Exploring local markets is the best way to immerse yourself in a country's culture. From the atmospheric food markets of London, Toronto and Israel to the souks of Oman, Bahrain and Dubai to the fabled Khan-Al-Khalili in Egypt and Chatuchak Market of Bangkok, I've savoured each and every one of my outings to these buzzy venues, meeting local people, sampling local food and wines and shopping for local wares.
A recent visit to the Bulgarian capital city of Sofia took me to its largest and busiest market—Zhenski Pazar or 'Ladies Market'. Existing from the Ottoman times, the sprawling marketplace, located adjacent to the Synagogue and Banya Bashi Mosque, radiates enough kinetic energy to power a ship. It brims with fresh local produce—vibrant seasonal fruits and vegetables, cheese, cured meat, spices, dried fruit, nuts, Bulgarian pottery, homemade honey, wine, plumbing equipment, clothes and more. Cheap socks and underwear, anyone? Or touristy tat? Perhaps contraband cigarettes? The explosion of colours (green, red, yellow, purple, blue), smells and the surround sound of vendors and shoppers here put all my senses in turmoil.
In a nod to Sofia's inclusive ethos (the city hosts migrants from countries as diverse as Russia, Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Australia, UK, China), the Ladies Market resembles a mini United Nations! Products are on sale from all corners of the globe. Authentic Arabic products (including Halal meat) jostle for space with Chinese bric a brac, Iraqi bakeries with Syrian grocery stores and Kurdish restaurants. There's homemade halwa from Turkey, as well as traditional Turkish sweets like kunafa and the unctuous, pistachio-anointed baklava. Buzzy cafes sell refreshments for shoppers—mostly savoury pastries (including the famed Bulgarian banitsa) and rich aromatic coffee.
Speciality shops tucked away in tiny, cobblestoned alleys stock the prized Bulgarian yoghurt made of high-quality cow's milk that contains the bacteria 'Lactobacillus bulgaricus' and 'Streptococcus thermophilus' isolated in Bulgaria. It is great for one's gut and nutritionists recommend it highly. Also on sale are briny and nutty cheeses, wines, honey and butter. Many shops sell exotic spices as well as different kind of edible seeds—flax, rice, sunflower seeds, nuts, beans.
Competition is brutal, so prices are kept low. Vendors holler, haggle and hustle like they do in Middle East bazaars, adding the distinctive Bulgarian grouchiness to the mix. The atmosphere is so thick, you can slice it with a knife. Friendly vendors invite you in for a dekko. "India? So beautiful! Indian women are so gorgeous," a Bulgarian handicrafts seller tries to entice me into his outlet as I inspect his stunning smorgasbord—handcrafted tableware, rugs, fridge magnets, mugs and pottery. Unable to resist his charm, I'm soon loaded with shopping bags looking like a mule!
Many shops and restaurants are owned by Arab immigrants. Those who can't afford to rent a shop, squat on the pavements selling whatever produce they've harvested from their garden that morning. Local village women sell homemade pickles, jams, chutneys in glass jars sealed with a chequered cloth and a ribbon. Antique dealers hawk items from both pre-socialist and socialist times.
"Earlier, the stall-holders at the market were all women. Hence, its name Ladies Bazaar. But now sellers of both sexes from surrounding hills travel down daily to sell their produce here," explains the elegant Dragomir Dimitrov, executive director of Sofia Municipality, who manages two of the biggest markets in Sofia including the Ladies Market. Under Dimitrov's vision, the Ladies Market has underwent a massive revamp in 2014 to make it more inclusive, streamlined and tourist-friendly.
Dimitrov has grander plans for the market. "We're working with artists to hold art shows and exhibitions here as the area is steeped in history and culture," he says. "Visitors from all over Sofia and neighbouring areas come here to shop, socialise and network, and the market sees 60,000 footfalls daily," elaborates Dimitrov.
The idea is to develop the Ladies Market as Sofia's international social and artistic hub. "I want to nourish the spirit and soul of the place and make it one of the city's top attractions, generate social interactions, develop studios here like in European markets, organise contemporary events, food/wine and art festivals."
"Even in its new avatar, the spirit of the place has not changed," explains feted Bulgarian gallerist Stephan Stoyanov who is planning to hold an international video show of top artists from across the world in the market next year. "There will be international speakers, projections, music, food and wine. We want to leverage the magic of this unique and historic venue to showcase it to the world.”