Sofia may not be among Europe’s most fashionable capitals, but a capital it is, and well worthwhile with a good sprinkling of stately buildings, pretty parks and monuments from its 2400-year history. At the throbbing heart of the city is the Largo, an architectural complex of three edifices built in the 1950s among the scars of World War Two.
The Largo is in Socialist Classicism style and created a new government centre. The grand Party House, home of the former Bulgarian Communist Party, was built along with the two structures that flank it. Today, these house the Bulgarian National Assembly, the State Council and the President’s office, and some non-administrative establishments such as the National Archaeological Museum, a department store, a casino and the Sofia Hotel Balkan.
We are staying at the latter, and to use the real estate agents’ mantra of location, location, location, this hotel has got it, got it, got it, particularly if you are a sightseeing tourist. Sofia Hotel Balkan is the most central hotel in a city that – just for good measure – is oft called Europe’s most affordable capital.
While socialism/communism may finally have been banished, religion certainly survives and the hotel has notable churches right out front and right out back. Out back, barely 10 metres from the hotel’s back door, sits the Roman-era Agios Georgios Rotunda church, built in the 4th century and still in remarkably good shape.
Immediately outside the hotel front door is another landmark, Saint Nedelya, an Eastern Orthodox church boasting an impressive iconostasis. It was rebuilt in the 1920s after a terrorist attack inside. Sofia Hotel Balkan’s 184 classically furnished rooms and suites look out on one or other of these churches.
All around the hotel – front, back and side – are unearthed remnants of the Roman city of Serdica, circa 300 A.D. (Emperor Constantine the Great called the city “my Rome.”) Outside the hotel is a convenient metro station, and glass domes allow pedestrians to see down into the remains of this ancient world, which are a significant part of the Bulgarian heritage.
Come out the front door of the hotel and turn left and you are two minutes walk from Vitosha Boulevard, the pedestrianised main street of Sofia, with its abundance of posh fashion stores, restaurants and bars for dining al fresco or indoor.
Sofia sits at the foot of the 2290-metre Vitosha Mountain, a popular spot for hiking and skiing, and it can be seen in the near distance as you sip your cappuccino or buy those earrings.
Come out the front door and turn right and metres away is the tall sculpture of Saint Sofia that replaced the one of communist revolutionary Lenin in 2000. A couple more minutes walk are the Central Market Hall and the Central Mineral Bath. Between them is Banya Bashi Mosque, the only functioning mosque in the city and a remnant of the Ottoman rule of Bulgaria that lasted nearly five centuries.
A little further on but still only 10 minutes walk from this hotel are the capital`s greatest landmark, the fabulous Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, gold-domed and one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, and the grandiose Neoclassical Ivan Vazov National Threatre, designed by two prominent Viennese architects and facing the pleasant City Park.
Sofia Hotel Balkan, a Luxury Collection Hotel – to give it its full name – is part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, which calls itself the most global high-end hotel company in the world, with more than 1270 properties across 11 brands in 100 countries. Starwood`s The Luxury Collection is described by the company as “a selection of hotels and resorts offering unique, authentic experiences that evoke lasting, treasured memories” and “ a gateway to the world’s most exciting and desirable destinations”.
Well, this particular property is an elegant hotel with a touch of aristocratic flair, such as the lavish décor and wide marble stairs. Conference and banqueting facilities can handle up to 1500 delegates, and major international airlines and a number of low-fare carriers fly to Sofia from within Europe, among them Easyjet, Air Berlin and Wizz Air.