interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Meet the author of the latest Bulgaria Rough Guide and hear things he hasn't - or wouldn't - say in the book

Jonathan Bousfield.jpg

At the beginning of the 1990s, when Bulgaria was far from the tourist-friendly paradise you are now being enticed to buy a second home in, Jon Bousfield came to Bulgaria for the first time. An Englishman, he arrived on a mission - to write, in cooperation with Dan Richardson, the first Bulgaria Rough Guide. Half a dozen visits and several editions later, he has become the man you have to listen to in case you wanted to explore Ivan Vazov, offal food in restaurants, patriotic fakes in Bulgarian museums and Sofia's nascent urban culture. Oh, and the “pickled” heart of Aleko Konstantinov in Svishtov.

Why Bulgaria?

The first time Bulgaria entered my consciousness was during the 1970 World Cup when my granddad bought me packets of football stickers representing different players in different teams – the idea being that you didn't know which players were in which packet. All the packets I opened contained murky pictures of Bulgarian players I had never heard of, when what I really wanted was a sticker of Pele or Bobby Moore. I was very disappointed. If I have subsequently gone on to write outrageously rude things about Bulgaria in my career as a guidebook writer, it is only because I am compensating for this childhood letdown.

Throughout my childhood Bulgaria was saddled with the image of being a “grey” Sovietised country of little interest, but things improved during school history lessons. According to my text book, the 1878 Congress of Berlin resulted in the breakup of “Great Bulgaria” and its replacement by the Principality of Bulgaria and the province of Eastern Rumelia. The idea of Eastern Rumelia seemed absolutely fascinating: the name itself seemed to belong more to Middle Earth or Narnia. History text books didn't have much to say about what life in Eastern Rumelia might have been like but my imagination soon filled in the gaps: to me it sounded like the kind of place where men in fezzes discussed espionage in coffee shops while camel drovers delivered a fresh supply of slave girls to the market every morning. A bit like a Tintin adventure but with more sex. Visiting Bulgaria for the first time many years later I was mildly disappointed that things didn't quite look like this, but I did nevertheless discover that Rumelia's erstwhile capital Plovdiv possessed a charm that was much more seductive than anything Sofia had to offer. And I have been pro-Rumelian ever since. If Bulgaria ever fragments into its constituent parts (and in this part of the world anything is possible), I'll be aboard the first train to Plovdiv ready to claim my Rumelian passport.

Is Bulgaria a former East bloc state, a former province of the Ottoman Empire, or a fully-fledged member of the EU?

I think it depends which Bulgarians you meet and what kind of mood they're in at the time. Anyone who has had dealings with Bulgarian state functionaries might be forgiven for thinking that the era of Ottoman viziers and pashas is still very much alive.

I think that Bulgaria's Communist leaders genuinely believed that their model of enforced modernisation would sweep away remaining vestiges of the Ottoman past, without realising that the corruption and indolence of Balkan Communist bureaucrats was in many ways a continuation of the Ottoman Empire by other means.

Maybe chalga music is the perfect metaphor for modern Bulgarian society. The recording technology is modern, the girls are scantily clad, but the underlying melodies are unashamedly part of the Ottoman past.

How does it compare with other countries in transition?

The main difference between Bulgaria and other transitional countries of Eastern Europe during the 1990s was that Bulgaria took models of business development from its nearest capitalist neighbours – Greece and Turkey – while the rest were more open to influences from central and northern Europe. It's all changing now of course – big sectors of the Bulgarian economy have been bought by Western business giants who want to train local staff in Western corporate ways.

Your choice of “hidden treasures” in Bulgaria?

I've always been struck by the way Bulgarian museums draw maximum pathos from the nation's history by displaying often quite gruesome relics of national heroes. These are frequently passed over by foreign visitors who often don't even know to look for them. Favourites of mine include the hair of Vasil Levski in Sofia's National Military Museum; the skull of Stefan Karadzha in the Ruse Historical Museum; the pickled heart of Aleko Konstantinov in the Svishtov Museum; the suitcases of Zahari Stoyanov (who dropped dead during a visit to Paris, hence the compelling nature of his luggage) in museums in both Medven and Ruse; and the false eyeball of revolutionary poet Geo Milev in Sofia's National History Museum. The evening dress of Lora Karavelova (complete with bullet holes) is preserved in the house where she shot herself – the Peyu Yavorov Museum in Sofia. Were some future Dr Frankenstein to put these relics together, the resulting creature would probably add up to the ideal Bulgarian hero. I am looking forward to seeing the legs of Hristo Stoytchkov displayed in Sofia sometime in the near future, preferably suspended in mid-air above the centre-circle of the Vasil Levski stadium.

Your view on overdevelopment at the Black Sea coast and the beginnings of mass tourism. Does Bulgaria stand to win or lose?

The beginnings of mass tourism? Mass tourism has been Bulgaria's basic holiday product ever since the 1960s. So in a sense Bulgaria is simply re-establishing its status as Eastern Europe's answer to the Spanish costas. And there'll never be a shortage of people whose idea of paradise consists of concrete hotels or apartment blocks, a long beach with a cocktail bar every few hundred metres, and maybe a golf course a few minutes' drive away.

Protecting Bulgaria's coast from further environmental damage depends on stronger planning regulations and a state bureaucracy willing to enforce them. All of which will happen eventually, but not as quickly as many of us would hope.

Most people recognise that Bulgaria needs to diversify its Black Sea tourism. Investing in sustainable tourism and well-protected national parks might actually draw in those high-spending guests who are currently giving Bulgaria a wide berth because of its reputation for cheap concrete mass resorts.

Coastal cities like Varna or mountain towns like Bansko might actually function as year-round destinations if someone made an attempt to coordinate tourist development rather than leaving it to individual interests. Long-term planning of this nature is not, one fears, a Bulgarian speciality.

Your view on urban culture in Bulgaria?

It would be a very good idea. Just let me know when it's about to start. Seriously though, if urban culture is defined by the number of places where you can go out and eat, drink and dance, Bulgaria is something of a hedonist's paradise. This going-out culture has exploded out of nothing in the space of 18 years, giving it a youthful vibrancy that is hard to match.

Urban culture?

Urban culture?

Taking urban culture in a wider sense, Bulgaria also has a lot of serious classical music and drama. It's what lies in the middle that seems lacking. Contemporary art is in its infancy, live jazz and rock are - despite a few exceptions - utterly feeble, and there are no cities in Bulgaria which you could describe as having a thriving arts or music scene.

The only thing which comes anywhere near this is Plovdiv in September, when there is an international theatre festival, a Contemporary Arts Week and the fantastic Night of the Galleries (when all the museums and galleries in town stay open until the early hours), all of which take place within a couple of weeks of each other. This is the only time in Bulgaria when I've felt as if I'm at the heart of a happening city.

Other countries in east and central Europe have a deep tradition of cultural revolt (just think about Warsaw and Prague in 1968), ensuring that their urban culture has always preserved a depth and vitality regardless of which regime was in power. Bulgaria missed out on a lot of this, I think. If you want evidence of youth rebellion or intellectual revolt in Bulgaria then you probably have to go back to the days of Geo Milev and Nikola Vaptsarov between the 1920s and the 1940s. The present generation of artists, musicians, designers and film-makers are working to expectations imposed from outside.

Five must-dos for visitors and expats living here?

The top five tourist sights which actually deliver the wow factor promised by the tourist brochures are probably the Thracian tomb at Sveshtari; the Botanical Gardens at Queen Marie's Palace in Balchik; Rila Monastery (interchangeable with Bachkovo Monastery); the heritage village of Koprivshtitsa; and the 19th Century townscape of Old Plovdiv.

Rila Monastery in the 1970s

Rila Monastery in the 1970s

Sofia itself doesn't really qualify as a must-do, although the Military History Museum on Cherkovna Street is one of the best history museums I have visited in recent years, and the Archaeological Museum in the centre of Sofia is an absolute gem. I should mention too, that a night spent roaming the bars and clubs of Studentski Grad (where pulsating nightlife coexists with grey housing blocks) certainly beats anything I've ever found in any of the more frequently hyped “party cities” of Eastern Europe.

That apart, most of the memorable experiences offered by Bulgaria occur when you leave the capital. Like staying in a rural village like Zheravna and being woken by the early-morning sound of goat herds embarking on the daily round of the pastures; walking in the weird sandstone hills around Melnik (where most visitors don't venture much further than 100m from the village square); or heading for one of the annual folk festivals such as Pirin Pee (“Pirin Sings”) – a raucous three-day picnic held in a meadow at the Predel Pass above Bansko, which this year will take place on 5 and 6 August. The Rila, Pirin and the Rhodope mountains are as stunning as the guide-books say they are, but you do have to be prepared to hike – Bulgaria's mountains aren't lined up for inspection like the Swiss Alps.

Five turn-offs?

Bulgaria's list of turnoff s starts to mount from the moment you arrive, but bad travel experiences have a strange habit of turning into treasured memories. My abiding memory of Sofia 2007 is being stranded in a beer hall full of Bulgarian neo-Nazis and making my escape as a mass fight between CSKA and Levski fans broke out. I kind of miss it now I'm not there. Th e beer hall is in a courtyard just off Slaveykov Square if anyone wants to check it out.

Of course the biggest danger of life in Sofia is being stuck with a group of expats moaning about what's wrong with the country, but then it would be inhuman not to join in. My pet hates – and I'm speaking as a travel writer here – go something like this:

Anything to do with roses. Anything with the word “roses” in the title, whether it's a valley, a festival, or a skin cream, is guaranteed to be a disappointment.

Bulgarian cooking does have its moments, but under-grilling a porky meatball, sticking a stew in the microwave and chopping vegetables for salad doesn't really qualify as cuisine. Hardest to bear is the idea that any dish with drob in the name qualifies as a speciality. If eating offal was supposed to be an enjoyable culinary experience, Jamie Oliver would surely have written a book about it.

No one should ever try to read Bulgaria's epic national novelist Ivan Vazov in English translation. Far better to preserve the myth that he is the great Bulgarian author you never got round to reading, rather than coming face to face with the awful suspicion that he was in fact not very good at all.

The Bulgarian National History Museum in Sofia. Pompous, nationalistic and filled with replicas of things which are actually kept elsewhere, this is the museum world's equivalent to a long, loud fart.


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