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

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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

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 3: Destination Vidin

Lacking my own car, it was my friend Boyko who did the driving today on a reporting trip up to Vidin, a city on the Danube River in northwest Bulgaria. This experience only reinforced my keen appreciation for the challenges and pleasures of operating a motor vehicle in the Balkans.

For one thing, he drives fast. Everyone does. Only horse carts — of which we saw more than a few — go slowly here. Speed adds a thrill to daily life and also gets you to your destination more quickly. 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

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.