Olli Thomson

Category: Bulgaria

Sofia on Ektar

Here are a few shots from my second roll of 2019 shot in January on my Minolta XD with the Rokkor 24/2.8 MD and the Rokkor 50/1.4 MD lenses on Kodak Ektar 100.

The first shot is of the minaret of the Banya Bashi mosque, the only functioning mosque in Sofia which dates from the 16th century during the time of the Ottomans. It was reputedly designed by Mimar Sinan who was responsible for some of the most outstanding Ottoman mosques including the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The second picture shows the excavated ruins of the ancient city of Serdika which lies beneath modern Sofia with the Orthodox church of Saint Nedelya in the background.

The First Roll of 2019

Winter was something of a disappointment. I had been expecting heavy snowfall, with days or weeks of snow lying thick on the ground. Instead there were occasional days of snow which clung on for a little while before melting to slush. I did get out with a camera on one snowy day in January and took some winter pictures pictures around the city. Despite having a new Nikkor lens to experiment with I used my Minolta for these shots since some of them they will be used for a forthcoming post on another website requiring the XD. I believe all of these were shot with the Rokkor MD 24/2.8, though since I’ve stopped taking detailed notes I’m not completely sure. I used Ilford Delta 400.


To Pernik for Surva, the International Festival of Masquerade Games. The biggest festival of its kind in the Balkans, Surva brings together around 6000 performers from 100 different groups across Bulgaria, the Balkans and further afield. It also draws increasing numbers of visitors from Bulgaria and beyond, like me.

A quick explanation may be in order. Surva refers to ancient pre-Christian traditions common to the region, and beyond. Local communities would hold a mid-winter festival (or a spring festival) to chase away evil spirits and bring good fortune on the community. Performers dress in animal skins or costumes made from rags. They wear masks, often topped with horns,  or paint their faces. Then they dance, run, chase or jump, in many cases accompanied by the sound of hundreds of cowbells strapped to their bodies. The mid winter festival is Surva; the spring festival is Kukeri. Local festivals still take place in towns and villages across Bulgaria but the festival at Pernik brings many of these local groups together along with international representatives to parade and compete for prizes.

The Last Roll of 2018

I shot my way through eleven rolls of film in 2018, around one a month. I would like to try to at least double that this year. I’m on course for January with two rolls shot, developed and scanned so far in January. These shots are from my final film of 2018 taken around Sofia on a very chilly mid December day. These were shot on Ilford HP5 with my FM2n, the first six with the 24/2.8 AI-S Nikkor and the rest with the 35/2 AI-S Nikkor. 

Sofia on Film

Finally. I’ve had a few rolls of film sitting in a drawer waiting to be developed for a while now and I finally got round to dropping them off at one of the local photography stores for developing and scanning. While I have my own scanner it’s so cheap to get scans done here that it makes sense to get them and then re-scan any particular images that stand out.

The shots below were taken with the Minolta XD and the MD 35/2.8 lens. I used Ilford Delta 100, the second time I’ve used one of the Delta films and it is superb. Tone, contrast, grain – everything about these film is wonderful. It’s just a shame it happens to be one of the more expensive films – $7.49 or £7 compared to $5.69 or £5 for HP5 Plus. Still, I may have to invest in a lot more Delta.


When Constructivism gave way to the dreary and tedious Socialist Classicism at the instigation of  Josef Stalin, Bulgaria was not spared. Stalin spread his malign architectural influence across the Soviet Union and beyond up until his long overdue death in 1953. In Bulgaria, the Communist Party decided that they needed some dull and unimaginative Stalinist architecture of their own and identified a site in central Sofia which had suffered bomb damage during the war. The Party was a little late to the party and only one of the three main buildings planned for the site was completed by the time Stalin keeled over. Already committed, they continued with their project and finally completed it in 1957 at a time when Khrushchev was enthusiastically rubbishing all things Stalinist, including Socialist Classicism.


There’s a lot of graffiti in Sofia. Here is some of it.

Seven Rila Lakes

Rila National Park south of Sofia is the biggest in Bulgaria covering over 300 square miles. The seven Rila lakes lie in the west of the park, above the resort town of Panichishte. A chairlift outside the town takes you on a leisurely 16 minute journey through the forested lower slopes to the Rila Lakes hut at around 6,900 feet. From here there are well marked trails leading into the mountains and around the lakes.

Even though the park and the lakes in particular are hugely popular with locals and visitors alike we had the mountains mostly to ourselves. In the summer there are often long queues for the chair lift, which can take up to 700 people an hour, but on a cold November day we saw only a handful of other people all day.

Despite the sub zero temperatures, once we got above the cloud cover the weather was beautiful with blue skies, lots of sunshine and only a light breeze. A two hour walk took us through the lakes to a peak with a view over all seven before we headed back down. Here are a few pictures.


Plovdiv is the second city of Bulgaria situated just over 80 miles from Sofia. The city has a long history and is one of the oldest settlements in Europe. For most of its history it was known as Philippopolis named for Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, who conquered the city in the 4th century BC. Philippopolis became part of the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD and was an important provincial city. Many Roman buildings from this era survived and Plovdiv has an abundance of Roman ruins, though many are only partially excavated or still lie buried beneath newer layers of construction.

Later, the city came under Byzantine rule and they left behind the Great Basilica and the Smaller Basilica. The former is still being excavated and there are plans to develop a museum around the site as has been done with the latter. Both contain beautiful and elaborate mosaics, some of which remain in situ with others removed to the city’s museums.

The narrow streets of the Old Town are lined with beautiful buildings – Orthodox churches, Ottoman mosques, Bulgarian revival style dwellings. The city has tried to maintain and restore these properties and a number have been developed as museums, open to visitors. In 2019 Plovdiv will be European Capital of Culture, bringing the city to the attention of a wider European audience. Here are some pictures.


Koprivshtitsa is a small village around seventy miles east of Sofia. It’s well known for its 19th century Bulgarian revival style architecture with many of the properties in the old town dating from this period. The village was one of the centres of the Bulgarian uprising against Ottoman rule in 1876. Though the uprising failed the brutality with which the Ottomans suppressed it drew attention to the Bulgarian struggle. The subsequent confrontation between the Ottomans and the European powers led to the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 and Bulgarian liberation.

Today, as well as its architectural heritage, the village is known as a centre of Bulgarian folk traditions and hosts the National Festival of Bulgarian Folklore held  every five years. We visited Koprivshtitsa at the weekend. Here are a few pictures.


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