Bulgaian history

BULGARIA'S FORGOTTEN BUNKERS

After a few weeks in Bulgaria expats and visitors alike who take more than a passing interest in the obvious attractions of the country are bound to have noticed the enormous number of ruins all over. In fact, Bulgarian Communist-era ruins can be so overwhelming that to make sense of them it helps to split them into a number of subcategories: industrial ruins (plants and factories that ceased to exist post-1989), farming ruins (remnants of collective farms and facilities), and urban ruins (abandoned or never-completed buildings in towns).

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RAIDERS OF TREASURE MOUND

Large and small, isolated or in groups, you will see mounds all over Bulgaria: atop rolling hills and amid farming fields, by old village graveyards and motorways, even on the outskirts of Sofia. The ancient Thracians who lived in the Bulgarian lands between the 1st millennium BC and the 6th century AD created most of them. They buried their dead there, interring noblemen and women with expensive personal possessions. In many cases the tombs were very impressive, such as those in Kazanlak, Aleksandrovo and Sboryanovo.

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ASENOVA FORTRESS: MEDIEVAL REMAINS ON EDGE OF RHODOPE

The Asenova Fortress is about 3 km south of Asenovgrad, on the road to Smolyan, and impresses from afar. A tiny church is perched on a steep rock overlooking the narrow gorge of the Chepelarska River. A winding road leads up to the height, where the remains of the castle are. The church, Holy Mother of Christ, is the best preserved building in the complex: a brick-and-mortar confection in the Byzantine style popular across the Balkans in the 12th-14th centuries.

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WHO WERE THE THRACIANS?

These people were the Thracians.

Today their name is barely known to anyone outside southeastern Europe. The Thracians built for eternity – especially tombs and shrines – but they lived in the moment and, underestimating the importance of writing down their deeds, they left next to nothing about their history, faith and beliefs. And so, bar the fascinating sites and treasures they created, the life of the Thracians remains more or less a mystery.

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IF BULGAR KHANS WERE SCI-FI CHARACTERS...

Japanese tourists just love the Founders of Bulgaria monument in Shumen, the woman in the ticket office says. The Japanese, the lady continues, are smitten. They stare and stare, and only when they get over their initial shock, do they take out their cameras. The lady at the city council-run ticket office was equally bewildered by the reaction of the Japanese until one day a guide explained.

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WŁADYSŁAW WARNEŃCZYK MAUSOLEUM

The busy Władysław Warneńczyk Boulevard is the road you need to take through Varna to reach the Sofia-bound motorway. It is also the road to one of Bulgaria's strangest and most moving museums.

Among the firs of the park – an oasis of calm amidst the urban buzz – two Thracian burial mounds stand. One of them, adorned with a monument, encloses a burial chamber where lies the stone effigy of a medieval knight.

A medieval knight? In Bulgaria?

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UP IN THE SKY

The best place for paragliding in Bulgaria: that is the unlikely fame of Sopot. The town in the valley between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountains is most famous as the birthplace of Ivan Vazov, Bulgaria's venerated 19th Century writer. Sopot is also the hometown of Bulgaria's biggest military ammunition factory.

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IN LEVSKI'S FOOTSTEPS

Vasil Ivanov Kunchev aka Vasil Levski (1837-1873), is probably Bulgaria's greatest national hero: a dedicated revolutionary who created a clandestine network of secret cells to foment rebellion and free Bulgarian lands from the Ottomans. He never saw the fulfilment of his ideal, as he was caught, tried and executed before an uprising broke out, and his followers never managed to resurrect the organisation he had meticulously set up.

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RENÉ CHARRON

What is the best way to help when a war or a natural disaster have deprived hundreds of thousands of food, homes and sanitation? Throw money at the problem? Send for the Red Cross? Call Bono?



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GOOD CAPE

Wherever you reach some higher ground in Bulgaria there will be a legend about it. And in 90 percent of the cases it will be about some brave Bulgarian maidens who jumped off it to avoid being "enslaved" by Turks.

Kaliakra is no exception.

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FORGOTTEN PLOT

There is hardly a village in Bulgaria without a monument. Those to local victims of the two Balkan and the two World wars are the most common, followed by memorials to Communist partisans and monuments of workers and other "builders of Socialism." There are also the monuments to Revival Period figures, who were usually born or met their end in a particular village.

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UNKNOWN NANSEN

Sofia's streets are generally named after those who have played a significant role in Bulgaria's past, and they often act as a crash course in the country's history. Among the kings such as Simeon I and Ivan Asen, the clerics such as Patriarch Evtimiy and the revolutionaries like Vasil Levski, Hristo Botev and Georgi Rakovski, there are a few foreigners too.

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WHO WAS VASIL LEVSKI?

Assert that you agree with, like, respect, adore and pray to Vasil Levski (1837-1873), Bulgaria's greatest national hero, and you are likely to get away with almost anything. Levski's portrait hangs in classrooms and factories, in police stations and, sometimes, even in private houses. Levski regards us from postage stamps and T-shirts. There is hardly a town or village in Bulgaria that does not have at least one street named after him.

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WALKING ON DARVIN, KARNEGI AND VASHINGTON

When walking around Sofia you might have noticed that some of the streets, boulevards and neighbourhoods are named after foreigners. Every so often, you come across American and British names. In fact, there are 21 individuals of American, British and Irish origin commemorated in this way in Sofia. Almost all of these played a part in Bulgarian history in one way or another during the period between the April Uprising of 1876 and the end of the Second World War, supporting the country and its people.

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LOST REPUBLIC

"Tomrush is a picturesque village, with grey-roofed houses clustering on the side of a steep ravine; but its beauty has been marred by the wholesale destruction of the surrounding forest," James Bourchier, a reporter for The Times, wrote in the early 20th Century. The village is just a few kilometres from Plovdiv, in the northern Rhodope, but to get there Bourchier had to cross the border into the Ottoman Empire, escorted by Bulgarian soldiers.

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BATAK

One of the golden rules of good writing says you must never start a story with description of a landscape.

In the case of Batak, however, the desire to do so is overwhelming. You are tempted to begin with the narrow road that meanders into the Rhodope all the way from Pazardzhik and Peshtera, and the fresh highland air. You search for the best adjectives to describe the water of the nearby Batak Reservoir (crystal? tranquil?). You remember that the Tsigov Chark resort has long been regarded as a pleasant and inexpensive place for a mountain holiday.

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WHO ARE THE POMAKS?

The wind of change does not blow with equal force everywhere. When you replace your old Walkman with the latest iPod, you make a small change in your standard of living. When someone who is not Spanish or Greek begins using Mañana or σιγά σιγά when talking business, this is a change in their way of thinking. However, when you change your religion, this fundamentally alters your whole life – the new religion is a new way of viewing the world.

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THE BATTLE OF PLEVEN

If you happen to find yourself in Pleven's central square on 10 December, you might think you've stumbled into a historical film. Men in copies of 19th Century Russian, Romanian and Ottoman military uniforms pose with sabres and Berdana and Martini rifles against a backdrop of cannons and bayonets – the fence surrounding the Mausoleum, one of the city's prime tourist attractions. This re-enactment of the Ottomans' surrender to the Russians at Pleven in 1877 after a five-month siege is a set, not for a film, but for the city's traditional liberation celebrations.

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