Strolling through Sofia
It’s only been a very short trip as usual. A conference and some business meetings so just a few very short and informal observations…
Like Belgrade and Skopje, Sofia is Balkan and proud of it. Being a Balkan person myself, that’s dear to my heart. Slovenia and Croatia, as much as that’s politically incorrect and unpopular, are Balkan countries as well. For me, the Balkans begin at the southern exit from the Karavanke railway tunnel. Your mileage — and opinion — may vary, of course. May a hundred flowers bloom :-)
The posh shops with upscale Western brands — mostly clothes, fashion and accessories — mingle easily in central Sofia with old kiosks and bookshops. Everything local is in Cyrillic while most “branded brands” are in Latinic. Like other places, the trends are all here and plain to see — craft beer, burger and sushi seemingly around every corner…
I stayed — thanks to the conference organizers who invited me — at the Grand Hotel Sofia.
“Grand” indeed — my hotel room was large enough to accomodate a small football match and included not one but two couches — quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
A bronze head of a historic warrior, helmet and all, was there at my desk to make sure I kept up with my work, writing and emails.
Get this — the hotel has a different floor mat in the lift for every day of the week. Welcome Friday indeed!
Across the street from the hotel is a landmark building — the “Telephone Palace” (sic!). Part of the enormous space used to be headquarters for my friends from the Eleven venture fund.
Notice the ugly, loud “Emotion” kitchen and bar like a kitschy blob on the iconic building’s symmetrical facade? It gets *much* worse in the evening, when a giant “reflector ad” for Glenfiddich whisky is projected onto the wall on two opposing sides. What a triumph of consumerist bullshit over classical architecture — so typical of all of our cities in “emerging Europe”.
Back home in Zagreb, until recently there was a giant sign “Jana” on top of one of the buildings in Novi Zagreb, on the way from the airport into town. Visitors could be forgiven for thinking the city they were coming to was called “Jana”, not Zagreb. Now that Jana’s parent company, Agrokor, has fallen on hard times, the sign has been replaced by an equally giant sign for a locally designed smartphone, “NOA”.
Sofia is one of many Eastern European cities which had the vision, decades ago, to introduce fully electrical buses to the public transportation system. Imagine that! We are now listening to fantastical plans to introduce EV’s — cars and trucks — to the roads of the world, while many years ago engineers and city planners dropped a few power lines from posts along the streets, put trolleys on buses and — voila! — a true “EV revolution”. How visionary! Interestingly enough it seems that Eastern Europe and the Nordics are where this amazing, emission-free technology is most prevalent.
Small bookshops in Sofia seem to have survived the onslaught of Bezos & Co. I wish I had more time to go in and check out what’s on offer…
We have a wonderful statue in Zagreb of a beloved poet, A. G. Matoš, sitting on a park bench in the Old Town. Here’s Sofia’s version with two relaxed friends — joined by two young lovers… I didn’t want to intrude too much so I shot this from the back.
Everything about these dark streets in the center of town, plastered with graffiti, speaks to me of the “transition”, seemingly endless, which all of our societies are going through. Made me feel all the more at home…
Feel free to check out the “Checkpoint Charly” “jazz restaurant” with a political statement. It’s all about reminding visitors of the lack of freedom which people throughout the Soviet empire suffered from ’45 to ’89. We had it a lot easier in Yugoslavia, of course, starting with the fact that we could travel freely whenever and wherever we wished. But let’s not go into that political wormhole… The (charmingly incorrectly spelled) “Checkpoint Charly” is a nice, comfortable place. Nat King Cole was a pleasure to listen to over lunch, and there’s live jazz every Friday, so go ahead and drop in when you’re around. These notebooks hanging on the wall are filled with sketches from visiting patrons — empty or semi-empty ones are at each table.
So long Sofia, I’ll be back :-)