Bulgaria has by far the best yogurt in the world, partly because they invented it.
They also are (supposedly) responsible for the regional cuisine shared by many of its neighbors: Bulgar wheat, stuffed grape leaves, baklava, kebabs, goat cheese, and “Bulgarian coffee” (the thick syrupy brew also known as “Greek” or “Turkish”).
Indeed, 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.
I was up to that challenge.
Once 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.
Every hotel was full. But I located a “Zimmer” (private room) in a house with an old Bulgarian couple who proudly spoke French and seemed unaware their humble abode was full of priceless antiques.
Famished, 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.
There was indeed a magical Orphic atmosphere to the place. Over there a Roma (Gypsy) leading a trained bear on a leash; there an ethnic Bulgarian “Pomak” (Muslim convert) unrolling his prayer mat in the marketplace and ululating to Allah; there a street performer resembling Bruce Chatwin in folk costume playing the Rhodope bagpipes; and there a midget Slav in formal wear slaving tables at one of many full al fresco eateries in town.
I felt 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!
Irresistably 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 only in Cyrillic, the alphabet created by the Bulgarian monks Cyril and Methodius, still used in much of the Slavic world.
When my inedible stretchy “tripe soup” arrived, along with a label-less 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.
When 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.”
“The wine eez very special!”
“Uh-un, no way!” I refused to be ripped off.
The 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.
What 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 their own bowling ball and takes his family on splurges at Gino’s.
The 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, of nodding the head no and shaking the head yes.
“This happens all the time to tourists,” the American explained. “Unfortunately the police are corrupt and usually side with the owners.”
The “sitch” sorted, the American, Bulgarian, and I retreated to the Roman ampitheater 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 enemies. Sharing the bottle, though yuck, was preferable for the vinoculturally squeamish.
The 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.
Wait 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?
That’s 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 fresco. . . .
I have a photo of it, but I won’t budge: You have to go there yourself to see it. Nooo!
Here 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 Treatment”!
We toasted the returned Bulgarian King Simeon, then set off in search of a free table in the festive melée filled with “pharmaceuticals”representatives.
“In 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 marketplaces.