text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

On Bulgarian music, literature and taking rakiya as an aperitif

Florence Robine

Florence Robine, the French ambassador to Bulgaria, has spent about two years in the country as most of the time her schedule and activities have been impeded by the varying and changing Covid-19 restrictions. Still, none of those managed to dampen the inquisitiveness of someone with a background in education. Mme Robine has used all opportunities she has had to explore all aspects of Bulgaria: from classical music to travelling in the mountains, to reading Bulgarian literature in translation to visiting the galleries in Sofia.

Before she became ambassador to Bulgaria, Florence Robine was first a teacher of chemistry and physics, and then held various positions in the French educational system. Bulgaria is her first appointment as an ambassador, and she has found this country quite surprising.

I must admit I had no idea about Bulgaria before I came here. Everything was surprising. Thankfully, it was a good surprise. Of course there are remnants from the old times, but Sofia is an attractive city and Bulgarian nature outside the capital is amazing... the Black Sea, the mountains.

Also, I have discovered the rich history of Bulgaria. There is the amazing cultural heritage of these buildings, churches and monasteries that wait to be discovered. I must also mention the ancient Thracian heritage. It was a wonderful surprise for me.

Surely there must have been negative surprises as well.

In fact, yes: the sidewalks in Sofia. At the beginning I was afraid to step on them. Now I think I have learned how to navigate.

Tell me about your travels in Bulgaria.

I use every opportunity I get to explore. I have been to the main cities – Plovdiv, Burgas, Varna, Stara Zagora. I have visited smaller towns like Haskovo and Harmanli. I have been to Melnik. I visit both in my capacity as ambassador and as a questioning tourist. Obviously, I rarely miss the chance to visit a school or university.

Historically, the Bulgarian educational system was modelled on the French. Do you have any observations of how education in this country is developing at the moment?

I am impressed by the quality of educators, but I realise there are some difficulties in recruiting new teachers. This is not only in Bulgaria, in Western Europe there are similar issues as well. Youth is the future and everyone has to build the new society on young people. This means everyone should be involved with improving the educational system. An important step is to boost the training opportunities for teachers. Now with Covid-19 the first and most important goal is how to maintain the standard of education and enable young people to go to school. Everyone must be committed to this objective.

What do you like to do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?

I am great fan of opera. For me it was a great pleasure to discover the Sofia Opera, which is excellent. I go there every chance I get.

Walking in nature is another favourite pastime.

I also read a lot. It was interesting to read some Bulgarian literature. Before I came here I had no idea about this country's literary wealth, which of course I partake of in translation. I would like to mention Georgi Gospodinov, whose writing I like. Not quite well-known in France, unfortunately.

In Sofia, we have organised a book club for female ambassadors. We read and discuss what we can get in translation. It is so important for understanding Bulgarian mentality and culture.

Can you name three locations in Sofia and in Bulgaria that you like particularly?

I love the parks: the Doctors' Garden and the Borisova Garden. Once a week I like to walk on Vitosha Boulevard. I would like to mention the Synthesis gallery of photography. I hold it very dear to my heart. It is an amazing place offering artists to get together and for the public to see wonderful exhibitions.

Some places outside Sofia are very well known to Bulgarians but not so much to foreigners. One of them is Balchik on the Black Sea coast. It is a fascinating town. The Rhodope Mountains will never cease to amaze. I recently spent some time there: Perperikon, the Dospat Reservoir. I have a particular liking for the village of Gela. Unfortunately, I could not experience the bagpipes, but that's on my bucket list. Arbanasi near Veliko Tarnovo stuns with is churches.

I do not think the future of tourism in Bulgaria is mass tourism. Because of Covid-19 and so on, the future should be more incentive-oriented, more ecological. It should be targeted to nature and heritage. Bulgaria has so much to offer.

Suppose you have friends from France visiting you in Sofia. What three things would you advise them to do?

First of all they should visit all the churches – first and foremost, the Boyana Church. It is very impressive and speaks a lot about the history of Bulgaria.

Second, I love street art, and in Sofia you can see a lot of amazing graffiti.

I like the markets in Sofia. Of course the Women's' Market, but also the other ones like the Central Food Stalls, Tsentralni Hali. In front of the Ministry of Agriculture there is sometimes a farmers market where you can find great stuff directly from the producers.

And what would you warn them against doing?

Don't be surprised when you are offered rakiya as a starter for lunch. And please don't refuse it. Always say yes. French people love a good drink, but is is so surprising to have rakiya as an aperitif. Everyone who's visited has been amazed.

Also, when you talk with Bulgarians, please – never say the Bulgarian language uses the Russian alphabet. This is a no-no. Bulgarians are very proud that the original Cyrillic alphabet was developed here. 


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