The things that even Bulgarians might not know about their country
Written by Alex Portarev, edited by Lindsay Martin, cover photo by Sara Coll Lopez.
Here’s a list of Bulgarian objects and phenomena with a twist. We’re missing many prominent cultural artifacts that define the country, but it’s to highlight the lesser-known aspects of Bulgaria’s vastness.
- Archaeology. A little known fact is that Bulgaria holds the third position in Europe with the most archaeological sites, following Italy and Greece. Ranging from prehistoric to medieval, there is also a bit of dinosaur in the mix.
- Baba Marta, the heroine that fights the cold and expects us to fertilize the spring soil with red & white cloth. Grandmother March, in folklore, is the sister of Big Sechko (January) and Little Sechko (February), and the main star of some agricultural Balkan pagan cults.
- Cacti. How did you think you were able to get cactus juice in Sozopol? A small patch of land south of Sozopol has grown cacti since 1933. Tsar Boris III himself ordered his royal botanist to bring the prickly pear (Opuntia) from the botanical garden of Bratislava. Being one of the few islands of Bulgaria, St Thomas island is remarkable, but unpopular because of its other name – Snake Island.
- Desert. Did you know that it’s a myth that cacti grow only in deserts? Snake island ain’t one for sure, but Pobiti Kamani is! Limestone pillars piercing the sandy ground give the island its name, “rocks beaten into the ground.” Not far from Varna, it’s the only desert soil in Bulgaria
- Etar. This one’s a cheat because three things are (or were) called the “Aether”. One is an architectural folklore museum outside of Gabrovo. Second is a brownish drink, which should be proudly called the “Communist Coca Cola.” The third is the old name of the Yantra river.
- Foreigners. You won’t believe it, but Foreigners are great! We don’t mean the Foreigners in Sofia & Friends (F&F) group, but the historical figures of James Bourchier, Fridtjof Nansen, the Prošek brothers, Karel Škorpil, Louis-Emil Eyer, and many more who left cultural and economical footprints on today’s Bulgaria.
- Glaciers. This is getting weird, isn’t it? You wouldn’t expect glaciers this far south on the continent, but Pirin mountain holds a monopoly on this with Snezhnika and Banski.
Horo. The typology of the Balkan Hora is madness! It’s so diverse that academic research of ethnochoreology is a big topic in the Bulgarian academy of sciences.
- Islands. St. Ivan, St. Kirik, St. Peter, St. Anastasia, and of course, St. Snake Island are all islands. But those are just the ones near Burgas. Bulgaria holds 99 islands! 16 in the sea, 62 in the Danube, and the rest in rivers, lakes, and dams. The more prominent ones are Ostrova in Batak and Adata in Plovdiv.
- Jungle. The floodplains of Ropotamo hold a secret – an alluvial jungle within a natural reserve! A few sq. km of jungly greenery hosting a diverse amount of flora & fauna. The reserve itself holds 260 species of birds like the white-tailed eagle, pygmy cormorant, semi-collared flycatcher, and great heron.
- Kukeri, survakari. dzhamalare, vesilchari, mechkari, babugeri. It’s important to keep in mind how diverse the family of these creatures are. An important part of this (somehow) is to note the difference. Survakari in Pernik, Kukeri in Yambol, Babugeri in Rammstein music videos (and your nightmares).
- Lynx. Zooarchaeologists found that Bulgaria had large populations of Eurasian Lynx, but reports say that the last lynx was killed in 1941 in Rila. Jokes on the people who made the report. Sightings and tracks between 2003 and 2019 show us they are roaming in Western and Southeastern Bulgaria.
- Monasteries. Undoubtedly, a question which is on everybody’s mind – How many monasteries are under the jurisdiction of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church? The answer is 214 in Bulgaria and 1 faith-outsourcing monastery in Germany. Over 120 of them are even still active!
- Nestinari (or Anastenaria in Greek) is the famous fire-walking intangible heritage. Formerly celebrated in some thirty nearby Bulgarian and Greek villages, Nestinarstvo remains today in the village of Bulgari, where Greeks and Bulgarians annually and casually burn their feet.
- Obichai means customs (also meaning the letter O is difficult). There are some truly bizarre ones that could even rival the Viking ättestupa. They include spinning dogs in trees, shooting at maidens with fire arrows, being beaten with a stick to heal your sickness, or practicing your own funeral. Did you think Surva was weird?
- Pyramids of Melnik! Yes, they are pyramids because calling them the Hoodoos of Melnik doesn’t have a ring to it. Situated in the foothills of the Pirin mountain range, these formations are a result of sludge at the bottom of a lake…which was there around 5 million years ago.
- Quakes. People didn’t think much of earthquakes until the event in 2012 that shook the areas of Pernik and Sofia. It not only inspired a variety of clubs called “Epicenter,” it also made people look into how likely it is for a quake to occur. Apparently, 97% of the territory of Bulgaria is threatened by seismic impacts with more than 15 cases in the last 20 years, all between 4 and 5.6 on the Richter Scale.
- Roses. The Damascus Rose is the gem needed to craft the popular rose oil. Bulgarians, having an affinity to it for centuries, have all sorts of things related to roses – rose cosmetics, the Valley of Roses, rose festivals, rose jam, rose wine and even rose liqueur Gyulovitsa, the meme of rakias.
- Sand. Out of 378 km of coastline, 130 km of it is purely made of sandy beaches! This is one of the reasons the Bulgarian seaside is such a popular destination. Speaking of popular destinations, did you know that Sunny beach looks as if it’s quarantined 7 months a year, every year?
- Thracian Tombs. Right off the bat, if you haven’t seen an ancient Thracian tomb, you are missing out! The Valley of the Thracian Rulers, near Kazanlak, is one of the most impressive historical areas in the whole country. With unique architecture and art, some of them are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
- “Unity makes strength,” said Ferdinand the First, hoping people wouldn’t figure to check the Belgian motto. Even though the motto is shared with Georgia, Belgium, and Bolivia, it still fits well due to the stories of Khan Kubrat. He taught his sons the very important lesson that unity would make them stronger. Yet, they still disbanded and did their own thing. It just fits for Bulgaria!
- Volcanoes. The famous medium, Baba Vanga, was buried in what is thought to be the crater of an extinct volcano. What isn’t awesome about this lady? Kozhuh and Adatepe are the only ex-volcanoes in the territory of Bulgaria. Don’t worry, dear Sofians, despite the myth, Vitosha is not a volcano… we hope.
- Wine. Although most Bulgarians are more proud of the rakia, the country remains regarded as one of the European wine states. With over 10 unique varietals, Bulgarian wines have won a lot of awards over the past 20 years. Ranging from the classic Mavrud, Rubin, and Pamid, to the exquisite new innovations developed in the past years by companies like Trastena. Wine here never disappoints.
X-files. Mummified alien remains in an ancient crypt, UFO sightings chased by jet fighters, grey aliens seen in natural parks, giant space communist-looking buildings. There are so many that it begs the question: are they still “unidentified?”
- Yogurt. When you say that you would like to have yogurt in Bulgaria, most likely, people think you want a sweet Danon. The science and history of Bulgarian sour milk could easily be found anywhere on the internet, but if you’re truly a fan, why not visit the museum of sour milk?
- Zoology. Bears, dolphins, birds, bats, spiders, kangaroo fugitives in Sandanski, Bulgaria has it all. The book “Creators of Bulgarian Zoology“ showcases many of the achievements of 23 scientists who contributed to the scientific world of zoology. Allegedly, the most famous zoologist Boyan Petrov wasn’t remembered for his scientific works as much as being known as the mountaineer who climbed 10 out of the 14 eight-thousanders. He disappeared while climbing Shishapangma. God rest Boyan’s soul.
Tell us more interesting things that we have definitely missed on this list!