Although traveling through the Balkans solo had been easy, after 6 weeks I was ready to surrender myself to the ease of a tour group, where everything would be organized and all I would have to do is show up at the appointed place at the appointed time and hop on the bus.
Thus, on Saturday I attended at the lobby of the Budapest Hotel, in Bulgaria’s capital of Sofia, at 6:00PM to meet my group.
The organizer was Explore, a UK based travel company specializing in small group tours, which I have used before in Central America and the Baltics. This 8 day tour is called Best of Bulgaria, led by Toma, a Bulgarian national with over 25 years experience as a tour guide. Joining me were 2 Australians (Nick and Sybil) and 6 Brits (Mary, Tony, Dolcy, David, Allison and Judith), comprising 3 lawyers, 2 patent officers, 2 chemical engineers and a TV and film producer, but Nick turned out to have the most stories to tell. Born and raised in Bulgaria, he escaped in 1969 by walking (unauthorized) into Italy, staying in a detention camp there before being accepted as an immigrant to Australia. His Bulgarian was still pretty good and proved invaluable in interpreting Bulgarian menus and dealing with waitresses.
Our route was designed to showcase the best of Bulgaria (hence its title), historical gems, exquisite beaches, monasteries, and, to my delight, the Rose Valley. We started in Sofia, then drove to the Rila Monastery and, from there, to Bansko. Next was the European city of culture for 2019, Plovdiv, before heading to see the Neolithic ruins, Thracian tombs and the heart of the Rose Valley in Kazablak. We went to the Black Sea coast before returning inland to the capital of the 2nd Bulgarian kingdom in Nesebar. The route made no sense from an historical chronology, but covered most of the major periods in Bulgarian history.
Bulgaria’s history, culture and economy is tied up in its geography. Split into Northern and Southern Bulgaria by the Balkan Mountains, it is blessed by the Black Sea on its Eastern Coast. To the south lies Greece and Turkey; in the North is Romania. Serbia and North Macedonia are to its west. The country is small; twice the size of Ireland. Its capital, Sofia, is home to about 1.25 million of the country’s 7.25 million people.
Bulgaria is old. Evidence of Neolithic settlements dating to 6000 BC have been found, excavated and preserved in a museum in the town of Stara Zagora.
Highly sophisticated towns and colonies of the Thracian plain from the 2nd millennium are referenced in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Thracian tribes battled with and against Alexander the Great, ancient Greece and eventually became a Roman colony. Bulgaria’s most famous burial site, a Thracian tomb at Kazanlak, has been closed to the public but, like the Lascaux caves in France, a perfect reproduction open to visitors is nearby:
Revolts against the Ottomans started as early as the 17th century, but gathered steam in the 19th century, culminating in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1888. The effects of the extended Ottoman rule meant that Bulgaria was quite backwards. It had no railroads, little industry, no universities, widespread poverty and illiteracy. Cultural pursuits were also limited during this period. No great Bulgarian literature, art (other than religious iconography), composers or architecture emerged; a combination of Ottoman oppression, poverty and non-existent educational opportunities. Only folkloric items: dancing, singing, embroidery which could be passed down orally through the generations, kept alive the Bulgarian spirit.
The late 19th century saw the beginning of the 3rd Bulgarian Kingdom and the start of the Bulgarian revival period. Fashions from France were imported, universities established, dancing balls were held. Houses built in Plovdiv revel in the new architectural style, with elaborate paintwork the defining mark:
Bulgaria allied itself with the Nazi’s during WW2, but in a rare example of church opposition to Nazi policies, managed to avoid the wholesale slaughter of its Jewish population. Although it enacted anti-Semitic laws restricting the movement and employment of Jews, when the Nazis ordered the Tsar to transport 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to concentration camps, protests erupted, led by the Orthodox Christian bishop of Plovdiv. The Tsar backed down and refused to deport Bulgarian Jews., saving most of them. However, few Jews remain in Bulgaria today, most emigrating to Israel after the war. The Central Synagogue, completed in 1909, is Moorish revival in style and the third largest in Europe. I was only in Sofia on Saturday, when it is closed to visitors.
Bulgaria was “liberated” by the Russians in 1944. Following the end of the war, it became part of the Warsaw Pact and was closely allied with its communist brethren, suffering Soviet style economic planning, collective farms, 100% employment of people doing nothing etc. Most high rise apartments and government offices bear the trademark Soviet Realism architectural style, unattractive rectangular blocks with grey, rotting stucco facades. Central Sofia suffers from a glut of these buildings, like its current Parliament, but it is moving soon:
Bulgaria is one of Europe’s poorest countries. Its lack of industrialization during the Ottoman period left it playing catch-up, but then it immediately endured what Toma referred to as “the messy period”, the time between independence, the Balkan Wars, WW1 and WW2, followed by 45 years of communism. Today, abandoned Soviet style factories litter cities and countryside, socialist style apartments are decaying, sidewalks, where they exist, are little more than rickety pieces of concrete between trees, lampposts and garbage.
Small farms, light manufacturing, forestry and tourism are the biggest industries. Education and medical care is free, but the latter is funded through a tax system paid only by those who are employed. Tax is a flat 10% and there is a 20% VAT, leaving the government woefully underfunded, limited infrastructure improvements and inadequate social programs.
One of the biggest problems facing the economy is widespread corruption amongst government figures. A recent article in The Economist exposed a story where high ranking government officials were being sold luxury apartments at ridiculously low prices then reselling them very quickly at their fair market value. The article also noted the recently appointed anti-corruption minister is being investigated for corruption.
But the largest issue, according to Toma, is Bulgaria’s complete dependence on Russian oil & gas for its energy needs. In January, 2009, Russia stopped imports to Bulgaria during the Russia/Ukraine conflict. For 2 weeks, Bulgaria was without power to heat or light its schools, hospitals and factories and completely powerless (sorry for the pun) to do anything about it. Despite some advances in obtaining resources from elsewhere, Bulgaria still relies on Russia for 75% of its energy needs.
During the Ottoman period, severe limitations were placed on churches if they hadn’t been converted to mosques or destroyed . When construction was permitted, they had to be lower than the lowest minaret, so no towering steeples or soaring cupolas topped with onion shaped domes. In order not to attract the attention of Muslims, the exteriors had to be plain, which explains both the lack of outdoor decoration and the plethora of colourful icon paintings inside. No photos are allowed inside Bulgarian churches, but the refractory at the Rila Monastery didn’t count as a church and photos were allowed, as were photos of the outside paintings:
Rila Monastery is the country’s most famous and deservedly so. Its courtyard contains an ornately decorated (inside) church and is surrounded by former monks’ dormitories but today primarily house pilgrims as the monk population is rapidly dwindling.
Bulgaria is awash in flowers, a pleasant surprise to me, although if I had read the tour’s trip notes beforehand, I would have learned that Bulgaria’s Rose Valley, is responsible for 70% of the world’s rose oil. As is becoming an annoying habit, we were a week late for the best blooms (just like the tulips in Holland) which occur in mid-June, but a few fields still had roses on the vines. Stores selling rose oil related products – lotions, soap, liqueurs – proliferate as do demonstrations on how to extract the oil (pour petals in a vat with steaming water, press, take the resulting liquid and separate the water from the oil). There’s a Rose Museum in Kazanlak and a weird ethnological village nearby with roses and a grotesque Statue of Liberty (the owner’s take on capitalism):
In Plovdiv and again in Kazanlak, we attended folk shows at dinner. Excellent as both were, the highlight of the trip was our “brunch with the grannies,” some ladies of grandparent age who invite tourists into their restaurant/museum/gift shop and entertain them first, with the Bulgarian drink, rakija. Made from grapes (in other countries rakija can be made from plums), it is between 40 and 50% proof, sipped slowly from a shot glass with food and a bit hard to take at 10:00AM. But not for the grannies, who managed 3-4 shots each over the 2 hours we spent there.
We began with the grannies showing us how to roll the dough for the traditional bread, Tutmanik (it has other names), to which eggs and cheese are added, baked and comes out delicious. As it was baking, the grannies dressed some of our tour group in traditional Bulgarian costumes (I declined), serenaded us, acapella, with folk songs, then invited us to dance their dances with them (I declined again). They were gracious hosts, despite not speaking a word of English, the food delicious and it was a welcome reprieve from all the ruins and churches. I suspect the rakija contributed to my enjoyment.
We did and saw a lot more: the Black Sea resorts of Varna and Burgas with their overdeveloped coastlines and all-inclusive guests, mostly Brits, Germans and Scandinavians, seeking cheap holidays, rode on a narrow gauge railway, visited the Russian Orthodox Church and memorial at Shipka, saw what is considered to be the most exquisitely painted church at Arbanasi and ate lots of good Bulgarian food.
I thoroughly enjoyed our tour; Toma was a good guide, our group “jelled” and Bulgaria proved interesting, but maybe a few too many churches and monasteries for my liking. There were pleasant surprises: the flowers, the fresh vegetables, the good, cheap local wine, but these virtues could not mask the poverty in the country. While everywhere I went had roads, air conditioning, reliable electricity and wifi, it was hard to ignore the potholes, the beggars, the Roma problem (10% of the population) and the lack of historical art and literature. Nowhere have I been has brought home so forcefully the negative effects of 500 years of Ottoman and then communist rule. Bulgaria is doing its best to overcome its history, but it has a long way to go.