Sofia’s and Black Sea’s accommodation scene has been transformed by a rash of hotel building in recent years, and there is now a big choice in all categories. And this is happening only because this Balkan country is attracting more and more attention from international tourist. Rather cheap prices, comparing with Western Europe, mild climate, rich history and even richer cuisine makes Bulgaria a perfect holiday destination.
But before going there, you have to know few things, without which you will not survive. Or… your survival will be a lot more difficult. The first thing that any visitor to Bulgaria needs to know is that “yes” is indicated by a shake of head, while “no” is expressed with a nod. It’s a tribute to the resilience of Bulgarian culture over the centuries that such obtuse habits have been preserved. Foreigners have no choice but to practice the correct Bulgarian gestures in front of a mirror every morning before they go out.
The Bulgarian practice of downing huge amounts of rakyia – but only accompanied by a healthy salad – should be made compulsory in pubs and bars across Europe, where the degenerate habit of getting legless on an empty stomach has led to an alarming decline in behavioral standards. That is another thing you’ll get soon used while visiting this marvelous country. Sitting in pubs and drinking is always accompanied with full variety of snacks.
The Bulgarian for “cheers” is ‘nazdrave’, which literally means “to your health”. If someone proposes a toast (and this could happen innumerable times during the course of the evening) you have to click your glass with absolutely everyone, no matter how many are sitting round the table, making sure to look them in the eye at the point of clicking. If you fail to make eye contact, your friends will think you’re a bit weird and probably won’t invite you again. Or… as they say – not looking to someone’s eyes might be a bad luck for you and… you will have no sex for 7 years. Not cool.
The archetypical national tipple is rakiya or brandy, which usually comes as either grozdova rakiya (grape brandy) or slivova rakiya (plum). It’s usually served up in 50g or 100g shots and is consumed alongside salad or some other form of nibble – wait staff will consider you peculiar if you don’t order at least something to snack on while you’re slugging down spirits.
As far as beer is concerned, Bulgaria produces several palatable if unexciting lagers – Zagorka, Shumensko, Aryana and Kamenitsa are the most reliable of the big brands. Much more impressive are the dry red wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon from Svishtov and Oryahovitsa, Merlot from Stambolovo, Gumza from Novo Selo, Mavrud from Asenovgrad, and Melnik from the village of the same name. The Chardonnays and Traminers from Veliki Preslav are among the best of the whites.
By the way, evening in local pub is usually followed by late night parties in clubs. There are big variety of them, but the ones you’ll never find anywhere else in Europe are ‘chalga’ clubs. ‘Chalga’ is semi-oriental, shake-you-booty-and-waggle-your-hands-in-the-air ethno-pop which is indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula and especially in Bulgaria. If you are a foreigner – it might take time to get used to it.
If you are invited to someone’s house do not go empty handed. Take some flowers for the hostess but make sure that the bunch contain an odd number of stems, as even numbers are only for funerals. A bottle of wine is an acceptable alternative. Do not forget a bar of chocolate if your hosts have children. It is polite for guests to accept second helpings – this means you like the food and the drinks. An empty plate or glass will usually be refiled. A small amount of food left on the plate or drink in the glass indicates that one is full.
By the way, of you are visiting Bulgaria’s capital Sofia – you have to know the fact, that most parties are happening NOT in the center, but in the suburb called ‘Studentski grad’. Over 10 000 of Bulgaria’s brightest young things live in the grey and windswept blocks of Studentski grad (“Studentville”), a purpose-built suburb located some 7 km southeast of the center. Despite its housing-estate-at-the-end-of-the-world appearance, Studentski grad is one of the fastest changing places in the whole country, with flashy new bars, clubs and fast-food joints springing up almost daily to satisfy the voracious leisure-time appetites of Sofia’s hormone-fueled student community. If you feel like partying 24 hours a day, seven days a week, then this is the place to do it. If your mind is more focused on passing your exams and becoming a responsible member of society, however, you’re best advised to steer clear of the place altogether.
By the way, for hang-over mornings – head straight to the center and to the ‘Zhenski bazaar’ in the street of Stefan Stambolov, which literally means ‘women’s market’. Despite the name, people of all possible sexes, ages and pockets throng daily to this half-a-kilometer-long strip of street stalls lined on either side by poky shops. Fresh foodstuffs are the mainstay of the market, but you can also buy flowers, cheap clothes, household goods, broomsticks, ironmongery, spare parts of machines you never even knew existed and more.
There’s not much in the way of fancy goods or souvenirs, but the raw street-level vigor of the place makes it well worth a visit. It’s location popular with pickpockets too, however, so take good care of your belongings. While there, especially for hangover, get some light beer or Bulgarian wine from one of the stalls and then look for a popular snack there – ‘caca fish’. Small fishes, baked in oil, with some fresh lemon on top. By the way, next to it you can find one of the few catholic churches of Sofia if you need to stay a bit with yourself and something bigger.