France's ambassador on mavrud, border areas and difficult-to-pronounce Bulgarian place names
French Ambassador Éric Lebédel has lived in Sofia for almost three years, during which time he has managed not only to upkeep his duties as France's envoy to Bulgaria but also to travel extensively throughout the country, including to locations that are off the radar of even the most intrepid travellers. What are the most fascinating ones?
The border areas. Along a country's borders you can observe the clash of civilisations, the intermingling of peoples and histories. We like the Danube River a lot. We like all the towns and cities along the Bulgarians section of the Danube, but I can point out one small place, not directly on the riverside, but near it: Kyuchukaynardzha. It is now a tiny village but its historical significance is enormous. This is where, in 1774, the first signs of the decline of the Ottoman Empire emerged. I would strongly encourage people to go and visit because of its impact on European history: the Russian Empress Catherine II concluded a treaty with Ottoman Sultan Mustafa III that allowed for the Russian annexation of Crimea, ensured Russian ships could sail in Ottoman waters and, most significantly, Russia would protect the rights of Orthodox Christians within the empire. It was a treaty that had resounding consequences for the whole of Europe, including obviously Bulgaria.
We explored the Strandzha along the Turkish border. The small village of Brashlyan has the best Banitsa in the world.
Zlatograd in the Rhodope is fascinating. We can still remember the coffee prepared in a pot of sand.
And the Samuil Fortress near the borders with Greece and North Macedonia is also very interesting mainly for its history. Nearby there is another very interesting location: Rupite. Baba Vanga, the clairvoyant, used to live there. Now there is a church there, decorated by the famous Bulgarian painter Svetlin Rusev.
We have also been fascinated by two Muslim shrines, or Türbe: the one near Isperih, Demir Baba Tekke, and Ak Yazili Baba Tekke near Balchik. The latter is also used as a Christian shrine called St Anastas. But these are an entirely different story.
I'm very impressed. You name locations and stories that not very many Bulgarians know anything about.
I'm reading Vagabond, Bulgaria's English Magazine. Unfortunately, I have not been able to visit all the bridges that you have written about.
When you return to France you could easily start a business as a tour guide to Bulgaria. But are there things that you would advise French people to be careful about whilst in Bulgaria? Are there any pitfalls?
What I warn my friends when they come here is to bear in mind that Bulgarians are not Mediterranean. French people should not expect talkative passers-by. Bulgarians tend to keep to themselves.
If a visitor should only have a limited amount of time, they should of course explore Sofia and the environs. Go to Vitosha Mountain, visit Dragalevski Monastery. Enjoy the cuisine and the red wines, especially the Mavrud – which we don't have in France.
With Charles Aznavour in Sofia
Speaking of which, is there anything in Bulgarian cuisine that has impressed you?
Apart from the Mavrud, which is excellent, I have taken to Kapama, the Bansko local specialty that combines sour cabbage with several kinds of meat. But it is best taken in the middle of winter when it is very cold outside.
You've spent almost three years in Bulgaria now. Do you think that Bulgaria is now a better place than when you first arrived?
There have been two significant developments. After its first EU presidency, which was very positive, I had the feeling that Bulgaria gained some self-confidence. Before that, I had heard many times Bulgarians complaining that they had nothing to bring to Europe, that they were at the periphery of things and so on. But after the presidency Bulgaria appeared as if it had shifted to the centre of Europe.
With French President Emmanuel Macron in Euxinograd Residence near Varna
The second development regards France and Bulgaria. Bulgaria is now much better known in France. French President Emmanuel Macron came twice, and many French government ministers have also visited. The French people have noted the amount of sympathy that Bulgarians expressed following the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral – and that was not only owing to the hypothesis that the 19th century Bulgarian builder Kolyu Ficheto had something to do with the construction of the church.
Now you can see a lot more French people in Sofia and elsewhere. There are young French people coming to work in the IT sector here.
How did this happen? What made them leave France?
They made the rational decision that the cost of living and the quality of life here would improve for them if they moved over and started working locally.
You've named a few positive developments, but has it all been like that?
Climate change has dug in. Look at the weather in June. Of course, this is not the fault of the EU, but Bulgaria is now a part of it.
Visiting Bulgarian students
With artist Thierry Noir in Plovdiv