For The Love Of Shopping

Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Travel Writer

The hottest new shopping destination in Sofia, Bulgaria is a shiny, glass-clad monolith on the busy highway between downtown and the airport. Called simply “The Mall,” its facade is plastered in a riot of international name brands: Carrefour, Zara, Benetton. There isn’t a Cyrillic letter, or a Bulgarian name, in sight.

All across the former Eastern bloc, modernity is arriving in an avalanche of shopping malls. Isolated for centuries from Western developments by empire and communism, Eastern Europeans are rushing to embrace French cheese, Italian wine, Spanish fashion, and anything else branded in Latin letters.

As I strolled the uneven sidewalks of this timeworn capital recently, I surveyed all the novelty with mixed feelings. Sure, it’s great to have access to all the latest stuff out of New York and Milan.

But the very traditionalism of this Southeastern European society, woven of overlapping cultural threads from East and West, has long made for a shopping culture that is as pleasurable and surprising as it is distinctive. In a landscape that is sprouting with high rises financed by the new capitalism of Eastern Europe, I wanted to savor the traditional bazaars and artisanal wares of Balkan tradition before it is lost to blander, universal progress.

And indeed, shopping is one of the activities at which Sofia excels. For Sofia has long excelled at providing shopping that alone is a destination-worthy activity. There are pleasant museums in this city of broad plazas, and some pretty buildings to admire: domed Orthodox churches that look like melted wedding cakes, filigreed pink palaces in the 19th-century Viennese vein. But none of the art or architecture will likely ever rival that of Sofia’s imperial cousins to the north and west.

Instead, this is a place to wander the crumbling-but-charming cobblestoned lanes, making discoveries and finding bargains. Tiny stores have windows just at knee-level on residential blocks, and if you bend down and slip a few leva to an inscrutable salesgirl — bobbing her head back and forth in that peculiar Bulgarian fashion — she’ll pass you a bottle of local brandy, 50 percent alcohol, made from her grandfather’s plums.

On the oddly quiet, tree-lined streets of Sofia’s 19th-century city center, where stucco buildings are a mottled shade of gray and vintage trolleys rattle past, you can still buy everything from freshly baked yam slices to polished Baltic amber jewelry — and in Bulgarian leva, all for a fraction of what they might cost in euros.

Start your spree where Sofians have gathered for a century: at the Hali, a vast covered market on Maria Luisa Street, next to the Sofia Synagogue. Stately and columned, the imposing, granite-clad Hali is a prime representative of the neoclassical style prevalent at the turn of the last century, when much of this central neighborhood was built.

Inside, the Hali is a dizzying mélange of old and new, East and West. Three floors of merchandise stalls are tucked under a soaring, wood-beamed ceiling, selling everything from traditional Macedonian sausages, lavishly frosted cakes and specialty feta cheese to homemade aromatic oils and cosmetics.

In the central lobby, local workers gather at café tables to drink coffee, while in the basement, a fast-food joint serves up tasty Balkan lunches at plastic tables alongside excavated Roman ruins. The Hali is where Sofians come for the widest selection of fresh fish and meats, but for visitors, it has perhaps the best selection of products made from the world-famous Bulgarian rose oil: lotions, soaps and more. Here is also where you'll find the best variety of delicious local wines, full-bodied reds from the Bulgarian mavrud grape and white traminers with a distinctive rose scent.

Shopping aside, the Hali sits at what is perhaps the most fascinating intersection in all of Bulgaria. Just across Maria Luisa from the Hali and the synagogue stands Sofia’s historic mosque, a graceful Ottoman-style edifice with pink-and-white stonework. It is a point of pride for Bulgarians that the city’s main houses of Jewish and Islamic worship are neighbors, symbolic of both the interreligious amity that prevailed under Ottoman rule — when both were constructed — and the easygoing multicultural tolerance that prevails in Sofia today, a notable counterpoint to the ethnic tensions so divisive elsewhere in Europe.

Newly unearthed Roman ruins are next door, beside the building that once housed Sofia’s ancient Roman baths, which just reopened after a lengthy renovation. A crumbling complex of faucets outside draws bottle-carrying crowds seeking the pure, bubbling water that spurts from deep mineral-rich springs underground, sending steam into the frigid winter air.

Around the corner, the synagogue is of the same vintage as the Hali, though its soaring arches, domes and circular Star-of-David windows are firmly Ottoman in inspiration. Don’t expect your average Judaica shop at a congregation that boasts the largest and grandest Sephardic temple in all of Europe, with a lavishly restored chapel that is all white filigree, and a soaring dome with a star-dotted, Tiffany-blue ceiling. For visitors and locals, this synagogue purveys — to both tourists and locals — the staples of Bulgarian kosher eating: meats, cheeses and the like, all certified kosher by Sephardic authorities (www.sofiasynagogue.com, or call +359 2983 5085).

The wares are abundant a few streets away at the Zhenski Pazar (“Women’s Bazaar”), a bustling, open-air market full of vegetable stalls. Similar wares are on offer at the colorful, rustic fruit stands and pastry shops that line Graf Ignatiev, a pedestrian-and-trolley-only street in the heart of downtown Sofia, where merchants sell slices of cinnamon-scented baked pumpkin and hot cheese pastries called banichki to hungry shoppers.

Off Graf Ignatiev, Boulevard Vasil Levski is lined with trendy modern pizzerias, where stylishly dressed young people gather for huge, fresh, exotic-combination salads (about $3).

But deep underground — in the dingy pedestrian tunnels that sprawl underneath intersections — is another, more faded world of tiny boutiques and peasant handcrafts. Honeycombed cubicles, barely large enough to fit their proprietors, are stuffed with beautiful embroidered tablecloths and linens in brilliant shades of red and green, and with shelves of the local Bilka-brand lotions, scented with extract of mavrud grape. Prices are neatly printed in leva — and are about half what you’d pay a thousand miles west.

But talk of the euro is getting louder in this last stop before Turkey, this land where shopping still has the fluid, bazaar-like feel of Eastern tradition. For now, while the latest from Zara sprouts in air-conditioned high rises nearby, in Sofia you can still find a bargain underground.

The interior of the Hali, the vast covered market that is a dizzying mélange of East and West. Hilary Larson

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