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New Europe

Day Thirty-three: Sofia

Sofia's Grand Hotel 
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Keep music live! The delightful musicians at Sofia's Grand Hotel playing their way.
Michael Palin - New EuropeI'm in the garden café of a smart hotel in the intimate, walkable centre of Sofia.

A quartet of soberly but elegantly dressed conservatoire girls are tuning their violins and cellos. As they raise their bows and I raise my cappuccino, I take quiet satisfaction in having discovered this little oasis of civilisation.

So lulled am I by the pleasantness of it all that it's almost half a minute before I realise they're playing 'Tulips from Amsterdam'.

I leave with the strains of 'My Way' fading behind me and wander through the City Garden past a group of elderly and oddly disputatious chess players and an accordionist leaning up against a tree, counting the coins in an upturned cap. At the far end of the park are some gardens, laid out a few years ago on the site of what was once one of the most venerated places in Sofia, the mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, the father of Bulgarian communism, and Prime Minister from 1946 to 1949. By all accounts he was a very nasty piece of work who attended to the bourgeoisie with a pragmatic brutality that Stalin might have envied. On his orders thousands were killed or sent to forced labour camps, robbing his country of a generation of talent.

In 1990, following the abrupt collapse of the Soviet empire, his remains were removed, but the mausoleum proved so solidly built that it was not successfully demolished for another ten years.

Dimitrov and his friends have left their mark on the city. The wide plaza called the Largo was laid out by the communists after the Allied bombers destroyed much of central Sofia at the end of the Second World War. It's still dominated by the Party Headquarters building, but tucked in amongst the monumental stucco facades is a less boastful architectural gem, the Buyuk Djami, a mosque built in 1496. It now houses an archaeological museum. I've never been easily seduced by such places but this is a revelation. The collection is of incomparable quality, for Bulgaria sits on one of the greatest resources of ancient artefacts in the world. Even before the Greeks and Romans were here, and a thousand years ahead of the Bulgars, the land was home to Thracian tribes, rich enough to produce exquisitely detailed work in gold and silver and precious stones. Much of this was produced for the elaborate graves of the rich and powerful, who would be buried with their treasure all around them, to accompany their souls into immortality.

Their tombs are scattered across Bulgaria, many still sealed. What has already been unearthed is often extraordinary work, as graceful and intricate as anything that might be designed nowadays. For me the highlight of this dazzling collection was a Thracian gold-leaf death mask, made some two and a half thousand years ago. Powerful and delicately fine at the same time.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-three: Sofia
  • Country/sea: Bulgaria
  • Place: Sofia
  • Book page no: 81

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