Things to see and do - Bulgaria
Western, and yet so Eastern in some respects; Orthodox Christian, but dotted with minarets; industrialised and urban but deeply rural; barely out of the Communist system and yet embracing the most extreme liberalism, jealous of its independence but for years dominated from abroad… Bulgaria combines a desire for modernity with the preservation of ancestral traditions. Now a member of the European Union, this is a country that is full of paradoxes!
However long you spend in Bulgaria, you will no doubt be disconcerted every time the locals nod or shake their heads as the gestures are the opposite way round to ours! You will find yourself going from misplaced joy to pleasant surprises, all the more so as those Bulgarians who are used to frequenting foreigners try to adapt their habits, so you may end up feeling utterly lost… As for visitors, given that it is difficult to undo such ingrained reflexes, it is probably safer to answer da (yes), dobre (good, OK) or ne (no) if you are solicited, in order to avoid any ambiguity.
Don’t be intimidated when you first come into contact with the locals: the first meeting may seem rather frosty, at least in large towns, but this apparent coolness belies a fundamental spirit of hospitality and an intense curiosity about life in Western Europe. Little matter the language barrier! You may be eating in an inn in Rhodopes when, suddenly, at the sound of the gajda of orchestra, everyone gets up and a long farandole around the tables begins… Chances are that you will be invited to join in the dancing, and you will somehow get by, in the arms of your neighbour, by imitating the steps, which can be complex. It is more likely than not that the proceedings will finish with a bottle of wine. In inns, custom has it that if the place is full diners share their tables, giving ample opportunity to get to know your Bulgarian hosts.
If you are invited to the home of Bulgarians, it is the done thing to arrive with a small gift, and it can be difficult to escape the glass of rakija served up by the head of the house. Bear in mind that you may have trouble finding the address : the one given on a person’s card is generally a postal address and it is unlikely that this is the same as the entrance to the house. But rest assured, passers-by will always do their utmost to help you.
As for the Cyrillic alphabet , as soon as you arrive in the country, you will realise that it is vital to learn to decipher this script in order to be able to find your way around or, in the majority of restaurants, to know what it is that you are ordering. It is worth taking the time to familiarise yourself with this alphabet before your trip as it will make your life much easier once you get there!
A rural country first and foremost
The rural population still represents almost 40% of the population of Bulgaria and more than a quarter of the working population (5% in the EU): agriculture accounts for just under 15% of GDP (1.6% in the EU) and 10% of exports. These figures speak volumes about the importance of this sector for the economy and, more generally, about Bulgarian society.
While enabling the survival of ancestral farming methods, the fact that farms are generally small – with the exception of the great plains of the northeast given over to extensive corn, soya and sunflowers crops – is an economic handicap. It would be in Bulgaria’s interests to place the onus on development based on alternative farming methods and on products such as essential oils of rose and mint, or even tobacco , for which the European Commission has raised production quotas.
Paradoxically, these archaic production methods are a blessing for the country at a time when industrialised nations are bitterly regretting having lost touch with natural life cycles: they could prove to be full of potential at a time when city folk are wanting to go back to their roots.
A difficult transition
In 1989, further to the collapse of Communism in Europe, Bulgaria suddenly discovered democracy, which it had never before known.
Although the upheaval was relatively gentle in comparison with some of the other Eastern bloc countries, the path of liberty was not paved with roses and the choice of liberalism did not come with a magic wand that filled the shop shelves overnight. On the contrary, the new direction created inequalities in a historically egalitarian society: the “nouveaux riches”, many of whom were from the former nomenklatura , seized the controls, corruption became the norm, the newspapers were littered with reports of old scores being settled, while the country’s equipment was inexorably ageing. In 1997, the economic crisis deepened and the country was on the brink of chaos.
In 2001, economic reforms degenerated into a serious social and political crisis. After a triumphant return to his home country, the former Tsar Simeon of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha founded a party, which, a few weeks later, bagged 120 seats out of 240 at the legislative elections! As Prime Minister, Simeon promised to improve the lives of Bulgarians in three months. The people did not seem convinced despite honourable economic results: the unemployment rate, which had hit 18% in 2001, dropped slightly; annual growth was between 5% and 6%; foreign investors were moving in; the new lev, introduced in 2000, was tied to the euro; and the considerable debt left by the Communist regime was beginning to be paid off. Meanwhile, a programme of privatisation was advancing apace. This earned the government the congratulations of the International Monetary Fund but did not win over the population, first because living standards remained low and, secondly, because the former monarch was distinctly lacking in charisma.
The resulting disenchantment manifested itself in three ways at the 2005 legislative elections: an extremely low turnout at polling stations (despite the organisation of a tombola designed to motivate voters!), the growth of a new xenophobic, extreme-right party, and a dissipation of votes without a clear majority. Thus a heterogeneous coalition, led by the Socialist Sergej Stanišev, came to power. In addition to the Socialists, it included the survivors of Simeon’s movement and an ethnic Turk party.
Ties with the West
Meanwhile, in 2004, Bulgaria had joined NATO, and therefore had new responsibilities to shoulder. This membership meant that Bulgaria might be required to accommodate American bases, with the financial bonus that implied. It also entailed participation in military operations (such as in Iraq) in return.
During this time, the process of joining the European Union was going ahead, all the more quickly as the country had complied with the restrictive criteria of the pact of stability related to the euro in advance. But if on the one hand the European Union was providing most of the funding for the restructuring, on the other hand it was demanding reforms and had a tendency to interfere in home affairs, upsetting national pride a few times. But Euro-scepticism was hardly a big winner (if proponents of the xenophobic Ataka movement are discounted – benefitting from the low turnout at the polls, their leader got through to the second round of the presidential elections): three quarters of Bulgarians voted in favour of EU membership and the country joined on 1 January 2007.
Under Europe’s watchful eye
However, membership came with various “safety clauses”. One of these, relating to flight safety, was lifted. On the other hand, in July 2008, the European Commission published a stinging report, censuring the persistent corruption at all levels of the state and the incompetence of the administrations responsible for managing European funds. Beyond the internal political crisis that was sparked, the admonitions had two other consequences: more than one billion euro in subsidies was frozen, most notably those allotted to infrastructure projects.
If anything was likely to damage national pride and bring about a rejection of Europe then such criticism was it. But Bulgarians were themselves disillusioned with their leaders and tended to agree with the European Commission’s report. According to a recent survey, only one in five citizens declared that they had confidence in the judicial system and the police. As for the political elite, it had been largely discredited a long time before.
The energy problem
Bulgaria was ordered by the European Community to close reactors 3 and 4 of Kozloduj nuclear power station, which had secured the country’s position as the region’s energy leader – it is one of the electricity providers for Macedonia, Greece and Turkey. Bulgaria is now constructing a new power station at Belene , near Svištov, upriver from Ruse on the banks of the Danube, leading to an outcry from ecologists, who have also pointed out that a zone with seismic activity is perhaps not the ideal place to build a power station. The fact remains that the invitation to tender was won by a Russian consortium, which should be starting work in the near future. Furthermore, a French bank is providing part of the funding: hardly a choice to satisfy nationalists, who fear increased energy dependence on Russia – it already provides gas and oil further to “privileged” partnership agreements –, and it seems clear that, as elsewhere, a satisfactory solution to the energy issue will only be found by diversifying sources and turning to renewable energies.
Proud to be bulgarian
Bulgaria had lived under Ottoman domination for almost five centuries, so independence translated into a promise of territorial expansion that the English and Austrians hurried to thwart so as to maintain “regional balance”. This sneaky move led to the creation of a state that did not encompass Macedonia, which was historically Bulgarian territory.
Two successive Balkan wars, then two global conflicts in which Bulgaria found itself on the wrong side ended unfavourably in terms of territories: it is understandable that the Bulgarians might have cultivated both a distinct impression of being foresaken and a national pride that was at times prickly.
Civilisers of the Slavic world
This national pride manifested itself in the exaltation of the greatness of ancient Bulgarians. Under the Khans these 9C ancestors built one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe, which rivalled Byzantium and the Frankish, before bringing to the Slavs the notion of State, their religion – they are Orthodox Christians – and their writing, Cyrillic. You would be hard pressed to get the Bulgarians to concede that their language owes anything to the poor Slavs…
The Communist authorities understood this and turned it to their advantage, building monuments as large as they were ugly across the country, celebrating both this past glory and the heroes of the national liberation, referred to as “apostles”. It was these same authorities who, in an upsurge of nationalistic fever in 1984, suddenly decided to forcibly assimilate the 800 000 Turks of Bulgaria, who were doing no harm to anyone. Their language was forbidden, they were no longer allowed to practice their religion, and their patronymics were “Bulgarised”, triggering the beginning of a mass exodus. Thankfully, these actions have now been consigned to the past, even if tensions persist in certain fringes of society, where exasperation is rife that a party representing this minority is part of the government coalition.
The Roma in Bulgarian society
How many Gypsys/Gypsies? are there in Bulgaria? According to a 2001 census, 365 000; or almost a million if we are to believe the Bulgarians who tend to imagine they are everywhere and guilty of the worst misdeeds. The fact remains that the Roma are victims of an almost blanket rejection by the population and are confined to filthy shanty towns that you can sometimes see on the outskirts of towns. It is estimated that 85% to 90% are unemployed, compared to 10% of the population. Traditionally, they eke out a living by retrieving and selling metals or collecting medicinal herbs, while the youngsters beg around churches and tourist areas. It is estimated that 90% of the hovels in which they live were illegally built and most of them have no furniture. It is a tragic state of affairs, resulting from the forced settling process that came about under the Communist regime, widespread absenteeism from schools and racism. All visitors to Bulgaria will witness some manifestation of this situation, which is aggravated by the lack of implementation of any government policy for integration. This renders the social services and charitable organisations powerless, despite their dedication.
Bulgarian football’s hour of glory came in 10 July 1994, when it defeated Germany in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in the USA. Three days later, they were stopped in their tracks by the Italian team. Football was already a major pastime, but from then on it unleashed a veritable frenzy. At the time the team was led by Hristo Stoičkov , nicknamed Kamata (the “dagger”) because of his ability to pierce the opponent’s defences. Having brought success to CSKA of Sofia and Barça, Stoičkov was entrusted with the role of selecting the national team. However, his team did not qualify for Euro 2008 and he was forced to resign.
Will 2010 see a return to the international stage? Fingers are crossed throughout Bulgaria, and qualification seems to be within the team’s reach, helped, it seems, by a relatively favourable draw, despite Italy being in the same group.
Popular traditions – still very much alive
The term “folklore” is often associated with practices that are in decline. But in Bulgaria this is far from being the case. Certain ancestral customs dating back to Ancient Thrace have travelled across centuries, hardly being altered except to adapt to the norms of the day. Could it be a way for Bulgarians to reaffirm their existence beyond the vicissitudes of history? The fact remains that the wealth and liveliness of popular traditions makes them a real point of interest during a trip to Bulgaria.
The age of nostalgia
Even if the statistics suggest otherwise, Bulgaria remains an essentially rural land in its soul, in spite of a rapid urbanisation under the Communist regime. This perfectly understandable attachment to a bygone era when life moved at a different pace can be seen as one of the reasons for the persistence of festivals related to events that punctuated peasants’ daily lives: the changing seasons, and the beginning or end of the harvests have festivals dedicated to them, often of pagan origin, which are celebrated with authenticity and fervour. Thus, visitors whose trip coincides with the end of winter are always struck by the omnipresence of martenica (pronounced: martenitsa) and before long they too are wearing a few red and white threads around their wrist or on their jacket lapel like all the locals, from pilots to shepherds, do quite naturally. Add to that a political will, never denied (by any regime!), to preserve this immateriel heritage of popular traditions. Hence, still today we can observe the cohabitation of this attachment to eternal Bulgaria with an attraction for a Western-style modernity, which has for a long time been fantasised about.
The backdrop of traditionnal life
Architecture, reflection of an art of living
As throughout the Balkan region, traditional dwellings were made from material available on site: stone and wood, brick or adobe. For reasons relating principally to the threats the countryside presented in former times, residences were often closed off behind tall stone walls and propped up by long horizontal beams following the irregularities of the terrain. Massive wooden double doors would give onto an enclosure occupied by the actual house and its outbuildings. Residences comprised a ground floor, made of stone, if possible, and one or several floors for living space: built using lighter materials (a wooden shell with a brick or cob filling), and often arranged in a corbelled construction, on wooden buttresses, sometimes carved and curved. Roofs were tiled or made of large pieces of slate. The interior was organised around one main room, the living room, more or less luxurious depending on the social class of the owner: summer or winter rooms (with a fireplace), which were often communal, kitchen, “women’s room” etc. Matting, carpet, coloured woven cloths strewn on benches surrounding the rooms where samovar and hookah enjoy pride of place… this basic furniture making for a decidedly Eastern feel.
Towns followed (at least to begin with!) the same layout, except that the dwellings became more and more luxurious (as at Plovdiv , Koprivštica and Trjavna ), embellished with sculpted wood panelling, mural paintings, sculpted ceilings and furniture that was often imported from Western Europe.
You can see fine ensembles of traditional houses in the village-museums ( Arbanasi , Božencite …) or in the neighbourhoods that have been preserved in certain towns ( Blagoevgrad , Razlog , Bansko , Loveč , Karlovo …).
A patriarchal society
When a girl got married she would change houses, moving in with her new family, with whom she would from then on share her life at very close quarters. Zlatju Bojadžiev ‘s striking paintings depict Siestas, where the whole household sleep side by side in the same room, all generations together (you can see one of these communal bedrooms in Loveč Ethnographic Museum). It must have been difficult in these circumstances to find a moment alone or an opportunity for intimacy! As for the man, the difficult task of looking after the household’s finances fell on his shoulders. He would have worked either as a craftsman or a nomadic shepherd, unless he had taken up arms against the Ottoman. Working on the land, meanwhile, was the domain of both sexes. Becoming first a mother then a grandmother (baba) , the woman then assumed a new aura: a figure of wisdom who reigned over the household… and, in turn, her daughters-in-law.
It is clear that this essentially rural model of society was difficult to adapt to modernity, urbanisation, tiny apartments and fifty years of Communism!
Orthodoxy, the cement of traditional society
Whatever the degree of their fervour, the vast majority of Bulgarians declare themselves Orthodox Christians . The fact that the Bulgarian Church is autocephal has always been considered as one of the guarantees of national independence; furthermore, the role of monasteries as safekeepers of national culture under Ottoman occupation lent them a historical legitimacy that no Bulgarian would dream of denying. Although religion is not praticed very extensively, the major festivals of the religious calendar (themselves based on festivities from pagan cults that the Church had to adopt and adapt, whether it liked it or not) are observed with a fervour unheard of in the West. At the forefront of these are the Holy Week ceremonies, which culminate on Easter Sunday, day of the Resurrection, the date of which is fixed according to a calculation method established by the Council of Nicaea (325) and determines the liturgical calendar to a large extent.
The infinite wealth of traditional costumes
The female costumes that you can see in the ethnographic museums, but also in village squares as soon as there is even the smallest of festivals, are beautifully coloured and richly embroidered.
For everyday use, a few main types of female costumes can be identified. The most common, the sukman costume, is worn in the mountainous regions of central Bulgaria and certain coastal regions. Its name comes from the name sukman , a short, sleeveless woollen tunic in a dark colour, decorated with beads and silver threads, worn over a white shirt. A headdress decorated with lace (zaraflăci) , and a belt with wide metal buckles (pafti) , often embellished with floral motifs, complete this dark-coloured outfit, which is often brightened up with the stark colours and embroidery of the pinafore. The saja costume, which also has a tunic, is named after a sort of open overcoat made of cotton or linen ( aladža ), most often striped, worn over a cotton shirt. A pinafore made of two pieces of checked cloth knotted at the waist (front and back), a silk headdress with lace at the edges, and a black or red wool belt complete this costume, which is often embroidered with coloured thread concentrated at the collar and sleeves. Whatever the type of costume worn, women wear brightly coloured woollen clogs (čorapi) , also embroidered, and leather sandals, cărvuli .
Male costumes are plainer and are named according to their main colour: belodrešno (for white) or černodrešno (for black). In the “white” costume, worn over a shirt-tunic, men wear a colourful short woollen jacket, and trousers that are richly embroidered and decorated with braids existing in two versions: benevreci , with a long and narrow cut, and dimii , which are baggy and reach just below the knee. The “black” costume is made up of trousers (poturi) , more or less richly decorated with braids on the sides, and a woollen belt, the colour of which gets darker as the applicant gets older. They are all worn with a hat made of hair, a kalpak , which, if the individual teams it with a superb moustache (and carries a cane if he doesn’t have an antique hat), ends up making him look like a ferocious hajduk , ready to tear the Ottomans from limb to limb!
Crafts, at the crossroads of many influences
Weaving – Blankets, tablecloths, table linen, clothes: here, it is red that dominates, a backdrop of multicoloured embroidery with geometric or vegetable motifs. The carpets or kilims are of very divergent styles: those from Kotel are reputed for their floral decoration and bright colours; in Čiprovci, the exclusive use of natural pigments means that their dyes are more faded. In the Rhodopes they specialise in deep-pile carpets or hališta. At Belogradčik, natural wool dyes in a palette of superb beiges predominate. Finally, Jambol has made lockstitch carpets its speciality.
Pottery and ceramics – Bulgarians have been masters of this art since Antiquity. Floral or geometric motifs, engraved or drawn: there are very different styles, even if a single model is found more or less everywhere. One exception: Trojan, famous for its green or yellow tones, where you will be able to get hold of fine stomna , a water pitcher with a narrow neck.
Copperware and goldwork – You will see magnificent copper objects, cauldrons or trays, sometimes very simple, sometimes engraved, masterpieces of Bulgarian copperware, which had its days of splendour at the end of the 18C. Goldwork developed in the northwest of the country between the 16C and 18C, upon a very ancient tradition as the Thracians proved that they had already mastered this art!
Wood sculpture – Schools of wood sculpture (such as the one at Trjavna) decorated churches (iconostases, pulpits) and dwellings with superb sculpted ceilings. But sculpture on wood in Bulgaria also encompasses more humble objects, such as shepherd’s crooks, which are engraved, sculpted and coloured.