Thursday, December 16, 2010

Exploring Bulgaria's Cultural Richness

Bulgaria has been a member of the European Union since 2007, but it wasn't until this week that Eurail added it to its network of travel destinations. The 2011 Global Eurail Pass will allow travelers to access the Eastern European country through the Bulgarian State Railways. Representatives of the Eurail Group are eager to expand their reach and tap into the tourism sector that has been consistently growing over the last decade. Visitors can now explore the ever increasing allure of Eastern Europe through Bulgaria's train system, taking in the vast culture and sprawling landscape of the "Country of Roses."

With a history that dates back all the way to the first antiquity--that's the 1st millenium BC, to put it in perspective--the Bulgarians have had a major role in cultural development, philosophy, agriculture, language and social structure. After spending years under foreign rule, including Alexander the Great and the Romans, Bulgaria established its first empire. It grew significantly as a military power, introduced the first code of law, created the Cyrillic Alphabet and grew into a strong Christian country. The empire slowed due to numerous wars, eventually falling and being conquered by the Byzantine Empire in 1018. It was not until 1185 that Bulgaria had an uprising and succeeded in reestablishing their empire. The Ottomans would eventually seize power over the Bulgarians, and the population suffered from oppression and misgovernment under the Turks. As a result, their culture became separated from the rest of Europe. Throughout five centuries of Ottoman rule, the Bulgarians attempted many revolts, and were finally successful with the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. Bulgaria was proclaimed an independent state in 1908. After that, Bulgaria began to takes steps to reconnect with Western Europe. Communism was still the main form of government up until the late nineties, early two-thousands, but now Bulgaria is seen as "free."

With the fall of communism and an increased desire to promote tourism, Bulgaria has slowly become a must-see destination in Eastern Europe. And with just one glance at the country's landscape, it's understandable why. The geographic diversity of Bulgaria allows tourists to see snow-capped peaks, beautiful beaches and sprawling plains all in one country. Not only is the natural environment appealing, but the ancient buildings, intricate architecture and traditional sites have drawn millions to Bulgaria's borders. The Thracian, Slavic and Bulgar influences can be seen through collected artifacts, and some of the most iconic pieces include the Thracian treasures, intricately crafted objects that were buried both to hide them during controversial times and for ceremonial purposes. The more famous excavations of these ornate gold and silver items are the Panagyurishte gold treasure (on display at the National Museum of History in Sofia),the Rogozan treasure (known as the find of the century with over 165 pieces discovered) and the Valchitran gold treasure (shown at the National Archeological Museum in Sofia).

Visitors to Bulgaria are fascinated by the county's ancient ancestors, so it's understandable that the many immaculate tombs on display are some of the most popular attractions. Kazanluk, referred to as the valley of the roses, became extremely popular when new tombs were discovered there in the nineties. The Sveshtari Tomb, arguably one of the finest tombs discovered in Bulgaria, dates back to the 3rd century BC and appears to be the resting place of a Thracian ruler. Thracian Tomb tours are available through BG Travel, and consist of a 5-day package of all the best tombs in the country.

Bulgaria ranks third--behind Greece and Italy--in number of archeological and historical monuments. Apart from the tombs, Bulgaria is full of crumbling fortress walls and forums, temples, amphitheaters, stadiums and monuments. Among these locations is Tsarevets, a medieval stronghold in northern Bulgaria that served as the primary fortress during the second empire. Another noteworthy site is Ledenika, a cave in the Balkan Mountains. The cave contains 10 separate halls, the largest being the concert hall accessible only through the Passage of Sinners, designated only for those whose heart is pure. If you dip your hand into the ice-cold water of the small pool in the cave, known as the Lake of Wishes, and make a wish, that wish is sure to come true. In an effort to promote tourism to these sites and many others, the country created a booklet called "100 Tourist Sites of Bulgaria." It can be purchased at any tourist union center and costs 1 lev (or 0.67 cents).

Bulgarian cuisine is extremely diverse thanks to the warm climate and rich soil. Every meal is served with a salad, which, more often than not, is made with a Bulgarian White Brine Cheese called Sirene. Most dishes are oven baked, steamed or stewed--fried is not an option--and any kind of meat is grilled. Pork dominates Bulgarian food, but many other meat varieties can be found in popular dishes, like Gyuvetch (a beef and vegetable stew). The Bulgarians are known to create quality dairy products, including yogurt, which is said to have originated in Bulgaria. Tourists should not miss out on a traditional pastry called Banitsa, made by layering whisked eggs, sirene cheese and filo pastry and then baking it. As far as drinks go, natives usually turn to Bulgarian Wine to accompany their meals--such as Mavrud, Muscat and Gamza--but Rakia, a fruity liquor, and Mastika are popular options, too.

With all that Bulgaria has to offer, it's difficult to know where to start. I recommend beginning your journey with a few days spent in the capital city of Sofia. Located in western Bulgaria, at the foot of Vitosha Mountain, Sofia sits quaintly in a large valley, surrounded by mountains. Among the city's attractions are the National Historic Museum, The Museum of Earth and Men, the Sofia City Art Gallery, the Sofia Zoological Garden, Boyana Church, and much more. You can relax in one of the public mineral baths or catch a soccer game at Vasil Levski National Stadium. There is plenty to keep you occupied during the day, and even more to do at night. Sofia has an exciting nightlife with plenty pf clubs, pubs, restaurants and mehani--traditional Bulgarian taverns. With Sofia's well-developed bus, tram and trolleycar transportation system, it's easy to get from place to place. The underground still needs work, so it's best to rely on walking or other means of transport. After experiencing Bulgaria's capitol, feel free to venture wherever you want. No matter if you head up into the mountains to ski or out to the beaches to lay in the sun, Bulgaria provides you with a truly great getaway.

So when you're planning your next big trip abroad, and Europe seems like a top contender on your destination list, think about taking advantage of Eurail's passes and taking a relaxing train ride to Bulgaria. You certainly won't be disappointed with this cultural gem.

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