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Bulgaria: Where a Nod Up and Down is No and from Side to Side is Yes
Updated: 2006-05-26

Bulgaria: Where a Nod Up and Down is No and from Side to Side is Yes

Views and Records
By Cindy Loose

IF I SUCCEED in persuading you to give Bulgaria a try, you must carry a substantial phrase book and remember this: In Bulgaria, when you want to signify that the answer is "yes," you shake your head back and forth. To signify "no," you nod your head up and down.

My slow awakening to the reversal of signs for positive and negative created a great deal more confusion than was necessary during my solo, five-day trip to Bulgaria earlier this year.

English is not widely spoken outside hotels. This problem caused me to enrage a bearded priest in a long black robe who thought I wanted to visit his room and perhaps sleep with him, when all I really wanted was to see a room for rent in his monastery.

Fortunately, many kind Bulgarians will go to great lengths to help and please you. At one Sofia restaurant, for example, my waiter seemed so vested in my enjoyment, so eager for my approval, that when I couldn't finish my fish, I hid it in a paper napkin and put it in my pocket, to avoid upsetting him.

Full disclosure: There are also some service workers who seem to have studied at the Soviet School of Hospitality, with a "don't you see I'm playing solitaire; why are you bothering me; no soup for you" kind of attitude.

Bulgaria is clearly a country in transition. You see it in the service, and in the architecture, with decrepit Soviet-era block apartments lining streets that end at a chic hotel or restaurant. You realize the sweeping changes when you see some Bulgarians driving new Mercedeses, and others riding donkey carts.

Bulgaria also is a nation with an amalgam of cultures. Just when you've concluded that an area looks a lot like Greece, you'll turn a corner and be reminded of Turkey. Or you'll walk through the door of a cathedral that could be in France and find that inside, the walls are covered with Byzantine art most reminiscent of Russia. Church spires and minarets grace the skylines in both cities and small villages.

Every great power that ever rose in Europe passed through Bulgaria. They all plundered this nation at the crossroads of east and west, but also left some of the best of their cultures.

In 1990, after a half-century of Soviet control, Bulgaria held its first free, multiparty elections. The country is still in the process of privatizing its economy and struggling to modernize its infrastructure. Although I drove on two occasions on smooth new highways that included signs in both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, I also wandered about in confusion on potholed roads that had very few signs.

There is a national controversy about whether to post signs in the Latin alphabet in the countryside, a car rental agent told me.

Problem is, impoverished villagers take down signs and sell them for scrap metal.

Many people, according to the agent, are working hard to make Bulgaria's many attractions easy for tourists to see and enjoy. "Things are not perfectly in place yet," he said, but rightly added, "Even now, though, we have many beautiful things to see."

An enduring history

The skyline on the outskirts of the capital of Sofia is dominated by ragged, soulless apartment blocks. But the city center is a concentrated area of museums, graceful old government buildings and historic churches that cluster near a block-long synagogue and a mosque the Turks built in the 1500s.

Many buildings have been spruced up in recent years, both by private entrepreneurs and the European Union's Beautiful Bulgaria Project, which has provided renovation funds. One of the most imposing buildings is the St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral, erected between 1882 and 1912. The cathedral is filled with ornate carvings in wood and marble, and houses hundreds of Bulgarian icon masterpieces. The gold-plated central dome, with a massive gold cross on top, becomes my touchstone as I make my way around the city, often feeling lost, or about to be.

I take particular pleasure in seeing the cathedral, knowing the role the Bulgarian Orthodox church played in saving Jews from the Nazi death camps - a history documented in the book "Beyond Hitler's Grasp," my airplane book on the way here. Although Bulgaria was aligned with Germany during World War II, the tiny country repeatedly thwarted orders to transport its 50,000 Jewish citizens to death camps in Poland. Church leaders took a righteous stand; one even threatened to lie on the railroad tracks to prevent the movement of trains that arrived to transport Bulgaria's Jews. The trains left empty.

This history creates a warm spot in my heart for Bulgarians - a tendency that expands when I see Sofia's book market. Outdoor stalls stretch for many blocks. I'm briefly tempted by the campy appeal of the Bulgarian edition of President Clinton's recent bio, but settle for a few used copies of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Each book on display is carefully wrapped in plastic to protect it from the elements. Any city that can support such a huge market for books is OK by me.

The Black Sea, which stretches along Bulgaria's eastern coast from Romania to Turkey, has become extremely popular with European tourists. Graceful villages of historic note line sandy beaches in some areas. In other areas, modern resorts have been erected.

However, the Black Sea is at the opposite end of the country from Sofia's international airport. Although Bulgaria is only slightly larger than Tennessee, there is no straight shot across the country. With only four nights to spend, I decide to vary the landscape as much as possible and plot out a small triangle: east to Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city, south through the mountains and wine country, then back to the capital.

A modern highway with signs in Latin and Cyrillic lettering runs the 97 miles between the two cities. The outskirts of Plovdiv promise little, but a magnificent old town lies within its limits.

The ancient Thracians settled Plovdiv as early as the 5th century B.C. The Romans arrived in the first century and during their reign built, among other things, a magnificent 6,000-seat amphitheater that has been restored to pristine condition and is still used for concerts in spring, summer and fall.

There is no need to struggle with a map in Plovdiv. The old town is about a square mile or so, and I find that by wandering aimlessly, I naturally come upon all the major sites, including the remarkable Roman amphitheater, and other much more ruined ruins from Roman and Thracian times.

Steep cobblestone streets lead past old churches, a mosque built in the 15th century during the era Bulgarians call "the Ottoman yoke" and distinctive wooden mansions that are classic examples of the Ottoman konak - basically the style of homes owned by wealthy Turks. The most striking of the many buildings: the Ethnographic Museum, a konak with graceful columns and porticos, painted a deep blue and elaborately decorated with designs of white and yellow flowers and leaves. Inside: everything you could want to know about making cheese and wine, and exhibits of furniture, jewelry, pottery, costumes and musical instruments.

Despite the cold this March day, street musicians are playing for coins. Some are elderly - a sign of the hardships that have befallen pensioners in a new economic order.

Anyone who has bemoaned the decline in accordion playing in the United States should be of good cheer. The art is alive and well in Bulgaria.

Alphabetical disorder

I work out a routine to find my way along the winding, potholed roads between Plovdiv and the south, where the names on my map bear no resemblance to the Cyrillic versions on road signs.

At each crossroads, I point to the word "Plovdiv" as rendered in my alphabet and say "English," then point to Plovdiv in Cyrillic script and say "Bulgarian." Then I show them the name of the next town I wish to reach as it appears on my Latin alphabet map, say "English," and then look at them and say "Bulgarian?"

When the mental light bulb clicks, they smile broadly and write the name of the next town in a version I will recognize when I see it on a sign at the next crossroads. By this means, I make my way through mountains and valleys of extraordinary beauty, past vineyards, along streams, rivers and lakes swollen with melting snow.

The drive from Plovdiv to Bansko is less than 100 miles, but it takes me more than four hours - without the falling snow, I could probably have cut that in half. I have just enough daylight left in Bansko before turning in to conclude that it is an exceptionally pleasant resort town filled with vacationing Bulgarians. The mountains around the town have great ski facilities and must make for awesome hiking in good weather.

The next morning, as I drive mountain passes farther south to the Damianitza Winery, there are times that I can see all the way to Macedonia and Greece.

At the winery, tour coordinator Tzvetelina Shutova shows me around the series of concrete buildings and takes me to the future tasting room, which she hopes will be ready in a few months. Tzvetelina not only will provide tours on request, but if visitors are interested, she will arrange for them to help harvest grapes or visit the numerous festivals that nearby villages organize, with wine, food and music.

Every man and woman in the region, she says, is involved in making wine. She sniffs in dismay when I ask about the people along the roadside who sell their own home-brewed wines in recycled plastic Coca-Cola bottles.

Damianitza Winery, and many like it, have been working hard to create premium wines. "We used to make wines for the Russian market; now we are making fine wines for people expecting quality, not quantity," says Tzvetelina.

About 50 wineries in Bulgaria are open to visitors, said Tzvetelina, who is putting together a guide she hopes will help promote wine tours all over the country. Wine connoisseurs in Europe and the United States are increasingly enthusiastic about Bulgarian wines, particularly the merlots and cabernet sauvignons that are among the specialties of Damianitza.

Just down the road, I stop for a visit in Melnik, one of a dozen or so villages that have been designated "museum towns" by the Bulgarian government. In each case, the town is made up of charming old buildings of historic and architectural significance that owners are required to protect and preserve. Sand cliffs, sculpted by wind and rain, tower above Melnik. The tall, narrow buildings that snake up the Pirin Mountains are all painted brown and white. The color choice is by national decree, in keeping with regional tradition for buildings in the Bulgarian "national revival" style.

A monastic marvel

That night in the small city of Sandanski, famed for its hot water springs and huge spa, I settle into a lovely new boutique hotel atop a hill. My large, modern room is furnished with imported Italian furniture, and I have a great view of the city from a wall-size picture window. The tab: $68 a night.

Closeup, Sandanski shows the scars of decades of deferred maintenance. But from my window above the city, Sandanski looks like a scene from a poster of Greece.

A 30-minute massage costs less than $20, and I follow it with a fine meal of wild mushroom risotto for less than $10.

But my greatest treat of the trip still awaits, about 30 winding miles off the main highway that will take me back to Sofia. This time, I easily find the monastery nestled in the Rila Mountains, more than 4,000 feet above sea level.

The Rila Monastery, founded in the 10th century, is considered the holiest place in Bulgaria and is designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations. Although plundered by various invaders over the centuries, the monastery retained its place as a center of Bulgarian art, religion and culture.

The intricately painted wooden building with graceful arches wraps around a grassy square the size of a football field. At the entrance, when I ask if anyone speaks English, a man scowls and says "no" in a manner that suggests the question is an insult.

Yet you barely need words to appreciate the building, with its four levels of colorful balconies, massive church, museum and hundreds of monastic cells.

More than 1,200 frescoes by Bulgaria's finest artists of the 1800s cover the walls of the monastery church. Museum holdings include such items as an 18th-century cross that a Brother Raphael spent 12 years carving - ruining his eyesight to engrave 140 miniature Biblical scenes.

As the car rental agent promised, Bulgaria - even the small part I was able to see - has many beautiful things.

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