Budget tourism is all about finding the hidden gems, getting off the beaten track and carving a new path to places you won’t necessarily find in the guidebooks. Bulgaria is one of those places. Ask people to point it out on a map and I wager many will struggle. However, this shouldn’t stop you from visiting the country, and in particular its capital, Sofia. The ‘forgotten nation of the Balkans’ sits in south-east Europe, just to the north of Greece, and it may well be the ideal location for a festive trip this Christmas time.
The savvy traveller knows to avoid the obvious choices; Christmas in Munich or Berlin. While magical, these places will cost a pretty penny to enjoy to their fullest. Why fork out when Sofia offers magic and mysticism by the bucket load and, most importantly, at a fraction of the cost? Make easyHotel Sofia your base for a clean, comfortable and, most importantly, affordable room for your festive stay in the city.
So, first things first, when is Christmas in Bulgaria?
This may seem like a stupid question, but much of the Orthodox church, found in Russia, Greece and elsewhere on the edges of eastern Europe, uses the Julian calendar as opposed to the Gregorian version. The long and the short of it means that Christmas falls on the 7 January. Bulgaria is an exception, so Christmas falls neatly on 25 December. This means you can head out in the week or so before the big day and enjoy your festive break when it should be.
Bulgaria, and in fact most of the Balkans, have some unique traditions and customs in the build-up to the big day. These may affect your trip so it is worth keeping in mind. The most basic of which is the consumption of walnuts. Expect to see a lot of street vendors selling them from big sacks or bowls. Cracking the walnuts open one way as opposed to another is deemed to predict good luck for the coming year. If the nut cracks badly then this is prediction of bad luck, so crack carefully.
Beyond that, but still very much focussed on the stomach, the tradition is to fast for 40 days prior to Christmas Eve. The fast takes the form of avoiding all meat, cheese and dairy. The fast is broken on Christmas Day with an extravagant meal. These days, if you don’t fancy partaking in this particular custom then there will be a lot of food options around the city where you will be able to find meat and all the things you love to eat.
This festival is celebrated throughout Bulgaria and much of the Balkan region. It is believed to date back to ancient Thracian rituals used to scare off evil spirits whilst also beckoning in prosperity, health, happiness and most importantly a good harvest. Men of Sofia will dress up in towering outfits with grotesque animal masks and furs. Wearing these outfits, they will parade through town, finally assembling in the centre. Here they will perform wild dances to entertain the crowds that gather. Unlike anything you’re likely to see in the UK this really is worth attending.
Having flown under the radar, you may be unaware that Bulgaria has nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, one of which can be found in Sofia: the Boyana Church. The church is formed of three separate buildings, the first of which is a millennium old, having been built in the 10th century. Inside the 13th century building, frescoes decorate the walls. It is famed for these frescoes which depict Biblical scenes, local saints and, rather fittingly for the time of year, Saint Nicholas. The most recent of the three buildings that form the church was built in the 19th century which gives the opportunity for sightseers to trace a line through the development of Christianity and its aesthetics.
By far the most stunning sight to behold in Sofia, beyond the ludicrously good rates for our rooms, is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The place of worship takes its name from a 13th century sanctified Russian prince who is famed for his military successes against invading Germans and Swedes. The cathedral takes the form of churches more commonly found in Russia; golden and copper-green domes sit atop the marble building. To call it vast would be an understatement. It can hold 10,000 worshippers inside. It is one of the world’s largest Eastern orthodox cathedrals. You can be sure there will be lots of services and events planned around the Christmas period, so what better time to visit?
Because what would Christmas be without a good market? Thankfully Sofia has a German-themed one. Because what would Christmas be without a good German-themed market? After all that sightseeing you’re going to need to decompress a little. So fill up on gluhwein, devour some schnitzel and buy some trinkets for the stockings waiting back home.
The market itself is quite small, but this gives it a cosy feel. Settle into one of the pokey corners and watch Sofians buzz around putting final touches to any present plans they still have to complete. This will all be sound tracked from the stage which pays host to Bulgarian and German folk music throughout the day and evening.
With so much on offer and for a Christmas tradition you’re not likely to have seen before it is well worth heading somewhere novel such as Sofia. Whatever time of year you choose to visit the city, be sure to stay at easyHotel Sofia for some of the best rates around.
October 2017 | Insider’s Guide
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