10 Things I Never Knew About Bulgaria

For those of you who’ve been following along on Instagram you know that I love a good fact. Over the summer I visited many countries in the Balkans that I honestly knew nothing anything about. I couldn’t have pointed out Kosovo on a map or told you the capital of Albania. But I’ll keep the facts on my new “10 Things I Never Knew About X” series a bit more interesting, I promise! Let me know in the comments which countries you’d be interested in learning more about!

10 Things I Never Knew about Bulgaria

1. Bulgaria is Outside the Schengen Area

I  hadn’t realized before that Bulgaria wasn’t part of the Schengen zone. They are members of NATO and the EU but they’re outside of the grouped 90 day visa zone in Europe. Americans can actually stay in Bulgaria for 3 months during a 6 month period. Playing the Schengen zone visa game is what initially led me to the Balkans this summer and ultimately to discovering so many incredible places. If you’re in the same rut, I would absolutely suggest adding Bulgaria to your wish list of European, non-Schengen places to visit.

2. Bulgaria is Home to the Oldest Inhabited City in the Europe

Bulgaria’s second largest city is also the oldest in Europe clocking in at 8,000 years. Plovdiv is even older than Athens and Rome! Over the last 800 decades it’s been under the rule of the Romans, Macedonians, Byzantines, Ottoman Turks and of course, the Bulgarians.

3. A Bulgarian Psychic Predicted Major World Events

While in Plovdiv on the Free Walking Tour for Visit.org I came across a portrait of Baba Vanga on Sahat Tepe Hill. She’s surrounded by historic Bulgarians and is the only woman muralized here. Baba Vanga had lost her vision after suffering an injury as a child. With her sight gone, she was blessed with the ability to see the destinies of others and the world. She’s been making headlines lately as she had claimed that there would be no 45th President of The United States of America. She correctly foresaw that the 44th President of the U.S. would be African-American. The clairvoyant had predicted 9/11 in 1989 stating that she saw steel birds attacking the American brethren.

4. Bulgarian Tomatoes were Once Worth Their Weight in Gold

Or more correctly, in ABBA Records.  During the Iron Curtain of communism, Bulgaria’s government agreed to trade their prized tomatoes with Sweden for ABBA records! They were the only thing that crossed borders during the era. The music brought citizens joy in an otherwise dark time.

5. Not a Single Jewish Bulgarian was Sent Abroad or Killed in WWII

During WWII Bulgarians saved their entire Jewish population by convincing the Nazi party that they were needed locally for infrastructure work. The building projects would be continuously extended to keep the Bulgarian Jews out of  Holocaust camps. Ultimately 48,000 Jewish Bulgarian citizens were saved.

6. Sofia is a Secret Foodie City

Her Majesty, aka Banitsa, is a delicious, gooey, cheese and filo dough pastry that you haven’t lived until you’ve tried. Bulgaria is the queen of all comfort food offering an incredible array of fresh soups made with local produce and of course, lots of cheese. The current food culture is shifting back towards traditions of farm fresh meals prepared slowly. Ingredients vary from local veggies to more modern, trendy foods such as quinoa, avocado and matcha. Some of my favorite spots were Sun Moon, Supa Star and Made in Home. The Balkan Bites food tour was a highlight of my trip and cost absolutely nothing.

7. The Oldest Building in Sofia is 17 Centuries Old

St. George is the oldest building in Sofia and the only one dating from the Roman era. Incredibly, its complete original structure from the 4th century is still standing. With its round shape it is no surprise that it was originally used as a warehouse for coal in the ancient town of Serdica. If I hadn’t gone on the Footura Sofia Walking Tour with Visit.org, I would’ve never seen this historic structure as it is hidden in a square surrounded by modern hotels.

8. Red Red WIne

I had no idea that Bulgaria made some truly incredible wines! In the south-west area of the country, near the picturesque Melnik village and the mountainous border with Greece, there are dozens of extraordinary vineyards. Melnik 55 is produced by Logodaj Winery and is one of the best wines I have ever had! It is a heavy bodied red with cherry, spice, vanilla and nut aromas. A bottle cost less than 5 euros. We also visited Villa Melnik and Orbelus, which has a winery shaped like a massive barrel!

9. Bulgaria has Pyramids

When I am on the road a lot of my planning is done by zooming into google maps to find historic sites. As I am usually doing this on a bus, train, plane or car without WiFi it often means I can’t access the pictures but can just see the location on the map. I was immediately interested when I kept seeing markers for pyramids in Melnik. Without WiFi I could only assume that these must be some ancient structures built by early humans. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They are actually a pretty amazing feat of Mother Nature. These natural pyramids are constantly changing over time as they’re made of sand, not rock.

10. Bulgaria has The Most Beautiful Monastery in the World

The Rila Monastery is the most beautiful religious site I have ever seen! It was founded in the 10th century by Saint John of Rila but was destroyed by fire and was rebuilt between 1834 and 1862. The structure is a brilliant example of the Bulgarian Renaissance style. Today, the Monastery is still the most sacred Eastern Orthodox place in Bulgaria due to it’s history and it’s position in Rila, the highest Balkan Peninsula Mountain.  

Been Around the World

When I flew to Europe 15 months ago to start my life as an expat I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know a single person in Madrid. I had no place to live, no bank account and no local phone number. I had started this blog a month before my one-way flight to Spain thinking that I would post updates weekly, even daily, with all of my adventures. I seriously underestimated how badly the travel bug had bitten me. I spent my first two weeks traveling solo throughout Italy and thus began my life as a traveler. I woke up every morning and set out to see historical buildings, art and cuisine that I had learned about throughout my education. I’ve been sharing my experiences on Instagram and thus my desire to document my experiences here faded. When you’ve visited over 30 countries in a year there is hardly enough time, or WiFi, to upload an Instagram post, let alone an entire blog entry. But I want to change that. I promise to update more often with stories from the past year, and from my current travels.

Exploring the world’s diverse cultures quickly became an addiction. This really wasn’t much of a surprise. I grew up in an international family and have had a passport since birth. But now I was traveling differently, I was seeking experiences in order to develop my own worldview. As of publishing time for this blog entry I have explored 44 countries. Through three day weekend explorations around Europe, primarily solo, I geared up the courage to head off to the far east alone for the holidays. I spent nearly a month exploring Hong Kong, Thailand and spent a day in Laos. During this trip I started to become obsessed with sustainable, ethical travel. I sought out opportunities that supported conscious consumerism. I bathed baby elephants at Chai Lai Orchid, indulged in hour long Thai massages provided by former female inmates, and drank coffee raised by local tribes. I realized that this is what I was truly passionate about, finding ways to contribute to society in a meaningful way while I traveled.

In May I left Madrid for Florence. I’ve made a lot of mistakes the past year, particularly in business. I made disappointing decisions even though my intuition was screaming at me and telling me to run the other direction, and to run fast. Luckily even a major wrong turn ended up being a blessing in disguise. Each mistake led to an even greater self understanding, and ultimately a bigger adventure. In July I started traveling full time, became location independent and joined Visit.org as an Orgs & Storyteller Ambassador. The digital platform curates impactful travel experiences offered by non-profits around the globe. Conscious globe trotters use Visit.org to add short immersive experiences to their travels. 100% of the revenues are then channeled back to the local community through the host organizations. Visit.org provides non-profits an innovative, sustainable way to raise funds and awareness for their causes.  This partnership has allowed me to see first hand the local way of life and support social enterprises through cultural activities.

I’ve been told as many travel cliches as you can imagine, and I love every single one of them. You’re a true rolling stone. You’re as free as a bird. You’re at home wherever you are. All true. I finally feel like I am living a life worth living. My version of normal now is to be in a new country every week or so. Lately I had started to wonder exactly how much of the world I had visited and wanted to see it sprawled out on a map. A friend told me about a great free global map app, been. 44 countries may seem impressive but to put things in perspective, this is only 17% of the world! This globe trotter has a lot more ground to cover. I am thrilled that I will be spending the next year (or more) exploring Asia. I've only seen 1% of Africa and have so much more to discover there. I hope to spend time in Oceania. Did you know it is a fairly easy process for Americans to get a 1 year work visa in New Zealand and Australia? Where have you been? Tell me in the comments!

Election Reflections

In 2004 I was a high school student in Kansas and was surrounded by teachers who were supporting Bush for a second term. I was taking a government class that semester and was getting in trouble constantly for voicing my opinon about the social issues I was concerned about and the liberal solutions I believed in. I had already been asked to leave my philosophy class indefinitely due to my non-religous values. My family had been to see Kerry speak in Kansas City. At the rally I bought a button that said "Don't Vote for a Son of a Bush" and proudly wore it next to a pin from the 70's my mom had given me that read "Keep Your Hands Out of My Uterus." Our Kerry campaign signs were constantly stolen from our front yard and my father wouldn't let us park the car with our Kerry and Coexist bumper stickers outside of his shop in fear that it would hurt business. 

I was 14 so of course I couldn't vote. When bush won I felt defeated, as did my family. I went to school the next day wearing by liberal buttons and a t-shirt that I made the night before saying BUCK FUSH. I kept it covered up most of the day because I didn't really need more trouble at school.  I was in math class that day when the assistant teacher walked in wearing all black and a deep, concerned frown. I asked him what was up and he told me he was mourning. I told him I was very sorry and that I hoped he would feel better soon. He said it would take four years. He explained he was mourning for our country. His silent, peaceful made a huge impact on me. He was risking his career by taking a political stand in a bible belt state that is ultra conservative. He also let a little angsty teenager know she wasn't alone in her political concern and solitude. 

Tomorrow I may have to wear black to mourn but today I am wearing head to toe white in honor of the suffragettes who dedicated their life long work for a day like today. In the early 1900s when suffragists were fighting for the women's right to vote in America they wore all white as a peaceful protest. Today, women around the country are wearing white as a tribute to the women who paved the path to this glorious day when we have a female candidate on the presidential ballot. I hope with all my heart that the majority of americans will cast their vote for HRC. A Clinton victory means a lot of things but for me it means that as a nation we are finally in a day and age when women can and will do anything a man can do. A time when we have the same liberties and possibilities. A time for a woman in the White House, and as the leader of the free world. I hope the next steps in equality stateside will be eliminating the gender wage gap and the pink tax on female products. Today let's shatter that god damn glass ceiling once and for all with our votes for Madame President, Hillary Clinton!