Bulgaria is one of those countries which, unless you are from there, is not really on anyone’s tourist list. Most people have no idea what there is to see, and many do not even know where it is.
Having travelled to all but two countries in Europe, I thought it would be interesting to experience a place with total ambiguity. I did a little research and off I set, to the northern most Balkan country, Bulgaria.
The capital city of Sofia was an amazingly, enjoyable surprise. Its wide, cobblestone streets make strolling a pleasure. Old, renovated buildings line each side and are mostly taken up by restaurants. The upper floors are residences, and although the cost of living is inexpensive by our standards, it is quite high by those of Bulgarians.
A member of the European Union since 2007, it has the dubious reputation of being the most corrupt country the EU has. With a population of seven million, 5 % are Gypsies, 8 % Turks and the rest are of Bulgarian descent, who have populated the country since the mid 600s.
Depending on how you get to Bulgaria, driving through the Balkan Mountains from Romania is one of the most picturesque routes on earth. The Shipka Pass, high in the peaks, was the setting of several large battles for control of the region. To mark the spot the government erected a massive monument commemorating those who have sacrificed their lives to keep Bulgaria free.
Located near Plovdiv, a major city in Bulgaria, is the Outdoor Ethnographic Museum, constructed in 1963. It represents Bulgarian customs, culture and craftsmanship, and spans over an area of 17 acres. There are 50 objects, including water installations and houses, with craftsmen's workshops attached. As a whole, the goal is to illustrate the architecture, way of life and economy of Bulgaria during the Bulgarian National Revival, in the early 1800s.
One of the places I would highly recommend for a visit is the Shipka Memorial Church. It has to be one, if not the most magnificent Orthodox church in Europe. It was built in 1885, and took 17 years to complete. It is dedicated to the Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian soldiers that died for the liberation of Bulgaria in the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78.
The city of Plovdiv is well worth the visit. Dating back 8,000 years, it is one of the oldest cities on the continent. There are more than 200 archaeological sites, including two ancient theatres, remains of the medieval walls and towers, Ottoman baths and mosques, and a well-preserved old quarter. The city is surrounded by seven hills, which, after a short climb, make for fantastic vistas.
Bulgaria is one of the few countries which stood up to Nazi oppression. Although part of the Axis, it refused to give up any Jews and kept them safe within its borders. After WWII Bulgaria fell into the Soviet sphere of government, but in 1989, when Communism in the region fell, it became a parliamentary democracy.
Gypsies have long been associated with the region, and it was interesting to learn that most have left the area for the rest of Europe. Gypsies originated in the Punjab region of northern India as a nomadic people, and entered Europe between the eighth and tenth centuries C.E. They were called "Gypsies" because Europeans mistakenly believed they came from Egypt. This minority is made up of distinct groups called "tribes" or "nations." Gypsies are also known as Romas, a term which has no correlation to the name Romania. Instead it comes from the language they spoke called Romani, which is based on Sanskrit, the classical language of India.
Exploring history is one of my favourite things to do, and I came upon a fortress built in 1185. Tsarevets is a medieval stronghold located on a hill in northern Bulgaria. It was a great amount of walking, but exploring this well maintained fortified church, is definitely worth the visit.
The Rila Monastery is the largest Orthodox Monastery in Bulgaria and was built in the 10th century. Monasteries in the region are home to nuns, not monks, as one would expect. The Rila Monastery is regarded as one of Bulgaria's most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments, and is a key tourist attraction for both Bulgaria and Southern Europe. In 2018 alone, it attracted 1,000,000 visitors, and is depicted on the reverse of the 1 lev banknote.
Most people think of Bulgaria as a beach paradise on the Black Sea, which of course it is, but travel inland and really get to see some interesting aspects of a beautiful country.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com