Bulgaria, a set on Flickr.
Here’s the thing: Bulgaria is too agreeable by half. It provides for a pleasant enough place to visit, and no real negatives. But when the best emotion you get out of a country is indifference, that’s almost worse than a bad experience. Bulgaria is bland in the same sad way as plain yogurt. Plain yogurt is what you pick if all of the other flavours are sold out, even the weird ones, because you might as well try them at least once. And even then, if everything else is gone, you could probably just wait for them to restock the shelves tomorrow.
The fact is that Bulgaria is less interesting than all its neighbours: Romania seems more mythical; Greece more historic and beautiful; Turkey more exotic; Serbia more relevant; even Macedonia is better endowed naturally. The country’s character matches the sober and plain nature of its people, who are certainly not disagreeable at all, but who lack the warmth of Balkan people or the friendliness of the Dutch, and can’t even conjure up the patronizing disinterest of the French or the repellent dourness of the Swiss.
Like I said, though, it’s not bad – just a little lifeless. Sofia is definitely a pretty city with requisite landmarks, impressive history, decent cuisine, and cheap prices. It’s got some interesting nightlife spots, too. In the depths of an alley, you’ll find either a completely candle-lit, barn-like bar with old wooden beams, or the ashes of said place, depending on when the candle flames finally catch the exposed, untreated wood. But there’s not much to recommend Sofia as a destination in itself, or even over other cities in the region for that matter.
Moving east, you drive through pretty rolling plains that look especially golden and beautiful in the sunset, before they unfold rapidly into the darkness of the Black Sea. But where Bulgaria might redeem itself with endless beaches and winding coastline, it instead has constructed mile on mile of unfinished beach resorts that make the area (especially around Burgas) look like a Soviet Cancun.
By the beach, you’re more likely to hear English spoken (with a British accent) and every restaurant has bangers and mash on offer. One place was even promoting imported prepared meals from ASDA (the Wal-Mart of the UK), as if that was something people even enjoy eating in England. A taste of home? Most people are there on a week-long all-inclusive vacation.
I can’t fault Bulgaria for wanting to cash in on the tourist dollar (or euro or pound, as it were), but have some dignity. There are few things that are more repellent than beaches on beaches of blasted, beet-red Brit bachelor parties.
Probably the most interesting thing about Bulgaria is that you shake your head for “Yes” and nod for “No”. I wish I had an anecdote where this cultural difference came into play in some hilarious way, like if I was asked to eat ram’s testicles or something, and I shook my head, but I don’t. It does remind me of something, though.
We went to a restaurant where you simply choose what kind of meat you want, and they prepare it differently every night. Jae and I had a delicious pork leg. Our companions ordered chicken, and were presented with a plate of stir-fried chicken hearts and livers. For the narrative’s sake, let’s just say they were asked if they wanted organs and shook their heads “no”.
Chicken livers aside, Bulgaria doesn’t hold too many surprises. If you’re going there in the near future, remember to bring a book.