If I succeed in persuading you to give Bulgaria a try, you must carry a substantial phrasebook and remember this: In Bulgaria, when you want to signify that the answer is "yes," you shake your head back and forth. To signify "no," you nod your head up and down.
My slow awakening to the reversal of signs for positive and negative created a great deal more confusion than was necessary during my solo, five-day trip to Bulgaria earlier this month.
With its sand cliffs and white-and-brown homes, Melnik is one of Bulgaria's "museum towns," noted for their historical and cultural significance.
(Embassy Of Bulgaria)
English is not widely spoken outside hotels. This problem caused me to enrage a bearded priest in a long black robe who thought I wanted to visit his room and perhaps sleep with him, when all I really wanted was to see a room for rent in his monastery.
Fortunately, there are many kind Bulgarians who will go to great lengths to help and please you. At one Sofia restaurant, for example, my waiter seemed so vested in my enjoyment, so eager for my approval, that when I couldn't finish my fish, I hid it in a paper napkin and put it in my pocket, to avoid upsetting him.
Full disclosure: There are also some service workers who seem to have studied at the Soviet School of Hospitality, with a "don't you see I'm playing solitaire; why are you bothering me; no soup for you" kind of attitude.
Bulgaria is clearly a country in transition. You see it in the service, and in the architecture, with decrepit Soviet-era block apartments lining streets that end at a chic hotel or restaurant. You realize the sweeping changes when you see some Bulgarians driving new Mercedeses, and others riding donkey carts.
Bulgaria also is a nation with an amalgam of cultures. Just when you've concluded that an area looks a lot like Greece, you'll turn a corner and be reminded of Turkey. Or you'll walk through the door of a cathedral that could be in France and find that inside, the walls are covered with Byzantine art most reminiscent of Russia. Church spires and minarets grace the skylines in both cities and small villages.
Every great power that ever rose in Europe passed through Bulgaria. They all plundered this nation at the crossroads of east and west, but also left some of the best of their cultures.
In 1990, after a half-century of Soviet control, Bulgaria held its first free, multiparty elections. The country is still in the process of privatizing its economy and struggling to modernize its infrastructure. Although I drove on two occasions on smooth new highways that included signs in both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, I also wandered about in confusion on potholed roads that had very few signs.
There is a national controversy about whether to post signs in the Latin alphabet in the countryside, a car rental agent told me. Problem is, impoverished villagers take down signs and sell them for scrap metal.
Many people, according to the agent, are working hard to make Bulgaria's many attractions easy for tourists to see and enjoy. "Things are not perfectly in place yet," he said, but rightly added, "Even now, though, we have many beautiful things to see."
An Enduring History
The skyline on the outskirts of the capital of Sofia is dominated by ragged, soulless apartment blocks. But the city center is a concentrated area of museums, graceful old government buildings and historic churches that cluster near a block-long synagogue and a mosque the Turks built in the 1500s.
Many buildings have been spruced up in recent years, both by private entrepreneurs and the European Union's Beautiful Bulgaria Project, which has provided renovation funds. One of the most imposing buildings is the St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral, erected between 1882 and 1912. The cathedral is filled with ornate carvings in wood and marble, and houses hundreds of Bulgarian icon masterpieces. The gold-plated central dome, with a massive gold cross on top, becomes my touchstone as I make my way around the city, often feeling lost, or about to be.
I take particular pleasure in seeing the cathedral, knowing the role the Bulgarian Orthodox church played in saving Jews from the Nazi death camps -- a history documented in the book "Beyond Hitler's Grasp," which was my airplane book on the way here. Although Bulgaria was aligned with Germany during World War II, the tiny country repeatedly thwarted orders to transport its 50,000 Jewish citizens to death camps in Poland. Church leaders took a righteous stand; one even threatened to lie on the railroad tracks to prevent the movement of trains that arrived to transport Bulgaria's Jews. The trains left empty.