Sofia | СОФИЯ
Bulgaria is a home of legends and myths, stories of past centuries, monuments of battles lost and won that paint the landscape with a distinctive pigment, preserved in its own time capsule. Without a red thread to guide you through, it is easy to get lost. But in fact this is the exact moment when you can fully immerse yourself into a new experience.
Living in various places abroad over the last few years, I have formed a stronger bond to Sofia, my hometown. If I have to choose where to start, it would be with the memory of Sofiiska banitza, the bakery (banicharnitza) in the neighbourhood Nadejda (Hope). There are many bakeries in Sofia, but none is like the one you pass by everyday on your way to school, with the smell of melting white cheese and the heat of the oven blowing in your face. The paper that it is wrapped in soaks up in grease and you try to bite through the crust without burning your tongue.
Unforgettable too is the spirit of the Sofian parks and the spontaneous ‘bench parties’ that vanish as quickly as they begin. In the middle of Sofia is Kristal, an emblematic garden, named after the once famous restaurant ‘Kristal’, which was the favourite place of the aristocracy in the 80s and 90s. Today, people gather to socialize with friends or strangers, play chess, listen to music and celebrate until the early hours in the morning.
If you have more time, you could run to the nearest klek (squatting) shop. These were the first privately-owned enterprises after the fall of communism. A klek shop is someone’s basement with a window at the level of the street, where you could buy snacks, drinks, cigarettes or newspapers. The exchange that happens between the seller and the customer in these shops is something extraordinary and humbling. To purchase something you need to kneel down and literally peep inside, into a different view, one of shoes, legs and dogs. Although klek shops are a reminder of a past time, they are certainly not outdated, and serve as monuments of the need for transition and new perspectives.
Public baths in Sofia have existed since at least the 16th century. Jeleznica, located in the outskirts of Sofia, is a mineral hot spring. When you arrive there, you can go hiking and discover the hot geysers. The water is believed to be rejuvenating, helping to relieve stress and even skin diseases.
Rila Mountain | РИЛА
Bulgaria also offers fascinating nature preserves, such as the Rila mountain and its seven lakes – one of the most breathtaking natural settings on the Balkan Peninsula. Every year on August 19, the Universal White Brotherhood, also called the Danovists, gather to celebrate the New Year, the day when the energy flow is most powerful and healing. The Danovists perform a special ritual, dancing in unison and forming large concentric circles – paneurhythms. Hundreds of people gather on this day dressed in white. The ritual takes place on the Molitveniq Hulm (Prayer Hill), reaching its peak at dawn. It is believed that the first rays of the sun charge the dancers with spiritual energy and health for the upcoming year.
Plovdiv | ПЛОВДИВ
Next stop is at the heart of the country, Plovdiv, best reached from the end station of the Sofia metro line and then by hitchhike, as people are extremely friendly. Plovdiv is not only the second-largest city in Bulgaria, but also the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, the 2019 European Cultural Capital. While in Plovdiv, I recommend a stroll among the narrow streets of Kapana (“the trap”), a former center of trading and craftsmanship and today a very hip neighbourhood. Kapana is full with small artist ateliés, galleries and hang-outs. Take a break at the Art News Cafe situated at Otets Paisii, the alternative street of Plovdiv. Right next to it is FLUCA: The Austrian Cultural Pavilion, hosting regular cultural events.
Ruse | РУСЕ
Moving to the Northern border to the Danube, we arrive at Ruse, also called the “little Vienna” of Bulgaria, because of its architectural similarities to the Austrian capital. This is the birthplace of Elias Canetti, the 1961 Nobel Laureate. In his 1977 memoir The Tongue Set Free, he describes the town, where “every day, you could hear seven or eight languages. There were Bulgarians, Turks, Greek, Albanians, Armenians and Romas, together with two groups of Jews, the Sephardim who spoke Ladino and the Ashkenazim.”
Rose Valley | PОЗОВА ДОЛИНА
Every year, on the last Saturday of May, Karlovo organizes its Rose Festival, where the colorful embroidered skirts and shirts of the rosepickers merge with the colors of the rose bushes, and the clear blue sky resonates with whistling and the melodies of folk songs.
Nestinarstvo | НЕСТИНАРСТВО
Another exceptional event on the night between June 3-4 is the fire-walking festival, Nestinarstvo, practiced in the village Bulgari. It is an ancient tradition originating in the Tracian worship of the Sun God. After the arrival of christianity, it became a celebration of the saints Costantine and Helen. Villagers gather around the fire to watch dancers, nestinari, who bravely step barefoot on burning embers. Once the title nestinar was passed on from mother to daughter, nowadays they are chosen by saints. During the ritual some fall into a trance and are said to predict the future.
And to finish it all off, travel with a time machine back to the 70’s, and find your way to Camping Kiten, where you can have a drink and a chat with Polly, the owner of Vesel Bar (Happy Bar). Forever young.