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Last Stop on Our Balkan Loop: Bulgaria

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Before taking a class on the Balkans last semester, I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about Bulgaria except that it’s capital was Sofia. I thought that it was the place of goulash, but that’s actually Hungary. In my class, I learned about the nationalism in the late 80s/early 90s, which manifested itself against the Turks who had been living in the country for around 500 years. It was a brief ugly time in Bulgaria’s history, where some Turks fled, some were forced to changed their names from Turkish to Slavic, and others resisted and formed a political party, the Minority Rights and Freedoms Party, which is still influential today. Like so many of the Balkan countries, it was fascinating to see the remains of Roman, Ottoman, and Austrian culture, mixed with Bulgaria’s own flair in each of the cities we visited.

In Sofia, I took a free walking tour and learned about the monarch’s attempts to save Bulgaria’s Jews from shipment off to the Nazis. Basically, as our tour guide said, he employed a long held Bulgarian habit of procrastination, and kept giving the Nazis excuses as to why he needed to keep them in country. Of course the story is not that black and white, but it is remarkable in such a difficult time. We also learned that the first freely elected president of Bulgaria was also a former monarch – I think for the first time in history!  During Communist times, churches acted as shops in order to continue operations.  The country’s symbol is all about lions, which were only ever in Bulgaria for Roman gladiator type activities.  Now it’s even the name of the currency, lev.

At the Rila Monastery, I learned a lot about the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The monastery is situated in green mountains amidst springs and waterfalls, whose music you hear from various corners as you explore the site. In the actual chapel, there are no seats or pews as I expected from my Catholic upbringing. Instead, worshippers all stand, and the entire mass is sung, as it’s believed that through the act of singing you’re closest to God. Although we couldn’t take pictures inside the chapel, I have a few from the outside.

My favorite part of visiting the monastery was visiting the kitchen area. At different times, the monastery hosted thousands of people, and the kitchen is equipped with a huge oven and other implements to support that. I was really fascinated by the interior of the rooms, though, with uneven stone-tiled floors worn down over the ages.

The church is also credited with preserving Bulgarian folk culture when Bulgaria was under occupation. Now the government takes care of that. Unfortunately we didn’t see anybody in traditional dress, except the monks, who wore long black robes. Since it was a bit chilly up in the mountains, they wore Adidas jackets over their robes! At dinner that night, we did get to see some folk dancers in all of their finery while enjoying traditional Bulgarian food – it was delicious!!!

By far, my favorite thing in Bulgaria were the sunflower fields we passed on the way out!

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