Magazine article Insight on the News

Beaches and Beautiful Valleys, but Few Tourists Visit Bulgaria

Magazine article Insight on the News

Beaches and Beautiful Valleys, but Few Tourists Visit Bulgaria

Article excerpt

Decades behind the Iron Curtain have ruined Bulgaria's economy and morale; recent elections hold little hope for improvement. Still, there are surprises in this unusual country for intrepid travelers.

While other Eastern Bloc countries emerged from the Cold War ready to flaunt their charms for eager tourists, Bulgaria has remained the awkward stepsister. Yet for a visitor willing to wrestle with haphazard services and signs in baffling Cyrillic script, Bulgaria offers a fascinating glimpse of a country struggling toward modernization.

Like most Westerners, my first view of Bulgaria was the capital city of Sofia, a town of about 1.2 million people. Unlike chic Prague or Budapest, Sofia retains the colorful contrasts of a real Eastern Europe backwater. Creaky buses billow smoke along wide modern boulevards. Cobblestone streets lined with cramped shops open onto gargantuan plazas. Weeds push through the cracks in sidewalks and trees loom over decaying concrete apartment buildings as if waiting for them to crumble.

Bulgaria's blend of cultures is evident in an assortment of shrines - Turkish mosques, Orthodox Christian churches, a synagogue - and statues, mostly in honor, of the Russian army. From the size and pretentiousness of "brave soldier" monuments, it would appear that the Bulgarians never have gotten over their gratitude to the Russians for liberating them from the Turks in 1878. But they have. The monuments more often than not are surrounded by weeds and litter.

Sofia's poorly maintained infrastructure gives it an air of seediness, and the fact is, the city and country are bankrupt. The Bulgarian economy has been spiraling downward ever since 1990 when the country was forced to pay for Russian oil in hard currency (the Soviets previously subsidized that commodity). Living standards have plummeted along with the country's currency reserves. The Bulgarian lev has lost a quarter of its value against the dollar in six months and inflation is topping 20 percent. Crowds surge along Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia's premier shopping street, but the Western goods on display are as accessible to he average Bulgarian as moon rocks.

The robust dollar makes the country incredibly cheap for Americans. In restaurant on fashionable Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard I enjoyed a meal of shopska salad (tomato, lettuce, cucumber and pepper topped with cheese), yogurt soup, grilled chicken and the local plum brandy, rakiya, for $3. At east, that's what it cost when I got through arguing with the waiter, who tried to tack on a number of unordered and uneaten specialties. As their econmy contracts, Bulgarians squeeze as much as they can from foreigners, "Mistakes" in change, special tourist prices in hotels and taxi meters adjusted to spin at dizzying speeds have become a way of life for Bulgarians struggling to survive.

Country people have their own ways of coping with hardship. The route to the Rila Monastery south of Sofia passses through fertile plains that haven't much changed in centuries. Just 20 miles outside of Sofia, grizzled women stoop over grain fields with hoes and pitchforks. Farmers flash toothless grins from mule-drawn carts which have become practical because of the skyrocketing fuel prices. Squat gray houses are surrounded with vegetable gardens and grape vines to make wine. Even in August, stacks of freshly cut wood already were piled in backyards ready for the sub-freezing Bulgarian winter.

The 10th-century Rila Monastery, now a World Heritage Site, is the most important of the many Bulgarian monasteries. Orthodox monks established a haven here that kept Bulgarian religion and culture alive during five centuries of Turkish rule. Deep in the Rila Mountains, this cheerful complex contains a magnificent domed church and a medieval tower in a large courtyard enclosed by painted arcades, all in excellent condition. May guide Chris hurried me through the richly frescoed church to the tomb of King Boris III, surrounded by flowers and candles. …

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