ADVENTURES IN BULGARIA!
You know how it is when you go through the
airports and you see flights to interesting and unusual places?
When you pass the gates to places like Geneva, Budapest, Venice,
Barcelona or Dubai? And you
wish that you could just drop everything and go get on one of those
flights and fly away to one of those exotic destinations?
But instead you are actually going to Detroit or Cleveland?
(No offense, citizens of Detroit and Cleveland!)
Well, this time we got to do the cool stuff. “Oh, there’s our flight, the one to Vienna.
And then we catch our connection to Sofia . . .
started in the summer of 2002, with an E-mail from Bulgaria.
An Event Rider there was looking for a market for his Event horses,
and he urged me to come to see them.
About fifty E-mails and a year and a half later, he finally talked
me into it; I decided to take the plunge and go to Bulgaria to check out
the horses. My friend and
colleague, Natalie Hollis from Water’s Edge Farm in Maryland,
accompanied me on this trip.
our friends thought we were nuts. “You’re
going where? To Bulgaria? To look at Horses?”
But I figured, best-case scenario, I go over and find nice horses,
make a good business contact, and have a great new source of quality
Eventers. In the worst case,
well, we make the trip, get kidnapped, and are never heard from again.
But hey, that probably wouldn’t happen, right? At least we would get an interesting vacation to a part of
the world we would probably never have gotten to see otherwise!
had ordered a guidebook to Bulgaria; so armed with important knowledge
from this useful source, off we went!
Aside from this source, the only real information we had on
Bulgaria consisted of vague memories from Saturday Night Live, back in the
early eighties, when Steve Martin and company did the skits about ‘The
Wild and Crazy Guys, from Bulgaria!’ And there was some debate about
that, as my sister said they were from Czechoslovakia!
We had our first adventure before we even left Dulles Airport.
After going through a security line that stretched all the way
across the airport, with my artificial knee setting off the metal detector
as usual, we proceeded to our gate. Two
policemen were loitering around the check-in counter near where we were
sitting, apparently waiting for a particular man to come and check in.
I don’t know what he had done, but when he arrived, they
handcuffed him, searched him thoroughly, (and I do mean THOROUGHLY, I had
never realized that a body cavity search could be conducted without
removing the clothing!) and dragged him away through the security door.
Off to a good start!
the over-night flight seemed endless.
The plane was full, we couldn’t get any sleep, and we were
exhausted by the time we reached our destination.
We changed planes in Vienna and caught the morning flight to
Day 1 -
We arrived in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, in the early
afternoon. The man I had been
corresponding with by E-mail, Ilian, met us at the gate, along with his
friend Lilia, who was to be our Interpreter for the week.
Finding them was somewhat of a relief, as we had no idea how to
speak the language or navigate the roads of this country.
I admit we’d had a few anxiety-based visions of wandering
helpless around the airport looking for a Bulgarian/English dictionary!
weather that greeted us was lovely, sunny and fairly warm.
Natalie and I felt we had made the right decision to bring only our
mid-weight jackets, it was really quite mild.
Little did we know that this would be the last time we saw the sun
until our final day in Bulgaria!
brought around our transport for the week, a large and fairly old van-type
vehicle with writing all over the side of it.
The Bulgarian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet, so we never did
find out what it said! We
piled all of our stuff in the ‘Tour Bus’, and off we went through the
quite a large city. There are
many large square apartment buildings, about twelve stories high, with
balconies where the residents hang their laundry.
They are all just alike, and all somewhat in a state of disrepair.
These apartment buildings are apparently left over from the
communist regime when all of the housing was government owned, and they
seem to be where most of the people live now.
of the cars looked fairly old, and often quite beat-up.
We saw many Russian Ladas; this brought me a strong sense of déjà
vu, as I had owned a Lada one of the summers I spent in England, they
brought back interesting memories!
respects, as you drove through the city, it could have been a city
anywhere in the world. But it
was weird to drive through the streets and see signs, not only in a
totally incomprehensible language, but also with an entirely different
alphabet! Fortunately, Lilia
spoke nearly perfect English, so she could answer all of our questions.
We learned as much as we could about the country and the people of
by the Showground and saw a couple of horses in the stable; we were not
able to watch them go, but we would see these horses later in the week.
They looked quite promising! We
had a cup of coffee in the stable bar, and then we set out on the long
drive to the city of Rousse, which is about five hours northeast of Sofia.
now of course we were really tired, having not slept the night before on
the plane. The Tour Bus was roomy, but bumpy and drafty, not really
conducive to napping. Also,
the accepted method of driving in Bulgaria seems to be somewhat, um,
erratic, shall we say. I
curled up in the back and tried to sleep, but every time Ilian hit the
breaks I would go flying off the narrow seat!
was an important piece of information we had learned from Natalie’s
book. Bring Your Own Toilet
Paper! When we stopped at a
gas station for a pit stop, we found that this was very good advice!
What we didn’t expect was, it might have been handy to also bring
your own toilet. We found
that in many of the older buildings, the restrooms consisted of a hole in
the floor, with two footprint-shaped markers on either side of it!
Not only that, but to add insult to injury, there was often a
person collecting money at the restroom door!
We eventually arrived in the city of
Rousse, and checked into the Danube Plaza Hotel, a very upscale (at least
for Bulgaria) hotel in the center of the city.
We immediately learned something about the differences in freedoms
in this part of the world compared to our own; when we checked in to the
hotel, we were expected to surrender our passports!
Lilia took us out for our first Bulgarian meal.
We walked across the city square, surrounded by huge old buildings
with lovely but crumbling architecture.
In the center of the square was a tall and magnificent statue; it
was called the Monument to Freedom. We
were quite exhausted by this point, and in our sleep-deprived state, we
not only had no idea what to order from the menu that was written all in
Bulgarian (Lilia ordered for us), but afterwards we hardly remembered what
we ate. The evening took on sort of a surreal quality, to the point
that when the waiter came after we had eaten and cleaned up the crumbs on
the table and in our laps with a Dust Buster, it didn’t even seem that
Monument to Freedom.
Then back to the hotel. It
was, like most of Bulgaria as we were to discover over the next week, an
interesting mix of old and new. The
lobby, bar and restaurant downstairs were very modern and quite fancy.
But when you stepped into the elevator to go upstairs, you sort of
stepped back in time. And I
mean that quite literally; the elevator itself was archaic.
It was tiny, slow, and did not have power doors.
By the time we wedged our luggage and ourselves into it, there was
barely room enough to maneuver to push the floor buttons.
The door had a glass window, so we could, somewhat disconcertingly,
watch the floors go by. When we arrived on our floor, we found ourselves waiting for
the elevator doors to open; but of course they didn’t, you had to push
your way out. The corridors
were plain but clean; as evidenced by the vacuum cleaner left sitting in
the hall near our door!
room itself was quite adequate, though not fancy.
The beds were firm (very firm), and I am not sure what the
pillows were stuffed with, but they weighed about 30 pounds apiece.
The heater worked well; so well in fact that we had to open the
window to keep from suffocating, as there was no thermostat or control
switch in the room! So all in
all, we were pretty comfortable.
bathroom was very luxurious; it had not only a sit-down toilet, but
supplied toilet paper as well! It
also had a very interesting shower. There
was no bathtub or shower stall; just a drain in the floor, and the shower
was right in the middle of the bathroom, so when you turned it on it
doused the sink, the toilet, the towels and the precious toilet paper if
you weren’t careful! Also,
the bathroom vent led into the room next door, so you could hear
everything your neighbor did!
state of exhaustion, we went to bed and slept like logs until the next
morning, right? NOT!
By now it was well after midnight, but our bodies thought they were
still on U.S. time, a seven hours difference.
So we tossed and turned and hardly slept at all, until of course
about a half hour before the alarm was to go off!
Day 2 -
Today was Natalie’s birthday!
Her 29th and last one, she said!
rang obscenely early, as by now our bodies thought it was midnight.
When I answered the phone someone spoke rapidly in Bulgarian.
It may have been our wake-up call or it may have been someone
saying we had won the Balkan lottery . . . While I took a shower Natalie
watched Popeye the Sailor Man on TV, in Bulgarian!
Then we went
out walking around the square, and enjoyed the Monument to Freedom in the
It was a
cold and dreary day, overcast and damp.
Lilia met us in front of the hotel, and we went to Ilian’s lovely
to see his horses. He showed
us his youngsters, and we watched him ride his lovely experienced Event
horse, Dim. It was a delight to watch this talented and beautiful horse
go; the video of Dim that Ilian had sent me was largely responsible for my
decision to come to Bulgaria to see the horses!
saw a demonstration of some of Ilian’s younger students riding and
jumping, including his talented daughter Veronica, on her pony Penelope.
They were very impressive! We
also had the opportunity to meet Marie, Ilian’s assistant trainer at the
stable, and one of the few women we saw riding in Bulgaria!
Ilian showed us some of his young horses as well; they were of
excellent quality, definitely ones to check out on our next trip.
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to this stable!
Bulgarian manure spreader.
We left the stable and went to see the castle of Tcherven.
It is a fabulous ancient stronghold on the top of a very tall and
sheer-sided hill, surrounded by a deep river gorge.
We climbed up 233 steps (but who’s counting!), and then further
negotiated a steep upward slope to the top.
From that lofty position, we could look down over the winding river
and the green valleys on all sides. The
place had a lovely sense of peace and tranquility, despite the fact that
it was surely built as a fortress of protection from enemies.
The Castle at Tcherven.
As we drove along, it was really interesting to observe the scenery
along the way. It seems that almost everyone lives in either the cities or
the villages. We saw lots of
farmland and crop fields, but few actual farms or farmhouses. There was
city, then country, but no in-between. This is probably a throwback from
Communist times, when the farms were all Government owned.
many peasant-like people along the roads.
We saw sturdy-built women wearing work boots and shawls, with
scarves over their heads. Older
men wearing balaclavas against the cold, tending a small herd of sheep,
goats, or cattle grazing along the side of the road.
Sometimes you would see a man patiently standing with just one cow!
We saw farmers out harvesting their crops with hand tools, and
putting the produce into small carts, pulled by a pony or donkey.
They would travel miles with these pony carts, to take the farm
produce to their home in the village.
These people looked very familiar to me; they were like the peasant
folk straight out of novels and movies of early twentieth century Russia.
I thought we had truly traveled back in time!
interesting to talk to Lilia about the way of life in Bulgaria.
I asked her about how the quality of life had improved in the last
ten years or so, since the downfall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the
Communist Regime. To my
surprise, she said that things had not improved; that most of the people
had less now than they did under Communism.
This was really a shock to me!
I think that in America we are taught from grade school on to
believe that Communism is an evil thing, and I somehow had a vague notion
that when the Iron Curtain fell, the people would be celebrating their
new-found freedom in the streets. But
this was not necessarily the case! I
was amazed to learn that many of the people felt that they are less well
off now than they were before, and that giving up freedom had been a fair
price to pay for a more secure lifestyle.
It really makes me appreciate the liberty that most Americans take
We stopped back in Rousse and visited the Photo Shop owned by
Ilian’s brother, Krasimir. He
showed us his gallery, and a lovely display of photographs, a study of the
faces of horses and riders. He
most generously gave Natalie several lovely photos from this display as a
present for her Birthday! Then
they took us out to lunch. Everyone
was treating us like Royalty! Natalie
had noticed the calendar in Krasimir’s Photo Shop; the date we arrived
was circled in red. Coincidence?
We weren’t sure.
back to Ilian’s stable, and toured the cross-country course; it was
quite imposing! The jumps
there would require a bold and clever horse.
The fences were reminiscent of what the sport was like here thirty
years ago. The materials used
were often small and somewhat flimsy; this made the degree of difficulty
higher. I would want to have
a lot of trust in my horse before attempting most of these obstacles! There was also a racetrack there; it was an oval sand track
with bushes lining it, but no fence or rail.
It was quite overgrown and looked long disused, so I was surprised
to learn that several race meets are held there each year.
There was an ancient looking grandstand, with goats frolicking up
and down the bleachers.
jumped Dim for us in the late afternoon; he was most impressive.
By the time Natalie rode him we were losing the light, but an
incredible full moon was rising above the horizon.
She had a lovely moonlight gallop around the racetrack on this
beautiful horse, a great way to end the day on her Birthday!
We went to dinner at a buffet-type restaurant; this was great
because we could see what we were ordering!
Ilian insisted on paying for our dinner, it would be our turn next
dinner, Ilian took us back to his house to see videos.
He had tapes on many of the horses we would be looking at during
the next few days; this was a great chance to see some of the horses in
like practically everyone in Bulgaria smokes.
This doesn’t particularly bother me, but I had a cough from a
cold that I was just getting over. So
while we were watching the videos, every time I coughed, they thought it
was because of the smoke, and someone would get up and open the window for
ventilation. Then we were
freezing to death!
dropped Natalie and I off at the hotel near midnight.
We were still feeling very jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, but at
the same time, now that it was time for bed, our bodies were insisting
that it was mid-afternoon, and we didn’t feel like sleeping.
So we went to the hotel bar! We
found it very economical to drink in Bulgaria, it only costs about 40
cents for a beer. We had
several drinks and wrote up our notes on what we had seen so far.
There was a very chatty guy from Georgia (the state, not the
country) there; he wanted to know what we were doing in Bulgaria.
When we told him we had come to look at horses, he said, “I saw
three dead ones by the road in Romania!”
returned to our room, after waiting in vain for the elevator doors to
open, and passing the vacuum cleaner, which was still sitting in the hall.
We made a brief phone call home to let them know we hadn’t been
kidnapped yet; this ended up costing us $45 for three minutes! We spent the rest of the night restlessly attempting to
Day 3 - Sunday
morning Ilian and Lilia loaded up all of our stuff in the tour bus (they
insisted on carrying our suitcases for us!), and we all set off for the
town of Arbanasi. The drive gave us a good chance to see more of the
countryside. It is really
quite a beautiful county, not unlike Virginia.
It is very green, with rolling hills and mountainous ranges.
There are many lake and small rivers, and some beautiful forests.
There are large areas of farmland, often divided up into smaller
sections, where each family can work a plot of land.
Again, we saw large numbers of people gathering crops using the
pony carts. It was mostly
older people that we saw doing the farm work; Lilia explained that most of
the younger generation doesn’t want to farm; they have gotten an
education and seek an easier life.
We also learned something about the economics of the country.
Many people live below what is considered the poverty level, and
the average wages are around $150 per month.
Of course, the cost of living is much lower than we are used to,
but still! We also learned
that it is customary for foreigners and tourists to be charged much higher
prices for goods and services, such as hotels and food, than what the
Bulgarian people would pay.
I thought it
would be interesting to compare horse related costs in Bulgaria to our
own, so I asked Ilian some questions regarding prices.
We found out that to board a horse costs about $100 per month. A typical pre-prepurchase veterinary exam runs around $60.
A private riding lesson is $5!
I tried to find out what it costs for one shoeing by the farrier,
but he didn’t really understand that question; it turns out that almost
everyone just shoes their own horses!
We went to the Arbanasi stables.
This was a fairly large stable, and the site of one of the leading
Events in Bulgaria. There was
a large sand ring where we were to ride the horses, but 75% of it was
under water, it looked like a big lake!
at quite a number of really nice horses at Arbanasi.
I had given Ilian a very long list of tough requirements, and all
of the horses that we were shown met those specifications.
I was quite surprised by how nice the horses were! They were quite similar in type and quality to the horses in
to this trip, my feelings about the practicality of it had fluctuated.
Half of the time I thought I was insane. I thought I would probably travel halfway across the world to
see horses that were not up to standard.
But the other half of the time I thought, why not go and find out?
Several of the horses we saw that day were very much of interest to
us. The trip was starting to
seem really worthwhile!
riding in the ring, we would take the horses out for a gallop on the
cross-country course. At one
point, I was galloping up a long hill on a lovely mount, and I was really
struck by the circumstances. “Here
I am”, I thought, “galloping across Bulgaria.
How surreal is this?” I
didn’t want to stop.
I learned a Bulgarian word on this day: galup!
(pronounced ga-loop, with the accent on the second syllable)
It means to canter. This
turned out to be the only Bulgarian word I learned the entire trip!
it was quite interesting, and at times disconcerting, to deal with the
language barrier. We would
listen to Bulgarian being spoken rapidly around us, and as languages do
when you don’t understand them, it would sound like gibberish.
But interspersed with the unintelligible babble, we would hear our
names, or the horses’ names, or a word or two that was the same as in
English. It reminded me of that Gary Larson ‘Far Side’ cartoon:
say to your dog: “You are a good dog, Shelby, why don’t we go out for
a hack, Shelby, go lie down on your bed . . .”
dog hears: “blah blah blah Shelby, blah blah blah blah Shelby, blah blah
. . .”
most part, we found the horses very well cared for.
The stables were clean and comfortable, and the horses were in good
shape. But there were some
differences in how things are done. One
of the most amazing things we noticed, at every stable we went to, is that
they do not have water buckets in the stalls!
Instead, they carry buckets around and offer the horses a drink 3
or 4 times a day. The horses
are used to this system, and they quickly learn to drink deeply when they
get the chance. I guess that
disproves the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water . . . “
It was very cold and damp, and we became progressively colder as
the day wore on. Why was it
that we hadn’t brought our heaviest down jackets?
By the time we were done looking at the horses, we were so frozen
that we could barely move, and our feet were like ice cubes.
us out for a late lunch, where we warmed up somewhat with a bowl of hot
soup. The shops all had
excellent soups, and Lilia showed us the Bulgarian custom of putting
vinegar in the soup. It
sounds weird, but it was really quite good! They also served excellent breads, but butter was not served
with it. We always made a
point of using the restrooms (or WCs, as they are known in Europe) at
lunch, or anywhere that we went where they were indoors and had actual
toilets! You never knew how far it might be to the next civilized
went to another stable, this one was privately owned by one of the
wealthiest men in the country, and it was very fancy.
We saw more horses there, and it didn’t take long for us to be
frozen again! It was dark by the time we finished riding.
By now I
was seriously cold; it really took me a while to warm up!
Arbanasi is a lovely village, with stonewalls lining the narrow
street that wound its way up the hillside.
Ilian had rented a cabin; the four of us stayed there for the
night. We went into the town of Veliko Tarnova and had dinner at a
nice Italian restaurant. Once
again, Ilian insisted on paying for dinner.
We argued with him that it was our turn to treat, but he was
unyielding on the subject. We
were getting a bit uncomfortable about that, as he had paid for every meal
we had eaten so far, and wouldn’t let us even so much as buy a round of
drinks. He even bought us
flowers at the dinner table!
the cabin, for a few hours of sleep.
It is amazing how much difference the seven-hour time difference
makes, compared to the five-hour change when I go to Ireland!
I make the Ireland trip often, and usually adjust to the time
difference in a day or two. Natalie
and I were both finding the seven-hour change much more difficult!