As always, some nations have done an outstanding job with creating awareness of their countries when some others have either chosen not to or made the decision to keep their gems to themselves and I think that is the case of these countries we will be talking about in this article. As usual, we will touch on their history and some of the landmarks that I have had the chance to visit.
Two counties that have walked hand-in-hand and often not so much, through history. Two almost identical twins (almost the same size, demography, or government setting), in the way they are structured today, with destinies that have taken slightly different trajectories. We will be traveling to Bulgaria 🇧🇬 and Serbia 🇷🇸.
As usual, flights are the best way to move around from the island of Great Britain. Over 90 flights to get to Sofia from London for around £50. The car rental went for $155 for the whole week and I was spending something like £10-15/day on food - Largely an affordable trip on the Nouche scale.
💡Tip: I tend to compare the car rental prices before booking one even when I see the price a lot less than I expected. I also check on American websites (Priceline or rentalcars). I take the same approach with hotels as well (Airbnb, Booking, or Expedia).
Where to stay?
I happened to come across a unique hotel that is just made up of suites and very close to the city center of Sofia, the Suite Hotel Sofia. Their rooms have a cozy design yet allows you to feel you can get to work if needed. The hotel offers facilities such as a gym, underground parking, a conference centre and a restaurant with a nice view of the nearby park.
Credit: Suite Hotel Sofia
Rate: 74Лв./night (£35/€38/$46)
Our route will take us through the mighty capital of Bulgaria and its countryside and we will replicate just the same approach in Serbia.
Known as the oldest country in the continent, it is also one of the easternmost and smallest of Europe. You can find the largest number of summer springs and the hottest geyser in Europe at 103°C. Bulgaria is the world's largest producer of lavender and rose oil and stands a serious competition to Greece in terms of yogurt as they happen to have unique bacterium that can only be found on their land. Contrary to popular belief, they are the initiators of the use of the Cyrillic alphabet, even before Russia did. Bulgaria has an up and coming economy thriving thanks to its developing service and machine-building industries. It has one of the lowest GDP per capita in Europe, hence the affordability of trips there. Bulgaria has a population of 7 million people and occupies 110,993.6 km2 of space.
I loved the similarity of this aspect of their culture which is very similar to ours, in Senegal...
The Bulgarian Kuker...
The Senegalese Kankourang...
There is a lot more to Bulgaria that must be uncovered or revealed...
The biggest city in Bulgaria by population (with over 1.2 million inhabitants), Sofia is also the capital city of the Balkan nation. It is perhaps the only country in Europe where one can find places (Orthodox church, a Catholic cathedral, a synagogue, and a mosque) of worship of four different major religions, they call it the Tolerance square. Something the rest of the continent could emulate.
The statue of Sveta (Saint) Sofia has been erected to replace the statue of Lenin. Hagia Sofia or Holy wisdom dwarfs the whole city with its majestic golden colour, with the crown, laurel wreath, and owl, symbols of the city clearly displayed on the monument.
Banya Bashi Mosque
This mosque represents more than just a place of worship as it also shows the impact of the Ottoman empire on the life of Bulgarian. Banya Bashi literally means many baths and the name was derived from the fact that the mosque was built over natural thermal spas. The building was designed by one of the most famous Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan. His other work includes other world-renowned landmarks such as the Suleymaniye mosque in Turkey or the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The inside of the mosque very much reflects the Ottoman style with the lustre hanging from the inside of the dome.
A quick spin to show the beautiful mosaic ...
This pretty edifice was built in 1566 and is the only functioning mosque in Sofia.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
It is believed to be one of the 50 largest Christian church buildings by volume in the world, Alexander Nevsky serves as the cathedral church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria. This tall magnificence has been gracing us with its beauty since 1912. Even though the first stone was laid around 1882, most of the work took place between 1904 and 1912. The cathedral was erected in honour of the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 which saw Bulgaria claim independence from Ottoman ruling.
Her name was changed at some point as Russia and Bulgaria were on opposite sides of Worl War I but eventually restored to the initial name that was given to the monument at completion.
The Tolerance square is definitely a must-see, especially in these times where division, hatred, and separation tend to gain more promotion than their opposite.
Okay, not a landmark per se but a must-see for anyone who happens to be in Sofia, and I will tell you why...
Club Conte is one of the rare places on earth (up until the time I visited Bulgaria) where I could get a taste of Bulgarian cuisine and custom-made coffee with a photo of me. So cute I did not want to drink it...🤦🏿♂️
You simply send them a photo of yours and they turn it into coffee. How fun is that?
Just a fun pitstop during your visit to the beautiful city of Sofia.
This is the most awarded restaurant I could find in Sofia that serves authentic Bulgarian food. I feel you just can't find more in Bulgaria than in Hadjidraganov's Cellars. The story of this restaurant dates back to 1866 when Hadji Dragan, a wool trader decided to build four houses, each representing a region of Bulgaria.
The vintage look and feel have been conserved up to today...
And they play live music, accompanying the great food...
Sofia is definitely a great place to start a trip to Bulgaria. I have not had a chance to visit the thermal baths and other famous landmarks but have seen enough to give a good score to the city.
Gyueshevo is a village in Kyustendil, the south-western side of the country. It is located near the border with North Macedonia and offers a great view of the Osogovo mountain. The village is also crossed by a river at three points. There is also a border checkpoint with Macedonia.
Sky so clear every aspect of nature's beauty is exposed...
Just sitting there and observing mother nature do her thing was just so refreshing...
Bulgaria is definitely a nice country to visit and offers such great diversity in terms of things to visit and activities. It also falls under the category of hidden gems that the world should know about.
Twin sister to Bulgaria, Serbia has an almost identical structure to its neighbour. A population of 7 million people, 88,836km2 (counting Kosovo but it is also considered a country in its own right - There is more information on Kosovo in my previous article). The capital, Belgrade has the same population as Sofia and the government form is parliamentary. The only key difference here is that Serbia is not a member of the European Union.
Niš is the third-largest city in Serbia and also known as the emperor's city. It has been the home to three Roman emperors. Following that, it has been under the Ottoman rule for 400 years before being liberated in 1878. Today, Niš is one of the most important economic hubs in the country, especially in the electronics and mechanical engineering sectors.
This is one of the best-kept monuments in the region and has been built by the Ottomans in the 1700s on the site of an older fortification built by the Romans then the Byzantines, The fortress even served as a prison for Serbian captives during the World War, Today, it is a park with a few ruins, bars, souvenir shops, a mosque/museum, a restaurant (old Turkish baths) and a nice garden.
Bali-Bey Mosque is now a museum to show the Ottoman style mosaic and architecture. The small edifice is still very well preserved...
I believe the mosque was once part of a complex in line with the Ottoman style with gardens, fountains, etc. I could not find much information available about this place ...
I also found these ruins but could not get much out of the bypassers ...
There is no entrance fee so another reason to make your visit to Niš worthwhile.
This is one of the darkest sides of history as this landmark is linked to some serious bloodshed. Known by the locals as Ćele Kula, this tower was built in 1809 by Turkish general Hurshi Pasha and its particularity is that it has skulls for a very sadistic reason.
During the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman empire, the rebels were outnumbered by the Turkish army and instead of giving in or fleeing, the rebel commander Stevan Sinđelić decided to put on a show of desperation and fired a shot into a gunpowder keg at the fully stocked gun powder room, blowing up his entire army as well as wiping out their assailants.
His ego shaken, by such "arrogance", the Turkish commander wanted to ensure no inspiration will be derived from such action by the Serbian army. They just wanted to let the world know that nobody can stand in the way of the Ottoman empire and wanted to use this event as an example. He ordered for the bodies to be beheaded, their skins were peeled off, the skulls stuffed up with straw, and sent to the Imperial court in Istanbul as proof of Turkish victory. He then decided to use the skulls as building blocks for the tower which stood right at the entrance of the city (For all to see).
There were initially 952 skulls embedded in the tower but the family of the deceased removed some of those to provide them with proper burial and today, 57 skulls remain on what's left of the tower. This skull belonged to Sinđelić and used to be at the very top of the tower.
This shocking act did not deter the Serbians from demanding their independence and after the liberation of Niš, in 1878, a chapel was constructed in 1892 around the deteriorating tower.
Entrance fee: 176din (£1.34/€1.49/$1.76)
Staničenje is a small village in the municipality of Pirot. I do not know the story behind this place but I loved the greenery and the river flowing right through its heart.
So I hope my article has enthused your interest in this side of Europe. My little trip down memory lane may have touched on the dark past of Europe however I believe in not forgetting the past and using lessons learned to be better in the future.
Until next time ...