Published September 19, 2012
SOFIA, Bulgaria – A horse-drawn cart passed us on the way to the sidewalk cafe in the sleepy Bulgarian mountain town of Yakoruda, where we sipped espresso and munched on phyllo-and-feta pastries. Across the wide town square, people milled about a Soviet howitzer on display, shooed away stray dogs, and cast furtive glances at the foreigner snapping pictures.
Just days before in Sofia, we were shouting over the throbbing music at one of Bulgaria's hot nightclubs, complete with girls in mini-dresses dancing on tables and metal detectors guarding the doors.
A visit to Bulgaria can alternately feel like taking like a step back in time and witnessing a society that has modernized at warp speed. Mules and Ferraris share the freeways. Near a store selling Prada and Versace clothes, old women peddle handmade crocheted doilies and embroidered tablecloths. Dilapidated Soviet-style apartment buildings teem with people, as does a sparkling new shopping mall.
I've been lucky to get an insider's view of this Eastern European country, one of the perks of becoming engaged to a Bulgarian-born New Yorker. This summer, on my second visit, we rented a car and crisscrossed the country (it's about the size of Tennessee) going from the capital Sofia to small mountain villages, ancient Roman ruins and Black Sea resorts. Here are some highlights.
FOLLOWING SOFIA'S YELLOW BRICK ROAD
Nowhere is the dichotomy more evident — and enjoyable — than in Sofia. We walked on the yellow brick roads in the city's center to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the most recognizable landmark with towering domes and stained glass windows.
In a grassy park nearby, a flea market sells traditional handicrafts and mementos from Bulgaria's communist past, including little books where people recorded paying their monthly dues to the Communist Party.
But at night, we hit Sofia's night clubs along with beefy men and skinny, scantily clad women. At Bar Flight, we sat outside and watched the arrivals in shiny new Aston Martins, Ferraris and souped-up Mercedes Benzes.
We also checked out Tequilla, a club that I realized was too hip for me when we had to pass through a metal detector to enter it. Inside, the music throbbed, girls danced on the bars, and the walls were lined with screens that showed a rotation of models posing.
BLACK SEA BEACHES BUSY DESPITE BOMBING
The eastern edge of Bulgaria borders the Black Sea, giving it about 230 miles (370 kilometers) of coastline that is a big draw for tourists, especially Russians.
In July, a suicide bombing outside the airport in the seaside resort town of Burgas killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver. Israel has blamed the attack on Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, but Bulgarian officials haven't identified a suspect or motive.
A month later, the scars of the attack weren't visible to this casual visitor. The beaches were still packed with people.
We stayed in Sunny Beach, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Burgas. The beach is lined with gigantic all-service hotels and a promenade where vendors hawk everything from fresh berries to fish pedicures (little fish eat dead skin off your feet).
While the seaside is a big summertime regional attraction, it has a typical beach-town vibe. I preferred exploring some of the country's historical sites, which are truly one of a kind.
The land that is now Bulgaria was once part of the Roman Empire, and later Bulgaria was conquered by the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The ruins left behind by these civilizations still dot the countryside.
Just south of Sunny Beach is Nessebar, where we walked through Byzantine ruins of churches dating back as early as the fifth century surrounded by dramatic coastal views. After wandering through the open stone structures (the roofs generally weren't preserved), we took a break at a cafe overlooking the sea.
On the way home from the seaside, we stopped in the city of Plovdiv, also known as Philipopolis in honor of Phillip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great's father. The town's steep cobblestone roads led to an ancient Roman amphitheater, built around the first century. The amphitheater is breathtaking, including statues missing arms and heads, and columns that reveal the modern city and Rhodope mountains rising behind it.
Even in Sofia, Roman ruins are on display in the subway tunnels, where they were discovered while excavating for the underground train.
PHYLLO AND FETA IN EVERY FORM
Bulgaria is a foodie heaven. The cuisine is heavily influenced by Greek and Turkish food (the countries border Bulgaria and each ruled over the region for centuries). There's a lot of moussaka, stuffed peppers, feta cheese and thick yogurt.
One of the most common dishes is shopska salad, which consists of tomato, cucumbers, onion, peppers, parsley and feta cheese. Bulgarians like to say their tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese are better than any other, and one bite of shopska made me a believer.
Feta cheese is paired with phyllo dough in every imaginable configuration. Banitsa consists of dough and cheese rolled into a rope and coiled into a spiraling circle. This is served when visitors arrive and also on New Year's Eve, when it becomes a kind of Bulgarian fortune cookie. The fortunes, and a coin symbolizing money, are nestled between the coils of dough.
One of my favorite treats — and souvenirs — is honey. It's collected in the mountains and sold at roadside stands, often by women from the Pomak (European Muslim) minority. The honey comes in hues from light yellow to red to dark brown and the flavors differ according to what plants the bees were pollinating. Some have pine cones in the jar, others are chock full of walnuts. I sampled a pine tree honey that can only described as tasting like music.
COMMUNICATION: LOST IN TRANSLATION
Bulgarians use the Cyrillic alphabet, which was created here in the 9th century by the brothers Cyril and Methodius. The alphabet is so beloved that a national holiday celebrates the letters (May 24).
Most street signs are in both Bulgarian and English, and most restaurants have menus in English, sometimes with humorous translations. One restaurant offered "Dishevelled meat balls" and "Rice and green stuff."
Communicating in English can be difficult. Although many well-educated Bulgarians speak English, some are more familiar with a British accent and had trouble understanding my American one. Outside of Sofia, English speakers are less common. Although most people have a general familiarity with English through TV and movies, they didn't understand me much at all.
Complicating matters, when Bulgarians nod their head up and down, it means "No." Shaking the head from side to side indicates "Yes." You can imagine the confusion that ensues. My head is shaking (in the wrong direction) just thinking about it.
If You Go...
Coralie Carlson can be reached on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CoralieAP