This is a summary of three business trips I made to Bulgaria in 1993. My trips usually involved traveling on Balkan Airlines in Business Class, which at times was indistinguishable from Economy Class. On one trip to Sofia I was turned away from the Business Class lounge in Budapest Airport because Balkan Airlines was the one and only airline that didn’t pay for lounge access. On another trip to Sofia I was seated next to two cute young sisters travelling unaccompanied on their first ever flight, so I showed them how to keep the plastic food dishes from sliding off their tray table. They were really fascinated by all of the little dishes of food, but the airline crew served dinner with no regard as to whether it was business or economy class seating, so we ended up with the economy class meal in business class. (Either the crew didn’t seem to notice or they didn’t care!) On another Balkan Airlines flight I had a great view of the cockpit radar display from my seat in row 2, as the pilot negotiated his way around an area of heavy thunderstorms. (Actually, the cockpit door remained open for the entire flight!) Immigration and customs clearance in most airports is never quick or easy, but arriving in Sofia was always a scene of anarchy and chaos on a grand scale, made even worse when arriving in the middle of the night. And to top off the airport experience in Sofia, the only baggage trolleys in sight were those in the hands of the porters, and they were only available for a stiff price.
On my first trip to Sofia I was booked into the Hotel Rila, formerly the Europa Palace Hotel, that was built during the height of the Communist regime, complete with the characteristic “drab” Soviet style décor in dull brown and faded red. The hotel bar closed every night at 9pm, but I was told the hotel restaurant remained open later, so I usually had a couple of local “Astiki” beers after dinner. The Bulgarian beer was the winner of a gold medal in Lisbon many decades earlier, but it was still very good. Breakfast in the old hotel was always the same – very heavy Russian croissants, bright red Maraschino cherry jelly, and hard boiled eggs that couldn’t be peeled. But the fresh goat cheese and olives were delicious. Despite the lack of creature comforts of a modern hotel, my room on the top floor afforded me a spectacular view of the Rila Mountains and 10,000 foot Mt. Vitosha south of the city.
The currency exchange rate was 27 Leva per US dollar, so when I changed my travelers checks I was handed a bag full of one thousand 10 Leva bank notes! For me, everything in the country was incredibly cheap, but for the average Bulgarian who earned less than $100 per month, it was very different. For them everything was very expensive after the breakup of the Soviet Union. I bought a five day pass for all public transport in the city for 40 Leva (about $1.75). Most of the trams and streetcars were of early 1900’s vintage and riding them was like stepping into a time machine.
My business trips to Bulgaria involved teaching software training classes for several government bureaus and were always located in very drab, dreary rooms with outdated computer equipment and unreliable AV as well. Despite these challenging classroom conditions, the students were always enthusiastic and eager to learn. At lunchtimes we all would head to the canteen for a traditional meal that often included cold cucumber soup, stuffed yellow peppers in tomato and onion sauce, and some sort of fruit drink, all of which cost me 17 Leva (about $0.65). Throughout my time in Bulgaria I found the food to be pretty basic, but always delicious and fresh, and a unique fusion of tastes from Europe and the Middle East. One day after class I went to the hotel business center to send a fax to my office in California. (note: this was before the advent of the internet and email!) Despite the fact that the business center was still open for another 20 minutes, the clerk said it wasn’t possible to send the fax today because she would have to call the PTT (office of the national telephone system) to “book” the call and then wait for them to call back, which could take an hour or more. So I told her that my fax “must” go out tonight and she had 20 minutes to send it. (the fax went through in 5 minutes!) This lead me to conclude that the prevailing attitude of many employees of the former Soviet Union state was one of “if something is not convenient or doesn’t fit into their schedule, then it’s just not possible to do”.
On my second trip to Sofia I chose to stay at the Sheraton Balkan Hotel, a beautiful renovation of an old Soviet era hotel. It was a massive structure consisting of huge blocks of granite and marble, with 20 foot high ceilings.
The drab Soviet décor had been replaced by an air of sophistication and old world elegance. A duo of piano and clarinet playing classical music in the lobby added a touch of refinement as well. One evening I had dinner in the hotel restaurant and was pleasantly surprised by a gourmet menu of marinated beef in sesame sauce, pork medallions in mango and apple sauce, fresh local steamed vegetables, and accompanied by a lovely Chardonnay from the Shumen region on the Black Sea coast. During dinner, one of the waiters told me that insurance coverage was now required in Bulgaria in order to be capable of covering “inflation” and the “unforeseen” effects of the transition from communism to a free market economy! (I don’t think even Lloyds of London would cover that) Later, while I was conducting software training classes at the State Computer Center in Sofia, I asked my host Tony, for directions to the toilet. As I was relieving myself I suddenly discovered that I was standing in a big puddle – the urinal had been draining at my feet. Then Tony came in and said “the urinal doesn’t work” – thanks a lot!
Throughout my time in Bulgaria I continued to experience a fascinating mixture of cultures from East and West – like a land somewhere between Europe and Arabia. Everywhere I looked there were mosques with tall, slender minarets next to classic Gothic cathedrals and Orthodox churches.
The food was often a delicious fusion of flavors, and one evening Tony invited me to dinner at a small local restaurant in a lovely garden with tables under an arbor of young grapes. We sat outside in the pleasantly warm evening breeze and started with a glass of Bulgarian brandy that was followed by a large bowl of “Shopska”, a traditional salad of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and grated goat cheese. It was really fresh and delicious. Next was another traditional dish of diced pork sautéed in olive oil, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and parsley – an outstanding combination. To compliment the dinner Tony ordered a nice dry white wine from the central region of Bulgaria. Besides being an excellent meal, the total for the evening came to 60 Leva or about $2.25!
Also on my second trip Tony invited me to join his family for a weekend at their summer cottage in the Piran Mountains south of Sofia near the border with Greece. As we drove into the mountains we passed scores of peasants working in the fields. The women all were dressed in black, from head to toe, including heavy black shoes. Along the road were many horse drawn wooden wagons, usually with the entire family aboard.
Never once did I see a tractor during the entire trip. As soon as we arrived at the cottage, Tony suggested a hike into the heart of the mountains through a heavy forest of spruce and fir that resembled the Pacific Northwest of the US.
The trail followed a lovely stream in the shadow of Mt Vihren, the regions highest peak at 2916 meters (just under 10,000 feet). Steadily we climbed above timberline into a landscape of jagged peaks and alpine lakes, typical of a classic glaciated valley with several beautiful cirques and tarns.
We crossed over many rockfalls and through lovely alpine meadows where herds of sheep grazed, being expertly managed by a couple of sheep dogs. Despite being the height of summer there were large patches of snow remaining on the highest peaks. At last we reached the highest meadow at an elevation of more than 2500 meters (8200 feet), just below the summit of Mt Vihren, and sat down to share lunch. As we savored the small sandwiches and crisp fresh veggies, we watched small animals scurrying around gathering dried grass and preparing for winter. The surface of the small lake rippled as the trout were feeding on insects. All around us were gorgeous wildflowers strewn among the rocks – all in all it was a very peaceful and serene world!
On the way down the trail we passed a beautiful, rustic mountain lodge where Tony stopped to enquire about the cost. Unbelievably as it may seem, it was only 75 Leva (roughly $3.00) per night for accommodation and meals!
Later on Tony and I drove into the small village of Blagoevdev to buy some meat and fresh vegetables. Along the way Tony shut off the engine as we coasted down the mountain in order to save fuel, which was quite expensive in the country. After 20 minutes or so we came to a stop at an intersection and suddenly Tony couldn’t figure out why the car wouldn’t accelerate again – he had completely forgotten to turn on the engine again! Later that evening we all sat around a roaring campfire and enjoyed a dinner of Shopska and many toasts of Vodka. In the distance we could hear voices singing traditional Bulgarian folk songs and religious chants. Above us the night sky was filled with millions of stars and the Big Dipper was directly overhead. We were all drawn to and mesmerized by the campfire – such a peaceful and harmonious moment!
The next day Tony put me on a State run bus in the tiny village of Blagoevdev for the return trip to Sofia. I was sad to leave such a beautiful part of the world, but after all I had a flight to catch the following day. Over the next several hours the bus slowly passed through many small villages, stopping in every one of them before reaching Sofia in the evening. The bus dropped me off at an obscure place somewhere in the middle of the city, so I had to orient myself by comparing the tram line numbers I was seeing around me with my map of the city because I couldn’t read the Cyrillic street signs! At last I located the Sheraton Balkan Hotel, which turned out to be just a few blocks away. The bus fare for the 120 km trip (75 miles) to Sofia was only 30 Leva ($1.10). That evening, as I sat in the outdoor café at the Sheraton, enjoying a delicious traditional Bulgarian dinner, I watched 3 guys hanging by thin ropes from the top of a 17 story building across the street, desperately trying to wash the windows with a garden hose! Meanwhile I savored a delicious dinner of roasted sweet peppers stuffed with goat cheese, herb crusted chicken filet in spicy tomato and basil sauce, and finished with fresh baked apple strudel topped with vanilla cream. The glass of Bulgarian Chardonnay went very well with dinner.
On my last trip to Bulgaria I spent a week training several young, eager college students at the National Institute of Archeology. Once again my Bulgarian hosts were most hospitable and did their best to make my time in their country enjoyable and memorable – something I appreciated very much. What they could not have known was the extent of the challenges leaving the country, nor could they have done anything to resolve them. My departure from Sofia at the end of the week began with not being permitted to enter the airport terminal building until the flight was called for check in, being one flight at a time. This procedure resulted in a huge crowd and traffic jam in front the airport entrance, along with the inevitable frustration and chaos. At last, when the flight to Budapest was called there was a stampede to the check-in counters, and since there was no class M (economy class) counters to be seen, everyone formed a frantic mass of humanity in front of the one and only class C (business class) counter. Amid the growing chaos I spotted a “supervisors desk” nearby and proceeded there to plea for mercy – luckily to be rewarded with a quick business class boarding pass and even a waiver for my 16 kg of excess baggage, otherwise known as training materials. Having successfully checked in I began looking for a post office box for sending my postcards home, but there was not one in sight, so I discreetly put my stamped post cards on the Supervisors desk with the hope that she would take pity on them and put them in the post office box, where that was! Interestingly, earlier in the week Tony had pointed out that every tram in the city had a small post box at the front door of the tram. Next came Passport Control, and as expected it was a real zoo, and to top of the experience I somehow picked the lane with a person in front of me who had a serious problem with her documents! (just before Passport Control had been one small table with a stack of official looking forms, all printed in Cyrillic script, which lead me to believe I didn’t need to bother with them.) So I just walked on by and shoved my passport in front of the official’s face and magically I was waved through. So the forms must have been more red tape just for Bulgarians leaving the country. And at the security checkpoint, I watched with amazement as they seemed to let anyone through without batting an eyelash! In fact, the lady in front of me activated the alarm but the security personnel just waved her on – not very comforting! Having “waltzed” through security I found myself in a very austere waiting area, but luckily I had only 10 minutes to wait for departure, or so I thought. After waiting more than 20 minutes and finding the door to the Business Class lounge locked, the dreaded announcement came – “the flight to Budapest is delayed 2 hours”! So I made my way to the drab and dreary bar, ordered a local Astiki beer for 25 Leva ($0.35), and no sooner had the beer arrived than another announcement was made to inform Budapest passengers they could obtain a “refreshment voucher” in the bar. Honestly for me, the voucher was worth only 35 cents anyway, but for the Bulgarians it must have been 5 times that value.
During the next 2 hours, as I sat in the bar, I watched a group of young Muslim mothers dressed entirely in heavy black coats, stockings, and scarves as they managed a group of young children, while their husbands only occasionally stopped by. Strangely, in another corner of the bar was an older man dressed in a long white robe and white turban sitting amongst a small group of black men, all of whom were eating airline meals from Balkan Airlines. The scene lead me to wonder just how long they may have been stuck here in the airport – maybe days or perhaps weeks! Meanwhile the young children were becoming very “cranky” – should be a wonderful flight, if we ever take off. The man sitting next to me at the bar was also writing in his journal, and I wondered if he was writing about the same scene. However, I couldn’t read it because it was in German.
Finally, after more than 2 hours had passed, we were called to board the flight and at last I was on my way to Budapest to conduct another training class, looking forward to exploring more of the history, culture, food and wine that Budapest had to offer. Stay tuned!