Unlike most great cities, Sofia is located neither at a sea, nor near an important river. The Perlovska and the Vladayska, the two rivulets that skirt the northern, eastern and southern boundaries of the city centre, are too small to count. In spite of this, the two bridges that span them, Eagles Bridge and Lions Bridge respectively, are deeply embedded in the life and fabric of Sofia. Besides presenting photo ops, they each have their own history and are conduits for much of the traffic into the city.
"I dislike bringing people here." The voice of the guide from the tourist office in Malko Tarnovo drops, as we approach the summit of Golyamo Gradishte, the highest peak in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha mountains. It is summer. The sun shines through the thick foliage of the oak forest. The only thing negative about this pristine location, in the Strandzha Nature Park, are the midges that swarm around our eyes.
When travelling around the Eastern Rhodope, you are bound to encounter this strange sight: on certain precipitous rocks, here and there, are scattered small, dark niches. Some are on their own, others form groups of dozens.
What are these strange niches, you might wonder. Nobody knows for sure, is the honest answer. The mystery of the rock niches that indent major cliffs in the Eastern Rhodope remains unexplained.
As Bulgaria and the world slowly come back to life after the Covid-19 pandemic travellers, visitors and expats prepare to put into practice the plans they had so many stay-at-home days to draw. Many can't wait to get on the road again.
Police checkpoints, scores of cars parked along the roadside and throngs of people crowding between stalls selling candyfloss, kepabcheta and cheap Made-in-China toys: on 3 June, the village of Balgari looks much like any Bulgarian village during a country fair.
Balgari's fair, however, is unlike any other. When darkness falls over the village square, barefoot men and women will dance on live coals.
The coronavirus outbreak has stopped the world in its tracks and made the word quarantine a part of everyday life, and vocabulary. The word describing the practice of isolation as a way to fight epidemics, of course, is much older and there is a Bulgarian town that is an example of how instrumental quarantining could be in saving lives.
In 1828, the decisive action of a single man protected Silistra, on the River Danube, from an outbreak of cholera. Astonishingly, this man was not a general or a prime minister, but a modest Jewish religious scholar.
In myths, science and fiction, people have searched for immortality since time immemorial – pun not intended. So far, as much as we know, to no avail. However, a plant that is found exclusively in Bulgaria solved the problem millions of years ago.
The Valley of Roses: Until recently, the picturesque valley between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountain ranges was known by this name, as it is the centre for the production of the famous Bulgarian attar of roses.
Bulgaria is hardly on the list of the world's most famous carnival destinations such as Rio, Venice and New Orleans, and even less famous local ones such as the carnivals in Greece. Its distinctive kukeri, or mummers, dances are not always performed at the beginning of Lent, when carnivals are generally held.
A city in the Stara Planina mountains fills the gap: Gabrovo, a place famed for the locals' quirky sense of humour and telltale frugality.
The image of two men, one young and sporting a dark beard and the other older and white-bearded, with books and parchments in their hands, are to be found all over Bulgaria. There are countless statues and posters, church murals and icons. Their images multiply on 24 May, when long processions of students crowd the central streets of every city carrying posters, usually decorated with flowers.
Travelling around the countryside in Bulgaria is a true joy in late spring and early summer, when the days are long, the sun is bright, and lush greenery brings life to the empty villages and abandoned industrial ruins that still define the local landscape outside the big cities. One particular flower makes travelling even more of a joy, as here, there and everywhere, in the fields and around ruined buildings and beside roads and railway tracks bloom blindingly red, and sometimes orange and white, wild poppies.
When the first Western traveller saw Pobiti Kamani near Varna, he could not believe his eyes. The massive stone pillars emerging from the sandy, shrub-covered wilderness made Viktor Teplyakov, a "special missions officer" in the Russian army during the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829, rein in his horse. He wanted to explore, but there was no time.
The chatter of the small group of people at the gate of Rila Monastery in the cold spring evening is of the sort you can hear anywhere and anytime: hellos, how-do-you-dos, smalltalk, but neither the place, nor the people nor the occasion are ordinary. Monks in habits, practicing Eastern Orthodox Christians and a couple of clueless foreign tourists are gathered at the gate of Bulgaria's most revered monastery and most visited UNESCO-site long after business hours to wait for a car to arrive.
Triangles fascinate the imagination. Throughout history, the geometric shape defined by Euclides as three points that do not lie on the same line has been laden with religious and spiritual symbolism. It has also been connected to topography, such as the Egyptians pyramids, the so-called ley lines, and the Bermuda triangle, supposedly marking energy vortices.
You do not need to be particularly interested in old aircraft to enjoy the Burgas Aviation Museum, but visiting it could lead to a new interest in your life. Established in 1998 as a part of Burgas Airport, in 2017 the exhibition was revamped to appeal to the modern visitor.
The collection is a good introduction to the nuts-and-bolts of aviation, and features nine aircraft that were in service during the time of Communism, when the country relied heavily on Soviet planes.
The importance of a plant species can vary according to the ecosystem it is part of. A beautiful plant that grows in a very limited area in Bulgaria is a case in point.
In the past two centuries, geography, politics and moments of national triumph and tragedy have defined the borders of Bulgaria. The current territory of the Bulgarian nation appeared after the Berlin Congress in 1879, stretched and contracted during and after several wars in 1885-1886, 1912-1913 and 1915-1918, and peacefully set into its current shape in 1940.
Situated in the plains in southeastern Bulgaria Yambol is generally off any tourist map. Few Bulgarians would visit unless they have grandparents or friends living in one of the most depressed post-Communist cities in the country. Except for a weekend in late February/early May when the town host Kukerlandia, when a major festival of mummers attracts national and, increasingly, international interest and participation.
When spring in Bulgaria is in full swing, something marvellous happens. At night, songbirds go crazy. When darkness descends, nightingales, orioles, larks and gold finches sing, chirp and improvise for hours, as if their lives depended on it, creating a symphony celebrating life itself.