Bulgaria on my mind: go for the tomatoes, stay for the yogurt.

Pat and I have been back from Europe for two weeks now, but we still are thinking about our wonderful trip to Bulgaria — and the questions so many of you asked “why Bulgaria”?

We were going on a Rick Steves trip, and we felt like we were more likely to need a guide in a place like Bulgaria than in the more familiar climes of Western Europe.

Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria.

As with many of our far flung trips we felt we’d needed help with the logistics and the language. And that’s clearly true of Bulgaria — not only is the language obscure, even the alphabet is strange. They use the Cyrillic alphabet, which means not only can you not understand what they are saying, you can’t read signs or menus, either.

Icon in Bulgarian church.

Modern-day icon just painted in this craft area of Veliko Tarnovo

The Bulgarians are very proud of Cyrillic, incidentally. It was introduced to them by 9th Century theologians — Cyril and Methodius — and spread from there to Russia and other parts of the East. The Bulgarians we met — and particularly our tour guide, Stefan — were intensely proud of their country and their freedom from the Ottomans (in the late 19th Century) and the Nazis and Russians after World War II and the fall of communism.

So the reasons for going to Bulgaria, after all, are several;

First, the food is great. We weren’t expecting much. During our trip to the Balkans a couple of years ago, we ate a lot of cabbage. Bulgaria has a thriving agricultural sector. We had tomato-and-cucumber salad

A daily indulgence.

almost daily. There was fresh fish — much of it driven up from Greece — and a lot of variety. We had some great Bulgarian wine. The local drink is rakia — a very strong drink something like grappa. You have to be careful with rakia, but that’s not difficult.

Because the civilization is so old here — Bulgaria is part of ancient Thrace — there are some spectacular history museums, ancient tombs, Roman

Roman theater in Plovdiv

ruins, etc. Plovdiv, the second-largest city, is one of the oldest in Europe and sits on extensive Roman building.

There is the chance to experience some cultures that we hadn’t seen in other parts of Europe. We visited a Roma village and a Muslim village and were hosted for lunch in both places.

This family in a small Muslim village prepared our traditional lunch — both beef soup and bean soup — and then sang folk songs.

And there is very interesting architecture from the Ottoman era and 19th and early 20th Centuries.



My advice is like that you hear about many developing areas. Come while its still affordable.

This Russian-style church was built to commemorate Russian soldiers. My sandwich was very forgettable.

This monastery, which dates to the 13th Century, is important for both religious and nationalistic reasons.



Traveling through history in a family pub

I remember meeting Uncle Sam once on a visit to London. He was a big, blustery man – as I recall – owner of several pubs, and my grandmother’s youngest brother: hence, my mother’s uncle and my great uncle.

But I had never been to his famous – or notorious – pub in London’s east end until we met my “cousin” Amy there for a drink while visiting London this week.

Outside the Blind Beggar

I know how Amy and I are related – her mother and my mother were first cousins – but I am not sure what to call that. In any case, we first met a couple of years ago and have managed to stay in contact. She suggested going for a drink at Sam’s former pub – the Blind Beggar, down the street from the Whitechapel Underground station.

When I was a kid spending summers in London, I would come to Whitechapel with my aunts to visit various shops in this very Jewish neighborhood. Now, every storefront is Muslim-owned. We had a great dinner at a Pakistani restaurant nearby, the waiter apologized for the slow service because the cooks were just breaking fast during Ramadan.

The Blind Beggar is just on the edge of the area. It is not upscale but quite a nice place. You can see that the menu is not traditional pub fare,

No steak and kidney pie here.

although the beer selection seemed to be.

Besides my own memories, the place has an interesting history. It is named for Henry de Montfort, a son of Simon de Montfort, who lost his sight in the Battle of Evesham in 1265. His father, Simon, had led a rebellion against the king — he was killed in that same battle — and is credited with helping limit the power of the king. And that’s where the name the Blind Beggar comes from.

It was, according to the history, the first pub to serve modern brown ale – in 1654 – and was the site of a speech by William Booth, in 1865, that led to the founding of the Salvation Army. More recently, in the 1960’s, a mob shooting took place here.

It ‘s nice to have at least a little bit of that history in your background.

The inside of the Blind Beggar.