Cover Story
Experience Bulgaria
Yeoh Guan Jin 
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia - photo credit Creative Commons

The door creaks and the cowbell clangs to announce our arrival. Behind the door is a small but cosy and warm dining area and bar. The walls are adorned with a collection of items of Bulgarian tradition.

The Izbata Tavern is a small and unassuming eatery located on Slavyanska 18 in the centre of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital and largest city. Like many small businesses in the city, it is a short flight of stairs down from the street level. This is where you get what the Bulgarians serve at home every day – the authentic local cuisine.

“We eat these dishes in the winter,” says waitress Nevena Tevena as she presents the menu. “There is a different menu for summer.”

Tevena says that her first name translates into “marigold”, and it is a popular name for girls in Bulgaria. She takes a while to warm up to strange foreign men who ask too many questions. Nonetheless, she eventually becomes very helpful with information about the items on the menu.

We settle for the kavarma, a stew of pork, onion, mushrooms, peppers and tomatoes spiked with red wine and baked with eggs and hot pepper in an earthenware dish, and the kapama, also a stew but of pickled cabbage or sauerkraut with rice, sausage, chicken, pork and veal baked with fragrant spices in earthenware. The pork can be substituted with chicken or beef.

The kavarma is a bit spicy thanks to the pepper while the kapama is a little milder though not in the least less tasty. Both dishes are served piping hot – the heat being retained beneath a crust – which is most welcoming on a cold day.

But cold is relative. “You don’t know cold yet, do you?” Tevena chuckles. “Wait till it gets down to 20 below.” But in these parts of the world, people are used to harsh winters.

Just like inside Izbata, Sofia is not just a place to see. It is, in itself, an experience. Apart from the monuments, of which there are many given the country’s long history, it is a place to tingle the senses – sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.

Taking in the sights – whether it is a 1,000-year-old church, a similarly ancient crypt, or taking a walking tour to all the communist-era monuments – is interesting and educational. But there is nothing like experiencing the culture and traditions, tasting the local fare, and getting to know the locals a little better.

For part-time tour guide Katerina Alexandar Nicolich, you don’t get anywhere until you have filled your tummy first thing in the morning. That means 11am.

“We Bulgarians love to sleep till late,” she explains. “We usually wake up at nine or 10, and have breakfast at 11.” Which is when the rest of the world is already preparing to go for lunch. That partly accounts for the fact that many retail outlets or eateries do not open their doors till then.

The Orthodox St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is Sofia’s most recognisable landmark

Nicolich, who introduces herself as Kathy, takes her entourage to a Bulgarian pastry shop where she purchases a boxful of banitsa, a traditional pastry served with whisked eggs and cheese, for breakfast. A bit like cream puffs, it melts in the mouth. Of course, the Bulgarians also eat the banitsa for lunch, dinner and anytime in between.

With hunger satiated, the second stop on the tour is the Puppet Museum, also known as the Doll Museum. Here, one gets a quick lesson on Bulgarian history and culture. Bulgaria became a distinct nation-state in 681AD, making it one of the oldest countries in Europe. But it also has a difficult past. In 1396, the country was conquered by the Ottomans, who ruled Bulgaria for more than 500 years.

Fast forward to the 20th century, Bulgaria came under communist rule after World War I. With the collapse of communism in the Nineties, Bulgaria adopted a democratic form of government.

More interesting is the fact that the nation comprises several distinct ethnic groups, each with its own traditions, dialects and customs. According to Kathy, each community is best represented by their women.

For instance, in the north, where agriculture has always been the livelihood, the women are hardworking but they also have a sharp tongue. In the eastern part of Bulgaria, we find the fairest of them all but these women lose their temper in a flash. So if you are a man looking for a bride in Bulgaria, it serves to take note of these quirks.

A short walk from the Puppet Museum is a traditional tea house where the beverage is not a brew of leaves. Here you get the rose tea, or Aphrodite tea, named after the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation.

Served with ginger, it has an intense yet sweet natural flavour and aroma. Whether or not it also makes you fall in love and want to become a parent quickly is open to debate.

At the same tea house, don’t miss the rose jam, whose sweet taste comes not from sugar but pure apple juice. The rose is revered for its regenerating quality. Rose water, according to Kathy, is a natural toner for the face and every Bulgarian girl uses it. But that is the more affordable option.

Bulgaria is also known for its rose oil, reputably of the highest quality and undoubtedly the most expensive. The rose oil is a product of the pink rose, originally from Syria and brought to Bulgaria by the Ottomans.

A consignment of 3,500kg of rose petals – yes, only the petals are good enough – will give you just 1kg of rose oil. It is no wonder that this Bulgarian product is also known as liquid gold. A kilogramme of the oil sells for €15,000 to €20,000 (RM71,000 to RM95,000). It is used widely in cosmetics and toiletries – perfumes, creams, soaps and shampoos – but quite obviously only for the well-heeled.

The Bulgarians also seem to have a knack for creative use of small spaces. In the City Garden in the centre of Sofia sits a circular glass structure about 2.5m in diameter and a little over 5m in height. Lining the wall inside are several shelves of books. A circular stairway leads up to the upper floor where there is a space for you to sit back with your favourite tome. Called the Reading Room, there are several of these scattered across the city. The Bulgarians obviously love to read. But books and a space to read them is only one of two functions this structure serves; this small glass building is also the tourist information centre.

Kathy usually has her guests end the jaunt with a shot of rakia, an alcoholic fruit drink that is widely consumed in central and southeast Europe. It usually has an alcohol content of about 40% but the Bulgarians occasionally spike it up to 70%. Various fruits are used but apricots are the best, says Kathy.

But organised tours such as these take you only so far. Hidden around the corner, along narrow alleys are little gems. Just off busy Vitosha Boulevard, a wide thoroughfare of touristy shops, restaurants and bars, is Angel Kanchev Street. Here lies Zona Urbana, where everything sold is made of recycled material – old newspapers, discarded vinyl records, used concert tickets, cartons as well as old letters and envelopes.

These are converted into bags, purses, card holders, pencil cases and many other useful items at the Zona Urbana’s two outlets; the other one is on a stretch of Vitosha Boulevard that has been converted into a pedestrian walk and thus more visible to visitors.

Vanessa Petkova mans the outlet at Vitosha Boulevard; she also makes many of the items sold in the store. At Zona Urbana nothing goes to waste. To ensure that these mostly paper materials are durable enough to last at least a year or two, they are treated with vinyl. Old measuring tapes are used as slings for handbags. There are even bags made of old concert tickets. We also found a pair of earrings with a cili padi for a dangle. It seems to be a hot item given that there is only a pair left.

According to Petkova, the concept of selling fashionable items made of recycled material came from Barcelona. The person who founded the company is a Spaniard.

Stop at Supa Star on Tsar Shishman Street for a bowl of hot chicken soup, another Bulgarian favourite. Long queues form at the counter in this self-service outlet. The chicken soup, served with a roll, is rich and creamy. Among other items on the menu are tripe soup, vegetable soup and, for a touch of the East, an Oriental soup.

There is no better way to top off a trip than to check out the nightlife of the city, and Sofia has its fair share of nightspots. There are a few pubs hidden away off the main streets, usually on small alleys off equally narrow streets of cobblestone. Prices are about the same as most pubs in Malaysia, and that is reason enough to clink glasses.

The action usually starts later in the night, but Bulgarians are known to party until the sun comes up. Not a problem considering that a typical day does not start till 11am. 

Inside The Reading Room


A few things to take note of if you’re planning a holiday in Bulgaria

* Most signs, including road signs, do not have English translations so it can be a challenge getting about town. Bulgarians use the Cyrillic script, which contains a few letters that look like the Romanised alphabet, but be warned – what you see is not always what you get. While the Cyrillic “T” is the equivalent of the Romanised “t”, the Cyrillic “X” is actually “h”, the “H” is “n”, and “3” is actually “z” in the Romanised form. But if you stop someone to ask for directions, he or she is likely to be able to communicate in English and point you in the right direction. Otherwise, there is always Google Map.

* Public transport is fairly efficient. You can use the bus, tram or metro. Fares are fixed at BGN1.60 per trip (BGN1 or one Bulgarian Lev is equivalent to RM2.50).

* You can cross the road safely even without looking left or right. Motor vehicles almost always stop for pedestrians. Of course it is always advisable to pay attention to your surroundings.

* It is almost impossible to find the Bulgarian currency at money changers in the Klang Valley. Money changers in Sofia also do not accept the ringgit so it is best to take along some euros, sterling or US dollar.

* Last but not least, reading facial gestures can be perplexing. Bulgarians nod to say “no” and shake the head to indicate “yes”!

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 267.