There is a lovely anecdote in the introduction to Annie Kay’s Bradt Guide to Bulgaria. It tells how God was dividing up the Earth between all the different peoples. True to form, the Bulgarians turned up late and there was nothing left. But the good Lord took pity on the Bulgarians and gave them a little piece of Paradise.
It is an interesting little tale of Bulgarian manners and the generosity of the Almighty. Though Bulgarians have not always responded to the gesture with any great religious devotion. But the story nicely highlights that punctuality is not a national virtue in this country in the southeastern Balkans. Bulgaria arrived late in the European Union (EU) — it joined, along with Romania, only in 2007.
Hallmarks of identity
On the face of it, Bulgaria really is a place apart. It is the only EU country that overwhelmingly favors the Cyrillic alphabet (not to be confused with the Greek script). That Cyrillic script may often be judged as a hallmark of Orthodoxy, but in fact many Orthodox churches in Bulgaria are markedly less crowded than in neighboring Romania (which, for all its Latin ways, is still one of the most devoutly Orthodox countries in Europe).
The churches in Bulgaria may not be packed, but the country boasts some of the world’s most striking Orthodox heritage. The monasteries of Rila and Bachkovo, easily accessed in day trips from Sofia and Plovdiv respectively, are landmark examples of Orthodox architecture and design. The two are very different: Rila a riot of color, Bachkovo more muted yet a place of perfect harmony. Some of the interior murals in the ossuary church at Bachkovo are almost 1,000 years old.
If Orthodox style is not your thing, then Bulgaria also has some of the finest Islamic architecture in the Balkans. Take a look at the superb Tombul Dzhamiya complex in Shumen (in eastern Bulgaria) to discover how Islam nurtured an entire community, providing a focus for prayer and education. It houses a beautiful mosque with an adjacent school, library and sheltered courtyards for rest and relaxation.
Bulgaria has its gritty cities which could do with a little love and care. It is struggling in the transition to a market economy. But it is has some memorably beautiful landscapes. We like the strange natural obelisks of Belogradchik and the gaunt beauty of the Pirin mountains. The Trigrad gorge is utterly memorable, as too are the coastal wetlands of Dobrudzha.
Catch any of these in the right light, and well might you feel that you have indeed stumbled on a little piece of Paradise.