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Today we went to the Preobrazhen monastery near Veliko Turnovo. It is a secluded male Orthodox monastery situated on one side of a deep gorge; on the other side of the abyss, we could see a convent.  Years ago, an earthquake had broken off three huge rocks from the cliffs just above the monastery, but miraculously none of them had damaged the bell tower or the church itself.

The brightly colored paintings on the façade of the cloister represent floral ornaments together with scenes from the Bible. The most famous mural, however, is that of the great Bulgarian icon painter Zahari Zograf, the Wheel of Life.

Wheel of Life, a mural by Zahari Zograf at Preobrazhen Monastery

The composition portrays the months, the seasons, and the cycles of life with its many meanings and symbolical layers. The outer layer shows the material possessions one aims for: the man on top of the wheel is holding a scepter and a bag of golden coins, but drops them as he moves closer to death. The inner layer represents the true virtues that one should aim for in life: to educate oneself and to work hard, so that in the end, one can gladly sit down and enjoy the old age. What do you think the woman in the middle represents? What about the two figures on both sides of the wheels?

The significance of monasteries, I explained to Oriana, is more than religious. During the liberation movement against the Ottoman Empire, these were safety havens where monk-revolutionaries hid the rebels and pointed them to secret passages leading to the mountains. The monks also preserved the Bulgarian literary and cultural heritage and helped spread it during the time when the Ottomans were suppressing it. Lastly, monasteries are holy places with special energy to which even earthquakes bow down.

The Preobrazhen Monastery was built by the great Bulgarian architect Kolio Ficheto

 

The monastery was spared by an earthquake, which caused three huge rocks to fall in the garden, just meters away from this building


Today we drove through Buinovo gorge, a spectacular 10-kilometer canyon over the Buinovska river. The river has carved the vertical walls of the gorge, and they rise so close to each other that, according to the locals, wolves can jump from one side to the other. The region is rich in caves and other notable natural formations.

We explored the Yagodinska Peshtera (Strawbery Cave), arguably the most beautiful cave in the country. In addition to the more well-known cave formations such as stalactites, stalagmites and stalagtons (or pillars), we saw other less common shapes: cave pearls and leopard skin patterns on the walls.

These stalactite and stalagmite will "kiss" in 300 years.

I especially liked the biggest hall in the cave, the Christmas Hall (called after several rocks shaped like Santa and his elves). This is where many speleologists and cavers gather every year to celebrate New Year’s in a behooving manner – under the ground. This hall is in fact an operative ceremonial hall and many cavers have gotten married here. However, the Yagodinska Cave performs marriage ceremonies only. For divorces, the spouses have to go in the nearby Devil’s Throat Cave: where two go in but only one comes out!

And speaking of relationships, Oriana managed to stick her coin to the wall of fidelity, which means that she has no sins. The coins of those who have been unfaithful will fall on the ground.

Oriana managed to stick her 5 stotinki coin to the wall - she is not a sinner!

We spent the evening in Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria. We walked around the old town, the modern shopping streets, and the ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheatre. We almost lost my mother to a big antique shop – after almost an hour of digging through aged thingamabobs, she finally bought a very old book of recipes. The pages looked like burnt and were falling apart and its language was old-fashioned and pretty funny. Still, as my mom said, the book contained timeless housewife wisdom.

The Plovdiv amphitheater

The old town in Plovdiv

By her third night in Bulgaria, Oriana had already discovered that almost every meal, be it drinks, soups, salads, or main dishes, had cheese and/or yogurt and/or tomatoes. On the last day of the trip, she actually confessed that before visiting me, she had hated tomatoes with passion but since trying her very first Shopska salad, she had been devouring our tomatoes with great appetite. Here, she also tried for the first time rabbit stew, grilled octopus, cow’s tongue in butter, and pork (the last one, by mistake, oops!)


The bagpipe contest in Gela

My mom, her friend Lidia, Oriana, and I left Sofia early in the morning to go to the Bagpipe Festival in Gela.

The drive is about 3.5 – 4 hours on narrow meandering roads through the Rhodope Mountain, which gave me just enough time to teach Oriana how to read in Bulgarian. I wrote down the Bulgarian alphabet (the Cyrillic alphabet that we share with the other Slavic peoples) and its transliteration in English. Oriana picked it up very quickly because unlike in English, in Bulgarian you pronounce exactly what you read. Her only difficulty were the differences between lowercase and uppercase and the variety of misguiding fonts. Soon, she could read all street signs!

Dancing horo to the music of the bagpipes on a meadow above Gela village

The festival in the village of Gela was in fact on a wide clearing among the hills above Gela. Hundreds of people had set up camping tents for the two-day festival and thousands more had come on foot for the day. As at any village fair, there were open grills with kiyfteta and kebapcheta, stands with souvenirs, jewelry, and toys, and machines for cotton candy and caramelized apples.

We left my mom and Lidia in the line in front of a gigantic barbecue with seven lambs roasting on skewers. Later, we saw the two of them had taken out a Maid of the Mist* raincoat to protect themselves from the pieces of roasted lamb that were flying from under the butcher’s axe. (*My mom still keeps the raincoats from our visit to Niagara Falls ten years ago).

You can't have a festival without the roasted lambs!

Meanwhile, Oriana and I sat down on the ground in front of the main stage of the bagpipe contest, in Bulgarian gaidarsko nadsvirvane. We saw men and women bagpipers, young boys and girls bagpipers, a duet, and even a bagpiper trio, and all contestants were dressed in colorful national garments.

Each time the bagpipers switched to a more upbeat rhythm, the crowd broke out dancing! Oriana didn’t resist and quickly joined the horo! Watch the video and see how fast she picked up the rhythm!

 

We saw a bagpipe maker who explained to us that Scottish bagpipes and Bulgarian gaida are very different: the Scottish instrument has three pipes and produces a solemn sound that makes it suitable for military marches and memorials; the gaida has one long pipe and a more melodious sound that often accompanies folklore singing. The most famous type of Bulgarian bagpipe is the kaba gaida.

With Oriana in Shiroka Laka

After a day of horo dancing, folk songs, and roast lamb misadventures, we went to the nearby Shiroka Laka village for the night. Shiroka Laka, with its  quaint little cobblestone streets and two-storey houses with white stone ground floors and wooden second floors with balconies full of flowerpots, completely charmed Oriana. I think she said she could live there. In Shiroka Laka, we also saw the famous school of Bulgarian folklore music, which most probably is where many of the bagpipe contestants study.

Until late at night we could see happy tipsy people coming back from the festival in Gela. One such happy and tipsy Nordic-looking boy was playing his own kaba gaida and walking down the street. He told us, in broken Bulgarian, that his mother was Norwegian and his father – Bulgarian, and that he had found himself a gaida in Norway and for the past six months had been teaching himself how to play by simply listening to folk music!

The Norwegian-Bulgarian who taught himself how to play the gaida

We stayed at the house of one of my father’s friends who is a famous journalist. The rooms were full of interesting souvenirs from all over the world, and the garden was inhabited by at least four cats. When we continued our journey in the morning, we left several bottles of our family winery Villa Melnik as a sign of gratitude to our host.

Today was a great cultural experience for Oriana. I think she appreciated the legendary Bulgarian folklore and ethnography.


My plan was to dazzle Oriana from the beginning – with a hike to one of Bulgaria’s most beautiful places, the Seven Rila Lakes (Read my previous post about the Seven Rila Lakes and the Paneurhythmy rituals that take place there.)

Our friends Alex and Yoana joined us at my place around 8am, and we began the day with breakfast of champions: yoghurt, lutenitsa, bread with cheeses and meats, ayran (a drink made from yogurt, water, and salt), and my mother’s specialty: banitsa with cheese!

Getting our feet and hands exfoliated by small trout - natural SPA!

By 10 o’clock, we had met with Martin and Emi at Separeva Banya, and drove together to the lift at Chalet Pionerska. The 20-minute lift ride to hut Sedemte Ezera (Seven Lakes) was freezing, and at one point we could hardly see the seats in front of and behind us because of the fog.  Still, we were determined to conquer the lakes despite the weather, and set off towards the Dolnoto ezero (Lower lake), Ribnoto ezero (Fish Lake), and Bliznaka (the Twins lake).

Oriana is a high-school teacher of English Literature, and she was very surprised to learn how international my friends’ education is. Alex, Martin, and I graduated from the American high-school in Bulgaria, and currently study in universities in the States and England, and Yoana has just enrolled in Belgium. During our hike, we switched between English, Spanish, and Bulgarian, with occasional remarks in German coming from our polyglot Marto. I explained to my guest that an increasing number of young Bulgarians get their bachelor’s or master’s abroad. As part of the EU, we are allowed to study, work, and travel freely, and as true Europeans, many of us speak three, even four languages and love traveling to different countries.   

The weather turned out to be very favorable. Every time we reached a new lake, the fog moved away and allowed us to enjoy the view. We dipped our hands and feet in the Trilistnika lake (Three-leafed lake) and let a school of small trout exfoliate our skin (you’d pay a fortune for this in a SPA center!). We snacked on my mom’s banitsa and dried fruit near Bubreka (the Kidney lake), drank pure Rila water from a waterfall, and climbed the steep path to the two highest lakes, Okoto (the Eye) and Sulzata (the Tear). From the peak of the mountain, we saw the entire seven lakes and the opening where the followers of the White Brotherhood perform Paneurhythmy every year.  Had there been no fog, we would have seen the entire Sofia Valley and the Balkan Mountain Range.

The fog is moving away from the Kidney Lake, so that we can take pictures of it!

It took us about 3.5 hours going up and 1.5 hours coming down the mountain. On the way back, we stopped for juice and sandwiches in Separeva Banya, where we saw (and smelled the sulfur fumes of) the highest geyser in Bulgaria.

I thought that a day in nature will be a good introduction to Bulgaria, but this is only a little piece of what’s coming up.

 


My friend Oriana has been backpacking Europe for about a month now, read her blog here. Today, she is coming to Sofia, and I have prepared for her an epic 10-day trip in Bulgaria full of cultural, natural, historic, and party destinations. I’m uploading our itinerary here and hope that it will give you ideas for your own journey.  Check back for updates and photos from our adventure!


Thursday

Oriana arrives. Evening sightseeing in Sofia.

Friday

Seven Rila Lakes – day of hiking (read my previous post about this magical place and my post about the White Brotherhood that convenes there). Evening sightseeing in Sofia.

Saturday

International bagpipe festival in Gela Village, near Shiroka Luka, Smolyan. Night in Gela visitor’s house.

Sunday

May stay for the second day of the festival in the morning. Visiting nearby Trigrad Gorge, Yagodinska cave, Dyavolsko Gurlo Cave (Devil’s Throat) – read my previous post about it, and Chudnite Mostove rock formation. Night in Plovdiv.

Monday

Morning sightseeing inPlovdiv: Renaissance town and ancient Roman amphitheatre. Traditional arts and crafts at Etar village. Night in Veliko Turnovo in the most beautiful old house in town.

Tuesday

A day in Veliko Turnovo, the ancient Bulgarian capital: the castle, the river, the market. The Preobrazhen monastery. Maybe visit nearby Arbanasi and Bozhentsi, two villages of rich architectural heritage.

Wednesday

A day at Sunny Beach sea resort, the Ibiza of the Balkans! 😉

Thursday

Second day at Sunny Beach and the near-by town of Sozopol. At night, an Armin Van Bruuen concert at Cacao Beach– the gran finale of the Solar Summer Fest!

Friday

Morning in the port city of Burgas (unfortunately a day ahead of the Spirit of Burgas festival) – the sand figures exhibition. Night at Hisarya – visiting the mineral springs Roman Baths and the Roman ruins.

Saturday

Visiting Starosel near Hisarya in the morning – the Starosel Winery and the Thracian temple ruins. Back in Sofia.

Sunday

Sofia by day. Oriana doesn’t want to leave in the afternoon.


What is the most delicious fruit in the world?

Forest strawberries from Rila mountain that you have picked up yourself (or with your mom’s help)!

Have you been to the most beautiful place in the world, the Seven Rila Lakes?


Last weekend, we took a day-trip to the Trigrad gorge, but in addition to nature’s beauty, we encountered man’s small-mindedness.

Trigrad gorge in the Rhodope mountain, Bulgaria

The majestic gorge is situated on the southern side of the  Rhodope mountain, near the town of Trigrad, about 3.5 hours away from Sofia. For 7km, Trigradska River meanders through the canyon-like gorge. The sheer rocks on both sides of it reach a height of 300-350m. The distance between these rock walls is at first 300m, but then reduces to mere 50-60m. It feels like you are standing beween the Symplegades, the Clashing Rocks from the myth about Jason and the Argonauts.

From the Trigrad gorge, the river vanishes into Dyavolsko Gurlo, or the Devil’s Throat cave. This cave is like an abyss, in which the river enters and falls from a 42-meter height.  This is the highest underground waterfall in Bulgaria, and it forms an enormous underground hall called Buchashta zala, or the Rumbling Hall: 110m long, 40m wide, and 35m high. You can easily fit the capital’s Alexander Nevski cathedral in there. Legend says that the Thracian hero Orpheus entered the Underworld to retrieve his beloved Eurydice from the dead precisely through the Dyavolsko Gurlo cave.

Here, the cliffs on the two sides of the Trigrad gorge are 300m high and less than 100m apart.

The place is frequented by Bulgarian and foreign tourists and, of course, is full of merchants. In this remote part of Bulgaria, the merchants are mostly old people from the nearby mountain villages who are selling hand-picked herbs and home-made jams and honey from forest fruits and trees. Every baba (grandmother, old lady) has piled her table with jars and is smiling at you and beckoning you to buy hers. There is a baba or a dyado (grandfather, old man) every 10m from the exit of the cave to the parking lot.

We buy a jar from the first baba and some herbs from the next one a few steps over. But then we don’t need anything else (plus, the goodies on every table are about the same), so we politely refuse to the next old man saying that we’ve already got enough.  And then he begins to supplicate and even begs us to buy from him too: “It’s not fair,” he says, “tourists always buy from those two because they are closer to the cave’s exit, and there are no clients left for me.” Eventually, we take pity on this dyado, and buy some more herbs from him.

A little bit further down the road, there are more ladies. This time a little bit more cheerfully, one invites us to buy from her jams. “No thank you, we already bought some from someone else.”  “Oh, you bought from those women? They add sugar to their jam! Mine is better!”

It saddens me to see that these people, who share a similar fate and have decided to earn a living in a similar way, don’t hesitate to do the dirty on each other. This seems to be typical behavior for many Bulgarians. We always look at each other’s riches and success and either try to screw each other up or defame and depreciate each other.  We have a word that signifies that our chests and hearts have shrunk under the pressures of a rough life. Unfortunately this state of being has become a national feature and has turned many of us into narrow-minded, petty people.

Looking up the Dyavolsko Gurlo cave

Looking down the Dyavolsko Gurlo



Goran Bregovic‘s performance at the Balkan Music Awards 2011 took place in Alexander Batemberg Square in Sofia and  finished an hour ago!

The Balkan Music Awards featured performances by top singers from Greece, Serbia, Romania, Turkey, Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Bulgaria . There was also a stage appearance by the queen of roma music and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Esma Redzhepova.

The concert culminated with the sounds of the enigmatic Balkan musician Goran Bregovic and his Weddings and Funerals Orchestra! His first song was called “Presidente, halo!” and the second, a collaboration between him and Gypsy Kings, “Balkanjeros”.  The entire crowd went wild! Everyone was dancing! It was a true celebration of the Balkan spirit!

However, the event didn’t go entirely perfect. Only minutes before Goran Bregovic came up on stage and announced that he was dedicating his pieces to his beloved roma people, a fight between roma and Bulgarian boys had erupted near where I stood. I don’t know which gang provoked the conflict, and luckily the police intervened (although with quite a delay), but it was still very unpleasant to see signs of ethnic tension during a show that was meant to unite the peoples from the Balkans.

Keep making your music Goran because it transcends differences and connects people!

This video is not from tonight, but this is the Balkanjeros song, so enjoy!


The tagline of the new Bulgarian movie Love.net says "What do you think about love from first email?"

The Internet has changed every aspect of our modern society, even love.

Love.net is a Bulgarian movie about love and sex on the Web. The movie unwinds the intertwined stories of eight online dwellers and explores their motivation for looking for fun or understanding among the profiles of strangers on dating websites. As the characters of Love.net  struggle with unhappy marriages, suppressed desires, teenage curiosity, and moral degradation, they understand that the Internet is both what brings them together and what grows them apart.

In 2007, the producer Ilian Dzhevelekov cooperated with the administrators of Bulgaria’s biggest online dating site, www.elmaz.com, and asked its visitors to share their stories for the upcoming movie. In two months, their profile received 7,000 responses and over 50,000 views. These true stories, with all their sorrow and perversion, are portrayed in the movie by some of the best Bulgarian cinema and theatre actors: Hristo Shopov, Zahary Baharov, Koyna Ruseva, Dilyana Popova, Diana Dobreva, Lilia Maraviglia, and more.

Elmaz.com has over 1.6 million registered users (Bulgaria’s population is 7 million).  At every moment, there are about 10,000 users online. The movie captures the modern social phenomenon of online dating and provokes the audience to think about its controversies.

The movie is in cinemas in Sofia since this April, but will soon be available online and on DVD. I strongly recommend it!


Bailey and Maura, the two American friends who visited me in Bulgaria for a couple of days, left today. I always invite my classmates from Boston University to come visit, but actually having two of them at home was even more thrilling than I had imagined!

In Bansko, ski capital of the Balkans

I took Bailey and Maura around Sofia, then south through Sandanski – a city famous for its hot mineral springs and spa centers, the Rhozen monastery, and Melnik – the wine capital of Bulgaria. We entered Greece through Kulata and visited Thessaloniki – the second biggest Greek city. After that we stopped at the port Kavala and then entered Bulgaria through Kato Nevrokopi. We finally spent some time in the ski resort Bansko before heading back to Sofia.

I tried to show the girls a good variety of everything you can find in Bulgaria – beautiful mountains, traditional architecture, good food and wine, clubbing and bars in the capital, as well as the Greek ancient monuments. I tired to explain to them the political and economic realities of the Balkan countries  and their role in the EU. I also told them more about our interconnected history and culture and taught them how to read the Cyrillic alphabet (click to read my post about it).

The word the girls used to describe Bulgaria was “different”. Their reaction and this word demonstrated to me that they really understood what they saw, and indicated to me that I had succeeded in presenting my country objectively.

Bailey and Maura understood that Bulgaria and Eastern Europe are “different” because they are not as orderly or settled as England or the States. There is always something bittersweet about the scenery. From the ornamented neo-classical buildings with the unattractive graffiti on the walls in the capital to the picturesque green fields and mountains with the weather-beaten pothole-filled roads, nothing in my country is only black or only white.

Especially our congested cities where shopping malls sprout even where there is no planned streets or parking spots create the feeling of misbalance that is so typical for most of Eastern Europe. Still, our lives do not lack in any convenience or sign of modernity, and our dynamic lifestyles revolve around universal priorities such as family, fun, work, and nature. We can at the same time shock and charm foreigners. That’s why I think that “different” is a very good way to describe us.

***

Read more about our Bulgaria Trip:

Easter Egg Fights


 

Which country was I in again?! I get a little bit confused when I see my parents, a Bulgarian high school, the Bulgarian London Choir, the Ambassador, a March 3rd celebration, and a big BG audience all at once in London!

Today, March 3, is Bulgaria’s Independence Day. On this day, we celebrate the signing of the San Stefano Treaty in 1878, which ended the war for the liberation of Bulgaria after 500 years of Ottoman yoke, and the beginning of the third Bulgarian kingdom.

A day before that, March 2nd, the Bulgarian Embassy in London invited all Bulgarian expatriates and their friends to a concert in Regent Hall on Oxford Street.

Luckily, this coincided with my parents’ arrival in London! I couldn’t resist the temptation of seeing a Bulgarian concert in London (so that I can write about it in my blog), so I basically dragged my parents from the airport to the event – despite their protests about wanting to do something English.

I don’t know what I was expecting. Probably something splendid because after all, this is London. But it wasn’t anything as exclusive as the gala events of the famous Bulgarian London City Club.

I think I have mixed feelings about the concert. On one hand, it was quite disappointing that there was no decorations, no flags really, and a very plain program. I was even irritated at one point: before we heard a recital by the students from the Bulgarian school, their teacher asked the audience to be lenient about the mistakes that her students might make because “they’ve tried to learn the piece as well as they can despite of the pressure that the English language has put on their Bulgarian language”…

…really?! I’m sorry but you just can’t say that because it’s a very bad excuse. Even if you spend most of the time in the UK, even if one of your parents is British, even if you do most of your communication in English, don’t try to make any excuses about not being fluent in your mother tongue (or both of your native tongues, if that is the case). Other than that, the students did a pretty fine job actually. Especially that young girl who filled the entire hall with her powerful voice.

The second part of the show, on the other hand, was simply mind-blowing! It was The London Bulgarian Choir who sang “folklore songs from the present and the past”. You MUST listen to their music on their official website above, because they are exceptional! And a big portion of them is not even Bulgarian!! Their conductor and lead singer, Dessislava Stefanova, a former student of the Philip Koutev Bulgarian Folk Ensemble, is a an enchanting singer and a very good marketer: if you come by London you can sign up for private classes or workshops with her. You can also follow the London Bulgarian Choir on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, YouTube, Wikipedia, or via their mailing list. Dessislava translated and explained one of their songs in English for the many “friends of Bulgaria”:

–     Mitre, Mitre, why does your son look so ill?

Is it from too much rakia-brandy? Or is it from eating too many pickles?

–      My son is not ill; last night he came from Saparevo village.

He made love to all the Saparevo girls and wrote them down in his book.

But he lost the book, so now he is like ill.


 

Yesterday, Google’s logo wore a martenitsa, the traditional Bulgarian symbol of the coming of spring! The martenitsa is an ornament made of intertwined red and white wool, often in the shape of a boy and a girl.  It symbolizes the arrival of spring, good health, and fertility.

We start wearing the martenitsa on March 1st, the day of Baba Marta (Grandmother March), and we wear it until we see a budding tree or a stork.

March 1st is also popular in Romania and Moldova under the name Martisor. Google called its file Martisor but it linked to articles about Baba Marta.

I just received some martenitisi from my cousin and my mom. I wonder how my colleagues at my internship will react when I present them one each?

Read my article about hanging martenitsi on trees in Boston.

 


The name is "Crazy Cock" in English but "Wild Rooster" in Bulgarian! There we go, Bulgarians and Americans in a Bulgarian restaurant in London!

This Friday, my two cousins, two of my friends from high-school in Sofia, four of my American girlfriends, and I went to a Bulgarian restaurant in London!

For a long time, I had wanted to give my American friends a true Bulgarian experience – of course I talk to them about my country all the time, but I really wanted them to create their own impression of our culture and traditions.  So I looked up a Bulgarian restaurant in London, The Crazy Cock (click on this link to read my friend’s review on Yelp).

The thing that worried me about this restaurant were the online reviews: every single one of them was negative! They were all by Bulgarians who were complaining about how overpriced the food was, how scandalous the waitresses looked, how bad the pop-folk music was, and so on. Still, this was my only chance to present my friends with an objective image of Bulgaria.

The interior of the restaurant shows the exterior of a traditional house.

The restaurant actually looked great! It was decorated like the outside of a traditional house from the Bulgarian Enlightenment era:  the walls were covered in river stones and had colorful balconies like in the town of Melnik. On one of the walls, they  had a – I must admit – quite ostentatious picture of St. Cyril and Methodius, but at least it gave me a reason to talk about the canonized brothers who created the Cyrillic alphabet (read my previous article to learn more)!

The food was also very good! We, the Bulgarians got excited and ordered all sorts of delicacies for our American guests: for appetizers, we got shopska salad, snezhanka (yoghurt, cucumbers, garlic, dill, and walnuts), liutenitza, assorted lukanka (dried pork and beef meze) and cheese, very tender cow’s tongue in oil, and chicken liver with veggies. The girls even tried rakia (40% alcohol that Bulgarians use for drinking as well as disinfection), but they didn’t like it too much.

My friend is very excited about Bulgarian cuisine and is taking pictures for her food blog: http://sushiandwine.tumblr.com/

For the main course, we ordered chicken and vegetables on a hot clay plate (sach) and guyveche, which consists of cheese, tomatoes, peppers, egg, and sausage prepared in a clay pot. Us the Bulgarians joked around that many of our typical meals were not on the menu because they UK had banned such imports: pig’s ears, intestines, brain, hearts, etc.

The entertainment was as classy as it gets! At first, we watched pop-folk (chalga) videos on the TV.  The Americans quickly caught the pattern: blonde or brunette chalga singers with fake lips and breasts and promiscuous stage behavior. Around 9:00pm, a live band of Bulgarian Roma started playing old Bulgarian ballads and folk songs. I gave my good friend Connie a quick lesson in our dance moves, and she promised to join me and my cousin for a Bulgarian dance class at our embassy next Thursday (that should make a great blog post!)

We had a great time at the Crazy Cock! The waitresses were sexy and weren’t in a hurry to serve us. The owner of the place didn’t really come to greet us although we were the first and the only guests for the first two hours. He was also the band’s drummer and the restaurant’s loudest customer. But other than that, our party was merry, the conversations were flowing, and the dinner lasted almost four hours! Overall, it was a pretty authentic experience!

At the end, my friend asked me why most of the online reviews were negative. Well, I told her, you would expect that the only Bulgarian restaurant in London would try to present the country in the best possible light with Bulgarian-quality food and Western-quality service. Instead, this was a very typical Bulgarian place – with all its positive and negative connotations.

To my dear friends I can just say, thank you for embracing Bulgarian culture and cuisine! I hope you enjoyed it!

Next goal: make them try Bulgarian Dancing!!!

****

You want to read more about my favorite Bulgarian food? Look at this!

Or read a very detailed account of our dinner (with a very lovely introduction for me), from the food expert-blogger Connie!


Dimitar Berbatov after a goal for Manchester United

I can’t be in England and not talk about football! And trust me, there is a strong link between great European football and Bulgaria!

Who will be the Premier League Player of the Year this season? According to a poll from The Sun, it is going to be Dimitar Berbatov! He earned 86% of the votes against other top British footballers Carlos Tevez, Samir Nasri, Rafael van der Vaart, Charlie Adam, and Gareth Bale.

The Sun called Dimitar Berbatov “THE Bulgarian striker” of Manchester United. So far this season, Berba has played in 19 games and scored 17 goals, including a phenomenal goal against Liverpool, which will very probably become “the goal of the season.” See his season statistics from The Sun.

Berbatov: a footballer, a philanthropist, and a great Bulgarian

In his native Bulgaria, Berbatov is something of a god. He was our Number One Player seven times. From 2006 to 2010, he was captain of the national team, where he scored the record 47 goals.

During his international career, he played for Bayer Leverkusen and Tottenham, and is currently Manchester United’s most celebrated striker. Berba is one of the four players in the history of the Premier League to have scored five goals in a single match.

Berbatov was born in Blagoevgrad and played for team Pirin as a youth (of course that the best Bulgarian player is from the same region as my father). Today, he is dedicated not only to football, but also to very noble social initiatives. The mission of the Dimitar Berbatov Foundation is to support and develop talented children in the areas of arts, sciences, and sports. See Berbatov’s official site.

The greatest Bulgarian footballer, Hristo Stoichkov, is close friends with the legendary Diego Maradona even today.

Currently, Berbatov is considered one of the most famous Bulgarians in the world. Interestingly, probably the other most well-known Bulgarian of all times is also a footballer: Hristo Stoichkov. Hristo Stoickhov, also known as the Dagger (Kamata in Bulgarian) is the best Bulgarian footballer of all times. He was renowned for his achievements as Bulgaria’s goal master at the 1994 World Championship and as the most popular player in FC Barcelona (Spain) during its golden age. He also player for Parma (Italy), Japan, Chicago Fire (USA) and DC United (USA). He is bearer of the European Golden Boot Award (38 goals in 30 games). Stoichkov was also know for his hot temper and sharp tongue, as any true Bulgarian should be.


Interesting facts you will learn from this video:

  • Sofia (at that time called Serdika) is 1700 years older than Brussels.
  • Emperor Constantine the Great was considering Sofia for the capital of the Byzantine Empire, but eventually chose Constantinople. He said “Serdika is my Rome”.
  • The oldest functioning church in Europe is St. George’s Rotunda (326 AD). It is right next to the Bulgarian presidency.
  • In the 4th century, Serdika was the spiritual capital of the Christian world.
  • The Boyana Church frescoes are considered to be the portents of the European Renaissance.
  • At the age of 28, the Bulgarian architect Petko Momchilov won a competition against Gustave Eiffel.
  • The Square of Tolerance is a unique place in Sofia: within less than 300 meters, you can see temples from the world’s four major religions: a mosque, a synagogue, a Catholic cathedral, and an orthodox church.
  • More steel was used for the construction of the National Palace of Culture than for the Eiffel Tower. The building was erected for the commemoration of 1300 anniversary of the founding of the Bulgarian state.
  • Sofia’s motto is “Grows But Does Not Age.”

Greetings from London! My semester “further-abroad” has set off like fireworks (I’m an international student from Bulgaria at Boston University studying abroad in the UK)! For the next four months, I will share my views on the American and English culture from the perspective of a proud Eastern European.

In England, royalties are also celebrities.My semester “further-abroad” has set off like fireworks (I'm an international student from Bulgaria at Boston University studying abroad in the UK)! For the next four months, I will share my views on the American and English culture from the perspective of a proud Eastern European.

One of my first lectures in London brought up a very interesting issue: what are the factors that define the seemingly similar American and British society.

As stereotypical as it sounds, the American society is defined by race even nowadays. How so? Open any tourist guide for any major city in the States and you will find suggestions for the top restaurants in Little Italy (NYC)/North End (Boston), the cheapest deals in Chinatown, the best Irish pubs in Southie (Boston), or how to avoid the black part of town.  Read through a few blogs, and you will find quite a few negative comments about the influx of Chinese tech-gurus and the always illegal-and-low-skilled Mexican immigrants.  It’s no surprise that the prospect of having a black president evoked even more heated debates among Americans than the prospect of having a woman president, although other countries in the world have had female presidents or presidents from the non-dominant race long before the States. Electing Obama was not as controversial to the rest of the world as it was to the American society, which finally felt itself ready to overcome its deeply rooted racial reservations.

What is more controversial to Americans, a woman president or a black president?

Race, on the other hand, has never been a segregating factor in the UK simply because historically, the British Empire extended to India, Australia, the Middle East, South Africa, the Caribbean, and North America.  Different races and cultures simply had to learn to coexist. Class was what defined the British society. Probably the only country in the world where social hierarchy is more important than that in Great Britain, is India.  To understand this social structure, simply take a tour of London: compare Chelsea and Kensington, whose mere architecture reminds us of the aristocratic past of that part of town, with the Docklands, which were the main source of wealth for the middle class of merchants; take a boat trip to the Greenwich Observatory to get a sense of the English scholars and intelligence strata;  visit London’s exquisite cathedrals and churches to understand the importance of the clergy for the English nation. Today, the structure of the Parliament, the function of the Queen, and the aristocratic titles are remnants of the social segregation that the British claim to have left in the past.

Vasil Boshkov is probably the richest Bulgarian, with estimated wealth of about $1.5 billion. He owns businesses in the fields of roads infrastructure, tourism, gambling, and insurance. He was the owner of one of the two best Bulgarian football teams.

Neither race nor class are issues in the modern Bulgarian society. This is probably because we don’t have any other races besides the occasional black foreign soccer player, who usually becomes a celebrity for the girls in Sofia’s clubs. We also dethroned our royal family a long time ago, with the arrival of the Communist government in 1946 (which is too bad because our royalties were actually part of a very powerful European royal dynasty, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha).  I think that what truly defines the Bulgarian society is money.

The face of Bulgaria’s modern society was shaped after the fall of the Communist regime in 1898. This is when former members of the Party were able to receive portions of the no-longer- national enterprises and thus became successful businessmen.  Those who had connections appropriated various ventures and took control over entire industries. Notably, the insurance business became a synonym of the mafia. Today, these people are filthy rich. They are some of the richest people in Europe and are very well connected with their Russian mafioso counterparts and ironically, with the democratic government.  They have a culture of their own,  that of the porn-like chalga culture and the thick-necked businessmen, and comprise a separate social strata.

But then, there is of course the rest of society: the open-minded and ambitious young Bulgarians who make up one of the most vibrant and interesting European peoples.


 

The Bulgarian Rose is an essential ingredient of Katy Perry's debut fragrance, Purr.

 

Pop diva Katy Perry launched her debut fragrance, Purr, in early November. The perfume is sold at Nordstrom for $45 for 50 ml and $65 for 100 ml. The Nordstrom description reads:

“Purr by Katy Perry begins with the aroma of peach nectar and forbidden apple, evolves with a distinct floral bouquet of jasmine blossom, Bulgarian rose and vanilla orchid, and slowly reveals accents of creamy sandalwood and musk. Like the singer herself, Purr is playful yet sophisticated. Katy Perry transcends barriers with her music—so does her new fragrance.”

Let me tell you more about the legendary Bulgarian rose.

There is a place in Bulgaria, between the Balkan Mountain Range (Stara Planina) from North and Sredna Gora Mountain on the South and Stryama River to the West and Tundzha River to the East, called the Valley of Roses (Rozova Dolina). For centuries, people here have cultivated the Kazanlak Rose and extracted its valuable Rose Oil.

 

The Kazanlak Rose is one of Bulgaria's national symbols.

 

The scientific name of the Kazanlak rose, named after the major town in the Valley of Roses, Kazanlak, is Rosa Damascena. It has very small but very fragrant pink and pink-red flowers. From its petals, we produce the world-renown Bulgarian Rose Oil, also known as Rose Otto or Rose Attar.

It takes about 3000-3500 kilograms of rose petals to produce 1 kilogram of rose oil, which in turn costs about $7,000. In the past, the price of rose oil almost reached that of gold, so to Bulgarians, Rose Otto is “the liquid gold.”

 

Young rose-pickers throw petals in the air along the streets of Kazanlak

 

Bulgaria is the largest producer of rose oil in the world. Other top producers are Turkey, Morocco, Iran, France, and Italy. The rose oil is widely used in the perfume, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries (Read more about Rose Oil Info and Uses). Some of the perfume brands that use rose oil as their essential ingredient are Dior, Givenchy, Kenzo, Gucci, and Nina Ricci, but undoubtedly the most famous perfume containing Bulgarian Rose is Chanel No.5. The oil is contained even in the most expensive perfume in the world, Imperial Majesty by Clive Christian, which sells for about $300,000 per 500 ml bottle.

Rose oil production is very labor intensive and requires great expertise. The petal-picking season lasts only 20 days in a year. To preserve the best qualities of the petals, the rose-pickers, traditionally young girls, have to gently pick the blossoms one by one early in the morning, before the rising sun evaporates the dew from the petals. Naturally, the rose-picking season is an occasion for celebration.

 

The Bulgarian Festival of the Rose proves that beauty is ageless!

 

The Festival of the Rose (read more) takes place in the beginning of June in Kazanlak since 1903. Some of the highlights include the beauty contest “Queen of the Roses,” the rose-picking ceremony in traditional folk costumes, and the parade with folk music and dance, masked kukeri (read my post on the kukeri carnival), and traditional art. The rose festival in Kazanlak is a true celebration of beauty!

***

Did you read my post on the Festival of the National Costume in Zheravna?


Whenever I hear Bulgarian speech in the street, I stop to meet the person.  This is how I met a Bulgarian hotel receptionist in the Bahamas, an illegal immigrant pizza deliveryman in Boston, and a manager at CityCo, whose accent I recognized on the phone, while calling about a product in his store.

Everyone has their own way of preserving their cultural identity in the foreign country.

My German friend Lena once asked me why I always introduce myself to Bulgarian strangers.  She heard German speech in Boston all the time, but she never stopped to say hello to her fellow countrymen.

I responded that Bulgarians in Boston are not strangers to me. My country is so small and I’m so far away, that I consider it good luck to meet another Bulgarian. I don’t want to walk past my luck, so I say hi. I feel that simply being in the same place, an ocean away from home, is already something in common and is a great reason to strike up a conversation.

That’s why I buy everything labeled “Made in Bulgaria”: yogurt with Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, Bulgarian red wine Tcherga (ordered online by Lena’s wonderful mother), Lalo Jewelry made by an Israeli artist living near Sofia. If I can’t find genuine Bulgarian products, I replace them with our neighbor’s equivalents like Greek feta cheese instead of our white cheese and Serbian Ajvar instead of our Lutenitza.

My culture is so small compared to the American and international surroundings that I feel the need to acknowledge my nationality whenever I encounter a piece of Bulgaria in Boston. I think this is my way of preserving my identity in the foreign environment.


I would like to join the ongoing in Bulgaria public debate.

In mid-August, the Ministry of Economy presented the video clips for the new advertising campaign for Bulgarian tourism under the slogan “Magic Lives Here”. The campaign aims to change the perception of Bulgaria from a destination for low-cost European youth travel destination, to a more luxurious tourist destination.  The four video clips focus on our Black Sea summer resorts, mountain ski resorts, SPA and wellness centers, eco-tourism and cultural heritage. They are about be broadcasted on four European TV channels: Euronews, Eurosport, Discovery, and National Geographic, in September (read more in Radio Bulgaria’s website).

The project theoretically has a good perspective, but the video clips became notorious because the majority of Bulgarians don’t like them. Newspapers, TV shows, online media, politicians, intellectuals, and celebrities all took a stand in the public debate. The common opinion seems to be that the videos are full of clichés, that they copy other countries’ promo videos from several years ago, are outdated, are executed poorly, have bad quality, and don’t portray Bulgaria accurately.

The most widely discussed aspect, though, is the campaign’s cost. The making and broadcasting of the videos totals at 7.5 million leva (3.7 million euro), which is a significant sum for a country of this size. The campaign is partially funded by the EU. Experts in the field of advertising agree that the production price, almost half a million leva is way too high. Many common people believe that this money would have served better if it were invested in infrastructure.

One is for sure, an ad campaign can always be improved.

Instead of taking part in the blaming and whining, I’d like to take a more productive stand in this debate. Here is my list of the things the next campaign should not omit (in no particular order and without claiming to be exhaustive):

Tourism and Nature:

  • Hikers going to the Seven Rila Lakes
  • White mountain peaks of Rila and Pirin with skiers and snowboarders
  • The wide golden beaches and deep blue of the Black Sea coastline
  • Crowds of people at sea resorts like Sunny Beach and Lozenetz with their luxurious restaurants, clubs and hotels
  • Rafting  in Struma river in September  surrounded by the autumn colors of the forest
  • Small quiet beach camping sites like Smokinia with surfing, windsurfing, and diving
  • Balneotherapy at the mineral hot springs in Velingrad
  • Horseback riding in the Balkan mountain range near the village Skravena
  • Families visiting the Thracian sanctuary at Perperikon
  • Beach festivals (The Spirit of Burgas), concerts in the open, and clubs in Sofia
  • Rock-climbing near the Belogradchik rocks
  • Students exploring the prehistoric paintings at the Magura cave and the Ledenika cave
  • Views from Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, and Rouse

Cultural  and historical heritage:

  • Thracian golden masks and jewelry
  • Ancient Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv
  • Typical architecture of 17th-century houses in Veliko Turnovo
  • Houses-museums of Bulgarian revolutionaries in Koprivshtitza
  • Old crafts from the time Bulgaria was in the Ottoman empire in Etura
  • Vast vineyards and wineries in Melnik, the wine capital of the Balkans
  • Scary masks at the Kukeri carnival in Pernik
  • Nestinarki dancing on fire in the village of Bulgari
  • Esoteric Paneurhythmy dance ritual near the Seven Rila Lakes
  • Children hanging martenitsi on blossoming trees
  • Rose-picking and rose-oil production near Kazanluk
  • Singers and bagpipe-players in traditional garments during the folklore festival in Zheravna
  • People dancing the horo during a wedding
  • Merry crowds enjoying the Bulgarian cuisine, lukanka, liutenitza, banitza, in a kruchma (pub) in Bansko
  • Orthodox Christian baptism in the Rozhen monastery and the icons in the Rila monastery

Did you know that the face of Europe would have been very different today if it hadn’t been for the Bulgarian khan Tervel who saved the Christian world from Arab invasion?

By the early 700s, the Arabs had conquered most of the Middle East, Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem, Syria, Damascus, Persia, Cyprus, Egypt, Cartagena, Spain, and Lisbon. By 716, they besieged Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, both by land and by sea. Europe had never seen such difficult times. It was about to be crushed by two Muslim fists, one from the West and one from the East.

Bulgar Khan Tervel accepts gifts of gold and silver from Byzantine Emperor Justinian

Constantinople was barely holding after three years under siege until a miracle happened. On August 15th, 718, the Bulgar Khan Tervel took the  Arabs by surprise. The Bulgar army annihilated the invaders, who didn’t return to the Balkans for at least a few centuries. Thus, the Bulgar khan became not only the savior of the Byzantine Empire, which in fact had always been its greatest enemy, but the savior of the entire European Christian civilization.

What would’ve happened if khan Tervel had not stopped the Arabs at Constantinople’s gates? Some historians think that the European society, and therefore most of the world as we know it today, would have been heavily influenced by the Islamic culture. Khan Tervel was called “Savior of Europe” and canonized as a saint by his contemporaries (although Bulgarians became Christian under King Boris a hundred years later).

Why have these historical facts, which were once known to all Europeans, been slowly disappearing from history textbooks? I don’t know, but I recently heard the theory that when Bulgaria joined the Communist bloc, Western Europe turned its back to her in many aspects, and this resulted in the omission of important historical truths.

Many believe than the Madara Rider was carved into the rock in honor of khan Tervel (read my previous post).

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