VIBRANT COMMUNITIES

IS RACISM IN BULGARIA ON THE RISE?

"We are fascists, we burn Arabs": the youngsters start chanting as soon as they emerge from the metro station and leave the perimeter of its security cameras. Their voices grow stronger with each step in the dark streets of the relatively central Sofia neighbourhood. Then they gradually disperse, still ecstatic after a protest provoked by an alleged attack by a group of Arab migrants on Bulgarian teens on Vitosha Boulevard.

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HOW WOODROW WILSON AND CHARLES DARWIN CAME TO SOFIA

The names of foreigners, mainly Russians, are common across the map of Sofia – from Alexandr Dondukov and Count Ignatieff to Alexey Tolstoy (a Communist-era Soviet writer not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) who has a whole housing estate named after him. An understandable situation. After Bulgaria's Liberation as a result of the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, the new nation was eager to express its gratitude to the Russian Empire, its diplomats and administrators who had laid the foundations of the modern Bulgarian state.

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JESUS CHRIST ASTRONAUT

Christ was an alien. Or if He was not, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.

If you believe the hype, evidence that aliens visited us in the past, probably inspiring Christianity, exists hidden in plain sight. In a church. In Bulgaria. A fresco in a 17th century church in the Dobarsko village is said to represent Christ in a space rocket, in the Transfiguration scene.

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OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS

Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity. It continues to maintain at least a dozen monuments to the Red Army. Some are gargantuan and placed in various top locations in bigger cities, some are small and unobtrusive. Urbexers and lovers of quaint and bizarre trivia will be bemused to discover that none of these remnants of the Communist past in actual fact commemorate any... real-life story.

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VARVARA'S IRON TREE

Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death. The script of The Big Night Swim, a movie that premiered in 1980, sums up what existential angst and ennui looked like in Communist Bulgaria, or at least in Communist Bulgaria's "intellectual elite." Significantly, the movie was shot at a relatively remote location the village of Varvara.

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TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS

Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.

It usually takes place in the third weekend of May and is a part of an international festival organised by the Gabrovo city council and the town's House of Humour and Satire, probably the only museum in the world dedicated to... fun.

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LET'S PICK SOME ROSES

Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places. Here, in the so-called Valley of Roses, the pink, rather unremarkable Rosa damascena blooms in May and early June, filling the early morning air with its thick, dizzying aroma.

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FROM BLACK ROCK DESERT, NV, TO NOVO SELO, BG

Organisers of the notorious Burning Man festival seem to have heeded the lessons of 2023 when festival-goers, paying uprwards of $500 for a ticket, had to wade, owing to torrential rains and flashfloods, through tons of mud in the northern Nevada desert. It has just been announecd that the next iteration of Larry Harvey and Jerry James's creation will be held in Novo Selo, in southern Bulgaria.

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AMAZING PLANTS & ANIMALS OF BULGARIA

In Bulgaria, nature has created a number of little wonders. They might not be spectacular or grandiose, but they constitute a vital part of the local wildlife, create a feeling of uniqueness and are sometimes the sole survivors of bygone geological epochs. Many of these are plants, and some are animals. Here is a list of our favourite little Bulgarian wonders of nature.

Haberlea rhodopensis

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MOSQUE OF LEGENDS

Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day. From the 1390s to the 1870s, Bulgarians were subjects of an empire that, at the height of its power, stretched over three continents. Many of those years were peaceful and allowed Bulgarians to look after their families, flocks and fields, to build businesses and to carve a place, however limited, in a Muslim-dominated society.

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CITY OF EAGLES

As the official symbol of Bulgaria, lions can be seen everywhere, from the national coat of arms to architectural ornaments to "patriotic" tattoos. But if you look closely at the façades in central Sofia, you might have the impression that the nation has another symbolic animal, the eagle.

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SOFIA'S STRANGE MONUMENTS

Some monuments impress with their size, artistic value or historical significance, and some have a hidden history to match. Sofia, as Bulgaria's capital, has a particularly high concentration of monuments and statues with unusual backgrounds. Some of these are just oddities and curiosities that add a pinch of spice to otherwise official public art and have become ingrained in the city's history. However, others are controversial and have caused various debates through the years.

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KUKERI AND THEIR DANCES

From Venice to Rio, carnivals are a time honoured tradition to celebrate the end of winter with a riot of noise and dance, with masks and a temporary subversion of established social roles. The Bulgarian version is the kukeri dances.

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THE VELCHOVA ZAVERA HIKE

Еvery April, since 2020, hundreds of young Bulgarians gather in Veliko Tarnovo and embark on a meaningful journey, retracing the steps of a daring rebellion that took place in the town and its surroundings, in 1835. The Velchova Zavera Hike is not just a physical trek but a symbol of remembering the past and celebrating the spirit of freedom.

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SHIPS OF ROCK

Sinemorets, at Bulgaria's southern Black Sea coast, remains one of the most idyllic and calmly beautiful spots around. Overdevelopment has not completely destroyed the pleasure of walking around the little village, once off limits because of its proximity to Turkey, or sunbathing on its popular southern beach. As for Sinemorets's northern beach, its setting is unbeatable: a sand spit, created by the mouth of the Veleka River and backed by rising rocky hills.

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TOP MUST-SEES IN 2024

When wanderlust grabs you in 2024 but deciding on your next destination is hard, here is a list of places to whet your appetite. Some of them are millennia old and others are new, but they are all remarkable and most are one-of-a-kind.

Tryavna

What: One of the best preserved Revival Period towns in Bulgaria

Visit for: Atmosphere

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BRUTALIST BULGARIA

A white mammoth dominates the upper part of Boulevard Todor Aleksandrov in central Sofia. Its massive, concrete surfaces are imposing. Looking from the lower ground of the Serdica station, the building, Unicredit Bulbank's headquarters, resembles a giant ocean steamer which is about to crush the Largo, the vast space surrounded by the Stalinist Council of Ministers, the Office of the President and the former Communist Party House, now parliament.

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LES FRANÇAIS EN BULGARIE

Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it. This is why today in Sofia you will spot an odd French name here and there: the Léandre le Gay Street in the centre, schools named Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo, a metro station is known as Frédéric Joliot-Curie. On noticing this, you may be reminded of the words of the late Bulgarian President, Zhelyu Zhelev, who infamously stated that Bulgarians were... Francophones.

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