Saturday, February 5, 2011

Top 15 Favorite Bulgarian Places

At a distance of one month, it's sometimes hard to believe that we spent two wonderful years living in Bulgaria. We look back with fond memories at the many places we visited, the many people we met, and the many things we learned about Bulgaria, its culture and history. This started as a Top Ten list, but there were too many places to list, so it became a Top 15 list, and still, some of the colorful destinations we visited are not included. The list is presented in alphabetical order.

Balchik. On the Black Sea coast, this town was the summer home of Queen Marie of Romania. We enjoyed walking around the botanical gardens, seeing the old style houses and the simple palace that captured the heart of the Romanian queen.

Belogradchik. Belogradchik is a town in northwestern Bulgaria and also the name of a fortress and nature reserve of bizarrely shaped sandstone, limestone and other rock formations. The Belogradchik Rocks were Bulgaria's candidate in the campaign for New Seven Wonders of Nature.

Kaliakra. Cape Kaliakra, on a rocky, narrow peninsula jutting into the Black Sea north of Varna, is highly revered by the locals for its beautiful scenery more than its history serving as a fortress in both Roman and Byzantine times.

Koprivshtitsa. We made two visits to this historic town east of Sofia, the first being during a heavy snowstorm. The second time we returned we enjoyed more favorable weather, giving us a better opportunity to visit the house museums where much of Bulgaria's modern history in its revolt against the Ottomans was launched.

Melnik. Melnik is the smallest town in Bulgaria, known for its robust red wine, impressive old-style houses, and beautiful natural surroundings. We had a tasty lunch and the red wine set our heads spinning.

Nessebar. Nessebar is not only one of the oldest cities in Bulgaria, but also one of the oldest towns in Europe. Its brick churches date back to the Middle Ages and before, and its wooden homes are from Bulgaria's Revival period in the 1800s. The town is recognized as a World Heritage City and we enjoyed walking through its picturesque streets.

Perperikon. The ancient Thracian city of Perperikon is located at the top of a high, rocky hill in the Eastern Rhodopes. It was quite a climb to reach the top, but going down we found an easier path.

Plovdiv. Plovdiv's beautiful Old Town has many homes from the 1880s which have been carefully restored, and many of them now serve as museums and art galleries. We walked up and down the cobblestone streets. The most beautiful house in the Old Town has now become the Ethnographic Museum. The Old Town is also home to a Roman ampitheater. We visited Plovdiv twice and easily could have come back a third time.

Rila Monastery. We made 5 visits to the Rila Monastery, first built in the 10th Century and rebuilt a few times since. The monastery is considered the Jerusalem of Bulgaria, probably due to the fact that it attracts both pilgrims and tourists. On each visit we were able to appreciate different aspects of the artwork, so it was always enjoyable.

Seven Lakes. While Jodie went to a village for a Bulgarian folk festival, I bravely set out with 4 Bulgarian friends on a trek into the Rila Mountains and the Sedmete Ezera, or Seven Lakes. The hiking was alternatively through meadows of purple flowers and snow drifts. Some of the lakes were still frozen solid. The scenery was absolutely amazing.

Shipka. Historic Shipka Pass was where, in the years 1877-1878, Russian and Bulgarian troops were able to fight off the might of the Ottoman Empire and liberate the country. This is one of the most important sites to Bulgarians, and the views from on top the mountain are amazing.

Sofia. For the two years of our Bulgarian adventure we lived in Sofia, the country's capital. While the city is far from being considered beautiful when compared to the rest of the country, we grew to appreciate its charm. We walked its streets, visited its museums, and ate in its restaurants. Highlights of the city included its stunning synagogue, its spacious parks, and the old world feeling of its houses.

Sozopol. Located 34 kilometers south of Burgas on a small peninsula, Sozopol is one of the oldest towns in Bulgaria. The town is known for its resorts and beaches, fishing boats and wooden houses dating back to the 18th Century. Our visit, on the Saint Day for Fisherman, also coincided with the visit of the Bulgarian Prime Minister.

Tryavna. We fell in love with this charming small town in central Bulgaria, as it offered authentic restored houses and buildings without being pretentious at all. We enjoyed walking its streets and visiting the artists' quarter.

Veliko Turnovo. We visited the historical city of Veliko Turnovo in central Bulgaria twice. Veliko Turnovo is famous for serving as capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire during the Middle Ages. The Tsarevets fortress is one of the main tourist destinations in Bulgaria.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Farewell to Bulgaria

When Ellis and I came to Bulgaria two years ago, we had no idea what awaited us. We just had a long-standing desire to try living in a different country for a limited, set period of time and to experience something else. So, when Ellis was approached by his company to relocate, we jumped at the chance.

Most people's initial reaction to our announcement was "Bulgaria? What's in Bulgaria?" I admit that I was wondering the same thing, and asking myself, "why not England, or Spain, or Gibraltar?"

Today, after living here for two years, I can tell you what is in Bulgaria. It is a country with friendly people, who are interested in the strangers living amongst them, and are happy to talk to you, even when you tell them that you don't understand their language. As Israelis, we never felt uncomfortable talking about where we come from - most people had a warm and positive feeling toward Israel. This can even been seen at government level - Bulgaria was one of the first countries to send fire-fighters to Israel to help in the recent Carmel fire.

The country itself is a beautiful country. We fell in love with the mountains and forests and rivers - so much water and so much green. It is a pity that we can't take this home with us!

There is a mixture of the old and the new living side by side. Sofia is a rapidly growing city with new, modern buildings going up all over. But, next to these, there are still the old, decaying buildings, often standing right next to the new. Many of them have much more character than the modern buildings, and I wish that they could be restored instead of being torn down to make way for the new.

In many of the villages, there is much attention paid to preserving some of the old-style houses which are 150 years old, and many of which have been made into museums showing the old style of living.

Also in the villages, you still can see many simple farms, with the older generation working the fields with the simplest of farm tools, and a horse to pull the plow. It is sad to think that so many of these places will die out in the next generation, as the younger people move to the bigger cities or abroad looking for more opportunites than what their small village can provide.

There are of course, some things that I didn't enjoy here - the heavy smoking, and the terrible infrastructure of the roads - both things that the government needs to work on. On a personal level, I will not miss the snow - but this is something that the government has no control over - except for doing a better job cleaning the streets!

Most of all, I will miss the wonderful friends that I made here, and who made me feel so welcome and accepted me into their lives - from my hairdresser, to my manicurist, to the flower shop lady on our street, and to my wonderful friends at work, who made my days so enjoyable and enriched my life here over the past two years. I hope that someday you will come and visit us in Israel, and let me return the hospitality that you have shown me.

I am thankful today that we weren't sent to England or Spain. Although the language might have been easier to deal with, I think we would have missed out on an amazing experience, and the chance to really learn about a country and culture so totally different from anything we knew before. As those of you who have followed our blog can see, we really took the time to learn, ask questions, travel and experience living in Bulgaria. This truly was our "Bulgarian Adventure".

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Healthy Lunch

We still had the time to try out one more restaurant in Sofia, so today for lunch we headed to Cru, the city's healthy alternative. Cru is located on Tsar Assen Street, and it's quite a small boutique restaurant, with only about five tables. The waiter was very friendly and the service was excellent.

We both started with the Pea Soup, which was spiced with curry and served in a very large bowl. It was made from fresh peas and was extremely tasty. Jodie had the Organic Adzuki Beans Croquette with fresh salad and sprouts. I had the Tortilla Pizza with roasted red peppers and mozzarella cheese. The food was very good.

The only thing unhealthy about Cru is that the prices are a bit high. The lunchtime meal for the two of us came to 42.50 Leva, which was more expensive than we usually pay.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Sofia's Synagogue in the Snow

Monday, January 3, 2011

Bulgarian Lion in Winter

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy New Year 2011

Happy is the name of a chain of Bulgarian fast food restaurants. This sign was seen in downtown Sofia. We had lunch at a Happy restaurant on Sunday. None of the waitresses were smiling, so maybe they weren't too happy to be working in the New Year.