Bulgaria: rough around the edges but still a beauty

The Baltimore Sun

VELIKO TURNOVO, Bulgaria - Up and down the twisting, cobblestone streets of this charming ancient city, hundreds of photocopied leaflets with grainy black-and-white images of the dead are tacked onto trees, utility poles and the sides of buildings.

Most of these people are long dead. Some passed on more than a dozen years ago, yet relatives in this so-called "city of the czars" and other towns across Bulgaria keep the crinkled, yellowing death notices on public display, as if to remind friends and neighbors not to forget the people.

That seems so unnecessary in a land where little is forgotten, including old scores to be settled. Bulgarians remember the Ottoman Turks, who occupied the country for five centuries; the Russians, who drove the Turks out 130 years ago; the Macedonians, who live on neighboring land that most Bulgarians think should be theirs; and the Soviets, who lifted their totalitarian thumb almost 20 years ago but, like the death notices tacked onto trees, remain in the capital of Sofia in the form of large crumbling monuments to their failed communist experiment.

In other countries, the communist statues are ripped down with an accompanying hail of cheers. Not in Bulgaria.

This is a dark, fascinating and, unfortunately, forgotten country, an Iowa-sized Balkan beauty with snow-capped mountains and lush green fields. It is here that the undeniable forces of the New World order meet a stubborn Old World speed bump defined by donkey carts, shepherds, a sclerotic and often corrupt governing bureaucracy and an economy that, for the most part, lags behind its old Eastern Bloc brethren.

Don't come to Bulgaria if you're looking for some glossy European elegance interspersed with Starbucks and all those Western, touristy accouterments that make travel so comfortable and reassuring.

But do come if you're up for something a little wild and pretty rough around the edges. Come if you're interested in watching the noisy, tectonic shifts of a former communist satellite in awkward transition to wherever it is it's going. Come if you'd like to see the Old World, before it's gone.

(Before we go too far, I need to say that my wife, Mary, and I did not visit here after being wowed by some Bulgarian TV travelogue or National Geographic photos. Our older son is teaching in Sofia. We hadn't seen him since last summer, and he was clamoring for a new shipment of barbecue sauce. Having disclosed that, I'd go back in a minute, if for no other reason than to people-watch and eat the salads.)

Long a tumultuous land, Bulgaria is the unlucky victim of living next door to voraciously belligerent neighbors. The Romans, Byzantines and Turks each took turns conquering Bulgaria, followed by the Soviets, who, curiously, Bulgarians didn't seem to mind at all. In between, the country made a couple of very poor choices, siding with Germany during two world wars. Bulgaria's "Golden Age," when the Bulgar Khans controlled much of Europe, is a far, far distant memory.

For the visitor, Bulgaria can be confusing. Shaking your head horizontally means yes while shaking it vertically means no. Understanding, remembering or even finding Sofia's street signs, written in the Cyrillic alphabet, is a formidable challenge. Go by way of billboard landmarks: Take a right at Samsung and a left at Hyundai. When you get to the massive billboard with the tall blond in a garter belt, you've gone too far.

Remember doberden (good day), mol ya (please) and merci (thank you), and that should get you a wide, crinkly smile and some linguistic sympathy, if not a direct cab ride back to your hotel.

Make sure you order one hot dog and not two because the dog and a bed of french fries and relish are crammed into an enormous bun.

Meals are pretty simple. Many main dishes are stews, cooked with sausage and chicken. Steaks are rare, as in hard to get. The real treats in the Bulgarian cuisine are the pastries and the salads. The shopska salad is a celebration of all the fresh vegetables in Bulgaria.

The duner, the Bulgarian version of the gyro, only with chicken, is a favorite street-side sandwich.

Globalization, particularly McDonald's, clearly is having its way with Bulgaria, much like the Turks did centuries ago. The lineup of cars at the 24/7 McDonald's near Sofia's sprawling downtown park is continual, as vehicles burn $5.50-a-gallon gas waiting for a Big Mac.

Sofia's Vitosha Boulevard, the main downtown commercial strip, features blocks of stores sporting names such as Versace, Levi's, Calvin Klein, Boss and Omega. And on the road to Veliko Turnovo, the old capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), corporate billboards grow in pastures where shepherds tend their sheep.

Television is substantially westernized. Offerings include Bulgarian Idol, as well as the country's own version of Big Brother (two decades after the real big brother left) and Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, an obvious question in a nation where the minimum wage is less than $100 a month.

However, the westernization of this physically and culturally rugged southeastern pocket of Europe is coming at a decidedly Bulgarian pace, much like the God-only-knows-when arrival of a meal ordered at a downtown Sofia restaurant. It'll get there eventually.

Once you get off Vitosha Boulevard, the picture of Western influence fades, from the street markets selling hats and flasks with a red star and sickle to the old woman in the park, picking up twigs to heat her apartment, and to the Velcro couples on park benches, desperately in need of a room.

Bulgaria, for all of its warts - including appalling poverty - is one of the best and most interesting bargains in Europe. The country is part of the European Union, but happily it is not yet on the euro. Its currency is the lev, which is worth about 70 U.S. cents. That bargain rate paves the way for cheap eats and, in this time of the anemic greenback, an affordable journey in very pricey Europe.

This place is different, and be advised that Bulgaria, as British author Mercia MacDermott wrote, is "a handful of heaven possessed by demons."

If it weren't for renewed troubles in the tinderbox of Kosovo, Sofia could be called the Wild East of Europe. Thousands of dogs, most of them abandoned, run loose across this city of a million people. The fall of communism cleared the way for hundreds of thousands of people to buy cars, which they promptly did and now park every which way on sidewalks because there's no place else to put them.

Organized crime recently drew the attention of the European Commission, which condemned the murders of two prominent men, the latest in a series of 150 mafia-style killings since the fall of communism, another manifestation of how Bulgarians don't forget. (There have been no convictions.)

Tour guides say, convincingly, that visitors have little to worry about from these targeted hits. In fact, as you stroll around the city, you'll worry a lot more about packs of dogs than any mafia.

About 7.5 million people live in Bulgaria. The country exports some natural resources, grows a wide variety of vegetables and produces beautiful pottery. But that's not enough to build a growing nation, a fact that by itself might be justification for the dour tendencies of Bulgarians, especially men.

Do not, however, be discouraged from engaging Bulgarians. They appreciate attempts at their language, however fumbling. A smile is always welcome, and it usually produces a response that convinces you that Bulgaria may not be as dour as portrayed.

Tim Jones writes for the Chicago Tribune.

IF YOU GO

LODGING

Sofia, Bulgaria, has plenty of good hotels, including recognizable names such as Hilton, Sheraton and Radisson. Be prepared to pay $150 to $300 per night. In the countryside, you can find nice, locally owned places for under $50, but the likelihood of finding English spoken there diminishes rapidly and sometimes disappears. And make sure you take toilet paper.

EXCHANGE RATE

Bulgaria is one of the best bargains in Europe, with one lev worth about 70 cents U.S. Four people can eat and drink well for under $50. Just stay away from the restaurants in the hotels, which will gouge you.

ATTRACTIONS

Walk Sofia first. Check the guidebooks for magnificent churches. One of the more interesting sites is the downtown mineral bath, which features a drinking fountain complex, where locals fill their bottles with free steaming mineral water. Soviet monuments dot the city, and nearly all have fallen into either disrepair or been vandalized by graffiti thugs. Veliko Turnovo, about 150 miles east of Sofia, is at once charming and spectacular. It's well worth the price of a car rental.

DINING

Restaurant menus will show as many as four pages of salads, drawing on the fresh vegetable bounty of Bulgaria. The shopska is the signature salad, but others are equally good. Soups are a delight. Street food is good and safe. Duners, like gyros, are wonderful. Unfortunately, you can't get mustard for your hot dogs in Bulgaria. They put corn on their pizza, which is very tasty, and it's a common practice to put ketchup on it, too, because some Bulgarians think the pizza is dry. If you put ketchup on yours, if I were you, I wouldn't admit it when I got back home. The best Bulgarian brand of wine is Todoroff.

INFORMATION

Shell out the $20 to $25 for a good Bulgaria travel book. We used Lonely Planet's Bulgaria ($23), which provided terrific detail, good maps and some color photos. Bulgarian State Agency for Tourism is at bulgariatravel.org/eng/index.php.

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