by Keith Stewart; photography by Rick Hibberd

Farm-hopping in the Bulgarian countryside

Keith Stewart and wife Flavia Bacarella.jpg

Years ago, if you'd asked me what I know about Bulgaria, I'd have said, "Not much. It's in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, I think." Indeed, it was behind the Iron Curtain when that dark metaphor described a very real feature of the World Order. But what once was, often no longer is – especially in Bulgaria, a country which, during its long history, has seen multiple conquerors and empires come and go. Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Germanic tribes, Ottomans and, more recently, Russians are among the foreign forces that have overrun Bulgaria. In the interests of survival and getting on with life, this historical experience and the resilience it has demanded seems baked into the Bulgarian character. Today, I can attest, that character is robust, confident and upbeat.

My wife and I have American friends who have lived in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, for most of the past five years. During return trips to the United States, they've given glowing accounts of their adopted country and suggested we visit as their guests. This past summer we accepted their invitation. Besides being wonderful hosts, our friends opened a window to a part of the world we had very little knowledge of.

Veliko Tarnovo's mediaeval fortress ©Anthony Georgieff

Often accompanied by our friends and sometimes by tour guides, we travelled around Bulgaria to get a good taste of this ancient, often overlooked, land. But, first, we explored downtown Sofia, a charming city with wonderful leafy parks and greenspace to complement its abundance of history and culture, along with fine restaurants, coffee shops and patisseries.

We spent a couple of nights in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria's former historical and cultural capital, and marveled over its medieval fortress. During our trip around the country, we visited Roman ruins superimposed on Greek ruins, a burial mound containing an elaborate Thracian tomb, Roman amphitheaters, old East Orthodox churches and monasteries and even a mosque. We visited galleries and museums with Bulgarian art and treasures from the distant past. We also crossed the storied Balkan Mountains which divide Bulgaria geographically into northern and southern regions. We dined on hearty Bulgarian cuisine in many excellent restaurants.

We also learned a lot. The Bulgarian lands were already settled by farmers as early as 7,000 years ago. The earliest gold objects in the world were crafted here. These prehistoric complex social structures and hierarchies existed long before ones in Western Europe.

The Cyrillic alphabet, the official script in Bulgarian, Russian and other languages, was developed in Bulgaria in the 9th-10th century AD. Russians might tell you otherwise.

But, for a retired farmer, what travel adventure would be complete without visiting a few small farms and a local farmers' market? And this we did. Much of Bulgaria has good soil and a temperate continental climate eminently suitable for growing grains like wheat, barley, oats, soybeans, as well as fruits and vegetables. Many of these crops are exported. Livestock farming is also a feature of the Bulgarian landscape – grazing animals were a common sight.

Trademark lavender and sunflower fields ©Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria may be most famous, however, for its flowers. We passed many photogenic fields of sunflowers, the seeds of which are processed into sunflower oil, another important export. But, little did I know Bulgaria is the world's largest producer of rose and lavender oils. The southern foothills of the Balkan Mountains are known as the Valley of Roses, where roses have been cultivated for centuries. The flowers are picked one by one, gathered and distilled into rose oil, whose regenerative effect on cell tissue makes it a balm for dry and aging skin. It takes 60,000 roses to produce a single ounce of oil. We were too late to see the roses in bloom – the harvest wraps up at the end of June – but we did visit a rose oil distillery. Most of Bulgaria's rose oil is sold to large cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies in France and Germany. Because of the rich soil in which they are grown, Bulgarian roses produce a superb oil which, ounce for ounce, is often more valuable than gold.

The first small farm we happened upon, called Lavender World, was operated by a young couple selling their lavender oil at a roadside farm stand. The pair grows approximately 50 acres of lavender, whose leaves and flowers they distill into oil.

Our next farm visit stop was at a third-generation dairy farm, with an earthy, old-world feel to it, nestled into the foothills of the rugged Balkan Mountains. The farmer and his daughter milk 22 Montbeliarde cows (a French breed) and four Murrah water buffalo, which come from India. They use the milk to make white cheese and yogurt, and meat from the male animals is cured into sausage. They sell their products at the local farmers market, and while we were visiting, several neighbors stopped by to purchase cheese and sausage directly from the farm.

Our last farm-hopping stop was spontaneous. Driving through Northern Bulgaria, near the town of Balvan, my wife excitedly noted a field of grazing buffalo. Our guide responded by coming to a quick stop and heading down a long driveway to the farmstead. We were greeted by the owner and two workers, who good-naturedly offered us a tour. They had at least 150 buffalo, all of the Murrah breed, including winsome calves ranging from very young to adolescent. Aside from those grazing outdoors, we saw others dining on hay after being milked in a large barn. The few bulls on the farm were separated – apparently, they fight each other when females are around. Murrah buffalo produce only about half as much milk as the average dairy cow, but their milk has twice the butterfat content and is richer in proteins, vitamins, and minerals. It is preferred for making cheese, butter and yogurt.

The one farmers' market we saw was in the town of Sevlievo in North Central Bulgaria. It reminded me of my days selling at the Greenmarket in New York City. Open on Fridays, it was a busy place with about 70 local farmers. The stalls were stocked with vegetables, fruits, cheeses, eggs, and other edibles. Farmers and shoppers were engaged in animated conversation and seemed to be enjoying themselves. If we'd had time and access to a kitchen, we'd have gone home with bags packed full.

As it was, I returned home with a line from Hamlet echoing in my head: There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.

This text is an edited version of the article Land of Roses and Hard-Baked Resilience, originally published in Dirt Magazine


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