by Bruce Taylor, Travel Industry Journalist, based in Brussels
Two years ago I knew absolutely nothing about Bulgaria and made a first visit there purely by chance. I have been back 3 times since and travelled all over the country. I’m a convert and like all converts I’m passionate. I love the people, the warm welcome, the history, the music, the mountains, the countryside, the food & wine, the rakija….
In honour of 11.1.11, the special date on which this Odysseia-In first eNews is going out, I have come up with 11 tips and things you need to know for your first trip to this fascinating undiscovered land.
Bulgariais an adventure from the moment you step off the plane. Once you’re out of the cities, you step back into a timeless rural world where every type of activity is available from softly adventurous walking, bird watching & cultural touring to more serious hiking & trekking in the Rila, Pirin & Rodopi Mountains and extreme off-piste mountain sports for the experienced. Just avoiding potholes in the roads is also quite an adventure for drivers.
Colourful customs:BABA MARTA
Bulgaria is a country of curious colourful traditions. Take Baba Marta (Granny March), the holiday on 1 March when Bulgarians officially welcome spring. They make little red & white ‘Martenitsa’ decorations out of thread to celebrate the first sighting of a stork, swallow or tree in bud and you find them everywhere, even hanging on the trees.
Savour the CHEESE & YOGURT
Cheese comes in two types – yellow or white. Not too exotic, you might say. But wait until you have tried the white variety without which Bulgarians would lose the will to live. It’s like feta, but much better, saltier and with more flavour. And you’ll find it everywhere at breakfast, lunch & dinner. Bulgarian yogurt is rightly world-famous and there’s nothing like its rich & creamy consistency. Try it with honey & walnuts.
Everywhere from the smallest church to the most impressive cathedral, Bulgarians light candles: candles for the living and the dead, candles for health and happiness….
Learn your CYRILLIC alphabet
There are 30 letters in Bulgarian Cyrillic, and if you want to know where you are, learn them before you go and keep practising. This way there is less chance of getting lost, even if there aren’t that many road signs out in the countryside. Take a good phrase book with you and learn some basic Bulgarian. People will appreciate your efforts and have a good laugh too.
Enjoy wonderful FRESH FOOD
The food is slow, fresh and abundant. And the Bulgarians say you have to start a new diet every Monday. Vegetables have real taste and a salad is a meal in itself. My personal favourite is Shopska Salad with tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, spring onions and the ever present Bulgarian white cheese. Bon Appétit!
Meet a famous Bulgarian: John ATANASSOV
Although he died in 1995 at the grand old age of 92, his legacy is increasingly at the centre of our daily lives.John Atanassov was the American physicist of Bulgarian descent who invented the first electronic digital computerat the end of the 1930s.
Watch the changing LANDSCAPES
So much of the countryside is still unspoilt, from flat fields of yellow oil seed rape to snow capped mountains. In spring nature bursts before your very eyes and blossoms everywhere. I remember the pure mountain air, the layers of morning mist, the light, the birdsong, the eagles flying effortlessly over green valleys, the storks nesting in their chimneys….
A vital word in your new vocabulary, as important as molya (please) and blagodarya (thank you). Whenever there’s a toast which is pretty often in Bulgaria, you look your drinking partners directly in the eyes, one by one, and chink your glasses. If don’t follow the custom you’re in for some bad luck (and bad sex, or so legend says)
PS Rakija (Bulgarian brandy) in all its many forms is an aperitif and should be approached with caution.
Discover the ORTHODOX world
Orthodox history and religion is alive and well, and living in Bulgaria. Visit any of the many churches, monasteries (my favourites: Rila, Rozen & Bachkovo), archaeological sites and you enter a mystical world of art and beauty.
YES or No?
With Bulgarians you’re never quite sure which. They’re unique and do opposite to the rest of the world. They shake their heads from side to side to say yes and nod when saying no. But be careful, the younger generation and those who speak languages have learnt the international way, so it can get confusing.
And one final thing to remember is that Odysseia-In gives a great introduction to active Bulgaria with its young and enthusiastic team of guides who are rightly proud of their country and what it has to offer. Wherever I read about Bulgaria – in Lonely Planet, the Rough Guide, Guide du Routard, Petit Futé – I always hear positive things about Odysseia-In & Zig-Zag, and the welcome and help they give to all their guests.
Enjoy Bulgaria….and soon!
Bruce Taylor, Travel Industry Journalist, based in Brussels0