Bulgaria's only English language magazine marks 17 years in business
When the first issue of Vagabond hit the newsstands, in September 2006, the world and Bulgaria were so different that today it seems as though they were in another geological era. Two economic crises, a pandemic and a war in Europe were still in the future. Bulgaria's Boyko Borisov was just a rising star, not a cunning politician who would rule the country for over a decade. Social media was yet to be born. Targeted advertising was in its infancy. Print media prospered.
At that time, Bulgaria was a very optimistic place. The local economy boomed and the entrepreneurial spirit was high. The country was scheduled to join the EU. People genuinely hoped for future prosperity and stronger democracy. Scores of foreigners, most notably people from the UK and Ireland, were moving to Bulgaria attracted by its warm climate, beautiful nature and low property prices. Many were pensioners looking for their next "place under the sun." But many others were young professional people who moved to Bulgaria hoping they would be able to continue doing their jobs online while partaking of the much lower cost of living in southeastern Europe – not forgetting the fun factor as well. An expat community was in the making in and around big cities such as Sofia, Varna and Veliko Tarnovo, but also in smaller places like Bansko. The fresh expats needed a source of reliable and objective information about everything in Bulgaria – from the politics of the day and the social issues, to local history and the travel options, and – crucially – the red tape and the really good places to eat, drink, stay and have fun at – beyond and away from Sunny Beach.
Ostensibly, the formula for Vagabond was pretty straightforward. The new magazine would apply Western journalism standards to report on, put in context and explain the sometimes overwhelmingly complex Bulgarian realities. Anyone who has tried to decipher a Bulgarian government document or a travel brochure sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism will instantly know that this job would require enormous insight and perseverance. It is not just a matter of translating the language. In an extremely politicised environment anything – even rural tourism or exploring the wonders of the Rhodope mountain range – could instantly be turned into a tool for political arguments and bickering. We realised that the moment you pointed out that "Roman" bridge in the Stara Planina was in fact built in the late 18th century by the Ottoman Turks (most likely using local manpower) you were slated for exposure as at least a "traitor."
Yet, figuratively speaking, we were determined to do away with the decades-long Bulgarian practice of producing road maps that depicted roads yet to be built. No more wishful thinking. We wanted to explain in plain English what the actual Bulgaria, rather than an idealised version of it, was about – with its history, beauty, traumas and idiosyncrasies.
A team of talented journalists, photographers and contributors – Bulgarians living in the country and abroad, and Britons, Irishmen and Americans – was formed to turn the idea into a reality.
Through the years: Some of Vagabond's staff and contributors, from left: Ani Ivanova; Kalina Garelova; Nadia Damon; Lina Mitova; Lyudmil Fotev; Lucy Cooper
Our first issue's cover story was the Bulgarian violinist, Vasko Vasilev, an international star in classical music. Many others were to follow. In each issue we provided an engaging mixture of current political, economic and social issues, travel destinations, tried-and-tested advice on how to navigate Bulgarian bureaucracy, and even modern Bulgarian literature in English – a rare glimpse into this nation's cultural life. Later, together with the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, we started publishing short stories and excerpts from Bulgarian and English-language participants in the Sozopol Fiction Seminars.
Through the years: Some of Vagabond's staff and contributors, from left: Carolina Ramos, Kristina Panayotova, Gabriel Hershman; Vagabond Media staff at Christmas, 2005; Tim Howlett; Gergana Shkodrova
This was how expats and diplomats, and also Bulgarians with foreign families who wanted to know more about Bulgaria, learned about the real and imaginary mysteries of famed sites like the Rila Monastery and of lesser known places such as Gumoshtnik, the tiny Upper Balkan village that lost eight men on the Titanic. Vagabond explained who was who in the Bulgarian elections, how to invest in the country and what to look at when buying property.
We carried features on expats already living in Bulgaria who shared the good and the bad they had live through here – from the laidback lifestyle to the petty crime, the crazy traffic and the sorry state of government health care. We ran a series of articles on Bulgarian history, written by the prominent history professor, Hristo Matanov. In all of our articles on travel in Bulgaria we provided the much needed background to this nation's past and how it affects the present – which it does to a much larger extent than in, say, England or France. We also ran travel pieces about Bulgaria's neighbouring states – the country is an excellent starting point for exploring the region.
Predictably, some of our features ruffled some feathers.
One of the more amusing episodes happened in 2007 – 16 years ago! We published a piece about dozens of Soviet and Nazi German tanks that lay buried by the Bulgarian-Turkish border. They were installed during the Cold War, a part of the defence concept of Warsaw Pact-member Bulgaria. When the NATO Turks invaded, the thinking went (in Communist Bulgaria it was a matter of when, not of if), the Bulgarian soldiers inside the tanks had one job. They had to fire one or two shots from the claustrophobic turrets... In the 2000s, the Warsaw Pact was no more and Bulgaria had joined NATO. Yet, the tanks were still there – by roads, in fields and on hills, their guns waiting for an enemy that never came.
There was scant information about these tanks and we wanted to know more. We requested the Defence Ministry to provide information. The military refused. We got a letter telling us the tanks – visible from the road and already being plundered by scrap metal hunters, were officially... classified.
We sued. We won. We did our article in Vagabond and the Access to Information Programme, a local NGO to ensure transparency and accountability, awarded the Defence Ministry the ignominious prize of the most absurd refusal to provide information.
A couple of months after our article, the Ministry of Defence had to take urgent action. Someone was caught stealing one of the tanks, a rare Second World War piece of hardware apparently coveted by international collectors. The tanks were unearthed and sent to a dedicated exhibition ground in Yambol.
In 2008, we initiated a campaign about the national symbols of Bulgaria. In contrast to the mainstream effort that produced the inevitable results focusing on this country's glorious past (mainly the Middle Ages and the struggle against the Ottoman Turks), we wanted to hear what the expats said. Their views were radically different as they looked mainly at what Bulgaria had to offer in the 2000s, not in 1278.
The picture of Bulgaria painted by our readers and promulgated by Vagabond magazine was a lot more diverse and nuanced than the Madara Horseman, the Rila Monastery and the Tsarevets Hill in Veliko Tarnovo. For the main symbol of Bulgaria our expats chose martenitsa, the white-and-red threads that Bulgarians wear to celebrate spring, the charm of misty mornings in the Rhodope, and... mutri, the local gangsters with their telltale attire, close-cropped heads and luxury cars. The other things that made the expat Top 10 list were also revealing: sexy girls wearing clothes that leave nothing to do imagination; cigarette smoke in the inescapable combination with homemade rakiya; expensive SUVs sharing the road with donkey carts; Sofia's cosmopolitan centre with its churches, mosque and synagogue all within less than a square mile of each other; stray dogs; over-construction at the Black Sea coast; and the phrase ey sega, or in just a minute (meaning from the moment of speaking till eternity). Fifteen years later, few of these have changed.
Another of our projects was less controversial. In 2009, with the support of the Embassy of the Netherlands, we published Wall-to-Wall. Poetry Europe. This small book is a guide to a charming project that covered Sofia's walls with poems by the then 27 members of the EU plus Turkey, accompanied with dedicated artwork. The Wall-to-Wall poems can still be seen throughout central Sofia.
Through the years: Vagabond's friends in the diplomatic corps, from left: Geoffrey Keating, Ambassador of Ireland; John Beyrle, American Ambassador; Michael Geier, German Ambassador; Marc Michielsen, Ambassador of Belgium and Divyabh Manchanda, Ambassador of India; John Rowan, Irish Ambassador; James Warlick, American Ambassador
Vagabond also had – and still has! – a fun side. misLeading Advice was one of our most popular series with tongue-in-cheek tips such as "When travelling from Sofia to the seaside port of Burgas by train, it's a brilliant idea to get off at Aytos, just one stop before the final destination. Aytos is an inspiring town full of stunning modernist architecture, with a breathtaking historical heritage and a hectic, non–stop nightlife." We still enjoy writing our regular Joke of the Month and Quote-Unquote pieces. Bulgarians and their politicians rarely fail to deliver bons mots, but we have to admit our job was easier when Boyko Borisov was on TV 24/7.
The 2008-2009 economic and financial crisis hit hard. Many Vagabond readers left Bulgaria. They realised that after the warm Bulgarian summer when life is pleasant and the beer is cheap there comes a Balkan winter – and you find yourself snowed in in a village and you need to go to hospital. The one in Gabrovo... A significant part of our advertisers were either out of business or struggled to survive.
Many magazines in Bulgaria went bust at the time. Vagabond pulled through – thanks to the dedication of its team, the painful corner-cutting, finding new partners and projects, and of course some luck.
Through the years: Vagabond's friends in the diplomatic corps, from left: Irit Lillian, Israeli Ambassador; Ismail Aramaz, Turkish Ambassador; Sheila Camerer, Ambassador of South Africa; Jonathan Allen, British Ambassador; Fourth row: Willem van Ee, Dutch Ambassador; Dana Koumanakou, Greek Ambassador; Xavier Lapeyre Cabanes, French Ambassador
One of the crucial changes we had to make was to adapt our editorial content for the new audiences. By the early 2010s, the diplomatic community had recognised the magazine as an important source of information on what was going on in Bulgaria. Many English-speaking Bulgarians were also reading for our unbiased and fresh view on life in the country. Our editorial content changed accordingly – we discontinued our red tape pieces and focused on politics, social life and travel in Bulgaria.
We also expanded our activities and started publishing books in English about Bulgaria and its cultural, historical and natural heritage.
A later book, The Turks of Bulgaria, which focused on the Ottomans' non-material heritage in modern Bulgaria (language, folklore, music, dance, cuisine and so on) was published in 2012. Political groupings such as the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, until recently a partner of Boyko Borisov, were outraged. Though The Turks of Bulgaria was written by half a dozens experts in their fields, including historians, musicologists, ethnologists etc, the VMRO and their cronies saw red because Vagabond Media dared divert from the "official" Five-Centuries-of-Turkish-Yoke line. They even wrote a whole book against our book, seemingly to disabuse innocent readers but in actual fact designed to ram home nationalist propaganda...
At about the same time Boyko Borisov was at the height of his fame. He ruled the country ruthlessly and without any restraint. One of the magazines we published Highflights, Bulgaria's Airport Magazine, was suddenly taken off the shelves at Sofia Airport. As it usually happens in Bulgaria, no explanation was given, but it was not difficult to see the long arm of the then prime minister and his chief lieutenants. Letters written to various state institutions, including the Council of Ministers, went unanswered. A press conference held at the BTA was unattended by those we thought were the culprits. Unfortunately, that was Bulgaria under Borisov. Later, we learned from one of our Western embassy contacts that the prime minister was infuriated that we at Vagabond Media had dared to be critical of him...
Our third publication at the time, Go Greece!, a magazine in Bulgarian about travel, culture and entertainment in Greece, had other problems. Greece was in a financial crisis itself. We had to discontinue.
Establishing new partnerships was crucial for our survival in those times. The first significant one was with the Open Society Institute that supported a series of articles dedicated to living in Bulgaria.
During the height of the 2015 migrant crisis, when thousands of people were crossing into Europe, we did The UnBulgarians. The project, in partnership with MultiKulti NGO and funding under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area 2009-2014 gathered 20-plus foreigners living in Bulgaria – from an Australian entrepreneur to a Japanese stage designer and an Afghan refugee family. Our exhibition addressed issues related to their identity as foreigners in Bulgaria. Though some Bulgarians were apparently unhappy that Afghan girls dressed in traditional Bulgarian costumes can look as gracious as their their Bulgarian peers, the exhibition was so popular that it went to Strasbourg, France, where it was displayed at the historical Office of the Mayor.
The most crucial partnership that we struck in the 2010s is still ongoing. The America for Bulgaria Foundation recognised Vagabond's potential to promote Bulgaria as a travel destination, encourage incentive travel and thus help local communities and businesses to attract new customers. This was how the sponsored section of High Beam, later rebranded to Vibrant Communities, appeared. It makes up a significant part of Vagabond's pages and is dedicated exclusively to travelogues and features about Bulgarian sites of interest, customs, culture, heritage and not-to-be-missed experiences.
In 2014-2016, our partnership with the ABF expanded, as the foundation helped us to start publishing more books on Bulgarian heritage. Some of the titles include Hidden Treasures of Bulgaria 2 (2014), A Guide to Thracian Bulgaria (2015) and A Guide to Roman Bulgaria (2016), Shadow Journey: A Guide to Elizabeth Kostova's Bulgaria and Eastern Europe (2018), Hidden Treasures of Bulgaria 3 (2018), A Guide to Communist Bulgaria (2018, 2020, 2023), Bulgaria of the Religions (2019), A Guide to Millennial Plovdiv (2019), and A Guide to the Strandzha (2022).
Vagabond would not be a true vagabond without its trademark photographs of Bulgaria and its people. Relying on the old adage about the single image being worth a thousand words, with the help of the ABF, we prepared several travelling exhibitions and showed them in London, Budapest, Prague, Vienna and elsewhere, in a bid to promote Bulgaria as a tourist destination.
Through the years: Vagabond's exhibitions, from left: Jewish Bulgaria exhibition in Sofia; Hidden Treasures of Bulgaria in Burgas, Hidden Treasures of Bulgaria in London; Scotland in Sofia; Jewish Bulgaria in Prague; Communist Bulgaria in Budapest
Our experience in telling Bulgaria's past in a compelling and comprehensible way was also applied to two of this country's most fascinating historical attractions. Vagabond Media developed the information aspect of the Small Basilica and the Bishop's Basilica in Plovdiv, two projects initiated and sponsored by the America for Bulgaria Foundation.
Working in media is a weird thing. Once you do your research and put out an article you never know in what hands it will land, and it is impossible to tell what consequences it will have. In 2014, an article that we published almost by coincidence, became one of our most oft-quoted texts. We learned that during the Second World War there used to be a POW camp for American, British and Australian pilots downed over Bulgaria, at the time an ally to Nazi Germany. In search of more information, we found a Shumen University professor, Stanimir Stanev, who had written a book about the camp. We contacted him and he proposed to write an article. Almost 10 years later, we are still being contacted by relatives of former POWs who have stumbled upon Professor Stanev’s piece online, Forgotten POWs.
Through the years: Vagabond's exhibitions, from left: The unBulgarians in Strasbourg, France; Hidden Treasures of Greece in Sofia; Holy Mountain exhibition in Sofia; Frontiers: American Southwest exhibition in Varna; unBulgarians in Plovdiv; Ottoman Mosques exhibition in Sofia
One of the biggest changes that the magazine went through in its history took place in 2014 – after 88 issues in a large format we scaled down. Issue 89 was our first in the smaller, more practical size and rehashed layout that everyone is familiar with today.
Meanwhile, we continued to transform Vagabond's editorial content to fit our new readership. In the late 2010s foreigners were again returning to Bulgaria, and their numbers grew even during the Covid-19 pandemic, stimulated by Bulgaria's laxer, or even non-existent, social distancing rules and lockdowns and by the new culture of digital nomads attracted by the country's good Internet connection and generally cheaper living expenses. However, these people did not need a print magazine to tell them how to deal with Bulgarian red tape anymore – there were Facebook groups for this already.
Instead, we found new meaning as a source of inspiration for travelling – no screen can beat looking at great photos in print.
We also focused on presenting new and existing Bulgarian businesses to our readers – from the ever growing IT sector to healthcare and real estate to beauty care and property management. Nowadays, our interviews with established or up-and-coming entrepreneurs in Bulgaria are as popular as our travel articles.
For 200 issues, it is tempting to look back at the famous and/or important people who were featured in the magazine. These include, but are obviously not limited to, Nobel Literature Prize winner Orhan Pamuk (Turkey); acclaimed authors Kapka Kassabova (UK) and Rana Dasgupta (India); the popular German actor of Bulgarian origin Samuel Finzi; intellectual Georgi Lozanov; diplomats John Beyrle (USA), Ismail Aramaz (Turkey) and Terry Stamatopoulos (Greece), who later became respectively the US ambassador to Russia, NATO's ambassador to Afghanistan and NATO's Assistant Secretary General.
All of these would be impossible without the people in the editorial office, both past and present. The list is long and for the current staff you only need to look at the magazine's mast. These include, but are in no way limited to, editors Ani Ivanova, Gabriel Hershman, Katherine Watt, Lucy Cooper, Nelly Tomova and Yekaterina Syrtsova; graphic designer Gergana Shkodrova; and contributors Antoan Bozhinov, Christopher Buxton, Dragomir Ushev, Kalina Garelova, Lyudmil Fotev, Mike Diliën, Milen Radev, Radko Popov, Richard Cherry, Silvia Choleva, Stanislava Ciurinskiene, Velislav Radev and many others.
Vagabond Media now, from left: Vanya Zlateva; Hristina Kalcheva; Ivan Beev; Svetlana Doncheva; Jane Keating; Ivan Sokolov; Stanislava Zapryanova
One person in particular needs a special honorary mention: our sub, Jane Keating, has been with us through thick and thin, while changing residence from Sofia to Singapore to Dublin – a true and dedicated Vagabond.
Vagabond Media now, from left: Tsvetelina Kovacheva; Teodora Vasileva; Anthony Georgieff; Svetlana Yordanova; Dimana Trankova; Elena Filipova