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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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

Feeling small in Plovdiv

I find myself somewhat settled in a new country. We’ve been in Bulgaria for just over a month, finding our feet and creating a new life. One American family – a dad, a mom, a kiddo, and two very adaptable cats – transplanted to the edge of the Balkans.

We’ve lived, taught, traveled and written from a good number of places over the last couple of decades. We met and got together in China. We made some good friends in New England and Florida. At night we dream about earlier travels – Prague, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Zambia – and at dawn we try to make sense of it all.

Yesterday we got back from our first Bulgarian vacation, a 36-hour jaunt to the cultural capital and second city of Plovdiv.

Our hotel was regal: a Russian-inspired palace on a hill. For around $100 US we got way more room than we needed: two bedrooms, living room, bathroom with tub, and a killer view. It was placid and yet – once someone’s wedding started in the dining room that evening, and carried on until midnight – quite noisy.

As for the cuisine, this weekend’s menu reminded us of Wisconsin: meat, cheese, cheese on meat, and yes, meaty cheese. Also great pizza. And did I mention the grilled meat?

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