BULGARIA OF THE SENSES

by Jane Keating

The best things in life come for free - just breathe in

One of my favourite ways to surprise visitors to Sofia is to take them to the springs beside the old baths and ask them to hold their hands under the running water. Hot water straight from the source is a novelty for most of us. A cooling mist of water sprayed from around the canopy of a restaurant on a hot summer's day is another sensory pleasure that I experienced for the first time here. Walking in the snow in the hills above Pernik just before Christmas I was dazzled by the glittering surface of the fresh, powdery snow, whose crust had frozen overnight. I picked up handful after handful to feel the crisp, feathery flakes sliding through my fingers like frozen dandelion fluff. The well-trodden snow on the winter pavements, however, makes me think that I am wading through soft, un-dyed cane sugar.

Walk in the streets around 5 o'clock in the evening and, as people push past you on their way home, you will continually be enveloped in clouds of tobacco, as people treat themselves to an end-of-work cigarette.

The spicy aroma of roasting peppers I associate with warm, lazy strolls around late-summer, sleepy Bulgarian towns and villages, while autumn and winter are the time for that nose-twitching, throat-tickling inhalation of home-made rakiya fumes, followed by that first mouth-warming sip. A visit to Rila monastery is another way to gratify your senses. Follow the crowds, and your nose, to the monastery bakery and treat yourself to some hot, crispy mekitsi, doused in icing sugar, or my particular indulgence, a loaf of crusty, fresh-from-the-oven bread, to be torn apart and savoured on the climb to Ivan Rilski's cave.

I spend quite a lot of time trying to protect my ears from the pounding, insistent beat of chalga music in bars and restaurants, but Bulgaria also has some of the sweetest, most soothing sounds and some of the most exhilarating. The glorious blending of unaccompanied voices in folk songs or at an Orthodox service can bring tears to your eyes. The Gayda is, however, in my opinion, an outdoor instrument, and sitting in the front row at a concert when 10 players take to the stage is a unique experience. But its plaintive sound, closely resembling the Irish uilleann pipes, echoes through the gardens opposite the university as I pass by most days, and for me is one of the sounds of Sofia. The tinkling of cow and sheep bells as the flocks pass by on the way to their grazing grounds is a gentle way to be woken up in the country. Then there is the sound of the evening bells ringing out at dusk from Aleksandr Nevskiy cathedral, the small bell chiming away like mad against the deep measured tolling of the great one.

To catch a sudden glimpse of Mount Vitosha, between the buildings, is still an excitement for me, or to see the Black Sea spreading out before you as you come over the rise into Varna. The piles of fruit, vegetables and nuts in the markets are the best appetite stimulant that I know – be they a warming abundance of red peppers or cool green mounds of water melons or winter cabbages. A restaurant with a log fire definitely has an advantage for me in the winter, while I can't think of anything nicer than a leisurely meal outdoors in fine weather.

As an Irish person I may be committing heresy here, but Samokov potatoes really do have it all. Large, pink, knobbly tomatoes also turned out to be a taste revelation; I'm already looking forward to their arrival this summer. I'd better not get started on Bulgarian red wine, but I think I'm becoming something of a connoisseur and as for the sweet, clear, cold spring water to be found on any walk in the countryside - I can positively feel it doing me good. My final and best taste of Bulgaria is free, like the springs. Just climb the nearest hill or mountain and breathe in - nothing more.

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