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

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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.

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

The lost synagogue of Vidin

I nearly missed it.

Walking through the riverfront park in Vidin, Bulgaria, the eye is naturally drawn toward the Danube or distant monuments. It would have been so easy to overlook the ruin in the trees just to the south.

I had heard mention of a synagogue here. What I hadn’t realized — could scarcely have conceived — was the sheer extent of its decaying presence.

We wandered around the perimeter fence and, spotting the Star of David, realized what we had stumbled upon. Nestled amid houses and apartment blocks, it appeared to be completely abandoned and forgotten.

And then we saw that the gate had been left ajar. With a gulp and a look over my shoulder, I plunged through the weeds and into the shell of this once grand building. Continue reading

My new favorite Bulgarian food (and beer!)

Bulgarian Mish-Mash, in all its glory. Or do you say миш маш ?

I am not a food critic. But I know what I like. And on my recent trip to Vidin I experienced a moment of pure culinary bliss. Two of them, actually.

It was midday and we were tired after lots of interviewing and walking, so my friend Boyko and I walked into the main Bulgarian-Italian restaurant on Ul. Dunavska. (I’ll add the name when I remember it, but it’s not so unique; every neighborhood in Sofia seems to have one of these places which serve nice pizza, pasta, salads and grilled meats. Nothing fancy.)

Anyway, on this particular day I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but then I saw it on the menu: миш маш. When I heard its translation — Mish-mash — I instantly knew this was the Bulgarian culinary moment I had been waiting for. Continue reading

Driving in Bulgaria, Part 2: The Test Drive

So we wandered the used-car lot off Tsarigradsko Shose in Sofia, looking for the Subaru of my dreams.

I had considered other brands. There were plenty of Hondas and Toyotas for sale, and a friend made a persuasive case for Skodas.

But I’ve always had a thing for Subarus, ever since my dad drove one up our driveway in Chicago back in the 1980s. Sure it was small, but it kept on going through snowdrifts even as white stuff piled up over the hood. Down in Florida I put nearly 200,000 miles on a green Forester with nary a backfire.

Still, I felt my confidence wavering as I wandered through that Bulgarian used car lot. The green Foresters here looked a bit sad. A gold Legacy started only reluctantly. And I saw a funky, overpriced blue Outback with upholstering that didn’t match the exterior and 98,000 kilometers on the odometer. (“Never pay attention to the odometer,” my mechanic had told me with a chuckle; all mileages are suspect.) Continue reading

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

Capitalism 2, Socialism 1 in tight Bulgarian showdown


It was a classic matchup.

On Monday the government of Bulgaria unveiled the Museum of Socialist Art, its first institution dedicated to the experience of 40 years under a planned economy. On Tuesday, Swedish furniture giant IKEA opened its first retail outlet here under Greek franchiser Fourlis Holdings.

But if you were expecting a clear, convincing win in this contest between left and right, think again.

Granted, Bulgarians have been IKEA-mad for some time now, to the point of taking shopping trips down to the nearest outlet in Thessaloniki in Greece while awaiting their chance to buy Swedish meatballs at home. And while today’s influx of shoppers didn’t exactly overflow the parking lot, they certainly beat yesterday’s turnout for socialist art. Continue reading