Before I left America, I had no idea what Bulgarians were like, let alone where the country of Bulgaria was! After spending a weekend there, I can say they are some phenomenally fun people!
I passed through Bulgaria on my backpacking adventure through the Balkan countries. The Balkan peninsula is the one that extends down into the Mediterranean with Greece at the southern end. North Macedonia is above Greece, and Bulgaria is above North Macedonia. I had an overnight bus from Istanbul which got me into Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria), around 6 in the morning. Unfortunately, my tablet was dead (which was my only mobile device), and thus my adventures began.
Due to a miscommunication, I went to the city center to meet my Couchsurfing host while she went to the bus station. I managed to find a guy sitting on a bench who was willing to give her a call. While I waited for her to arrive, I had a fascinating chat with the guy as he knew a bit of English. When she arrived, she was shocked at the man I’d chosen to talk to, claiming he was ex-mafia and she would never have approached him. I guess looks aren’t everything!
We got back to her flat and since I barely slept on the bus (due to some real mafia members smuggling bags of white powder across the border), I passed out on the couch within minutes. When I awoke a couple hours later, she asked me if I wanted to go out to a music festival in the countryside, as she didn’t want to go alone. Of course, I said yes!
We jumped on a bus to take us half-way out to Ezdimirtsi, a tiny farming village near the Serbian border, and found a pick-up truck to give us a lift the rest of the way. Her roommate ended up coming with us, and the back of the truck was full of other Bulgarians headed to the festival. Interestingly enough, her roommate rarely wore more than a pair of shorts while walking around town (no shirt or shoes), which is completely acceptable in Bulgaria.
The organization of the festival was fascinating, to say the least. It was a local affair with several bands performing, and the stage construction was rather decent. I’d say about 300-400 people came to listen. Unfortunately, less than a dozen of those spoke any English, as far as I could tell. English as a second language isn’t big in Bulgaria.
Things got interesting on the first night when they realized no one had brought food for dinner. They started a collection and went off to the market (which wasn’t close), only to return a couple hours later with no food and a couple hundred gallons of beer! Finally around midnight, hunger won out and they pilfered some vegetables from the nearby farms to use in a massive stew (which wasn’t that good, but I don’t think anyone noticed after the beer). Nearly everyone had their own bottle of homemade mastika (moonshine) too, so things were pretty wild.
The next day, several of us piled into a convertible to visit one of the nearby waterfalls. And by several of us, I mean we managed to fit 12 people in, on and practically under the car. Things got a little terrifying when we came around a bend at high speed and had another car just in front of us, but we managed to avoid an accident (not sure how, considering how inebriated everyone was). At least the waterfall was worth the hellish drive. I spent quite some time in the water escaping from the blistering summer heat.
After several more adventures at the festival, my host and I went back to Sofia. I got on a walking tour to see the city, learn the history (which is quite extensive), explore the Roman ruins and discover their surprisingly beautiful churches. It definitely wasn’t what I expected to find there, especially after the NATO operations in the Balkans left so many Balkan cities in ruins (like Skopje, Macedonia which lost 95% of its buildings!)
Before leaving, I found a restaurant selling lamb kofte (Turkish meatballs). They were so good, I ordered two more portions to take with me on my bus ride to Belgrade, Serbia. Overall, the weekend was fantastic, and I was really happy with how enjoyable and laid back the locals were, including the old ex-mafia don I met at the waterfalls.
I should probably mention that my host explained to me how the mafia men marked themselves with tattoos. As many of them were incarcerated or killed off, any who remained with extensive tattoos were undoubtedly quite powerful. Of course, that might be more opinion than fact, but still an interesting part of my adventure there. And unlike the portrayal of Albanian mafia in the movie Taken (which don’t actually exist in Albania), Bulgarian mafia men were really friendly!