After five centuries of Turkish rule, Bulgarian
culture reappeared in the 19th century as writers and artists strove to reawaken
national consciousness. Zahari Zograf (1810-53) painted magnificent frescoes inspired
by medieval Bulgarian art in monasteries. The carvings of highly contemplative
monks appear in monastery museums throughout Bulgaria: saints the size of grains
of rice are a particular highlight. Bulgaria's poets show a tendency to meet with
a violent and early death, lending a poignancy to the high idealism of writers
such as Hristo Botev (rebel folk poet of the late 19th century), Dimcho Debelyanov
(lyric poet killed in WWI) and Geo Milev (poet of the post-WWI social upheavals,
kidnapped and murdered by police). The grand old man of Bulgarian literature,
Ivan Vazov, is one of the few who made it over the age of 30. His novel Under
the Yoke describes the 1876 uprising against the Turks.
An ancient Greek myth ascribes a Thracian origin to Orpheus and the Muses,
a heritage which Bulgaria's singers still take very seriously. Orthodox religious
chants convey the mysticism of regional fables and legends, whereas the spontaneous
folk songs and dances of the villages meld classical origins with a strong Turkish
influence. International interest in Bulgarian vocal music was ignited by groups
such as Le Mystere des Voix Bulgaires, who have taken Bulgaria's polyphonic female
choir singing to a world audience.
Bulgarians fill up on meals of meat, potatoes and beans, crisped up with salads,
and tossed back with dangerous liquor: beware of water glasses filled with rakia
(ouch) and mastika (aaah). Breakfast is a bread-based snack on the run - look
out for hole-in-the-wall kiosks selling delicious banitsi - cheese pastries,
often washed down with boza, a gluggy millet drink which is an acquired taste.
Lunch is the main meal of the day. Dinner appears late at night, mostly to signal
the end of aperitifs and the start of serious slugging.
Bulgarian is a South Slavic language written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Saints
Cyril and Methodius, two brothers from Thessaloniki, invented the Cyrillic script
in the 9th century and one of the strong bonds between Bulgarians and Russians
is their shared use of this alphabet. Russian is the second language of older
Bulgarians and is still taught in schools. Younger people are more likely to
be interested in speaking a version of English peppered with classic rock lyrics
and advertising slogans. Bulgarians waggle their heads Indian-style to mean yes,
and nod to mean no. It's normal to feel like your head is a pogo-stick; just
try to stay upright.