Bucket List Worthy
By Tim Leffel
“I know who made the yogurt you are eating and who made the cheese. I’ve been to the farm where we got the eggs and know the guy who raised the pigs for the pork you ate last night. The rose petals in that jam are from our own farm.”
In much of the world, this declaration I got from the owner of Tsousova Guest House would seem boastful, the product of serious effort to establish credibility amongst the organic food police crowd. If true, it would require years of relationship building with the right farmers who could ensure a steady supply.
In Bulgaria, this kind of boast is followed with a shrug. “We buy from our neighbors because it’s good for the village. And we like to know where our food is coming from.”
For a while though, things took a left turn. The Russians are reviled for many reasons in Europe, but perhaps the biggest one in these parts is the great experiment in collective farming. A disaster from nearly every angle you look at it, the policy of combining workers to tend giant farms owned by the state sucked the life out of many a country that got stuck behind the Iron Curtain. Remove incentives and production falls. Remove ownership and nobody has pride in the output. Remove hope for a better future and nobody teaches their kids to strive for something greater. Somehow Karl failed to see any of that coming.
Fortunately, 40 years is but a blip in a country with a history as long as Bulgaria’s. As soon as the revolution ended, small-scale farming came back in a rush, like the release of pent-up energy.
Six months before this trip, I met my first Bulgarian. As chance would have it, this was in a restaurant in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Mexico. He was sitting with his family in a restaurant, my wife and I were perusing the menu outside. He gave us the thumbs up and we came inside. We were both in town for an adventure tourism conference and it turned out he owned the country’s top adventure tour company: Odysseia-In. So he pulled out his brochures and started pitching me on Bulgaria, his family trying to hide their “Here we go again” looks.
I was intrigued though. I knew almost nothing about the country, but it was on my “someday” list. Besides, the scenery on the hiking trips looked stunning and the food photos in his brochures were making me salivate.
Now here I am walking across the Friendship Bridge over the Danube Delta, from Romaina to Bulgaria, to meet one of their guides. (Note to anyone trying this in the future: it’s a very long walk.)
After the customs people make some laughing gypsy references and stamp my passport, we take a quick tour of the closest city and then hike up to the UNESCO World Heritage site of the painted cave monasteries at Ivanova. The paintings are nice, but the scenery is better, with rocky cliffs rising up from a river valley, more caves dotted among them that were home to other very dedicated monks.
That night we arrive at a city that could have single-handedly sent me home with glowing recommendations for the country. Veliko Turnovo is the kind of place that, in a more popular country, would have 50 hostels with similar names and 25 travel agencies all selling the same tours. It would be jammed with tour buses and hundreds of bored waitresses would know how to say, “Anything else?” The way things have been working the past few decades, you could rely on the backpackers soon getting priced out of the market, the first trendy boutique hotel breaking ground, and Travel + Leisure then calling it the next “hot destination.”
Don’t worry. None of that’s happening anytime this decade. Instead my 50-euro hotel includes a hearty breakfast and has a great view of the homes clinging to the hillsides over the river. There are citadel walls and a beautiful bridge built by a self-taught architect and nearby is the well-preserved town of Arbanassi, with its solid stone houses and a low-slung painted church with every surface covered.. Veliko Turnovo was the headquarters of the king during Bulgaria’s finest heyday, a time in the 13th century when their territory extended to three seas. It peaked when Ivan Asen II united the lines extending down from the Thracians, the Slavs, and the Bulgars to create a great kingdom.
Starting in the 1300s, in came Mongols, Tartars, Hungarians, and resurgent Byzantines, all grabbing chunks of territory. The Ottoman Turks mopped up the rest by the beginning of the next century. The Turks left some good food at least and we visit some Muslim villages where everyone looks Turkish but speaks Bulgarian. There were plenty of massacres and blood during this reign though, perhaps the worst atrocity being the Ottoman habit of conscripting first-born sons for their army. Sometimes the Ottomans would send the grown men back to slaughter rebels in their own original village, the men not knowing that the victims were their blood relatives.
The Russians defeated the Turks in the late 1800s and the next subjugation began. When the Russians “liberated” the Bulgarians again from the Nazis after WWII, they left their mark on every aspect of society. While some look with nostalgia on the glory days of full employment and no trouble if you kept your mouth shut, the scars to the land and the psyche are still clear.
Cruising the highways now, despite the grape trellises and garden plots gracing almost every house, the Soviet era is still a dominant feature of the landscape. Ladas, smoke-belching motorcycles, and even an occasional Trabant are parked in the towns. Abandoned factories with busted windows are a regular roadside fixture. It is three days into my trip before I see a smokestack that actually smokes. In the old days, things were different. “We grew a lot of things here and could produce a lot,” said my driver Marin, who once kept the export books at a steel factory. “The Russians weren’t very picky, so they bought it all. Whatever we could make and package, we had a market for it. So you can imagine why some people think those were the good old days.”
Marin tells me this as we eat at the only dining spot in one town, the Central Cooperative Restaurant that’s survived since the fall of Communism. We pay 10 euros for three after feasting on our multi-course meals and beers. After I express what a bargain this is, my guide Stela tells me the minimum wage in this country is still only around 120 euros a month.
In the former Soviet republics though, there’s no Superfund to clean up the contamination from these crumbling factories or money to shore up the shoddy construction. Only a few of the buildings are worth occupying by a company focused on profits rather than ideology. So most sit empty or only partially used.
There’s plenty to lament about the current state of Bulgaria: government corruption, a net population loss because of job seekers heading elsewhere, and not nearly enough jobs to go around. The country has managed to do three things quite well though: preserve its heritage, preserve its green space, and produce great food.
Some 30 percent of the country is protected forest land. This is the kind of figure you expect to hear for some eco-poster-child country like Costa Rica or New Zealand, not for a former Iron Curtain nation in Europe. As I hike all three mountain ranges through the course of a week, I’m continually surprised by the rolling waves of green on mountains that show no sign of deforestation. I’m surprised by the purity of the springs, the lack of garbage, that clear connection between the people and the land. Their land again.
All that green space is best enjoyed with friends and family. While Sofia locals may groan about the intrusion of McDonald’s and Starbucks, in most of the country you see Bulgarian culture displayed with pride. Half the TVs turned on in bars and restaurants in the villages seem to be tuned to a Balkan music video channel. The videos are usually simple affairs: rolling shots of traditional musicians and singers performing in front of a historic building or village home. With their irregular time signatures and sometimes unrecognizable instruments, the music sounds like nothing you’d hear on the radio at home.
“Granny choirs” dress up in their finest woven colors and compete against neighboring villages in song and dance. Here when I visit the Etara Ethnograhic Village, an open-air museum by the Bulgarka Nature Park, there’s nothing to sneer at: it’s all genuine. After seeing the wood turner at work with a waterfall-powered lathe and checking out the traditional village homes, we sit down to what is the best tourist attraction lunch I can remember having. Food is too important here to dumb it down just because it’s a tourist spot—or to overcharge you for it.
There’s nothing wimpy about Bulgarian cuisine. Portions are so huge that most salads could easily serve two or three. Every time I order a glass of house wine, it’s filled to the brim. A shot of rakiamust be lifted carefully in order to avoid spilling any. If something on the menu says it’s for two to share, assume those two will be bringing leftovers home unless they’re really starving.
This is not filler food piled high and cheap, however. Plates are loaded up with fresh vegetables that are in season, all picked when they were ripe. The meat is from free range animals because they can’t imagine eating it if done another way. Of course the beef is grass-fed and of course the bacon is really smoked in a smoke-house, not flavored by some nasty chemicals. I’m not buying the premise that dairy is bad for you after seeing the muscle-bound men and curvy women of Bulgaria: every salad is covered with shredded cheese, usually with chunks of cheese in it as well, and a meal without yogurt is like, well, breakfast without cheese. They don’t do this just to fill up; they do it because it’s locally made and yummy.
When I have a super-flavorful, hearty dinner at Deshka’s Guesthouse in the small village of Gorno Draglishte, the feast is a bounty of goodness from distances measured in walking distance, not highway markers. We have fresh potatoes with cream cheese and local herbs; a giant loaf of bread with more herbs and garlic, cooked in a brick oven; a ragout with tomatoes, peas, and peppers; a baked mince meat dish with onions.
Deshka doesn’t speak any English, but she tells me through a guide that she’s never cooked with anything from a can, never owned a freezer, never served meat from a supermarket, and never put out yogurt that she didn’t make herself from scratch. I feel like even if she hadn’t told me that, I could tell by the taste that none of it traveled far, including the jugs of wine and rakia our party of six plowed through during music and dancing. Her mother and aunt, who compete in those village granny choir competitions, stopped by to liven up the evening.
I have my best dessert in three weeks of travel at another little guesthouse I never would have ended up in without the guidance of Odysseia-In. For one thing the Kosovo Houses lodge is in a mountain village with a permanent population of 12. (Nevertheless, there’s a village pub and the lodge has Wi-Fi.)
By the end of my week in Bulgaria, I’m entertaining fantasies about growing organic vegetables on a small garden plot. I’ll string up a grape vine trellis and have dinners underneath its shade with hearty plates of white cheese and seasoned potatoes. I’ll make some manly red wine to store in a cellar for the winter and maybe distill some peaches or plums in a workshop to create some firewater to share with friends.
Then I come to my senses and remember that I live in a tropical climate with sandy soil, so close to sea level that nobody in the whole city has a cellar. If the past is any guide, I’ll probably be out of the country come harvest time. Green Acres isn’t the life for me.
Thankfully, there are still places in the world where people can live this life and gladly do. Villages where “farm to table” is just another way of saying, “the way we always eat.” Where all food is “slow food.” Where jam comes without a label on the jar and you can go on the roof and point to where your cheese came from.
There are other places in the world like this, sure, but most haven’t managed to keep it up even after the Russians did their worst. Plus none of them come with a side dish of rakia-drinking Bulgarian grannies.
Bulgaria has a unique language and uses the Cyrillic alphabet, so this is a place where the guidance of a tour company can open up a lot more possibilities and mobility. Odysseia-In is the leading adventure tour company in the country and can do scheduled or custom trips. See their hiking Bulgaria website for details and (very reasonable) prices. For more on forest preservation work in Bulgaria, and the businesses that support it, see the PAN Parks Europe site.
This story originally appeared on Perceptive Travel.