This summer, when the 700-year-old remains of Krivich The Crooked were unearthed at the monastery of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in Sozopol, Bulgarian officials were overjoyed to discover a metal rod in his chest. According to a quaint local tradition, impaling a man in his coffin during the first forty days after his death insures that he won’t rise again as a vampire. "The practice was common in some Bulgarian villages up until the first decade of the 20th century," says Bozhidar Dimitrov, chief of the National History Museum in Sofia, which displayed the bones of Krivich and a second “vampire” discovered nearby. Bulgarian tour operators were thrilled to report a sudden boom in queries about vampire vacations and clearly have dreams of turning Sozopol into a sort of Disneyland for the ghoulishly inclined.
That was the first news story that popped up when I googled Bulgaria as part of my research for an Eastern European train trip Rich and I are planning to take next summer. Obviously we’d have to add Sozopol to our short list. How often do you get to see a real vampire grave? We wondered what else Bulgaria had to offer. After five centuries under the Ottomans, four decades in the USSR and five years as members of the European Union, what is daily life like for the common people? More to the point, what is it like for visitors? The CDC still advises against drinking the tap water, but how’s the food?
Unable to locate a Bulgarian restaurant in our immediate vicinity (go figure!), we decided to whip up some of their culinary favorites in our own home kitchen. The website Find Bulgarian Food provided recipes for two of the most popular dishes, kavarma and shopska salad.
Kavarma is a rich pork stew with a curious difference: you brown the pork and carrots first, then marinade them. After that, you simmer them with wine and spices until they become a thick, delicious stew. Shopska salad is much like a Greek salad, a mix of tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, parsley and feta cheese. My sister Kate and her husband agreed to taste test these dishes with us (actually, we sprang the meal on them without warning when they showed up for dinner), and they gave both an enthusiastic thumb’s up.
After dinner, I shared snippets of Bulgarian folklore I'd found on the Internet, starting with birthing customs. “The pregnant woman is isolated in a basement, a sheep pan or a barn,” I read aloud. “The woman drinks the water that her husband used to wash his hands and a tea from a special herb. When she gives birth at her home the navel string is cut with a reaping-hook by the grandmother . . .”
Obviously, the Bulgarian Festivals and Folklore website had been developed sometime around the 14th century. I decided to check out YouTube to see what more modern Bulgarian minds were posting. I found this 2008 footage of a “real ghost” taken by a security camera at a gas station convenience store near the town of Petrich. A priest was consulted, and it was discovered that not only had the gas station never been officially blessed, but it was built on an old cemetery. I guess a spectral apparition was pretty much inevitable. It became the lead story on the major news channel.
I love Bulgaria already. I’m only sorry we won’t be there for Halloween.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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