Bulgaria: Living It and Traveling It
Bulgaria is a mysterious place – located in Europe, but still so different from most of the countries around it. Full of traditions, mountains and wonderful cities on the seaside, it’s still an undiscovered place for many travelers. We wanted to get to know more about it and beautiful Dani, born and raised in Bulgaria, has agreed to be our guide.
Hello, Dani! Mind starting by telling us a little about yourself? Which part of Bulgaria do you come from?
Bulgarian of Armenian descent, I was born in a small town in South Central Bulgaria called Asenovgrad, a mere 20 km from Plovdiv where I was raised. Owing to its location, Asenovgrad is an entry point to the gorgeous Rhodope Mountains. It is also famous for its wine production, numerous wedding dresses shops, and Tsar Asen’s fortress, which played a major role in the history of Bulgarian Middle Ages.
Now, Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s second biggest city, in addition to being Europe’s oldest inhabited city! You can clearly trace Thracian and Roman history of this place over 8000 years back. Plovdiv boasts ancient relic sights, warm climate, and nowadays, a favorable arts scene. Together, this has earned Plovdiv a nomination for European Capital of Culture in 2019. If you are planning to skip Plovdiv while visiting Bulgaria, you will miss out on one of the best treats Bulgaria has to offer to tourists.
I know you’ve left Bulgaria for some time, but came back. What’s so special there that brought you back?
I spent four years between Scotland and Germany getting a degree in Philosophy. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am currently looking for new challenges and adventures. However, objectively speaking, Bulgaria does offer a very comfortable and affordable living standard. Compared to any Western European country, property prices are considerably lower, making it easy to not only rent cheaper but actually own property or piece of land yourself. The summers are hot, the sea and the mountains are close, and easy access to natural homegrown food cannot go unmentioned. Can you imagine the feeling of being able to leave office in the early afternoon on a Friday and enjoy a pint at a beach later that day?
That would be totally wonderful, wish I could do that on an everyday basis. But let’s imagine that I am in Bulgaria as a tourist. For… four days, for example. How should I plan my visit?
My informal experience as a guide to visiting friends and couchsurfers shows that in order to have a worthwhile stay in Bulgaria, one should plan to spend at least 3 or 4 days going around.
The first day should be dedicated to Sofia, the capital city. Take the Free Sofia Tour to get the basics of the city. Have something traditional for lunch. Meet locals in the evening. Go to a bar or a restaurant with distinct modern socialist taste to it. A lot of these fantastic places have been opening in Sofia recently. I highly recommend them as one of the unique activities in the city. Engage in social drinking in parks. Continue through the morning (we don’t like to fool around; you’d better build up your drinking stamina).
On the second day, you can make a trip outside of Sofia. Depending on one’s interests and preferences, one could indulge in (further) exploring Bulgaria’s socialist political history and architecture and visit peak Buzludja. If you love your communist sights, you would certainly have seen some awe-striking photos and videos of this building located in the Central Balkan Mountains.
If you prefer nature, I recommend a mildly tough hike up in the Rila Mountains. There are the magnificent 7 Rila Lakes (that we’ve already written about) and Rila Monastery for you to discover. A less time-consuming alternative would be Boyana Falls, which are 2 hours away from Sofia city center.
The third day should be dedicated to Plovdiv. Plenty of things to see and do in a day. Starting with the Old town, Roman Theatre, Rolling canal and sunset gazing on Alyosha – an 11-metre tall reinforced concrete statue of a Soviet soldier on the Bunarjik Hill.
And finally, on the last day enjoy the seaside! But please do not go to the popular and crowded Sunny Beach. If you fancy a gorgeous coastline and a bit of cultural tourism, rather go to Sozopol, Chernomoretzh, Sinemoretz and southwards. The closer to the Turkish border, the less touristy. Same goes for the northernmost part of the coast, i.e. north from Varna, close to Romania.
Sounds like a plan! You mentioned eating traditional Bulgarian food. What are your three favorites?
It is safe to say that Bulgarian national cuisine is an amalgamation of the neighboring countries’ cuisines. As such, it is heavily based on grilled mincemeat, dairy products, and pastry. As a vegetarian, my personal recommendations would be:
- Banitza (!)
- Pink tomatoes
- Lutenitza (spread based on paprika, aubergine, and/or tomatoes) on toast with white cheese.
- For non-vegetarians: Dry meat, a.k.a Lukanka.
And are there some folk traditions that are still alive in Bulgaria? I think I have heard something about red threads to be put on the bushes to celebrate spring and some sort of carnival:)
Plenty. My favorite one is probably the most pagan. The “red threads” you refer to are traditionally red-and-white woolen bracelets called martenitza. They symbolize the beginning of spring. We exchange them during the first week of March, following 1st March, a holiday known as “Baba Marta”, hence “martenitza”. Martenitzi (plural) are gifted to people in your social circles with wishes of health and prosperity throughout the year. The tradition says you can take a martenitza off when you see a stork or a blooming tree. As far as I am aware, this is a strictly Bulgarian tradition that no other Balkan nation shares.
Another famous folk tradition is the Mummor’s (or as we call it “Kukeri”) festival. А masquerade in its essence, “kuker” denotes a folkloric ritual monster, a man dressed in an elaborate suit of fur and ribbons, feathers and beads. These kukeri wear carved wooden masks with the faces of beasts and birds; hanging heavy copper or bronze bells around their waists as they dance and jump in arcane rituals intended to dispel the evil spirits which might otherwise bring ill fortune to a community.
What about people there? A lot of Europeans are worried about unfriendliness and high criminality… Having lived in Bulgaria for three months myself, I can vouch that it’s not true, but I am sure you can give us a more insider opinion;)
Reputation often outlives reality. The reality is now that most crime in Bulgaria is the white-collar crime, i.e. financially motivated nonviolent crime committed by business and government professionals or high-level corruption. In other words, nothing your regular tourist should be concerned about. As for other types of unwanted experiences, yes, cab drivers might try to rip you off with the fare from the airport; certain restaurants and clubs might try to charge you more, etc. But let us be honest, this is equally possible anywhere else in the world. To avoid unpleasantness, make sure you meet with locals, ask them for tips and recommendations, go clubbing together. Perhaps at first people in the streets will not smile at you, but if you try to connect and show genuine interest in Bulgarian culture, you’d be surprised how open Bulgarians can be.
Fair enough. And to sum up – what are the three must dos to keep in mind when arranging a Bulgarian trip?
- Visit in summer
- Meet locals
- Enjoy both the sea and the mountains
Thank you, Dani, for sharing your love for Bulgaria with us!Written by Olya