Surprising Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a time warp of old and new — from chic shops in the city to donkey cars in the country. We hike to a mountain monastery in Rila, meet two sculptors (dad does Stalin, son does nudes), and enjoy a traditional dinner feast at a local home.


Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back again with more of the best of Europe. This time we're on the eastern fringe of Europe, exploring mysterious and misunderstood Bulgaria. Thanks for joining us.

We'll explore Bulgaria's modern capital, its trendy second city, a mountain monastery, and time-passed villages.

Rick: Nazdrave. Nazdrave.

We'll feast with a family and get our cultural bearings in a surprisingly romantic land, where this means yes [head shake]...and that means no [nod].

Hiding out in the southeast corner of Europe, Bulgaria is part of the Balkan Peninsula. It's about the size of Tennessee. We'll travel from the capital city, Sofia, to the Rila Monastery. After visiting villages in the Rhodope Mountains, we catch a train to Plovdiv.

Bulgaria is mostly ignored by tourists. But for travel it's wide open — like western Europe. The red star of communism, which capped the party headquarters? It's gone, replaced by Bulgaria's national flag.

Bulgaria's largest city, Sofia, has over a million people. After 45 years as a Soviet satellite, its communist legacy includes cheap (if rickety) public transit, miles of blocky apartment flats, and Stalin-Gothic buildings straddling yellow brick roads, which seem wider than necessary.

Throughout the Cold War, Bulgaria was one of the Soviet Union's most loyal satellites. There was even talk of making Bulgaria the 16th republic of the USSR.

And Georgi Dimitrov was the local Lenin — his waxy body was on display under glass in there. But around 1990, all that changed. The father of Bulgarian Communism was buried out of sight. His mausoleum is a rack for local graffiti, and Bulgarians took their own tools to this hammer and sickle.

A visit with Spartak and Krum Dermendjiev illustrates the sweeping changes Bulgaria has seen. Krum spent his life sculpting statues of great communists — Bulgarian and Soviet. His son, Spartak, learned from his dad. But rather than heroic politicians, he sculpts erotic nudes.

Rick: Krum, this one? Who is…?
Krum: Lenin!
Rick: Lenin!
Krum: Da, Lenin!

Krum, whose powerful statues grace squares all over Bulgaria, is still passionate about the people's struggle.

Rick: It's very heroic.

This one shows his three brothers: heroic partisans, communists killed fighting fascism in 1944.

Rick: What are the names?
Krum: Boris, Asen, Zlatko.
Spartak: He gives you as a present.

Of the 100 copies of his book in print, Krum wants me to take one home.

Spartak: He is very happy that his book will be in America.
Rick: I will treasure this. Alright.

Spartak has made a name for himself with his nudes — we found a few we could actually show. He explains that freedom is great — especially for an artist — but there's little money to enjoy the fruits of that freedom.

Spartak: To live normal here in Bulgaria you need 1,000 dollars — US dollars — for one month, for — four person.

The problem is, most Bulgarians only make $100 or $200 a month.

Still, Sofia's boulevards are lined with some of the fanciest shops in Bulgaria. Imported goods are expensive — well beyond the reach of most people — but you get a feeling that the economy is catching on.

Bulgaria is a relative oasis of peace in the troubled Balkan region. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Bulgaria sustained a near economic and political meltdown with practically no violence. Since then, the economy has slowly improved. People complain that before there was money but nothing to buy...and now there's plenty to buy, but not enough money.

It's a time of hope for the younger generation. But throughout eastern Europe, the lost generation is the older one.

Today, free enterprise shows itself in colorful street markets. Here, pensioners entice tourists with handwork — knitting to make ends meet. In a land where $3 a day is a good wage, prices are cheap for Westerners.

Rick: Blagodarya.

Today's struggles are part of the transition to a market economy and democracy. And this kind of turmoil is nothing new. Winning back its freedom is something Bulgaria has done many times.

Sofia's Alexander Nevsky Church is the largest Orthodox church in Europe. It was built to honor the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died helping liberate Bulgaria from the Turks.

Inside, the country's historic eastward orientation is clear. This neo-Byzantine dome-upon-dome architecture is reminiscent of the great churches further east. But Bulgarian culture didn't come from Russia's. In fact Bulgaria adopted Christianity before Russia. And Russia's Cyrillic alphabet was born here in Bulgaria.

Here are the Bulgarian saints Methodious and Cyril with the alphabet they developed — and we still find here and in Russia: Cyrillic.

Why such a strong Russian connection? Bulgarians and Russians are both Slavs and Eastern Orthodox. In 1878 Russia rescued Bulgaria from 500 years of Turkish rule. And it was the Russians who rescued Bulgaria from the Nazis.

Today Bulgaria has embraced the West. Western temptations are no longer the forbidden fruit, and fast food is trendy.

Along with American-style joints, a popular Bulgarian hangout is Kenar [KEHAP]. Bulgaria hopes to join the European Union. And plenty of Westerners are here helping out. Brent Hurd is a Peace Corps volunteer helping Bulgaria develop its tourist trade.

Brent will be joining us for the next few days.

Brent: [Bulgarian]

Along with this Peace Corps work, Brent has a radio show.

Brent: This is Brent Hurd, your late-night Battery of the Balkans. Tonight I've got a special guest, a guy from Seattle, Washington, in the United States, who writes travel guidebooks. Rick Steves is here in the studio.
Rick: It's good to be here. It feels, at least on the surface as far as a tourist can see, as a new morning, with a lot of hope. I am very happy to be back now because the changes are just so dramatic.
Brent: Yes, Radio TNN, do you have a question for Rick Steves? Yeah? Okay, alright hold one second, let me relay that to Rick. Rick, we've got a caller, they have a question: Are you going to the Black Sea coastline?
Rick: No, we are not going to the Black Sea coast, which is a popular for Bulgarians for a beach getaway. For our purposes we're sticking to the historic centers, the cultural centers of Bulgaria: Sofia, Plovdiv, villages in the mountains, and the Rila Monastery.

While Bulgaria welcomes westernization, traditional ways persist. Leaving the cities, we find a land steeped in history — from time-warp villages and donkey carts to fortified monasteries.

High in the mountains — 70 miles south of Sofia — the Rila Monastery is the country's revered national treasure. It's a formidable fortress on the outside…a spiritual sanctuary on the inside.

Monasteries were built on remote and holy sites throughout Bulgaria. Dating from the 10th century, the Rila Monastery survives...but just barely. A handful of monks keep the flame alive.

This 14th-century bell tower — the only part of the original monastery to survive a 19th-century fire — served as a final refuge during attacks.

A drumming priest invites pilgrims — both Orthodox and tourists — to the daily Mass.

Through the country's medieval glory days, czars made lavish gifts to Rila, and for centuries top artists made their contributions. Nineteenth-century frescoes show important portraits. Here's Saint Ivan Rilski, who founded Rila in 927, Bible scenes with an Eastern Orthodox slant — like the 40 days of trials your soul goes through after death, and Mary. The Rila Monastery is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Rila has been a national pilgrimage site for ages. Today, with its 300 cells, it houses both pilgrims and travelers at youth hostel prices.

The way the mountains and walls of Rila seem to cradle a rich artistic treasure reminds visitors how this monastery helped keep Bulgarian culture alive through five centuries of Turkish rule.

Rick: Dobŭr den! Dobŭr den!

Mountain villages capture the rural life that's so quintessentially Bulgarian. Women still gather at the town Laundromat to wash cloths, scrub kids, and share the latest gossip.

Here in the village of Banya, tobacco's the main crop.

Villagers are busy drying hay to get their animals through the winter. This was traditionally an agricultural society. Urbanization and industrialization were forced on the country by its communist regime. Today, as Bulgaria undergoes great changes, many people have reverted to working off the land. Modernization in rural areas is happening slowly. We found that locals were quick to share a smile. Poor as many farmers are, we enjoyed generous Bulgarian hospitality at every turn.

Rick: Bŭlgariya, Bŭlgarski, America…druzhba [friendship].
Villager: Druzhba.
Rick: Druzhba.
Villager: Druzhba!

Some villages have a church, some have a mosque, and some have both. Five centuries of Ottoman rule left its mark. Today, nearly a million people — about a tenth of all Bulgarians — are Muslim.

A narrow-gauge railway cuts through the scenic Rhodope Mountains. Lacing together the small villages, this train is the main form of transportation for locals.

When exploring Bulgaria, buses are generally faster and more efficient, but trains are an adventure — and they're a great way to meet people.

Bulgarians who can speak English love to talk with Westerners. And so do those who can't.

Bulgarian man on train: [Bulgarian]
Brent: He's got two daughters and two sons, he says.
Rick: How old are your daughters?
[Brent and fellow passenger converse in Bulgarian]
Brent: Ah, OK: 22, 37, and 32.
Rick: And this is the husband? It's your boy? Ah! Dobŭr den!

We're arriving in Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city. And Brent's girlfriend, Emiliya, is waiting.

Emiliya: Good to see you again!
Brent: Good to see you. I want to introduce you to my friend, Rick. Rick, this is Emiliya.
Rick: Hi Emiliya.
Emiliya: Nice to meet you!
Rick: Nice to meet you, too.
Emiliya: How are you?
Rick: Very good. It's great to be in Plovdiv.

Of all the countries the Peace Corps works in, more volunteers end up marrying locals in Bulgaria than any other. Of Brent's group of 38 volunteers, seven have tied the knot.

Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in Europe, and a great showcase for this country's history. But that history can wait. Emilia's taking us home for dinner and we're in for Bulgaria's ultimate cultural treat: na gosti.

Bulgarians love to go na gosti — a fancy form of visiting.

[Rick greets family]

Emiliya's mom greets us with special bread and herbs — traditionally the warmest of welcomes. Be warned the dinner will be elaborate and take up much of the night.

Rick: How do you do it? Just like…so?
Emiliya's mom: Good, good.
Rick: I put it into there…eat this.
Emiliya: Yeah, that's right!
Rick: Mmm!
Emiliya's mom: Ah, bravo, bravo, bravo.

The meal invariably begins with the standard Bulgarian shopska salad. It's made with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and Bulgarian feta or goat cheese.

Certain drinks are served with certain foods: Rakija goes with the salad. Rakija means brandy — usually plum or grape — the fiery national drink. Like American men pride themselves in being masters of the barbecue, Bulgarian men make their own rakija.

Rick: Nazdrave, nazdrave. "Nazdrave" — that's Bulgarian for "to your health." I remember it as "nice driving"...nazdrave.

When you toast, look into the person's eyes. This shows sincerity.

Rick: Oh, lovely. Wow.

Stuffed peppers are a national specialty.

Rick: Mmm, look at that. What's inside?
Emiliya's mom: There is rice, there is carrots, there is some onions here and herbs.
Rick: Yum, I should remember the word for "delicious."

And for the main course? Chicken. With a few more peppers.

The wine from this region was popular with Romans 2,000 years ago, and it remains a respected Bulgarian export.

Rick: Yeah, you wouldn't think of Bulgaria as a place for wine, but this is very good merlot.

And fresh fruit — a refreshing finale to a perfectly Bulgarian evening.

Rick: I'll never forget this dinner.
Emiliya: [translates for her mother]

Our hotel is tired and basic — a remnant of communist times…but it's right downtown, a short walk from the sightseeing action. The highlights of old Plovdiv beckon.

Plovdiv's Acropolis started out 500 years before Christ as a Thracian fortress.

Back when Plato and Socrates were doing their thing in Athens about 300 miles south of here, this area was known as Thrace. Thracians were fearsome fighters. Spartacus — that charismatic leader of a Roman slave rebellion — he was Thracian.

Eventually, the Romans conquered Thrace. Emperor Trajan built this theater. For centuries Romans enjoyed performances here — 5,000 at a time.

Plovdiv was the capital of the Roman province of Thrace. It was on a thoroughfare for rampaging armies: Crusaders passed one way heading for Istanbul; Ottoman Turks passed to the other heading for Europe.

How do you make a modern Bulgarian? Mix Bulgars, Slavs, Thracians, Armenians, Greeks, Romans, and Turks. Cover and let simmer for about 45 years of Soviet rule. Then break open and let run free. Modern Bulgaria is a multi-ethnic — yet peaceful — impressive accomplishment here in the Balkans.

In Plovdiv's market, Bulgarians mix it up as they have for centuries. Gone are the days when the only things for sale were peppers and cabbage. Today it's a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables, with the curious tourist free to explore and sample. Try your luck with the local lotto.

Lottery-ticket man: Ah, that's good.
Rick: Is good?
Lottery man: Nein.
Rick: Nein?
Lottery man: Not is good.
Rick: I lose?
Lottery man: Wiedersehen!
Rick: Wiedersehen?

Rick: Dobre?
Peach seller: Da.

You know, it's very important to get that nod right. Remember, in Bulgaria this [head shake] means yes and that [nod] means no. Yes, no, you got it? Yes.

Plovdiv's main drag is called "Vanity Street." It's where fashion statements are made. The people of Plovdiv are considered the most attractive in Bulgaria.

In spite of the eastern influence, this main street — the heart of Plovdiv's social life — is a distinctly European promenade — and with the end of the Cold War, more western than ever.

And, for travelers, huge changes, too. On my early visits, Western influence was evil. I was sneaking around after dark. Now, big welcome: We've been in town about 24 hours — we're already on the front page: "Americans make film of Bulgaria."

The Old Town, Plovdiv's most colorful quarter, blankets the hill above Vanity Street. This man's a Rom, or gypsy. He's playing a hammered dulcimer.

Plovdiv is booming with art. And the town is famous for producing some of Bulgaria's top artists.

The mid-19th century was a time of cultural blossoming called the Bulgarian National Revival. Plovdiv's wealthy merchants decorated the Old Town hill with fine houses.

Rick: So when the Bulgarians got their independence from the Turks they had this national revival?
Brent: Right. This is a great example of a wealthy merchant's home here.

The newfound wealth during the revival was reflected in ornate fixtures, fine furnishings, decorative ceilings, and opulent sitting rooms.

It was the middle of the 1800s, and this guy had a marble bathroom, with hot and cold running water, all designed like a Turkish bath (or a hamam).

These merchants cross-pollinated European and Oriental styles. Proud travel memories are painted on the walls: Alexandria, Venice, St. Petersburg.

Brent's friend Stanislav is part of a folk group active in keeping traditional Bulgarian music and dance alive. Here, deep in the Old Town, with a Thracian women's chorus and classic Bulgarian instruments, they performed an old-time love story.

After more than its share of invasions and turmoil, Bulgarian culture thrives. And its people welcome you to come on in and get to know them. I hope you've enjoyed our Bulgarian adventure. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Nazdrave!


I like the saxophone. It's a dirty sax.