• Exploring antiquities: The land that is now Bulgaria was once part of the Roman Empire, and later Bulgaria was conquered by the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The ruins left behind by these civilizations still dot the countryside.
Just south of Sunny Beach is Nessebar, where we walked through Byzantine ruins of churches dating back as early as the fifth century surrounded by dramatic coastal views. After wandering through the open stone structures (the roofs generally weren’t preserved), we took a break at a cafe overlooking the sea.
On the way home from the seaside, we stopped in the city of Plovdiv, also known as Philipopolis in honor of Phillip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father. The town’s steep cobblestone roads led to an ancient Roman amphitheater, built around the first century. The amphitheater is breathtaking, including statues missing arms and heads, and columns that reveal the modern city and Rhodope mountains rising behind it.
Even in Sofia, Roman ruins are on display in the subway tunnels, where they were discovered while excavating for the underground train.
• Phyllo and feta in every form: Bulgaria is a foodie heaven. The cuisine is heavily influenced by Greek and Turkish food (the countries border Bulgaria and each ruled over the region for centuries). There’s a lot of moussaka, stuffed peppers, feta cheese and thick yogurt.
One of the most common dishes is shopska salad, which consists of tomato, cucumbers, onion, peppers, parsley and feta cheese. Bulgarians like to say their tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese are better than any other, and one bite of shopska made me a believer.
Feta cheese is paired with phyllo dough in every imaginable configuration. Banitsa consists of dough and cheese rolled into a rope and coiled into a spiraling circle. This is served when visitors arrive and also on New Year’s Eve, when it becomes a kind of Bulgarian fortune cookie. The fortunes, and a coin symbolizing money, are nestled between the coils of dough.
One of my favorite treats — and souvenirs — is honey. It’s collected in the mountains and sold at roadside stands, often by women from the Pomak (European Muslim) minority. The honey comes in hues from light yellow to red to dark brown and the flavors differ according to what plants the bees were pollinating. Some have pine cones in the jar, others are chock full of walnuts. I sampled a pine tree honey that can only be described as tasting like music.
• Lost in translation: Bulgarians use the Cyrillic alphabet, which was created here in the Ninth century by the brothers Cyril and Methodius. The alphabet is so beloved that a national holiday celebrates the letters (May 24).
Most street signs are in both Bulgarian and English, and most restaurants have menus in English, sometimes with humorous translations. One restaurant offered “Dishevelled meat balls” and “Rice and green stuff.”
Communicating in English can be difficult. Although many well-educated Bulgarians speak English, some are more familiar with a British accent and had trouble understanding my American one. Outside of Sofia, English speakers are less common. Although most people have a general familiarity with English through TV and movies, they didn’t understand me much.
Complicating matters, when Bulgarians nod their head up and down, it means “No.” Shaking the head from side to side indicates “Yes.” You can imagine the confusion that ensues. My head is shaking (in the wrong direction) just thinking about it.
• Information: http://bulgariatra vel.org/