Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bulgaria - A Travelogue

Cart with flowers in Veliko Tarnovo

Bulgaria is one of those nations that needs a proactive Minister of Tourism to lure Americans and West Europeans (not just the usual visitors from Romania and Russia) into its historic cities and Black Sea resorts.   It’s a country that should be known for more than its yogurt, feta, the wrapper Christo, and the 1978 ricin poisoning in London of the Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov.   What most tourists of Greece and Rome don’t know is that Bulgaria was home to one of the most advanced prehistoric civilizations, the Thracians, who 6,000 years ago were the first culture to have created objects from gold, which can be seen in the Archeology Museum of Varna, a city on the Black Sea coast.  With its Roman and Greek ruins, Orthodox churches, mosques built during the 500-year Ottoman rule, summer heat, and outdoor restaurant culture, you’d think you were exploring a Mediterranean country.

Although there are only 7.3 million Bulgarians, they have an active physicist community at CERN most of whom are working on the CMS experiment.  One of these Bulgarian physicists, Leandar Litov, invited Spouse to give a series of lectures at a physics summer school he had organized at Primorsko, a Black Sea resort town.  We had met Leandar and his physicist wife, Nevena, in 2004 when Spouse was at CERN on sabbatical; our daughters were eleven-year-old classmates struggling to learn French together at the local coll├Ęge (middle school).  We had decided then that we would like to visit Bulgaria, and just last month, from June 12-20, we had that opportunity.  We stayed four nights in Primorsko, and then embarked on an exhausting whirlwind 4-day tour of this curious ex-Communist country.  

Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv

From Sofia’s airport we rented a car and drove to Primorsko with a Bulgarian physicist from CERN named Alex, and on the way we stopped for a 3-hour lunch and quick tour of Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv, famous for its Roman ruins, cobblestone streets, and 19th century revivalist architecture, among other things.

Plovdiv cobblestone street,
Bulgarian revivalist architecture


The town of Primorsko is just like any beach town: shops selling hats, sunscreen, sunglasses, bathing suit wraps, and floating toys; bars and discos playing loud music late at night; outdoor restaurants; hotels, hotels, hotels.  In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d ever have the opportunity to swim in the Black Sea, and for me, that was one of the most exciting activities of this trip.  Bathers could walk into the sea for what seemed to be a block or two, being lapped by gentle waves, with the warm and clear water still waist-high. Primorsko’s pristine beach is littered with sunbathers of all ages and sizes.  Men with nine-months-pregnant bellies strut as if they were flaunting seductive six-pack abs, and golden agers in their 70s and 80s are unabashed to lie topless on the sand nearby overweight middle-aged bleach blondes and young women with Barbie bodies.  

Primorsko's beach

Middle-aged Strutters

Topless sunbather

The physics school held an afternoon’s excursion to the celebrated island-city of Nessebar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Although prehistoric Thracian settlements existed on the island, Nessebar became known in the middle ages for its 40 churches, of which only a few remain, and none are used now for religious services.  A tour guide took us into one 10th century church, St. Stephen’s, and explained the iconography and rituals of the Bulgarian Orthodox church.  I took a few flash-less photos before we were told that no photos were permitted.

Pantekrator Church

Icon frescoes in St. Stephen's Church


For archeology enthusiasts, Varna is a destination.  Its museum is renowned for exhibits of Thracian gold artifacts and stunning pottery.  But I had another destination in Varna, and that was to meet Mariya Koleva, a Bulgarian poet who writes in English, whom I had become acquainted with through an online writers’ group.  Mariya, her inventor husband Emil, and their endearing 3-year-old daughter, Silviya, met us Sunday morning at the hotel where Mariya gave me the first-ever printed version of her poetry ebook, “Sombre Chapbook” - with artwork by Emil.  They proposed being our tour guides, and escorted us to the Museum of Archeology, to the “petrified forest” of limestone columns, to Pliska, the first capital of Bulgaria from the 7th to 9th centuries, and finally, to Madara to see Bulgaria’s famous landmark hewed out of a high cliff – the Madara Horseman galloping over a lion, followed by a dog.  According to UNESCO (the Madara Horseman is also on UNESCO’s World Heritage List), this relief was carved approximately 710 AD.  Mariya, Emil and Silviya had made that day’s expedition from Varna to Madara impressive and unforgettable.  If only we could thank them by being their tour guides in the San Francisco Bay Area.  

In front of Varna's Archeology Museum:
Emil, Mariya, CERN Wife, Eliana, and Silviya

Bulgaria's Petrified Forest

Pliskins in Pliska

Madara Horseman

Veliko Tarnovo

From Madara we drove to Bulgaria’s San Francisco, Veliko Tarnovo, a city with a long history built on a series of hills that overlook the winding Yantra River.  Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire from the 12th to the 14th centuries, but we had no time to visit its old fortress city and other sites because we had plans to meet friends in Sofia.  So we spent just one night and morning in this charming city with so much to discover that our time there was barely an amuse-bouche.

View of Veliko Tarnovo

A woman sweeping on Gurko Street


In the capital Sofia – a city teeming with traffic, dotted with parks, packed with communist-era concrete apartment buildings, and alive with new businesses and stylish twenty-first century housing – we visited three religious buildings: the huge medieval-looking St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which was built between 1882-1912 (I had no idea that Alexander Nevsky was a real person; I associated the name with Prokofiev’s opera and Sergei Eisenstein’s film); the authentic medieval and diminutive 10th-century Boyana Church, embellished with extraordinary frescoes (another UNESCO World Heritage Site); and Europe’s third largest synagogue, which was completed in 1909.  Before World War II, Bulgaria had 50,000 Jews.  The Bulgarians, unlike other Europeans invaded by Hitler, saved almost all their Jews from extermination by the Nazis. 

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Boyana Church

Sofia's Synagogue

We had dinner (and breakfast before our flight back to Geneva) at our friends’ tree-shaded apartment in Sofia.  These friends - Nevena, Leander and Michaela - had kindled our interest in their country when we met them in France almost eight years ago.  They were responsible for our being in Bulgaria this year, and for suggesting which sites of their captivating country to see during our lightning tour.  Merci beaucoup!  

Leandar, however, wasn't at home the two days when we were in Sofia.  At the conclusion of his Primorsko physics summer school, he flew back to CERN for two weeks of meetings. Nevena, who is engaged in an interesting non-CERN physics research project about medical imaging, remained in Sofia.  I never told her, but I think that she is also a CERN Wife...

CERN Wives and CERN Daughters in Sofia

CERN Daughters hugging good-bye


  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful trip. Mariya put Bulgaria on my blog's map with her "visits" there. Now Karen has placed Bulgaria on my bucket-list of places to visit. How can I live without every having seen the splendors of Varna? Archaeology has always been my first love.

  2. Yes, Bulgaria is well worth a visit. It's too bad that they don't have - as I wrote above - a proactive Minister of Tourism. I'd be more than pleased to be their Minister of Tourism, or at least their American representative, but I don't speak Bulgarian...

  3. Thanks a lot for the kind mention! Silvi recognized us on the photo and is constantly wanting Emil to hold her to do a handstand :-) You've described your trip beautifully and it really reads attractive.
    Mariya K.

  4. I would certainly like to return to Bulgaria and revisit the places where we spent so little time, like Varna and Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv. I'd also like to see some mountain villages as well as some other cities well-known to Bulgarians but unknown to foreigners. And what a great memory for Silviya to recall Eliana and handstands. When I had noticed that Eliana wanted to do handstands and headstands at the age of 3 or 4, I found a gymnastics "school" where I took her one or 2 times a week, and she loved it. Now she does circus arts. So when can we give you a tour of the San Francisco Bay Area?

  5. Hah, was it really so early that Eliana started practicing? In fact, Emil and I have been wondering if it is still too early, but we plan to enquire around.
    As far as San Francisco is concerned, Oh, believe me, we would LOVE to visit and see places around the US. Unfortunately, visa is a very tough obstacle :-) I'm sure visas will be cancelled in the future and then, we'll visit :-)
    Since you've got other friends in Bulgaria, that might serve as a good reason to come and visit us again. There are other places, just as you say, to see and spend some time in. Some Thracian sacred places were recently dug out in the south and they are still a novelty, even to Bulgarians. speaking of Perperikon which was some temple and the Valley of the Thracian kings where many kings were buried in an especially rich manner :-)