All that green space is best enjoyed with friends and family. While Sofia locals may groan about the intrusion of McDonald's and Starbucks, in most of the country you see Bulgarian culture displayed with pride. Half the TVs turned on in bars and restaurants in the villages seem to be tuned to a Balkan music video channel. The videos are usually simple affairs: rolling shots of traditional musicians and singers performing in front of a historic building or village home. With their irregular time signatures and sometimes unrecognizable instruments, the music sounds like nothing you'd hear on the radio at home.
"Granny choirs" dress up in their finest woven colors and compete against neighboring villages in song and dance. Here when I visit the Etara Ethnograhic Village, an open-air museum by the Bulgarka Nature Park, there's nothing to sneer at: it's all genuine. After seeing the wood turner at work with a waterfall-powered lathe and checking out the traditional village homes, we sit down to what is the best tourist attraction lunch I can remember having. Food is too important here to dumb it down just because it's a tourist spot—or to overcharge you for it.
Full and Happy
There's nothing wimpy about Bulgarian cuisine. Portions are so huge that most salads could easily serve two or three. Every time I order a glass of house wine, it's filled to the brim. A shot of rakia must be lifted carefully in order to avoid spilling any. If something on the menu says it's for two to share, assume those two will be bringing leftovers home unless they're really starving.
This is not filler food piled high and cheap, however. Plates are loaded up with fresh vegetables that are in season, all picked when they were ripe. The meat is from free range animals because they can't imagine eating it if done another way. Of course the beef is grass-fed and of course the bacon is really smoked in a smoke-house, not flavored by some nasty chemicals. I'm not buying the premise that dairy is bad for you after seeing the muscle-bound men and curvy women of Bulgaria: every salad is covered with shredded cheese, usually with chunks of cheese in it as well, and a meal without yogurt is like, well, breakfast without cheese. They don't do this just to fill up; they do it because it's locally made and yummy.
When I have a super-flavorful, hearty dinner at Deshka's Guesthouse in the small village of Gorno Draglishte, the feast is a bounty of goodness from distances measured in walking distance, not highway markers. We have fresh potatoes with cream cheese and local herbs; a giant loaf of bread with more herbs and garlic, cooked in a brick oven; a ragout with tomatoes, peas, and peppers; a baked mince meat dish with onions.
Deshka doesn't speak any English, but she tells me through a guide that she's never cooked with anything from a can, never owned a freezer, never served meat from a supermarket, and never put out yogurt that she didn't make herself from scratch. I feel like even if she hadn't told me that, I could tell by the taste that none of it traveled far, including the jugs of wine and rakia our party of six plowed through during music and dancing. Her mother and aunt, who compete in those village granny choir competitions, stopped by to liven up the evening.
I have my best dessert in three weeks of travel at another little guesthouse I never would have ended up in without the guidance of Odysseia-In. For one thing the Kosovo Houses lodge is in a mountain village with a permanent population of 12. (Nevertheless, there's a village pub and the lodge has Wi-Fi.)
Don't Try This at Home
By the end of my week in Bulgaria, I'm entertaining fantasies about growing organic vegetables on a small garden plot. I'll string up a grape vine trellis and have dinners underneath its shade with hearty plates of white cheese and seasoned potatoes. I'll make some manly red wine to store in a cellar for the winter and maybe distill some peaches or plums in a workshop to create some firewater to share with friends.
Then I come to my senses and remember that I live in a tropical climate with sandy soil, so close to sea level that nobody in the whole city has a cellar. If the past is any guide, I'll probably be out of the country come harvest time. Green Acres isn't the life for me.
Thankfully, there are still places in the world where people can live this life and gladly do. Villages where "farm to table" is just another way of saying, "the way we always eat." Where all food is "slow food." Where jam comes without a label on the jar and you can go on the roof and point to where your cheese came from.
There are other places in the world like this, sure, but most haven't managed to keep it up even after the Russians did their worst. Plus none of them come with a side dish of rakia-drinking Bulgarian grannies.
If You Go:
Bulgaria has a unique language and uses the Cyrillic alphabet, so this is a place where the guidance of a tour company can open up a lot more possibilities and mobility. Odysseia-In is the leading adventure tour company in the country and can do scheduled or custom trips. See their hiking Bulgaria website for details and (very reasonable) prices. For more on forest preservation work in Bulgaria, and the businesses that support it, see the PAN Parks Europe site.
Award-winning writer Tim Leffel (Tum Λeфeλ in Bulgarian) is the editor of Perceptive Travel and author of four books including The World's Cheapest Destinations. See his regular rants on the Cheapest Destinations Blog.
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