The Bulgarian People
Philosophical, sceptical and with a brooding sense of humour, Bulgarians can initially appear reserved – but this soon gives way to warmth and wit. Having seen their national identity crushed over centuries of brutal foreign occupation, most Bulgarians are fiercely proud of their history and weave it into modern daily life. Look out for young people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with 19th-century heroes such as Vasil Levski, or attaching martenitsi, ancient pagan good luck charms, to their iPhones.
The National Psyche
After five gruelling centuries of occupation under the Ottoman Empire came the National Revival, under which Bulgaria’s culture and language freely flourished. More recently, four decades of totalitarian communist rule fell away, necessitating another phoenix-like renaissance. The hardships endured by generations of Bulgarians have sharpened national pride and tinged the country’s psyche with a worldly-wise, cynical outlook on life, while high levels of corruption and uneven economic fortunes have taught them not to expect too much of politicians and bureaucrats.
On the whole, Bulgarians are welcoming and hospitable. Most are eager that you leave their country with good impressions, though in many places, a hint of Soviet inflexibility colours the service industry. Still, most Bulgarians are informal and easy-going, and delight in social get-togethers fuelled by plenty of alcohol. Bulgarians have rather freer attitudes toward personal space than most Western Europeans; don't be surprised if strangers ask to join you at tables in restaurants if no other seats are available.
Young people are especially curious about visitors to their country; they are usually highly engaged with European and worldwide politics.
Like many other Eastern European nations, Bulgaria remains a largely conservative and traditional society. Macho culture prevails. Attitudes toward women can be old-fashioned, especially in rural areas – despite women in these communities carrying clout in agricultural and domestic decision-making. Cities are more progressive, though excessive chivalry is occasionally used as a form of chauvinism.
Hostility toward the LGBT community is not uncommon. Many Bulgarians believe gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals should remain closeted; there is even less understanding of transgender people. Fortunately, younger, urban Bulgarians are bucking the trend, though change is slow.
Rural life goes on much as it has done for the last century or so. You'll still see headscarfed old women toiling in the fields and donkeys pulling carts along the dirt tracks running through tumbledown villages. Meanwhile, in cities Western boutiques, casinos and strip clubs have proliferated. Pouting, scantily clad women are popular motifs used for advertising everything from alcohol to shopping centres, while a profusion of strip clubs and escort agencies has appeared in the big cities, colourfully touted in tourist magazines alongside reviews of restaurants and museums.
Despite invasions and occupations throughout its history, Bulgaria remains a fairly homogenous nation, with around 80% of the population declaring themselves Bulgarian.
In the mid-1980s the government mounted a program to assimilate the country’s Turkish inhabitants (then 10% of the country) by forcing them to accept Bulgarian names. Mosques were also closed down and even wearing Turkish dress and speaking Turkish in public were banned. Mass protests erupted, and in early 1989 about 300,000 Turkish Bulgarians and Pomaks left for Turkey (though many subsequently returned to Bulgaria when the repressive policies were overturned).
Relations between Bulgarians and the ethnic Turkish minority have improved since, but racial tensions remain. Far-right political parties have received increasing support over recent years and new ones established, like the 2013-founded Nationalist Party of Bulgaria, which has drawn comparisons to Greece's extremist Golden Dawn. Their aggressively nationalistic rhetoric has been directed against both Turkish Muslims and Roma. There have also been violent attacks on Roma neighbourhoods, while Syrian refugees have also suffered xenophobic attacks.
Bulgaria’s Roma, who form roughly 4% of the population, suffer disproportionate rates of unemployment, social deprivation, illiteracy, poverty and prejudice. They tend to live in ghettos and can be seen begging on the streets all over the country. Along with other East and Central European nations, Bulgaria signed up to the Decade of Roma Inclusion program from 2005–15. In terms of employment opportunities and raising awareness of Roma exclusion, some inroads were made, but effects are slow to trickle down (particularly for remote communities) and prejudice remains widespread.
Bulgaria is home to about 200,000 Pomaks, the descendants of Slavs who converted to Islam during the Ottoman occupation in the 15th century. In the past, they have been subjected to the same assimilatory pressures as the Turks. Some villages in the Rodopi Mountains are almost entirely Pomak, and there are small communities around Ruse and Lovech.
Orthodox Christianity has been the official religion since 865, though modern Bulgaria is a secular state that allows freedom of religion. The majority of the population – around 60% – still professes adherence to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, although only a fraction of this number regularly attends church services.
In the 2011 census, about one-quarter of Bulgarians did not declare a religion, most of them young people from cities such as Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna. Protestant and Catholics together formed less than 2% of the Bulgarian population.
Roughly 10% of the population is Muslim – ethnic Turks, Pomaks and many Roma. Over the centuries the Islam practised in Bulgaria has incorporated various Bulgarian traditions and Christian beliefs and has become known as Balkan Islam.
There’s also a tiny Jewish population, mainly living in Sofia.
Feature: The Macedonian Question
One topic that excites massive controversy in Bulgaria is the ‘Macedonian question’. The historical region of Macedonia covered areas of modern-day northern Greece and southwestern Bulgaria, as well as the Republic of North Macedonia itself. For many Bulgarians, Macedonians are simply Bulgarians in denial and their country really a part of the Bulgarian state, unfairly detached by bad luck and Great Power intrigue.
In 1945 the inhabitants of the Pirin region were named a Macedonian ethnic minority, and there were plans to merge Bulgaria and Macedonia into one country, though all this came to nothing and by the 1960s the ethnic minority status was rescinded. The majority of people living in the Pirin region regard themselves first and foremost as Bulgarian, but movements for regional autonomy still exist. Ultra-nationalist parties such as the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (IMRO) maintain that the state of Macedonia is part of Bulgaria.
Bulgaria was the first country to recognise the independent Republic of Macedonia after it separated from Yugoslavia in 1991. But cultural misgivings persist: most Bulgarians consider Macedonian to be a dialect of Bulgarian, rather than a distinct language, and feel perplexed by Macedonian insistence on a distinct identity, given their shared history.
This view is upheld at a national level, and Bulgaria vetoed Macedonia's bid to join the EU in 2012. Relations have become more cordial since, with desires for friendlier relations on both sides and plans for a Bulgaria–Macedonia rail connection by 2020. Macedonians, for their part, might reject Bulgarian reticence about their national identity, but thousands apply for Bulgarian citizenship each year.
Feature: Yes or No?
One cultural oddity that foreign visitors may find confusing at first is that Bulgarians shake their heads from side to side in a curved, almost wobbly motion to indicate 'yes', and gently jerk their heads up and backwards when they want to say 'no'. To add to the confusion, if Bulgarians know they are addressing a foreigner, they may reverse these gestures in an attempt to be helpful. If you are in any doubt about their real meaning, asking 'Da ili ne?' (Yes or no?) will soon set you straight.
The Orient Within by Mary Neuburger investigates the story of Bulgaria’s Muslim minority population, their relationship with the modern state and ideas of national identity.
Holidays of the Bulgarians in Myths and Legends by Nikolay Nikov is a fascinating account of the traditions and customs associated with all the major Bulgarian festivals.
Deunovism, founded in Bulgaria after WWI by Peter Deunov, is a religion combining Orthodox Christianity with dance, meditation and belief in reincarnation.
In Street Without a Name, Bulgarian-born travel writer Kapka Kassabova recalls her childhood under communism and offers a thought-provoking perspective on Bulgaria today.
The Bulgarian literacy rate is more than 98%.
Most Bulgarians celebrate the feast day of the saint after whom they are named as well as their birthday.
Sidebar: Celebrities of Bulgarian Origin
Bulgarians are quick to claim celebrities of Bulgarian origin as their own. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has Bulgarian grandparentage, while Vampire Diaries actor Nina Dobrev was born in Sofia.
Sidebar: Baba Marta Festival
Bulgarians wear red and white threads to celebrate Baba Marta Day on 1 March, tying them to tree branches when they first see a stork or blossom. The custom is thought to welcome spring and bring good luck.
Arts, Crafts & Architecture
Bulgaria has an ancient tradition of icon painting and these religious images are still the most memorable examples of Bulgarian artistry. Five centuries of Turkish rule suppressed much of native Bulgarian culture, but the National Revival of the late 18th to 19th centuries saw a creative blossoming as writers and artists strove to reignite the national consciousness. During the communist era, however, the arts were tightly controlled and heavily influenced by Russia and socialist ideology. Today, artistic activity in Bulgaria is at an all-time high.
Icons & Religious Art
Most of Bulgaria’s earliest artists painted on the walls of homes, churches and monasteries. The works of these anonymous masters are considered national treasures, and rare surviving examples can be seen in churches and museums across the country, including the lovely Boyana Church, near Sofia.
Throughout the Ottoman occupation, the tradition of icon painting endured, as a symbol of national culture and identity. The highpoint for Bulgarian icon painting came during the National Revival period, and the most famous artist of the time was Zahari Zograf (1810–53), who painted magnificent murals in the monasteries at Rila, Troyan and Bachkovo. Many of Zograf’s works were inspired by medieval Bulgarian art, though they display a more human (if often gory and sadistic) spirit, with naked sinners being inventively tortured by demons (a common and seemingly much-relished motif) alongside the calmer scenes of angels and saints. Zograf and others also produced smaller, devotional images both for churches and private homes.
Icon painting continues to be a highly regarded branch of the arts in Bulgaria, with artists such as Silvia Dimitrova creating luminous works for display not only in Sofia, but as far afield as London and Oxford, England. Hand-painted icons by contemporary artists are sold at galleries, churches and markets; Sofia, Veliko Târnovo and Oreshak are good places to shop.
Painting & Sculpture
Bulgarian painting has had little exposure overseas, but well-regarded Bulgarian artists of the last 150 years include Georgi Mashev, who created probing portraits and historic scenes; modernist Tsanko Lavrenov; and painter of pastoral landscapes Zlatyu Boyadzhiev. Head and shoulders above them all is Vladimir Dimitrov (1882–1960), often referred to as the 'Master’. Dimitrov, who during his life was as famous for his asceticism as his art, is known for his colourful, sometimes psychedelic, images of 19th-century peasants, and you will see his work in galleries across Bulgaria.
Contemporary Bulgarian artists include the sculptor Todor Todorov, abstract painter Kolyo Karamfilov, and Daria Vassilyanska, who paints luminous scenes of dances and villagers. However, the most widely recognised Bulgarian of recent times is Christo, of husband-and-wife duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
Bulgarian sculpture developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, and one of the leading lights of the period was Andrey Nikolov (1878–1959), who was influenced by contemporary French styles. His home in Sofia is now a cultural centre and hotel. He designed the stone lion outside Sofia’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and more examples of his naturalistic sculptures are on show in the city’s National Art Gallery.
One of Bulgaria's oldest crafts is pottery, and the most distinctive style is known as Troyanska kapka, literally translated as 'Troyan droplet', after its town of origin and the runny patterns made by the paint on the glazed earthenware body. Developed in the 19th century, it's still produced both for everyday domestic consumption and as souvenirs. Everything from cooking pots, plates and jugs to vases, ashtrays and more decorative items can be bought at market stalls, and from souvenir shops and independent workshops. Easily identifiable, the pottery comes in a few basic colours, including a lovely cobalt blue, green, brown and yellow, and pieces are decorated with concentric circles, wavy lines and teardrops.
Fabrics have been woven in Bulgaria as long ago as the neolithic era, as evidenced by fragments of weighted spindles found in archaeological digs. Carpets and rugs were spun in earnest during the 9th century, but were most popular and creative during the Bulgarian National Revival period. Today, weaving is a dying art, practised only by a dwindling band of elderly village ladies. Troyan and Oreshak remain excellent places to understand this fading art, as well as to buy authentic samples.
Carpets and rugs made in the southern Rodopi Mountains are thick, woollen and practical, while in western Bulgaria they’re often delicate, colourful and more decorative. The carpet-making industry began in Chiprovtsi around the late 17th century, with patterns based mainly on geometric abstract shapes. The more popular designs featuring birds and flowers, commonly seen in tourist shops today, were developed in the 19th century.
From serene choral harmonies to sexy, sweaty folk-pop, Bulgaria's music scene couldn't be more diverse. Bulgaria's millennium of ecclesiastical music continues to leave a strong impact, while traditional folk isn't confined to twee tourist restaurants: it enlivens village festivals and can be heard across the country. Meanwhile, folk's spin-off genre, chalga, is an energetic, Turkish-influenced pop style that dominates the airwaves.
Turn on a radio or TV in Bulgaria and it won't be long until chalga struts, vibrates and hip-thrusts your way. This unavoidable, love-it-or-hate-it genre fuses Balkan, Turkish, Arabic and flamenco rhythms to produce fast-paced pop music. Concerts and music videos almost unerringly feature shining bare torsos, minuscule bikinis and intense seductive stares. Big names include the silver-haired, always sparkling Azis, who has used his fame to fight for gay rights, and legendary Ruse-born diva Gloria.
Despite being loosely translated as 'Bulgarian pop-folk', most modern chalga gives only the vaguest nod toward folk music, preferring instead to focus on rippling synthesisers, warbling vocals and the all-important bikini girls. While many Bulgarians distance themselves from this brash musical genre, plenty of clubs around Bulgaria play little else. We guarantee you'll tap your toes to chalga at least once on your travels in Bulgaria.
Bulgarian ecclesiastic music dates back to the 9th century and conveys the mysticism of chronicles, fables and legends. To hear Orthodox chants sung by a choir of up to 100 people is a moving experience. Dobri Hristov (1875–1941) was one of Bulgaria’s most celebrated composers of church and choral music, and wrote his major choral work, Liturgy No 1, for the Seven Saints ensemble, Bulgaria’s best-known sacred-music vocal group, based in Sofia’s Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church.
The Sofia Boys' Choir, formed in 1968, brings together boys from various schools in the capital, aged 8 to 15, and has performed around the world to great acclaim. As well as their traditional Easter and Christmas concerts, they are known for their Orthodox choral music and folk songs.
Bulgaria's jazz scene began in earnest after World War I, when the USA's Great Depression nudged Bulgaria-born immigrants back home with an acquired taste for jazz. Like many forms of entertainment, Bulgaria's flourishing jazz scene was squashed under communism because it represented everything disliked by the regime: Western European influences, free artistic expression, and experimentation. After communism fell, jazz's popularity exploded back into the open and the country now hosts an impressive array of festivals, including A to JazZ (www.atojazz.bg) in Sofia, the Plovdiv Jazz Festival (www.plovdivjazzfest.com), and the International Jazz Festival (www.banskojazzfest.com) in Bansko.
Bulgarian folk music gives an instant aural impression of the country. Some is jauntily melodic, featuring traditional instruments such as the gaida (bagpipes), gadulka (a bowed stringed instrument) and kaval (flute). Other folk songs feature arresting polyphonic harmonies, or vocals that float in a haunting minor key. As in many peasant cultures, Bulgarian women were not given access to musical instruments, so they usually performed the vocal parts. Women from villages in the Pirin Mountains are renowned for their unique singing style, best enjoyed at festivals such as Pirin Sings. Preserved historic villages, such as in Etâr, have a rich calendar of folk music concerts.
The most obvious product of the prodigious and creative Bulgarian National Revival era is the unique architectural style of homes seen throughout the country. These were either built side-by-side along narrow cobblestoned streets, as in Plovdiv, or surrounded by pretty gardens, as in Arbanasi.
The wood-and-stone homes were usually painted brown and white (though some were more colourful), and featured bay windows and tiled roofs. Ceilings were often intricately carved and/or painted with bright murals, and rooms would have several small fireplaces and low doors.
Architectural designs and styles of furniture differed from one region to another. The colour, shape and size of the typical home in Melnik contrasts significantly with those found in Arbanasi. Some of the most stunning examples of National Revival–period homes can also be appreciated in traditional villages such as Koprivshtitsa, Tryavna and Karlovo. There are also examples among the old towns of Plovdiv and Veliko Târnovo, and at the recreated Etâr Ethnographic Village Museum near Gabrovo.
The most prodigious architect of the National Revival era was Nikola Fichev (1800-81), also known as Master Kolyu Ficheto. He built bridges, churches and fountains across central Bulgaria, including several buildings in Veliko Târnovo, the Covered Bridge in Lovech, the bell tower at Preobrazhenski Monastery and the monument-fountain at Sokolski Monastery.
Few Bulgarian films, even those that receive international accolades, get seen overseas. However, recent well-received movies include The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (2008), about a road trip undertaken by a bereaved man and his grandfather; Eastern Plays (2009), a drama set against a backdrop of Bulgarian-Turkish tensions; and Stolen Eyes (2004), about the fraught relationship between a Christian man and his Muslim girlfriend during the troubled 1980s. (There aren’t a lot of laughs in Bulgarian cinema.)
Esteemed Bulgarian directors include Peter Popzlatev, Ivanka Grabcheva, Mariana Evstatieva-Biolcheva and Ivan Nitchev, who directed the joint German-Bulgarian movie Journey to Jerusalem (2003), a sensitive drama about two German-Jewish children fleeing persecution. Investigation (2006), a joint Bulgarian-Dutch-German murder mystery directed by Iglika Triffonova, won three awards at the 2007 Sofia International Film Festival, while Kostadin Bonev's The Sinking of Sozopol (2014) won the gong for best international feature film at the New York City International Film Festival.
Foreign films – such as The Cherry Orchard (1999), The Contractor (2007) and Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007) – are sometimes shot in Bulgaria because of the cheap labour, reliable weather and varied backdrops.
The first recognised literary work written in Bulgarian was probably Slav-Bulgarian History by Paisii Hilendarski (1722–73), an enormously influential work that led to a national revival of Bulgarian cultural heritage and identity from the mid-18th century on.
Bulgaria’s most revered author was Ivan Vazov (1850–1921), who wrote Under the Yoke, a stirring novel based on the 1876 April Uprising against the Turks. He is commemorated with two house-museums, in Sopot and Sofia. Other famous literary figures immortalised in museums throughout Bulgaria include Nikola Vaptsarov (in Bansko), and Dimcho Debelyanov and Lyuben Karavelov (Koprivshtitsa).
Elias Canetti (1905–94) is probably the best internationally known Bulgarian writer of the 20th century. He was born into a Jewish family in Ruse, though lived most of his life in England, writing in German. His most famous work was Die Blendung (Auto-da-Fé), published in 1935. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981.
Less well known overseas, but still held in high regard, is Bogomil Rainov (1919–2007), who wrote several popular novels, such as There is Nothing Finer Than Bad Weather, a Cold War spy story from the other side of the Iron Curtain, made into a film in 1971. Other authors, whose works are available in translation, include the poet Blaga Dimitrova (1922–2003) – also vice president of Bulgaria in 1992–93 – and Georgi Gospodinov (b 1968), whose rambling Natural Novel (2005) ranges over topics including toilet graffiti, housing estates and bees.
Feature: Recommended Listening
Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (2001) Haunting melodies from this celestial choir.
Gadna Poroda (2011) Pop-folk performed by Bulgaria’s biggest chalga star, Azis.
Gladiator (1988) Frenetic hair-metal and heavy guitars by Impulse, a band who once toured with The Scorpions.
Orthodox Chants (2004) Sacred sounds from the young opera star Orlin Anastassov with the highly respected Seven Saints Choir.
Vkusut Na Vremeto (1982) Psychedelic rock anthems by Shturcite, the 'Bulgarian Beatles'.
Folk Impressions (2012) Traditional folk songs from the renowned Sofia Boys' Choir.
Bulgarian Rhapsody Vardar By Pancho Vladigerov; arguably the composer’s most popular work.
Feature: Christo & Jeanne-Claude
Among the 20th century's most internationally famous Bulgarian artists were Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Born in Gabrovo, Christo Javacheff (b 1935) studied at Sofia’s Fine Arts Academy in the 1950s and met his French-born wife, Jeanne-Claude (1935–2009), in Paris in 1958. They worked in collaboration, creating their first outdoor temporary installation, Stacked Oil Barrels, at Cologne Harbour in 1961. Thereafter, the couple, who moved to New York in 1964, crafted (usually) temporary, large-scale architectural artworks, often involving wrapping famous buildings in fabric or polypropylene sheeting to highlight their basic forms. In 1985 they created The Pont Neuf Wrapped, covering the Parisian landmark in golden fabric for 14 days, while in 1995 the Reichstag in Berlin was covered entirely with silver fabric. In 2005, The Gates, an impressive installation consisting of 7503 vinyl gates spread over 32km of walkways, was unveiled in New York’s Central Park. Learn more about their artistic legacy at www.christojeanneclaude.net.
Sidebar: Plovdiv 2019
Get up to date on the artistic revival in Plovdiv, European Capital of Culture 2019, at www.plovdiv2019.eu.
Sidebar: Voyager 2
Music from Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares was included in the capsule aboard the Voyager 2 space probe in the hope of reaching alien ears.
Sidebar: Sveti Teodor
The remarkable late-9th-century ceramic icon of Sveti Teodor, found in Veliki Preslav, is regarded as one of the masterpieces of early Bulgarian art.
Sidebar: Sofia Boys' Choir
For news about the angelic-voiced Sofia Boys' Choir, see www.sofiaboyschoir.altpro.net.
Sidebar: Bulgarian Pop
Beyond the suggestive rhythms of chalga, Bulgarian pop artists include sweet-voiced Mariana Popova, rock band FSB, and Poli Genova, whose song If Love Was a Crime won Bulgaria their highest-yet Eurovision Song Contest position (number four) in 2016.
Nature & Wildlife
Dominated by forest and interlaced by seven mountain ranges, Bulgaria allows wildlife-lovers a glimpse of primeval Europe. Predators such as bears, lynx and wolves still stalk these wilds, though they are very elusive. Easier to spot are Bulgaria's hundreds of bird species, from raptors in the rocky ranges of central Bulgaria to pelicans strutting in wetlands further east. Mountainous areas are undeveloped, aside from thriving ski hubs, so untamed wilderness is easily within reach for travellers seeking solitude in nature.
Bulgaria covers just under 111,000 sq km at the heart of the Balkan Peninsula, and in that relatively small area encompasses an amazing variety of landscapes and landforms. About a third of Bulgaria’s terrain is mountainous, and the country boasts seven distinct mountain ranges, each with a unique range of flora and fauna, and all covered with well-marked walking trails.
From the northern border with Romania, a windswept fertile plain gradually slopes south as far as the Stara Planina mountains, the longest mountain range in the Balkans, which virtually splits the country in two. To the south, the Sredna Gora mountains are separated from the main range by a fault in which the Valley of Roses lies.
Bulgaria's highest peak, Mt Musala (2925m), stands in the rugged and floriferous Rila Mountains south of Sofia, and is almost equalled in height by Mt Vihren (2915m) in the wild Pirin Mountains further south. The Rila Mountains’ bare rocky peaks, steep forested valleys and glacial lakes are a paradise for hikers (and, in parts, skiers). The Rodopi Mountains stretch along the Greek border east of the Rila and Pirin Mountains and spill over into Greece. The fascinating Yagodina and Trigrad caves are geological highlights of the Rodopis, while Melnik’s dramatic rock formations are among the most unusual sights in the Pirin region. In the Rila range, the Stob pyramids are the most unique geological feature.
The Thracian plain opens onto the Black Sea coast. The 378km-long coast is lined with beaches and also features coastal lakes near Burgas, spectacular cliffs near Kaliakra and several sandy bays. Diving has become a popular activity here over recent years. In addition to the mighty Danube, which forms much of the border with Romania, the major rivers include the Yantra, which meanders its way through the town of Veliko Târnovo; the Iskâr, which stretches from south of Samokov to the Danube, past Sofia; and the Maritsa, which crawls through Plovdiv.
Though small, Bulgaria packs in a huge and diverse array of flora and fauna, helped by the varied climate and topography, relatively sparse human population, and the fact that almost a third of the country is forested.
Bulgaria is home to some 56,000 kinds of animal, including over 400 species of birds (more than half of all bird species found in Europe), 38 types of reptile, over 200 species of freshwater and saltwater fish (of which about half are found along the Black Sea coast), and 27,000 types of insect.
Many larger animals are elusive and live in the hills and mountains, away from urban centres, but if you are keen to see some natural fauna, join an organised tour. Alternatively, hike in the Strandzha Nature Park, the Rusenski Lom Nature Park (home to 66 species of mammal), the Rila National Park, or the Pirin National Park (where 45 species of mammal, such as European brown bears, deer and wild goats, thrive).
Bird lovers can admire plenty of feathered friends at Burgas Lakes, the largest wetland complex in the country, and home to about 60% of all bird species in Bulgaria; the Ropotamo Nature Reserve, with more than 200 species of birds; Lake Srebârna, also with over 200 bird species; the Strandzha Nature Park, with almost 70% of all bird species found in Bulgaria; and the Rusenski Lom Nature Park, home to 170 species of water birds. White storks, black storks, Dalmatian pelicans, sandpipers, corncrakes and pygmy cormorants are some of the species that can be seen in these areas. Inland, Blue Rocks Nature Park near Sliven is home to the insect-spearing red-backed shrike, as well as golden eagles and vultures.
Common and bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises live in the Black Sea – though, sadly, in decreasing numbers.
Bulgaria has one of the largest brown bear populations in Europe. Rough estimates put the figure at anything from 400 to 700 individuals. There are thought to be around 300 to 500 bears in the southeastern Rodopis, and up to 200 in the Central Balkan National Park. However, unless you’re on a wildlife-spotting tour, you’re extremely unlikely to see a bear.
Bulgaria is thought to have up to 1200 wolves, though sadly they are considered a threat to livestock and can be shot by farmers. Numbers of the critically endangered Eurasian lynx are uncertain. Again, you’ll be very lucky to see these animals in the wild.
Rare insects include the Bulgarian emerald dragonfly, only discovered in 1999. It is thought only to inhabit a small area of the Eastern Rodopi Mountains and neighbouring areas of Greece and Turkey.
Various species of rare birds, including Egyptian vultures, lesser kestrels and great eagle owls, are protected in the Rusenski Lom Nature Park, while small cormorants, ferruginous ducks and Dalmatian pelicans thrive in the Srebârna Nature Reserve. The imperial eagle is one of Bulgaria’s most threatened birds – only around 24 pairs are believed to exist in the wild today. Saker falcons have been brought close to extinction in Bulgaria due to the illegal falconry trade and egg collectors; after a 90% population reduction over a decade, conservation projects have been attempting to reverse the decline.
About 250 of Bulgaria's 10,000 or so plant species are endemic and many have indigenous names, such as Bulgarian blackberry and Rodopi tulip. The silivriak, with its pale pink flowers, grew all over Europe before the last Ice Age, but is now found only in southern Bulgaria, particularly in the Rodopi Mountains, where it’s reasonably abundant. The wonderfully named Splendid Tulip, with its large red flowers, is extremely rare, and was only discovered in 1976, near Yambol.
The Unesco-protected Pirin National Park boasts more than 1300 species of flora, and the Central Balkan National Park encompasses ancient fir, spruce and hornbeam forests and mountain meadows, and supports some 2340 plant species, several of which are found nowhere else.
The Bulgarian government has officially established three national parks – Rila, Pirin and Central Balkan – where the flora, fauna and environment are (in theory) protected. Bulgaria also has 11 ‘nature parks’ (unlike the national parks, they include permanent settlements) and nature reserves, which are unique managed ecosystems. The latter category receives the strictest protection, and access is often regulated or even prohibited.
Central Balkan National Park
mountains, forests, waterfalls & canyons; wolves, otters, wildcats, rare birds & bats
hiking, caving & horse riding
Best time to visit
Pirin National Park
mountains & lakes; bears & birds
hiking, snowshoeing & skiing
Best time to visit
Jan, Feb & Jun-Sep
Rila National Park
alpine forests & pastures; deer, wild goats & eagles
Best time to visit
Ropotamo Nature Reserve
marshes & sand dunes; rare birds
boat trips & hiking
Best time to visit
Rusenski Lom Nature Park
rivers & valleys; rare birds; rock churches
birdwatching & caving
Best time to visit
Sinite Kamani (Blue Rocks) Nature Park
hills & rock formations; haidouk caves
hiking & birdwatching
Best time to visit
Strandzha Nature Park
varied forest & beaches; birds & mammals; archaeological ruins
hiking & birdwatching
Best time to visit
Vitosha Nature Park
hiking, skiing & snowboarding
Best time to visit
Jan, Apr-Aug & Dec
Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park
forest, varied tree life & caves
hiking & caving
Best time to visit
Like in many postcommunist countries, the lure of fast cash has often outweighed ecologically sustainable development. Logging, poaching and insensitive development continue in protected areas and excessive and harmful air and water pollution is infrequently controlled. In recent years, climate change has been blamed for an increase in flooding and a sweltering increase in summer temperatures.
Feature: Dancing Bears
The cruel practice of ‘dancing’ bears was officially banned in Bulgaria in 1993, and 25 rescued bears now live in the Dancing Bears Park (www.four-paws.org.uk/projects/bears/belitsa-sanctuary) in Belitsa, in the Rila Mountains. Located around 33km northeast of Bansko (and 12km outside the village of Belitsa itself), the park is the largest of its kind in Europe, and partly funded by the Brigitte Bardot Foundation. Visitors are welcome to join guided tours (email ahead if you plan to visit). You will need your own transport, but roads are poorly maintained. From Bansko, InterBansko (www.interbansko.com) can arrange excursions (140 lv including a guide and transport).
The Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (www.bspb.org) is a good source of bird news and the latest conservation projects.
The rare silivriak is also known as the Orpheus flower; legend says that its flowers were stained pink with the blood of the divine musician after he was hacked to pieces by the frenzied Bacchantes.
Sidebar: Balkani Wildlife Society
The Balkani Wildlife Society (www.balkani.org) is active in environmental conservation programs around the country and in raising public awareness of wildlife issues.
Bulgaria’s excellent wines are a product of its varied climate zones, rich soil and proud tradition. Foreign interest and investment in recent years have made Bulgarian wines increasingly known and appreciated abroad. Wine-loving travellers can sample them at rustic wineries, in gourmet urban restaurants and bars, and even at roadside stands. The tourist offerings of local wineries vary enormously; if you are keen to sample wine, check ahead, join an organised wine-tasting tour, or head for well-trodden wine towns like Melnik.
History of Winemaking in Bulgaria
Bulgaria's winemaking tradition goes back to the Thracians, who worshipped wine god Dionysus and planted grape varietals still cultivated today. Roman, Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian civilisations continued the tradition. While the Muslim Ottomans discouraged vintners, the 18th- and 19th-century National Revival period saw aristocratic mansions (some still in use) doubling as wine salons. After a damaging late-19th-century phylloxera outbreak, French experts recommended which endemic varietals to continue (such as Mavrud, Pamid and Gamza). Today, modern techniques and know-how have helped make Bulgarian wines increasingly visible in foreign supermarkets.
Bulgaria has five wine-producing regions, each with unique microclimates and grape varietals.
Thracian Lowlands (South Bulgaria)
Beginning south of the Stara Planina range and extending to the Sakar Mountain and Maritsa River, this region enjoys hot, dry summers, while the mountains protect it from cold northern winds. This region produces one of Bulgaria’s most famous wines, the red Mavrud, plus merlot, cabernet sauvignon, muscatel and Pamid.
Thracian Lowlands (South Bulgaria) Wineries
- Todoroff Wine & Spa Your every movement, from sleeping to sipping to spa treatments, can be in reverence to juicy Thracian wines at this fabulous winery-hotel in Brestovitsa, 15km southwest of Plovdiv. Surrounded by rolling meadows and vineyards, even the hotel's banisters are decorated with wrought-iron grapes. Book well ahead for the excellent wine tastings in Todoroff's atmospheric underground wine cellar (14 to 30 lv, or 44 to 50 lv with a meal).
- Bessa Valley Winery More than 3500 years ago, the Bessian tribe of ancient Thrace kept a sanctuary to the god of wine amid these verdant meadows. These days Bessa Valley Winery, 30km west of Plovdiv, likes to think it's playing a part in preserving this heritage. Its quality merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon are sipped across Bulgaria and beyond. Book well in advance for tasting tours of the impressive facilities.
Struma River Valley (Pirin Mountains)
In Bulgaria’s southwest, bounded by the River Struma and the Pirin Mountains, this region is marked by an arid, Mediterranean climate and soil. Signature wines include Shiroka Melnishka Loza from Melnik, and Keratzuda from Kresna, a village between Blagoevgrad and Sandanski.
Struma River Valley (Pirin Mountains) Wineries
- Shestaka Winery Clamber up to 120-year-old Shestaka (‘six-fingered’) Winery in Melnik, named after the founder, Iliya Manolev, who had an extra digit (as does his modern-day descendant Mitko). There is a wine cellar dug into the rocks (admission 2 lv), plus a shady hut with tables and chairs outside, which peer toward Melnik's sandstone pillars. Mitko can help to organise longer winery tours around Melnik; enquire via the website.
- Damianitza Leading Melnik wine producer Damianitza has a shop poised on the main road, shortly after you enter Melnik village. Tastings are free, and no hard sell is required once you've tasted its dry red Uniqato or oaky No Man's Land Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time of writing, Damianitza's wine tours were on hiatus for a renovation, but check its website.
Eastern (Black Sea Coastal)
Running down the Black Sea coast from Romania to Turkey, this region's long summers and mild autumns create ideal conditions for grape growing. Almost one-third of Bulgaria’s vineyards are here, with varietals ranging from Dimyat, Traminer, Gewürztraminer, riesling, Muscat Ottonel and sauvignon blanc.
Eastern (Black Sea Coastal) Wineries
- Chateau Euxinograde Book well ahead for group tastings (minimum seven people) at this 19th-century palace featuring elaborate period furnishings and verdant gardens. The winery is known for good whites and a French-style brandy, Euxignac.
- Di Wine Browse an extensive wine list at this inventive restaurant in Varna.
Northern (Danube Plain)
Between the Danube and the Stara Planina range, and hemmed in by the Serbian border and the eastern Dobrudzha Valley, these sun-kissed plains produce a signature Gamza, a fruity and fresh red dinner wine. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot are also crafted here, as are whites such as chardonnay, riesling and sauvignon blanc. Other common northern wines include Muscat Ottonel, Aligoté and Pamid.
Northern (Danube Plain) Wineries
- Magura Winery Flood your taste buds with local wine on a tasting tour in Magura Cave in Belogradchik. Book wine tastings a few days in advance.
- Han Hadji Nikoli This historic Veliko Târnovo tavern is a superb place to sample regional wines, either from the broad wine list in the restaurant or at the classy wine bar. Han Hadji Nikoli also boasts six of its own wines, from merlot to sauvignon blanc.
The Valley of Roses (Sub-Balkan)
South of the Stara Planina mountain range and north of Plovdiv, this narrow region produces dry whites, such as distinctive pinkish Misket – better here than anywhere else in Bulgaria.
The Valley of the Roses (Sub-Balkan) Wineries
- Vini Sliven (www.vini.bg) Look out for Chardonnay, Misket and Rkatsiteli wines grown in the sandy soil of these 1920-founded vineyards around Shivachevo village, 30km west of Sliven.
Winston Churchill used to order Melnik red wine by the barrel.
Sidebar: Take-home Wine
No time to join a winery tour? Stock up on bottles of Bulgaria's best at Vino Orenda in Sofia.
Damianitza's 'No Man’s Land' wine is made from grapes grown in the once off-limits border-zone fields between Bulgaria and Greece.
Sidebar: Wine Tasting
Degustatsija na vino is Bulgarian for 'wine tasting'.