Wednesday, 22 July 2015

What's On The Menu

This week we had a very nice parcel turn up in the post, sent to us by a wonderful Bulgarian lady. In it there was the mix for 'proper' doughnuts, and a jar of Marmite. The doughnut mix I knew about, but the Marmite was a very pleasant surprise, and it was sent because it isn't the easiest thing to find here in Bulgaria. To say that I had a big daft grin would have been an understatement. So once again thank you very much Mariana. It did start me thinking though, every so often we still get asked about things we miss, even after nearly 7 years. Most times it also involves food, but the good news is that your palate adapts, or you change things to suit your own tastes. When I have tried to explain this, invariably it leads to the question , "What do you eat then?" Apparently the answer, "The same as Bulgarians eat", is insufficient, as the next question is, "What do Bulgarians eat?".

For those who have never visited Bulgaria before, the cuisine on offer is wide and varied. I guess this is only to be expected, as there have been many different influences over the years, and dishes do have regional variations. For the unwary things can either be a treat or a torture. I am still wary about a roast sheep's head, complete with eyes and teeth, staring at me. It might be considered a delicacy, but for some reason my stomach rebels. I am a firm believer in trying things to see if I actually like them, and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised, but there are times when even I have to admit defeat. Yes, me, the person who has been referred to as a two legged dustbin at times. So where to start? At lot depends on, if you are eating on the go, at a restaurant, or maybe you have been lucky enough to be invited to a share a meal with Bulgarians in their home. My aim is to let you know about some of the things you might experience.

Everyone seems to know about beer and wines, and there are plenty to choose from. So let's look at some of the other things you might be tempted by. Bulgarian children seem to have been raised drinking something called Boza, even though it has a slight alcohol content. Quite often this will be drunk as an accompaniment to a Banitsa. These are a Bulgarian pastry, often filled with the famous Bulgarian white cheese (Sirene). To my mind the Banitsa is great on its own, and are available from bakeries all over the country, even better if they are homemade. The Boza is another matter, it smells and tastes slightly sour, and made me think of something that had been strained through a Tramp's old sock. It is made from wheat and heaven only knows what else. A safer bet is Ayran, which is a mixture of proper Bulgarian yoghurt and water. Don't dismiss Boza out of hand though, you might find that you enjoy it.

As a light snack you might try the meze. This is normally a selection of cold dried meats (Sudyuk, Lyukanka and Pasturma), and sometimes cheeses too. Chances are if you are with a Bulgarian, you might be offered the chance to try the National drink, Rakia. If you are in the villages it is probably homemade, and everyone is proud of their own particular brew. The homemade Rakia, can either be better than the shop bought versions, or a cross between Domestos and rocket fuel. Do not try matching your Bulgarian friend drink for drink, or you will lose a couple of days and eventually regret what seemed like a good idea at the time. Take your time with it, and enjoy the meze.

No trip to Bulgaria would be complete without trying at least one Shopska salad. I freely admit that I am not the world's greatest salad lover, but this is different. The salad vegetables are normally locally grown and packed full of taste. Not like the mass produced watery stuff, that I was familiar with in the UK. Take a look at your Shopska salad, and then look at the Bulgarian flag, Food doesn't come much more patriotic. Don't just limit yourself to just the one type of salad, try a Shepherd's salad, or a Potato Salad or even the Snezhanka salad. There are so many to choose from, and I haven't been disappointed by any of them, and if there is such a thing I used to be a saladophobe.

If you are out and about and just fancy a quick bite to eat, then just follow your nose. It will lead you to either a skara stand or a kebab stall, quite often both. From the skara stall you can get kebapche and kyufte (sausages and meatballs are the easiest way to describe them). Quite often they seem to have been a bit heavy handed with the Cumin as it can be a bit overpowering). I am quite partial to a donner kebab, and it is nothing like the Friday night specials in the UK. These are basically a meal on their own, meat, chips, salad, garlic dressing, and chilli sauce in a flatbread wrap. Or there is always the ever popular pizza, but they are always much better in a pizzeria.

In a restaurant you might fancy starting your meal with a soup. At the moment it is quite hot during the day, and many claim that a Tarator soup is quite refreshing. It is a yoghurt based soup, made with cucumbers, garlic and dill, and is served cold. To my way of thinking soups should be served hot, and a bean soup (Bop Chorba) is good in the autumn. A couple of soups I do avoid. One is a much vaunted hangover cure, this is called Skembe Chorba. It is tripe soup, and you flavour it yourself with lots of vinegar, salt, pepper and oil. Possibly not for the faint hearted, and as a hangover cure it possibly falls into the realms of kill or cure. Another I tend to avoid is Lamb soup (Agnesko Chorba), which might sound odd, but it normally has unidentified bits lurking within.

Once the weather starts to cool down the heavier meals begin to appear. One of my favourites is something called a Kavarma, each region seems to have its own special recipe, but often it is a hearty meat and vegetable stew, which has been marinaded and slowly cooked before being served in an earthenware pot, sometimes with an egg on top. Something similar is a Gyuvech, often a vegetable stew, but can sometimes also contain meat, so it might be a good idea for any vegetarians to check first before ordering.

Something that I used to dislike is Moussaka, but I hadn't had the Bulgarian version before. This seems so much better than the Greek version, where I seem to be forever fishing out bits of Aubergine. Our neighbour often seems to cook this, and brings some over for us, which is really very nice of her. We have also been treated to fresh home made banitsas, and something called Mekitsi. These are doughnut type balls dusted with sugar, then served with jam, honey or chocolate spread. When they are ready stuffed peppers are also popular, as are something called Sarmi, stuffed cabbage leaves. When you get cabbages as big as basketballs, the leaves hold a surprising amount.

Desserts don't seem to be a big thing here, and in a restaurant your choices might often be ice cream, or palachinki. Go for the palachinki at least once. They are mid way between a pancake and a crepe, and wonderful with jam. Having said that I often don't have any room for a dessert after having eaten my fill beforehand. I think that I can safely say that I enjoy the food here, with maybe just a couple of exceptions. Hopefully you will too, if you venture to this part of the world. Try things, there are many more things to tempt you than I have mentioned, and you might be as pleasantly surprised as I have been.

Some cooking styles which you might see on a menu, decoded for you,

Baked - Изпечен
Boiled - Сварен
Braised - Задушен  or   Запечен
Fried - Пържен     or    Зьпържен на Тиган
Grilled - на Скара   or   на Грил
Roasted - Пекан      or   Запечен
Simmered - сварен  or   на слаб огън
Smoked - пушен
Sour - кисел
Spicy - лют
Steamed - Задушен  or   на пара
Stuffed - Пълнен
Sweet - Сладък
Toasted - Препечен

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Why Do I Love Bulgaria?

Hopefully, for anyone reading these blogs, it should be apparent that I am very pro-Bulgaria. We have lived here quite happily for almost seven years now, and I am quite happy to admit that I feel more at home here than I ever did in the UK. Of course there are things that I miss, such as friends and family, but for the most part somewhere or other things from back home can be found.  Some people might wonder what makes Bulgaria so special, which is slightly more difficult to explain, but I shall try. Each morning it is a pleasure waking up, and wondering what new delights and memories the day will bring.

Up until we came over here, neither my wife nor I had ever been to Bulgaria before. I could find it in an atlas, and I could recognise the word България written on stamps but that was about it. So just what has made Bulgaria so special for me? It is a combination of so many things, and there seems to be a bit of everything for people from all walks of life to enjoy. I guess that it is safe to say that this is a diverse country, and rich in so many ways (although maybe not financially). It is an old country, steeped in history, blessed by beauty, and where traditions and crafts are still observed.

Yet there are fewer than 7 million people living here. The majority live in the cities, which means that there are vast areas left to the natural countryside. There are rivers, both small and large, lakes, natural springs and pools, forested areas, and fields of crops. There are towns and villages nestled in between them all, where the air is clean, and the tranquillity is undisturbed by the sounds of modern living. It seems that slowly the flow is reversing, and people are repopulating the villages, rather than leaving them for the towns and cities. Despite the potholes in the roads, more people are finding that village life suits them, and they can actually commute into the towns for work.

Somebody, somewhere, said that a country's biggest asset is its own people. If that is true then Bulgaria is very fortunate. The Bulgarians we have been fortunate enough to meet have been so friendly, welcoming and helpful. Perhaps because the pace of life is slower here, people have the time to stop and talk. There is still a sense of community, and everyone seems to help each other, no matter what their age. Family life is still valued, but strangers (even us foreigners) are still made welcome. Just last night one of our neighbours brought over two slices of cake for us. The cake itself was lovely, but even better was the big smile on her face as she handed it over.

I will admit that at times I do struggle with the language, but it no longer sounds like Martian when I listen to it. Because we make the effort, it seems to be appreciated. Sometimes though, they might feel that our comprehension is much better than it actually is, so we have to get them to slow things down for us. The occasions where we have to resort to pantomimes, charades and gestures seem to be getting fewer and fewer. Although sometimes I'm sure they make me do them just to brighten up the day. I did try learning from books and CDs, but much of that was met by looks of bafflement, as like everywhere, each region seems to have its own accent and idioms. The best way to learn is by listening to your neighbours, and if they see that you are willing to learn they are only too willing to help. Soon your neighbours become friends, and you are then involved with their daily lives, and by extension their families too.

The food here is so much healthier for us too. Much of it is home grown, and actually tastes like food, unlike the mass produced stuff in the UK supermarkets. Those who actually know me, will remember that I do enjoy my food. It has previously been said that I can actually eat my own body weight in pizza, and yes I do have a sweet tooth. In the UK I wasn't what could be described as a salad eater, I could never really see the point of limp lettuce and watery tomatoes, but here I have been known to eat a salad on my own without pushing it round a plate hoping that it would magically disappear. There is something satisfying about eating something which you, or one of your neighbours, has grown, not to mention the added bonus of it actually tasting how it is meant to be. I still don't eat fish, but I will have a go at tucking in to most things, and in the 7 years I think that I have only had to admit defeat with 2 things.

The national drink of Bulgaria is something called Rakia, and many villagers make their own, but it is not for the faint hearted. It is often said that it can be used as a general cure all, disinfectant or even as a cleaning fluid. Bulgarian wines are also attracting more International recognition. A thirsty traveller shouldn't ignore the choice of Bulgarian beers. It is not uncommon to see people drinking beer mid morning during the Summer, but their day had probably started so much earlier than mine as they will have been working in the fields. One drink which I have never found the taste for is something called Boza, but children seem to like it. I think that I will stick to coffees at one of the numerous cafes. These are ideal places to relax, catch up on the news or just watch the world go by.

As I previously mentioned, there seems to be something for everyone here. To the West, and running through the width of the country there are mountains, and foothills. To the East there is the coast and the Black Sea. The Northern border is made by the River Danube, and to the South more mountains separating Bulgaria from Greece and Turkey. Everywhere you look you can see an ever changing scenery, native wildlife, insects, birds and plants abound. The seasons are all distinct from each other, the lush greens of Spring after the chill of the Winter months. The heat of the Summer giving way to the welcome russet tones of Autumn. Small wonder that my wife likes painting this wonderful country.

For such an old country, there is always plenty of history to immerse yourself in. With the new road systems which are being constructed, hardly a week goes by where they haven't unearthed a previously unknown necropolis, or some other wonder. Just consider that every step you take an ancient Thracian, Roman or Ottoman could have once walked before. Unfortunately this does mean that grave robbers might have been about, and that various treasures may have been smuggled out of the country. New discoveries are being made all of the time, and the earliest known cache of Thracian gold artifacts was found here in Bulgaria. The Bulgarians have every right to feel proud of their country's history. It might not always have been an easy life for those living in what is now Bulgaria, but the history has helped to make them into the people who they are today.

As a foreigner living in Bulgaria, I have to admit that my pension does go a lot further. At the moment the problems in Greece are also to my advantage. The cost of living is so much cheaper than in the UK, and perhaps this enables me to do things which an average Bulgarian can't. I try to employ locals for any work which we might need doing, and I do use the village shop and Pensioner's Club. It might not sound a lot, but every little helps the village economy. Some have tried to take advantage, but you soon get to realise who these people are. Having said that you do find such people wherever you go in the world, and your friendly neighbours will be only to happy to advise you on who to avoid.

There are also various oddities to be found in Bulgaria, such as various 'Vampire' graves which have recently been unearthed. Or there is the monument to the Bulgarian Communist Party at Buzludzha. Near to Ardino, you can find the Devil's Bridge (Дяволски мост) as it spans the River Arda. Folklore and tales can be found in all regions throughout Bulgaria, some being easier to find than others, but all well worth searching for. Sometimes it does make me wonder just how so many wonders are crammed into just one country. From the natural to the man made, there is always something to see or do here in this wonderful country. Whether it be skiing in the Winter, hiking in the Summer sunshine or just enjoying time spent with friends you can only have a quiet day in Bulgaria if you actually want one.

Hopefully this has given you a small insight why I consider myself privileged to live here. There are some things which irritate, but the pros far outweigh the cons. So if you have never been to Bulgaria before, why not give it a try? Avoid the out and out tourist destinations, meet the real Bulgarians, discover the history, enjoy the beauty, sample the local food and drink, and you will not be disappointed.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

A Hidden Sanctuary

Well here we are on the day of the Summer Solstice,the longest day of the year. It is also widely regarded as the first day of Summer. For many of us fortunate enough to live here in Bulgaria, it can also see the steady flow of friends and family coming over for visits.If these friends and family have previously visited, you might want to share something slightly more unusual with them. Maybe something slightly magical, maybe even something slightly mystical? After all, holidays are a wonderful time to gather and store lasting memories.

Perhaps something like the mystical wonder of Stonehenge? I consider myself lucky enough to be of an age when Stonehenge wasn't ringed by fences. You used to be able to wander between the stones themselves, and I distantly remember that there used to be a photograph of me, with my Grandparents,and I was sat on the altar stone. Nowadays it is a much more popular destination, so to preserve it for future generations the fencing was installed. Unfortunately that means that apart from special occasions you can't get up close to the stones,and so people miss out on sensing the mystical aura surrounding these stones. Wouldn't it be ideal if there was something similar which could be enjoyed in the Bulgarian sunshine, rather than the dampness of Salisbury Plains?

If you find yourself on the Black Sea coast near to Burgas, I might have a solution for you.It is a place known as Beglik Tash,and lies between Burgas and Primorsko (15 minutes drive), on the Maslen Cape. It was only rediscovered in 2003, when trees were being cleared in the area, as more trees were cleared the size and importance of the site gradually became clearer. Now as an open air museum, it is maintained by the Burgas Regional Museum and the Burgas Historical Society.

There are sign posts directing you to a small dirt car park, but from there you have a walk through the trees to reach the site. So sensible footwear is recommended. It is situated on a wide meadow, within the woods. As there is a boggy area fairly close by, the various biting insects are normally out in force, so insect repellent is advisable unless you fancy being on the menu for an extended family of mosquitoes, gnats, midges and deer flies. Watch where you put your feet and hands, as it is not unusual to see various reptiles basking.

The rocks and boulders are volcanic in origin, and are formed from hardened magma. The volcano erupted about the same time that Dinosaurs roamed the Earth, in what is called the Mesozoic Era, so it has been extinct for a good few years. Even though the elements have rounded and softened the rocks, the larger megaliths still have traces of the original carvings. Beglik Tash is widely regarded as the oldest Thracian megalithic sanctuary found in South Eastern Bulgaria. With more than a third of Bulgaria still covered by forests there is no telling what other mysteries remain to be discovered.

It is thought that it was used for about 1000 years, from the 14th Century BC, until the 4th Century AD. The area was settled by a Thracian tribe called the Skirmiani. Various finds have indicated that this site was used by the Thracians in the worship of the Mother Goddess, or fertility. The site was used both ritualistically and sacrificially. The total area is spread over about 6 hectares, with the main sanctuary comprising the large central area, with two smaller areas off of this. The large stones were worked on site, and positioned by hand. On some of the flatter rocks you will see water channels, circular holes and even large footprints.

The remains of a labyrinth can also be seen, such as the slit pictured opposite. Some locals claim that the site has mystical powers, which are to do with the temple dedicated to Orpheus.It was said that the music and singing of Orpheus could charm the birds, fish and wild beasts, and also coax the trees and rocks to dance. Perhaps this might explain some of the positions you will see the rocks in.

Some of the highlights you will see include 'The Throne', from where the Thracian high priest would conduct the various ceremonies. Then there is 'The Marital Bed', a large central stone surrounded rocks, with various carved pits which were possibly used during rituals, so maybe it was even the sacrificial altar. There is a 'Sacred Cave' formed by rocks, and symbolises the womb of Mother Earth. Another highlight popular with tourists, is the sun clock. There is normally a guide available, or you can choose to do your own thing. Either way you can soak up the mystical energies from this amazing place. Unlike Stonehenge you can still wander through, over and under the stones. Hopefully this has piqued your curiosity, and you will take the time to search out this place, as it is slightly off of the beaten track.


Saturday, 13 June 2015

There and Back Again Again

Once upon a time I used to drive backwards and forwards to Sofia airport. That was until someone suggested getting one of the regular buses, which can save a lot of potential hassle. Even something as simple as that can cause logistical problems when you have a temperamental car. The first thing was to sort out the bus tickets, so that meant a trip over the hill into VT. Now as luck would have it my better half was booked into the hairdressers, so rather than me hanging around I thought that would be an ideal time to kill two birds with one stone. So I went off in search of a taxi driver. As luck would have it he spoke a little English too. So not only was I able to get the required bus tickets, but I was also able to arrange an early morning pick up. I know that I could have booked the tickets online, but I prefer to actually have them in my grubby little hands. Parking in VT isn't ideal at the best of times, so we thought a better solution would be to park in Gorna, and then get the taxi over the hill again. A couple of days before the trip I phoned the taxi driver just to confirm the arrangements, so if you ever get to read this many thanks Paco.

Come the day of the races, or the airport trip, it was an early start. It was so early that even the alarm clocks for the crickets and frogs hadn't woken them up yet. The dogs and cats weren't very impressed at their early wake up calls either, but an early breakfast and they forgot all about it. So with the menagerie sorted out, we had time for a last minute check of things, and that all important coffee. Those that live out here will be aware of the bit of weather that we have been having recently, thunderstorms and a bit of wind. Out here in the back of beyond that often means we get fog early in the morning, so we thought that it might be prudent to leave slightly earlier than planned.

It turned out to be quite a wise move, as not only did we have fog, but the wind had also brought branches down in the road. The car did behave itself though, until I had almost reached my planned parking area. Only then did she throw a wobbly and decide to have a tantrum. I have no idea what is wrong with it, the mechanic has had the diagnostic thingie on it and he is none the wiser. Filters have been changed, the tank has been emptied and cleaned, the fuel pump has been changed, various sensors also changed. If we let her cool down she is fine so it is something temperature related. The most important thing was that we got to where we wanted to be. Paco picked us up just as the dawn was breaking, and took us to the bus stop. The little cafe was just opening, which was fortunate as they also have loos there. Always an important consideration, even if they could have benefited from an air freshener or three. Another coffee was in order to try and dispel memories of the aromatic facilities. The old lady behind the counter was a lovely person, and seemed a little surprised that two half asleep Brits could mumble almost coherently in Bulgarian with her. She even wanted all of my change.

Even while we were stood outside drinking our coffees, waiting for the bus, we were chatting with a young Bulgarian woman in a mixture of languages. It turned out that she had been working as a Nanny not that far from where I grew up. Not only is it a small world, but it seems to be shrinking. Unlike last time, this didn't seem to be the quiet bus, which was lucky for the driver as he spent the whole trip nattering with his mate. The sun was rising in the sky, and the day was warming up, and the fog was turning to mist before disappearing totally. Meanwhile the temperature in the bus was getting warmer and warmer. How nice of him to have the heating on so that we all arrived in Sofia part cooked, but he did get us there slightly early. The usual taxi hawkers were there inside the bus station, and we had a choice, we could either attempt the Metro system or get a taxi to the airport.

The taxi was the better idea as we didn't know how long the journey would take on the Metro, and looking at the traffic it seemed to be rush hour. The taxi driver we had must have been a retired racing driver, as every space between cars ahead was a challenge. Or perhaps he used to work on the dodgem cars at an old fair ground. Eventually we arrived at the correct terminal, if I hadn't pointed out he was lining up to take us to the wrong one, we could have been treated to the grand tour. With my good lady wife safely checked in and through passport control and customs, I now had the journey back to look forward to.

Earlier this year I wrote a blog about using the Metro as an alternative option for getting to and from the airport, and now was my chance to try out my own information. The first thing that I had to do was find the shuttle bus, did it leave from the arrivals or departure area? I eventually noticed it, as it was leaving from the departure terminal bit. It had been cunningly concealed behind some form of press interview/scrum which was taking place. There now seems to be extra bollards all over the place, preventing a lot of vehicular access, so where the marked bay should be it might not be able to get to it now. Not to be outdone I thought that I would once again take my life in my hands and get a taxi round to terminal 2. If you get one of the OK Supertrans taxis from outside the terminal they will charge you a flat rate of 10 Leva to go between terminals. I didn't mind as I was on a mission, and it also gave me a chance to try something new. The good thing was that I wasn't tied by time, so I could have waited for the next shuttle bus. However terminal 2 held the promise of coffee and loos, probably in that order of priority, so a taxi it was. At least this taxi driver didn't think that he was Ayrton Senna reincarnated, as the trip between terminals was rather sedate compared to the earlier journey.

The first thing that struck me was how clean the Metro station looked. The second thing was the drunk man slumped against the wall being spoken to by the Police, perhaps the world's underground stations are a natural habitat for them. The lady in the kiosk was pleasant and helpful when I got my ticket. So ticket in hand I went round the corner to get onto the platform. There are automatic barriers which you have to use your ticket to pass through, so once I fed the right end in the gates opened and i was on the platform. Everything was clearly laid out, with an information board indicating I only had to wait 4 minutes for the next train. It was on time, clean and only suffering from a couple of bits of internal graffiti, which made a pleasant change from London's underground. At the moment there are only the 2 underground lines M1 and M2, with plans for a 3rd in the near future.

Even on the train you get plenty of information about which station you are arriving at, and which station will be next. They even tell you if you need to change trains. All done in both Bulgarian and English, which is very helpful when you have been awake since daft o'clock. At Serdika station I had to change to get onto the M2 line. That wasn't that clear until I noticed people scuttling away to the side of the stairs, and then I noticed a sign saying M2. Down a few stairs to the main concourse above the platforms. There are lifts there for anyone with heavy suitcases or slight mobility problems. On the concourse you are faced with a choice of platforms, one says to Lozenets and the other to Obelya. I could see a map down at the platform level so I headed for the busiest platform which was the Lozenets one. I was still trying to decipher the map when the train arrived. So following the masses I got on it, and you've guessed it, it was the wrong direction. So I got off at the next station, the Palace of Culture (NDK), and got on the next train going in the right direction. Three stops later and I was at the Central Railway Station. Then it was just a case of following the exit signs, they even point you towards the Central Bus Station too.

Into the bus station to buy a ticket back to VT and then outside to wait for the next bus, to take me on the next leg of my round trip. The bus journey itself was fairly uneventful, apart from the fact that I was getting pretty knackered by then. I think I must have been suffering from nodding dog syndrome, or my neck had suddenly been made from elastic. I couldn't even focus on my book. I did try to sleep, but I'm sure that every time I was just about to nod off the driver went through a ploughed field, or the wheels resembled the old threepenny bits (which some of us are old enough to remember).

Back into VT and I was in dire need of another coffee. I even used the facilities again which would be enough to wake a narcoleptic from their slumbers. Fortunately I remembered to hold my breath. Another taxi back over the hill to the car, which was conveniently parked in the shade, so everything had cooled down and stayed cool. A little bit of shopping and it was time for the final leg of the journey, and home. The only problem being that the roads had heated up during the day, and the air was very humid as though another thunderstorm was approaching. I stopped halfway home to let the engine cool, but when the clouds began to gather and darken I decided to push on. As sure as eggs are eggs, with the first rumble of thunder the car threw another wobbly. So there was nothing to do apart from wait until things had cooled down enough to actually get me home. As luck would have it I was home, and had packed the shopping away, and sorted the animals out before the heavens opened once more. One day we will actually discover what is causing this problem with the car, but it only happens during the summer. Thank heavens for buses, taxis, and the Metro.