Looking Back — and Forward — in Bulgaria

Veliko Tarnovo
By Rick Steves

Bulgaria is one of the most rapidly changing countries in Europe. After the fall of the Soviet empire, transformed quickly from a Stalinist holdover to a capitalist puppy and member of NATO. Markets formerly filled with cabbage and peppers are now nearly as colorful and tasty as markets in the West. Twenty years ago, Western influence was evil. I was sneaking around after dark, writing my journal in code and chatting with friends who masked our conversation by leaving a faucet running. Now, travelers get a big welcome, as I did when filming there in 2000. After only 24 hours in town, my film crew and I made the front page. The headline: “American TV crew films Bulgaria.”

Travel in Bulgaria has become simple: no visas, easy and fair money exchange, and plenty of ATMs. In 2000, a taxi ride cost a dollar; a meal cost $3. Basic hotels are similarly cheap, and a room can be just half of what a hotel charges. Many fancy hotels, however, still have the old fashioned two-tiered price system, charging rich Westerners about double the local rate.

Bulgaria even revalued its currency in the 1990s. One thousand old levs equals one new lev and the lev is now tied to the euro. So what? That means my favorite European coin — the stotinka, one-hundredth of a lev — is back.

While its cities are changing quickly, time seems to stand still in Bulgaria’s villages. During my fall visit, I witnessed endless villagers busy drying hay to get their animals through the winter.

The only anti-Americanism I felt was connected to the aftermath of the Kosovo war, while I was visiting the Eastern Orthodox Rila Monastery. Normally an oasis of peace and reflection high in the mountains, during this visit it felt tense and troubled. The Father Superior made filming difficult. One women raged at me, “I can’t be involved with you because of what your government did. But God bless you.”

These days, Bulgaria is facing west, having joined the European Union in January 2007. Plenty of Westerners — and the Peace Corps — are here helping out. But in this land where a nod means no, that’s not so easy.

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. Georgi Dimitrov was the local Lenin. His waxy body, like Lenin’s, was even on display under glass. His mausoleum was the centerpiece of Bulgaria’s largest city, Sofia...until locals blew it up a few years into their post-communist era.

But you just can’t dynamite the legacy of 45 years as a Soviet satellite. In Sofia, souvenirs of its partnership with the USSR survive: cheap if rickety public transit, miles of blocky apartment flats, and Stalin-Gothic buildings straddling yellow brick roads, which seem wider than necessary.

A Bulgarian father and son, both sculptors, illustrate the tremendous change that’s occurred within one generation. Krum Dermendjiev spent his life sculpting statues of great communists, both Bulgarian and Soviet. His son, Spartak, learned from his dad. But rather than heroic politicians, he sculpts erotic nudes.

Krum, whose powerful statues grace squares all over Bulgaria, is still passionate about the people’s struggle. Spartak has made a name for himself with his nudes, and we even found a few we could actually show on TV. He explained that freedom is great — especially for an artist — but Bulgarians have little money to enjoy the fruits of that freedom.

Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv, is famous for its women. Young Bulgarian women don’t walk — they prance. Their legs are long, and their skirts aren’t. Fittingly, this Lolita-ville’s main thoroughfare is nicknamed “Vanity Street.” Some figure since Bulgaria was officially an atheistic state throughout the communist era, its citizens aren’t shackled by moral hang-ups (or morals, depending upon your perspective).

Bulgaria has a strange and fascinating charm. Of all the countries the Peace Corps works in, more volunteers end up marrying locals in Bulgaria than any other.