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King Simeon's Saragyol Palace in Rila Mountain, a wooden royal residence used as a hunting lodge.

Borovets is the biggest mountain resort in Bulgaria. Located at the foot of Musala peak in Rila, less than an hour away from the capital, the resort is a magnet both for the fans of extreme winter sports and those who seek the coolness of the mountain in the summer.  In addition to the excellent ski-slopes, the resort offers horse-back riding, mountain biking, golf, hiking trails, and some interesting opportunities for sightseeing. To me, the “palaces” of Borovets are a telltale of the Bulgarian entrepreneurial thinking and practices.

The King’s Hunting Lodge

Borovets is the oldest mountain resort in Bulgaria. It used to be the haven of relaxation for the noble and the rich. In 1914, the Bulgarian king Ferdinand I built his summer hunting lodge here.  In 1946, the monarchy became a republic after a referendum conducted under Soviet pressure. The royal family was banished and the lodge was nationalized.

In 2001, the former king Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was only nine years old at the time of the flight, returned to Bulgaria, won the parliamentary elections to become the prime-minister, and regained his rights over the property his family owned before 1946. This restitution was very controversial because it wasn’t completely clear what belonged to Ferdinand’s heirs, what belonged to the state, and what belonged to the institution that mediated between the two. The public debate continued when it became clear that absurdly, the Bulgarian government had by mistake (!) returned to Simeon more property than what he had originally claimed. The value of this property is somewhere about 160 million euro and includes 2100 hectares of forests around Borovets and parts of Rila’s highest peak.

The 5-Star Palaces

This five-star hotel in Borovets was notorious fame

Today, there are several “palaces” in Borovets. The resort, as too many other Bulgarian resorts, has been overbuilt with huge hotels that might be completely full during the winter season, but remain empty during most of the year. Such hotels are the projects of megalomaniacs with a distorted vision for the development of the resort.

The problem is that Borovets is full of 5 and 4-star hotels, yet its infrastructure is horrible: roads are bad, the sidewalks and sweeps of grass are untidy, weeds grow in the fountains, there is not enough street lights or maps with directions. Some of the closed-down restaurants (seasonally or permanently) look scary and run-down, and one simply doesn’t feel secure walking by them. Apparently our businessmen invest in luxurious hotels forgetting that tourists will have to leave their premises at some point and will encounter surroundings that do not live up to their expectations.

The financial crisis is probably partially responsible for the many abandoned hotel construction sites and empty apartment buildings that lack tenants and buyers. On the other hand, such unfinished projects invariably suggest shady affairs. One such popular case is a palace-like hotel built by one notorious mafia boss who was later shot dead abroad. While the police was investigating the origin of the mobster’s fortune, his wife sold the hotel and thus legalized the profit from the sale.

This problems and controversies around the resort are a pity because the nature surrounding Borovets is truly awe-inspiring.

Only one of the many lifts in Borovets

Borovets, Rila Mountain

***

Did you see my photos from 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



This used to be customary practice in hotels a few years back, and it was funny to see it again: In Bulgaria, many hotels give you the remote control for the TV and the AC at check-in. You have to return them at check-out. I guess it’s a clever means of precaution against guests who steal the shampoos and the towels.

I took the photo last weekend at a hotel in Melnik.


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


I’m really happy that I finally have an apartment with a kitchen! Down with dining hall food! I feel cleaner, lighter, and more satisfied and independent than ever! So much for kitchen poetry…

At 15 in Bulgaria, I usually chose between 3-4 types of cereal. My peers in the States chose between 30-40 brands.

I was walking in Shaw’s Supermarket the other day, and remembered the first time I came to the States. It was around 2003, and I was about 14-15. My whole family came to the East Coast for a vacation. We started with Disney World in Orlando, then Washington DC, NYC, State College in Pennsylvania, Pittsburg, Boston, and Niagara falls. We visited friends, went to museums, saw shows, sights, etc. We wanted to go shopping just for the fun of it. Honestly, we didn’t think we’d find something completely different from what was available back home or from what we had already seen in Western Europe. But I remember that one thing really struck us.

The supermarkets. We went to a supermarket in State College, PA that was as big as the biggest mall in Sofia at that time (TZUM).   It had an incredible assortment of food that we had never seen before. It had piles of shiny big fruit that were so beautiful they almost looked artificial (today, I know that they indeed taste artificial). It had Italian bread, Turkish delight, Arabic dates, Spanish gazpacho, Russian borsch, Greek olives. Finally, one thing completely blew our minds.

The good old muesli with yogurt will always be my top choice. With fruit and honey, its better than the whole cereal aisle!

The aisle with cereal. I bet this was the longest aisle in the store, and it was packed with boxes of cereal: crisp choco crunch frost flake bran berry buzz blast apple maple raisin banana cinnamon pecan almond wheat rice oat corn honey mini multi squares puffs pebbles clusters bunches Kellog Quaker Newman Mills Kashi Ralston Nestle… Who ate all these things?! How was it possible to have so many combinations? How was it possible to choose from such a variety? At that time in Bulgaria, we had a total of maybe three companies producing breakfast cereal: Nestle’s regular cornflakes, Bulgarian cornflakes, and muesli. We ate cereal with milk and sugar or muesli with yoghurt and honey. I think we were perfectly content with the choices we had.

Now, of course, we have giant malls and giant supermarkets like Americans do. This must be a sign that our standard of living is rising. We have a much larger assortment of Bulgarian and foreign breakfast cereal.

Yet even today, after I’ve been to Shaw’s and Whole Foods in Boston so many times, I still fail to understand why Americans need so many different types of cereal?!

***

You might also find interesting the rest of my Observations on the American Culture and Behavior, compared to those in my native Bulgaria:

Bureaucracy in America: Iron Policy of No Compromise

Sex and Watermelons in Bulgarian Pop Culture

It Doesn’t Get More Organic Than This


We left Sofia around 7:30 in the morning and in about an hour and a half reached Sapareva Banya and chalet Pionerska by car. We could’ve walked up from there, but since we were goofy-tourists and not real hikers, we took the lift***.

The wonderful 20-minute life ride above the coniferous forest revealed marvelous views towards the whole of Rila mountain, and it saved us a 4-5 hour walk. We reached chalet Sedemte Ezera (the Seven Lakes) at the altitude of 2100 meters. From there, we took the “winter route” on the right of the chalet, which immediately got us climbing up a steep and rocky hill. Our tongues were hanging in no time, but it was worth it!

First we saw Dolnoto Ezero (the Lower Lake) and Ribnoto Ezero (the Fish Lake).  The Seven Rila Lakes have a glacial origin and are part of the Rila National Park. They are connected though streams that later become Dzherman River. We saw Trilistnika (the Trefoil) below us and Bliznaka (the Twin). Bliznaka, at 2240 meters, is the largest of the seven and is composed of two parts connected by a strait, thus the name, the Twin. Another explanation for the name is that the peak Haramiata and its reflection in the lake look like twins.

At 2280m, we reached a large circular plateau covered in the greenest grass. This is the site of the annual Paneurhythmy, a ritual performed by the followers of teaching of the esoteric master Peter Deunov – Beinsa Douno, which you can read about in my next post.  In the vicinity, we found Babreka (the Kidney), which is the most famous lake due to its curious shape. The water was so clear we could see schools of trout in it. Bareback horses and their foals were grazing around the water.

In order to reach the last two lakes, we had to sweat profusely again. After another 200 meters along the steep trail, we reached Okoto (the Eye) (I chose to climb straight up along the waterfalls in search the best photo and found myself on a hill above the Eye). Okoto is definitely my favorite lake because of its magical turquoise color. It is the deepest lake, 38m deep, and part of its shore is ice-bound all year long. I wasn’t surprised to hear a kid cry out: “This is the best day in my life!”

The last lake, Sulzata (the Tear), at 2535m, is the smallest and as clear as a tear-drop. Mount Ezeren next to it reveals the Most Beautiful View in the World: the Seven Rila Lakes, the entire Rila mountain, and even half the country, as far as Stara Planina (the Balkan Mountain Range).  We joined the ritual and added a small flat pebble to the towers of pebbles build up by people who had been there before us.

On the way back, we took the “summer route,” which was a lot less steep and passed next to Trilistnika, Ribnoto Ezero and Dolnoto Ezero. The whole trip took us about 4 hours up and 3 hours down and culminated with kebabche, kiufte and beer in the chalet. Our faces, arms and necks were painfully sunburned, and we almost fell asleep on the lift on the way down, but it was a truly marvelous day!

***Let me just mention that the lift from chalet Pionerska to chalet Rila Lakes has a notorious fame among hard-core mountaineers, who claim that it is turning the region into a walk-in-the-park for lazy Sofia city dwellers who obviously don’t understand the power of nature and are there to pollute and harm the mountain. As if! I think that the lift is a great idea because it allows many people to rejoice at the marvels of Rila; people, who might not have the physical preparation in order to make the entire trip to the peak, and who wouldn’t otherwise be able to ever see the lakes. And trust me, everyone deserves to see the Seven Rila Lakes at least once in their lifetime!

See more beautiful pictures from Rila here.


10.  Tell her she has a cute accent

9. Teach your friends how to pronounce your girlfriend’s name correctly

8. Be able to point Bulgaria on the map and teach your friends to pronounce the capital Sofia the right way, with the stress on the first syllable

7.  Learn more about Bulgaria’s history: the ancient Thracians, the khans, the Bulgarian Empire, the Ottoman yoke, the revolutionaries, the socialist era, modern-day tourist destinations

6. Find a Russian/Greek/Turkish store that sells Bulgarian food and buy her liutenitza, sirene (cheese), or lokum/baklava. Know that real yogurt is made from Lactobacillus Bulgaricus and real red wine comes from the Melnik region

5. Call her to ask whether to use green or red peppers in the shopska salad that you are making for her

4. Listen to her Bulgarian and Balkan music playlist. Respect Lili Ivanova and Goran Bregovic

3. Be able to eat all the lukanka, kebabche, liutenitza, sirene, and banitza that her grandmother offers you and to try at least three types of rakia: from plums, grapes, and apricots.

2. Learn to dance pravo horo. And always lead it

1. Learn at least a few Bulgarian phrases. Start with Здрасти [Zdrasti] – Hello and Обичам те [Obicham te] – I love you

You might also find interesting:

“And God Created Bulgarian Women” from Vagabond magazine

An interview with the Swedish spouse of a Bulgarian woman from the blog “How to Marry a Bulgarian”


Less than an hour from the capital Sofia, near the village of Skravena at the foot of Stara Planina, or the Balkan Mountain Range, I discoverd the marvelous “Zdravetz” horse riding-school. The owner and horse trainer, Zdravko, believes that nothing relieves the stress and charges us better than a “journey in time on the back of a horse”.

There are no laptops or cell phones in Zdravko’s home. There’s only the mountain, the horses, the tents, and the good friends.

Zdravko’s front yard is in fact an open-air horse school. His guests can put up tents near the horse rink. There is also bar with a grill and a pool table for the tired cowboys. I didn’t take a dip in the swimming pool because it’s for the kids from “Zdravetz” children’s summer camps, but I did take an arching lesson with Zdravko’s son. We used an old Bulgarian recurve bow with rabbit fur decorations on the sides. Such a bow is very suitable for horseback rider hunting in the forest and was used by the Proto-Bulgarian Bulgar nomadic tribes (see pictures of the Bulgar warriors).

Zdarvko’s twelve horses roam free in the field and the wood behind his house. In the distance, there is an old church and just under it, the remnants of another, ancient church where archaeological excavations are soon to begin. We climbed a little bit further up and saw the breathtaking view of the valley’s fifteen villages. On the sides of every mountain passages, there were ruins from old Thracian and Roman watchtowers that used to guard the road passing through the valley.

This time when I went there, Zdravko showed me how to balance on the horse, amble, and trot. He promised me that in only a few more lessons, he and his friends will take me on a ride up the mountain trails. On a horse in Stara Planina, he said, you will  remember your true Bulgar past.


The Madara Rider is an emblematic rock relief found in Bulgaria’s Shoumen region. The relief dates back to the beginning of the 8th century and marks the beginning of the First Bulgarian Kingdom. It depicts a rider piercing his spear through a lion and accompanied by a dog and an eagle. The relief was carved into the vertical rock at a height of 23 meters (75 ft). It symbolizes victory over the enemy and is thought to represent the might of the Ancient Bulgarian khans from the days when we were a nomadic tribe of warriors. Some historians think that the image represents Khan Tervel who saved Europe from Arabic Invasion during the Siege of Constantinople in 718 AD (read about it in my blog).

Also known as the Madara Horseman, it was declared a Monument of World Heritage by UNESCO. It will become Bulgaria’s symbol on our first Euro coin.


I just read this nice post about Sintra, Portugal (http://garga-blog.com/snimki/sintra/) by a Bulgarian who has dedicated his blog to “people who don’t have work, even when they are at work.” 

I also visited the magical city of Sintra this past summer and wrote an article about it for a friend’s magazine, Paradox: http://issuu.com/paradox/docs/paradox_4_issue_press, pg 35-36 (in Bulgarian).  Take a look and I hope you are inspired to visit the place! 

The architects of this castle must have had more imagination than the creators of the Disney princess movies!

 

Some of the tresures of Sintra are this ancient fortress, the royal castle, and the luxurious villas of the old aristocracy.

 

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