VIBRANT COMMUNITIES

SOFIA'S TOP 10

Thanks to cheap flights or business travel, for many foreigners Sofia is their first, and last, glimpse of this country. Many prefer to head elsewhere to avoid the heat (in summertime), the slush (in winter) and the pavements (year round), and for those who opt to stay in the city, the capital remains a blur of experiences: the potholes and the noise, but also the pleasingly affordable bars and restaurants, the odd glimpses of interesting buildings, usually the St Alexandr Nevskiy cathedral.

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AMERICAN DREAM UNDER WATER

The meadow opposite the church in Gumoshtnik, the village whose name is unpronounceable for either locals or foreigners, resembles churchyards in many other Bulgarian villages. Two monuments stand there, honouring soldiers killed in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and the First World War. Again, as in most Bulgarian villages, the meadow is usually deserted. When the wars began, this particular hamlet near Troyan, in the Balkan Mountains, had eight lively neighbourhoods. Urbanisation after 1944 reduced that number to six. Now, according to the last census, about 240 people live there.

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SLOW TRAIN COMING

How long does it take to cover 125 km? In a mountain range such as the Rhodope this is a difficult question. Even Bulgarian drivers who like to fly a

long roads as if they were exempt from the laws of physics have to slow down a bit along the winding roads of the Rhodope mountain range.

The Septemvri-Dobrinishte narrow gauge railway redefines the concept of slow travel. It takes the 125 kilometre long route in... 5 hours.

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BULGARIA'S BEST BEACHES: SOUTH

The beaches on Bulgaria's southern Black Sea coast are under threat: every year developers take new ground to build hotels and bars on. Sand dunes, which are protected by law, overnight turn into plots ready for the diggers to arrive, and new buildings rise right by the sea on the site of former cliffs, marshes and wetlands.

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SORRY FATE OF BULGARIA'S 'SCIENTIFIC-TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS'

Bulgarians are present in many fields of modern science and engineering, from medicine to space exploration, pushing new boundaries and breaking new grounds. If you have not heard much about it, it is because the great majority of them work for foreign universities, scientific institutions and R&D teams. As a result of the decades-long neglect of the fundamental and the applied sciences and of engineering in Bulgaria, academically gifted Bulgarians go abroad the moment they graduate from secondary school.

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IN DEEP PURPLE

A small, neat bag filled with dried lavender is an ubiquitous souvenir in many Mediterranean countries. It should be in the portfolio of Bulgarian souvenirs too, along with the vials of rose water.

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BULGARIA'S BEST BEACHES, PART 1

Until the 2000s, the sandy beaches that dot the Bulgarian coast were among the best places around the entire Black Sea to stretch your towel. Covered in golden sands, they spread in long straight strips and form crescents along coves sheltered from the open sea by steep cliffs. Untamed vegetation and wildlife called them home, from thick floodplain forests to gentle sand lilies and migrating birds. There were beachgoers, but even in big resorts one could find a spot to bathe in relative calm.

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AFTERLIFE IN KAZANLAK TOMB

What happens after death has fascinated people since the dawn of humanity. The earliest accounts of what they thought was the answer paint a glum picture. According to the ancient Mesopotamians, the dead inhabited a grim realm where they had only dust to eat and drink. Ancient Egyptians striving for an afterlife had to be mummified and to undergo a strict vetting process, under threat of being eaten by a monster in case they failed. The ancient Greeks were aware that even the greatest heroes would be reduced to nameless shadows in the Kingdom of Hades.

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MICHAEL ZAIMOV'S SOZOPOL

Overcrowded, overdeveloped, simply put overwhelming: in summertime, Sozopol is the definition of a place you must avoid if you are looking for some semblance of tranquillity at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Off season, the town is more bearable, but reminders of the tourist industry are everywhere. In the picturesque old quarter, clinging to a narrow rocky peninsula, there is hardly a lane free from signs advertising rooms to let, or restaurants with plastic window frames closed for winter, or hip art galleries.

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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO SUGAR FACTORY?

Faux industrial style is all the rage in new development in Sofia: brown and grey façades of fake bricks can be now spotted in both old neighbourhoods and gated communities on the city's outskirts.

But while new construction in Bulgaria aims to achieve the attractive weathered look of the repurposed 19th century warehouses and factory buildings that are now associated with the poshest parts of NYC, London and Hamburg, genuine old redbricks are slowly falling to ruins. Sofia's Zaharna Fabrika, or Sugar Factory, neighbourhood is one of the best – or worst – examples.

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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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