The Best of Bulgaria
After meeting a Bulgarian woman during our stay on Bali, she convinced us that we had to visit Bulgaria during our year abroad. We figured “why not?” as we needed to carefully manage our European Union tourist visa days (and Bulgaria is not yet a full member so time there did not count against our total). So we planned a short 8 day barnstorm trip to see as much of the country in such a short amount of time. We really had no expectations (or even that many plans) for our time in Bulgaria, but, to this day, it has stood out in our memories as being one of the most pleasant travel surprises, far exceeding our hopes on so many levels. Bulgaria has beautiful beaches, amazing cuisine, a fascinating and complex history, picturesque mountain ranges, and, of course, they’re also very famous for their roses - producing 70% of the worlds’ rose oil! Most of the younger generation speaks English so it was easy for us to talk to locals to get a better understanding on what life is like for most Bulgarians.
A few tips to remember when VISITING
Nod for no and shake your head for yes
‘Thank you’ is Blagodarya pronounced blah-goh-DAH-ryah
The national currency of Bulgaria is the Lev (BGN). The exchange rate is almost always two Lev to one Euro.
It’s easy and affordable to take the bus system to get around. Try to avoid the trains as most people encounter delays.
The Bulgarian rose harvest lasts about twenty days - from late May to mid-June. At this time Bulgarians celebrate the festival of the Rose.
very brief summary of bulgarian history
Sofia is the 2nd oldest continually occupied present day capital in Europe with a history going back 6,000+ years (only Athens is older). The first record of humans in Bulgaria dates back to as far as 5,000 BC! The Thracians (we know this civilization from famous characters in history like Spartacus) came to power around 3,000 BC. After the fall of the Thracians began a very long history of the Bulgar people falling under the rule of Persians, Celts and Roman empires. The mixture of these people were completely assimilated by the Slaves who permanently settled in the area after 500AD. By the 12th century, the region became subjugated under the Ottoman rule which lasted for the next 500 years. Due to the fall of the Ottoman empire and constantly being a people that were surrounded by mightier forces, they struggled for independence which ultimately led to them becoming a part of the communist state for over 34 years. In 1991, a new constitution was passed making Bulgaria a parliamentary republic and, in 2007, they joined the European Union. So there you have over 6,000 years of Bulgarian history in just a few short sentences which is to say it is a very complex and multicultural history. As our free walking tour guide put it “we are the definition of East meets West.” The blend of many cultures and history is evident in the architecture but especially the food which we will share with you the many delights down below.
Sofia is the largest city (and capital) of Bulgaria, though it only has 1.5 million people. Most of the population lives outside the city center, so this ‘big’ city maintains an intimate feel downtown. When you walk around Sofia, the city is like an onion that has been selectively peeled to let you see its layers of history, including long Roman, Ottoman, and Soviet occupations. We arrived on a rainy night after the whirlwind of Russia’s World Cup madness and were so happy to be in a smaller, slower place with amazing local foods. Recuperation was on our mind, but Sofia (and all of Bulgaria) delivered so much more than that as we fell in love with this little Balkan country. With far more to do and see than we imagined we recommend visitors plan on staying a minimum of two nights in Sofia. For more details on our time their check out our post Sauntering Through Sofia.
Make sure to visit the below landmark and symbol of Sofia the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in Neo-Byzantine style, is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world.
It is thought that the Rila monastery was founded by the hermit St. Ivan of Rila during 927-968, who it is named after (a Bulgarian version of St. Francis). The hermit actually lived in a cave without any possessions not far from the monastery's location, while the complex was built by his devout students, who came to the mountains to receive their education. Ever since its creation, the Rila Monastery has been supported and respected by the Bulgarian rulers. Large donations were made by almost every tsar of the Second Bulgarian Empire up until the Ottoman Conquest in the 14th century.
The people decided to rebuild the tower and the a small church next to it in 1334-1335 (you can see the tower in the photos below). However, the arrival of the Ottomans in the end of the 14th century was followed by numerous raids and a destruction of the monastery in the middle of the 15th century. The current Rila Monastery was rebuilt in the end of the 15th century and, in 1983, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The food of Bulgaria was by far one of the best surprises and a part of the culture we highlight to everyone that asks because it is a tasteful blend of Eastern and Western flavors. Fresh, organic, unpretentious, inexpensive, and easy to digest (which is a real blessing when you have been on the road as long as we have), the Bulgarian cuisine was one we have compared all others to in Eastern Europe (and found none of the others can live up to it). Bulgaria even has its own special wild bacteria used to make yogurt (not unlike Greek yogurt, but not as sour) that is served in a variety of ways, including an unsweetened yogurt drink called Ayran that is popular with the locals and might be the perfect grab-and-go way to start your day. We also LOVED the cheeses, which gave us all the creamy goodness that we hoped for but were so healthy and easy to digest that we almost thought we had found the holy grail of foods (immensely tasty, but not bad for you).
DISHES YOU SHOULD TRY WHILE IN BULGARIA
Tarator - a type of cold yogurt soup that has a tangy flavor that is balanced out with dill, cucumber and garlic. (photo above)
Banitsa - a flakey pastry filled with feta, sometimes with apples and nuts and is a dish most Bulgarians have for breakfast. (photo above)
Shopska Salad - a salad found all over eastern Europe (with slight differences), but the origins of the salad are traced to Bulgaria.
Lyutenitsa - a pepper and tomato based spread with garlic, onion and a little seasoning. Most Bulgarians make variations of this fresh at home to spread on toast and topped with cheese crumbles but today can be found in all grocery shops and restaurants. We fell in love with this condiment and found versions of it all throughout the Balkans (in Croatia a version of this recipe is called Ajvar).
Musaka - a layered casserole dish. While most Americans have tried this dish at a greek restaurant, in Bulgaria it is strictly done with layered potatoes and meat instead of eggplant.
Kebapche - minced seasoned grilled meats in the shape of a short finger. Found throughout the Balkans as well but known as ćevapčići pronounced Chev- ap-Chi-Chi.
Varna is probably most known for it’s golden sand beaches along the Black Sea that europeans flock to in the summer time. The #1 thing to to in Varna is to visit the Sea Garden, when I first heard the name I thought it was going to be tidal pool like area where you see sea creatures, when in reality its a beautiful park that lies along the coast and has spectacular views. It is lined with sprawling gardens, frequently hosts farmers markets and local artisan markets and it’s also where the Zoo and a Casino are located.
While in the Sea Garden area of Varna, we stumbled upon the International Traditional Folk Dance Festival - it was just another pleasant surprise to add to the long list of why we fell in love with Bulgaria. For over an hour, we watched as children as young as four years old practiced dance in their countries traditional garb while grannies well into their 90s did the same with their own representative group.
Plovdiv for us was the small town highlight for our time in Bulgaria. While 8 days total in Bulgaria is a very brief time to get to know an entire country, we could not have been more pleased with our decision to come and travel here and enjoy the Bulgarian hospitality. You can read more about our time in Plovdiv and why we would come back in a heartbeat.