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Sofia so good

Date: 30.01.2006

By Tim Hames
The Times

Almost every major city in Central and Eastern Europe seems to aspire to be the "new something". That Sofia is on this shortlist represents a significant achievement. While Bulgaria has long attracted tourists to its various Black Sea resorts, its capital city was not on the agenda of any but the most intrepid and specialist of travellers even five years ago.

But as Bulgaria approaches full membership of the European Union (scheduled for next year), many of the restrictions that have so far held back Sofia's potential as a weekend-break location will be eased. There are, for example, no low-cost airlines operating directly between Britain and Sofia. Once an "open skies" market exists, it is hard to believe that others will not explore this virgin territory.

Sofia is thus almost certain to experience a boom and will merit that interest. The core of the city is extremely compact and although the public transport system might seem a little antiquated, it is effective. My wife and I chose to have an inexpensive walking tour (about £7 for two people) with a guide to familiarise ourselves with the city.

Sofia has three assets that work in its favour. First, the principal boulevards - Kniaz Alexander Dondukov and Tsar Osvoboditel - are genuinely impressive and contain within or just off them galleries, museums and monuments. The vast St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a sight in itself and representative of a seriously interesting set of churches. Helpfully, if eccentrically, it is not difficult to work out which are the main streets because they are constructed with thousands of yellow bricks - an unusual wedding gift from an Austro-Hungarian Emperor to a Bulgarian Tsar - adding a surreal Wizard of Oz touch to an already intriguing city.

The second factor is the strong sense of a place which believes that it is on the up. From a low base admittedly, the number of four and five-star hotels is expanding rapidly (although the traditional favourite, the Sheraton Balkan, probably remains the place to beat) and the restaurant scene has a real hum about it.

This produces two surprises: the first is that Bulgarian cuisine is rather good and worth sticking with rather than succumbing to the many bland international chains that have hit Sofia; and the second is that English is widely spoken throughout central Sofia. Bulgarians under the age of 35 will have been taught it at school - this may be a poor country, but educational standards are impressive.

The final element is that Sofia is extremely good value for money - and although it is at present relatively costly to reach, that will soon change. The price of drinks is modest even in the grandest of hotels and main courses in swish local restaurants rarely come in at anything close to £5. Try Akademia (near Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, 00 359 2 988 5505) or Kashtata (4 Verila Street, 952 0830).

As for shopping, religious icons are a must (even for the staunchly irreligious), local rugs represent excellent value for money and linens of striking quality are ubiquitous. It is easy to kill a few hours wandering along the main boulevards, pausing periodically to browse, and being tempted by museums which reflect a culture that, while plainly European, has been influenced by the Islamic world.

This remains, though, an emerging tourist destination rather than one which has already done all that is necessary to meet its potential.

While the principal thoroughfares are pleasing to the eye, the visitors who wander off them will find evidence of dilapidation and should beware paving stones that frequently have a semi-detached relationship with each other.

The public parks, some of which make for a pleasant stroll, would benefit from the regular deployment of lawn mowers. And the street signs are usually in Cyrillic, yet many tourist maps are provided in Roman script - a combination that is not too confusing provided you stick to the Yellow Brick Road but becomes almost impossible to comprehend otherwise. To borrow from Judy Garland: Sofia, it ain't Kansas.

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