Saturday, January 26, 2013


Years ago, I had volunteered as a tutor in adult ESL classes held in a suburb just south of Indianapolis, and I had made many friends from all over the world. It always amazed me how many people from all over the world were here in the Indianapolis area. One of the students who sat at my table for a while was from Bulgaria, a country that the only thing I knew about it was that it was in Europe.

And I wasn’t exactly wrong. Bulgaria lies in southern Europe, but north of Greece and Turkey and next to the Black Sea. It’s considered part of the Balkans, and also borders Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia to the north and west respectively.  The Black Sea is actually an interesting body of water. There aren’t any high tides or low tides, leaving the water level fairly even.  It’s also one of the few places (and the largest) where the water is anoxic, meaning it’s depleted of oxygen (and basically dead underneath the top layer of water). So the creepy part is that when people have died in the numerous shipwrecks that have occurred over the centuries, their bodies will remain more or less intact since the rate of deterioration is extremely slow from lack of oxygen in the water at the bottom of the sea. Anyone want to go deep-sea diving?

Some of the oldest artifacts in the world have dated to Bulgaria, including the first Germanic language book (the Wulfila Bible from the 4th century). The city of Plovdiv is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, dating back to around 6000 BC. The coastal city of Varna is the site where the oldest gold treasure was found.

The Bulgarian Empire has seen many transformations since the beginning, and given its proximity to Turkey was also part of the Ottoman Empire at one time as well. It wasn’t until after WWII, when Bulgaria changed from being a monarchy into a republic but was highly influenced by the Russian communist mode of government. With the collapse of communist Russia in the late 1980s, Bulgaria became its own free state and held its first democratic elections.

There are several theories as to the origin of the name Bulgaria. One is from the Bulgur peoples who originally inhabited in the area.  Another may be from a Turkish origin meaning “mixed” since they believe this to be a mixed race of people. Yet, another theory is that it may stem from a possible meaning of “people from the Bolg [Volga] River.” 

The country itself is mostly mountainous with a couple of ranges arching its way through the country. It’s also countered with a few plains areas as well, and has a very wide array of temperature changes in different areas of the country because of its landscape. Three main rivers cut their way across Bulgaria: the Iskar, the Struma and the Maritsa (this one made my daughter happy knowing there’s a river that almost sounds like her name).

Bulgaria is the fourth-largest producer of gold in Europe and the sixth-largest producer of coal. It’s also the world’s largest producer of perfumed essential oils such as lavender oil and rose oil. For years, I used oils rather than perfumes. But chances are if you have some perfume, lotion, body wash, etc. with a floral scent, the oil in it may have also likely originated from Bulgaria.

Even though Bulgaria declared itself a secular state, most of the people practice Orthodoxy, but you’ll find followers of all religions there. The official language and most-widely spoken language is Bulgarian which uses the Cyrillic alphabet (many years ago before I became a sage, I used to just call it Russian; I was sorely mistaken. While Russian does use the Cyrillic alphabet, so does 29 other languages. In fact, when Bulgaria joined the European Union, Cyrillic became the third official script of the EU, after Latin and Greek.)

The capital and largest city in Bulgaria is Sofia. (The city’s name is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable [SO-fee-a], as opposed to the women’s name [so-FEE-a]). Sofia has slightly more people than the Indianapolis metro area, about 1.2 million people. It’s known for its mineral and thermal springs (another reason why I’d love to vacation there). Sofia has many high-quality art museums making the visual arts scene a really popular attraction. They used to have a thriving film industry as well, and even though it’s waned in recent years, several large films have been partly filmed in and around Sofia, including The Expendables 2, Hitman, The Black Dahlia, and Conan the Barbarian.  They also have one of the largest IMAX theatres in Europe. (I just took my kids to see their first 3D movie at the IMAX last year. They loved it!) The city has been passed over three times for the Winter Olympics, but they did host the FIVB [men’s] Volleyball World League finals in 2012, which Bulgaria came in fourth. 

For not knowing much about this country, it has fascinated me right away with just this initial look. I found my recipes quickly, even though it was hard to narrow it down. Bulgarian cuisine has a lot of overtones from Greek and Turkish influences and is a culinary montage of southern Europe. In fact, up until the late 1980s, Bulgaria was the number two exporter of wine. (I’m definitely going to be taking a little tour to my favorite liquor store to see if I can find any.) So, brush up on your Cyrillic, grab some wine, and get ready for Bulgaria.

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

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