There are plenty of things to do in Sofia, lots of interesting sights to check out in Bulgaria’s capital. So why was I tramping around the Sofia Cemetery for two hours in a drizzle, on the wrong side of the tracks? After all, TripAdvisor says this is #152 of things to do in the city (two reviews), which means there should be 151 better options.
Well, sometimes a comment a fellow traveler makes can stick in your mind for years, a decade even, and you can’t shake it. A traveler’s story brought me to Sofia Central Cemetary (Tzentralni Sofiiski Grobishta) on this late spring day, a good decade after I heard it.
This was a friend who wrote for USA Today back when that paper still mattered and when she was doing a story on Sofia she had an official guide showing her around. Apparently he wasn’t your standard guide, however, because he took her to some offbeat places not on the normal tourist itinerary, including this massive collection of headstones.
The story she told me about visiting the Sofia Cemetery didn’t make it into her article, but it sounded to me like a truly unique experience. The guide had quickly waved to some former presidents’ graves, a few celebrities and war heroes, but then he took her to the area he thought was really worth seeing. What he wanted to show her was an odd offshoot from the fall of communism: graves devoted to crime figures who had profited from the chaos. I could tell you the picture she painted for me, but let’s just check out the real thing, shall we?
A Tour of Unique Gravestones
There are so many questions I have about this first shot. But most of them center around one primary question: who picked that photo? If you’re going to glorify your loved one with such a realistic likeness, do you really want a tank top, a plastic beer cup, and what may or may not be a tattoo on the arm in it?
It turned out that was a rather mild version though because the accessories got a good bit stranger than a cup from a keg party.
This next guy was apparently watching a lot of classic MTV Raps episodes when the iron curtain fell and he was ready to start running the block. He’s got some cards, some cash, and a gun in hand. I’m assuming that’s his mother’s stone in the bottom right and something tells me she would not approve.
The “chief” above did better than some of the guys around him. He made it to age 43.
For this next one, “Go see Uncle Stephan. He’s a singer but he knows all the right guys. Bring him a bottle of Scotch and tell him you hope you can return the favor someday. Bring some cigarettes to share too.”
This next guy clearly wanted to live fast and die young and he got his wish. I didn’t know bright gravestones like this even existed until I visited the Sofia Cemetery but I saw a few in this style scattered around. They look like they’re backlit, but there’s no power coming in.
Some of these Sofia gravestones brought more questions than answers, even with Google Translate turned on. This tough guy below fits the look of some organized crime muscleman, but he was born in 1988, just a few years before the changeover.
He looks like the kind of guy I wouldn’t want to mess with though and apparently he too loved to drink Scotch, so much that it’s on his gravestone. The second line engraved below is, “Darkness and grief have invaded our souls,” so maybe he was a softie on the inside with his family in his brief 26 years.
Booze and cigarettes were a running theme among these realistic gravestones, along with the occasional cell phone that now looks like a museum relic.
I’m really hoping this guy was a car dealer for Mercedes. Otherwise, this is a bit sad all around.
The Rest of the Sofia Cemetery
Most of this massive, sprawling cemetery has more conventional gravestones, lots of them crammed close together to maximize the urban space, many of them overgrown and forgotten it seems. There’s an annex area that’s been opened in a new section with a prime view of industrial smokestacks. Unlike in the older parts, there’s no shade there either.
If you don’t know what you’re looking for exactly, which was the case for me, you can easily wander for hours in this place. I didn’t mind since there was a lot of variety in the gravestone styles here. I found the war veterans’ area, the Jewish section, and an area that seemed to house many of the city’s elite through the ages. There’s a nice Greek Orthodox church on site where I’m sure they perform lots of funerals.
Mostly though, I just walked until I found something interesting and took a photo of it, like this multi-person stone being enveloped by vines:
If you want to find the ones with guns, booze, and cars like I featured at the top, head right at the entrance and don’t go too far in from the wall. I didn’t make note of the plot numbers.
There’s very little about this place online that I could find in English and even then the info is a decade old, so if you can bring a friend who knows Bulgarian, you’ll have more cultural insight than I did.
To get to the Central Sofia Cemetery, you can walk through a neighborhood from where the central bus station is like I did or supposedly there’s a tunnel near the central train station that goes underneath all the train tracks and comes out near the entrance. The site is also on one of the bus stops and a taxi from central Sofia shouldn’t be more than five euros.
There’s an entrance fee of 2 leva for those who come by car, but it’s free to enter on foot. You just have to pay 0.50 lev (about 25 euro cents) if you need to go to the public toilet. I only saw one commercial store in the area so bring water and maybe some snacks if you didn’t just eat.
If you thought this article was amusing but you’d rather find something more stimulating to do, like a Bulgarian wine tasting perhaps, then check out these ideas for Sofia tours:
As I said in this earlier post, I do think Sofia is worth visiting for a while these days. It’s getting better all the time in terms of dining options, the public transportation system is terrific, and there’s an abundance of park space all around, with mountains in the background.