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What lies beneath Sofia

  • Bulgaria’s capital and its second largest city Plovdiv brim with subterranean wonders
  • Visit Roman ruins inside a modern metro station, eerie catacombs and an ancient amphitheatre that still hosts performances

A 2018 photograph of tourists at the Serdica excavations in Sofia.
A 2018 photograph of tourists at the Serdica excavations in Sofia. (Photo: Alamy)

The uniformed lady at the immigration counter at Sofia International Airport seems genuinely happy to see me. Her generous smile is far from the perfunctory ones usually proffered by immigration officers. She tells me that mine is the first Indian passport she’s about to stamp into Bulgaria in her four years on the job.

“Don’t take a taxi into town," she advises. “Your hotel is right next to Serdika, so take the direct train to the Serdika II metro station," she adds, pointing in the direction of the spotlessly clean and modern Sofia Airport metro station.

The city beneath the city

Her suggestion is on point. The metro gets me there efficiently, and I also discover that the Serdika II metro station beneath downtown Sofia is truly one of the best places to start peeling back the Bulgarian capital’s onion-like layers.

One of the first things I notice is the lack of any commercial advertisements or billboards. In their place are glass cabinets of the kind typically found in museums. They are filled with neolithic pots and Roman urns, and even a few decapitated and chipped capitals that probably sat atop grand Doric columns once.

That prompts considerable research once I check into my hotel. I realize that Sofia held significant sway in the ancient Roman world, when it was known as Ulpia Serdica (also spelt as Serdika). Not only was it a much coveted city after the Romans conquered it from the Greeks in 29 BC, but it is said that Constantine the Great sought to transform it into the “Rome of the Balkans".

Evidence of the erstwhile grandeur of Serdica is apparent not just inside the train station, but also outside its turnstiles. Remains of the western gate of the ancient Roman city were uncovered in the 1970s and are on display under a huge plexiglass dome, quite like the underpinnings of the 14th century Bastille fortress that peek out of the Bastille Métro in Paris.

Next day, on a free walking tour around Sofia, I learn that the restoration of the Serdica ruins started in 2011 and is still a work in progress. The complex covers an area of approximately 9,000 sq. m, and once had as many as eight streets. The remains unearthed thus far include the ruins of an early Christian basilica, a few mineral springs and early examples of a water and sewage system—all said to date from the first to sixth century AD.

Crypts, bones and catacombs

The rather sombre-looking St Sofia Church that gives the city its name sits in the shadow of the colossal neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. So elaborate is the latter’s gilded central dome, topped with a golden crucifix, that I could see it from the plane as I landed in Sofia.

Built in sixth century AD during the time of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, St Sofia rests not just on the foundations of four older Christian temples from the fourth century, but also on something that ties it with ancient Serdica. Located just outside the fortified gates of Serdica, this was the site of the city’s great necropolis.

Descending into its labyrinthine innards threatens to awaken my latent claustrophobia. The catacombs here are an elaborate maze, with rough-hewn niches laden with bones and intricately carved masonry tombs and crypts, some still holding stone sarcophagi. A series of vivid, well-preserved mosaics and murals lit by dim blue bulbs lend the catacombs an eerie cachet.

The Roman amphitheatre in the centre of Plovdiv
The Roman amphitheatre in the centre of Plovdiv (Photo: iStockphoto)

Where Plovdiv meets Philippopolis

In Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city and its economic hub, a two-and-a-half- hour bus ride from Sofia, another free walking tour reveals its previous avatar as Philippopolis. A name that came from Philip II of Macedon—the father of Alexander the Great—who conquered it in fourth century BC from the Thracians. But it was the Romans who left the most indelible mark when Philippopolis was incorporated into the Roman empire by emperor Claudius in 46 BC.

A grand Roman stadium, one of the few to be built inside a fortified city, stands at the centre of it all. Constructed at the beginning of second century AD, during the reign of emperor Hadrian, the stadium could accommodate 30,000 spectators, cheering on everything from chariot races to talent contests for criers and buglers.

Today, all that remains of the stadium is the excavated northern curved part, located under Dzhumaya Square, surrounded by lively cafés and bars. It is believed that the larger portion of the stadium, including its quintet of arched gates, still lies beneath the buildings along the main street, parts of which can even be seen in the basement of the local H&M store.

I end the day with an Aperol Spritz sundowner at the hillside Roman Theatre, built by emperor Domitian in first century AD. For millennia, it lay buried under the backyard of a local resident, until it was painstakingly restored in the 1970s. The theatre—with its soaring Ionic marble colonnade and triangular pediments—stays true to its original purpose, serving as a popular venue for plays and concerts.

With no events on the day I visit, I instead watch the sun’s closing act as it gradually dissolves into the craggy horizon.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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