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.

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.

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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

“Happy New Year! Good luck.”

We returned to Sofia on New Year’s Eve after a trip to visit family. The city was freshly painted in crisp, white snow.

At midnight the city erupted in fireworks. We raced from window to window in our apartment, trying to catch the best view. The neighborhood of Lozenets appeared to be under an artillery bombardment, so intense was their celebration.

The next day Sofia appeared to be nearly deserted, what with the family parties and feasting going on indoors, except for those hearty souls who emerged to walk their dogs on the icy streets.

It’s said one of the ways Bulgarians celebrate the New Year is by wearing new clothes. On the evidence, I’d have to say that’s true. We saw a Chihuahua wearing a red sweater and a Dachshund proudly sporting a green lizard suit. Every dog, it seemed, was wearing a new outfit. Continue reading

Photo journal: Vidin and the Danube

We arrived in Vidin, Bulgaria, in time for the sunset, and we were not disappointed.

It’s a bit quiet at this time of the year. But it’s clear from the care taken in grooming a handsome park on the banks of the Danube that Vidin gets its share of vacationers in the summer months. We saw a handful of families out for a stroll, sight-hungry passengers hurrying back to their cruise ship, and pensioners lined up on the boardwalk as if waiting for their own boat to arrive.

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Driving in Bulgaria, Part 1: Car Shopping

It was bound to happen sooner or later.

After months – yes, months – of relying on taxis and the goodwill of friends to get around in Sofia, I recently took the bold step of beginning to look for a car. It’s hard to overstate the layers of complication and premeditation that led me to this point.

Those not living in Bulgaria might find it difficult to understand why it took me until November to  begin this process in earnest. After all, we arrived on August 1.

But really, what’s the point  when it takes three months for the government to issue the all-important identity card? Without it, the best I could have managed was renting or leasing a car or, more perilous still, buying one and somehow arranging to keep the papers in another driver’s name until I could by the car outright.

And honestly, we haven’t been in a huge rush to drive here. Crowded Tsarigradsko Shose makes the devilishly chaotic Route 4 in northern New Jersey look like a cow path.  Please don’t take this the wrong way – no national insults are intended – but Bulgarian traffic operates according to a terrifying logic all its own. Tailgating has been refined to an art form, and slow driving is interpreted as a sign of mortal weakness. Horn honking seems reserved for expressions of fury. And the rotaries – I think here, particularly, of the infamous Circle of Death near the Carrefour – resemble nothing so much as a high-stakes game of Frogger. Continue reading

My Roma writer’s block

Attentive readers will have noticed that I’ve studiously ignored this blog for the last few days. Apologies. But I have my reasons.

And they come down to this: I’ve always tried to be careful as a journalist to avoid writing about things I know nothing about, especially when I’m new to a country. And last week’s ethnic tensions and rioting over Bulgaria’s Roma (Gypsy) minority pose a big challenge for someone who tries to be careful with the facts.

It all started Sept. 23 with the killing of a non-Roma teenager in the southern village of Katunitsa. (Though already I’m straying onto thin ice, because some would say these troubles have been brewing for years and not just days.) Continue reading

My quest to find the perfect taxi driver

It’s a well-worn cliche that taxi drivers are the source and repository of all knowledge on a country. But, like all good cliches, there’s a grain of truth in it.

Accordingly, I offer some of the wisdom I have accumulated — at the rate of 59 stotinki per kilometer, more or less — after a month and a half of living in the Balkans.

1. Avoid the driver who offers too much. (For example, the one who says he would be happy to provide translation services for a newly-arrived journalist, and then suggests how he’d like to run an undercover hidden camera op into certain criminal enterprises that really aren’t appropriate for a family blog. We’ll just get out at that next corner, thanks.)

2. Avoid the driver who speaks too enthusiastically of his affinity for alcohol. Such as the elderly gent named, let’s call him Boris, and his “three Scottish friends”: Sean Connery, Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United, and — big pause for dramatic finish and slight swerve into oncoming traffic — Johnny Walker.

3. Avoid responding to the angry driver who says you were waiting for him on the wrong side of IKEA and security made him pay 50 leva and what is your full name, mister, because my chief-on-the-radio wants to know.

4. Avoid the driver of the taxi that was made before automobiles had brand names, still bearing its original tires and upholstery, who likes to put on his reading glasses and study a magazine article in the passenger seat while driving through traffic in the rain.

5. Seek drivers wearing silver earrings who crave the Whitesnake and Bon Jovi and other most excellent heavy metal bands from the 1980s, for they are happy to drive you anywhere and rock on.

6. Seek the driver who enjoys a good conversation about politics and education and the state of the world, and asks for nothing in return but a shake of the hand and his full fare, for he is a man who can bring together all nations and make them one.