America for Bulgaria Foundation

OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS

Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity. It continues to maintain at least a dozen monuments to the Red Army. Some are gargantuan and placed in various top locations in bigger cities, some are small and unobtrusive. Urbexers and lovers of quaint and bizarre trivia will be bemused to discover that none of these remnants of the Communist past in actual fact commemorate any... real-life story.

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VARVARA'S IRON TREE

Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death. The script of The Big Night Swim, a movie that premiered in 1980, sums up what existential angst and ennui looked like in Communist Bulgaria, or at least in Communist Bulgaria's "intellectual elite." Significantly, the movie was shot at a relatively remote location the village of Varvara.

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TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS

Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.

It usually takes place in the third weekend of May and is a part of an international festival organised by the Gabrovo city council and the town's House of Humour and Satire, probably the only museum in the world dedicated to... fun.

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LET'S PICK SOME ROSES

Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places. Here, in the so-called Valley of Roses, the pink, rather unremarkable Rosa damascena blooms in May and early June, filling the early morning air with its thick, dizzying aroma.

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FROM BLACK ROCK DESERT, NV, TO NOVO SELO, BG

Organisers of the notorious Burning Man festival seem to have heeded the lessons of 2023 when festival-goers, paying uprwards of $500 for a ticket, had to wade, owing to torrential rains and flashfloods, through tons of mud in the northern Nevada desert. It has just been announecd that the next iteration of Larry Harvey and Jerry James's creation will be held in Novo Selo, in southern Bulgaria.

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AMAZING PLANTS & ANIMALS OF BULGARIA

In Bulgaria, nature has created a number of little wonders. They might not be spectacular or grandiose, but they constitute a vital part of the local wildlife, create a feeling of uniqueness and are sometimes the sole survivors of bygone geological epochs. Many of these are plants, and some are animals. Here is a list of our favourite little Bulgarian wonders of nature.

Haberlea rhodopensis

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MOSQUE OF LEGENDS

Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day. From the 1390s to the 1870s, Bulgarians were subjects of an empire that, at the height of its power, stretched over three continents. Many of those years were peaceful and allowed Bulgarians to look after their families, flocks and fields, to build businesses and to carve a place, however limited, in a Muslim-dominated society.

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CITY OF EAGLES

As the official symbol of Bulgaria, lions can be seen everywhere, from the national coat of arms to architectural ornaments to "patriotic" tattoos. But if you look closely at the façades in central Sofia, you might have the impression that the nation has another symbolic animal, the eagle.

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SOFIA'S STRANGE MONUMENTS

Some monuments impress with their size, artistic value or historical significance, and some have a hidden history to match. Sofia, as Bulgaria's capital, has a particularly high concentration of monuments and statues with unusual backgrounds. Some of these are just oddities and curiosities that add a pinch of spice to otherwise official public art and have become ingrained in the city's history. However, others are controversial and have caused various debates through the years.

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SHIPS OF ROCK

Sinemorets, at Bulgaria's southern Black Sea coast, remains one of the most idyllic and calmly beautiful spots around. Overdevelopment has not completely destroyed the pleasure of walking around the little village, once off limits because of its proximity to Turkey, or sunbathing on its popular southern beach. As for Sinemorets's northern beach, its setting is unbeatable: a sand spit, created by the mouth of the Veleka River and backed by rising rocky hills.

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TOP MUST-SEES IN 2024

When wanderlust grabs you in 2024 but deciding on your next destination is hard, here is a list of places to whet your appetite. Some of them are millennia old and others are new, but they are all remarkable and most are one-of-a-kind.

Tryavna

What: One of the best preserved Revival Period towns in Bulgaria

Visit for: Atmosphere

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BRUTALIST BULGARIA

A white mammoth dominates the upper part of Boulevard Todor Aleksandrov in central Sofia. Its massive, concrete surfaces are imposing. Looking from the lower ground of the Serdica station, the building, Unicredit Bulbank's headquarters, resembles a giant ocean steamer which is about to crush the Largo, the vast space surrounded by the Stalinist Council of Ministers, the Office of the President and the former Communist Party House, now parliament.

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WINTER NESEBAR

Winter is not only the time to head to Bulgaria's ski resorts. It is also the best time to enjoy some of this nation's most crowded tourist spots, such as Nesebar. In the warm months this UNESCO listed town of ancient fortifications, mediaeval churches and Revival Period mansions is packed with visitors from the nearby Sunny Beach resort and from the whole of the Bulgarian Black Sea area.

The winter cold, however, utterly transforms it.

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DEMON CHURCH

Crooked, horned and large-toothed, happily dragging sinners to Hell: demons make some of the most interesting, if slightly unrefined, characters of 19th century Bulgarian religious art. You will mostly see them in moralistic murals painted on the exterior walls of churches.

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DEAD POETS SOCIETY

It has become a commonplace that a nation can be understood best by the sort of treatment it give its poets rather by its military victories or GDP levels. This notion may be a bit outdated in a world run by social media where electronic "devices" by far outnumber fountain pens, and where a "content creator" makes more than a teacher of literature. But it is still at least indicative. Bulgaria, whose writers and poets have been translated into English only sporadically, is a case in point. On the one hand, it is very proud of its literary heritage.

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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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DOORS WIDE SHUT

Ancient Thracian tombs, lighthouses, abandoned industrial facilities, Communist-era monuments... Bulgaria is crammed with sites of interest that ordinary travellers can marvel at only... from a distance. Some of these are closed to the general public because of preservation issues. Others have been neglected for years and have become unsafe, while yet others belong to the military.

Here is a list of some of the most fascinating forbidden sites in Bulgaria.

Memorial to Anton Ivanov partisan unit 

Where: Vacha Reservoir, the Rhodope

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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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IVANOVO'S MEDIEVAL FACES

Churches and monasteries hewn into rocks at often precipitous heights were a clever solution that Christians from the Balkans and the Middle East employed for centuries to achieve a crucial goal: the creation of abodes far from the crowds in places where conventional buildings would be hard to construct. Since the dawn of religion they have enlarged existing caves into rooms that resembled church interiors, complete with naves, altars and apses, and murals. They also lived in caves, in cells scattered around these churches, often forming large compounds.

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