America for Bulgaria Foundation

WALKING ON FIRE

One of the emblematic sights associated with Bulgaria is a group of barefoot men and women clad in traditional village costumes dancing over live embers. This is nestinarstvo, or firewalking, a supposedly Christian rite, where firewalkers dance themselves into a trance and eschew the perils of fire.

Now firewalking is performed at tourist locations and even in restaurants, but the only place to see the real thing is in the village of Balgari in the Strandzha. It happens on the night of 3 June, the high day of Ss Constantine and Helena.

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10 PLACES NOT TO MISS IN 2023

Discovering Bulgaria's landscapes, people and events is rewarding all year round, especially when you leave the beaten track and explore some of the lesser sites. Of course, in high season you can scarcely find anywhere in Bulgaria completely devoid of other visitors, but many places still preserve an atmosphere of novelty for the curious traveller. We have selected some of these on the following pages.

Belogradchik Rocks

Where: Northwestern Bulgaria

What: Bulgaria's own version of the US southwest, plus a fortress

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LA VIE EN ROSE

A plant that everyone knows but few have seen in real life: by selecting the oil-bearing rose as its unofficial symbol, Bulgaria has made an odd choice. This particular variety does smell divine but is not particularly beautiful. Its attar is vital for the global cosmetic industry, yet its production and sales make a tiny spec in the Bulgarian GDP.

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MADARA HORSEMAN ENIGMA

Of all UNESCO World Heritage sites in Bulgaria, Madara Horseman is most difficult to see.

This is not because Europe's only medieval open-air relief is in an isolated spot that is hard to reach. The Madara Horseman is a short and easy drive from the Hemus motorway, near Shumen. Just beneath the 100 metre high rock where it is carved, there is a new visitor's centre and a viewing platform.

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BULGARIA'S BEST ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES

Bulgaria has the greatest number of archaeological sites in Europe after Greece and Italy. Every tour guide worth their badge has proclaimed this at least once to Bulgarian and foreign tourists. The adage is a compelling image of the country, but it is misleading. The great majority of Bulgaria's archaeological sites are interesting to archaeologists only and/or are in a condition that is hardly inspirational or Instagram-friendly: overgrown, looted by treasure hunters, devoid of tourist infrastructure and even signage.

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MOUNTAIN OF (NO) GOD

Gods and mountains go together. Zeus resided on the Olympus and a Tibetan Buddhist goddess – on the Everest, while God notoriously chose Mount Sinai as the place to give Moses the Ten Commandments.

One of Bulgaria's most spectacular mountains is also connected to a god – or to the lack of him. Pirin, in the southwest, was named after the Slavic thunder god, Perun, yet one of its summits is called Bezbog, or Godless.

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'ALLO 'ALLO?

Today Bulgaria, reportedly, has one of the best Internet networks in the world. This may be hard to believe because the country connected to the World Wide Web rather late, in 1989, and only got its first website in 1993.

When you look back in time to see how Bulgaria adopted other means of modern communication technology, you will recognise a pattern – after a reluctant adoption, an innovation quickly becomes ubiquitous, mastered by an enthusiastic younger generation. The story of how electric telegraphy arrived in the Bulgarian lands is a case in point.

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RILA MONASTERY MAGIC

Bulgarians are proud of the period of their national revival, in the late 18th and 19th centuries. It established the country as a young and energetic nation eager to restore its statehood after five centuries of Ottoman domination. Personalities such as the revolutionaries, Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev, are the poster boys of the era, but the whole revival period, which spans a century, was more complex. Violent revolution against the Sultan was only a part of it and would have been impossible if Bulgarians had not already emancipated themselves culturally, economically and politically.

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VELIKO TARNOVO DELIGHTS

Perched on a twisty meander of the Yantra River, where the hills of the Danube Plain meet the northern slopes of the Stara Planina, Veliko Tarnovo has unparalleled topography in Bulgaria, and possibly the Balkans. Traditional 19th century houses cling above the steep river bends, connected by alleys and steps that defy both gravity and everyday convenience – but living in Tarnovo has never been about convenience.

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THE TREE AND OTHER STORIES

Unlike the other visual languages, photography retains the "effect of reality." The photographic image verifies that what has been photographed is "really like that." At the same time, it arises "technically," through the effect of light on light-sensitive material. What, then, is the role of the photographer, where is the creativity in the creation of the photographic image, and to what extent is photography’s claim of being an art justified?

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BULGARIA'S BROADWAY?

When the Covid-19 lockdowns put the world into a standstill, in the spring of 2020, photographs and videos of famed and usually busy sites, such as the Eiffel Tower, Times Square and Taj Mahal, without their usual crowds became a powerful symbol of the crisis. The equivalent in Sofia was... Rakovski Street.

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BULGARIA'S TRADITIONS

When Bulgarians worry about the influence of globalisation on their culture, the preservation of their traditions is one of their main concerns. While it is true that some of the rites that are a part of life in Bulgaria have been affected by globalisation and mass culture, this is hardly the first time when they have been threatened with extinction. 

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BULGARIA'S FORGOTTEN RACE INTO SPACE

The mission of NASA's Space Launch System that aims to bring back humans to the Moon in 2024 is just the latest piece of space exploration news. The USA, China and Elon Musk are trying to figure out how to colonise Mars, Korea has developed its own rocket, and besides producing stunning photos of distant galaxies the brand new James Webb Space Telescope is searching for inhabitable exoplanets.

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CRACKING MEDIEVAL SMILE

A pair of dark, tender eyes glow in a delicate face crowned with a costly headdress decorated with pearls. The lady's lips are slightly curved, as if she is smiling at a private joke, or perhaps a secret she holds? The woman herself is an enigma. We know that the elegant lady painted on the walls of the Boyana Church was called Desislava and that she was the wife of Kaloyan, the handsome lord of 13th century Sofia painted next to her. But why is Desislava smiling?

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OF MUMMERS AND MEN

Winter has been a critical period for traditional societies in Europe since times immemorial. People, of course, were aware that the turn of the seasons would eventually bring back spring, sun and food. They knew that the slow, imperceptible change would start when the days are short and cold, and the nights are long and bleak. Despite this, they would crave some reassurance that spring would indeed return, the snow would melt and the plants would thrive again.

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BEST DRIVES IN BULGARIA IN 2023

Anyone who has done any driving on Bulgaria's roads will be familiar with the pitfalls (pun unintended). These include, but are not limited to, bad or non-existent asphalt, unpredictable and uncared-for potholes, confusing signage, maniacal drivers and traffic cops that contribute to the problems rather than try to solve them.

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WHY IS NESEBAR A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE?

If you visit Nesebar in high season, it will be easy to doubt the wisdom of UNESCO's 1983 decision to inscribe this town on the Black Sea coast into its World Heritage list. The crowds of holidaymakers on day trips from the overdeveloped resorts around, the stalls selling trinkets and souvenirs, the chalga music booming from overpriced, "traditional" restaurants are so overwhelming you cannot enjoy – or even notice – the beautiful medieval churches and the old wooden houses that are the reason all of these people and businesses are here.

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SILENCE OF THE CARYATIDS

No matter how diverse and interesting Thracian heritage is, time, destruction and rebuilding in war and peace, continual habitation and treasure-hunting have wiped out a lot of it – reducing it to a tomb here, a treasure there, and a shrine in what today appears to be the middle of nowhere. 

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WINTER TALES IN TRYAVNA

Wood-beamed houses, cobbled streets, mystic religious art and even some snow... you do not need to travel to France or Germany to immerse in the atmosphere of Christmas in a cosy town that has changed little over the centuries. 

Instead, visit Tryavna, on the northern slopes of the Stara Planina mountain range. 

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ST NICHOLAS DAY, SOZOPOL STYLE

In Western Europe, the 6th of December, or St Nicholas Day, is a time where the first whiff of Christmas gets felt. After all, the saint with his white beard and penchant for bringing gifts to good children is the draft of the modern Santa Claus. 

In Bulgaria, St Nicholas Day is equally important although in a different manner. Seen as the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, merchants and bankers, the saint is celebrated by many people who carry the different iterations of the name Nicholas and their families. A particular food is also associated with this day. 

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