Of course that's not the only reason I decided to go to Bulgaria. I first visited Bulgaria 10 years ago when I was 20 years old at the height of the 2003 European heat wave. I wanted to go back exactly ten years later to see what, if anything, had changed.
One of the things that struck me the most about Bulgaria back then was how poor the elderly people were. I remember getting off the train in Burgas and being met by a crowd of elderly people offering rooms to rent in their homes. I was struck by the numbers - there were at least 30 elderly people, mostly women, offering rooms.
This time around I noticed that there were less elderly people milling around the stations offering rooms. However, I felt that the elderly people were still very poor. On more than one occasion I saw elderly women begging on the streets. These were not homeless people - it was clear that they were begging because their retirement pensions don't cover their basic costs.
Since the fall of Communism, elderly people have seen the value of their pensions fall greatly as after the fall of Communism, wages increased and prices skyrocketed. A lot of elderly people don't even have the money to live in proper accommodation; I saw a lot of elderly people come out of homes I would only describe as being shacks.
While there were still very little signs or information in English (or any other language), there were a lot less scammers looking to take advantage of tourists. Back in 2003, the bus station was full of men calling out to foreigners, offering this or that, and making false promises. I remember one conversation with a young man:
Young Bulgarian: You know that there are no more buses for Varna today. The last one left 20 minutes ago. I know of a place where you can stay cheaply for the night. I'll take you there in my van.
Me: Yeah, right. I'm pretty sure there's another bus.
Young Bulgarian: No, there isn't, I'm telling you.
Well, yes there was. I just turned the corner and there was the bus loading passengers for the trip to Varna. And that was not the last bus of the day.
Another reason why we went to Bulgaria? It was the cheapest ticket we could find at the last minute. I wondered why that particular airline flew to Burgas, as Burgas is not a particularily attractive city. On arriving in Burgas we discovered why - organized buses were waiting to take all the Danish tourists to Sunny Beach. I had never heard of Sunny Beach and from the sounds of it, I will never go there.
I have Danish friends who loved going to Sunny Beach in the early 2000s, back before it became the Danes' place to get drunk for cheap abroad. I went through Sunny Beach and was horrified to see all the new high-rise buildings. It looked just like the places I had seen along the Spanish coasts. The coast is now being built-up for mass tourism, but I can't really say I'm surprised by that.
While the Black Sea was warm, in my memories the water was of better quality back in 2003. There was a lot of seaweed in places and the lifeguards yelled at everyone not to go in too far because there were a lot of waves. I am not an expert on currents and am unfamiliar with the Black Sea, but to be honest I didn't enjoy swimming in the Black Sea as much as I enjoy jumping around in the cold waves along France's Atlantic coast. Trying to swim in knee-length water full of seaweed is not my idea of fun. To be fair, I visited beaches that had a high number of visitors, so maybe if I went closer to the Turkish or Romanian borders where the beaches are quieter, I would have enjoyed it more.
In my opinion, the heart of Bulgaria lies in its historical sites. There are so many monasteries to visit, Roman ruins, fortresses, medieval towns, coastal landscapes (where there are rocks and cliffs), mountains, vineyards (yes, the wine was actually very good), intricately decorated churches, folklore festivals, wildlife, etc. Not to mention the food.
I'm happy to report that the food is just as good in 2013 as it was in 2003.
|Fried fish along the coast. Author of photo: Den Nation.|
|Poached eggs with yoghurt and cheese. Author of photo: Den Nation.|
I know the above photo doesn't look like much, but it was one of the best dishes I had in Bulgaria. Bulgarian yoghurt is delicious, slightly-sour with a tangy lemon flavour.
|Shopska salad. Author of photo: Den Nation.|
How can something so simple be so good? The Shopska salad is to Bulgaria what wine and cheese is to France. It is so good on its own that there is no need for any dressing. We ate a Shopska salad at almost every meal. What is its secret? Fresh ingredients. And what they call "snow cheese", or Sirene cheese, a feta-like cheese that is eaten all over the Balkans. Other ingredients include tomatoes, bell pepper, red onion and cucumber. That's it.
|Sea bream. Author of photo: Den Nation.|
I love, love, love grilled fish, the speciality along the Black Sea coast. This fish was so good that we ordered it for lunch and dinner. I have to say, last night I ordered the same fish in Arcachon, the closest beach to Bordeaux, and it wasn't as good as the sea bream I had in Bulgaria. Not all food is better in France!
|Pizza in Veliko Tarnovo. Author of photo: Den Nation.|
|Bulgarian dessert in Veliko Tarnovo. Author of photo: Den Nation.|
|Tarator soup. Author of photo: Den Nation.|
Tarator soup is perfect on a hot summer's day. It is a cold coup made of yoghurt and cucumber (garlic, walnuts, dill or oil are sometimes added).
|Roasted peppers. Author of photo: Den Nation.|
When I was a child I would recoil in horror every time my grandparents would eat roasted peppers. Now I love them and they were everywhere in Bulgaria. These peppers were served with chunks of garlic bread and Bulgarian cheese. I could hardly move the night I ate them.
|Veliko Tarnovo's fortress. Author of photo: Den Nation.|
Veliko Tarnovo's fortress reminds me of Carcassonne in France, only without all the crowds and souvenir shops. The fortress contains the ruins of 14 churches which leads me to wonder: What kind of fortress needed to have 14 churches?
I hope to make it back one day to discover the western part of the country. I'd like to make it out to Bulgaria's wine country, Melnik, in the south-east part of the country. I would also like to visit the city of Plovdiv and Rila Monastery.
The food is enough to pull me back one day!