Tag Archives: Plovdiv

Lamartine in Bulgaria

Many years ago in graduate school, I took a course that required each student to have a subscription to the renowned and self-described “authoritative” British weekly magazine The Economist. I don’t recall what the professor’s purpose in such a requirement was, but for me the unexpected benefit was reading about the world—and in particular the United States—from a non-American vantage point. I understood then how different the view of a country, its history, its current events, its people could be from the outside looking in. Enlightening and sometimes even salutary. Perhaps my writing about Bulgaria offers that sort of vicarious vantage point for Bulgarians. And this sort of prism disperses even more light on the subject when the author is writing not only from another place, geographically and culturally speaking, but from another time.

Lamartine House PlovdivPlovdiv is said to be one of the oldest cities in Europe and has seen many peoples— invaders and locals—call it their own. Next year it holds pride of place as the European Capital of Culture and will surely welcome many who have never visited before and who will jot down observations and take pictures that will be instantly conveyed to a wider audience. Some of these might wander the Old City and take note of a house built in the classic Bulgarian Renaissance (1762–1878) architectural style called the Lamartine House.

Lamartine stampAlphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine (October 21, 1790-February 28, 1869) was poet, historian, writer, and statesman. An aristocrat whose parents remained loyal to the monarchy after the French revolution, Lamartine both headed the provisional government of the Second Republic and sympathized with the plight of the working class, predicting that it would rise up in rebellion. That he wrote about such things while Karl Marx was still studying art history, translating Latin classics, and writing love poetry to his fiancé no doubt was met with approval by the Communist government that allowed the house to be named after him—and even circulated a stamp featuring the house shortly after their takeover of the country.

This despite the fact that Lamartine didn’t own the house, live in it, or even stay there for more than three days during the summer of 1833.

What allowed that 1833 three-day stay to last beyond the momentary impression of a French traveler passing through town is that Lamartine wrote a book, Travels in the East, Including a Journey in the Holy Land. Given Lamartine’s fame, it was quickly translated into other languages. He did not write much about his time there (see text beginning on page 164 in the link above), but he wrote enough of Bulgaria to endear himself to Bulgarians. He entered Bulgaria on his return journey from his eastern travels and described the three days in Philippopolis (as Plovdiv was then known) as “passed…in the enjoyment of the agreeable hospitality of M. Maurides, in going through the environs, and in exchanging visits with the Turks, the Greeks, and the Armenians…The position of the town is one of the most beautiful that can be imagined…”

What likely was Lamartine’s most enduring gift to Bulgaria was his identification of its people, already more than 400 years an unwilling dominion of the Ottoman Empire, as Europeans. Seeing themselves as closer to the Christian West than a subjugated people of the Muslim East, Bulgarians were actively forming the nationalist sense that would form the basis of serious indendence efforts. It no doubt was reassuring and uplifting to be told that peasants they might be, but of the sort seen in the Western Alps. “They are quite the same as those of the Swiss and Savoyard peasants…I have witnessed rural dances amongst the Bulgarians, exactly the same as our villages in France.” And he pleaded their cause; “they are quite ripe for independence..The country which they inhabit would soon be a delightful garden..” He praised the mountains (“very similar to those of Auvergne”), though he gave Sofia short shrift. “There is nothing worthy of remark in the town.” And if you look at photographs of Sofia and Plovdiv taken around 50 years later, you can see why the latter impressed Lamartine more than the former.


Пловдив около 1878-1880
Plovdiv, circa 1878-1880
Пловдив в центъра “Куршум хан”, 1895
Plovdiv, 1895

So enduring are Lamartine’s words that the Sofia News Agency published an article in 2012 entitled Lamartine’s Hardworking, European Bulgarians as though to reiterate, in this time of persistent European refusal to allow Bulgaria into the Schengen area, that Bulgarians had their European bona fides given weight nearly two hundred years ago by a French icon. A Western icon, by the way, who admired the East, famously writing “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul” and “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?”

Sufficient French travelers wrote their impressions of Bulgaria that that Engin Deniz Tanir was able to write an entire doctoral thesis, The Mid-Nineteenth Century Ottoman Bulgaria from the Viewpoints of the French Travelers, on the subject. But for Bulgarians, Lamartine holds a special place as one of the earliest. And Sofia citizens hold nothing against him for finding nothing worthy in their city; they named the French language high school in the capital, Alphonse de Lamartine.

френска гимназия

Bulgaria Summer 2016

We’re going to Bulgaria this summer. We’re going for a month, all four of us, and we’re getting excited. A month sounds like a lot of time, but we know it will pass in a rush and we won’t get to see or do nearly all the things we would like. A good trip needs to balance just the right amounts of planning (so you’re not spoiled for choice) and serendipity (so you’re not so scheduled you miss unforeseen opportunities). Of course, each of us likely has in mind a different itinerary. I have a little Да Правим (To Do) list on my desktop that assures me all my decisions are the right ones—at least until the others in the family assert their opinion.

Cherni Vruh August 1894We’re planning to start off in Sofia. Assuming cooperative weather, at least one visit to Vitosha seems a must. I’d love to get our son and daughter to agree to a hike up to Черни Връх (Black Peak). In the late 19th century, beloved Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov founded the Bulgarian tourist movement with calls to “Sofia lovers of nature” to re-energize themselves physically and mentally by climbing Mount Vitosha.

Алеко Константинов2In the photo of Black Peak from 1894, Aleko—it seems no one ever refers to him as Konstantinov—is on the far right. Mountain air is lauded for its clean air, critically important for physical and mental health. Mountain hiking is a strong part of the national ethos. So that’s how I hope we’ll spend at least one day while in Sofia. If we walk down Vitosha Boulevard, we can meet Щастливеца (The Happy One, Aleko’s pseudonym) face-to-face, via the statue just placed there this month.

We’ll eat a lot I know. We’ll have кифли с шипков мармалад (something like brioche with rose hip jam). We’ll stop by the Turkish woman’s small bakery on Graf Ignatiev Street, opposite Sedmochislenitzi park, and have some baklava. We’ll wаnder through Борисова градина (Boris’s Garden) while munching on popcorn. And, it goes without saying, we’ll enjoy the best tomatoes in the world in our шопска салата (shopska salata).

Our daughter will want to take a horseback riding lesson or two in Борисова Градина (Boris’s Garden) at the entrance just south of the Vassil Levski metro on Dragan Tzankov Boulevard. Our son remembers feeling humiliated that he was too small to ride when we lived there. He had sit on a small pony and be led around in a circle so he’s anxious to prove himself on a horse just like his big sister. He’s still a bit smaller than she was then, though, so our fingers are crossed that he isn’t disappointed.

Where to after Sofia is the question.

My imagined southern route would take us to Rila—monastery and mountain, which the children have never seen and which neither of us adults have seen since the 1980s. But that is what is so wonderful about seeing something timeless, three decades is meaningless for an ageless mountain and a monastery founded over a millennium ago. From Rila to Blagoevgrad so that our daughter can see American University in Blagoevgrad, just in case, since she’s in high school and college is beginning to get a foothold in our thoughts. Then on to Bansko, one of our favorite spots so that we can spend hours eating, drinking, and talking at Dedo Pene’s. From Bansko in the Pirin Mountains, we might go to the town of Kovachevitza in the Rhodope Mountains. We’ve never been and who knows what we might fall in love with there.

From Sofia, we could well take an eastern route and stop off in Koprivshtitza to stay at Pri Bai Gencho, the very small семеен хотел (family hotel) and restaurant. Maybe we’ll get to stay in the same room as twice before, the one with the New York City souvenir key chain to open the door. Below is Bai Gencho flanked by his son Bai Toshko and daughter-in-law Ani.

Pri Bai Gencho

Hotel-Restaurant “Pri Bai Gencho”, City of Koprivshtitza, Behind the school

Home telephone 07-184-2068, Mobile 0878-889-264

IDevetashkan the morning we’ll have hot milk and мекици (something like the New Orleans fried dough specialty beignet) with homemade jam made from tiny wild strawberries. We’ll wander around the town’s cobblestone streets admiring the beautifully painted Bulgarian Renaissance (19th century) houses. When we’ve had our fill of Koprivshtitza, perhaps we’ll go on to see the remarkable Пещера Деветяшка (Devetashka Cave) and Крушунски Водопад (Krushunski Waterfall). In Bulgaria, there is an embarrassment of riches in terms of natural beauty.

My daughter wants to know exactly how long we’ll stay and where we’ll stay, but I can’t give her a satisfying answer. If we love it, we’ll stay longer. If we’re done, we’ll leave. If we get distracted by something unplanned, we’ll be sure to give in to the moment.

Natural beauty, archeology, history—we can do all of that with a trip north of Sofia. We can go to Пещера Леденика (Ledenika Cave) and then spend some time, a day really, at Белоградчик (Belogradchik) fortress and rocks.

From Belogradchik, we’ll go visit family in Kozlodui. There I want to see what I can find out about my father-in-law’s family history for a future blogpost I’m planning. I would like to poke around in the cemetary and see the names and dates on the headstones, perhaps go to the municipal office and see what can be found that seems lost to memory. Kozlodui is both a substantial town supported by the nuclear reactor there and a traditional village. Much has changed, but the steady employment from the reactor has in its own way financed the continued village life that remains. And village life means that we’ll be fed within an inch of our lives.

Of course, it just might happen that we do not want to be fed within an inch of our life and we just might not have any room left having just come from another relative’s before reaching the current one. We cannot with any ease say no because this is to insult our hosts. At a minimum, we will be encouraged not to be shy and we will insist to anyone listening that we are not being shy—we are simply not hungry. And being slim, we will of course be encouraged to eat all the more as it is obvious none of us are eating enough and more food could only be to our benefit.

PlovdivBut maybe we’ll mix it up and the idle plans above will be shifted around. Maybe we’ll go to Koprivshtitza on our way to Plovdiv. We’ve always loved Plovdiv and it’s apparently blooming more than ever now that it’s been declared the European Capital of Culture 2019. I’ve read more posts than I can count, seen more photos of reborn neighborhoods and cafes and artisan shops and street art—amazing street art—so we have to go to Plovdiv. From city life maybe we’ll plunge back into the natural wonder of the Rhodope Mountains and see the famed Дяволски Мост (Devil’s Bridge).


It’s the summer. There has to be ample beach time built in. So this summer we’re planning our first visit to Синеморец (Sinemoretz). This we have not left to serendipity, but have reserved a room.

Did I say we’re excited to go to Bulgaria this summer? We’re leaving in just four weeks. We all need bathing suits. We need a t-shirt or two. Passports both US and BG. Everything else is there. Because as Bulgarians are fond of saying—despite massive societal pessimism documented by countless international surveys and complaints galore (often valid) about their country’s problems—“България е райска градина” (Bulgaria is a Garden of Paradise).



Do You Like Bulgarian Food?

Since my first visit to Bulgaria in 1987, I have been asked by everyone from in-laws to passing strangers if I like Bulgarian food. And for the first 20 years or so, I had difficulty figuring out just what was Bulgarian food. How could I discern what might be truly native and what had crossed the border from Greece or Turkey? Many of the foods in the Bulgarian kitchen are originally Turkish and just transliterated: meze, kaymak, kofte, gyvech, pasturma, sudjuk, tarator, and yufka, to name a few.

I could easily think of individual classic Bulgarian dishes—the ubiquitous and tasty salad of tomato, cucumber and white cheese, shopska salata—or a distinctive ingredient—sunflower oil. Somehow, though, I couldn’t get a sense what made up Bulgarian cuisine as a whole. In travel literature, it is often referred to as “Mediterranean” food notwithstanding the fact that Bulgaria’s borders have never reached that sea.


My husband still has memories of his mother making him drink olive oil to try and fatten him up, but she didn’t cook with it. Olive oil was too expensive to use for other than medicinal purposes. Now you can easily find that signature Mediterranean ingredient in high-end Bulgarian restaurants, but it has yet to cut significantly into the use of sunflower and vegetable oils; Bulgarians still prefer to cook with oil rather than butter. They also use copious amounts of seasonal vegetables be they raw, baked, roasted, sautéed, grilled, pureed or put up for the winter. Yogurt with its lactobacillus bulgaricus culture and cheese, both made from cow, sheep, goat and even buffalo milk, are eaten on their own and used as well as basic ingredients in everything from bread to soup to main dishes to desserts. Legumes in salads and soups are ever present. Bulgarians use chubritza (akin to savory, alone or combined with other spices in personalized mixtures), djodjan (spearmint, indispensable with any bean dish), cumin, flat leaf parsley and paprika as their main herbs and spices.


Many, perhaps most, Bulgarians have a real taste for spicy food. Small chili peppers are eaten fresh in the summer, dried for the winter, crumbled into dishes during preparation and as a garnish on the table. Glance up at any apartment balcony and you can see long skeins of dark red peppers drying. My mother-in-law loves hot, spicy food and for years my father has tried to challenge her with various concoctions to find her breaking point. Each time, she tastes whatever has been placed before her, pauses to take it in, and offers the same sincere but nevertheless deprecating response, “It’s pleasant.”


Bread on the Bulgarian table is a must. For many years that meant the same machine-made all-white uncut loaf supplied by government-run bakeries throughout the country. This is still the loaf of choice for most and even post-communism it remains subsidized through European Commission-approved (at least for now) government payments to grain producers, although the producers are now privatized. The price of this loaf is calculated by the kilogram and reportedly remains the cheapest bread in Europe. It is also utterly tasteless, whatever the quality of flour, water, yeast and salt that may have gone into it.


Fortunately in Sofia and in other large cities you can now easily buy a wide variety of breads, though these today include a number of tasteless, packaged, pre-sliced loaves of the kind found in grocery stores throughout the United States. But when we lived in Sofia a few years ago, Plamen and Tzveti, the proprietors of the little grocery on our street, received a delivery of hand-kneaded white and whole grain loaves every morning and if I timed things right a loaf was wrapped in butcher paper and put warm in my hand to carry upstairs. The Christmas Eve dinner table showcases glorious handmade round breads called pitka. No knife touches it, instead diners tear off rounds hoping to find kusmetee (fortunes) for the new year. The baker hides within the rising dough symbols for health, happiness, money, love, luck, abundance, and dreams fulfilled. The Easter bread kozunak is a slightly sweet yeast bread, much like a brioche or challah. My husband’s aunt regularly kneads white crumbly sirene (pronounced see-reh-nay) cheese into her bread dough after the first rise, placing small balls of dough into a large round pan. By the time the fragrant baked bread comes out of the oven, the balls have risen into each other to form a full round loaf easily torn off into individual rolls. In the villages, not only is the bread homemade but the sirene and yogurt as well.

коледна питка

Sirene is made from cow, sheep goat, or buffalo milk and is one of the two principal cheeses found in Bulgaria; the other is the firm yellow kashkaval, something like a cheddar. There is an overwhelming number of brands of yogurt, sirene and kashkaval, and oh so many people to proffer their recommendations and judgments. How does you choose among 10 or 15 or 20 brands? Not to mention that each brand of yogurt comes in 4.5%, 3.5%, 2% and 0.1% fat. But most Bulgarians are dismissive of skim milk and low-fat yogurt. They prefer whole milk not just for the taste, but their sense that full-fat dairy is just more wholesome altogether. Nearly all the yogurt on the shelf is the traditional plain version, the thicker the better. The long-established test of yogurt quality is to thrust a spoon or knife in the middle. If that spoon or knife stands straight up, it’s a quality yogurt.

Ketchup is available (Bulgaria even exported its ketchup to other East Bloc countries back in the day), but it runs a far distant second to the much more flavorful and healthful Bulgarian lyutenitza. I use my mother-in-law’s recipe to put up at least a dozen jars every fall. It’s really a kind of a relish you make in September, when red peppers are most plentiful and least expensive. Lyutenitza and sirene together make a fabulous sandwich. Alone it’s a great dip or it’s a garnish for kufteta, the savory grilled small burgers of minced pork and beef, onion, flat-leaf parsley, and cumin.

One November, a cousin in the village sent boxes back with her son who had been visiting from Sofia. There were chubritza and djodjan picked from her garden, jars of lyutenitza she had put up in the fall, bottles of fresh-pressed apple and pear juices, and a turkey plucked and gutted and ready for me to create our own American Thanksgiving in Sofia. She included all the makings for the traditionally vegetarian Bulgarian Christmas Eve meal—sour cabbage ready to be stuffed, dried red peppers also for stuffing, dried plums and other fruits for compote, walnuts the children had great fun shelling on the balcony, homemade red wine and rakiya (fruit brandy). She also sent three liters of milk, the cream thickly risen to the top. We drank nearly all of the milk in just two days. Store-bought milk couldn’t possibly compete.

When in September 1987 I was visiting Bulgaria for the first time, my husband instructed his mother to ensure we were not in Sofia for the then commemorated 1944 Socialist Revolution. My mother-in-law’s plan was that we visit family friends in Kuklen and then go to dinner in Plovdiv so that I could see the sights. Kuklen is a small town of only a few thousand people about nine miles due south of Plovdiv in central Bulgaria. Plovdiv dates back thousands of years and still retains an intact Roman theater built in the time of Emperor Trajan. Like Rome, Plovdiv is built on seven hills. Its old town remains full of high stone walls and winding stone-paved streets.


I was able to get a bit of the flavor of old town Plovdiv, but no restaurant had seats available on September 9, even far away from the capital’s holiday hoopla. So we ended up driving back to Kuklen, where of course our hostess had not anticipated feeding so many people. I wandered around the large yard led by our hostess’s three-year old grandson. He showed me the rabbits, the chickens and various other sights, pointing and chatting. He must have thought I was the most foolish adult he’d ever met, since my lack of Bulgarian at that time made me entirely unable to hold up my end of the conversation. It was dark when we were called to eat. Two wooden tables had been set up outside under the grape arbor. We ate bread, scrambled eggs from the chickens I had just seen, homemade sirene, and fruit nectar from our hostess’s apricot trees.

кисело мляко

One day, we were at a cousin’s house in the Danube town of Kozlodui. It was early afternoon, neither lunch nor dinnertime, but the table as always was laden with food for guests. My son was outside in “the yard” climbing up one of the cherry trees to see if any were yet ready. My daughter ate from a jar of homemade yogurt so thick it could be turned upside down without a drop falling, a thick layer of cream sitting on top. If you ask me what is Bulgarian food is like, I still won’t be able to answer with any precision. I can give you my favorite recipes. I can recommend some great dishes and traditional restaurants. I can tell you there are no better tomatoes grown anywhere. I can say that we like it. We do like Bulgarian food.