Issue 6

MY OWN CHOICE: FINE DINING

Whether it be suckling pig in Kovachevitsa, caviar by the Black Sea, calf's head in Sofia, or chicken's bottoms in Kozloduy, Bulgaria has it all and more, as we discovered after more than two years of careful research in this country of far-flung culinary delights.

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TRADE ROUTES

Loftus, a member of Clinton's White House staff, political advisor on the Kerry campaign, reporter and friend of the late Hunter S Thompson, a tireless talker with an absurdist sense of humour, an infamous foul-mouth, and a healthy “spiritual revulsion” toward George Bush, had no experience in feature film making, but a hell of a lot of political credentials on his side.

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TALLINN

Despite its recent history as part of a Soviet Republic and its languages (Estonian being related only to Finnish, while over a third of the citizens speak Russian as a first language), despite even its geographical position on the Baltic, Tallinn or Reval, as the city was known until 1918, is best appreciated as an heir to the wider Scandinavian and Teutonic cultural legacy of the Middle Ages.

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AHMED DOGAN, LORD OF THE CIRCLES

When a rumour trickled out two years ago that an attempt had been made on the life of Ahmed Dogan, leader of the Turk-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms party (DPS), the media responded calmly. The Novinar daily reported that the incident had been corroborated by MPs from the parliamentary Internal Order and Security Commission. According to the sparse reports at the time, it appears that shortly after New Year's Eve, an unidentified person shot at Dogan's car as he was leaving Sofia's trendy Boyana suburb.

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PASS THE REMOTE

Clearly though, while the rehydration process is still underway, a bit of daytime telly is in order.

An uncharacteristic mood of cultural sensitivity seizes you, and you decide that this afternoon you will eschew the usual fare of BBC World, Cartoon Network, and Discovery Channel (dubbed into Russian). Today, you decide to watch some Bulgarian telly. Yeah! Connecting through culture, celebrating diversity and all that stuff. Get comfy with another cup of instant coffee.

Remote control in hand, become receptive...

Click.

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BULGARIA NOT RECYCLED

With its diverse landscape which offers visitors and investors alike a blend of ski, lake-side and coastal areas, Bulgaria is understandably gaining popularity as both a holiday and investment destination, a trend that is likely to accelerate with EU accession. But while many foreigners are looking forward to spending more time in this culturally and environmentally rich Balkan country, most remain unaware of the damage its popularity is said to be causing the environment.

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HARD SNOW FALLING IN BANSKO

"Don't come to Bansko" - this advice, or warning, was posted on a Russian website by Bulgarians, shortly after the "bomb situation" at one of Bulgaria's top ski resorts last month.

"Don't come to the sea in the summer... Once Bulgaria had nice countryside, until the barbaric construction started a few years ago," it continued, expressing a growing concern over the damage to the environment that construction at Bulgaria's coast and mountain resorts is causing.

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WHO ARE THE TRUE PRUSSIANS?

Modern Bulgarians prefer speaking English rather than German - or at least they try to, but only 60 years ago it was a different story. Since the end of the 19th Century, Germany had been Bulgaria's major economic, political and military partner, a relationship established on the basis of Bulgaria's desire to break away from the Russian sphere of influence and the accession of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty to the throne. Because of the economic rise and successful military campaigns against their neighbours, the press dubbed the Bulgarians the "Prussians of the Balkans".

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IN A FESTIVE MOOD

On Saint Patrick's Day everyone wants to be Irish, or so they say. All over the world, from Sydney to San Francisco, people will put on something green and take to the streets to cheer colourful and goodhumoured parades. However improbable, for over a decade such events have been annual fixtures in Moscow and Tokyo.

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EXPATS WITH INFLUENCE, PART 2

Everything you wanted to know about the big boys in Bulgaria. In a special two-part series, VAGABOND spoke to leaders in the fields of banking, communications, technology, agriculture, education, development, real estate, travel and beverages. Find out what the EU means for them, how the people at the top got to be there, and what they really think about living and doing business in Bulgaria.

Read the first part of the series here.

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CHALGA TIME

At some stage during your stay in Bulgaria you are bound to have a close encounter with what over the past 16 years has come to be regarded as Bulgaria's most popular art form: chalga. Your first experience of chalga may come as early as your cab ride from the airport to downtown Sofia. Soon you will find out that chalga is everywhere. Cabbies love it, it deafens customers in many an eatery, it blares out of school windows during breaks and, of course, it fills disco dance floors.

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FACE OFF

Bulgaria has many faces. The shadowy thick set jaw of corruption glimpsed behind the blacked out windows of a Mercedes 4x4; the peroxide hair and pouting lips of chalga writhing in seductive flashes of naked flesh; the ruddy-cheeked countenance of folk gaily picking rose petals in the fields of the Socialist dream.

Painter Henrik Engstrom, or "HEN", became fascinated with these last two when, flicking through the TV channels in his native Stockholm, he came across some Bulgarian TV stations.

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DIMITROV FALLEN

It is the autumn of 1898. A pastor climbs with heavy footsteps down from the pulpit. A minute earlier his sermon had been interrupted. Girls are sobbing and crying, distressed by the sardonic laughter and loud voice of a young man. The pastor throws out the drunken troublemaker who continues ranting and raving in the street.

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ADVENTURES IN POST-COMMUNISM

These figures from the dark underbelly of society seem strangely at odds with the dashing, yet unassuming person of British journalist John Hamilton. But beneath the quintessential English chap lie nerves of steel – “I always get very nervous before interviews,” Hamilton bashfully admits before revealing that his most nerve wracking experience was interviewing an Albanian drug lord whose pizza joint had just been blown up by a rocket propelled grenade.

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PEPA, FOUR DOGS AND CATS, THE CITY CENTRE

I don't remember how I first felt when I came to live in this street, but it must have been a strange, depressing feeling. People would beg on the corner of Vitoshka Street and then go into the entrance opposite my apartment building. One of the women made my heart sink. I had never seen a more beautiful woman beg. It seemed to me that she sat there, on the corner, wearing a headscarf and looking down, only to be alone within herself. I never dared put any coins in her begging bowl - I felt that their tinkle would somehow hurt or embarrass her.

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NATURE VENTURE

When foreigners consider buying a holiday home in Bulgaria, usually their main concerns are price, location and possible investment return. Very few of them are aware that purchasing a property of high quality for a reasonable price and with a good property management contract still does not mean they have made a sound investment. Not knowing much about Bulgaria, buyers often rely on the facts and promises contained in promotional materials and invest in properties which are sometimes illegally built in protected areas.

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I WON’T SEE YOU IN COURT

Bulgaria's troubled judicial system and its courts are among the institutions most harshly criticised by the general public, the politicians left, right and centre, and the EU. Viewed with a combination of fear and reticence, it has been accused of being sluggish, cumbersome, ineffective and very corrupt. Reform in this area was one of the EU's key requirements in the process of entry negotiation.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

Unlike Turkish customs, who take only two minutes to check your car, (Marhaba!, Pasaport! and Tamam!), their Bulgarian counterparts have never been very fast, especially when it comes to lorries. This is why I was not particularly worried by the five-mile long lorry queue approaching Kapıkule. I thought I would drive through Kapitan Andreevo through the EU-only counter, smile at the customs officers and continue on my way to Sofia.

It didn't work like that.

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WENT THE HORSE INTO THE RIVER

There are three theories about how this popular idiom entered the Bulgarian language. The first dates it back to the 7th Century, the time when the Bulgarian state was founded by the proto-Bulgarian tribes who came to the Danube and first settled in what is today Romania. Khan Asparukh's horse went to the river to drink some water but slipped and fell in. The strong current hurled it downstream and Asparukh himself jumped into the torrent to rescue it.

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