Sofia is vibrant, colorful, and ever-evolving. Though it was just two-and-a-half years ago I was here, I don’t recognize the city save its mosaic mix of architectural styles. Influences and styles span from Neoclassical and Neo-Byzantine to Modernist Soviet and Stalinist.
While the architecture and the buildings haven’t changed, I sense the energy and feel of the city has. Cool coffee shops, boutiques, bistros, restaurants, pubs, and wine bars fan out from the city center. It doesn’t feel of gentrification out of control, though some might question the need for yet another coffee shop.
More young people are filling these places, and this is a good thing. As with many of the post-Soviet and Yugoslavia countries, once liberated and free to travel the 1990s, drawn by the hope of opportunity and prosperity elsewhere, there was a mass exodus of young people to neighboring EU countries, Canada and abroad. This created a massive void of labor and talent. Today as I wander the streets, it feels young people are back, or perhaps the next generation plans to stick around.
It’s also possible that people are coming back to Bulgaria. Like Miliitza in Melnik, or Pavlin here in Sofia. Pavlin Ivanov grew up in Bulgaria, but as a young graduate, he found opportunity and jobs in Dublin Ireland working in restaurants and bars. As his appreciation for wine grew, he invested in and completed the WSET Level Four Diploma. At the time he knew little about wine his native country, Bulgaria.
“I went on a wine trip to Lisbon,” Pavlin explains. “I received the best wine service and found more people who were so passionate about Portuguese wines, wine varietals, the different regions with a unique climate and soils. It was amazing,” his eyes grow wide as he tells me his story.
“I asked myself why can’t I share the same about Bulgaria,” he says. Pavlin had an idea brewing about helping promote and share the wines and regions of Bulgaria. “When I returned to Dublin, I realized that I was on a spiritual journey following a path where there is no path, but yet the path shows you the way.”
He found that a woman he knew from wine tastings in Dublin operated a business similar to his idea called “Dublin Wine Trails.”
“I couldn’t believe it, that someone here started a business like I wanted to start in Sofia,” he tells me. Mari from Dublin Wine Trails mentored Pavlin and showed him how to organize and what steps to take to get started and build his business. In May 2019 after nine years living in Dublin, Pavlin returned to his native home, Sofia Bulgaria. Shortly after he opened his business Sofia Wine Walk.
“Unlike the Dublin Wine Trails, I adapted it to learn not only about Bulgarian wine but also about the culture and our country,” he explains. “Sofia Wine Walk” takes tourists on a two and a half or three-hour walk around the Bulgarian capital to three locations where they taste six different wines paired with small bites or tapas. The tour focuses on tasting unique Bulgarian wine varietals while Pavlin or one of his colleagues shares history, stories, and more about Bulgarian wine, food, and culture.
I meet Pavlin in front of a coffee shop where we begin my “Sofia Wine Walk.” We talk about his business, and I share more about my project and aim. In minutes we walk into Vino Orenda, a wine shop that sells only Bulgarian wine.
Inside I meet Vino Orenda Wine Shop owner Assen Tsekov who explains that “Orenda” is the oldest Bulgarian word which represents people’s inner spiritual power. While Assen sets a small plate of cheese and cured meat and pours two tastes of wine, Pavlin gives me a geography lesson on Bulgarian wine region using a map fabricated from corks of Bulgarian wine. While we sip on a lovely aromatic and crisp Sandanski Misket from the Orbelia Winery in the Struma River Valley, Assen points out Orenda was the first (and possibly the only) wine shop in Sofia that sells Bulgarian wine exclusively.
Representing more than sixty producers, Orenda sources wines from boutique and small wineries throughout Bulgaria. He points out that his shop has the best selection in Bulgaria of Mavrud, and Melnik and all of its siblings, Ruen, Rubin, and the many aromatic white wines. They host several events throughout the year, including wine tastings where winemakers, sommeliers, and winery owners show up to talk with his customers.As we talk about the wine and the focus of Assen’s shop, it occurs to me I’m in the presence of true Ambassadors for Bulgarian wine.
As my “Sofia Wine Walk” continues, Pavlin leads me down the leafy cobblestoned streets of the city center and down Vitosha Boulevard, the main pedestrian promenade in downtown where we stop for a moment and glance to the horizon where he points out Vitosha Mountain, at about 7,500 feet it’s the fourth highest in Bulgaria and offers several hiking trails.
Pavlin is confident, cool and honest, telling me that there are many cafes along the promenade that may be good for a beer or coffee, but the real food scene happens off the big shopping street. Soon we walk past a park and to a street corner where we pull up a couple seats outside Wine&Co., one of the most extensive wine and spirits retailers in Bulgaria. When not taking tourists on wine walks, Pavlin works here as a consultant, often leading tastings and other events.
A server brings another plate of tapas, and Pavlin brings a few wines for us to sample. Since I’m after more than just a taste of wine and am working on this blog and a new book, Pavlin is excited to share more unique wines with me.
The “Sophia Wine Walk” business is growing, he tells me. With excellent TripAdvisor reviews and two new recruits who now help him keep up with the demand of his growing business, Pavlin is relaxed and excited about growing the business. “I get to meet so many interesting people from all over the world. This is an exciting time for Bulgaria.”
Positive and motivated, Pavlin sees his role in the Bulgarian wine industry as much more than a tour guide. When I ask him about challenges facing the industry, he’s doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Our biggest problem is that the government doesn’t invest enough in the promoting and marketing the wine industry,” he says. He tells me that when attended ProWein, the largest wine-focused trade show in the world held every year in Dusseldorf, he was embarrassed by the look of the Bulgarian Wine booth. “Romania and Moldova had a much better presentation,” he tells me. “This is especially bad since the wine business in all these countries all started at the same time. But they are much more progressive than Bulgaria.”
He then reflects for a moment and says, “We cannot wait or expect the government to do this for Bulgaria, we must do it ourselves. I’m trying and doing my part with Sofia Wine Walk.
At our third and final stop of the walk, we end up at Cosmos, one of the most unique and best restaurants in Sofia and where I already reserved a table for this evening. Walking into the modern restaurant with its clean and sleek interior, I’m drawn to dozens of glowing crystal orbs hanging like planets or stars throughout the three levels of the restaurant. Each larger than a softball, they shimmer, fade, and randomly dim as they turn and rise toward the ceiling and then lower. We are in the Cosmos.
A hostess seats us at a table in the dining area closest to the street and near the bar. Bottles of spirits glow from backlighting against a black background next to an Escher-esque array of cubes hanging on a wall of white-painted bricks. Each holds several bottles of wine. The polished scarred concrete floor accents the light wood bar and stools.
Pavlin has organized the final flight of wines, but I’m here for the evening—that is after I finish the official “Sofia Wine Walk” tour, I will dine and immerse into the complete Cosmos experience. A server comes to our table with a box full of test tubes.
“Welcome to Cosmos,” he addresses us. “We are here to serve you and take you through another worldly experience.” He explains that first that they will refresh our senses with aromatherapy. A floral and citrus vapor flows from the top of the test tube as he fills it with a liquid and hands them to us. Instructing us to inhale the vapor will prepare us for our experience. The fragrance of flowers and citrus is clean but not as much fun as just watching Pavlin inhale the dry ice looking vapors. Once refreshed we hand our test tubes back and await our next experience.
Moments later Atanas Balev, Cosmos manager and sommelier brings us our first wine, a Pinot Noir from Zelanos, a winery in the central-eastern village of Slavyantsi, just thirty percent of the elegant Pinot saw about ten months in French oak barrels. For my first taste of Bulgarian Pinot, as my focus is on trying local varietals, I’m impressed. With bright cherry and floral notes, the tannins are smooth and subtle while the wine finishes quite long and with a hint of cherry and butterscotch.
We are severed elegant bites of cheese, mushroom, and barley. The textures and flavors unfold nicely and pair great with the wine. A unique cheese made and aged in a burlap bag is a bonus. A unique tradition from Bulgarian mountain villages. Yummy.
I ask Pavlin to join me for dinner, but he has another tasting to attend, and if I didn’t have reservations, he would invite me to join him. So we finish our “Sofia Wine Walk” with a taste of Mavrud from a wine exclusively offered at Cosmos. Atanas sources fruit and juice from wineries all over Bulgaria and makes wines designed for pairing with the culinary creations of the Cosmos chef.
After our goodbyes, Atanas returns to my table and goes over the menu options. I choose to let the chef decide for Atanas and for me to select the wine. I opt for the six-course tasting menu.
Before my first course, Atanas brings a wooden box to the table. “The most important thing for you this evening, and what we at Cosmos want to be sure that there is no worry or thinking about time. He takes a pocket watch and places it in the box and closes it. We are locking away and stopping time for you this evening. Just sit back and enjoy. We will take care of everything.”
I love it. Dining at Cosmos in Sofia is a multi-sensory experience, one that sets your mind at ease as the senses of taste, smell, and sight delight you for every course. The dishes are elegantly presented, and layered with flavors, often combining a savory start with a subtle sweetness. Visually, some of the Cosmos dishes look like artwork inspired by outer space.
Throughout my meal, the lights dim, flash, and the orbs continue to rise and fall. It’s subtle and not distracting. Several times during my dinner, a waiter climbs a ladder to access the wine cellar on the wall opposite me. Then at one point a server dressed in a NASA jumpsuit wallet by the bar announcing that I’m unable to translate. He drizzles a liquid on the concrete floor and then lights it on fire, and music plays as the flames dance and then fade away.
I wonder if he’s wearing the NASA jumpsuit as a celebration for the fiftieth anniversary of the Appolo 11 moon landing. He is not aware of the anniversary but tells me that often he must venture below the restaurant and see if the engines for the rocket need tuning and adjustment.
By the time I get to the dessert courses, my NASA jumpsuit-clad rocket scientist brings a blindfold to me and instructs me to put it on. I must try to guess the flavors of the next dish, he tells me. I’m nervous, and though I’m not in an audience of anyone, I still feel put on the spot. I’ve got to get this, I think to myself. “Open your mouth,” he instructs me and then slips a spoon between my lips. I press my lips, and he slips the spoon out as I let the flavors unfold in my mouth. I recognize the flavors, but cannot say what they are. I finally say it feels nutty and sweet, like honey.
I nearly got it, but still too far. Pinenut marmalade. Floral and nutty, I think, not bad. (watch the video below)
My last course and for one of my desserts is a creative take of ice cream on a stick. At this time of the evening, my notes are a scribble, and I cannot remember the qualities. Yet my pictures remind me of the beautiful presentation and the experience and flavors of dining at Cosmos in Sofia, Bulgaria continues to arouse my senses and remind me of an out of this world evening where time stood still, and they well served me.
Thank you for the experience Cosmos. I’ll be back.
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