Issue 135-136

WITH BULGARIA AT THE HELM

The government in Sofia takes this very seriously. On 1 January 2018 Bulgaria will become the rotating president of the EU for the first time since it was accepted as a member in 2007. Boyko Borisov appointed a special minister for the EU presidency, creating a government post foredoomed to be rather short-lived. Millions of leva were spent on a variety of infrastructure projects, Borisov's favourite, ranging from renovations of the Communist-era NDK, where most of the EU meetings and events will be held, to making Sofia's central roads narrower in order to make way for bicycle paths.

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BUILDING DREAMS

Sofia's real estate market is booming, but the names of Hristo Chepishev and Europroperty stand out among the competition thanks to the consistent, proven quality of their projects. Hristo Chepishev has been into construction development for 15 years. In the past 11 years, Europroperty has invested over $500 million in land, development and sale of luxury properties as well as logistic and industrial centres in Bulgaria and abroad.

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CASABLANCA'S BULGARIAN CONNECTION

No doubt your wanderlust will not be satisfied until you visit Casablanca, the bustling city of 3.8-plus million on the Atlantic coast that dominates the Kingdom of Morocco.

Today Casablanca is nothing like it was 75 years ago when it was a way station for refugees seeking to escape the Nazis who controlled all Europe except for Portugal and Nazi-leaning Vichy France, the colonial masters of Casablanca. Then the city had a few hundred thousand inhabitants, filled with all kinds of characters.

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FROM UTOPIA TO DYSTOPIA

Like Dimitrovgrad, Smolyan appeared under Communism as a result of the amalgamation of several villages. But while Dimitrovgrad is an example of Stalinist urbanism, Smolyan is perhaps the epitome of city planning under Mature Socialism.

In 1960 the National Assembly decreed three old villages along the Cherna River in the Rhodope to be combined into a town called Smolyan. It was also proclaimed the centre of the region.

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CRAZY EPIPHANY

Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? You may not, as it was so long ago, way back in 2014, but if you are in Bulgaria around the 6 January, you might think that for some obscure reason this peculiar nation enjoys excruciating challenges featuring icy water. It is all over the media and probably in your city, village, or neighbourhood: swarms of young men in swimming trunks jumping into a river, lake or even the sea. In one particular town, called Kalofer, they even dance the Horo, waist-deep in a freezing river.

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WELCOME TO BULGARIA

The new public toilet was inaugurated by none lesser than Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, the leader of the extreme nationalist National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov's government's coalition partners.

Simeonov, pictured above in this screenshot from Bulgarian National Television's main newscast, said it had taken less than two months to construct the toilet. The toilet, which the deputy prime minister described as "wonderful," cost about 30,000 leva.

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ETARA

When Lazar Donchev, the founder and first manager of the architectural and ethnographic museum complex at Etara died in 1976, his private study became one of the exhibits. His records and personal diary were left on the old desk, contributing to the mythical aura of the man who created from scratch Bulgaria's only open air museum, on the banks of the river Sivek, eight kilometres from Gabrovo.

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WINTER SOFIA

In winter, as anyone who has ever spent this season in Sofia knows, it is super easy to complain about life in Bulgaria's largest city. Air pollution peaks. The notoriously bad pavements become even more impassable because of snow, or ice, or mud, or rainwater, or any combination of these. Congestion is magnified. Descending the uncleared steps of the subways is at your own peril.

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BULGARIA'S FIRST CAPITALS

If power and economy were gravity, the gravitational centre of modern Bulgaria would be Sofia, where the population and the important agencies of the state, the economy and the culture are concentrated. If we go back to the Middle Ages, when Bulgaria was still young, the country's centre of gravity would be elsewhere – in the northeast, close to the city of Shumen. There, the remains of Bulgaria's first capitals, Pliska and Preslav, still survive – next to an astonishing piece of mediaeval art, the Madara Horseman.

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THE LAND OF DRACULA

Dracula, Bram Stoker's notorious creation, is one of Romania's most recognisable symbols and, since the 2000s, the country has been liberally cashing in on this. Most of the visitors obviously flock to the atmospheric Bran Castle, in Transylvania, the supposed lair of the vampire.

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JEWISH BULGARIA EXHIBITION GOES TO LONDON

Bulgaria, one of Europe's least known lands, famously did not deport about 48,000 Jews during the Second World War. In 1943, before it had emerged that Nazi Germany would be losing the war, the Kingdom of Bulgaria, a German satellite, failed to do what was expected of it – despite all the plans, the array of barges and the waiting cattle cars. Who is to take the credit for the unprecedented rescue: the Communist Party, the Orthodox Church, the king, a bunch of forthright MPs who openly opposed the planned deportations, or the power of Bulgaria's civil society?

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