interview by Anthony Georgieff; photography by Alon Cohen

Outgoing Israeli ambassador on Jerusalem Garden, shopping prices and Lukov March

irit lillian.jpg

I have known Irit Lillian, the outgoing Israeli ambassador, since before she actually came to Bulgaria in her official capacity. An archaeologist by education, who had had wide-ranging experience in both diplomacy and off-the-beaten-track travel. During her tenure in Sofia Irit made a name for herself as being extremely active: both in matters related to promoting Israeli interests and maintaining close links with the local Jewish community. She never shied from discussing controversial topics such as Bulgaria's role during the Second World War and she used strong language to condemn the extremist Lukov March, named so after a Bulgarian wartime Nazi leader and now, sadly, held in Sofia annually. As she was preparing to depart, after four years in this country, I asked her whether she thought Bulgaria was a better place now compared to when she first arrived.

Bulgaria was love at first sight. In the past four years, love has matured and as it happens in life, new nuances have enriched the affair. Bulgaria is not as simple as it looks for a tourist or a short-term visitor. It is complex. However, it is indeed a better place now. I wish I could come to live here again in the future – it will be even better.

Three things that have changed for the better?

Some would probably argue with me, but to my mind some better practices of governance are visible. The judiciary is more independent, it has improved significantly. There is still a way to go, mainly in the fringe and more remote parts of the country. However, judging from business people who are more acquainted with the situation, as well as from the EU reports, there is space for hope.

Did you notice that Sofia became much more beautiful? Greener, cleaner, more vibrant? The city is definitely growing bigger, lots of construction, more people more colours to the local population. The bright side is that it gains the character of an energetic European capital: Restaurants, cool cafés, galleries, nice spots with open wi-fi…

Irit Lillian

Near the Museum of Modern Art in Sofia


Variety is bigger almost in everything – more variety in food, more options for contemporary art lovers, more alternative cultural institutions, interesting festivals all over the country, beautiful hotels all around, more Israelis who appreciate it.

Last but not least, Bulgaria is better at coping with its historical past. Four years ago when we mentioned the Holocaust and the events in Bulgaria during the Second World War, most people from top politicians to school children would single out the rescue of the Jews as a separate event. Today, there is much more willingness to discuss the narrative, to speak about the deportation of the Jews of Thrace, Macedonia and Pirot, to mark the locations of labour camps in Bulgaria (as it was recently done in the Nedelino). Bulgaria became a member of IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) and the good results of the process are already here.

Irit Lillian

Receiving the Madara Horseman medal from President Rumen Radev


Three things that have changed for the worse?

The number of young Bulgarians in the country. It is sad to see the effects of the negative demographic change. In Sofia it is hardly noticed, but elsewhere you can see how beautiful villages are deserted, hardly any kids in the streets, more and more empty school buildings. Thinking about the younger generation, who should define the future of Bulgaria, and chose leaving over making a change – it's heart breaking.

Intolerance – maybe I am wrong and the love-at-first-sight effect blinded me, but I have a strange feeling that while more steps have been taken against racism, intolerance and hate speech all of these are actually on the rise. More hate speech graffiti in different towns against different minorities, more politicians who do not hesitate to speak against their compatriots and singling out "the others." The fact that the Istanbul Convention was not ratified was a symptom indicating that something changed for the worse.

Irit Lillian

In the nature reserve of the Erma Gorge near Tran, in western Bulgaria


Prices… Bulgaria is still a relatively cheap attractive destination, but in a very short time it became definitely more expensive. The weekly supermarket cart, the price of tomatoes at the market, not to mention the price of a nice apartment in the centre of Sofia (well, I admit I was considering living here in the future…).

What was your biggest accomplishment during your tenure in Bulgaria?

An old Jewish proverb says: "The baker cannot praise the quality of the dough." Still, one of our greatest achievements is the change in the narrative of the Holocaust memory preservation. We did not do it alone, the organisation of the Jews of Bulgaria, Shalom, colleagues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – namely and mainly the members of the Bulgarian delegation to IHRA, politicians, academics, the teachers who assisted in Yad Vashem training programs and many other members of the Bulgarian society all assisted in the process of creating a more accurate historical narrative. The two monuments erected in Sofia and in Tel Aviv are a token of this more thorough achievement, and I am grateful for all those who dared to take this path together. I am very proud of sowing these seeds because I know that they will bear the sweetest fruits.

Irit Lillian

Wild flowers near Sandanski


What was your biggest failure?

My biggest failure is a temporary one: the inability to construct the Jerusalem Garden, a special playground for children with special needs, on time. This park should have been ready more than two years after we initiated it. Unfortunately, the municipality did not grant us with a construction permit on time and the bureaucratic process is still going on. However, I am optimistic and I hope that such an important opportunity for the kids of Bulgaria will not be wasted. Even if I do not see it with my own eyes, I know it is a temporary failure and the Jerusalem Garden will become a reality – it is too good and too important not to come true.

What was the most pleasant thing you did while in Bulgaria?

The most pleasant thing was travelling all over the country and meeting the people who make Bulgaria what it is. Wherever we went – and believe me, we were never tired of discovering more new spots – we met open and warm people, willing to tell and share the culture of the land and make you part of it. The landscape is glorious: the mountains, the water, the seasonal changes – this incredible unity of people and nature was so powerful, it will always stay in my heart.

And what was the most unpleasant?

Definitely the so-called Lukov March. Bulgaria is a very pleasant place to be in with wonderful warm people. Such demonstrations deface it. The inability of so many good people of the highest ranks to prevent it has left a bitter taste.

Irit Lillian

At the Propada necropolis near Malko Tarnovo in the Strandzha


If you have a friend coming to visit Bulgaria what would you advise them to do?

The best answer to this question should be "everything," but knowing that it is impossible, I would recommend some of the favourites of both my guests and myself.

The Rhodope mountains are my favourite spot for their natural untouched beauty changing every season and leaving the visitor craving for more. Plovdiv is my favourite city, it has a special energy, it is young and old at the same time and its potential is endless. Sofia offers the delights of a big city. I would advise visitors not to miss the synagogue and the mosque – both a few meters apart, just to get an idea of what historical tolerance looked like. As for eating and drinking, "everything" covers my ideas. It would be careless not to mention tomatoes in summer, yogurt all year round and exquisite wine that is not sufficiently well-known in the world.

And what would you advise them to be careful about?

Service. Bulgaria has so much to offer but experience can become very frustrating when the waiter or the shop-assistant would not be helpful, would intentionally avoid eye contact in order not be forced to speak English and would not smile.

Other than that, visitors should be cautious of not getting addicted to this amazing country and constant beauty – I know how it feels when you have to leave.

Irit Lillian

Volunteering at the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis archaeological digs


And if a Bulgarian friend wants to visit Israel, what would you tell them to do and what should they be cautious about?

Unfortunately, only 20,000 Bulgarian tourists visit Israel every year while more than a quarter of a million Israelis visit Bulgaria during the same period. It is quite surprising as we have many direct and cheap flights. Therefore, the first thing I would advise them is not to confine themselves to Jerusalem and the holy sites (although they are extremely interesting) but to go see the nature that is so very different: the desert, the archaeological sites and so on and so forth. Do not miss Tel Aviv: the rich cultural scene, contemporary vibrant creation in arts, music, cinema, dance, cuisine – you name it! In Israel, you can really see with your own eyes what innovation means – many of the startup companies have visitor centres, so does the Peres Centre for Peace and Innovation. It is impressive.

Always keep a day or two for doing nothing special, just feel the country and its spirit. The only downside one should be cautious or rather prepare for is the cost of living – Israel is not cheap! But it is fabulous.


    Commenting on

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

Travelling and discovering different cultures and landscapes is one of life's greatest joys; the cliché that it is one of the most sensible investments one will make is absolutely true. Tatyana Dimitrova knows this well.

Our entire civilization is built on industrial production and commerce, but few of us are aware what it takes to build a factory or a warehouse.

The planet is getting warmer and humanity is increasingly aware of the dangers, but the war in Ukraine and the crisis of energy supplies that ensued put to the test the efforts for adopting new green policies.

Christina is now back on these pages owing to her participation in the Business Lady Excellence 2024 event in Sofia at the end of March.

The clients of Parichkova Design Lab are different and so are the interiors that they have commissioned to the studio.

Renewable energy has immense potential for helping humanity to put climate change under control. But it is more than that.

The stylish French residence in Central Sofia is indeed a very special place. For about 100 years, in addition to being the home of French ambassadors, it has been the meeting spot of senior dignitaries.

Natalia Petrova has over 20 years of experience in asset management, capital markets, equity and fixed income trading, UCITS products and services, and is a licensed investment consultant, broker and trader with government securities.

Women are increasingly making their own way into iGaming: as players, creators and developers. Katya Machuganova is one of them.

Three times an ambassador (in Haiti, Croatia and now in Bulgaria) Kenneth Merten has a wide-ranging career in various positions within the US State Department, including in the office of the director general of the foreign service.

In times of rapidly changing social, technological and political climates, all parents worry about what is the most responsible way to prepare their children for the challenges of tomorrow.

Antifreeze, AdBlue® diesel exhaust fluid, windshield wiping fluid, grease... When drivers and car mechanics in Bulgaria and the Balkans buy such crucial products, they often choose one brand in particular.