Saturday, 14 January 2017

Why travel to Bulgaria?

Bulgaria is an affordable travel destination which has something for everyone: wine tourism, history, culture, beaches and skiing.
* * * 

Dinkata. Pamidovo. Velichkovo. Ivayolo.  

Signs keep flashing past the window as the bus makes its way through the narrow country roads, every now and then stopping to give way to a battered tractor heaving with chickens.  

Frazzled Bulgarian flags sway lazily in the wind. 

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria?

The houses are all dark and there are no people anywhere. The only sound echoing out in the air is the bark of the village dogs. Somewhere a pillar of smoke rises through the evening sky.

Under a makeshift terrace of a small bar made up of tattered plastic sheets a man is drinking beer in with nothing but a fluorescent light to keep him company. Evening is turning into night and with that, my trip to its end. 

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria?

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria?

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria?

As I fight falling asleep in the dark bus that's rocking through the scenery I think about the past days. I didn't know what to expect from Bulgaria and now I seem to know even less what I got out of it.

From the Ottoman rule to Communism

Prior to Bulgaria's declaration of independence of 1908 the country had gone through half a millenia under the Turkish Ottoman empire. Year 1946 saw the Communists rise to power as a result of which monarchy was abolished. 

After the fall of Soviet and socialism of the Eastern block Bulgaria held its first democratic election in 1990, though the Communists still managed to hold on to the majority rule in the parliament.

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria?

The post-Communism transition posed challenges to all areas of Bulgarian society and culture and in certain ways the country is still trying to come in terms with them.

Not all changes were deemed changes for the better by the Bulgarian people either. Our guide pointed out that for instance health care and education took turns for the worse.

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria?

Last Czar of Bulgaria; Simeon II who rose to power in 1943 at only 6-years-old returned from exile at the beginning of 2000's. In the 2001 election his party won by a landslide and the former ruler became the Prime Minister.

Under his rule Bulgaria adopted a sternly pro-West stance: in 2004 the country joined NATO and three years later EU.

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria?

Though economical and political situation in the country have improved, the problems relating to health care, education, unemployment, organized crime and corruption are still very real.

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria?

Bulgarians know how to laugh at themselves

After Bulgaria was offended by a Russian MP's comment about how Russia will buy rest of Bulgaria just like they've bought all the seaside resorts so far, the MP in question accused Bulgarians of having no sense of humour. That, however, is not the case - perhaps the said politician should have worked on his own comedy routine over, say, at the Crimean region?

Though the World Happiness Barometer 2016 lists Bulgarians among the unhappiest nations in the world (out of 157 countries they rank at #129; lower than Iran and the Palestinian territories), they sure know how to make jokes at their own expense.

There's one about a Whte House paint job, where Bulgaria, along with some other countries, submitted an offer.

Netherlands agreed to do the job for $1 million, New Zealand for $2 million and Bulgaria for $3 million. Puzzled over Bulgaria's high price, a White House representative gets in touch, after which Bulgarian representative explains the situation. 

"See, here's how it's going to happen. We'll have the Dutch do the job for $1 million, after which we'll keep a million and you get the remaining million!"

Bulgaria is a versatile travel destination

Bulgaria's versatility is something I did not expect. In addition to its most popular destination; the Black Sea Coast's Sunny Beach tourist beach inferno the country has so much to offer. 

The country has one of the densest networks of hot mineral springs in the whole world, so especially the central Bulgaria (for instance the area surrounding Velingrad) is full of spa towns capitalizing on them and their various curative characteristics.

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria_grand hotel_Velingrad

And in case you're after winter sports, you're in for a treat, too. The town of Bansko is one of the most famous ski resorts and the ski lodges and hotels, very reminiscent of their Swiss counterparts, offer an affordable skiing holiday option for fraction of Swiss prices. 

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria_Balkan Alps

There's also lots to see for history buffs. In my next itinerary I would definitely include the ancient city of Nessebar by the Black Sea along with Rila Monastery located about a hundred kilometres from the capital of Sofia - both of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Bulgaria is also a very pleasant surprise for a wine lover. Local wine is cheap, there are tens of interesting boutique wineries and the quality is surprisingly high. For wine tourism the best place is the Trachean Valley - for more specific tips, please see my blog post of the topic over here.

Foodie traveller's Bulgaria: meat, meat and then some more meat 

Outside the capital of Sofia Bulgaria doesn't have much to offer to a foodie traveller and this is something Joro Ivanov, the chef at Grand Hotel Sofia ackowledges, too. The post-Soviet transition is still evident in the restaurant scene, too: people want to see abundance and it's the quantity that matters.

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria?

This is reflected on the generous portion sizes and the bewildering range of the menus, which often feature everything from steaks to stir-fries and from pasta to pizza. The local approach is complete opposite to mine. 

Where a more carefully curated selection to me is a sign of professionalism and skills, to locals that signals lack of expertize.

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria_shopska_salad

Meat is consumed in large quantities - without a doubt a reaction to the the austerity that has characterized Bulgaria's past. 

Bulgarian patriarch is said to have commented to the Communist central committee of the time how in a mere 35 years they had succeeded in what the Church had attempted for the past 2 millenia: people had finally given up on eating meat. 

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria_pork knuckle

What Ivanov would hope to see here is the kind of culinary revolution that for instance Baltic countries have seen in the recent years; a new generation of chefs boldly interpreting the culinary traditions, ingredients and methods of their respective countries with a fresh, contemporary twist.

The man's immensely proud of his Bulgarian heritage - I doubt he would have left his Michelin-starred career abroad behind if that weren't the case - and just wants to see it successfully branded. Perhaps surprisingly he looks to Scandinavian cuisine for inspiration. He's been following Scandinavian chefs' success at international competitions such as Bocuse d'Or and can't contain his excitement. "They have perfected a particular, identifiable style - that's exactly what we in Bulgaria need, too!"

In a country such as Bulgaria money poses its own set of challenges, too, he has to admit. Average monthly salary is approximately €400, which means that there's no audience for fine dining. 

For restaurant recommendations in Sofia check out my tips here and here.

Room for improvement

I'm reminded of another joke I heard of a Bulgarian man who, in his dream, gets a chance to visit both Heaven and Hell. Heaven fails to impress him, but Hell, what with its continuous party, is right up his alley.

On the moment of his death he's greeted by St. Peter, who asks him which place he'd like to choose. Obviously he opts for Hell, but upon his arrival he's shocked to find nothing but dreary despair.

As he protests to St. Peter how the place is nothing like it was in his dream, St. Peter smiles and nods. "Ah, yes. But back then you were just a tourist - now you're here for good!"

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria?

From traveller's perspective, there's room for improvement here alright, though is it justified to expect standards to be universal? Having said that, top hotels here are top hotels by Bulgarian standards: for anybody else they tend to seem hopelessly outdated and echoing Soviet era's perception of grandeur.

Even if the settings in top restaurants or hotels are ok in every other aspect, the quality of customer service rarely delivers. 

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria?

Tap water is not to be drunk. Hotels' "no smoking sign" is usually accompanied by an ashtray. If there are three toilets, only one of them works. 

Waiting staff seems to consist of young girls hired solely on the merits of their appearance meaning, that even at best the reaction you'll manage to get out of them is an annoyed eye rolling should the customer have the chutzpah to complain about the fact that they're still waiting for the water and wine they've already ordered three times. 

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria?

So, Heaven or Hell?

I'm still not sure which Bulgaria I've got to see - perhaps I've scratched the surface of both? One thing I'm sure of is that I would return.

Below you'll find links to by Bulgarian souvenirs to you. And get this: out of three recipes all are vegetarian - two of them are even vegan!

Patatnik- Bulgarian potato and mint omelette
Bob Chorba - Bulgarian bean soup
Lyutenitsa - Bulgarian roasted pepper, eggplant and tomato relish

Under the Andalusian Sun_why travel to Bulgaria?

Any of you been to Bulgaria? What kind of an impression did the country leave with you?

* In collaboration with Viinitimo and European Trade House Ltd *



Andalusian auringossa_viinikartta_Bulgaria  Lyutenitsa_bulgarialainen tahna   


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