bulgar isn't vulgar in
JOHN M. EDWARDS
John M. Edwards middlenamed his daughter after his favourite
travel writer, Bruce Chatwin. His work has appeared in Amazon.com,
CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand Tour, Michigan
Quarterly Review, Escape, Global Travel Review, Condé
Nast Traveler, International Living, Emerging Markets
and Entertainment Weekly.
has by far the best yogurt in the world, partly because they
is also (supposedly) responsible for the regional cuisine shared
by many of its neighbours: Bulgar wheat, stuffed grape leaves,
baklava, kebabs, goat cheese and Bulgarian coffee (the thick
syrupy brew also known as Greek or Turkish).
an ethnic-eats expert such as myself might think this mysterious
mountainous country, known for its ignorant pitchfork-wielding
villagers, blood feuds, medieval heresies and reluctance to
give up communism (as well as wine so thick you’d think
it was laced with vampyr blood), might just offer a brave palette
agonizingly good adventures on a plate.
up to that challenge.
the most powerful kingdom in Southeastern Europe, when it was
known as Thrace, Bulgaria came grinding to a halt when I stumbled
off the train in Plovdiv (formerly Philippopolis: named after
Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great) during the
largest trade fair in the Balkans.
hotel was full. But I found a zimmer (private room)
in a house owned by an old Bulgarian couple who proudly spoke
French and seemed unaware their humble abode was full of priceless
I foraged around town, noticing that with a little renovation,
this could become a Bulgarian Prague, albeit with a different
architectural legacy and so-far subpar grub. There were unguarded
pre-Greek Thracian archaeological digs full of pagan stone phalluses,
Roman-era ruins such as a beautiful amphitheater, Ottoman remnants
including cracked domes and minarets, and stately houses of
the so-called 19th-century Bulgarian Renaissance coming to loggerheads
above the cobbled streets.
was indeed a magical Orphic atmosphere to the place: a Roma
(Gypsy) leading a trained bear on a leash; an ethnic Bulgarian
Pomak (Muslim convert) unrolling his prayer mat in the marketplace
and ululating to Allah; a street performer resembling Bruce
Chatwin in folk costume playing the Rhodope bagpipes; and a
midget Slav in formal wear slaving tables at one of many full
al fresco eateries in town.
like I was stuck in the Tintin comic King Ottakar’s Scepter,
whose imaginary kingdom of Syldavia is believed to be loosely
modeled after Bulgaria. Other than that, all I knew about Bulgaria
was that during the Cold War on London Bridge in broad daylight,
Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov was stuck in the ribs with
a poison-tipped umbrella and that Bulgaria (or Vulgaria) was
the land of the evil baron who hated children in Chitty
Chitty Bang Bang.
drawn to the dive restaurant with the midget waiter -- ever
seen Todd Browning's Freaks?-- who greeted me with
a slight bow and a high-pitched piping castrato laugh, I sat
down and was handed a menu in Cyrillic (the alphabet created
by the Bulgarian monks Cyril and Methodius), still used in much
of the Slavic world.
my inedible stretchy tripe soup arrived, along with a labelless
bottle of rough red plonk, I felt a little like crying. This
was worse than ordering blind and ending up with a miserable
mouthful of moules frites -- as often happens wherever
foodies are on the road.
I tried to pay the bill I noticed an obscenely obvious markup,
which was not alleviated when the midget pulled the old restaurant
ruse which has stymied so many travelers to the region: the
switched ‘revolving menu.’
wine eez very special.”
no way.” I refused to be ripped off.
midget ran back inside and came back with the murderous chef,
who was -- believe it or not -- wearing one of those baggy Chef
Boyardee hats and still holding a chopping knife. He yelled
at me loudly in Bulgarian.
was he saying? Maybe: “You’ve ruined my restaurant.”
He could have passed for one of those swarthy immigrants in
the U.S. who owns his own bowling ball and takes his family
on splurges at Gino’s.
midget ran off again and this time came back with two guys:
an American expat and local Bulgarian both teaching English
in Plovdiv. They helped negotiate the bill down somewhat. Here
for the first time I witnessed in action that upside-down paradoxical
backwards custom, unique to Bulgaria and Greece, of nodding
the head no and shaking the head yes.
happens all the time to tourists,” the American explained.
“Unfortunately the police are corrupt and usually side
with the owners.”
‘sitch’ sorted, the American, Bulgarian and I retreated
to the Roman amphitheater to sacrifice a bottle of red in the
moonlight. I remembered from my guidebook that the ancient Bulgarian
king, Khan Krum used to drink wine out of the skulls of his
American, obviously either CIA or KGB, with a demonic David
Letterman-like grin, and who bore a slight resemblance to Bulgarian-
American cult leader David Koresh, told me that the language
schools and substandard restaurants in Plovdiv were mostly fronts
for cults and that he could tell that I was different. “Who’s
the kid with all the friends hanging ‘round, kid with
a snowman, Sno Cone!” the American sang the old TV jingle.
a triple sec, maybe these two guys were real ‘Bogomils,’
members of the Medieval Manichaean heresy which posited the
theory that the earth was created not by God but by Satan?
the surprise that is waiting for you if you manage to make it
to the nearby Bachkovo Monastery, where in a remote side chapel
behind a curtain covering a prayer niche hides a very frightening
have a photo of it, but I won't budge: You have to go there
yourself to see it. Nooo!
in this pulchritudinous pagan site, the Bulgarian sidekick's
beard parted, “Religion is a little different in Bulgaria:
it is kind of a mix of Paganism and Christianity.” A big
fan of King Boris, whom he said had saved all of his subjects
during World War II (including its Jews), and whom resembled
horror king Boris Karloff, the Bulgarian hinted that he knew
of a very special restaurant where I could get the ‘Royal
toasted the returned Bulgarian King Simeon, then set off in
search of a free table in the festive mêlée filled
with pharmaceuticals representatives.
Bulgaria, you can do business with only a thousand dollars,"
one trade fair reveler, a Brit with bad teeth, clued me in.
Oh well then, there was always the fresh yogurt in the outdoor
also by John M. Edwards:
Hex & Sex
Hora and the Chapel of Bones
Art of Sol Bolaños