When you travel around Bulgaria, from the capital to the smallest of villages, you will inevitably encounter monuments of stern men and sometimes women, with guns in their hands and passion in their eyes. Made of stone or bronze, these monuments adorn squares and streets, peek over the trees by roads, and form whole, often overgrown compounds.
When you go to Tirana, you do not seek stunning architecture or rich history. You go for the curiosity factor. Albania and its capital are shrouded in the atmosphere of a little-known, little-visited, isolated and poor country haunted by the memories of Europe's last dictatorship.
Bizarre monument in front of NDK may finally be consigned to dustbin of history
When God created the earth, the Bulgarian legend goes, He gathered all the nations to divide the world among them. To the British, He gave mastership over the seas, while the Swiss received the mountains, the Russians got the great plains, and the Germans took possession of the thick forests. When God ran out of gifts, He noticed that there was a people who were still empty-handed: the humble Bulgarians, languishing at the end of the queue of nations. Baffled, God soon realised what had happened: the Devil had stolen all the best pieces of the earth. The Almighty took everything back, and gave it to the Bulgarians.
In Sofia, there is a place where you can see a representative sample of modern-day Bulgarian society in just about a couple of square miles and in less than a few hours. This is the National Palace of Culture, or NDK. On its vast square, teenagers skateboard and flirt, elderly people have coffee with friends and mothers stroll with their children, while buskers and icecream sellers vie for customers. In the evening, people heading for some festival or concert at the NDK's Hall 1 flock in front of the main entrance. It has about a dozen doors, but typically just one is open. The bars around are packed, and those who can afford it head for the luxury restaurant on the top floor.