Sophia, Bulgaria, will never make my list of favorite European cities

Of the European capitals I’ve visited, and that’s pretty much all of them, I like Sophia by far the least.

It’s big, ugly, dirty and nervous. It may have to do with the fact that I’ve spent too much time alone here in winter negotiating pickpockets and hookers and unshoveled streets and sidewalks, but I find the place depressing and decrepit in a particularly grim and unappealing way. The city has some things to see, but so much of it is old, run-down Soviet-bloc cement housing blocks that it is, to my way of thinking, one of the ugliest places where I’ve ever spent much time.

Much of Bulgaria is mountainous and lovely. Bulgarians can be combative (especially with one another) but they can also be very friendly. They seem to have an active mafia.

The food is great, especially if you’re willing to take a few risks and eat things like their spicy and satisfying tripe soup. Fairly good-quality clothing is inexpensive.

St. Sophia Church

One winter night, a colleague and I were eating out and a huge, very drunk Bulgarian man, hearing my Swedish colleague speaking overloud English, sat down at our table and soon was playing slapping the Swede in the head — in a very friendly way, of course. I distracted the man a little by trying to teach him the proper words to Frankie Vallie’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” before we made a hasty exit.

It was a surreal several moments, but not unprecedented in my experience, by any means. Come to think of it, if I had to live in Sofia, I might paralyze myself with raki (the national drink) and slap strangers, too.

 Sofia’s infrastructure appears to be on the verge of collapse, taxi drivers are routinely cheats, and there’s no real city center in the way that most European capitals have them.

If you want to go to Bulgaria, pick another place. Varna and Bourgas are nice enough places, for example. If you must go to Sophia, the National Museum of History is interesting and Hagia Sophia Mosque is spectacular.  But for every attraction worth seeing, there are probably 1,000 beat-up apartment buildings and about that many wild dogs. It’s not a place I am eager to return to.

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