestry of Bulgarians, Roma, Turks, Russians and Armenians.

The capital did not, however, escape the infrastructural collapse, which has plagued Bulgaria since the early 1980s and particularly – during the 90s. In spite of a booming construction sector, the city is still unable to fully provide for its inhabitants, with per-head living space smaller than in any EU capital, bar Vilnius. Moreover, due to lax control, underpinned by corruption, older buildings have not been maintained and during the summer of 2006 Sofianites were appalled by a number of spectacular collapses (one of them resulting in fatalities) of 1920’s buildings in the centre of the city.

Although the Metro underground transport system did expand after 1989, it still has only one line with 6 stations along it, linking to the centre only one of its half-a-dozen major suburbs, Liulin. Trams and trolley busses still use rolling stock mostly from the 1960s and 1970s, and the bus lines have only in recent years started to replace their ancient Ikaruses with more modern vehicles. The disabled are not catered for by public transport. Most Sofianites rely on taxies and on the proverbially overcrowded private mini-bus services.
Sofianites also rely on their cars in a city that has built only two new boulevards in more than 30 years. The number of private cars has quadrupled in a decade, ensuring almost permanent traffic-jams. Sofia’s traffic police has repeatedly admitted to helplessness, when faced with a million cars on the city’s streets every single week-day. Parking in the centre is impossible, because the municipal parking company managed, by fair means and foul, to stave off competition throughout the 1990s. Only in 2006 did the municipality overcome resistance and launch tenders for multi-storeyed and underground parking facilities. Only in 2006 also did the municipality raise the funding to extend the Metro by another 5 stations, in order to link it into the largest suburb, Mladost.

The airport, built in the 1930s and expanded in the 1950s, has been in reconstruction again for a decade. But, due to repeatedly running out of money, that painful effort has not yet come to completion, with only the new runway being opened in 2006, some four years behind schedule. Leaving and entering Sofia by road is also not the easiest of endeavours. While the city’s southern and northern exits have been, to an extent, made friendlier by feeding sufficiently wide roads into the two respective motorways, leaving for the West (towards Serbia) and the South-West (Macedonia and Greece) remains everyone’s worst nightmare. Due to the recent construction boom, which has ensured that the city breached all previously imagined boundaries, the two-lane Ring Road provides no respite, having become an internal, traffic-choked street. The current Mayor, the immensely popular General Boyko Borisov (who ran the police and security services in 2001-2005), has managed to clean up the Sofia Train Station, which for more than a decade was a filth-ridden haven of glue-sniffers, tramps, pickpockets, fortune-tellers and illegal street vendors. Although the station and its immediate surroundings has now entered the glossy 21st century, the impression is inevitably spoiled by the incoming trains, which still look as the ill-maintained Soviet left-overs that they are.

Sofia’s most intractable problem, however, is its inability to deal with its daily output, some 1,000 tons, of waste. A corruption-riddled municipality for a decade refused to attract European funding for a modern waste disposal facility, having worked out that “European money” is too tightly controlled to be easily syphoned off into private accounts. The Municipal Council toyed for years with the idea of replacing the old landfill (due for closure in 2004) with traditional rubbish dumps, to be funded by the taxpayer. Over 2005 and 2006 this approach crashed against the determined opposition of all surrounding villages, which rose up against every single plan to dump Sofia’s rubbish on their land. Several times Sofia had nowhere to dispose of of its waste, which led to “rubbish crises”, when overflowing rubbish containers blocked up streets and created fears of epidemics. Although the new Mayor has now unblocked the process, and a EU-funded modern facility is on the drawing board, at the time of writing (October 2006) Sofia again looks uneasily at the prospect of a winter “rubbish crisis”.