di Marie-Claire Najjar
It sure is hard to put the city of Sofia in a box, to try and label it or to limit its essence to a pre-established urban model. In reality, Sofia appears as a crossroads between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the historical and the developed. It thus comes as no surprise that an important aspect of the Bulgarian capital is embodied by its squares, physical and actual crossroads between the different neighborhoods.
Samuil Sarandev, a third-year BEMACC student, explains that the youth of each neighborhood await clear skies to gather in those squares, or among the trees of Cristal Garden and the National Theatre Park: « This tradition of parks as social spots is quite important in Sofia, even more than elsewhere. If you go for a walk in one of the city’s parks, you are sure to meet someone you know. And if you are a tourist visiting the capital, you will meet many friendly locals who will be glad to show you around. » Touring Sofia in the company of a local is indeed the best way to enjoy a truly authentic and unique Bulgarian experience. Samuil also recommends « avoiding extreme temperatures » by planning your visit in the fall or in the spring, during which the city is in full bloom.
As tourism was rare in the previous decade and has only been developing in more recent years, it is perceived as « exotic » by the Bulgarian citizens, who « love meeting foreigners, breaking a common stereotype: that which portrays the inhabitants of Eastern countries as cold and unwelcoming. » This ongoing boost in touristic activities also contributes to the gentrification of the city, thus changing the true character of Sofia: « It often leads to the proliferation of up-and-coming neighborhoods », that were once ageing suburban areas in the margins of growth and development, yet are now rapidly gaining in importance and attracting a flow of both local and international tourists.
With its unique culture, the Bulgarian capital differs from other European cities in many ways and is expanding apace, counting to date 1.2 million residents. Samuil points out that the neighborhood of Lyulin is a good example of this growth, expanding so much « that it has become a ‘subtown’! » And if other districts still highlight the misbalance between the center of the city and its suburbs, one can easily forget this aspect by taking the time to appreciate Sofia’s booming art scene, as well as its « cozy, social, and creative » atmosphere.
And once the eyes and heart have been fulfilled with the mesmerizing urban sights Sofia displays, more rural regions can be reached quite easily in order to discover the nature that surrounds the city. Samuil particularly enjoys going to the mountains, which can be rapidly accessed from the capital either by bus or by car: « There are many beautiful, typical ski resorts, such as the ones on the Rhodope Mountains, where you’ll find the best slopes in the country. And the best thing about it? You can do it on a whim, by taking an impulsive road-trip, without the need to plan anything in advance! »
Another interesting day-trip outside of Sofia would consist in visiting Plovdiv, the second-largest Bulgarian city. With its flourishing cultural scene and its numerous social events, Plovdiv – and especially the trendy district of Kapana – will surprise any traveler keen on uncovering its mysteries and getting lost among the many international exhibitions it hosts. « The arrival of a myriad of foreign artists in Plovdiv goes hand in hand with the growing international community established in Sofia », Samuil explains.
He is proud of the cultural development the Bulgarian cities have achieved so far; still he wishes it could be done at a more accelerated pace: « Sofia would benefit from being a bit more dynamic and organized, like Milan already is. It should learn to accommodate cultural happenings at a larger scale, similarly to the many city scale events that can be found here, such as the Fiera or the Fashion Week. And I have only one suggestion for Milan: to offer more cinema viewings in English! »
Having always loved Italy, Samuil had known for a long time that living here would be a great opportunity. And when he finally did, he was glad to find a mentality quite similar to the Bulgarian one, allowing him to quickly form a close group of friends. Indeed, meeting locals seemed crucial to him, as his neighborhood back home hosts a very tight-knit community. « I love Milan, its social life and its friendly atmosphere, and I find it very easy to get on with people, who have a great sense of humor. » The only difficulty Samuil might have faced at first was the language barrier, yet it was an easy obstacle to overcome: « Everyone was very welcoming and always made an effort to communicate, which was a real incentive for me to learn Italian as quickly as possible! »
As for the tradition he loves most in Milan, it is « definitely that of the aperitivo, because gathering around food and drinks reminds me of my evenings with friends back in Sofia. » And when it comes to his own culinary habits, Samuil recommends the Bulgarian dish Palneni Chushki – peppers stuffed with rice, minced meat and spices – or Mekitsi – traditional fried dough served with yogurt.
Ultimately, Samuil would like to go back to Sofia, namely for the lifestyle it has to offer. He plans on working there, with the hopes of benefiting from the various opportunities that can be found in creative industries. « The city is developing and rejuvenating; people are coming back from abroad with a more global vision, with the prospects of tailoring and adapting what they have learned to the local culture. This deeply corresponds to what I have been studying here, at Bocconi. » Samuil intends to gain a high level of expertise before going back home, in order to be a legitimate actor of change and render something useful to his country. « Sofia has a lot to offer, and discovering this city is a very particular experience. This is why its true character must be preserved from factors such as gentrification, even though development and renovation are essential. Sofia needs its soul. »