I’m convinced that Bulgaria is a travel victim of its own name. One that harks of stoic faces and cold wars; a country sandwiched in between some of the world’s tourism heavyweights. The experiences travelers report from Bulgaria are equally polarizing, from fantastic to utterly disappointed; a blinding contrast few countries can contend with.
I fall into the camp that absolutely adored Bulgaria, a country so close to my own that I completely disregarded it; putting it well at the bottom of a very long travel list. As chance and travel conference would have it, I ended up in Bulgaria this March; completely caught off guard by what I didn’t know and what probably keeps most people from visiting Europe’s 15th largest country.
For More Than 700 Years, Bulgaria Was Nearly Twice Its Current Size
Present-day Bulgaria is well known for being conquered by armies as diverse as the Ottomans and Romans, however between 632 A.D. and roughly 1420, the first and second Bulgarian Empires were a regional power in the Balkans. From modern Greece to Ukraine, Bulgaria has been a cultural sponge on both sides of conquest.
Bulgaria like one giant Euro-Asian blender, something which you’ll immediately see in all of the faces walking around the country. As diverse as the rest of its culture, Bulgaria is both familiar and distinct no matter what your travel focus is.
Bulgarians Play The Bagpipe
Although most commonly associated with Scotland, the bagpipe has its origins in the Middle East; something I had no clue about until the familiar high-pitched tones pierced my ears one night over a Bulgarian dinner. Known as the ‘gaida’ in Bulgarian, it’s an integral part of the local folk music; albeit one that’s completely unexpected.
Bulgaria Has The 2nd Most Mineral Springs In Europe
Only Iceland has more mineral springs than Bulgaria, whose capital city has 7 separate ones alone. The Sofia Public Mineral Baths are located in the middle of the city where you’ll find (mostly) homeless people filling up and drinking from the free spring water available at the front of the building. If that’s not enough springs for you, go to Velingrad 130 kilometers (~80 miles) south of Sofia – there are 90 there alone.
Bulgaria Isn’t On The Euro
Despite being a European Union member as of 2007, Bulgaria is still using the Lev as its currency. It is rather inexpensive to eat and drink (especially that) in Bulgaria and hostel dorm rates float around $10-20 a night in Sofia. (Privates around $30 a day; I highly recommend the Art Hostel in Sofia if you’re looking.) Bulgaria is expected to switch to the Euro at the beginning of 2013 so don’t miss a good deal while it’s there.
Bulgarians Nod Backwards
Even once you learn about it, you still might initially think every Bulgarian waiter is obnoxious — simply because they nod their heads side to side to mean ‘yes’. The nod for ‘no’ is the complete opposite, up and down; which is all very confusing no matter how many times you’re expecting it. The reverse nodding is one of the most difficult cultural idiosyncrasies I’ve had to assimilate. I guess some form of up and down head shake means ‘yes’ to me, no matter how many times I tried to train myself otherwise.
Love, Hate, Or Indifferent – Chances Are You’ll Be Surprised
Whether it’s the variety of foods you can’t quite put your finger on, the bright colors of Martenitsa, or the fact that there is a giant mountain hanging right outside of Sofia, Bulgaria is a compact country that’s disproportionately full of surprises. An tempting 8 hour bus ride from Istanbul or 6 hours to Bucharest, it’s often the places that don’t initially pique our interest that end up being the most interesting.
That reverse nod! I knew what it meant but never could tell whether the Bulgarians were doing it their way or being polite and adapting to our way for our benefit. I always enjoyed seeing the wobbly ‘yes’ though.
It always made me chuckle to order something and see a side-to-side nod by the waiter. Translated as ‘no, you can’t have any’. 🙂 Interesting point though, never thought it would be even more confusing, especially when you don’t know if they’re reversing the reverse nod!
How intriguing. Bulgaria sounds like a place I’ll have to investigate. And I can totally relate to your conundrum over the nodding and bobbing of the heads for yes and no. In Nepal, they waggle their heads back and forth when they mean yes. The good news is that after spending nearly six months there, I caught myself doing the same thing. I suspect if you spend much time in Bulgaria, you’ll become a convert as well.
It’s got me thinking how nodding came to be and a nice example of how arbitrary many aspects of culture can be. Not right nor wrong but just different 🙂
It’s been on our radar for an absolute age and we’re determined to get there soon… I think there might be a bit of debate about the bagpipes Anil!! We’re constantly being told that the bagpipes were invented BY THE TURKS in the Black Sea region. Naturally! 😉
I’ll throw my vote in there too, why not 🙂 Though digging hasn’t turned up any credible historical data, the oldest bagpipe found was in present-day Iran.
Bulgaria has also mystical mountain monasteries and fantastic beachs on Black Sea) really pleasent country..
Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast is on my short list of places to hang out for a bit and travel-recharge 🙂
Fascinating insights of a place I never knew and would have never wondered about until reading your article. Thanks for sharing this unfamiliar world.
I think it’s the name but also their tourism marketing, Bulgaria should do more to highlight their cultural assets.
I’m just traveling through former yugoslavia and found a lot of this fascinating. Will be trying to make my way through there on the way to Odessa.
P.S. It’s “pique our interest”
Keep up the great blog 😀
Hi Ivan, hope you make it there and if you remember let me know when you do. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for the correction btw (had no idea :/) but have corrected the line now 🙂
yeah Bulgaria is a very nice place. love it as a travel destination. check out this link: http://www.facebook.com/bulgariatourist
which is a facebook page I assume created by Bulgarians about the places they’ve been in Bulgaria. The sceneries are amazing have a look
Brilliant photos there, cheers.
There is a folk saying that the “reverse” nod that you mention was from the time the ottomans or other oppressors put a blade under your chin whit the top pointing to your head and asked you for something.You cant shake your head up and down because you will impale yourself on the blade so you had to shake your head in agreement.
Fascinating, I hadn’t read or heard that before!