For a small town, Troyan has a serious claim to fame. Located deep into some of the most inaccessible parts of the Stara Planina, the town produces and lends its name to the famed Troyanska Slivova, or Troyan plum Rakiya. It is also the place of origin of the ubiquitous pottery found all over Bulgaria's traditional restaurants. The so-called Troyan pots, with their distinctive multicoloured patterns, are amongst the best souvenirs visitors to Bulgaria can lay their hands on.
You do not need to be able to read Bulgarian to understand the meaning and to feel the power of a fresco in the Preobrazhenski Monastery, near Veliko Tarnovo. You do not even need to know who the artist, Zahariy Zograf, was.
Christ was an alien. Or if He wasn't, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.
The name, Rachenitsa, may be too difficult for a foreigner to remember or pronounce, but you have probably seen it as a crude copy on the wall of a traditional restaurant, as a reproduction or a souvenir, or in the original in the National Gallery of Art. It is an image that stays in the mind. In a brightly-lit, austere tavern, a pair of men in traditional Bulgarian costume dance, surrounded by onlookers. Rachenitsa is a horo popular all over Bulgaria and is usually danced by one or two men, not holding hands, but on their own. Famous for its difficulty and the stamina required, in the olden times it was used as a competition between rival parties.
Ever since he touched a roll of black-and-white film, many years ago, Alexander Ivanov knew that his relationship with photography would be for life. Through the 1970s and 1980s Alexander Ivanov was one of this country's most innovative photographers. He was the mastermind of the association of photographers in his native Kazanlak, and his experiments in colour photography at the time brought him prestigious national and international photography awards.
Traditional villages, Thracian rock shrines and natural phenomena are the most common off-the-beaten-rack experiences in Bulgaria, but when you take the small road from the OMV petrol station at the 68th kilometre on the Hemus motorway near Osikovitsa village, you are heading for a surprise.
Mediaeval faces gaze from the walls of churches hewn into steep rocks: a Transfiguration here, a Last Supper there. No, this encounter of past and present is not taking place in faraway Cappadocia of worldwide renown for its odd rock chapels, but here in Bulgaria. About 20 kms from Ruse, the bends of the Rusenski Lom River embrace about a dozen churches and monastic cells hewn into the rock. In the 12th-14th centuries they composed one monastic complex. Today, they are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We, Bulgarians, usually identify ourselves as such with the "I am a Bulgarian Youth" poem by Ivan Vazov. Later on, unless you go on to become a member of a nationalist party, you don't feel any particular need to remind yourself of "I am a Bulgarian." Such a statement, despite its straightforwardness, could invoke a measure of uncertainty, like the invisible steps on the front cover of this book. It is not because you could be something else than a Bulgarian, but because the affirmation presupposes a previous agreement between yourself and your compatriots about what it is that makes you Bulgarian and what makes Bulgarians a community.
This is a difficult task that quickly entangles you in bookish definitions that will likely obfuscate rather than illuminate the issue of who you are.