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Bulgaria: Come for the good exchange rate in a rough-around-the-edges, chock-full-of-dogs place. Stay for the shopska.

By Tim Jones - Chicago Tribune- June 21, 2008

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Spires of the Russian Church rise above Sofia.
KEEPING WATCH: Spires of the Russian Church rise above Sofia.

VELIKO TURNOVO, Bulgaria-Up and down the twisting, cobblestone streets of this charming ancient city, hundreds of photocopied leaflets with grainy black-and-white images of the dead are tacked onto trees, utility poles and the sides of buildings.

Most of these people are long dead. Some passed on more than a dozen years ago, yet relatives in this so-called "city of the czars" and other towns across Bulgaria keep the crinkled, yellowing death notices on public display, as if to remind friends and neighbors not to forget them.

That seems so unnecessary in a land where little is forgotten, including old scores to be settled. Bulgarians remember the Ottoman Turks, who occupied the country for five centuries; the Russians, who drove the Turks out 130 years ago; the Macedonians, who live on neighboring land that most Bulgarians think should be theirs; and the Soviets, who lifted their totalitarian thumb almost 20 years ago but, like the death notices tacked onto trees, remain in the capital of Sofia in the form of large crumbling monuments to their failed communist experiment.

In other countries the communist statues are ripped down with an accompanying hail of cheers. Not in Bulgaria.

This is a dark, fascinating and, unfortunately, forgotten country, an Iowa-sized Balkan beauty with snow-capped mountains and lush green fields. It is here that the undeniable forces of the New World order meet a stubborn Old World speed bump defined by donkey carts, shepherds, a sclerotic and often corrupt governing bureaucracy and an economy that, for the most part, lags behind its old Eastern Bloc brethren.

Don't come to Bulgaria if you're looking for some glossy European elegance interspersed with Starbucks and all those Western, touristy accouterments that make travel so comfortable and reassuring.

But do come if you're up for something a little wild and pretty rough around the edges. Come if you're interested in watching the noisy, tectonic shifts of a former communist satellite in awkward transition to wherever it is it's going. Come if you'd like to see the Old World, before it's gone.

(Before we go too far, I need to say that my wife, Mary, and I did not visit here after being wowed by some Bulgarian TV travelogue or National Geographic photos. Our older son is teaching in Sofia. We hadn't seen him since last summer, and he was clamoring for a new shipment of barbecue sauce. Having disclosed that, I'd go back in a minute, if for no other reason than to people-watch and eat the salads.)

Long a tumultuous land, Bulgaria is the unlucky victim of living next door to voraciously belligerent neighbors. The Romans, Byzantines and Turks each took turns conquering Bulgaria, followed by the Soviets, which, curiously, Bulgarians didn't seem to mind at all. In between, the country made a couple of very poor choices, siding with Germany during two world wars. Bulgaria's "Golden Age," when the Bulgar Khans controlled much of Europe, is a far, far distant memory.

A SIGN OF THE OLD: The Romans, woh left behind these ruins in St. George Rotunda in Sofia, were among the early conquerors of Bulgaria.
A SIGN OF THE OLD: The Romans, woh left behind these ruins in St. George Rotunda in Sofia, were among the early conquerors of Bulgaria.

It almost seems that the only nation that has not rolled through Bulgaria is Wal-Mart.

For the visitor, Bulgaria can be confusing. Shaking your head horizontally means yes while shaking it vertically means no. (However, emphatically shaking your finger horizontally means no.) Understanding, remembering or even finding Sofia's street signs, written in the Cyrillic alphabet, is a formidable challenge. Go by way of billboard landmarks: Take a right at Samsung and a left at Hyundai. When you get to the massive billboard with the tall blond in a garter belt, you've gone too far.

Remember "doberden" (good day), "mol ya" (please) and "merci" (thank you), and that should get you a wide, crinkly smile and some linguistic sympathy, if not a direct cab ride back to your hotel.

Make sure you order one hot dog and not two because the dog and a bed of french fries and relish are crammed into an enormous bun.

They put ketchup and mayonnaise on pizza.

And be prepared to see donkey carts wending their way through downtown, with the driver hauling away scrap metal or plywood, often with a child in the back.

Meals are pretty simple. Many main dishes are stews, cooked with sausage and chicken. Steaks are rare, as in hard to get. The real treats in the Bulgarian cuisine are the pastries and, even better, the salads. The shopska salad (www.omda.bg/engl/cook/shopska_e.html) is a celebration of all the fresh vegetables in Bulgaria, and it makes you forget about lettuce.

The duner, the Bulgarian version of the gyro, only with chicken, is a favorite street-side sandwich best not eaten on three successive days.

Globalization, particularly McDonald's, clearly is having its way with Bulgaria, much like the Turks did centuries ago. The line-up of cars at the 24/7 McDonald's near Sofia's sprawling downtown park is continual, as vehicles burn $5.50-a-gallon gas waiting for a Big Mac. Sofia's Vitosha Boulevard, the main downtown commercial strip, features blocks of stores sporting names such as Versace, Levi's, Calvin Klein, Boss and Omega. And on the road to Veliko Turnovo, the old capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), corporate billboards grow in pastures where shepherds tend their sheep.

Television is substantially westernized, with "Bulgarian Idol" as well as the country's own version of "Big Brother" (two decades after the real big brother left) and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", an obvious question in a nation where the minimum wage is less than $100 a month.

However, the westernization of this physically and culturally rugged southeastern pocket of Europe is coming at a decidedly Bulgarian pace, much like the God-only-knows arrival of a meal ordered at a downtown Sofia restaurant. It'll get there eventually.

Once you get off Vitosha Boulevard, the picture of Western influence fades, from the street markets selling hats and flasks with a red star and sickle to the old woman in the park, picking up twigs to heat her apartment, and to the Velcro couples on park benches, desperately in need of a room.

Bulgaria, for all of its warts-many of which you can see in the U.S., starting with appalling poverty-is one of the best and most interesting bargains in Europe. Bulgaria is part of the European Union, but happily it is not yet on the euro. Its currency is the lev, which is worth about 70 U.S. cents, paving the way for cheap eats and, in this time of the anemic greenback, an affordable journey in very pricey Europe.

A downtown Sofia park is a popular gathering spot for chess players.
CHECK MATES: A downtown Sofia park is a popular gathering spot for chess players.

This place is different, and be advised that Bulgaria, as British author Mercia MacDermott wrote, is "a handful of heaven possessed by demons."

If it weren't for renewed troubles in the tinder box of Kosovo, Sofia could be called the Wild East of Europe. Thousands of dogs, most of them abandoned, run loose across this city of a million people. The fall of communism cleared the way for hundreds of thousands of people to buy cars, which they promptly did and now park every which way on sidewalks because there's no place else to put them. Road potholes are now rivaled by cratered sidewalks, caving in under the weight of parked cars.

Organized crime recently drew the attention of the European Commission, which condemned the murders of two prominent men, the latest in a series of 150 mafia-style killings since the fall of communism, another manifestation of how Bulgarians don't forget. (There have been no convictions.) Tour guides say, convincingly, that visitors have little to worry about from these targeted hits. In fact, as you stroll around downtown across the city, you'll worry a lot more about packs of dogs than any mafia.

Discarded tires, broken glass and other garbage, except in the downtown commercial strip, tend to linger. A field near the Sofia airport could be mistaken for a poppy field, but it's really a collection of white plastic bags that seem to have grown attached to weeds.

About 71/2 million people live in Bulgaria and, as in most Eastern European countries, the population is projected to drop in coming decades. The country exports some natural resources, grows a wide variety of vegetables and produces beautiful pottery. But that's not enough to build a growing nation, a fact that by itself might be justification for the dour tendencies of Bulgarians, especially men.

"While the citizen in the West is constantly striving to acquire ever more, our main instinct is to preserve what we have," wrote Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who in 1978 was killed by a poison dart filled with ricin and fired from an umbrella in London. Again, somebody who had a beef with Markov didn't forget.

Do not, however, be discouraged from engaging Bulgarians. They appreciate attempts at their language, however fumbling. A smile is always welcome, and it usually produces a response that convinces you that Bulgaria may not be as dour as portrayed.

During a downtown dinner with friends in Sofia, I watched a woman walk up to the bar with her small dog and place him on a stool. He was just high enough to peer over the counter. While she smoked and drank, he never barked, he never drooled. He was on that stool for an hour before curling up for a nap.

Before we left I decided to approach the woman and ask about her extraordinarily well behaved dog, a Jack Russell terrier. My friend Derek, who speaks some Bulgarian, went with me.

"His name is Winston Sir Churchill," said the woman, Mira. "But you can call him 'Sir.'"

Then Mira asked if we were watching her or the dog.

"Oh, we were watching the dog," I told her.

Overlooking that tactless remark, Mira smiled, called us beautiful and invited us to have a drink.

Getting There

There are no direct flights to Bulgaria from Chicago. All require at least one stop-perhaps Warsaw or Milan, Italy-before landing in Sofia. We went through Milan because there was a reasonably timed layover. We flew Alitalia, which provided a fine flight, but they lost our luggage each way. Expect to spend at least $800 per ticket, higher during peak travel season.

Hotels

Sofia has plenty of very good hotels, including recognizable names such as Hilton, Sheraton and Radisson. Be prepared to pay $150 to $300 per night. In the countryside you can find nice, locally owned places for under $50, but the likelihood of finding English spoken there diminishes rapidly and sometimes disappears. And make sure you take toilet paper.

Exchange Rate

Bulgaria is one of the best bargains in Europe, with one lev worth about 70 cents U.S. Four people can eat and drink very well for under $50. Just stay away from the restaurants in the hotels, which will gouge you.

Rental Cars

Driving in Bulgaria can be an adventure because until the 1990s, most people didn't have cars. So there is a big generation of first-timers behind the wheel. You won't need a car in Sofia, but if time is important and you like to roam, you can rent a moderate-size vehicle for about $75 a day. The main roads are fine and fun to drive. Keep in mind the overwhelming majority of rentals are stick shifts. Gas is about $5.50 per gallon. Don't assume there will always be a gas station a few miles down the road.

Take Along

Good walking shoes. Sofia is a great walking city. Don't forget the AC adapter for charging BlackBerrys and other devices. Again, remember toilet paper. Bulgaria is a thoroughly unpretentious country. Wear blue jeans; that's what they wear.

Helpful Books

Shell out the $20 to $25 for a good Bulgaria travel book. We used Lonely Planet's "Bulgaria" ($23), which provided terrific detail, good maps and some color photos. For a better understanding of Bulgaria and the region read "Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History" by Robert Kaplan. (Picador, $15 paperback, usually found in travel sections).

What To See

Walk Sofia first. Check the guidebooks for magnificent churches. One of the more interesting sites is the downtown mineral bath, which features a drinking fountain complex, where locals fill their bottles with free steaming mineral water. Soviet monuments dot the city, and nearly all have fallen into either disrepair or been vandalized by graffiti thugs. Veliko Turnovo, about 150 miles east of Sofia, is at once charming and spectacular. It's well worth the price of a car rental.

What To Eat

Restaurant menus will show as many as four pages of salads, drawing on the fresh vegetable bounty of Bulgaria. The shopska is the signature salad, but others are equally good. Soups are a delight. Street food is good and safe. Duners, like gyros, are wonderful. Unfortunately, you can't get mustard for your hot dogs in Bulgaria. They put corn on their pizza, which is very tasty, but if you put ketchup on your pizza (a common practice there because some Bulgarians think the pizza is dry) I wouldn't admit it when I got back home. The best Bulgarian brand of wine is Todoroff.

What To Buy

The pottery is exquisite. Travel guides will mention embroidery, which is nice, but pottery is the stuff to buy.

Information

Bulgarian State Agency for Tourism is at www.bulgariatravel.org/eng/index.php

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