SOFIA (II) Churches

Churches are not just places of spiritual contemplation, they reflect the architectural preferences of the times in which they were designed, built and often re-built. Sofia has a plethora of churches that range from the Roman times to the early twentieth century. I made what could be described as a valiant effort to see as many as possible in one day without boring my companions (or myself for that matter) or to the detriment of other Sofia sights. We managed by taking a route that led us from hotel to churches, a market and a lovely bar on a warm and sunny day that belied the previous day's greyness.

From our hotel we turned onto Bulevard Knyaginya Mariya Luiza and toward Sveta Nedelya church which stands on a plaza around which the traffic flowed. The snow on the mountains twinkled in the sun that was making a welcome appearance and the slush no longer stained our boots as we made our way to the church. We were at the hub of the historical Sofia with trams rattling past which we successfully managed to dodge.

Sveta Nedelya Church
Attribution: Plamen Agov •
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Sveta Nedelya stands on the site of a medieval church and has been damaged and rebuilt a number of times. At one time the body of the Serbian king Stefan Mulitin lay within its walls, but now only relics remain. In 1925 Communist insurgents tried to murder Tsar Boris III and his cabinet at a funeral mass but succeeded only in killing 123 others. This Saturday there was an altogether happier affair taking place as a wedding was in progress. The church is second only to the Aleksandar Nevsky Memorial church in its importance as a place to worship in Sofia. The wedding prevented our entrance and so we made our way to an altogether smaller building.

Sveta Petka of the Saddlers
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As we crossed the roads amongst bulldozers and men in day-glo waistcoats we could see the roof of the building of St Petka of the Saddlers situated below us. How to reach it was a different matter. We finally discovered the way in was via a subway and we entered what turned out to be the most arresting of all the churches in the city. Dark and atmospheric, with its vaulted apse and crypt it was in constant use by Sofian women in headscarves praying in front of saints. The unusual name arises from Petka being adopted as the patron saint of the Saddlers Guild who used the church for its rituals in the Middle Ages. The mural paintings are dark and brooding. It is definitely worth a look around this most spiritual of surroundings.

St George Rotunda
Photo in the public domain

Our next stop was the Rotunda of Sveti Georgi which is hidden behind the Sheraton Hotel.The hotel provides a contrasting backdrop to the round red brick of the fourth century church which holds incandescent frescoes under its small dome. Due to our arrival at the tail end of winter the church was not open for internal inspection, donations for heating are requested during the variable opening times. (Summer has fixed opening times).

It was a day of weddings; as we passed the Russian church a happy couple emerged into the afternoon sunshine. We left them to their celebrations and made our way to the park by the Aleksandar Nevsky Memorial Church. A market was in full swing selling everything from modern art, Nazi and Cold War memorabilia and silver jewellery. The good thing about backpacking is the disinclination to carry more than necessary and this prevented wanted but not needed purchases. Salvation from temptation came in the form of the Aleksandar Nevsky church which seems to have taken the best of Sofia's church architecture and created a masterpiece.

Aleksandar Nevsky Cathedral
Author: Harfang
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Started in 1882 the majority of the construction was carried out between 1912 and 1914. The larger domes of the basilica form a cross and are mirrored in the smaller domes on the building. Some, including the main dome, shone bright gold whilst the others contrasted in green. Aleksandar Nevsky to whom the church is dedicated was a Russian prince in the thirteenth century who was cannonised by the Russian Orthodox Church in the sixteenth century. The church was financed by public subscription though who decided that God should glower down on the congregation below I could not find out. It is a cavernous church that is large enough to hold 5000 worshippers at one time most of whom stand or kneel. Royal visitors could have sat on what looked to be very uncomfortable marble thrones guarded by marble lions.

Russian Church
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But by far and away my favourite church that we entered was the Russian Church. With the final vestiges of the wedding swept away I could appreciate the wacky architecture and colouring of the church with its green roofed porch, gilded pinnacles and emerald spire against the brilliant white of the main building. It is like a very elaborate wedding cake. Officially known as the church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker (Blessed) the interior is in stark contrast to the outside. The inside of the church is smoke blackened and the smell of candle-wax and incense made for a heady scent. The murals were hard to make out as a result of the smoke damage so we headed into the crypt to see the tomb of Archbishop Serafim who was a much revered leader of the city's anti-Bolshevik, Russian emigre congregations. The contrast between the interior and exterior of the church was marked and added to its mysticism making it my favourite of all the churches we visited.

There are a good many more churches within Sofia, including the churches of St. Sofia, Sveti Sedmochislentski and the chapel of Sveta Petka Paraskeva which is not to be confused with the other Sveta Petka, which is difficult as they are both accessed from below street level and close to each other.

Sveti Sedmochislenitsi
© Plamen Agov •
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