My Bulgarian Spring Break


It was snowing. We were driving through a blizzard on April Fool’s Day, aiming our Subaru in blind hope towards a beach on the Black Sea: our first spring break since moving from sunny Florida to Bulgaria. My crazy-meter, never designed for such rigors, had long since gone on strike.

The whole enterprise had required a leap of faith. My wife would help run the embassy school, where our nine-year-old daughter would attend the fourth grade. I would transplant my writing from the fertile soil of Tampa to the rocky Balkans.

But just now, our needs were far simpler. Watch out for the pothole, the unexpected horse cart on the highway, the mafia Mercedes speeding from behind with darkened windows.  Find our hotel on the cobbled, one-way streets of Nesebar, a history-laden peninsula on the Black Sea. Locate a restaurant that was open in the off-season.  If ancient Greek mariners could find this port town on the edge of the known world, surely we could track down a bowl of spaghetti. Continue reading

Photo journal: Our Long March Through Bulgaria

You never take the trip you planned. And it’s only afterwards that the really important moments stand out.

That’s my takeaway from a recent family road trip around Bulgaria. We left on Thursday from Sofia and hit Belogradchik (famous rocks,) Vidin (famous river,) Ruse (gorgeous city on famous river,) Veliko Tarnovo (favorite town in mountains) and back to Sofia by Sunday. Google Maps calls it 873 kilometers, but I think we can safely push that up to 1,000 or so. There were a few wrong turns up there by the Danube.

Belogradchik stood out for its elderly people, in a good way. First we saw this charming trio out for a morning stroll in the town square. I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to chat with them; I suspect they’ve seen quite a lot of history pass through their mountain town. Continue reading

The Ghost Pumpkins of Bulgaria

I can always tell when the seasons are changing in our Sofia neighborhood.

In summer it’s all about watermelons. From the moment the weather turns hot, a vendor sets out huge, green pyramids fresh from Bulgaria’s fields. To seal the deal he cuts a few in half, displaying their cool red innards, as if to remind the tough or forgetful customer what’s inside.

Then, one magical day in autumn when the breeze runs cool, all is transformed. Gone are green melons, replaced by – can it be? – white pumpkins. Continue reading

Summer reading

It’s been a strange season to come and go from Sofia.

The night before we left on a trip overseas, a forest fire burned atop Mount Vitosha. The craggy horizon burned red as we packed our bags – a discomfiting omen, I thought.

While we were gone, terrorists set off a bomb and killed Israeli tourists in the port city of Burgas, which we had driven through in April. Summer floods soaked our basement garage with two feet of murky water, judging from the flood marks and squishy floor mats in our Subaru. And just weeks before, in May, an earthquake jolted us out of bed.

All that in the space of three months: fire, flood, war and earthquake.

“Is this normal?” I asked a Bulgarian friend.

“That’s life,” she said with a shrug and a grin. Continue reading

Photo journal: Sofia spring, moment by moment

It’s been a rainy spring here in Bulgaria. So when the clouds do part, even for a few moments, people hit the streets. They walk the parks and convene those outdoor meetings they craved all through a snowy winter.

Time slows down a bit, you pull out that skateboard or a pair of pink rollerskates, and just see where it takes you.

Earthquake Manners

I’ve always wondered about human behavior during emergencies. It seems trite to say it, but some people really do keep their heads and help their fellow man. Others seem to abandon whatever measure of civilization Mom and Mop gave them, shove aside the women and children and hog all the lifeboats for themselves. In 1994 a few troubled souls on a sinking ferry actually robbed their fellow passengers.

I’ve been thinking a lot about such things this week. Last Tuesday in Bulgaria, in the small hours of night, we had an earthquake. News reports would later call it 5.8 or 5.9 on the Richter scale. But there’s really no scale that describes the feeling of waking up in the middle of one. Continue reading

Inspiration zone: Veliko Tarnovo

What is it about Veliko Tarnovo that grabs your imagination and doesn’t let go?

Certainly its location, high on a cliffside in the rugged Balkan range, is a show-stopper. When Bulgarian nationalists needed a place to make their stand against Ottoman invaders beginning in the 12th century, this is where they came.

Tourists have been tromping up Tsarevets hill ever since for a glimpse of those fortifications. And don’t expect American-style guard rails everywhere. You thought this was Disneyland? It’s actually possible to walk off the edge of a castle and plunge to your death here.

Continue reading

Photo journal: Quiet season on the Black Sea

People say the spring is not the time to visit the Black Sea. Too quiet. Too cold. Not enough action.

I say they’re crazy.

On a recent trip to Bulgaria’s coast, I was blown away by the natural beauty. The beaches are pristine, the towns placid and laid back.

We found workers still painting signs and fishermen readying their boats for the busy season. They seemed surprised to see tourists on their streets.

Too soon, their posture said, come back in a month or two! Continue reading

Five reasons why skiing in Bulgaria isn’t what you think

Sadly, ski season appears to be winding down here in Bulgaria. With each passing day the mountains above Sofia seem a bit less white.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out what an incredibly great season it has been, with plenty of snow and comfortable temperatures for the last month. Last weekend my daughter and I ventured up to Borovets in the Rila Mountains for what could be our final runs of 2012, though in truth we’re already scheming for a return in December.

In that spirit, I offer a few observations on how much better skiing in this corner of the Balkans has turned out to be than I ever expected. For a skier who was raised (okay, spoiled) on Rocky Mountain powder back in the day, it has been a revelation. Continue reading

Photo journal: Ode to Tram 18

I love Tram 18 in Sofia.

All through this frigid East European winter, when every instinct tells us to hide under the blankets, my family has journeyed downtown on this steel relic from Bulgaria’s past. It provides a perfect, nicely-heated portal for journeying through a city that was made for walking.

The trip starts at the southern terminus in Istok, directly opposite the Russian embassy. Passengers line up at trackside, pull up their scarves, and point their faces away from the wind like seagulls on a pier.

When the tram arrives, be prepared to wait a few minutes longer. First the southbound passengers disembark. Then the tram reverses and disappears into a cul-de-sac in the neighboring park. Wait for it. A few minutes later – time enough for the driver to switch tracks, move from back to front, and perhaps take a swig of coffee – the tram reappears for the northward journey. Continue reading