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The 10th-century Rila Monastery


by Muriel Feiner
Photos: M. Feiner


It is a good idea to stray off the beaten path and follow a route less travelled in order to discover on your own a destination which may be less in demand but no less fascinating. We took advantage of the opportunity to get to get to know a small part of Bulgaria, as part of an organized trip to boost commercial relations between Spain and Bulgaria. 

Bulgaria covers a territory of 110,994 square kilometers (42,855 sq mi), essentially one-quarter of the size of Spain. Located in southeastern Europe, it is surrounded by Rumania to the north, Serbia and North Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south and the Black Sea to the east. 

Bulgaria is a mixture of cultures, the result of turbulent empire-building and successive invasions

The fact that it has experienced an extremely turbulent history has resulted in highly varied customs, traditions, architecture and gastronomy.  The country is in fact a mixture of cultures, due to the endless wave of invasions it suffered throughout its history. Its origins can be traced back to the 4th century B.C. when it was Thrace, a province of Ancient Greece, which was later settled by the Romans. Other intermittent and not necessarily welcome “visitors” were the PersiansCelts, Ottomans, Turks, Mongols, Slavs and Macedonians

The Bulgarians led by Asparukh invaded the Balkans in the late 7th century and established the First Bulgarian Empire, which dominated most of the Balkan territory until the 11th century when Byzantine emperor Basil II conquered the land. The Bulgarian population eventually revolted and overthrew the invaders, establishing the Second Bulgarian Empire which lasted until the year 1396 when it was once again invaded, this time by the Ottomans, who occupied the territory for almost five centuries. 

The Russian-Turkish War of 1877–78 led to the creation of the Third Bulgarian state. However, the country sided with Germany in both World Wars and with the defeat of Nazi Germany, Bulgaria fell under Soviet rule, until the revolution of 1989 which ended in the declaration of a democratic state in 1991. 

The charming Boyana church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, may be small but it features some of the best medieval art in Eastern Europe, its frescoes dating back to 1259

The country can boast of nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, beginning with the Boyana church in Sofia with its beautiful, early Renaissance frescos which, as international experts highlight, were done with highly developed techniques resulting in profoundly expressive representations.  Other noteworthy landmarks are the Pyrin National ParkSreburna Nature Reserve, the Madara Rider, the Thracian tombs of Sveshtari and Kazanluk, the rock-hewn churches of Ivanovo, the Roman Theatre of Plovdiv and the ancient city of Nessebar, located on the Black Sea, a leading commercial crossroads in antiquity. 

The  Banya Bashi Mosque

Even though Sofia is the capital now of Bulgaria, Pliska preceded it from 681 to 893 A.C. and was followed by Preslav. King Boris adopted Christianity in the 9th century and the most widespread religion practiced in Bulgaria today is Eastern Orthodoxy. The Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, named after the Kiev-born prince and the first Saint of the Russian Orthodox Church, is an impressive monument. With its gilded domes and Neo-Byzantine style, its 3.000 m2 make it one of the largest Orthodox cathedrals in the world. Nearby is the Sephardic Synagogue, the largest in Southeastern Europe, and also the Banya Bashi Mosque. Also not far away is the Parliament building with its colorful changing of the guards.

Finding your way around may prove a little challenging as the street signs are naturally written in Bulgarian, with Cyrillian characters

Many of Sofia’s most noteworthy attractions are situated relatively close to one another and the people and the general ambiance are relaxed so visitors should not be reluctant to wander around on their own. However, returning to your hotel may prove to be a little challenging as the street signs are naturally written in Bulgarian, with Cyrillian characters, which may create some difficulty when resorting to the GPS on your phone.

Certainly not to be missed and just 100 km to the south of the capital along a picturesque route is the 10th century Rila Monastery, nestled among the mountain range of the same name, at an altitude of 1.150 meters. It was founded in the 10th century by a humble monk, Ivan Rilski, who dwelled in a nearby cave for years. Its sober fortress-like exterior, which was vital for the protection of the monks, conceals its magnificent, luminous interior. 

King Simeon with sevillanas singer María del Monte at the Vrana Palace. As the Bulgarian ambassador in Madrid Aleksey Elenkov Andreev says, there should be “more Spain in Bulgaria and more Bulgaria in Spain.”

Although Bulgaria belongs to the European Union as of January 1, 2007, it has still not adopted the euro as the national currency and retains the leva as its national currency. One euro is roughly equivalent to 2 levas, although euros and credit cards are widely accepted.

Our trip was intended to boost and blend together the cultures and experiences of the two countries: Spain and Bulgaria. The ambassador in Madrid, Aleksey Elenkov Andreev, decided the best way to do so was to organize a special trip to Sofia, under the motto of “More Spain in Bulgaria and more Bulgaria in Spain”. The impressive National History and Archaeology Museum was the perfect setting for enjoying a private dinner and the typical and colorful performances of the Bulgarian folklore groups. 

Enroute to the Rila Monastery, an area famous for its roasted trout

The varied Bulgarian cuisine, with special mention of the traditional roasted Balkan trout, and the rich desserts and classic yogurt, rivaled with the succulent jamón ibérico, which world-famous ham carver Florencio Sanchidrián brought with him to delight us on the trip over and also to share with King Simeon of Bulgaria, who received us in his official residence, the Vrana Palace. Czar Simeon greeted everyone and offered a toast with the excellent Bulgarian champagne. This estate is open to the general public on weekends so that they can totally enjoy the park’s  247 acres, with its lakes, fountains and 400 different types of flora. 

The fashion show of Spanish designer Agatha Ruiz de la Prada (in yellow, foreground) at the lavish, five-star Grand Millennium Hotel

And finally, on our last evening in Bulgaria, we attended Agatha Ruiz de la Prada’s fashion show in the lavish, five-star Grand Millennium Hotel, where 60 of her most popular designs were displayed on the catwalk by local models, followed by the presentation of several Men’s and Women’s collections from Bulgaria’s most select designers. Florencio Sanchidrián carved yet another exquisite ham with his world-renowned skill and poetic flourish. The evening concluded with a performance by talented singer and guitarist Sergio Vivar and some typical flamenco disco music.

Most of the local Bulgarians that travelers will come in contact with speak some English, although the older generation is more familiar with Russian. As Bulgarian is part of the Slavic group of languages, we must admit that it was so complicated to even learn how to say Thank You, that our guide told us that we could get by with a simple “Merci”, “usurped” from the French. Sooo: Merci, Bulgaria, for your friendly, open hospitality and your charming and diversified culture and folklore.