B U L G A R I A is often tokened as the ‘Land of Yogurt and Roses’ but its nickname doesn’t quite bring justice to the vast beauty and serenity of this nation.
When the train from Belgrade finally made its way across the Serbian border and into the hills of Bulgaria, my sisters and I rushed to open windows of our train car and stuck our heads out to inhale the air of new adventures and possibilities ahead. Trains, unlike cars and buses or planes, are a simple beauty of slow travel. In my opinion, they are quite underrated yet they so perfectly embody this freedom of movement that travelers long for. The wind brushed across our faces as the train traversed great expanses of greenery, winding through orange tilled villages and across clear rivers, finally reaching its destination in Sofia.
That was my first day of what would become three months living in Bulgaria. At the time I knew nothing of this country. Even its name felt foreign and unfamiliar like it belonged in Lonely Planet article about undiscovered hidden gems of Europe. And honestly, Bulgaria is just that. An undiscovered hidden gem of pure Eastern European cultural magic.
I explored the capital city in great detail with my best friend, Drew, who traveled over from the States to hang out with me for a week during summer break. At first glance, Sofia seems to be lacking a kind of lively charm that is usually present in capital cities, but it has its own quirks to make up for that. History is one of them. Underneath its busy central metro station, Serdika, are a huge collection of Roman ruins. I quickly learned of Bulgaria’s rich and diverse history with involvement in the Roman and later Byzantine empires, as well as Ottoman/Turkish influences. When you climb the stairs out of the central metro station there is a mosque, orthodox church, and synagogue within 100 meters of each other. Bulgaria has a minority population of both Jewish and Muslim people, so it was really nice to see these religions, who have a history of conflicting with each other, coexisting.
Drew and I went on a free Sofia walking tour which was very interesting and informative, but for the sake of honesty I unfortunately already forgot most of what the tour guide said. What I do remember was the gyros that we ate after the tour, which I had discovered with my family accidentally a few weeks prior. This was not your average gyro joint. The place was in the middle of almost nowhere and took two metro trips to get to, but was beyond worth it. The line was down the sidewalk for massive gyros stuffed with a combination of perfectly seasoned meat and veggies with a beautiful balance of sauce. This is impossible to describe honestly, but dang they were good.
Speaking of Bulgarian food… My family and I lived for a month in an Airbnb in a tiny town outside Sofia called Novi Iscar. Novi Iscar in itself wasn’t much, but the family we met while living there made this one of the most amazing places in all of Bulgaria. Margarita and her mom and dad, the latter who we referred to as ‘Master Chef’ were the warmest and most generous people I met in this beautiful country. Master Chef has a passion for cooking beautiful, delicious and extravagant meals of Bulgarian cuisine which we all ate nonstop for that entire month. In the family’s garden, they grew fresh vegetables and herbs and raised chickens and peacocks. Every morning we would have fresh eggs and unique ‘music’ (which is a term I use loosely in this context) from their rooter Pavarotti.
Before that month my family and I spent a few weeks working at a Bulgarian horseback riding summer camp in Elena, which is a village near Veliko Tarnovo. This was a work-exchange which started out really well. I learned how to lead horses, saddle, groom and pick their hooves, and milk goats. Farm life at its finest. Unfortunately, the workaway went south rather quick due to a lot of factors. Drama from the disorganized leaders of the farm, favoritism, and basically an exploitation of workawayers as free labor. In the end, we were singlehandedly mucking out stables that hadn’t been cleaned in months, leading groups of children on horseback rides in 40C weather without breaks, and fed leftovers or close to nothing. Workaway is supposed to be a work exchange of a few hours (as in no more than 5, but we worked up to 13) every day for a bed and food, but sometimes hosts use workawayers as free labor which is not right. long story short, we escaped and practically ran with our backpacks to Elena taking the first bus out of there.
Despite Elena being a bad experience, I did learn a lot of hands-on skills and got rid of my irrational fear of horses. The horses at the camp were beautiful creatures, all living together in this vast green pasture. I learned a little bit about bareback riding and was able to take a few rides bareback. That experience was amazing. The connection you feel with the animal without the constraints of a saddle and reins is so powerful, and that alone is something I really miss from the Elena experience. I still long to stroke the fuzzy noses of the horses and just feel the energy that you get from simply being around them.
After Elena and then Sofia and Novi Iscar, my family and I traveled back to Veliko Tarnovo where we stayed at a rural riverside campground. Rural Bulgaria is like stepping back in time. Quiet, peaceful, and authentic. There is this culture in the rural areas that remain untouched by westernization and modernization. In some ways it made me understand why Levin, one of the main characters of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, was so against this westernization in Russia in the late 19th century. There is a certain charm to the simplicity of life in these areas. Bakers with ovens of fresh bread, donkey carts that still traverse the streets, and old grandmothers adorned with handkerchiefs around their heads while they tend their gardens.
At night everyone goes to sleep, the lights go out, and there is no city light pollution to block the view of a sky blanketed in stars. From a hidden corner of the campground, my sisters and I discovered the Milky Way galaxy. We laid for an hour just gazing up at the vastness around us. No cameras, just us and the stars. That is a moment in time that I will probably never forget in my life. I have the image of the stars forever imprinted on my eyelids, and when I fall asleep at night my mind often drifts back to them.
Bulgaria taught me the beauty of simplicity. You don’t need to be surrounded by things, city lights, or constant activity to be really living. This is living in the rawest, most authentic form I have experienced so far in my life.
After Veliko Tarnovo, my family and I traveled to Plovdiv which is where we lived out our final month in Bulgaria. I love Plovdiv. Smaller then Sofia, but with twice the liveliness and charm. The population is also a lot younger, so there is a very happy and youthful vibe that is evident as you walk through the beautiful garden or colorful downtown walking street. It was also in Plovdiv that I discovered the goldmine that is Bulgarian thrift stores. If you know me, you know that I love thrift shopping. I actually exclusively shop at thrift stores because one, they are inexpensive, and two I can’t stand the consumer and waste culture of fashion that surrounds big clothing companies. In my opinion, there’s nothing personal to an H&M store, just a bunch of cliche, low quality, and overpriced products. So thrifting is great, and Plovdiv had dozens of thrift shops that I spend a lot of time exploring. Aside from thrifting, I also explored the nearby towns, Bachkovo monastery, and some fortresses which were all stunning places. All in all, Plovdiv was a lovely concluding chapter to an amazing three months in Bulgaria.
Since I left this country I’ve continued to explore the Eastern Block, from Macedonia to Montenegro, but Bulgaria has a special place in my heart. Of all the countries here, I know for sure that I will return to the Land of Yogurt and Roses.
Published from Montenegro on 11.21.17