Sofia has a history that goes back thousands of years. Through the centuries, many nations have inhabited it and added to its rich and diverse history. Numerous Neolithic villages have been discovered in the area, while a chalocolithic settlement has been recently discovered in the very center of modern Sofia.
The Thracian Serdi tribe settled here in the 7th century BC and gave the first recorded name of Sofia -- Serdica. The Byzantines called it Triaditsa and the Slavs - Sredets. The modern city of Sofia was named in the 14th century after the basilica St. Sofia. (In Greek, the word "sofia" means wisdom.) In the 3rd century AD, the Romans built strong walls around Serdica, their capital of Inner Dacia and an important stopping point on the Roman road from Naisus (present Nish, Yugoslavia) to Constantinople Today there are many archaeological sites in Sofia, that display the city's diverse history - the castle gates and towers of Serdica, public buildings and streets thousands of years old. A large part of the ancient city of Serdica is underneath important modern buildings. The ancient city council (bulefteris) is hidden under the Sheraton hotel, while a number of basilicas are below the Hall of Justice. The Roman thermal baths are under the Sofia Mineral Baths and a Roman residence with elaborate mosaics is below the Rila hotel.
After the Hun invasion in 441 AD, the town was rebuilt by the Byzantines. The Slavs gave Sredets a key role in the First Bulgarian Empire, then in 1018 the Byzantines retook Triaditsa. At the end of the 12th century, the Bulgarians returned and Sredets became a major trading center of the Second Bulgarian Empire. The Turks captured Sofia in 1382 and made it the center of the Rumelian beylerbeyship. The city declined during the feudal unrest of the 19th century, but with the establishment of the Third Bulgarian Empire in 1879, Sofia once again became the capital of Bulgaria.
The city's image rapidly changed from its Oriental roots, to reflect its new European tone. Today many streets, buildings, parks preserve the architectural style from the turn of the century. Between 1879 and 1939, the population of Sofia grew from 20 000 to 300 000. Today, Sofia is home to over 1 250 000 people.
Five centuries subjugated to Ottoman rule and, more recently, four decades locked very firmly behind the Iron Curtain turned Bulgaria into a distant, enigmatic country in the eyes of much of the rest of the world. Images of cheap wine downed at student house parties, budget ski holidays and umbrella-wielding Cold War assassins were once among the popular stereotypes, but Bulgaria today is a vastly different country from what it was even 10 years ago.
For most foreign holidaymakers, Bulgaria’s main lure is its long, sandy Black Sea Coast – which still boasts swaths of stunning beaches and picturesque bays despite the expansive construction work – but there is so much more to this country, and so much of it remains largely untouched and unvisited by overseas tourists. Networks of well-maintained hiking trails and horse-riding routes allow you to discover Bulgaria’s lush mountainous and forested landscapes, especially around the Rila and Pirin Mountains, inhabited by bears, lynx, rare birds and other kinds of wildlife now becoming scarce elsewhere in Europe. Getting around the country is easy, with cheap and efficient public transport to ferry you between the cities and into the remoter, rural corners, where the traditional, slow pace of life continues much as it has done for centuries. Here you’ll come across multicoloured monasteries, filled with fabulous icons and watched over by bushy-bearded priests, and impossibly pretty timber-framed villages with smoke curling lazily over the stone-tiled roofs and donkeys complaining in the distance, where headscarfed old ladies and their curious grandchildren still stare in wonderment at the arrival of outsiders. The cities, too, are often overlooked highlights, from dynamic, cosmopolitan Sofia with its lovely parks, sociable alfresco bars and fascinating museums, to the National Revival architectural treasures and Roman remains of Plovdiv, and the youthful maritime cockiness of Varna.
A fully paid-up member of NATO and (since 2007) the EU, Bulgaria has the feel of a nation at a very important crossroads. Massive foreign investment has created a construction boom, not just around the larger beach and mountain tourist resorts, but in the cities, too. More tourists than ever are discovering this country and an ever-rising number of foreigners are investing in property here. At the same time, the Bulgarian population is declining faster than almost anywhere else in Europe, wages are amongst the lowest on the continent – prompting increasingly long and bitter strikes – and the old problems of bureaucratic incompetence and organised crime bubble away in the background. The environmental damage caused by overdevelopment has been a particular cause for public alarm over recent years, and there are several national and international organisations campaigning to bring some of these issues to wider world attention. However much they complain, though, Bulgarians are a patriotic, if modest, bunch – when they ask you, as they often will, if you like their country, they genuinely care that you leave with good impressions.
Prices have certainly risen since Bulgaria became a member of the EU, but compared with countries in Western Europe, travellers will find it by and large a pleasingly cheap destination, and an easy and enjoyable one to travel round once you’ve mastered the Cyrillic alphabet and enough Bulgarian to buy a bus ticket. Bring your own transport and the whole country is yours to explore.
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