Ancient history first drew us to explore Bulgaria and then we found much more. Thracian kings once ruled this land of mountains, valleys, rivers and the western Black Sea shore where archaeologists say European civilization began! The oldest man-made gold object in the world, dated about 4,500 B.C., was found near Varna on the Black Sea. Inland, Stara Zagora has a museum built over the clay remains of a duplex house dated 5,500 B.C. In the Valley of the Kings and Roses are tombs, some with exquisite paintings, made of rock and covered in dirt. Nearby museums display beautiful gold and silver objects from the tombs.
People are friendly to Americans, often starting conversations with us in shops. They work hard, usually at several jobs. There are large farms in the north and a variety of manufacturing, mining and other industries. Bulgaria produces about 60% of the world’s rose oil that is used in making fine perfumes. The Black Sea coast has many resorts and there is excellent skiing in the mountains. Every inch of ground is used around homes for vegetable plants, fruit trees and flowers. Grape arbors provide shade over patio tables. People often make their own rakia or fruit brandy. Bulgarian yogurt is excellent, especially with some local honey and Bulgarian wine is often served with dinner.
Rich artistic talent runs from ancient times of Thrace, when Orpheus lived in the southern mountains, to the present artisans. We have seen wood carvers, potters, jewelry makers; visited art museums, rehearsals of the Sofia Symphony Orchestra and Choir; read about the opera, theatre, film and dance; and been in the museum houses of writers. The churches are full of paintings and beautifully carved wooden screens and pulpits. Our small group enjoyed a private presentation of folk songs and dances, including a wedding dance, by the excellent Dobarsko Grannies.
Architecture is varied. Gold church domes sparkle in the sun contrasting with village houses that are often of square design and built of stone or bricks and stucco. There are also numerous 1960s Communist style cement apartment buildings, clothes fluttering on lines strung along the balconies.
In the city center of Sofia, Lenin’s statue has been removed from a tall pedestal and St. Sofia now stands there with an owl on her shoulder, representing wisdom, and her arms outstretched over the capital. People have lived here for 7,000 years, drawn to the hot mineral springs and the pathways connecting lands from the south to the north. We walked on the large, smooth stone rectangles of a Roman road that is used daily as a pedestrian underpass.
Bulgarian Orthodox religion strongly influences daily lives. A 10th century Rila Monastery preserved much of Bulgarian culture and a sense of national identity during the 500 years of Ottoman rule and occupation of the country. During this period books were brought here for protection from burning. The library has 60,000 volumes, many of them rare, including illuminated parchment manuscripts from the 11th century.
UNESCO gives international recognition to seven cultural and two natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites in this small country about the size of Tennessee.
It is important to connect with the people, too, for this is how you learn that the spirit of survival, love of family, active faith, and the courage to change are an integral part of Bulgaria. In the fall we will continue our exploration of Bulgaria and Greece.
Photographs by Del and Evelyn Weliver