Bulgaria’s Rila Lakes

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It’s midday when we stop for lunch at the edge of a glassy lake, resting our packs against a rocky outcrop speckled with green, black, and orange lichens and tufts of moss. We quickly don jackets to minimize loss of body heat, then dig sandwiches and water of out of packs and share a meal in silence, gazing across the lake. It’s water mirrors the mountains rising on the opposite shore, the slopes a patchwork of slate, mustard, and dark green brush. A soundless wind carries low-hanging clouds over us, obscuring the peaks as fading shadows that are soon lost in the gray haze. It’s been a wet, chilly hike, but nothing could dampen the grandeur of this scenery. And while otherworldly, it’s located here on earth in the unlikeliest of places: the Rila Lakes of Bulgaria.

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The Balkan country of Bulgaria is most commonly recognized for one of two things: its dairy (in the form of yogurt and feta cheese) or its poverty. The country is the poorest member of the European Union, where a combination of Soviet legacy and lagging economy have driven nearly two million of its citizens abroad and cut the country’s population from  9 million in 1989 to around 7 million today, and this tends to be the only Bulgaria the world outside knows.

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And if you speak to a Bulgarian expatriate about their country, they’re more likely to miss the food or to complain about government corruption. Few mention the country’s two sprawling mountain ranges, its karst caverns, golden plains, or alpine lakes. Ask about the country’s panoply of Thracean, Roman, and Ottoman ruins and you’ll often get an “Oh yes, we do have that.” Tourism is an afterthought in most of Bulgaria, and the country’s natural beauty remains a secret to outside world.

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Back at Rila Lakes, we continue our hike through alpine grassland, past a dozen more still and glassy lakes, heading for the trail summit. The people we encounter are mostly native Bulgarians, taking a last break at the end of the summer season before school and work starts again. A handful are backpackers from other countries that when asked, “why Bulgaria?” reply with “It was cheap.” And we pass one group of park employees, dressed in waders and working to move rocks and brush along one of the lakes. “We’re preventing blockage that happens when vegetation dies for the season,” they explain to us, “visitors have brought some extra nutrient contamination to the lakes, but we can remedy it by ensuring the water continues to flow.”

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As we climb the last mile to the summit, the temperature drops even further and wind chill forces us to add hats and gloves. Though the stream beside is flows freely, ice coats the rocks at its edge. Frost flowers, long shards of ice, grow from blades of goldenrod grass beside the trail. The summer growing season has long since ended here.

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The peak is a disappointment for a standard hiker. The clouds that have drifted in starting around lunch have thickened, and where there should be a view of the entire valley there is only a thick gray fog. We climb back down and complete the trail loop, heading up along the western ridge of the valley. The clouds descend further and envelope us in obscurity. When we stop to rest in the dead grass beside the trail, we watch other hikers pass us, materializing from the mist with the scrape of shoes on dirt and sounds of breathing and fading into faint outlines and then, nothingness.

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Skakavitza Waterfall Hike

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With visiting the relatives complete, Stoytcho and I took  a couple of days’ retreat in the Rila Mountain Range for some outdoorsing. It has been a singular sorrow to be cooped up in the car, passing so many beautiful slopes and potential trails to the unknown here in Bulgaria. As a remedy, we booked a lovely room at the Hotel Borovets for the off-season nightly price of 58 lev (~$35 USD, including breakfast!), and for a stunning 10 lev (~$6 USD) they packed us daily lunch as well. Their lutenitsa was delicious.

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Totally NOT Skakavitsa Falls, but another waterfall along the trail.

Our first hike was at Skakavitsa Falls. Despite gorgeous weather the last two weeks, summer decided to flee on the days of our hike! We hiked in light mist and clouds, but the trails were still beautiful. Photos and map below of the rainy wonderland.

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A wild rose along the trail.

If you’re looking to hike Skakavitsa, be warned that in 2018 the signs were still all in Cyrillic. From the trailhead follow the red trail up to the hut/inn, then continue in the same direction. Do not go left, despite the open fields and better-marked trail — this goes to Rila Lakes and is a day-long affair. Stoytcho and I started on this trail before realizing we had passed the falls and had to double-back.

Map:

A photographic taste of the trail:

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Trail information at the trailhead.
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Follow the red trail markers.
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Other hikers along the trail.
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A wild allium flower.
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A waterfall along the trail.
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Dewspun spider web along the trail.
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The forest along the trail.
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An abandoned electrical building along the trail.
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The hut/house at the trail fork. When you get to the picnic trail after this, keep going in the same direction; don’t go left.
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Don’t take this trail; it doesn’t go to Skakavitsa Falls.
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An odd flower or bud.
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If you get here, you’re definitely on the wrong track. This trail leads to the Rila Lakes and it’s pretty far.
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The cost of taking a wrong turn. Everything is so wet!
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Special effects without editing: fog inside your camera lens.
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Back on the right trail, heading toward Skakavitsa.
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Skakavitsa Falls! Currently hardly a trickle and obscured by mist.
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Wild violet.

 

The ancient village at Cape Atanas

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Near the white cliffs is a relatively unassuming stop. At the cape of St. Atanas sits a Late Antiquity fortress. It was a small village and fort at an optimal geographical area – close to the sea for access by boat, in a tight corner for defense. It was inhabited until about 600 AD, at which point its residents packed up their belongings, burned their houses, and left, apparently in an organized fashion. It’s a rich site, featuring artisanal structures, religious buildings, and many, many examples of clay artifacts that were made on site.

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The walk leading up to it is pretty nondescript. There’s some seating, a small museum, and a little toll booth. The entry fee is a few dollars per person. It gets you entrance to the museum as well, but that was closed for the season when we arrived.

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One of the main draws is that this is an active archeological site. During the summer season, work progresses year after year to uncover more and more of the settlement. Here is an open pit with a few clay pieces left in place as they were found. More than just viewing the artifacts in context, the actual work of archeology is on display.

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And how is the relative luxury of archeology funded? The EU! As with any EU involved project, there’s a huge sign near the entrance stating how much money was granted, and what its purpose is. This one, a bit generically, reads as : For the cultural and historical edification of the Byala Region, and to turn it into a major tourist attraction.

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Not only was the village equipped for clay-working, it was also well situated to take advantage of the amazing grape growing climate. This is an ancient grape press (wooden portions restored) and a massive clay vessel to hold the juice that poured out. The dioramas are a nice touch. They’re museum quality, and they really help bring the exhibits to life. This is one of the things that would certainly not have been present without outside funds.

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Along with pots and amphoras, the village made tons of clay tile and brick. The tiles are marked with wide, rough patterns, each corresponding to the person who made that tile. The marking was how they tallied who made how much at the end of the day and gave wages from that count. Some of the tiles are simple X’s or lines, but this one is a lovely wind or vine pattern.

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This is an early christian baptismal fountain. Bulgaria was, and is, Eastern Orthodox. Despite only becoming the state religion in the 9th century, it had roots in the Balkans since the time of Paul the Apostle. It was officially adopted as the state religion in the 9th century, due to cultural influence from Byzantium.

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At the end of the archeological walk is a piece of the fortress that once stood and guarded the town. It’s worth getting to the end of the loops because that’s where the actual in-progress excavation is. It’s not every day we get to see an active archeological site, so that was a real treat. It was, unfortunately, closed for the season, but with any luck excavation will continue here for many years to come. It’s a very nice change seeing the attention paid to historical sites in Bulgaria now. We have come a long way from the days of looting sites to sell the artifacts and repurpose the bricks.

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Fossicking at the White Cliffs

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To the north of Burgas are the White Cliffs. They’re a spectacular natural site, towering over the Black Sea and contrasting the dark water with their bright white rock. I want to say limestone or mudstone is what they’re made of – they’re white and beige up close, densely layered, and quite flaky.

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Getting to the beach is actually pretty hard. First, there are the cliffs. They stand several stories over the beach and don’t usually offer any sort of path down. The ramps to the beach are all a little bit closer to the nearby town than to the actual google map point for ‘White Cliffs’. We wound up parking the car near some condo/apartment construction and walking the rest of the way down. The part of town we were in was almost entirely Russian. In fact, we encountered some Russian tourists looking to find a way down to the beach just like we were! We chatted for a bit, but they left before we found our route down.

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This was one of the ramps we found that would take us to the shore.

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And the wide open beach! We were not alone, but there were very few people in September – it’s rather cold and the swimming season is pretty much over.

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The beautiful cliffs themselves. The weather down here changes pretty rapidly. When it was sunny it was very hot and we were under threat of burning, having lost our awesome South America tans. When it got cloudy, which was often and rapid, the weather turned cold and windy. It looked and felt a lot like the Del Mar cliffs in San Diego, except that those are sandstone.

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So why did we decide to go through all the trouble of going there? Well, first we expected getting down to the beach would be easier and it would be really nice to go out on a nature walk. But really, we went for fossils. The White Cliffs region, and the area around it, was once underwater. There are a large amount of fossils to be found in the rubble and beach rocks on the shore. We brought a little shovel, a bucket, and a sieve.

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This is the cliff wall up close. Some of the looser bits fall right out, but actually finding the fossil layer is a task left to those better learned than us. It turns out we didn’t really need any of our tools – we don’t know enough about where to look for fossils, other than to poke through the rubble piles and hope. Our best luck was actually combing the beach for rocks.

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Here you can see part of a spiral shaped shell. It’s not the fantastic fossils we have seen online while searching for good locations, but it’s still pretty cool! It took us a while to figure out where we actually needed to go around the coast to get to fossils – there are a surprising number of mineral and fossil hunters in Bulgaria, and it was my job to hunt those down and translate their maps and hunting tips. The whole of the coast “has fossils”, but getting down to a specific location turned out to be quite hard. Next time we visit we might try and go with one of their hobby groups out on a hunting hike!

 

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Burgas, euro-costal city

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Burgas is an interesting place. On the Black Sea coast, it straddles the beach town / industrial city divide very well. As one of the more prosperous cities in Bulgaria, the quality of life here is very good, and most tourists would feel right at home. I’ve always seen it as that really nice city by the sea, and now that my uncle lives there, we got to take a closer look.

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From what we could see, Burgas divides into roughly three zones. This is a shot of the pedestrian inner-city. It’s somewhat removed from the beach, and it is a drive away from the outer ring where most people tend to live in highrise apartment buildings. The center of the city, as with many Bulgarian cities, is dominated by a pedestrian only promenade. This one stretches for at least a half hour of walking, if not longer. People meander along the promenade as a daily activity – there are plenty of snack stalls, restaurants, and sights to see.

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The center has lots of older buildings – a lovely hram – a cathedral, dedicated to St. Cyril and Methodius, founders of the Cyrillic alphabet.

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Much like Plovdiv and Sofia, Burgas is trying to expose some of its ancient history, and here we see a tomb from a time long passed. It’s a nice thing to see – everywhere around the country there is a growing awareness of the history of our lands. It used to be commonplace for looters to dig through historical sites and leave them barren and ruined. There seems to be more care now.

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One of the many snack vendors along the walk. This one is selling corn, and a pop-up convenience store is next door. Boiled corn is a favorite treat as in many other countries. There is a lot of writing in English here. The city is well known for tourism and so it is slightly easier to get around than some of the others. Along with the euro-tourism, there is a large contingent of Russians living in the city permanently. You can find Russian delis and candy shops all over the place. For us it was a nice reminder of our time in Russia, I am not sure how the locals feel about it.

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Burgas is remarkably clean. One of the major reasons, it seemed, were these trashcans placed all around the city. I think Bulgaria has benefited greatly from EU money, and in exchange the EU wants to buy diplomacy and fond feelings. Every project that has EU money in it has a prominent display of just how much, and how it was made possible by that grant. These trashcans are an interesting and very visible example of that.

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Keep walking down the promenade and eventually it comes to a sea-side park. The park is at the top of those stairs that sort of look like a gundam and the sea is behind us in this shot. The park is really nice actually, a long stretch of green deep enough to leave the traffic noise behind. When I was here last it had a bit of a neo-nazi graffiti problem, which seems to have been cleaned away.

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The Black Sea! One of Bulgaria’s sources of pride. Shared by Romania, Ukraine ,Turkey, Russia, and Georgia, it is a an active trading sea and massive tourist draw. Russians and Europeans alike love coming to Sunny Beach, one of the coastal resort towns for a dirt cheap seaside vacation. I personally have very fond memories of vacationing on its shores, though not in Burgas. To get to the vacation-y parts you have to go north or south. Burgas’ industries would make me a bit hesitant to swim right there.

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This is a view from our apartment near the city center. There are fancier places like the ones in the top photo, but they’re really for those who are very well off. This is ‘affordable’ wealthy in Bulgaria. Everyone else lives outside the center in winding clusters of apartment buildings.

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Next time, exploring the coast around Burgas!

Zmeyovo Trip

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We’re back on the road and headed only half an hour southwest to the town of Zmeyovo. Stoytcho’s great-aunt Nadia, great-uncle Vesko, and their massive guard dog Herc greet us at their tidy two-story house  near the town’s center. We’re here for only one night before moving on, but it’s good to talk with them. Stoytcho plays translator again, shifting between Bulgarian and English.

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We take a walk in the afternoon to the nearby Zmeyovo Hill, carrying a wooden bat in one hand that great-aunt Nadia insisted we take to ward off stray dogs. We see some at the edge of town, but they ignore us and we continue on to the hill, an extinct volcano and the town’s namesake. Nadia also warned us there aren’t really trails up the hill, but that we’re welcome to try and hike it. We trudge up the forested slope and quickly find out she’s right.

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The tree’s are far enough apart that it’s not hard to see where we’re going, but our path is interrupted by steep rocky outcrops, dense brush, and the occasional thorny rosebush. The leaf litter here is also dense, probably undisturbed for years. With each step we sink a few inches, hearing the rush-rush noise of our shoes kicking the dry leaves on the surface. We climb and stumble onward, navigating by incline. Here and there we find the remnants of what was once a path or even a dirt road up to the top, but all have been washed out or overgrown by trees.

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We use Google Maps to navigate near the summit. Glancing over the topography before we left, we noticed there was a lower ‘false’ summit to the southwest of the actual summit, followed by a steep increase in altitude that we think might be a cliff, so we’re keen to avoid that. It takes us another thirty minutes of circling, when through the stand of trees we spot a dull, worn trail marker. When we approach, we find the skeleton of a makeshift shelter and a concrete post that probably once held a sign marking the summit. These are all that remain of the trail to the summit, the rest swallowed by the woods.

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While kicking at the leaf litter at a small depression in the ground, I overturn a small pile of rocks. I pick one up, surprised at how light it feels, and turn it over. A patchwork of holes peppers the other side, and a glossy rainbow sheen is spread across the surface. This is a volcanic rock, and the depression I’m standing in is probably an ancient volcanic vent. I wave Stoytcho over excitedly and we break off a few pieces of rock to send to a geologist friend. There may be no Thracean gold here, but there are still treasures.

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Recipes from your Bulgarian Aunt

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Lela Stanka has embraced our visit to Nikolaevo by cooking up a storm, and I’ve been watching carefully and taking notes. Without further ado, here are her gifts to us (and you), traditional home cooking from Central Bulgaria. We also got a jar of lutenitsa as a gift from Lela Stanka, but that’s ours and we’re not sharing.

Rose Hip Tea

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A ubiquitous recipe throughout European cultures that has been mostly forgotten in the present day but makes the perfect entry into foraging and wild food. Wild rose hips collected in the late summer and autumn are steeped in hot water overnight to make a tangy, floral tea.

– 1/2 cup rose hips (make sure they have no holes)
– 1 1/2 cups water

  1. Rinse the rose hips and cut them in half of crush them. The goal is to break the skin. If you were careless and collected ones with holes, you might find some grubs here.
  2. Put rose hips into water and boil. You can let it steep overnight if you want it to be stronger
  3. Pour through a sieve and serve.

Lutenitsa

This traditional Bulgarian pepper spread is AMAZING. This spread pairs well with practically anything savory, from rice and bread to eggs and meat. It’s like the Ajvar that’s served in much of the Balkans, but better (I may be biased). The best Lutenitsa is homemade, and while we didn’t have time to make it with Lela Stanka, I did get her to share the family recipe:

Makes 12 14-oz. jars of Lutenitsa

– 100 sweet peppers, about as big as an average adult hand
– 2 small or 1 medium-sized eggplant
– 5-6 medium-sized carrots
– 1 8 oz can of tomato paste (note: hers is homemade and contains no salt, so she recommended lowering the salt content below to make up for salt in store-bought tomato pastes)
– 2-3 tbsp salt
– 3-4 tbsp sugar
– 3-4 cloves garlic
– 1 cup vegetable oil

Roast and peel peppers:

  1. This step is pretty time-intensive, so it’s often done in batches or the day before. Put peppers in a covered dish and roast in an oven or pepper-roaster (these are store-bought or homemade ovens common in Bulgaria). Let them steam for 2-3 hours, until limp, then remove and let cool.
  2. Once cool, peel the peppers. Dip fingers in a dish of cold water and peel the skins from each pepper, then pull the stem and seeds from the top of the pepper. Discard skins, pepper stems, and seeds. Place the peeled peppers on a plate or flat surface for a few hours, dumping off liquid from the peppers as it collects.

Make sauce:

  1. Roast eggplants in the oven. Make cuts in their sides before roasting them to prevent explosion, and remove them from the oven when they start to get dark spots and feel soft. After removing them from the oven, put them on a plate to let the juice drain out for an hour. Move eggplants to a new plate and dump the eggplant juice (it’s bitter).
  2. Cut carrots and boil until soft
  3. Combine the veggies. Grind the roasted peppers with the roasted eggplant and boiled carrots. When mostly mashed, add the tomato paste. Put it in a big pot and mix in salt/sugar to taste.
  4. Heat mixture over medium heat, stirring in oil in 1/4 cup amounts. When the mixture starts boiling, reduce to a simmer.
  5. Mash the garlic into a paste. When the sauce in the pot has a jam-like consistency, turn off heat, add the garlic paste, and mix thoroughly.
  6. Transfer sauce to jars and follow your standard steps for canning. Lela Stanka boils her jars for 30 mins.

Village Potatoes

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These are your standard roasted potatoes, but with Bulgarian spices and seasonings.

– 15 small to medium-sized potatoes
– 1 tsp cumin
– 2 tbsp Bulgarian oregano
– 1 tbsp regular oregano
– 1 tsp tumeric
– 1 tsp curry powder
– 1 tsp salt
– Cooking oil
– Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Peel potatoes, and cut into thick ~1 cm wedges. Put potato wedges into a pot.
  2. Put enough water into a pot to cover, add ~1 tsp of salt
  3. Bring potatoes to a boil and cook for ~5 min.
  4. Pour oil into the bottom of a roasting pan. Mix spices together, and then mix into the oil in the pan.
  5. Using a strainer or slotted spoon, transfer potatoes into roasting pan and mix.
  6. Bake at 220-230 Celsius, until golden brown.

Breaded and baked squash

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When you want to eat veggies but don’t want them raw in a salad or boiled and limp, breading and roasting comes to the rescue! The spices used in village potatoes (above) could also be used here.

– 1 large zucchini
– 2+ tsps Flour
– Cooking oil
– Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Peel zucchini and cut in half perpendicular to its length. Then slice lengthwise to make flat, thin strips.
  2. Put 1-2 tbsp oil and 2 tsps flower into a baking pan
  3. Dip zucchini strips into flour, then layer into baking pan
  4. When done layering, sprinkle a couple teaspoons of oil on top, then sprinkle on salt and pepper to taste
  5. Bake in oven at 220-230 C for ~20 min, until zucchini have golden-brown spots
  6. After removing from the oven, season with crushed garlic and salt, then serve with yogurt

Feta cheese bread

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This bread is one of Stoytcho’s favorite childhood memories. It’s like a savory cinnamon roll filled with feta cheese. A few non-traditional twists on this (like adding dill or other herbs with the feta) would probably also be delicious.

– 2-3 tsps sugar
– 1 cube of yeast (1 tbsp yeast; or a standard 2.25 tsp yeast packet in other countries) – water
– Flour
– 3 eggs
– Salt
– Melted butter
– 6-8 oz of Feta cheese (12 oz if you want more cheesy)

  1. Activate yeast. Mash the yeast cube/mix dried yeast into 1/2 cup of water with 2-3 tsps of sugar, and then add 1/4 cup flour. In a separate small bowl, beat 3 eggs with a bit of salt.
  2. In 5-10 mins, when yeast is bubbly and eggs have rested for a bit, mix the two together
  3. Add 7 tbsp of oil into the mix, then add ~2 cups + 2 tsps of water and 2-3 tsps of salt. Mix.
  4. Then add 4-5 c flour and a bit more water (you can tell this is exact), then mix with your hands to remove lumps. It will be sticky.
  5. Then add flour until it reaches a dough consistency but is still a bit sticky
  6. Knead for 5-10 mins
  7. Oil the sides of a deep bowl, then place dough in it and cover with plastic wrap and set aside until doubled. You can also put it in the fridge overnight; it will keep for about 2 days
  8. Oil or butter a baking dish.
  9. Split the dough in half and roll one half into a large round-ish sheet. Then roll the second half out in another place. Spread melted butter on top of one rolled-out piece dough, and then crumble feta cheese over it. Place the other rolled-out piece of dough on top of the butter and cheese and press down slightly to flatten.
  10. Poke a hole through in the center of the dough circle through to the other side. Begin pulling the dough from the bottom side up through the hole, rolling the dough outward from the hole to the edges of the dough sheets. This will form a ring of rolled dough.
  11. Cut the rolled dough into cinnamon bun-like wedges and place in greased baking dish. When done, cover and let rise again for 30 mins to an hour
  12. Preheat oven to 200 C. Put the rolls in the oven and bake for 10 mins, then reduce heat to 175 C and bake for another 20 mins or until buns are golden brown on top. Remove and serve toasty warm, or when they’ve cooled with fresh yogurt.

For those who found the assembly description confusing:

Below is the step-by-step of assembly in pictures. I suspect this assembly method would also work wonderfully for babka, cinnamon rolls, or other such rolled desserts.

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Roll out both halves of the dough. Brush one piece with butter and sprinke feta over it, then place second layer of dough on top.
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Poke a whole and begin pulling layer beneath up and out, rolling dough outward from the center.
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Continue rolling dough outward from the center hole.
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Form into a ring shape, squeezing to make sure distribution of cheese and dough is mostly even.
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Slice rolls from the ring shape and place in greased pan.

Roman Ruins

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Lela Stanka says there are Roman ruins on the hill beside Nikolaevo, the remnant of an old fort from millennia past. She says this matter-of-factly, like this isn’t a big deal, because this is Bulgaria and ancient ruins are everywhere. There are more ruins in this country than anyone knows what to do with and they all can’t be tourist destinations. This particular outpost sits mostly-forgotten, and Lela Stanka warns us that if we want to find it, we’ll likely be tromping in undergrowth instead of on a trail.

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An earth star on the hillside trail.

On our last day in Nikolaevo, we set out intent to find the ruins. Since we’ve pestered her for chores, Lela Stanka sends us out with a sack to collect kindling for the winter. We trudge uphill on a trail, picking up sticks and twigs and shoving them into the sack, looking for the turnoff point Lela Stanka suggested we take to find the ruins. It leads into a grove of planted trees, lined neatly in rows and identical in age. It’s almost impossible to tell which direction to head, save for uphill and downhill.

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Neatly planted trees make for mazelike conditions.

We make our way uphill until we reach the top, crowned with some rocky seats and scorched fire ring. There are no Roman ruins here. We return to the grove of trees and pick another direction, and still nothing. We spend an hour wandering in all directions. It seems like a man-made structure like a Roman fort would be impossible to miss, and yet we can find nothing.

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Is that…the trail?

We’re about to give up and begin walking back downhill when Stoytcho notices a small side path into another part of the woods. We follow its curve uphill again, around a bend and into a dry, grassy field filled with skittering grasshoppers and floating butterflies. To one side there appears to be a vertical rise in the hill, choked with vines.

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It’s not a rise in the hill. It’s a wall. We’ve found the ruins!

In this day and age, there’s not much left but the foundations, piles of rocks held together by crumbing Roman concrete.  We climb over the outside wall into the remnants of the fort’s rooms and corridors, picking our way through clinging vines and overgrown shrubs. Rumor has it that there’s a tunnel from this fort that leads down to the Radova River below, where the Ottomans hit Thracean gold during their retreat from Bulgaria centuries ago. But what little was here was probably plundered years ago, and nothing remains broken stones.

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What remains of the Roman fort, choked with vegetation.
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From a different angle, those same walls disappear into the overgrowth.

We follow a wall of the fort away from the field to a steep cliff at the hill’s edge. From here, we can see for miles across the countryside, over a patchwork of fields to the mountains in the distance. This view is why the Romans built a fort here, and where we stand now a millennia ago would have been occupied by Roman soldiers, watching, waiting, guarding, eating, drinking, thinking about their future lives, boasting about their past victories. Living.

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Following a wall to the edge of a cliff.
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The view.

We leave the ruins and return to the fork in the road, where we hid our sack of kindling for Lela Stanka. We start back downhill to Nikolaevo, its low mud walls and concrete buildings visible over the treeline. In two thousand years, I wonder whether there will be any remnants of Nikolaevo left, and if intrepid kids from a nearby settlement will explore and play here.

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Walking home to Nikolaevo with kindling.

Nikolaevo Farm Days

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It’s harvest season here in Nikolaevo and Lela Stanka has relented to our requests to help her out on the Stoytchev farm. The first day we pick sweet peppers from rows of densely-packed plants. The plants sag from the weight of the peppers, some brilliant scarlet, others in stages of green and orange. We pick only the darkest reds, leaving the rest for Lela Stanka’s next harvest. She grins as she tells us that she’s already harvested peppers from these plants a dozen times. But there are always more peppers.

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By the end of an hour, we’ve filled an entire 20-lb. sack with peppers, soon to be roasted and peeled and turned into delicious meals and preserves for the winter.  I’m personally hoping for lutenitza, a Bulgarian variant of red pepper spread that pairs beautifully with everything from bread to eggs to meat to yogurt. Seriously, it’s good on everything, ok? Don’t worry, a recipe is coming (in a later post).

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We return the following day to harvest potatoes, a slightly more complicated task that involves digging and dust. Harvesting the potatoes well takes effort, and Lela Stanka shows us how to dig between the rows of shriveled potato plants to find the potatoes hidden beneath the soil without accidentally slicing too many in half.

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The dry summer has been hard on the potato crop, and this year’s yield is supposedly a modest one. Busy with chores and unworried they would rot in such dry weather, Lela Stanka left them in the ground. With a few hours of hoeing and digging, though, we’ve littered the ground with an abundance of potatoes. Most are red-skinned, and as we collect them Lela Stanka remarks on how well they’ve done. “They’re a family heirloom, passed down in the family and planted for decades. I’ll plant them again next year too.” We finish gathering the potato into sacks and boxes, store them in a nearby shed, and head home to scrub the dirt from our hands, feet, and faces.

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Later, when we speak on Skype with Stoytcho’s dad, we tell him about our work on the family farm. He worked the farm when he lived here too before moving to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in physics. He probably hasn’t done farm work in decades. But when we mention our potato harvest he pauses, then replies, “Potatoes? It’s a bit late in the season for that, isn’t it?”

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In Memoriam, a Bulgarian Tradition

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Wander around any city in Bulgaria and you’ll eventually come across printed papers with people’s pictures on them, some dates, and a little bit of text. People sometimes think they’re wanted posters or missing persons posters, but it’s not. This is how we show and share our grief when someone passes away. It’s traditional for family members to print these and put them up all around the area where the person lived, near apartment building entrances, along the street on electrical posts, and on the sides of buildings. They are ubiquitous around the country, effectively omnipresent in daily life.

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All necrologs follow the same basic pattern. This has changed over time to become a bit simpler and less verbose, but the main points have held. Normally there is the main title at the top of the page, in most cases it is “In memory”, but if the person recently passed away it might say something more specific. Then comes the date and number of years since their death, and then the name. Following that is usually some kind words about the person, and then a sign off from whoever posted the necrolog.

It used to be that the next of kin, or even entire family trees, were printed at the bottom of the page, but these days it’s almost always something simple like ‘the family’ or ‘the bereaved’ or ‘from the close relatives’. The words or epitaph are usually focused on extolling virtues of the person and describing lamentations of the relatives, how much they miss them. Other times it can be a poem, or something very simple like “They left too soon” or “They were loved and are missed”.

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You can see in this picture that the memoriam is for the same person, and the 8 and 9 in the two posters is for how many years have passed since the person’s death. It is tradition to put up a round of necrologs several times during the first year after death, and then once per year on the anniversary of their death. For this reason it’s fairly common to see multiple, slightly different necrologs for the same person in a given area.

The pervasiveness of necrologs makes for an interesting cultural relationship with death and grieving. When I was younger I found them to be a saddening sight, sort of a constant reminder of death. As an adult I am not affected in the same way – these necrologs as we call them are a tribute, a sharing of grief, a way to preserve someone’s memory. They are not joyous in the tradition of the Day of the Dead, but they are also not exceptionally sad. The words from relatives and families are often beautiful, a heartfelt expression of the value that the person brought to their lives. They remind us of the people we have lost, and they ensure that a person is remembered in their neighborhood for many years after their passing.