Bulgaria: A Journey Back in Time
By Dawn Copeman
“Dvay Bob?” we asked hopefully in our best guide book Bulgarian. “Nay Bob” replied the waiter shaking his head. “Erm dvay chassa mineralna voda, molya” (2 glasses of mineral water please) “and dvay..” we pointed to a picture of what appeared to be a fish dish on the menu.
We had been in Bulgaria for almost a fortnight and were desperate to try the bean soup that all our guidebooks had recommended. Not only did it sound delicious, but was easy to pronounce, the only problem was, no one appeared to have it, despite it being on every menu we had read.
Maybe we were there in the wrong season.
We were booked in at the Hotel Martines in Sozopol on the Black Sea Coast, but we only stayed there a few nights as we spent most of our time exploring the country in the company of Ani, a friend I’d met at university. We landed in Bourgas, an industrial town an hour away.
Bulgaria is a poor country, but one for which the tourist industry has for years, been a main factor in its economy. During the communist era, the tourists were mainly Eastern Germans and Russians, which explains why if you can’t speak Bulgarian, you can usually get by in German.
Most of the food on offer at the hotel breakfast buffets is German: salami, cold meats, cheese, rye bread, but Bulgarian breakfast options are also available, including delicious thick pancakes that look like donuts and ‘white’ cheese. There are only two types of cheese made in Bulgaria, white cheese, which is crumbly and quite sweet and yellow cheese which is hard.
The seaside resorts are now actively seeking British tourists and have changed their signs to English and tried to improve their resorts to the standards required by Western holidaymakers. At our resort we had hot water available at any time of day and large swimming pools. However, what the average holidaymaker does not know is that to provide this water, the locals are, in summer, restricted to water for just two hours a day.
Each holiday apartment was equipped with a telephone, yet Ani and her husband Jordan were still waiting for a telephone. They had been on the list for five years.
When I talked to Ani and her friends about this I was surprised by their pragmatism. “It’s a good way for Bulgaria to make money. Tourists bring money. We can cope; it is no hardship.”
That Bulgaria needs tourist money becomes increasingly obvious if one travels away from the tourist resorts. We traveled with Ani and Jordan to visit their parents in Dobrich, a town in the north of the country, slightly inland from the Black Sea. As we passed through villages in the countryside we could see that donkeys are still the main means of transportation here and are used to pull ploughs to till the land.
A word of warning, if you hire a car, the roads in Bulgaria are in a bad state of repair. When road works are undertaken, they do not have traffic lights to control the traffic, but men with green and red flags. It is in many ways a journey back in time.
For lunch we stopped in a field and ate sunflower seeds straight from sunflowers and apples from a tree. It is a much simpler way of life.
Over lunch, Ani and Jordan explained that they take holidays from work every August to help their parents harvest the fruit and vegetables from their gardens and allotments and then turn these into pickles and preserves to last through the winter. In Bulgaria, tinned and frozen fruit and vegetables are foods for the wealthy, who are the only ones able to afford them.
Bulgarian hospitality is hard to beat. As guests we were given the largest portions and our hosts would continually ask if we wanted more. The most unusual dish we ate was turbot, which we’d never tasted before. Be sure to pick all the stones out of the fish before eating it!
The Bulgarian diet is almost Mediterranean, lots of fish and in summer fresh salads. If you order a tomato salad, that is exactly what you will get, a plate of tomatoes! The food can seem greasy, however, as it is not prepared with olive oil, but processed sunflower or rapeseed oil. The wines are excellent. The home produced vodka and gin is a little harsh for western palates.
After the first course and sometimes before it, you will be offered an aperitif. These are strong but warming. Chillies are also often eaten in between courses; be warned, these are very hot! Ani’s male relatives would have a competition to see who could eat the most chillis or the largest chilli before reaching for a piece of bread to calm their throats.
For breakfast we had Bulgarian donuts or a version of macaroni cheese, both traditional Bulgarian breakfast dishes. The milk came from the family cow. It was unpasteurised, which is the norm here. After all, this milk is free.
With Ani’s stepfather we went to what is now known as White Lagoon, a small, seaside resort. We had coffee in a revolving restaurant at the top of one of the five-star hotels there. It cost 95¢ per person.
For a Westerner, holidaying in Bulgaria is cheap. A five course meal with wine and aperitifs in good restaurants costs around $20 a head. If you were to order American food, such as hamburger and French fries, this would be more expensive.
Wherever you go in Bulgaria you will see examples of their distinctive brown and blue pottery. In Dobrich we were taken to a pottery where it is produced. The owner, a petite woman in her fifties with bleached blonde hair, startled us by banging the plates together and throwing them on the floor. They are practically indestructible. We bought plates, vases, bowls and mugs. They make wonderful presents.
On the subject of presents, if you browse the street markets in Sozopol and Nessebur, you will find many locally produced watercolours, oil paintings and pieces of pottery as well as artists wanting to paint your portrait. The prices tend to be higher in Nessebur, however at it is a popular tourist attraction. If you don’t like the price, be prepared to haggle.
With Ani and her relatives as our guides we saw the real Bulgaria, where children can be seen begging on the streets whilst members of the Bulgarian mafia drive around in black Mercedes and BMWs. A country where chewing gum is an expensive luxury, yet cigarettes are sold for about 20¢ a packet.
We saw a country where socialist monuments still stand in parks, but where no one mourns the passing of the communist era, a time when Ani’s cousin, now a student in Paris, was arrested for wearing jeans and lipstick, as they were symbols of the capitalist West.
To send her to Paris, the entire family, cousins included, clubbed together. They still all send her money to support her. They don’t mind, they see it as the natural duty of the family, the only way to ensure that each member fulfils his or her potential. They had done the same for Ani, when she studied in Germany with me.
When we weren’t traveling with Ani, we took local buses and taxis, rather than the buses provided by the resorts. This meant a bit of work with our guidebooks, in order to learn enough of the Cyrillic alphabet to decipher our destination, but it was worth it as the taxis can cost less than the hotel buses.
Here is one tip we learned: if you stand at the bus stop for your destination, taxi drivers will approach you and offer their services. Haggling over the price is accepted practice. But be sure to agree on the price before you get in and check that the price quoted is for the entire group travelling and not per person.
Another tip we would pass on is if you want to buy food for a picnic, be aware that bread can be quite pricey and it pays to shop around. It is better to head for the local food shops in the town, rather than buying at the hotel shops. Likewise, restaurants near the tourist hotels tend to be more expensive than ones in the town. Remember, it is not accepted practice to haggle in food shops or restaurants.
Bulgaria is a beautiful country, with mountains for skiing in winter and beautiful beaches in summer. Nessebur is a beautiful, if over-touristy example of a medieval port. Varna, home of the Bulgarian naval academy has beautiful wide boulevards and parks. Sozopol has lovely sandy beaches and Roman ruins in the town centre.
But Bulgaria is not a typical sun-seekers resort. The weather in summer can be as cool as an English summer, something not every tourist appreciates or wants, but Bulgaria is also a country trying to make its own way in the post-communist era. It is worth a visit and I would urge you to give it a try.
Dawn Copeman is a full-time freelance writer living in East Sussex, England. She usually writes about travel, history, cookery, health, parenting and UK Traditions. She can be reached at write-away.biz
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