It Grows, but It Does Not Age, reads Sofia's motto, but when you check what the Bulgarian capital looked like a century ago, you could be excused for thinking that It Changes, Yet It Stays the Same might have been a more appropriate slogan for the city's coat of arms.
There is a day in Bulgaria when the cities and villages seem awash with blossoming flowers. The flower stalls stock more of their seasonal and all-the-year-round blooms than usual, and the number of pop-up flower sellers on the pavements increases. People carrying bouquets and bunches of pussy willow branches are everywhere.
The crowds gathered in the freezing spring night on the historical hill of Tsarevets, in Veliko Tarnovo, were awaiting Easter. Midnight was approaching, but for the moment it seemed that Easter would never come. On the top of the hill, in front of the church whose silhouette is known to every tourist in this country, a priest was well into a long and tedious sermon on faith, the importance of unification, and a bit of current (meaning 2016) politics, and he showed no signs of being near the end.
According to a local legend, Varvara village got its name in Antiquity. Back then, wayward Thracians used to live on this rocky part of the Black Sea shore. Raids and pillage were their main sources of income, and their neighbours, from the rich Greek town of Agatopolis, were their usual victims. As a retribution for the raids, the Greeks called the Thracian settlement Varvara, the place of the Barbarians.
London has Camden Passage (Portobello is so upmarket nowadays), Paris has the Marché aux Puces de St-Ouen, Rome has Porta Portese, Athens has Monastiraki and Tbilisi has the Dry Bridge Flea Market: local flea markets are one of the most delightful experiences in capitals across Europe. Once they were the haunt of those who did not have enough disposable income to buy new stuff. They also attracted collectors, fringe cultures, and optimists believing that they would find a lost Rembrandt among all the knick-knacks. With the advent of cheap, disposable fashion (thanks, China), mass travel and mass hipsterisation, however, those with little cash moved to the malls, and the joy of finding some vintage clothing, or a 1960s piece of furniture that would look great in the living room went mainstream. This trend ruined Portobello, and put all the other flea markets solidly on the tourist map.
There are places in Bulgaria that ancient tradition or modern lore have turned into sites that attract not only people interested in beautiful landscapes and history, but also those who believe that they will discover something otherworldly there. Supposedly haunted villages and sites frequented by UFOs rub shoulders with "miraculous" springs and rocks, memories of dead clairvoyants and rumours of extraordinary events. To these, add in places venerated for centuries by unorthodox religious denominations or modern spiritual movements, plus locations that have inspired urban myths, and you will end up with a fascinating itinerary of mystic Bulgaria.
Ever since he touched a roll of black-and-white film, many years ago, Alexander Ivanov knew that his relationship with photography would be for life. Through the 1970s and 1980s Alexander Ivanov was one of this country's most innovative photographers. He was the mastermind of the association of photographers in his native Kazanlak, and his experiments in colour photography at the time brought him prestigious national and international photography awards.
In Bulgarian, the word Lakatnik means "elbow" and this place is named for a reason: at this point in its course through the Stara Planina mountains, the Iskar makes a sharp turn to the east and northeast, eventually reaching the Danube.
How many caves there are in Bulgaria is a question with no definitive answer. So far, more than 4,500 have been discovered and mapped. The number is so high because 22 percent of the country is covered with karst, a topography created when water soaks, dissolves and carves sedimentary rocks, mainly limestone, dolomite, and marble. Over millennia, the water shapes the karst into a variety of forms both on the ground and deep below. Caves are some of the most spectacular results of this activity.