The Balkans Explained - 50p.

The Balkans / Балканите Tchavdar Nikolov2


The Balkans. The highest peak in the Balkans is Musala in Bulgaria. The U.S. State Department has a Balkan region policy that includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia but not Bulgaria. Politics, semantics, diplomacy.



The Balkans, geographically speaking, is also referred to as the Balkan Peninsula, easternmost of Europe’s three great southern peninsulas. The Encyclopaedia Britannica lists the countries therein as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. The Encyclopaedia Britannica also confesses that, “There is not universal agreement on the region’s components.”


Even the Balkans, it seems, can be balkanized. Goodbye to Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Southeastern Europe and hello to the Western Balkans—though, strangely, there doesn’t seem to be the corollary one would expect in references to the “Eastern” Balkans. The United Nations and the European Commission both have programs and reports and round tables on what’s being done and not done in the Western Balkans. There is a web portal devoted to this new piece of an old region. It’s aptly titled European Western Balkans, though that does beg the question of what other continents may contain a “Western Balkans.”

The Oxford University Press’s dictionary defines “balkanization” as Divide (a region or body) into smaller mutually hostile states or groups. The term was coined to describe what happened as the Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man of Europe” was giving out its last gasps and all its bits and pieces found their long-lost nationalism in making aggressive territorial claims on the other bits and pieces. Two Balkan Wars ensued as did World War I.

condenaststore-com-the-balkansThe Balkans, in whole or in part, geographically, historically, diplomatically, semantically, west or east—what really does that name tell us? Any story it might tell is disingenuous, because even when it was coined it described a past and not a present, let alone a future. And because whenever it has been used, it has meant different things to different people who all imagined they understood the same single and true story behind it.


The Balkans. Using this term is like talking about Africa. What can one say about an entire continent that has any real meaning? What can one say about the Balkans that has any real meaning? And yet people will go on and talk about Africa in a way they do not ever seem to talk about North America.

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke famously about “the danger of the single story…The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” The single story promulgated again and again about the Balkans is that it is tribal, war-torn, with bred-in-the-bone hatreds from time immemorial. The Balkans, as Adichie lamented about Africa, are spoken about as one single, seething mass—a single story.

For me, this blog To Bulgaria and Back in large part aims to do the opposite. I try to tell many different stories about a single “Balkan” country, Bulgaria. If you have stories to tell, please do share them.



Look Back in Laughter / Обърни се със смях на зад

I need to read more in Bulgarian. I have been saying this since the mid-1990s. Had I been reading in Bulgarian steadily since, my vocabulary would be far richer. Thus just before our summer vacation in Bulgaria ended, I marched into Booktrading, my favorite bookstore in Sofia, and asked the lovely young woman there for help. “What do you recommend that’s not a translation from the English [my usual go-to], that’s modern and light, but not too frivolous or a love story, something not too long, something humorous without too much slang, something I could possibly enjoy truly reading without it being instead an exercise in dictionary use?”

It was a tall order and she was not only unfazed but enthusiastic. She seemed delighted by the challenge, excitedly pulling books off the shelves. In the end, I bought two. One is called Обърни се със смях на зад, Turn Back in Laughter by Mihail Veshim. Veshim in his introduction notes that his title is inspired by John Osborne’s famous 1956 play, Look Back in Anger.

I had never heard of Mihail Veshim so I can’t say if he is universally loved or reviled, critically respected or a bestseller in Bulgaria. What I can say is that the lovely young saleswoman at Booktrading succeeded marvelously in filling my tall order. I am reading this book of short essays with pleasure, with understanding, and yes, with laughter.

The essays are satirical and pointed, specifically Bulgarian with enough observations about general human nature and modern life to be broadly understood. So I thought I would give you my translation of one of Veshim’s essays entitled “Реклама-Мама” (“Reklama-Mama,” the English translation “Advertising-Mama” doesn’t have the same satisfying rhyme).

Let’s reduce the volume of the advertisements, they decided in CEM [Съвет за електронни медии, Center for Electronic Media].

I remember a French caricature twenty years or more ago—the speaker on the screen announces to the listeners: “And now for those of you who were in the bathroom during the advertisements, we will repeat them.”

At that time for us the advertisements weren’t such a scourge—we had two programs on television, and in the stores there were no goods. Whatever they released—on television, and in the stores—sold…on account of the absence of anything else.

For this reason the French caricature didn’t seem to me especially witty. Only now in Bulgaria has its time come.

Its time didn’t come all at once, but gradually. Gradually the advertising replaced journalism—in print and in electronic media. First one of the owners of a foreign newspaper group, which used to lead the newspaper market in Bulgaria, admitted “the role of journalism,” said the foreigner, “is to fill in the empty spaces between the advertisements…”

The same symbolic doctrine started to hold as well in television, old and new—the task of their nimble anchors, reporters, and team was to fill the spaces between the advertising blocks.

Thus journalists—sometimes obviously, sometimes secretly, sometimes paid, sometimes as a friendly gesture—turned themselves into advertisers—not only for food and everyday goods. But as well for political goods—parties, coalitions, and leaders. Which afterwards did not give out the goods, but the people chose them and that’s mostly because of their beautiful media images and high ratings created on the screen.

After which the advertising obliterated the journalism like white correction fluid. Already there is no literary criticism to tell you which book to choose and which not. There is advertising—the raising of noise from the publisher, from the author’s friends, or from the author himself. The writer pats his own back—this is something ordinary, we see it everyday and it passes for normalcy. It passes for normalcy when from his own pocket the writer pays the critic in order to praise him in public and afterwards to print a review in some publication. And one literary publisher directly gives out its rates—50 leva for a review for a newly published book. Laudatory, of course.

The same situation as well in the cinema—the praises for successes are greater than the successes. But the television series have thought up even an even more successful formula for the acquisition of resources—product placement. The hero lights his cigarette with a lighter showing a definite brand, drinks a carbonated drink showing a definite brand, eats a sandwich from one chain of snack bars, fills the gas tank from only one chain of gas stations.

In this way the producers of the series positioned themselves like the proletariat at one time*—they stand to lose nothing except their chains. Their chains of snack bars and gas stations. For the listeners they could care less.

Recently a PR woman from a large and rich firm told me that a producer of a new television series came to her with a few suggestions for a product placement—in the episodes only the firm’s logo will be seen, their firm’s brand products will be included in the dialogue of the leading characters, and—most enticing—the screenwriters will write a special episode on the activities of the firm… A question of a little contract and of accounting.

So in all the arts in Bulgaria the most important is the accounting. And the product placement. Therefore the inscription before the series should read: “Within the product placement there is a little film”

What do we do meantime? Prime time…

… Let’s reduce the volume of the advertisements, they decided in CEM [Съвет за електронни медии, Center for Electronic Media].

The regulatory agency finally succeeded in regulating something…at least it turned the “volume” to “min.”

For many years I have expected from CEM different regulations—to turn down the level of the stupidity on the screen. And not just once have I written about this. But from the agency they have answered—not to me personally but to the viewers, indignant about the obscenity in the shows—that it’s none of our business.

It’s none of their business to sanction the obscenity, the vulgarity, and the stupidity. They could not impose censorship, restrict this particular kind of humorous and free display. And besides the showmen comply with regulations—they use obscenity, but with a red dot [warning viewers]…

If I had power, I would place a red dot on CEM. But be still my heart…

But my heart is not still when I call to mind one quiet Christmas Eve night when we were at home decorating the tree in a celebratory mood, when all at once a voice from the screen startled us: “Only Jaro could produce such shit!…”

The public television spoke to us, that’s how it chose to advertise its series. That television supported by our taxes.

“Not just Jaro,” I said to my children, “and others can produce it.”

* The proletariat was said to have nothing to lose except its chains.





The (Bulgarian) School Year Begins

The Bulgarian school year always starts on September 15. The school year for Bulgarian weekend schools outside of Bulgaria starts on the closest Saturday to that date. That’s today. So my 15-year old daughter and 9½ -year son gave up the first of many Saturday afternoons until the end of May and trooped off to St. Kliment Ohridski Bulgarian Educational and Cultural Center. They complain from time to time, but they go. Each year, we ask them do they want to go the following year and they say yes. So it appears that having Bulgarian friends, hearing the Bulgarian language, celebrating Bulgarian holidays, and being surrounded by Bulgarian culture has value not merely to parents but to the children themselves.

The St. Kliment Ohridski school in Washington, DC was founded in 2002 and it is one of many such weekend Bulgarian schools and educational centers throughout the world. In 2007, our founding director Boian Koulov helped found the Sofia-based Association of Bulgarian Schools Abroad. The Association’s website lists over 80 members. The Bulgarian Ministry of Education supplies textbooks specifically written for Bulgarians abroad and provides financial support through its Native Language and Culture Abroad program.

Still, it’s not easy. The teachers are all native speakers, the books in Bulgarian, the cultural programming upholds tradition and custom. But as soon as the children go out for recess, they speak in English. They sneak Pokemon cards in the fourth grade or linger getting coffee in the ninth. But they do maintain a connection to the land of their birth, or their parents’ birth, and they see themselves as citizens of two countries. It’s not like the Diaspora of earlier immigrant groups wherein once the move was made, you stayed. Once the first generation assimilated, the language was lost. To go back and forth, to hold both countries, both languages, both cultures in your life and mind at the same time, it wasn’t done, wasn’t possible. You were there, or here. There was before, and after.

But not anymore. If you haven’t fled from war and/or oppression, or at least there isn’t still today war and/or oppression, you can in fact have it all. The world, as we so often are told, is small and technology makes it smaller. The old country isn’t a picture frozen in time at the moment of departure. It keeps developing and we are there. Bulgaria’s old Soviet-style concrete panel apartment blocks become the jumping off point—literally—for a cool youtube video that could only be made today.


Whole Foods has Bulgarian feta (though you can get it cheaper at the food mecca of the entire Bulgarian Diaspora in the U.S., Etsy sells Bardo Art Bags, handmade Bulgarian purses and totes. This year’s New York Independent Film Festival screened the Bulgarian film Losers. Rick Steves recently touted Bulgaria as a vacation destination in The Seattle Times. It’s not everywhere, it’s not often, but if you open your eyes wide enough, you can find Bulgaria’s presence without having to get on the plane. That’s important because when you and your children do get on that plane, and then the requisite second plane, and arrive in Bulgaria, you and they will find that the country doesn’t seem a foreign one. There’s no culture shock, just culture calm and familiarity. That makes school on Saturday afternoons well worthwhile. I think even the children might admit to that.



Big Things Come in Small Packages

Large countries presume their power and importance. Small countries presume nothing. They might rely on bluster, ardently asserting their strategic location. They might point to a glorious history when once they led an empire, or two, and belligerently note that what was taken from them oh so many years ago could just as easily be taken back. They might itemize a list of firsts or bests, of inventions or goods or cuisine or landscape. They might have famous people whose very fame promises to throw at least an occasional spotlight on the country that birthed them. A lot of small countries do all of this and more. It’s hard to get airtime otherwise. China, Russia, the United States, they can suck all the air out of the room.

I was thinking about this when I read about a story about a recent archeological find in Bulgaria. Bulgaria is a small country spoiled for choice when it comes to archeologically important sites and finds dating back thousands of years and across many cultures and peoples. The discovery of what seems to be certainly Europe’s oldest worked gold, and possibly the oldest gold artifact in the world, is not diminished by the find’s tiny size, a bead measuring just 1/8 inch. It was discovered not far from Пловдив (Plovdiv), the oldest inhabited city in Europe.

Yavor Boyadzhiev of the Bulgarian Academy of Science said, “It is a tiny piece of gold but big enough to find its place in history.”

“Big enough to find its place in history” is a broad notion that all small countries can affirm.

My daughter spent her fourth and fifth grade years in a Bulgarian public school, the Georgi Sava Rakovski elementary school 120. Parents did not complain that there wasn’t enough Bulgarian-centered literature, social studies or natural history to fill class hours or textbooks. No, they complained that the Bulgarian curriculum was too full and too dense with material for the children to have time to absorb and truly learn. Clearly each country, no matter its size, is a big world unto itself.

This is not to say that that small countries can or should stand alone in the affairs of the world, but of course that is equally true for their larger fellows. National pride, national loyalty, national spirit are strengthening. But in the same way that we praise assertiveness and decry aggressiveness, patriotism loses its charm and benefit when it turns to chauvinism. That’s the story of the Balkan Wars between nations a little more than a century ago and the wars within the federated states of the former Yugoslavia that began 25 years ago.

Bulgaria on the rare occasions when it appears in the news is generally given the appellation “the poorest country in Europe.” It is correctly criticized for its endemic corruption. Its politics are nearly as unpleasant as those currently holding the United States simultaneously in the fifth and eighth circles of hell.

Bulgaria, however, never receives attention for its rigid determination to keep its chauvinism as a relic of the past. All of its governments since 1989—be they red, blue, pink, or purple—have maintained that Bulgaria’s power and importance lay in its healthy relationships with its neighbors and in its own contributions to world culture and history.

That’s why a tiny bead for me is so emblematic. Boyadzhiev’s comment that “It is a tiny piece of gold but big enough to find its place in history” is really not merely about the bead, but as well about small countries that are always big enough and always have a place—not merely in history but in our world today.



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Bulgaria, When Not In Bulgaria

We returned from our Bulgarian vacation 2½ weeks ago. As is always the case, all too soon one is subsumed in the everyday and the local. The vacation, the sense of place where one was seems immediately substituted for the tasks at hand in the place one is now. And yet, as if one is wearing an unmistakable identifying scent, Bulgarian encounters have a way of happening even outside Bulgaria.

My son and I were at a farmer’s market near where we live in DC. We were choosing from a variety of luscious-looking tomatoes—not yet ready to give up the wonderful taste of garden tomatoes in Bulgaria—and talking, in Bulgarian, about our choices. And then we heard agreement about those choices, in Bulgarian. I whirled around and was greeted by a smiling face. “Здравейте (Hello)!” We did not know this woman, this Bulgarian who told us she had emigrated to DC over two decades ago, but we had a lovely conversation between the crates of tomatoes and the crates of eggplant. After we progressed to the cashier, her American companion told us how happy we’d made her friend by connecting her in this unanticipated way to her language and country.


We were at the pool, having it nearly all to ourselves on a weekday early afternoon. The lifeguard had a familiar accent. Then he heard us talking. He was not Bulgarian, but Serbian, and recognized familiar words. We began to talk about life there, life here. He asked would we want to live in Bulgaria again. Eastern Europeans generally, in my personal experience, often wish to hear the experience of here and there compared and contrasted—assuming that one will confirm the belief that life here is better, easier, richer. I said yes, yes, we did think that someday we would live in Bulgaria again. And as I spoke about the things we valued—the easier, more fluid and informal social life, the balance between work and leisure, the more human pace, less expectation that one must continually strive for more—he found himself nodding in assent. And when I mentioned that the children are dual citizens of the US and the EU, I inadvertently held up Bulgaria as a country to be envied by a Serbia without that advantage.

The other day we attended a funeral for a relative who died after a years-long debilitating illness. At the service, we heard of the love story he and his wife had, people from two sides of the Atlantic meeting in a third country. We heard of how they took a lengthy trip through Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and on through Western Europe to marry in her English hometown. I had known about this 1967 travel in Bulgaria, but had forgotten it. Later that day Kathy asked me if I’d been to Петрич (Petrich). I haven’t. Then she recounted a terrible summer rainstorm outside of Sofia. “It rains, of course, a lot in England, but not that kind of hard rain. I was very scared.” And I said I had rarely experienced a true rainstorm in Bulgaria, one with thunder and lightening, but we had to stop on the road up to Витоша (Vitosha) Mountain this summer because the rain and the hail made for such dangerous going. “It was probably the same place,” she said. Same Bulgarian experience, nearly five decades later.

Rarely does Bulgaria appear in American media, and I do search regularly on websites of major media outlets. Yet twice last month The New York Times covered Bulgaria, once highlighting a small village, “Bulgarians Hope Che Guevara and Brigitte Bardot Can Save Their Village” and once the Black Sea, “By Bulgaria’s Beautiful Black Sea.” Lucas Peterson, author of the latter article, wondered why he “hadn’t made it to this part of the world earlier.” My mother, who has been to Bulgaria twice and who hasn’t read Mr. Peterson’s article, often wonders why people haven’t made it to this part of the world. She and my father find it as beautiful as my husband and I do.

shaking hands

In a little over a month, Bulgaria when not in Bulgaria will show itself most strongly in our Saturday afternoon Bulgarian school. Българският Образователен и Културен Център “Свети Климент Охридски” (St. Kliment Ohridski Bulgarian Education and Cultural Center) will hold classes in Bulgarian language, literature, social studies, history, and the natural world. There will be classes in theater, national dance, and art. And all will be taught in Bulgarian by native speakers and educators. For a few hours, within the boundaries of the United States capital, children from pre-school through 12th grade will feel they are in Bulgaria. They may or may not ever live there, but something of the country will live in them.


Turkey, So Close So Far

In the winter of 2001-2002, friends suggested we take an excursion to Istanbul for the New Year’s holiday. We booked a four-day trip and set off by bus from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. It was a very long bus ride that took us southeast through Svilingrad to reach the Kapitan Andreevo village, the last stop on the Bulgarian side. Perhaps it is more pleasant now, but border crossings seem designed to be quite the opposite however modern the facilities may be. This one is said to be the busiest in Europe. However long and unpleasant the bus ride was, we enjoyed Istanbul tremendously and vowed to return for a longer stay there and exploration of other parts of Turkey. We haven’t yet made it back.

Last week, though, we went to Малко Търново (Malko Turnovo) for an afternoon. We had first gone to Царевец (Tzarevetz). Leaving Tzarevetz, we were uncertain about the best way to go and asked a man crossing the street. He asked “Do you want to take the good road or the bad road?” “The good road,” answered my husband, not quite suppressing his bemusement. The man explained that the bad road took you through the Strandja forest and a few, sporadically placed, tiny villages. This was the straighter road, but full of holes. The good road—“първа класа!” (first class!)— was reached by driving north to Приморско (Primorsko) and making a semi-circle to avoid part of the Strandja and all of the presumably third-class road. The explanation was detailed and various points were reinforced to ensure that we understood. My husband thanked the man very much for the copious information and then set out on the bad road. He found the drive through the formerly forbidden (during Communist rule) Strandja irresistible. The road was indeed bad, the potholes forcing very slow and careful driving, and we saw no other cars. But the reward was the Strandja Nature Park, beautiful, dense, and quiet. Periodically we passed large signs describing the plants, animals, and birds found in the vicinity as well as the camping, biking, and hiking possibilities and trails.

After perhaps an hour, we saw street signs pointing the way. Turn one direction to reach Malko Turnovo, turn the other to reach Istanbul. My son asked if we could go to Istanbul and we said but for leaving our passports in Sinemoretz we might easily go—and that we certainly would go with him one day. Border crossing delays aside, the drive would be less than four hours. No reason not to go, we thought.

But on this day, our destination was Malko Turnovo. As the name implies—“malko” meaning “small”—this is not a large town. Yet its Historical Museum and Petrov’s Field, the latter commemorating an unsuccessful Macedonian rebellion, are included in Bulgaria’s list of 100 national tourist sites. We arrived too late for the Historical Museum, but not too late to stroll around the central part of the town. Malko Turnovo is remote and can’t be said to be thriving, but the ladies at the tourist office were full of information and nicely printed brochures describing both the town and the region’s attractions. There was even a brochure listing guesthouses for overnight stays. We took the “good road” towards Primorsko on our way back to Villa Victoria, the small family hotel where we were staying in Синеморец (Sinemoretz).

En route, we passed field after field of vineyards. Logically, my husband thought, where there are grapes there is ракия (rakia, the classic Bulgarian grape—or any fruit really—brandy). Driving through Ново Паничарево (New Panicharevo), he stopped to ask a man where he could buy some real Strandja rakia. He gave a name, pointed a finger, mentioned a house a bit further on. A bit further on, my husband stopped and called to a man standing beside his house. The man looked hesitant at the request, remained impassive as my husband explained, took a look at my son and me in the back seat, went to discuss the issue with his family seated in the yard by the house. The authorities don’t approve of alcohol being sold privately.When he came back, still impassive, he nodded assent and asked how much rakia my husband wanted to buy. We waited. A woman came out with a liter and a half plastic bottle filled with rakia. Ten leva exchanged hands.

Now the man returned. In a friendly tone, he advised my husband not to put the bottle in the front seat and then asked if we liked fish. Yes, we said, yes we do. He began to tell us of an excellent place to eat fish, very fresh, just past the bridge leading out of Malko Turnovo on the road towards Turkey. “Oh,” we said, “we are just returning from Malko Turnovo. Perhaps next time.” He warmly waved us on.

On Wednesday, July 13, we decided to go to Резово (Rezovo), the most southeastern point of Europe. There the natural border of the Rezovo River forms the line that separates Bulgaria from Turkey. We snapped photos of the two flags, the river, the sea that laps at the edges of both countries. We saw two white vans pull up on the Turkish side and enough soldiers coming out of them that we could think only of circus clown cars disgorging more passengers than seems possible. “Why are there soldiers there?” my son asked. “Perhaps they are on a field trip,” I answered casually. I had no reason to believe anything else and perhaps they really were on a field trip of some kind. They seemed so informal as they walked around a bit and maybe they too simply wanted to see a spot with two flags and take a few photos.

We took a stroll through the town, ate a few джанки (janki, small wild plums), sighted storks, and made our way through flat, dry fields to the rocky cliffs that led to the sea. Rezovo was a quiet place, a calm, peaceful place. We waved at Turkey before making the short drive back to Sinemoretz.

Two days later, a military coup was attempted in Turkey. Bulgaria closed its borders and sent soldiers to the checkpoints.

Tzarevo city map

Tzarevo / Царево

It rained in the evening in Sinemoretz. It rained in the night. It was still raining in the morning, a persistent downfall that precluded any thought of going to the beach. So we went to Tzarevo.

We hadn’t been there before. We hadn’t, to be frank, even heard of this small Black Sea coast town only a 25-minute drive from Sinemoretz. But number 86 on the 100 places to visit on the Опознай България (Know Bulgaria) site is the Tzarevo Municipal Museum of History so we went to Tzarevo.

For more than 700 years, the town was known as Vasiliko or Vasilikos (βασιλιάς), Greek for king. In 1913, after the Balkan Wars, the town became Bulgarian. By the mid-1930s, it was renamed Царево (Tzarevo, “of the king”). That seemed a direct affront to the Communist regime after the war. As was their wont, Bulgarian Communist leaders changed the name to honor a Soviet hero. Tzarevo became Michurin. Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin had some genetic theories that were suspect even in his own time, but Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin were supporters and that was what counted.

Tzarevo Bulgaria EuropeNot surprisingly, the town took only two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall to change the name back to Tzarevo. To reinforce the message of its allegiance, the municipality wrote it in stone. At the end of the walkway in the city park leading to the sea, there is a large mosaic clearly detailing Tzarevo’s connection to Bulgaria and to Europe.


Some of the Black Sea towns have long been resorts, first for the Bulgarian nomenklatura and tourists from the Soviet Union and the East Bloc and then for the average Bulgarian and anyone else who cared to travel a bit farther east than Spain’s Costa del Sol. Златни Пясъци (Golden Sands) and Слънчев Бряг (Sunny Beach) are perhaps the most well-known, crowded with tourists searching for night life and cheap drinks. Other Black Sea towns have now developed into domestic and foreign tourist meccas, with the requisite lines of vendors selling Chinese-made Black Sea souvenirs and haunch-to-paunch sunbathers under rows of beach umbrellas. We have Bulgarian friends who now avoid their own beaches in favor of Greek package holiday deals in Halkadiki.

We chose Sinemoretz because there are no large hotels; lots of the семейни хотели (family hotels with very few rooms and personable hosts) we prefer; fabulous баничарници where the баници (banitza), кифли (kifla), софиянки (sofianka), and other delicious breakfast pastries are made on the premises and sold to you while still hot; and gorgeous landscapes of sea, river, beach, rock, meadow, forest, and cliff are all amazingly within steps of each other. We stayed nine days and enjoyed every one of them—the unexpected day trip to Tzarevo was a bonus.

Just before we reached our destination, the rain stopped and not long after the sun shone. The first thing we came upon was a sculpture with two figures visible from our vantage point. “Okay,” said my husband, “ here we have the usual partisan and worker. Where is the female collective farmer with her bountiful harvest?” Fortunately, the former Michurin government did not disappoint. The heroic female collective farmer joined her men on the third side of the sculpture. Nearby was a wall using sgraffito to display symbols of rural life, both in agriculture and in the wild. You can see sgraffito on walls in many towns and cities throughout Bulgaria.

Tzarevo has tourists, but not so many that they overwhelm the local residents. The municipality seems to have managed to have enough services to attract visitors without losing its soul. The city park is large, reached by a long pedestrian-only main street, and has two walkways that end in a view of the sea and steps that lead down to beautiful, white rocks that are flat enough to take an easy stroll up to the water. The park is full of people and includes the largest and most modern playground I’ve yet seen in Bulgaria. Appreciative children, parents, and grandparents were making the most of it as we passed.

When we tore ourselves away from strolling Tzarevo, we found the Municipal Museum of History. It is a three-floor building with the first floor devoted to regional archeological finds, particularly a Thracian treasure trove of coins dating back to 182 BCE and hundreds of extraordinary finely-wrought gold and silver jewelry ornaments found in an intact grave of a wealthy woman living in the late Hellenistic period. The third floor contained an exhibition of contemporary artists’ works on paper. The second was dark when we visited.


It was rain that prompted our unplanned visit to Tzarevo, but the town deserves to be an intentional destination. It’s a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon.

Бели Искър5SMALL

Mountains and Rivers / Планини и Реки

Река Искър (Iskur River) starts in the Rila Mountain range and runs a long path north, widening and deepening until it ends in the Danube. In the beginning, you can cross the Iskur easily by using the large granite rocks as stepping stones and those same stones make the Iskur gurgle and run white, spin and curl as the river winds through the mountain forests. We encountered the Iskur River as we moved on from the Rila Monastery and the Rila River. Bulgaria is full of mountains and waters of all kinds—glacial lakes, hot springs, fresh water rivers, the Black Sea. We first went to Сапарева Баня (Sapareva Banya). We wanted to try out the famous hot mineral waters—at 103 degrees Celsius at the source the hottest in Europe—and found the Аква Клуб Котвата where three pools (including one for small children) contain warm mineral water, one Jacuzzi contains hot mineral water, and one Jacuzzi contains extremely hot mineral water. For those feeling the need to shock the system, there is a small, deep cold water pool right next to the hot Jacuzzi. It is not easy to leave Aqua Club Kotvata and only the beginning of a rain shower ended our three hours of immersion. Children, of course, care only that they can play nearly endlessly without their lips turning blue. The facilities are excellent and there are ample lounge chairs. You can even pay a small fee, though we chose only to stare in wonder, to plunge your feet in a basin in which small fish “massage” them for ten minutes. These garra rufa, it turns out, are also known as “doctor fish” and are sold specifically for this purpose.

The mountain village of Овчарци (Ovchartzi) is a less than ten-minute drive from Saparevna Banya. There you find the Goritza Eco-Trail. It’s a short pleasant hike to one of Ovchartzi’s seven beautiful waterfalls. The rivers Горица (Goritza) and Фудиня (Fudinya) run along the two sides of the village. Aside from the natural beauty, the Goritza also serves as a traditional “laundry” specifically for washing wool carpets and kilims. With a bit of piping and fencing, a portion of the water’s stream is diverted to roil in a circular stone area that naturally cleans without soap. The clean carpets and kilims are then hung in a special drying shed just across the path. Handwritten on a small sign is the telephone number to call when you want access to either the “laundry” or the drying shed.

Just on the edge of a break in the mountain range is the village of Белчин (Belchin). In 2013, the remains of an ancient fortress, Цари Мали Град (Tsari Mali Grad) were opened to the public. Now an Eco-Trail leads to an entire historical and cultural complex made up of the preserved Byzantine remains, museum of artifacts, ample and detailed signage documenting the history in both Bulgarian and English, modern sculptures. The second you step out of your car, the man in charge of taking your nominal parking payment comes to you bursting with information, pride, and excitement about all the complex has to offer. The sun-dappled Eco-Trail through a beech forest. The length of time to walk the path depending on if you are elderly, middle-aged, or a small child. The eight-minute “funicular” lift should you not wish to walk. The playground for children. The wood and rope bridge. The beautiful views. He was effusive as he repeated the information for all comers; such enthusiasm here is so rare that we felt rewarded before we even set off on the trail.

Цари Мали Град3

Early on in the life of the Iskur River, there is a small branching where the river briefly becomes two, Бели Искър (White Iskur) and Черни Искър (Black Iskur). We decided to spend a couple of days in the village of Beli Iskur. We stayed at Eagle Rock, a condominium complex at the highest point in the village, though less than a five-minute walk to the small main street. The complex is immaculate, with a lovely lawn and garden area, fitness center, ping pong table, a library of English-language books, and an attentive staff. The view of the mountains is spectacular.

Бели Искър1The village of Beli Iskur is quiet, and in early summer mornings and late afternoons you can see the herders bringing their goat herds and their cows back down from the mountain pastures. There are infinite walks in theБели Искър2 meadows and mountains above the village. One afternoon, we followed a domineering rooster leading his handful of hens and, strangely, a larger group of turkeys into a meadow from where we made our own way up past wildflowers, then hazelnut trees with their nuts still green, and finally dense brush and trees as the path disappeared and the trek became steeper.

We had planned only to see Rila Monastery when we set out from Sofia. The rest we left to chance. I had vaguely heard of Sapareva Banya, once there we were directed to the Goritza Waterfall, my husband saw Tsari Mali Grad in a book given to him as a gift, we had a friend who recently bought a place in Beli Iskur. So much of satisfying travel is serendipity, allowing extra time for discoveries, planning for unplanned time. It was good to wander a bit in Rila’s mountains and rivers before embarking upon our planned time in Синеморец (Sinemoretz) on the Black Sea.





Rila Monastery /Рилски Манастир

I visited the Rila Monastery the first time in September 1987. I was in Bulgaria to meet my future in-laws and they took me to what is certainly the most famous of monasteries in a country full of them and what is likely the most famous site in the entire country. We walked around within the monastery walls, admired the colors of the frescoes against the backdrop of the surrounding Rila Mountain. On a grassy spot just outside the monastery, we spread a blanket and lunched on the луканка (lukanka, hard salami), кашкавал (kashkaval, a cheddar-like cheese), tomatoes, and a hot loaf just baked in the monastery’s ovens.

Hotel ValdisThe second time I visited Rila Monastery was July 1, 2016. We stayed at the Valdis hotel and restaurant. It’s not so much a hotel as a collection of modern bungalows set in a garden on the Rila River. Each has a small terrace looking onto the river and the mountain. We had river trout, potatoes with dill, and salad for dinner, French toast and steamed milk for breakfast. Across the way from Valdis is a fountain with water that flows down the Rila Mountain; we filled our water bottles there before setting off for the monastery above.


Rila’s significance to Bulgaria and world culture, its church and iconography, its spiritual meaning for pilgrims, and the sheer physical beauty of its mountain location have all been amply described and photographed. But on this second visit, I noticed not the lushly painted icons, but the geometric almost Bauhaus style of decoration found everywhere outside the church itself. Reds and whites and blacks, geometric shapes, contrasts of metal, wood, stone, and brick.

All of this is beautifully contrasted with the pots of blooming flowers grown by the monks and the mountain forest rising all around their retreat.

I only wish the still-operating monastery ovens had been selling that delicious bread. That and the tiny post office remind you that however ancient the site, people still live and work here.


Belogradchik / Белоградчик

We went to Belogradchik the other day. Actually we went to two Belogradchiks, one timeless and one frozen in time. It’s not the same thing at all.


There is Belogradchik the ancient fortress and even more ancient rock formations. Then there is Belogradchik the town, which seems unaware that the world—and most of Bulgaria—has moved on since pre-1989 days.


fortressOur original plan had been to drive to Belogradchik from staying with relatives in Kozlodui and to stay overnight. We thought that the famous fortress and unique rocks formations, a natural environmental tourist attraction if ever there was one, would have inspired development in the small town on the order of quaint cafes, artisan shops, small family hotels with warm service and pleasant conversation. We thought wrong.

Instead we walked up and down the main street lined with communist-era bleak storefronts, many of them deserted. The “999 Products” store had long been emptied of however many products it actually had on its shelves and seems now to be full of empty cardboard boxes piled so high that one can’t see anything else through the windows. One store had the forlorn name of the product it sold, Българско бельо (Bulgarian underwear). What might have been an attractive atelier for the master craftsman making sheepskin coats and hats to order was an oversized former store with only a bench containing scraps of sheepskins, a калпак (traditional cone-shaped hat) or two, and no one to be found.

rocks1After roaming around for a bit for a place to each lunch, we found a small place serving buffet-style. Serving would be a misstatement. The choices were limited but sufficient. The food was not appealing in its presentation, but was made well. The employees were not in sight. After some time standing in front of the counter, an unsmiling woman appeared saying only, “I’m waiting for you to say what you want.” We ordered three bowls of soup, paid, and found a table. We were the only people in the place. Another woman, also expressionless, bellowed “Soup’s ready,” and we stood to retrieve the steaming hot bowls. The soup was good.

rocks2Had the entire scene been filmed, any audience watching outside Bulgaria would have thought it exaggerated in its drab appearance and militant bad service. So bad it’s good, frozen in time, any number of clichés would suffice. When we described the experience to friends back in Sofia, they only groaned in recognition of the universal pre-1989 experience they hoped never to experience again.

rocks3We decided to go see the fortress and rocks, after which we would drive straight back to Sofia rather than discover what would surely be pre-1989 Balkantourist style accommodations and personnel who resent any guests as an intrusion on their solitude and smoking breaks.


rocks5The little information on the few signs—and these translated into English in the manner of Google translate—did not take away from the stark beauty of the red rock formations. It was an overcast day, windy, and unusually cold for the end of June. The fortress remains are vast, encompassing some of the rock formations while overlooking others.

rocks6The 45 years of communism that cast such a pall over people’s natural inclinations and created structures that merely began to deteriorate immediately upon completion have had no effect on the immutable natural structures created by wind and water over two hundred million years ago. The red peaks, rocks, and precipices are garnished with the greens of trees, bushes, and grasses. Better, we thought, to be disappointed by the town and overwhelmed by the magnificence of the view. We went to Belogradchik the other day and we were glad we went.