Bulgaria is a conundrum – it is a land of ancient history, has shown a unique and impressive tolerance of differing religions, and is currently facing significant challenges as it tries to transition from being a Soviet satellite to an independent country.
Bulgarians trace their history to the Thracians who roamed the plains as far back as 5000 B.C. In 342 B.C. Philip of Macedon, better known as the father of Alexander the Great, conquered the local tribes and established Plovdiv, now Bulgaria’s second largest city . In 72 B.C. the Romans moved in. Tourists can visit large tombs where Thracian rulers were buried 2500 years ago. It appears likely that more tombs exist – they just haven’t been discovered yet. There are also many remnants of Roman occupation in both the capital city of Sofia, where excavations in the center of the city continue, and Plovdiv, which hosts an amphitheater and stadium. In the flat plains outside of Plovdiv, the Romans settled Diocletianopolis, a major city from the 4th to 6th centuries, with huge walls around what is now the Hisarya springs and resort. The Romans were drawn to the natural mineral springs that still produce warm water at outside taps.
What is different about the history of Bulgaria is that it is understated, not oversold, compared to other countries. No big tour buses and tours, for the most part. En route to Hisarya we saw a small handwritten sign on the side of the road saying “Roman tomb.” We followed a track in the road, past a goat herd and his flock, to another small sign and eventually a man sitting under a tree next to an earthen mound. We paid a small admission price and entered an area with steep stone stairs surrounded by massive stone blocks. At the bottom of the stairs was a small square entrance, about waist high, leading to a room about ten feet square that had served as a Roman burial site. The floor was a complete geometric patterned mosaic, and alcoves in the wall still had traces of the paintings the Romans had left in the tomb. This 4th century tomb was discovered in 1957, but it felt like it was our own personal discovery.
Bulgaria is also known for its monasteries – the Rila Monastery, south of Sofia, is world renowned for its colorful depictions of the holy scriptures for those that couldn’t read. Bachkovo Monastery, near Plovdiv, is a similar, but less well known, site. Located in the mountains near a tree covered stream, Bachkovo has an immediate calming influence upon entering the gates. Initially established in 1083 by two Georgian brothers, the interior courtyards have shade trees and pathways, and the chapel has the same kind of extraordinary paintings covering all of its interior walls that one sees at Rila. It continues to operate as a monastery with the popes (what we would call priests) in their long black hassocks wandering the grounds. So, for those interested in getting a more up close and personal view of ancient history, Bulgaria is a good option.
While Bulgaria is currently 80% Orthodox Christian, it has a history of religious tolerance. In Sofia, tour guides proudly point out the “square of tolerance” in the middle of the city, where stand an Orthodox church, a mosque, the country’s largest Catholic church, and a synagogue all within several blocks of each other. While Jews have not played a major role in Bulgarian history, Bulgaria does not get the credit it deserves for its response to Germany’s demands to identify and turn over all Jews during World War II. Even though Bulgaria was allied with Germany during the war and part of the Axis powers, it refused to identify or transport its Jewish citizens to the camps. One story is that the head of the Orthodox Church insisted that he would be on the first train out, and when faced with that response, the Germans simply backed off. However it happened, no Jews were transported and 50,000 Jews in Bulgaria were saved from extermination – something no other European country can claim.
Travelers visiting Bulgaria will find Sofia to be a modern city, with Roman ruins, grandiose Soviet style buildings, and amazing churches, including the gold domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral pictured above. There is a modern railway station and Metro system, courtesy of European Union money. If you visit, be sure to go on one of the daily Free Walking Tours. They are excellent, and you will get both a good overview of the city and some additional insights into what makes Sofia today. Plovdiv, the second largest city, was selected as a 2019 European Capital of Culture. Many of the public works and attractions promised as part of that selection are still in process, however. Still, its Old Town and Roman ruins are worth a visit. And for those looking for a break from all that history, the Black Sea is an excellent option. Varna and Burgas are the two major port cities.
Our visit to Burgas was quite a treat. Two intersecting pedestrian streets are lined with sidewalk cafes, fountains and statues and many opportunities to buy ice cream. They lead from the train station to a large forested park bordering on the Black Sea, where white sand beaches invite visitors with umbrellas, beach and bean bag chairs, and lovely temperate water, easy for swimming. There is even an annual sand sculpture contest that looks like great fun.
There is also a troubling side of Bulgaria that cannot be ignored. It seems to be having some real difficulties transitioning from its Soviet period. During Soviet times, Bulgaria seemed the closest of the Soviet satellites to Moscow and the Soviet rulers. It never rebelled, like the Hungarians, Czechs, Poles or East Germans. It shares the same alphabet (though Bulgarians claim that the Cyrillic alphabet was established first in Bulgaria, and thus the Russians use their alphabet) and its language is similar. It became independent mainly because the Soviet Union collapsed, not because it demanded change. Now, numbers of Bulgarians look back fondly on the socialist times, when education and arts were free, there was full employment, and buildings, public areas and streets were well maintained. For whatever reason (and there are many opinions) that is no longer happening. Many public areas and buildings are in poor repair; many former factories stand empty and abandoned – one wonders both about the workers and the products they used to produce. There is much new construction, but it often is right next to buildings or shops that are in disrepair or have closed – is it foreign money trying to make a fast buck, with no thought for the future? Infrastructure appears to be a real problem, and it is unclear how, or if, the government will respond.
That said, Bulgaria is still worth a visit. It is a beautiful, raw country. The language can be a challenge, but English is the secondary language (most Bulgarians learn English in school) and in the larger cities and tourist areas it is possible to get around independently since a lot of signs are in both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabet. Prices are quite reasonable, but be aware that credit cards are not universally accepted so plan to get cash in the local currency. Bulgarian drivers can be a bit scary (they seem intent on passing, no matter the conditions), but travel by bus and train can get you most anywhere you want to go, as long as you are not in a hurry. Trains particularly appear to consider time schedules simply a guide, but it is no problem unless you are trying to make tight connections. It is definitely a different experience than you will have in other European countries, but that’s the fun of it.