Bulgarian history

HOW WOODROW WILSON AND CHARLES DARWIN CAME TO SOFIA

The names of foreigners, mainly Russians, are common across the map of Sofia – from Alexandr Dondukov and Count Ignatieff to Alexey Tolstoy (a Communist-era Soviet writer not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) who has a whole housing estate named after him. An understandable situation. After Bulgaria's Liberation as a result of the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, the new nation was eager to express its gratitude to the Russian Empire, its diplomats and administrators who had laid the foundations of the modern Bulgarian state.

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HISTORY, ROSES, AND WATER BUFFALOES

Years ago, if you'd asked me what I know about Bulgaria, I'd have said, "Not much. It's in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, I think." Indeed, it was behind the Iron Curtain when that dark metaphor described a very real feature of the World Order. But what once was, often no longer is – especially in Bulgaria, a country which, during its long history, has seen multiple conquerors and empires come and go. Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Germanic tribes, Ottomans and, more recently, Russians are among the foreign forces that have overrun Bulgaria.

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WHAT WAS THE SEPTEMBER UPRISING?

Raised hands, bodies frozen in a pathos of tragic defiance: Bulgaria, especially its northwest, is littered with monuments to an event that was once glorified but is now mostly forgotten. It took place 100 years ago, yet researchers disagree on how to label it. Some call it an uprising, a word that evokes the gravity of organised and targeted efforts to achieve a clearly set goal. For others, it was an ill-fated rebellion of a handful of peasants foolish enough to believe the sweet talking of a political power outside of Bulgaria, Moscow's Communist International.

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10 PLACES NOT TO MISS IN 2023

Discovering Bulgaria's landscapes, people and events is rewarding all year round, especially when you leave the beaten track and explore some of the lesser sites. Of course, in high season you can scarcely find anywhere in Bulgaria completely devoid of other visitors, but many places still preserve an atmosphere of novelty for the curious traveller. We have selected some of these on the following pages.

Belogradchik Rocks

Where: Northwestern Bulgaria

What: Bulgaria's own version of the US southwest, plus a fortress

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BULGARIA DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR

What happened in Bulgaria during the Second World War? The events, the major and minor political players and their decisions, the role that bad and good luck played in this country between 1939 and 1945 are often contradictory and hard to explain to outsiders – or to Bulgarians, for that matter. The country started the war being neutral. It became an ardent Nazi ally, but refused to declare war on the USSR. Instead, it declared a "symbolic" war on Britain and the United States. It kept most of the Jews under its jurisdiction from deportation to the death camps.

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WHY DOES 'SORRY' SEEM TO BE THE HARDEST WORD?

About 30 Bulgarians of various occupations, political opinion and public standing went to the city of Kavala in northern Greece, in March, to take part in a simple yet moving ceremony to mark the demolition of the Jewish community of northern Greece, which was effected by the Kingdom of Bulgaria when it annexed Aegean Thrace, in 1943. They included Alec Oscar, the chairman of the Shalom Organisation of Bulgarian Jews; Martin Zaimov, a political activist and former deputy chairman of the Bulgarian National Bank; Krasen Stanchev, an economist; and Manol Peykov, an activist and publisher.

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CRACKING MEDIEVAL SMILE

A pair of dark, tender eyes glow in a delicate face crowned with a costly headdress decorated with pearls. The lady's lips are slightly curved, as if she is smiling at a private joke, or perhaps a secret she holds? The woman herself is an enigma. We know that the elegant lady painted on the walls of the Boyana Church was called Desislava and that she was the wife of Kaloyan, the handsome lord of 13th century Sofia painted next to her. But why is Desislava smiling?

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BULGARIA'S LAST MONARCH

On 3 October 1918, Bulgarians felt anxious. The country had just emerged from three wars it had fought for "national unification" – meaning, in plain language, incorporating Macedonia and Aegean Thrace into the Bulgarian kingdom. It lost them all, one way or another. Thousands of men had been killed, significant chunks of land were forfeited, and an influx of refugees overwhelmed the larger cities. More was to come, as the treaties ending the Great War were yet to be signed.

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FIRST KINGS OF EUROPE

Who were the first kings of Europe? Homer heroes such as Agamemnon are the first to pop up in the minds of educated Westerners, but hierarchical societies on the continent predate the ancient Greeks. Millennia before them, people in southeastern Europe went on the long and often tortuous transition from simple farming communities to complex political organisations.

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ALL AROUND KARDZHALI

When you have a long weekend ahead and the weather looks good for a trip, heading to Kardzhali is a great option. The Rhodope mountains are beautiful – pleasant and refreshing in all seasons – and this city is the perfect base to explore some interesting sites.

Kardzhali itself is hardly an attraction. It is a relatively new city dominated by faceless Communist and post-Communist architecture. Besides its Regional History Museum, located in a beautiful building initially constructed in the 1920s for a Muslim religious school, there is nothing more to see.

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WHAT HAPPENED AT PETROVA NIVA?

Men dressed in early 20th century military uniforms, patriotic songs and speeches, lots of banners and grilled meat stalls: if you crave attending a mass event after the end of the Covid-19 travel restrictions, consider visiting Petrova Niva in the third weekend of August.

Marked with a sombre stone monument at a picturesque bend of the Veleka river, Petrova Niva is connected to a heroic and traumatic event in Bulgarian history, the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising.

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WHAT IS KARLOVO?

Great changes often spread from inconspicuous places, and Karlovo is a case in point. This town at the southern foot of the Stara Planina mountain range looks quiet and quaint now: some old, Revival Period houses huddled between newer construction lining a long street that funnels much of the traffic on the Sofia-Burgas road. You might think that nothing of importance has ever happened in Karlovo, but the first impression, as most first impressions, is wrong.

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SOZOPOL WITHOUT TEARS

Should I visit Sozopol? There is hardly a place that divides opinion more than this town on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Yes, by all means do go to Sozopol, will urge some of your Bulgarian friends. They will then lose themselves in nostalgic memories of strolling the quiet lanes of the town, the charm of the traditional houses under the balmy summer or early autumn sun, the buzz and energy of the Apollonia Arts Festival, the pleasure of sunbathing on golden beaches and jumping into the sea from the picturesque rocks around.

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BULGARIA'S CLOCKTOWERS

Today, knowing what time it is becomes a problem only if the battery of your smart phone is dead and there is no one around to ask. For previous generations, it was different. For millennia, people measured their days and nights by the movement of the sun and stars, or waited for a rooster to crow.

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WINTER IN RILA MONASTERY

As the largest and most famous monastery in Bulgaria, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Rila Monastery can appear a little overwhelming if you visit in high season or during major Christian festivals. The crowds that gather in the picturesque yard, with its toy-like painted church and the striped arches of the galleries, can obliterate any feeling of holiness, or the tranquility that is usually associated with a monastic institution of such fame.

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DARK TALES IN BELENE

Belene is a backwater of a town on the Bulgarian bank of the River Danube. It is inhabited by less than 8,000 people. Yet, for more than one reason, its name is known to all Bulgarians.

To some, it is the location of a planned nuclear power plant whose failure to materialise illustrates how corruption and incompetence in post-Communist Bulgaria can ruin what was to become a major power engineering project. To others, it is synonymous with the most atrocious crimes of the former Communist regime.

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BULGARIA'S FIRST CAPITALS

If power and the economy were gravity, the gravitational centre of modern Bulgaria would be Sofia, where the population and the important agencies of the state, economy and culture are located. If we go back to the Middle Ages, when Bulgaria was still young, the country's centre of gravity would be elsewhere – in the northeast, close to the city of Shumen. There, the remains of Bulgaria's first capitals, Pliska and Preslav, still survive – next to an astonishing piece of medieval art, the Madara Horseman.

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WOODROW WILSON COMES TO SOFIA

Seen from a US standpoint, the 28th American President is usually being put in the "upper tier" of US leaders despite criticism of his propagation of racial segregation. Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who served two terms in 1913-1921, successfully led the United States through the Great War. His foreign policy came to be known as Wilsonianism. He was the leading architect of the League of Nations project.

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