Bulgaria – from the Black Sea to the Balkans
Bulgaria is a completely European country, and yet it lies on the Easternmost fringes of the continent. It is bordered by Turkey to the south and it has a long coastline on the Black Sea, directly across the waters from which lies Russia. It also shares borders with Romania to the north, Greece to the South and Serbia and Macedonia to the West. It is a cultural melting pot of Slavic, Ottoman, Greek and Persian influences, and civilisation in this area stretches back to the Trojan Wars and beyond. That’s a long time!
The country encompasses a wide variety of different landscapes, full of imposing mountain range, huge plains and great forests. In fact, it is one of the countries with the highest biodiversity in Europe and has some of the world’s oldest trees. The Balkan Highlands stretches across the middle of the country, a natural fortress for Bulgarians against invaders, as well as a time of refuge when they were under the yoke of foreign powers (which was for most of its history). The Black Sea coastline in contrast is spectacular and in modern times has been a magnet for holidaymakers – a favourite destination in the Communist era, and even more so now with travellers from Western Europe.
History of Bulgaria
There have been people in what is now Bulgaria since the Stone Age. The Thracians, the Greeks and the Romans were here in ancient times, but then around the 6th century, the Bulgars, semi-nomadic warrior tribes from the steppes of Central Asia, swept in. They established the First Bulgarian Empire in 681AD, thus giving the country its name. For a short time Bulgaria flourished, increasing massively in size and coming to dominate most of the Balkans region. Rulers such as Krum and Simeon the Great had great successes and looking back, this is seen as the golden age of Bulgarian civilization. Sadly, it didn’t last and although it had brief periods of independence it came under the dominaton of first Byzantium and later the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the country for close to half a millennium.
Following a treaty between Russia and the declining Ottoman Empire, an independent Bulgaria was first established. Even that wasn’t the end of their misfortune however. The new Bulgaria was originally to be much bigger in size, containing within it almost all of those considering themselves Bulgarian. Sadly at the time, the Great Powers rejected this arrangement due to fear that Bulgaria would be large enough to come to challenge and rival them. Cowards! I’m including my own country in that description too. It could have saved a lot of heartache and bloodshed later if they’d not be so selfish… So anyway, a much smaller Bulgaria was created, which created tensions that would not have been there otherwise.
During both of the 20th century’s World Wars, Bulgaria sided with Germany and thus was on the losing side on both occasions. During World War II however, they prevented its Jewish population from being deported to concentration camps, and eventually switched sides. After the war, they came under Soviet influence and became a Communist state. After 1989 it started to switch to a capitalist system, but struggled to adapt and only in the 2000s did its fledgling market economy start to take off. It joined NATO in 2004 and was accepted into the EU in 2007, a sign of how far it had come in the first few years of the 21st century.
What is Bulgaria Like?
So that’s its history out of the way, but what sort of place is Bulgaria? What is it like to visit, and to live in? Well for visitors, the Black Sea holiday resorts, particularly purpose built places like Sunny Beach, are by far the most popular. There are still many unspoilt and largely undiscovered parts of the Black Sea coast however. If they are not going for the seaside, travellers are likely to want to visit one of the major cities, either the capital Sofia – considered the most affordable European capital to visit – or Plovdiv, with a spectacular 2000 year old Roman amphitheatre in its centre. Alongside the amphitheatre is Ottoman baths and mosques, as well as many beautiful houses and churches, making it a great place to visit if you like your history and your architecture. Do you want an interesting fact about Plovdiv? Of course you do! The city has had various names throughout its history, and was renamed Philippoupolis after Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, who apparently settled all of the most villainous people of his kingdom in the city. What a lovely place it must have been to live in then!
The big cities though don’t tell the whole picture, and as usual I have picked a little known place which isn’t touristy to get an idea of the real Bulgaria. I was going to choose Troyan, a town in central Bulgaria named after the Roman Emperor Trajan, but that was before I discovered Melody. Melody is an American who spent four years teaching at the American University in Bulgaria in a place called Blagoevgrad. Never heard of it? I didn’t think so, although it is quite a sizable place. Anyway, Melody wrote a blog about her experiences in Bulgaria while living and working in Blagoevgrad. It is full of the sort of descriptions and insight which you often struggle to find elsewhere. According to Melody, being in Bulgaria is like “living in a time warp”, everything is really cheap with a good meal out for two costing $12, and a decent bottle of Bulgarian wine is $3. Everyone is nice and appreciative, no raising of voices, shouting at their children, they aren’t obsessed with TV like Americans and British are, and there is a much slower pace of life. Oh but there are a lot of stray dogs, corruption is rife and it is very bureaucratic and disorganised. I guess you can’t have everything!
Blagoevgrad is a small city with a population of approximately 70,000, situated 100km from the capital Sofia. In the typical communist way, it was named after Bulgarian socialist party founder Dimitar Blagoev. In many respects it is an unremarkable place, but it does have one or two attractions you can visit. Rila Monastery is only a few miles outside the city. It is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox Monastery in Bulgaria, set in gorgeously remote surroundings and with beautiful paintings on the walls and ornate carved altars. Other attractions in Blagoevgrad include Stob’s Pyramids, unusual pointy pyramid rock formations, and also Park Bachinovo which according to Trip Advisor is good for walking the dog (okay so we’re scraping the barrel here now!).
Fortunately, after gazing at funnily shaped rocks and walking the dog in the park, there are some decent places to eat. The top rated restaurants are all either American, Chinese or Italian so we’ll skip past those, but Vodenista does traditional Bulgarian “rustic food”. Some patrons apparently didn’t appreciate the dead animals decorating the walls, but to make up for it there’s real living animals in the small zoo in the backyard, and ponies running free – though hopefully not in the actual restaurant. One customer recommended the bread and cheese, and the grilled veg and the pork and chicken skewers are amazing.
Bulgarian Food & Drink
While this good might be standard rustic fayre, what other meals are popular in Bulgaria? Starting with breakfast – it is after all important start the day with a hearty breakfast – is banitsa. This is a dough with various fillings – cheese, spinach, rice, meat…. For breakfast? Seriously?
Yoghurt and sirene cheese (similar to Greek Feta) are served with most meals according to one report, and salads are one of the most popular dishes, in part because a good salad can show off the delicious vegetables grown by many people in rural areas. The most popular is Shopska salad which is made from tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers and parsley, covered with grated cheese. It was recognised as a national culinary symbol, and in a 2014 European Parliament survey it was considered the most popular and recognisable dish in Europe. Surprisingly, it is not an old recipe – it dates back to the 1960s. It was one of a number of dishes created as a tourist promotion, each named after different regions of Bulgaria, a product of early Bulgarian socialism. Of these dishes, Shopska salad is the only survivor.
Other popular salads includes Shepherds salad, Harvest salad, Snezhanka salad and Monk’s salad. Other well known Bulgarian dishes include a cold cucumber soup called Tarator, and lots of winter stews such as Kavarma, Chomlek and Kapama.
To finish off any meal you need a good drink. Bulgaria is one of the world’s biggest exporters of wine so there’s plenty of choice there, but you alternatively prefer a glass of Rakia. Rakia is Bulgaria’s spirit, made with various different fruits depending on the region – grapes, apricots, plums and pears are all common choices. There’s even a Rose Rakia, made in Bulgaria’s Valley of Roses, if you fancy your beverage a little more fragrant.
Entertainment & Culture in Bulgaria
After your meal you might seek some entertainment for the evening. Music is very popular in Bulgaria – you might choose an evening out of classical music, opera or ballet. Outside of the big cities however, you would be more likely to find yourself listening to the haunting and beautiful Bulgarian folk music.
Another increasing obsession in Bulgaria is archaeology interestingly enough. Bulgarians are slowly realise the ancient riches – both cultural and monetary – buried in their hills and plains. There are elaborate burial tombs containing valuable treasures dating back as much as 6,000 years. Six thousand year! How many countries can boast that? Of particular interest though are the Thracians. These ancient people were contemporaries of the Greeks and the Romans, and came from the area around what is now Bulgaria. Not much is known about them, but the more that is discovered the more interesting their history becomes. If you are ever in the hills of Bulgaria, look out for a beehive shaped bulge in the landscape. It probably contains a Thracian tomb with beautiful frescos painted on the walls and maybe even some gold…
Map of Bulgaria – by Equestenbrarum from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0)
The Rhodope Mountains – by Evgeni Dinev from Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)