“Why Bulgaria?” we were asked repeatedly when we said where were going for a trip this spring.
The answer is complicated: we had purchased a tour of Istanbul from the Edmonds-based travel guru, Rick Steves, but decided not to go because of a coup attempt. So we needed to pick another tour. Since we have traveled quite a bit in Western Europe and didn’t feel we needed a tour guide for Rome or Paris, Bulgaria seemed like a good choice. Traveling with a Rick Steves tour brings a bit of chat in the group, since we live in Edmonds, his home base. There are folks for whom this is their sixth or eighth Rick Steves tour. Fellow travelers want to know if we have ever actually seen the travel guru and are interested in personal Edmonds lore. Our guide Stephan has been known to call him “Uncle Rick”. The Steves tours always appear to get priority and the travelers aren’t your usual hoard of aging tourists following the umbrella. It is an amiable group and we are enjoying having meals with and getting to know other folks from around the country both in large groups and small excursions in our free time.
On Bulgaria, I have been interested in this area for a long time – the crossroads of empires between Russia, the Byzantine and later Ottoman Empire, and Rome and Western Europe. Our trip a couple of years ago to the Balkans was really fascinating and so Bulgaria. For those not immediately familiar
with the geography, we are adding a map of the region as well as the route of our tour. So far, in a few days, we have seen the capital, Sofia, and the Rila
Monastery, a key cultural and religious shrine located in the Rila mountains,
where we spent a night without heat and very few creature comforts. Today we are in Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria and one of the oldest in Europe, dating well before the Romans.
I can’t say that I have gained real insight about the country in a few days here – just impressions. And because we are on a guided tour, I want to make sure the impressions are our own, and not the intellectual property of the Rick Steves organization.
Sofia is a beautiful capital with many monuments, civic and religious buildings and parks. The Alexander Nevski cathedral may be the most famous. You can see the influence of Russia as well as Turkey and the Ottomans, but the Bulgarians we have met are very proud of their national heritage and independence – especially after disappearing from the map for five centuries under the Ottomans, and then under what they call the “Russian yoke” until the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in
1998-9. They are particularly proud that the Cyrillic alphabet began here and spread to Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. The current government is pro-Russian, and there is an area in the south where Bulgarians with Turkish heritage are pro-Turkey and Erdogan. Like other countries in the Balkans, they must deal with a history of conquest and wars and changing alliances. As you drive out of Sofia, you can still see the influence of the late communist period in the blocks of ugly and rundown Soviet-era apartment blocks.
Plovdiv, the second city, is very different and very compelling. There are a number of universities, so that adds a flavor. There are extensive Roman ruins and one of the most intact Roman theaters I have seen. The old town is full of restored 18th and 19th Century buildings, and there is an area with an
amazing number of art deco buildings. Unfortunately, the first floors of many of these now have modern storefronts for companies like Adidas and Burger King. Apparently, as the buildings were restored, may of the old, small, individually owned shops gave way to more modern retailers.
The food is wonderful. We have been eating tomato and cucumber salads every day, hoping to get our fill before going back to hothouse tomatoes at the QFC. There is drinkable red wine and awful white wine. We just spent the equivalent of $15 on lunch and drinks. Pat bought a tube of hand cream at the Maybelline store for the equivalent of 60 cents. Of course it won’t last as tourism increases.
We are headed tomorrow for the Black Sea coast.