A few days ago, I arrived in Bulgaria with part of “La Familia.” La Familia is comprised of five stooges. Stooge number one: Ianko, the owner of a Bulgarian restaurant across the street from where I live. Stooge two: Amanda from Brazil, who lives in the same building as me. Stooges three and four are a Turk named Berkam and a Portuguese woman named Maria. The five of us make up La Familia. It’s not out of the ordinary to find us sitting on the patio of Iankos’s restaurant, sipping on wine spritzers, exchanging ridiculous stories and nibbling on mezze (mezze the name for any food which accompanies your drinks, typically sliced dry meats and cheeses.)
Part of the family – myself, Ianko and Amanda, planned a trip to my Motherland.
I wasn’t too keen on going back to Bulgaria, but because Ianko and Amanda were going, of course I had to join. The last time I was in Bulgaria was 11 years ago, and I’ve heard it’s changed a lot in the last ten years… for better in some ways, and for worse in others. There are some negative stereotypes – the people are rough around the edges/rude and the country is overrun with corruption. I was afraid for a few reasons, first, the fear of ruining pleasant childhood memories with a negative experience, as well as the fear that people will treat me poorly due to my thick American accent when I speak Bulgarian. But, it was a risk worth taking since Amanda and Ianko were going.
So, we arrived last week and directly headed over to Ianko’s parents house. It’s located in a place called Simitli, near the Macedonian border. This is essentially a village (shhh, don’t tell them I said that, they call it a city.) But his parents live off the land, growing all of their own fruits and vegetables, attentively caring for their grape vines, and imbibing with homemade rakia (a moonshine-like substance typical of Bulgaria.) Orchard aside, their backyard is nestled in the haert of the mountains. It’s paradise.
As much as I wanted to hang out with Ianko’s hilarious dad and kind mom, eating and drinking all the homemade things, Ianko had made some plans for us. There were places to see and things to do!
So, first up, the Rila Monastery. Bulgaria is well known for it’s strong Orthodox Christian culture, and in the mountains you can find one of the most beautiful monasteries in the Balkans. It was built in the 1800’s, almost completely destroyed when under Turkish rule, and later restored to it’s original condition. The central location, awe-striking beauty and rich history made it a well-respected place for the religious, even receiving extravagant gifts from monastaries and churches in the surrounding countries during the 1800’s.
During the tour, I made friends with a group of Belgians. They told us that they’re staying at some bungalows nearby and were the only ones in the camp. Well, we needed to find refuge for the night, and this sounded like a good option.
We arrive at Hlebna bungalows, a camp in the middle of nowhere. Only mountains, pine trees and rivers. #love
For two bungalows, we paid 40 leva, about $25. For four people! So cheap.
After we settle in our rickety old bungalows, we get the fire going, grill some dogs and cool our beers off in the natural water fountain.
Our Belgian neighbors brought their offering of four tequila bottles, and the party began. You can imagine what ensued… a mish-mash of languages and alcohol – Bulgarian, Spanish, French, English, combined with homemade rakia and tequila… By the end of the night, everyone was speaking the same language. We pulled off an international night all will remember (okay, maybe not every detail… but the general idea.) 😉
The next day, we drag ourselves out of the camp to find recovery… Bulgarian food! Shopska salata (a traditional salad from the area of Bulgaria called “Shopite,” Ianko enjoyed a little rakia to take off the edge, and we all ordered the famous trout, caught fresh that day.
Now that we had refueled, we were ready for the rest of the mountain tour. Today’s agenda included a hike up to where Iaon Rilski lived. What makes this place extra special is a cave where people crawl through one end to another. Legend has it that if you can make it from one end to the other, you’re a good person. If you’re a bad person, the mountains will squeeze into you and you won’t be able to pass! So to prove to ourselves that we’re good people, we begin our crawly adventure in the darkness of the cave.
From there, we headed back to Simitli and had a true Bulgarian celebration, complete with rakia, traditional dances, and live music.
All in all, it’s been a great trip so far, with many more shenanigans to come!