Bulgaria: Exploring its Post-Roman-Ottoman-Communist culture without ever leaving home
In the pre-lockdown world where borders were open to those with a valid passport and visa, I was lucky enough to visit Bulgaria — twice. The first time in the early 90s, it was still recovering from the cronyism of communism, and horse carts and Trabants still owned the road. We ate a lot of white cheese and were impressively overcharged for the sin of ordering a can of coke.
20 years later I returned as a guest of Birdlife Bulgaria and found myself in a country reeling from the cronyism of capitalism, where unsuspecting British tourists where paying for mountainous old growth forests to be cut to make way for ski-lifts that would never be used due to the lack of snow.
Both countries are brought to life in Street without a name by Kapka Kassabova. Her story is one that many of us will recognise… a childhood desperate to leave her home town and a lifetime trying to get back in touch with her past. It is evocative and full of love/hate for a land which has changed occupiers many times but always ended up suffering no matter who was in charge. Just as the Communists tried to rid it of its Ottoman past, and the Ottomans smashed some of its Roman beauty, so now the Communists are being replaced by the relatively democratic European Union, I wonder if they will stay part of the Union longer than us Brits did. I surely hope so.
The book had a perfect companion piece in The world is big and salvation lurks around the corner a film which also tells the story of an emigree returning to post-Communist Bulgaria. This time it is a man cycling his amnesiac-grandson back to Bulgaria from Germany to help him recover and remind him of his love of Backgammon…
But as much as life was hard for those who were able to pick up and leave, it is harder still for the Roma people who feature in Welcome nowhere a documentary about a Roma community whose houses were bulldozed to make room for a new supermarket, forcing them to move to a settlement of boxcars. During communist times the average Roma was educated until the age of 14, and under capitalism this has moved backwards. The film shows the formidable problems the communities face to escape the present day grinding poverty and hints about the persecution they have faced in different guises for the last 700 years. But what of the future? With the children still unable to go to school due to lack of shoes, it’s hard to see anything changing soon.
Such absolute poverty seems particularly hard to stomach given Bulgaria’s rich arable land. Before Communism Bulgaria was a producer country with gastronomic trade links with Greece, Turkey, Macedonia and more. This meant that our first dish was vegetarian moussaka something I normally think of as Greek. Next we tried this vegan Gyuvech a slow baked medley of vegetables that I would love to try next time I get to Bulgaria. Both dishes went well with Bulgarian Shopska salad which was very similar to the Shopska salad we ate in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And the whole thing went perfectly with the Bulgarian Zagreus red wine which we shall be buying again.
But the food didn’t stop there… I found our local Bulgarian shop and bought bread, giant chocolate croissants, salted sunflower seeds (I am still not sure if you are meant to eat the shells), and most importantly rose sweets — as Bulgarian Damascena rose oil is an essential part of any trip to Bulgaria. Damascena roses are only cultivated in the Rose Valley of Kazanlak and per gram, the oil is more expensive than gold.
So that just leaves music… Given the sadness surrounding Welcome nowhere, I thought I would leave you with the joyous songs of Ibro Lolov and this album of Bulgarian instrumental folk.
See you next week in Burkina Faso.