Thirty years ago Claudio Magris travelled the Danube’s winding trail from Hungary, musing on the philosophies of the area. His book was written the year I was born, and now, approaching my own 30th birthday, it felt a fitting time to explore the famous river from the banks of Bulgaria.
Balmy evening walks through the riverside carnival, lazy mornings spent writing from my beautiful private room. Despite being a glorious respite, I was well aware I had spent nearing a month in this country without ever experiencing its real culture.
Strolling around the Danube in Ruse
As I had read many times, I can confirm that the Danube wasn’t blue and the black sea, I later discovered, was a misleading shade of twinkling navy. Bulgaria, as charming as you are, you need to sort out your colour palette. Sell yourself on the lush shades of green that dabble your rolling countryside, the yellow blossoms of rape flower on a road trip to the seaside. There are some gorgeous natural wonders in Bulgaria aside from the bodies of water that are most famous.
Two nights is a long time if spent in the right manner, and you can learn vast amounts about a culture in this time, I soon discovered. My new host was a portly and charismatic gentleman, who welcomed me into his apartment. Immediately he got to work inquiring to my agenda and constructing travel plans, with the help of his translating phone app.
With a deceased wife, a very recently ex-girlfriend and sons that had migrated to a different country, he enjoyed inviting people to his home and showing them around the city. And such was my fate.
An Evening Doing as Locals Do
Dinner at a local restaurant, doing as the locals do, Indulging in shopska salad and strong rakia, with a bottle of local red on the side. This is a country that loves its salads, and the produce grown here is outstanding. To date, Bulgaria has the most incredible (and pink) tomatoes I have ever tasted.
Frequent chinks of glasses and rounds of ‘nos draves’ all around as the rakia continued to flow. Memories of Greek ouzo & raki clouded my mind. As it turns out, the vines I spied in front of every house on the bus ride in, serve a purpose. Most people, especially rural ones, produce their own fermented, grappa-like spirit made from grapes. Or, any fruit you can find for that matter, no need to get too fussy. After three months of similar spirits in Greece, I had begun the long road that is learning to appreciate a good rakia. The local wine was delicious too.
A Lesson in the Cuisine of Bulgaria
Out came more plates of traditional foods. An earthenware dish full of steaming hot salami and cheese in a tomato sauce, and little balls of cheese, like a halloumi, fried in a choux pastry. For the first time in my Bulgarian travels, I had found local food heaven. I had been beginning to doubt this country had anything to offer in the culinary stakes, but I was proven wrong this evening.
One rakia turned into many as the bottle of wine diminished before my eyes. It was midnight and we had made plans to visit the seaside early in the morning. But, instead of a bed, I was being taken to the Piano Bar, A local Ruse hotspot for Bulgarians heading out to party. I found myself in a packed club playing western top-10 hits with a live band and piano accompaniment. In a surreal travellers moment, I realised I was the only one who knew the words. Singing along, bottomless whiskey’s in hand, turned into dancing the night away.
Needless to say, the morning was not a huge success. It was the throbbing head that woke me first, followed shortly after by the realization we were off to Varna, bright and early.
A Road Trip to Varna
Varna is a tourist-centric city on the coastline of the black sea. Overpopulated with casinos and overpriced tourist stops, the sea-garden and nature surrounding the seaside are it’s only redeeming factor. It is beautiful by tourism standards, but I prefer a more unspoilt beauty.
I was shown around by a local for a few hours, our conversation returning to the problems of this country. I began to see how difficult life can be in these parts of the world. How communism is missed dearly by many, how Bulgaria has become the most corrupt part of Europe.
Prejudice and racism are critically important issues to me, and not something I have a tolerance for. Yet, I began to get small glimpses into how ingrained the resentment towards all kind of foreigners has become. Many Bulgarians have been through a great deal economically, and still struggle to survive. All the while what appears to be everyone else receives special treatment around them. This dismal state of affairs is part of life here, and things such as wealth and even overseas travel are out of reach for the majority of citizens.
Easter in a Bulgarian Orthodox Family
By the end of the afternoon I was exhausted – physically, mentally, and emotionally. I could barely keep my eyes open. Bed was calling and I was calling back. “Anna, I will take you to my friend – we will have dinner in their village!” I visibly crumpled a little “Anna, it’s easter – very important weekend”. Ok, I resigned myself to one more activity. Sleep was calling me right to my bones, but the idea of a home-cooked Bulgarian easter dinner in a small village didn’t sound like the worst thing that could happen. I was fascinated and so I agreed.
With around 60% of the population Bulgarian Orthodox, this is one of the most important celebrations of the year. We pulled into a plain but otherwise pretty village and his friend came running out to greet us with hugs and kisses. I felt like perhaps I was a long-lost relative, not a foreign stranger come to invade the dinner table. We sat outside around a covered table, with such hot summers, al-fresco dining is commonplace through the spring and summer.
A Truly Home Cooked Meal
The family all took turns trying to practice their broken English, asking me the usual questions whilst plate after plate of food arrived. First, homemade chicken noodle broth with large helpings of bread on the sides. Wooden platters of cured meats and poultry followed, along with a green salad. All the greens were grown here – lettuce, cabbage, pearl onions and gherkins in a vinegary brine. It is clear in Bulgarian food the Russian influence mixed with the Greek.
After I had stuffed myself so full that I couldn’t eat any more, the main dish arrived. Spiced rice with meat throughout, served with a selection of handmade sausage and koftas. Eastern Europeans tend to verge on the carnivorous side.
Finding Friends in Unexpected Places
Somewhere during the process of stuffing my face, a teenage girl appeared. The eldest of four children – three girls and a boy, all named after saints. Her mother nudged her roughly in my direction ‘you can be our translator!’ she said. And with that, the girl giggled nervously and began speaking to me in perfect English.
I spent the rest of my evening deeply engaged in conversation. Relishing the experience of not only hearing my native language for the first time in a while, but meeting somebody so passionately in love with it. Her mother jostles her for spending her childhood surrounded by handwritten notebooks in English. Her family with no idea what it all said.
Through the evening I learned of her past, her near-death experience as a child and how she dreams of one day becoming a psychologist. “I’d have to get a job in another country though, and our family is pretty close. My mother wants me to stay here, marry a Bulgarian boy and study in science, that’s where you earn money here”, she sighed “I hate chemistry, I’m no good at it”. Her words stuck with me for days. I wanted to take her by the hand and run away, to tell her to follow her heart, indulge her passions. To read, to write, to love and to explore. But, alas, the culture is different here. It is not so acceptable to break away and leave the nest.
Reflections on Bulgaria
We drove home late into the evening, an hour back to Ruse in the dark pot-holed roads of Bulgaria that got no less hair-raising through my month here. My mind returned to that girl, this culture, the difficulties faced by those born into a country still finding its feet. One still struggling with mass corruption and challenges.
‘Come, at midnight I will take you to church for Easter’. I flat out refused and offended my host. but I needed to sleep. So that’s how it ended, I collapsed into sleep and left early the next morning en route to Romania.
Leaving Bulgaria I felt a little bewildered. Like somebody put me through a washing machine. I sat in a small bistro opposite the bus station, the room fragrant with cooking onions and the faint residue of stale cigarettes. I ordered a simple omelette with a Bulgarian style mixed salad, and I can hear my eggs being whisked out in the cupboard-sized kitchen. My bill will be 4.60leva – around 2euro. I have tasted some beautiful local dishes. But, the majority of the food is, much like the culture, simple, enough and occasionally charming, but in surprising bursts.