Issue 9

MY OWN CHOICE: EAT AND DRINK YOUR WAY THROUGH TOWN

If you need information on Bulgaria, its culture and its people, then get yourself a good guide book. But if you want to find out if its views are realistic you can do no better than check out the places yourself. My husband and I have been in Sofia for about five months now and we've already discovered many fine places to wine and dine. And we have also learnt a lot about Bulgarians through our culinary expeditions.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

We met the building's owner and decided to take one of the shops from 1 February. I went to BTC's local office with appropriate documents on 23 January to order a business line and ADSL internet service. I was told that we would hear within four days.

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DRIVE IN, DRIVE OUT

"In June I am setting out from Kent and driving to Bulgaria. I want to leave my car in Bulgaria at the home I've owned for nearly four years, before flying back to the UK. Trying to get information about importing your car and registering it in Bulgaria as well as insurance, tax and so on - plus getting a direct answer from Bulgarian Government departments - is not easy at the best of times.
Regards
Andrew Bray"

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LOST IN THE MUTRO-BAROQUESQUE JUNGLE

Mutro-baroque? Techno Rococo? Sleek Renaissance? Are you puzzled by the architectural jargon? Then take a stroll in Boyana, one of Sofia's most up-market neighbourhoods, and see for yourself. These are the buildings sponsored by the mutri, reflecting their taste and lifestyle. These constructions are to architecture what chalga is to music. They are like the stereotypical thick-necked entrepreneur of the post-Communist era, bedecked in a silk necktie and white tennis socks. Many Bulgarians think they epitomise the vulgar chutzpah that characterises the country's nouveau riche.

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MLADOST "YOUTH"

Catarina's first photographs - of herself and her brother - date from when she was about four years old. "We always had a camera in our hands, wasting film," she says, dismissing the suggestion that photography ran in the family. Her brother outgrew the childhood game but Catarina's passion for photography continued unabated.

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TURKISH DELIGHTS

Sick and tired of the building jungle at the Bulgarian seaside? Thankfully, the Black Sea's western coast still boasts some secluded coves and peaceful towns unspoiled by tourism, south of the border.

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IN THE MEANTIME, IN VARNA

A positive surge is taking place as companies invest in the Varna region, in northeastern Bulgaria, with projects for shopping malls, office complexes and logistics centres.

Rating agency Standard and Poor's (S&P) announced it had raised its long-term issue credit rating for Varna to BB+ from BB, declaring the city's outlook is "stable" and praising its "improved operating performance".

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BULGARIA’S POWERHOUSE

“It grows but does not age” – this is Sofia's motto, inscribed on its coat of arms. Sofia is Bulgaria's economic dynamo and its major economic, academic and cultural centre. Probably your first impressions of the country come from the capital. The city has many faces and the most important one is the face it shows to the world. Sofia is Bulgaria, but Bulgaria is not Sofia.

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AN ENGLISHMAN LOST IN MLADOST-YOUTH

I recently flew to Sofia to holiday with my Bulgarian wife and daughter. I'd spent a spell in London on business following a sojourn in Portugal where we had divided our time between Lisbon and the Algarve.

My night-time flight was diverted to Plovdiv because of fog. So I boarded a coach to Sofia, my irritability and fatigue lifted by cheery exchanges with skiers heading to Borovets.

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EMPIRE BURLESQUE

The end of the Cold War changed the face of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) as much as it did world geography. The days when Eurovision audiences warmed to clear-skinned girls with white acoustic guitars singing about peace and sunshine – such as German winner Nicole's song from 1982 “Ein Bisschen Frieden” – are gone forever. With the entry of former Eastern Bloc nations, the middleaged competition has entered a new era of uneven rhythms, ethnic instruments and unbridled on-stage sexuality.

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FIRE WALKERS

It's nighttime on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, not far from the Turkish border, and the glowing circle of wood coals on the beach is like a miniature sun. An old woman in a red-and-white gown holds aloft a battered Orthodox icon depicting a man and woman. Her face in rapture, her feet bare as she stands inches away from the burning embers, she tells the story of the nestinari.

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FREE AS A BIRD

I meet Martin in a pub in the square of Sofia's Dragalevtsi suburb. The pub itself is not particularly striking but it's known as the meeting place of rock climbers and paragliding enthusiasts when they descend from Mount Vitosha on weekend afternoons. I usually go there because of the climbers, but today I am sitting at the pilots' table to learn about Martin's first flight. “What happened when you jumped?” I ask him. “You don't jump, you take off,” he quickly corrects me.

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THE EARLY YEARS

NOT EXACTLY BARBARIANS

"The Bulgarians are not savages and barbarians!" Georgi Dimitrov said rhetorically in his defence speech at the Leipzig trial in 1934, when he was charged with setting the Reichstag on fire. The man who became Bulgaria's first Communist dictator 10 years later, unknowingly expressed the oldest and most deeply rooted conviction of the Bulgarians, namely that they are an exceptionally gifted and civilised people who should not be underestimated.

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VERY PATRIOTIC GAMES

If nationalism is, as they say, the last refuge of scoundrels, then Bulgaria's establishment must be becoming fully fledged rotters. You may think it flippant - ungallant even - to suggest this but let's take President Georgi Parvanov.

During his first term he showed a degree of patriotism befitting his background as a historian. But, since the onset of his second term, he has become so nationalistic that you don't have to broach the extremism of Ataka to find evidence of a jingoistic resurgence, the president and government seem to be doing Volen Siderov's job for him.

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NATURA 2000 TRIGGERS CONTROVERSY, CORRUPTION

NATURA 2000 is a network of protected territories within the EU. Most EU countries have adopted it without major internal dissent. A quarter of the EU's entire territory is included in the Natura 2000 project. Individual governments decide which particular zones to place in the list of protected eco-territories, with the aim of preserving environmental diversity.

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MOVEABLE FEASTS

We, the Bulgarians, believe ourselves to be the most industrious people on this earth. But if your stay in our country has made you doubt this claim, then last month may have confirmed your reservations. The red numbers in your calendar had prepared you for a break from work on 1 May, Labour Day, and on 24 May, the Day of the Slavonic Alphabet and Culture. According to the calendar, everybody had to be at their workplace on 30 April and 25 May. But they weren't. The whole working population was given two legal, government-sanctioned holiday breaks.

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SEEING BLACK CATS AND CROSSING FINGERS

I grew up in Sydney: beaches, banana trees, lawn mowers. I vaguely remember my impressions of Bulgaria as a kid; it was one of those Eastern bloc countries that showed up at the Olympics. Good at weightlifting. A mysterious and shadowy country, imprisoned behind a wall of political and ideological differences. If you'd told me that one day I'd be living here, I'd probably have laughed.

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WHERE IN BULGARIA ARE YOU?

It's a rock high above a meandering river on the southern Black Sea coast. It's located in an area declared a nature reserve, which has managed to protect it from the unbridled construction and entrepreneurship seen elsewhere south of Sozopol.

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