In February 2016, only a year after I officially moved to Brussels, I was cajoled into going to Bulgaria for a long weekend with a Flemish acquaintance named Waut. This sounds like the beginning of a spy novel, but I swear it was just about culture … neither of us knew this Balkan country and RyanAir offered flights to it for prices we couldn’t refuse.
Bulgaria in southwestern Europe is sandwiched between Romania and Greece/Turkey and flanked by Serbia, Macedonia and the Black Sea. All of these neighbors have made Bulgaria a cultural melting pot, which was topped off by Russian influence during its socialist republic days from 1946 to 1990 (it was a member of Comecon and the Warsaw Pact).
Bulgaria switched geopolitical teams by becoming one of the last members of the European Union in 2007. But its past influences remain linguistically; Bulgaria is the only EU member state with a Cyrillic alphabet.
Waut and I did a wedge-shaped route for three days by car from the capital of Sofia to the ancient city of Plovdiv to mountainous Rila and back. We stayed in the remains of the once glamourous Grand Hotel Sofia and 8 1/2 “Art” Guest House in Plovdiv, which both stood the “dust of time.”
Sofia below Vitosha Mountain is famous for its opera and ballet as Sofia Opera and Ballet can supposedly attest with affordable, world-class performances. The Royal Palace, turned into the National Gallery, is a must-see along with the following churches: Patriarchal Cathedral St. Alexander Nevsky, St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker, St. Nikolay Sofiyski and UNESCO-recognized Boyana (just outside Sofia). All of these religious institutions point to the fact that Bulgaria is one of the oldest Christian states in Europe.
But our best moments in Sofia were attempting to do the horo, a group dance where people hold hands and step in unison in a circular or snaking way. It is often spontaneously done by patrons in traditional restaurants. (Waut and I did our best to learn the steps in between laughs). Professionals touch palms while stepping in various formations wearing Bulgarian national costumes. Where they are worn, folklore music is typically played. (FYI, Bulgaria has its own bagpipes called kaba gaida.)
En route to Plovdiv, Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city, we passed through the village of Tserovo, where we purchased two coffees for 1.50 levas (75 cents)! Imagine a place in Europe that is somewhat sheltered from inflation! We also passed by Bachkovo Monastery, the country’s second largest after Rila.
Plovdiv at the foot of seven hills has an incredible old town (stariya grad) called the Ancient Plovdiv Architectural and Historical Reserve, which includes ruins of Eumolpias, a Thracian settlement in 5000 BC. It also contains a Roman Stadium, Ancient Theater, Kapana (“The Trap”) creative district (where you want to get trapped for cultural reasons) and regional ethnographicm, archeological and history museums. The latter offers time travel back to the Bulgarian National Revival (1762-1878), when monasteries served as artistic and educational hubs.
Several monasteries are still operating in the country, such as majestic Rila Monastery, one of 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bulgaria. We drove to what seemed like the top of Rila mountain range (this is actually Mount Musala, the highest point in the Balkans) in snow to see it but it was worth it. This monastery is akin to a museum with carpets from the revival period, icon paintings (religious images painted on wooden panels) and wood carvings, which are all considered valuable works of art. Interestingly, the founder of the monastery, cleric St. Ivan Rilski, once lived in a cave that’s still visible today.
The Balkans or Balkan Peninsula takes its name from the Balkan Mountains that stretch across Bulgaria. In fact, 30 percent of the country is mountainous and the rest of it hilly. This makes Bulgaria an affordable ski holiday destination. As well, it is third in Europe in biodiversity as home to several rare and endemic species, perhaps in part due to hundreds of mineral springs.
It is coming up roses in Bulgaria’s central Valley of Roses, which is known for beautifying and edible (think rose jam and rakia spirit) products stemming from the region. Bulgaria produces 70-85 percent of the world’s rose oil so this delicate flower is the national symbol and rose picking is a long-standing tradition there (though nowadays it’s primarily a tourist attraction).
In addition to floriculture, Bulgaria is known for agriculture, namely wine grapes, vegetables, dairy products and livestock. Rakia or fruit brandy, typically made from grapes, is the national drink. But arguably, Bulgaria is better known for its wines, which it’s been making for more than 1,200 years. With unique climate and soils, it has several of its own grape varietals, such as Gamza and Mavrud. Bulgaria also has a liqueur made from mastic tree resin called mastika.
Bulgarian cuisine is delicious and often nutritious with a lot of fresh vegetables – raw in Shopska and other salads plus Tarator (cold cucumber soup) and cooked in stews, soups and sautés – yogurt and its own version of feta cheese, which are served at nearly every meal. Grilling and roasting are popular with various cuts of meat served on long skewers in traditional restaurants. Various dishes are made in clay pots and prepared according to recipes passed down from generations. Shared culinary items with neighboring countries are evident in stuffed cabbage, grapevine leaves and banitsas (dough filled with cheese, spinach, rice and/or meat).
Many of Bulgaria’s customs are rooted in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, such as events involving the lifecycle (births, christenings, weddings and funerals) and saints’ name days (i.e., St. John’s Day), which are sometimes considered more important than birthdays. The patron saints Constantine and Elena are ironically honored in a pagan way with fire dancing on live coals. This ancient tradition still occurs in a few villages in the Balkan Mountains every 3 June.
Other unique Bulgarian traditions are mummers, men dressed in scary costumes and masks who scare away evil spirits; Laduvane, when young women predict their marital future; Lazaruvane, a spring ritual during which maidens offer blessings; and Baba Marta each 1 March, when Bulgarians give martenitsas, pieces of red and white twisted threads, for health and happiness. (Unfortunately, none of these events occurred when we were there, but they indicate the importance of folklore to the country.)
We prematurely and symbolically received a martenitsa in the form of a double rainbow on the road from Pernik to Sofia after getting “re-Wauted” several times due to poor GPS signaling and signage. “Waut’s up with that?” I asked as my driving companion, who nodded at my bad joke in Bulgarian fashion. (Bulgaria is one of a few countries in the world where nodding means “no.”)
Given its archeological and floricultural significance, combined with a lack of modernity, Bulgaria can best be summed up as a “dusty rose.” Alas, my Cold War spy novel begins …