Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. Today, it’s Bulgaria! Relatively unknown and underappreciated, Bulgaria is a country I’ve long enjoyed for the surprises it offers the curious traveler. A crossroads of civilizations, it offers a fascinating story. Bulgaria is a land of rich culture, with a modern vitality. Its capital has a stunning cathedral. Folk traditions are alive and well. A mountain monastery cradles Bulgaria’s spiritual soul. In other words, glittering treasures from ancient tombs and decrepit monuments to a difficult 20th century. In the southeast of Europe, Bulgaria sits at the east end of the Balkan Peninsula. From Sofia, we visit Rila Monastery, head north to Veliko Tarnovo, explore the Thracian Plain, and finish in Plovdiv.
Sofia may be the capital of one of the poorest countries in the European Union, but you wouldn’t know it strolling its vibrant boulevards. With a million people, Sofia is delightfully livable. It has an airy, open street plan, fine old architecture, lush park and a relaxed pace of life. The city is named for “Holy Wisdom”. Represented by the statue of Sveta Sofia. She proudly tops a column marking the center of town. Because of its strategic position, Bulgaria sits on layers of history. From ancient Greeks and Romans to fearsome Slavic warriors, from Ottoman pashas to Cold War communists, each left its mark. In this town, any where you dig, you find ancient ruins-bits of Roman Sofia.
Bulgaria’s complicated history has made it a melting pot. And with its ethnic diversity came different religions. Therefore, here in Sofia, within a few steps, you’ve got mosques, churches, and a synagogue. Most Bulgarians like Russians and Greeks are Orthodox Christians, and the Orthodox tradition stretches from here far to the East. And this mosque survives from five centuries of Ottoman rule. Today, one in every ten Bulgarian citizens is Muslim, whose ancestors came from Turkey. A block away is one of Europe’s largest synagogues. Bulgaria was one of the only countries in Nazi territory that refused to turn its Jewish population.
Sofia prides itself on its mineral springs, which attracted the first settlers here in ancient times. The city even has an actual yellow brick road. These bricks were a gift from Austria’s Emperor, Franz Josef. In 1907, he wanted to encourage Sofia to pave its streets. The bricks lead to Sofia’s cathedral, one of the largest Orthodox churches in Christendom.
The national church named Alexander Nevsky of Russia, from a sainted military hero of a different country. The Bulgarians feel a Slavic kinship with Russia which, in 1878, helped liberate them from centuries of Ottoman rule. The church was built to honor the Russian soldiers, who died to free Bulgaria. Above all, Russian architects designed the church with a mix of Russian and Neo-Byzantine styles. Its cascading gold and copper domes are striking from every angle. Inside, you’re immersed in the glow of Orthodox tradition. Walls glitter with gold and silver icons, all from the early 20th century.
Sofia has lots of sprawling parks, offering apartment dwellers a green and inviting space to hang out. And many of the parks come with heavy reminders of a tough 20th century. And today, while enthusiastically part of the EU, Bulgaria still wrestles with its communist legacy. The communists architectural heritage still looms large. At Sofia’s main intersection, today’s parliament offices fill the Stalinist-style former Communist Party Headquarters. All over Bulgaria, controversy swirls around crumbling communist-era. Sofia’s Museum of Socialist Art. So, in there, today, the statues seem to preach their outdated ideology only to each other.
We’re driving deep into the mountains south of Sofia. The peaceful beech forests seem a world away from the big city. Finally, we reach Rila Monastery. So, its walls, you feel something special-both sacred and timeless. Founded in the 10th century, Rila Monastery was a stronghold for Bulgarian faith, language and culture during nearly 500 years of Ottoman rule. This beautiful place has been a holy site and refuge for over a thousand years. The monastery is still home to a handful of monks who host both tourists and pilgrims.
This bell tower, the oldest surviving part of the monastery, served as a final refuge in case of attack. Under the arcade vivid 19th-century frescoes depict Bible stories, peopled by angels and devils, saints, and sinners. Here’s St. John of Rila, who, seeking a hermetic way of life, founded this remote monastery in the year 927. These scenes shows the 40 days of trials your soul goes through after death. A guardian angel accompanies the soul -represented by a small child – through a gauntlet of temptations. This place feels so venerable.
Driving across Bulgaria, traffic is sparse, roads are good and since we’re here in the spring, everything is green and fertile. However, our next stop is Bulgaria’s medieval capital, Veliko Tarnovo. One of Europe’s most dramatically set cities, it winds through a misty gorge at a sharp bend of the Yantra River. It’s more vertical than horizontal, with a mix of block modern construction and traditional Bulgarian homes. The ruins of its fortress are a reminder of the city’s importance 800 years ago. They mark the site of the heavily fortified headquarters of a long-gone Bulgarian kingdom. This towering monument commemorates that vast and mighty realm. Ruled by the Asen dynasty. According to legend, the Asen brothers planted a sword on this spot and said, “Here shall be Bulgaria.”
This was a golden age for Bulgaria the 13th and 14th centuries, when its empire dominated the Balkan Peninsula. Today’s locals have different aspirations. So, walking along Veliko Tarnovo’s crafts street reveals a thriving folk culture with opportunities to watch artisans at work. Rumi carves with a keen eye. Rashko paints icons with a delicate touch. Nina skillfully turns clay into art. Meanwhile, her son finishes each piece with patterns that go back centuries. Nearby, a folkloric dance troupe shares their traditional music. Leaving Veliko Tarnovo, we cross over the Balkan Mountains.
At the top of Shipka Pass, a memorial marks the site where in 1877, a combined Bulgarian and Russian army finally turned the tide in the battle against the Ottomans. This pivotal battle led to the eventual demise of the Ottoman Empireand to the creation of the modern, independent country of Bulgaria. Down in the valley, golden domes mark Shipka Church, which honors the sacrifice of those Russian and Bulgarian troops. Built by Russia a century ago, it’s a fine example of the exuberant “Muscovite-style”.
After that, capping a nearby ridge, miles from anything, is one of the most bizarre sights I’ve seen. Buzludzha, an abandoned monument to the Bulgarian Communist Party. This gigantic conference hall was built in the 1980s, in the waning days of communist rule. With the end of the Cold War and the arrival of capitalism, it was abandoned. Then we have a roof that’s barely held up by its hammer and sickle and disintegrating mosaics, now just an artifact of a failed system.
The Thracian Plain
The Thracian Plain, defined by Bulgaria’s two major mountain ranges, was a busy funnel of trade throughout ancient times. Bulgaria was known as “Thrace” and the Thracians were an impressive civilization. We’ve learned a lot about them through their tombs. However, Thracians buried their royalty in distinctive, dome-shaped tombs that were covered in earth. There are dozens of these tombs scattered across the valley, along with hundreds of decoy mounds designed to fool grave robbers. Buried deep under those piles of earth, the tombs were impressive engineering feats from 300 years before Christ.
And this replica tomb demonstrates how even in the afterlife, the deceased would be surrounded by comforting images. We have the Thracian king who is buried here and the royal banquet with the gods, musicians, servants and horses. In addition of this on the top, we have races with chariots, which is a part of a funeral procession. Tombs held a trove of golden treasure, now displayed in museums throughout Bulgaria. This bronze head of a powerful king humanizes those ancient Thracians.
This region is also called the “Valley of the Roses” and we’re here just in time for the rose harvest. Vast fields of roses bloom overnight. Workers rise before the sun to quickly hand-pick the new blooms. They need to work early, before the rising sun evaporates the essential oils. While the fields smell sweet, the work is hard. However, at the distillery, millions of blooms are quickly unloaded. Freshness is critical. All the bags of roses are stacked high before being dumped into the stills. So many flowers and so much hard work. The essential oils evaporate, then re-condense. However wide variety of rose oil products, appreciated both abroad and at home.
Kazanlak, the main town of the valley, is especially festive in May. In addition, we happened to drop in on a national holiday. It’s the Day of Slavic Culture. Throughout the country, school’s out and people are celebrating. Like much of the Slavic world, Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet. The missionary saints who invented the Cyrillic script to help introduce Christianity to the Slavs back in the 9th century. In other words, this is a celebration not only of their alphabet but of the Bulgarian language and culture in general. For instance, it seems the entire town has turned out for the event.
Our final stop is in the most enjoyable city, Plovdiv. This city has a history going back centuries before Christ. It’s easy to see the hills from the ruined acropolis which ancient Plovdiv was built. In the 4th century B.C. it was called Philippopolis, the “City of Philip”. He was the father of Alexander the Great. Centuries later, the Roman Emperor Trajan built this 5,000-seat theater. The stage wall is mostly intact. For instance, the stony seats are etched with their original numbers. And the functioning theater remains a part of the community to this day.
On the surrounding hillsides, Plovdiv’s atmospheric Old Town is a showcase of delightful buildings from the 1800s. A time when the ruling Ottoman Empire was in decline and Bulgarian cultural pride was on the rise. One of the finest examples is open to the public is the Hindliyan House. Elegant in its day, it still feels lived-in, with opulent seating rooms, fine furnishings and even a rose water fountain. Souvenir wall paintings show off some of the merchant’s far-flung business travels, from Stockholm to Venice. Nearby is a museum celebrating the work of the Bulgarian artist Zlatyu Boyadzhiev. Van Gogh-like brushstrokes onto the canvas.
It’s dinnertime. Stefan is taking us out for a meal of updated Bulgarian classics. However, prices are low here, making even a splurge like this surprisingly affordable. In addition of that, they have a traditional drink that is called “rakia”. So, we say “Nazdráve!” which means: – To your health!!! For instance, the second course arrives it’s clear that Bulgarian cuisine is a tasty mix of the many cultures that have influenced this country.
In other words, Bulgaria is a crossroads of civilizations. So, you got Mediterranean and it’s a little bit of Greece, a little bit of Turkey and a lot of Bulgaria. While most tourists stick to the cobbled old town, modern Plovdiv has plenty to offer, as well. “Mousetrap” is a vibrant and fun-loving corner of town. Newly revitalized, this artsy district is where foodies and creative young people congregate. Thanks to some progressive policies,the graffiti in this neighborhood seems to add to, rather than detract from, the ambience.
In Plovdiv, as in many European cities, local leaders understand that buildings are going to be tagged anyway. Their pragmatic solution? Commission only the best street artists to create art, rather than eyesores. Plovdiv is a city with many personalities, built upon layers of history: Under the 14th-century Ottoman mosque, they’ve excavated an ancient stadium. In addition, these artfully ruins have been integrated into 21st-century. They kick off Plovdiv’s liveliest pedestrian boulevard. So, the people promenade in style, past inviting parks and sidewalk cafés.
Above all, at this crossroads of civilizations, Bulgarians have blended old and new into a culture distinctly their own. Bulgaria is a great place to travel. In other words, this is a place where East and West mix harmoniously. A land that’s both exotic and fun to visit. Thanks for joining us. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling.