PHOTOGRAPHS & WORDS: JEREMIAH CHRISTANAND RAO
Road tripping though Bulgaria in a minivan cramped with journalists, I put on my headphones and let my mind wander as I soak in the landscape, always changing, yet always scenic. Leaving the capital Sofia behind, we climb past rolling hills and bucolic countryside, higher and deeper into the Rhodope Mountains, a burst of fiery autumn colours. Toward the top, the towering Asen’s Fortress hanging over the cliffs is breathtaking – the first of many such moments as we make our way from tombs to fortresses and monasteries; living testaments to this country’s rich history, all transporting us to eras bygone.
Vastly different from any European country I’ve been to, Bulgaria is far removed from the bustling, grid-like streets of London or even the pristine sheep-dotted hillsides of Switzerland. A post-Communist footprint still lies like a shadow across most of the country. The town of Veliko Tarnovo is a vivid memory. In the mammoth, Communist-styled Interhotel Veliko Tarnovo, our rooms, sited down long, vacant, dull-carpeted corridors lit using age-old motion sensors, had balconies jutting out like diving boards over an Olympic swimming pool. Getting to bed after dinner was often a game of hide-and-seek. While a lot of the country’s architecture and the older generation (given to growling at you in suspicion) clearly have a Soviet hangover, the rustic charm of the countryside and the idyllic small towns never fails to impress. Strolling through the cobblestoned, winding alleys of Nessebar, fringed by shops brimming with souvenirs and rose oil (the national pride), we can’t help but linger over lunch at a café at the edge of the Black Sea.
Bulgaria may not be a first-world country, but, steeped in history and culture, it is unforgettable: a country of atmospheric Roman ruins, quaint cafés, century-old mosques, sunshine-flecked beaches, beautiful gold-domed churches and far-flung monasteries with murals that stay forever burned in your mind’s eye.
Jeremiah Christanand Rao spent two weeks in Bulgaria.