Jan 28, 2015

My Last Day in Sofia

This morning I was up early. I dressed quietly, crept out of the dorm room, and made my way to St Nedelya in the first few minutes of daylight.‎ I arrived a few minutes before 8:00, lit a few candles, and settled in to wait for Liturgy to begin.

As I waited, I noticed something I've never seen before. On entering, many believers paused directly below the central dome and stood stock still for more than just a few seconds before moving on to light their candles. (Pau had attended Liturgy at St Alexander Nevsky on Sunday and asked me about this while we were walking on Tuesday. At that point, I hadn't observed the behaviour myself, and could offer no explanation. Still can't.) 

There was a short peal of bells at 8:00 and I stood, expecting the service would commence shortly.  One woman went forward, and a priest heard her confession beside the relics of the Serbian king St Stephen Milutin (1253 - 1321) on the south side of the iconostasis. I heard someone reciting the Trisagion Prayers, but I couldn't tell if it was emanating from the altar or from the Sacrament being enacted at the front of the church. I sat down again and pulled out my prayer rope while I waited.

There are timeless moments in life, when nothing in particular‎ happens. With nowhere to rush off to, and some very appealing iconography and a beautiful iconostasis to contemplate, I was quite happy to be silent and watch the flickering of the candles and the steady prayerful movement of people in the church. Eventually the priest left the altar and walked to the back of the church, glancing in my direction as he passed. Finally I realised that either I had misunderstood the woman at the candle stand the evening before, or she had been mistaken about there being a Liturgy every morning at 8:00. I took my leave of the church and headed back to the hostel for breakfast.

Following an extended breakfast and conversation with the two Lithuanian giants I'd met the night before, I headed to the trolley bus stop nearest the hostel. (Public transportation in Sofia is pretty amazing. They have subways, streetcars of various vintages, and "trolley buses," which are powered by overhead electric power lines like streetcars, but have regular bus bodies and chassis. {What's the correct plural of "chassis"?} No tracks, so no problems for other traffic to use the lane.) Stan from the hostel had given me good directions to the National Historical Museum and the Bojana Church, and told me to buy a combined ticket to save a few Leva.

I spent a little over three hours at the museum, which had been recommended to me by a Bulgarian co-worker of my father's. From there, it was a half hour walk to the late 10th century UNESCO World Heritage Site at the Church of St Nicholas and St Panteleimon in the suburb of Boyana. (Another of Milko's suggestions. Благодаря!)

Visitors to the church are limited to groups of no more than eight people, for no more than ten minutes at a time. Since it's the low season, the guide had only two visitors to shepherd, and the other one left after looking around for a few minutes. I, on the other hand, gazed intently and deliberately at everything. I was particularly struck with the fresco of the Theotokos and Christ over the entrance to the original (late 10th or early 11th century) chapel. It was brilliant. I spent far longer than ten minutes inside, and struck up a conversation with the guide which went far beyond questions about "Who is this?" Snejana was beyond generous in sharing both her knowledge and her passion for the masterful iconography in the church.‎ She is an artist herself, trained in the same school which produced the iconographers whose work we were immersed in. (And perhaps she enjoyed interacting with a visitor who already had some iconographic literacy. She gave me her email address and promised to send me photos of two of the icons. {Yes, photography is prohibited inside.} Unless I have permission to share these images online, though, I'm afraid the only people to see them will be those who see me in person.)  There are a few ‎images from this amazing church embedded in the Wikipedia article about it:

After tearing myself away, I headed back downhill to the transit stop in time to see a trolley bus pulling away. To my surprise, it wasn't the one I needed to catch. My ride was sitting at the end-of-line layover, so I hopped on board and settled in for the evening rush hour ride across the southern expanse of Sofia. I wound up opening my GPS app to track our progress across town and ensure I didn't miss my stop. (Worked out well.)

When I got back to the hostel, the laundry I'd left at reception in the morning was ‎clean, dry, and folded. I packed it away and then headed out to top up my food supplies and buy dinner, which I ate in the common room of the hostel. After several hours of pleasant post-dinner conversation, I excused myself and packed up, leaving only the essentials in my room. Everything else is waiting for me to pick it up from the baggage storage at reception when I check out after breakfast. No matter how quietly someone tries to be, packing in the dark in a room full of sleepers tends to be a relatively noisy affair, but this should allow me to slip out without disturbing anyone.

And tomorrow I finally start walking again! It's been almost two weeks since I've walked from town to town, and it's high time I resume my nomadic ways. I'm not sure where I'll wind up tomorrow night‎, other than 20 or 30 (or 40) kms closer to Istanbul -- and ultimately, Jerusalem. 


  1. Hooray! May the road rise up to meet you.

    1. Even better: I'm leaving the mountains behind. It looks like a long slow descent on the central Bulgarian plain until I hit sea level. :D