Here's my piece on the delights of Bulgaria from this week's Spectator. (www.spectator.co.uk)
It's still a Starbucks and Tescos free zone and you can smoke almost everywhere you want to. Catch it while it lasts!
by Neil Clark
What are the first images which spring to your mind at the mention of the word ‘Bulgaria’? Female weightlifters? Dour, unsmiling locals? Sinister secret agents who assassinate people with poison-tipped umbrellas in busy London streets?
‘No matter how many times you say it, no matter what accent you say it in, Bulgarian ain’t never going to be cool,’ opines a columnist in one of the glossy weekend travel supplements — and it’s certainly hard to deny that the Balkan republic does suffer from a rather serious image problem. But as in so many other cases — think coach holidays and Belgium — the popular image bears little relation to reality.
My wife and I came to visit Bulgaria by accident. Plan A was a trip to New York, finally to visit a friend whom we have spent the best part of a decade promising we’d go and see. Five days before the off, though, I made the discovery that I didn’t possess the machine-readable passport which Uncle Sam now insists upon. Faced with the prospect of seven days at home clearing the backlog of Christmas videos, we quickly decided on Plan B: a frantic internet search for a couple of cheap last-minute flights to whatever destination we could find, the only proviso being that it must be somewhere cold and cosy with the guarantee of plenty of snow.
‘How about Plovdiv?’ asked my wife. With our guidebook telling us that Plovdiv, ‘population 371,000, Bulgaria’s second largest city’, was a ‘delightful place’ and the BBC weather website predicting two days of snow and sub-zero temperatures, we didn’t take long to make up our minds. We landed at Plovdiv airport — a military airport only used in the winter for charter flights — at seven o’clock on a freezing cold January evening. It was love at first sight: arrive at a Bulgarian military airport on a freezing cold January evening and you get a real sense of being in Eastern Europe — a feeling you no longer get when you arrive at the pristine terminals of so many of New Europe’s other airports.
‘This is the loveliest of all towns. It’s beauty shines from faraway,’ wrote the Greek poet Lucian of Plovdiv 19 centuries ago, and if he was guilty of over-egging it, it certainly wasn’t by much. Plovdiv, or Philippopolis, to give it its original name, is older than both Rome and Athens. Its antiquity means that whatever your architectural fix, you’re likely to find it here — whether it’s Thracian ruins from 5,000 bc, a wonderfully preserved 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre (which could seat 6,000 people at its peak and which still stages concerts and shows in the summer), or 1960s socialist functional. The crowning glory is the picturesque old town, famous for its remarkable collection of 19th-century baroque-style ‘revival’ houses, named after the cultural, political and linguistic renaissance which led to the country’s liberation from the Ottoman yoke in the 1870s. Several of these houses are open to the public. We opted for the Stepan Hindlyan House with its well-preserved Turkish bathroom, colourful murals and exquisite collection of restored period furniture. Don’t miss, too, the nearby Ethnographic Museum, whose magnificent entrance hall with its grand piano and intricately carved wooden ceiling is worth the admission fee alone. For us, the only disappointment with Plovdiv was the lack of snow — so after three days we decided to head for the mountains.
At seven hours long, the ride from Plovdiv to Bansko won’t be the quickest railway journey in your life, but it may well prove to be the most memorable. For the last five hours, after changing at Septemvri, you travel on a narrow-gauge railway, which meanders its way through some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Europe. Halfway through the journey, at one of the numerous small village stops, a group of peasants boarded, headed by a cheery soul with a Terry-Thomas grin who proceeded to treat us — and the other inhabitants of our carriage — to two hours of accordion playing and a sing along of Bulgarian folk songs. When’s the last time you experienced that on Virgin trains?
We arrived in Bankso in sky-high spirits, yet famished Fortunately salvation was at hand in the shape of a gloriously smoky, 1940s time-warp restaurant in the main town square. Bulgarian cuisine is among the finest in Europe, but a word of warning: for the Bulgar chef ‘waste not want not’ really is taken literally, and among the delightful dishes on the menu brains, tongue and tripe lie in wait for those who, like me, get their Cyrillic alphabet mixed up. That said, if you’re ever going to cock up your order, with an average price of about 50p for a main course, Bulgaria is the place to do it. It’s also a good opportunity to let rip with the wine list: in how many other countries in Europe can you order the most expensive vintage and still receive change from £2?
Having got our fix of snow from two days in Bankso, we decided to head to Sofia, three hours away by coach. The Bulgarian capital may not be one of the most high- profile in Europe, but it is certainly one of the most likable. In no other European capital of a similar size does one get such a sense of space: Sofia really is the perfect city for people who normally hate cities. It has enough attractions to justify several visits, but with time at a premium we had to make do with tours of the ‘Holy Trinity’ — the Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, the St Nikolai Russian Church with its five golden onion domes, and the awesome Aleksander Nevski Church, built as a memorial to the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria’s independence. We also, thankfully, found time to visit the splendidly old-fashioned Museum of Natural History, with its fabulous collection of over a million animal, plant and mineral specimens.
One of the nicest of many nice things about Bulgaria is the custom of posting notices with the names and photographs of the deceased on walls and doors. At first I thought this morbid. But being reminded of those who once walked among us helps create a great sense of continuity and community, besides keeping us focused on what really matters. ‘There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love ...the only meaning,’ as Thornton Wilder put it. We saw hundreds of these notices and, even in the centre of Sofia, not a single one was defaced. The lack of vandalism is not the only area in which Bulgaria outscores Britain. Public transport, besides being cheap, is clean and punctual. People may not be effusive or prone to shouting in the streets but they are kind, friendly and unfailingly helpful; family ties and religious beliefs remain strong. Crime is low and there is a high general level of education.
For those keen to experience ‘backward’ Eastern Europe, Bulgaria and not Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic or Poland is the real McCoy. Do try and catch this wonderful country before the real estate sharks, the EU commissars and the other emissaries of ‘progress’ spoil it for ever.
Neil Clark/The Spectator 2006