My family made a few return visits since then, but I had never gone back as an adult, and after all these years, I felt it was time to change that. There is an old expression penned by a famous Bulgarian author, Aleko Konstantinov: “Опознай родината за да я обикнеш,” which roughly translates to “explore your motherland so that you may fall in love with her,” and that is what I intended to do on this return trip with my parents.
Following the fall of communism, Bulgaria experienced over a decade of economic hardship and is still recovering from the transition back to capitalism. Entry into the EU in 2007 seems to have helped greatly, however, and our first impressions were overwhelmingly positive. The Sofia airport is modern and efficient with a convenient metro line right outside the main terminal. The absence of signs for the metro can almost be forgiven. The capital itself is substantially cleaner than I remember it. A taxi driver told us that the new mayor of Sofia is largely credited for the improvements, requiring community service in exchange for financial aid. Elected in 2009, she is the first woman to hold this position. That kind of progress makes me happy.
Seven Rila LakesBulgaria abounds in natural beauty. The first stop on our tour of the motherland was a natural wonder even my parents had somehow never visited, despite it being one of the country's most popular tourist attractions — the Seven Rila Lakes, high up in the Rila Mountains, a few hours' drive from Sofia.
The road ends at around 5,300 ft, and from here, one can choose between a two-hour hike or a twenty-minute chairlift ride up to the lakes at 7,400 ft. Arguing that in this particular instance, with the long drive awaiting us, time was more important to us than getting in a good hike, we chose the latter.
The chairlift ride ended up being a supremely serene experience. The crowds were well ahead of us this late in the day, and utter silence descended upon us as we ascended effortlessly above the high tree tops, soaking in the stunning scenery.
The chairlift dropped us off at a mountain lodge, and from here it was still a good hike up to the ridge, several hundred feet higher, from which the lower three lakes are visible as well as Kidney Lake, where many visitors were enjoying a picnic. Touring the lower five lakes is a two-to-three hour trek, and the upper lakes, the Eye and the Tear, are at least a one-hour add-on with another several hundred feet of elevation gain, for which we did not have the time. We were content with privately referring to this natural wonder as the Five Rila Lakes.
Tired from the hike, we stopped for what was meant to be a light dinner at Hizha Pionerska, a lodge and restaurant near the bottom of the chairlift. It was easy to overindulge on the delicious food, ordered straight from the chef. Much too many courses later, we were back on the road, heading to my hometown of Panagyurishte.
PanagyurishteBy now I had become quite accustomed to my phone working seamlessly on international trips with T-Mobile's excellent unlimited data and texting plan, valid in more countries than I could probably ever visit. So renting a car and looking up directions is no different on another continent than it is back home. It is very useful and makes one a confident traveler, except, of course, when it fails.
I had plugged in our hotel's address as I normally do, and we were happily driving along when at one point, the comforting Google voice advised us to exit the highway. My mom, sitting in the back, expressed surprise over this unexpected turn and suggested we get back on the main road. “Mom, relax; we are following directions,” was my unfortunately brusque response, and I continued on nonchalantly. Pretty quickly, the road started deteriorating, and with each passing kilometer, it became more and more difficult to make progress. Whole rectangular blocks of asphalt were missing, giving the appearance that the road was being prepared for a repaving that never occurred. There were no construction vehicles, no signs of closure, nor signs of any kind really, and we surmised the construction was abandoned due to shifting priorities.
When the tar craters yielded to a narrow, single-lane dirt road overgrown with weeds on both sides, I felt this uneasy feeling that technology had somehow failed me. This blind faith I had in Google Maps was completely shattered. Everyone in the car agreed at this point that we were most definitely not on the right track, despite the continued resolute stance my phone was taking. Just before I attempted what was probably an 8-point turnabout, as if almost to toy with us, Google instructed us to turn right onto an interpretive path not even a Range Rover could have managed.
We switched from electronic guidance to the wise voice of my parents, who had known better all along, and with a bit of luck we safely made it to town shortly after dark.
I was excited but also nervous to see my family after being apart for such an obscene length of time. In that much time cousins get married, babies are born, and kids become teenagers. I felt uneasy. We passed our old house along the way to my aunts and uncles, and I was stopped in my tracks when I noticed the pine tree my grandfather had planted in our yard the year I was born. For most of my childhood I was proudly taller than my coniferous friend. On this particular evening, it was taller than the entire three-story duplex. It was the most humbling of moments.
It turns out family is family. Despite the immense time-lapse, we soon picked up from where we left off. Slightly awkward introductions were exchanged with my nephew and niece whom I was meeting for the first time. I am sure with my oddly evolved Bulgarian I appeared a complete foreigner. Minutes later, these minor barriers were broken, and we had a wonderful start to our reunion.
I was also curious to see how Panagyurishte had changed. I was planning to go for a morning run to the town square and up the steep steps of the Apriltsi Memorial from which one can get a great view of nearly everything. Panagyurishte holds much historical significance for Bulgaria having been the center of the April Uprising against the Ottomans in 1876.
It turns out there was no need to set an alarm. The neighborhood roosters made an unsolicited wakeup call to my hotel room well before the crack of dawn. When I succeeded in getting my eyes to focus on my watch, I saw 04:30 in disbelief. It was pitch black outside. I tried to catch a few more ounces of sleep unsuccessfully and when the first hint of dawning appeared, I put on my running gear and took off.
Guided by a childhood mental map of the town, I reached the monument in a surprisingly short time — it was only a mile. From here, it wasn't much farther to the edge of town. In general everything appeared smaller to me than in my childhood memories, a sort of Alice in Wonderland moment in reverse. As the town slowly started waking and people were going out and about, I received strange stares. Did I look that out of place? Did everyone know everyone else? Or was it simply that no one in the history of Panagyurishte had ever gone out for a morning run? Perhaps it was a combination of all three.
While little had changed from my previous visit, Panagyurishte had undeniably experienced modernity. The town now has two traffic lights, up from zero, and like most traffic lights in the country, they come with timers that dispel any doubt as to how much time you have at a red light to answer that text or how long that green will stay green. I was hoping we could bring that feature home with us.
Botev PeakStara Planina, literally translated as Old Mountain, is the spine of Bulgaria, spanning the entire country's length, west to east. Ironically, it is not the oldest mountain in the country, but it is strikingly beautiful and covered by majestic forests for most of its span.
At the lowest elevations, oak trees thrive and are much grander than their Californian cousins. After about 4,500 ft, oak gives way to brilliant beech trees whose wood is prized for its strength and durability. Beyond 5,500 ft pine dominates. The transitions are definitively sharp, as though each species keeps a close guard on its turf. After about 8,000 ft, naked peaks, such as Botev, emerge.
We chose to stop here for a day hike towards Botev Peak on our way to the coast. One can park just outside the park boundary and hike up the constant grade fire road practically all the way to the top. Permits are needed to drive into the park and can take several days to obtain, so we set off on foot. We knew we would not have enough time or stamina to reach the peak anyway, so it wasn't a major setback. We still managed to cover a decent twelve miles round trip.
One of the best things about hiking here and elsewhere in Bulgaria is the sheer variety and abundance of wild fruit. Walk in any direction for a few hundred feet and you are bound to find a blackberry bush or a delicious wild plum tree. The latter was irresistibly delicious and is often harvested by locals to make rakija, a plum brandy that is the vodka of Bulgaria. My grandfather had often said that when going into the woods in summer, one should never forget to pack extra clothing, while in winter one needs to bring food. In summer, the mountain can feed you but also leave you wet and freezing. And in winter, you are obviously going to be wearing warm clothing to go out in the first place, but if you don't bring food with you, you might get stuck in a snowstorm and would definitely not find anything to eat.
Stara Planina, like most of the country, appeared bone dry. When we brought this up in conversation, locals dismissed it, pointing to recent heavy rains. If it had rained so much before we arrived, why was there no evidence of it? Not a drop of rain fell the entire ten days of our holiday. Perhaps we were especially sensitive coming from drought-stricken California, however, we could not help but notice that the normally white peaks of Rila, even in summer, were devoid of snow. I admit it is decidedly anecdotal, but to me it seemed global warming had made a mark on my motherland too, whether its residents cared to admit it or not.
From here we continued on towards Stara Zagora, our overnight stop before spending a couple of beach days at the Black Sea. Stara Zagora is famous for brewing one of Bulgaria's most popular lagers: the Zagorka. Bulgarian beer is exclusively of the lager variety, matching the styles and tastes of Germany and the Czech Republic. After several days of drinking light lagers, I desperately wanted to switch to a dark beer.
Ales are nonexistent in the country, but in Stara Zagora we found a bock brewed in the capital: the aptly named Stolichno, which was outstanding. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to find it at restaurants during the summer. It just does not seem to be regarded as a refreshing beverage on a hot summer day. And hot it gets. Beer is extremely popular though, and I was shocked to find beer sold in supermarkets, like soda, in two-liter plastic bottles.
The Black SeaThe Black Sea covers the entire eastern border of Bulgaria. Locally referred to as Chеrnomoriе, the coast has many beautiful white sand beaches and is a popular tourist attraction for Europeans. The waters are almost always calm and warm for swimming in the summer season, even up north near Varna, which is where we chose to stay. Growing up, my family came here on holiday annually, and I have many fond memories of those vacations.
Besides the Europeans, Russians make up a large fraction of the tourists, and local establishments seem to try hard to cater to them. We saw signs advertising spoken Russian and even borscht on the menus.
It was nice to spend the next couple of days swimming, lounging at the beach, and simply relaxing. This being the tail end of the season, the normally densely packed beaches felt less crowded and made for a much more enjoyable experience. While in the water, looking back towards the shore, we could not help but notice just how many abandoned construction sites dotted the coast. Over-construction on the Black Sea has been a major problem for over a decade, and it was sad to see so many concrete skeletons depress the natural beauty of the area. The pollution was also heartbreaking in otherwise inviting waters.
Being used to having the sun set over the water in California, it felt odd to see it come up over the sea in the morning. After a beautiful sunrise the first morning, we walked down to the beach road in search of breakfast. We had noticed numerous restaurants here the previous evening, yet not one of them was open for breakfast. We could not even find coffee. We walked farther and farther from the hotel and at one point were approached by two stray dogs in search of the same thing. “Are you guys hungry too? You are welcome to join us!” I said to them in a Wizard of Oz kind of moment.
We eventually succeeded in finding a restaurant a few blocks inland that would serve us breakfast. Oddly, we were the only customers even close to 10am. Was it that there was no tourist demand for breakfast or that tourists knew better than to expect to find it? Whatever the reason for this chicken or egg problem, it seemed like at least a good coffee shop would do well. What's better than to watch the sun rise over the Black Sea with a warm coffee in hand?
Coffee is consistently good everywhere in Bulgaria, much like in the rest of Europe. Espressos are the default and often only option, however. Every once in a while one can find a cappuccino on the menu, but I could never get a morning latte.
Veliko Turnovo and BelogradchikThe final segment of our tour involved a great deal of time spent in the car. Driving in Bulgaria is something of an extreme sport. Improved economic conditions have not benefited everyone equally, as they rarely do, and the newly rich with Mercedes Benzes and BMWs often drove recklessly, showing no respect for the rules of the road, creating dangerously hair-raising situations.
Leaving Varna, we set out towards Prohodna, an unusual and little known cave in Northern Bulgaria that had made an impression on me years ago in a travel magazine. We broke up the four and a half hour drive from Varna by stopping for lunch in Bulgaria's former capital, Veliko Tarnovo.
With over five millennia of history, Veliko Tarnovo holds a lot of cultural importance for Bulgaria. It is also a beautiful city, spread out across three steep hills carved out by the Yantra River. Atop one of them, Tsarevets, is a fortress that served as a royal and patriarchal palace. It is quite a climb to the top, especially in the brutal heat of early September, but the view from the top is worthwhile as is a peek inside the church, reconstructed in the 1970s and 80s.
After lunch we pressed on towards Prohodna Cave. Within five miles of where Google placed the cave, we entered an unexpected construction zone (again no signs), but this time there were at least active workers. Having lost faith in technology, I rolled down my window to seek confirmation that we were going the right way from one of the construction workers. He replied, “well, Sir, I would be lying to you if I said I knew,” which was a funny way of saying “I don't know.” Fortunately, this time Google did not fail us, and we were able to find the visitor parking lot without incident.
The cave is practically a stone's throw away from Karlukovo, which is famous for its insane asylum. On the trail leading up to the entrance of the cave, we heard disturbing voices that became more disquieting as we approached. My parents feared some of the patients might have escaped from the asylum.
When we reached the cave, the troubled souls had exited from the other, smaller entrance, and with the exception of a rock climbing couple, we had the immense cave to ourselves. From photos I had seen online, I had never imagined it to be as grand as it was. It was an awe-inspiring natural wonder that felt like Nature's cathedral. It is no surprise the two symmetric tear-shaped openings on the roof were named the Eyes of God.
We spent the night at the Hotel Villa Kaylaka in Pleven, about an hour away. The villa offers fabulous views of the park by the same name, which is quite lovely with two reservoirs surrounded by sheer cliffs. The park is crisscrossed by roads that are popular among cyclists.
On the next and last day of our trip, we continued on to the town of Belogradchik, tucked away in the northwest corner of the country. It is famous for its rock formations and a fortress by the same name. A little out of the way, it required backtracking, but the rock formations are unique and worth seeing.
On our drive back to Sofia, we passed through picturesque farmland, and the country road was lined with fruit trees. My dad explained that farmers would plant fruit trees at field boundaries so as to be able to take a break from back breaking work and enjoy a snack under some shade. It was hard to resist pulling over and plucking a ripe apple.
We dined at the Chevermeto in Sofia on our last day. Unbeknownst to us, a wedding reception was taking place in one corner of the restaurant that gradually spilled over and consumed the entire establishment. Traditional Bulgarian weddings involve much folk dancing (the horo) and nearly everyone was joining the ever increasing and warping circle by the end of the evening. Having just traveled to Scotland, I came to realize that Bulgarians and Scots have two rare elements in common: bagpipes and kilts. It made me wonder whether there might not be some genetic link between the two peoples.
As it came time to return home, I thought back to what Aleko Konstantinov had
written and realized he had been right. Exploring my motherland did rekindle a
sense of pride for my roots. With the beautiful scenery, fertile land,
delicious food, and friendly people, Bulgarians have a lot to be proud of.