Bulgaria. Whenever I mention I’ve been to Bulgaria, I’m surprised by a common response: “Wow, I’ve always wanted to go to South America, it must be nice.” Bulgaria, not to be confused with Bolivia, is tucked away in the southeast corner of Europe and easily makes up for what it may lack in name recognition with a deep and fascinating history, diverse landscapes and a culture rich in tradition and hospitality.
My first exposure to Bulgaria came in 2007. On The World by Road, Bulgaria represented the gateway to Europe. The newly inducted member of the European Union offered a change of pace, culturally, from months spent driving through the Muslim oriented countries of Central Asia. It wasn’t until I saw a Christmas tree in Bulgaria that I realized what time of year it was. Unfortunately, our stay in Bulgaria was short, but my curiosity had been sparked and I vowed to return one day to explore more of this intriguing country. Three years later, I fulfilled that vow and Bulgaria didn’t disappoint.Sitting at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Bulgaria has always held geographic significance and has been an important morsel in the appetite of some of history’s great empires. Evidence of Bulgaria’s role in the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires is scattered across the countryside. Even in winter, Bulgaria’s temperate climate allows ample opportunity to explore ancient coliseums, and fortified castles perched high above magnificent valleys. Some of these magnificent and picturesque sites have been well preserved through the years and have weathered numerous invasions, political upheaval and social and economic unrest. There is also a visible drive in Bulgaria to actively restore sites that were less able to weather turbulent times and several are undergoing restoration with the help from UN and EU development monies. These active archeological sites offer visitors a perfect opportunity to witness work being done to uncover landmarks of Bulgarian history.
If hiking around Bulgaria’s many historic sites is a little too strenuous or if the winter air gets too nippy and the summer sun too hot, you can always retreat to and seek refuge in the numerous churches and monasteries that have been painstakingly build and beautifully preserved. Bulgaria is one of the oldest Christian countries in Europe and this important part of Bulgarian culture remained strong even during the communist era.
Although not officially part of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria was a de facto Soviet State and strong supporter of the USSR and as a result was the recipient of a great deal of financial, political and cultural influence. However, in a departure from the dreary soviet style office and apartment blocs typical of Eastern Europe and other soviet satellites, Bulgaria has its own distinct form of architecture, making full use of colors that one might have expected to be otherwise banned. No place better captures the essence of Bulgarian heritage quite like the village of Koprifstitsa. Bulgaria law mandates that construction in Koprifstitsa must conform to the “old style.” Commercial buildings and private hoe alike are all constructed from dark timber which brilliantly contrasts to their stucco walls which are painted in a rainbow of colors. Strolling through the narrow cobbled streets, one can’t help but feel warm and welcome in Koprifstitsa, allowing the imagination to peer through this window to the past.
Architecture and history buffs aren’t the only ones who will find something to capture their attention and satisfy their curiosities in Bulgaria. Fans of flavorful and hearty food will instantly fall in love with cuisine that draws from all aspects of Bulgaria’s diverse population. There’s plenty of comfort to be found in Bulgarian comfort food. Spicy meats slow cooked to perfection, crisp salads filled with olives and pickled vegetables, plentiful varieties of seafood, and fresh bread and pastries the French would be jealous of; there is something on the Bulgarian that will make the mouths of even the pickiest eaters water.
No matter how charming a country may be, no matter how good the food, the real lasting impressions are usually generated by its people. Bulgarians are a proud people. It’s in their blood. They have fought off invaders for centuries in an effort to protect their identity and the tranquility of a small corner of Europe and monuments to the bravery and sacrifices of Bulgarian heroes are a common sight atop the rolling hills. Although some may seem protective and reserved at first, most Bulgarians jump at the opportunity to passionately share their history with you over a bite to eat and some homemade wine. And while Bulgaria strives to retain its independent identity, it’s also embracing a broader Europe; not only has E.U. membership ushered in a new age of development in Bulgaria, the capital city, Sofia, has a distinctive cosmopolitan feel to it, maintaining a palatable balance between old world charm and new world modernization.
Bulgaria offers something for everyone; alpine skiing in the winter, sun drenched beaches in the summer, history, architecture, food, culture and hospitality. Bulgaria quickly lays to rest stereotypes of a dull and cold Eastern Europe, even in the dead of winter, and while South America is certainly suitable for inclusion on someone’s bucket list, so is Bulgaria.
If you need a bucket list of things to do in Bulgaria, here are some recommendations:
1) Plovdiv – Visit the Roman ruins, stroll the streets in old town, and wine and dine at one of countless traditional Bulgarian restaurants
2) Rila Monestery – One of the great ones a short drive or bus ride outside Sofia
3) Explore the castle at Veliko Tarnovo
4) Black Sea Coast – bath in the sun and soak up the nightlife in Varna
5) Borovets – ski and snowboard in this mountain retreat not far from Sofia
Lodging Recommendation –Beikars Apartments – Plovdiv
Lodging Recommendation –Hostel Mostel – Sofia and V.T.