8 Things You Might Not Know About Bulgaria

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Chances are, Bulgaria isn’t a country that’s high up on your travel list. It was fairly high on mine before this summer simply because I've had a slight obsession with Eastern Europe for a few years now. But I realize most people aren't like me.

Part of the reason that most people have never considered traveling to this somewhat-obscure country probably lies in the fact that nobody seems to know very much about Bulgaria. I didn't even know much about it before visiting, to be honest. But I assure you that it's much more interesting than you probably expect.

Read these fun facts about Bulgaria, and see if you aren’t a bit intrigued!

8 Things You Might Not Know About Bulgaria

Nodding for no

Bulgaria is one of only a handful of countries in the world where a shake of the head means “yes” and a nod means “no.” This can of course be confusing when you’re trying to converse through gestures with a local who doesn’t speak English, but thankfully most of them realize you don’t have a clue.

Just remember that “da” means yes, and try to ignore the seemingly incongruous gesture.

Bulgaria
These women shook their heads when I asked if I could take their photo – a resounding “yes”!

Bagpipes

If you thought Scotland was the only place known for its bagpipes… think again! Bulgaria (along with a handful of other Balkan/Eastern European countries) also has a bagpipe as a traditional instrument. Called gaida, Bulgarian bagpipes are usually made from goat hide, and don’t look quite as complicated as their Scottish counterparts.

Cyrillic alphabet

The Cyrillic alphabet – which today is used in Russia and throughout the Balkans and other Slavic nations – was invented by two monks during the First Bulgarian Empire in the 10th century. These two monks/saints (Cyril and Methodius) are celebrated each year in Bulgaria with a feast day/public holiday in May, and also in other Slavic countries around the world.

And I’ll bet you thought the Russians invented this alphabet!

Roman history

Bulgaria’s history stretches back thousands of years – further back than communism, the Ottomans, and even the Romans. The ancient Roman influence on Bulgaria can still be found in many of the country's cities, though. You’ll find Roman baths in Varna, ruins in Sofia, and a mostly-in-tact Roman theater in Plovdiv (that is still used today for plays and concerts!).

Plovdiv, Bulgaria
The Roman Theater in Plovdiv.

Rose production

Bulgaria grows a lot of roses. A LOT of roses. In fact, the roses grown in Bulgaria’s “Rose Valley” produce most (70-85%) of the world’s rose oil – a component in most perfumes.

If you want a very “Bulgarian” souvenir to take home, be sure to pick up some rose oil, which can be found for sale just about everywhere.

Lots of mountains

Believe it or not, Bulgaria is actually a fairly mountainous country. It has two major ranges – the Balkan Mountains and the Rhodope Mountains – and a few smaller ranges, including the Rila and Pirin mountains. Because of all these mountains, Bulgarian towns like Bansko have become very popular for winter sports.

Bulgaria

Cheese

Forget France or Italy – if you want great cheese, head to Bulgaria. There are so many varieties of cheese on offer here, with some of the best being the ubiquitous “white” cheese – usually goat or sheep’s cheese.

Some Bulgarians will actually argue that THEY “invented” feta cheese, and that the Greeks stole it from them. Try a traditional Shopska salad (tomato, cucumber, onion, pepper, and white cheese), and you’ll definitely be reminded of a Greek salad.

Martenitsi

On the first day of March each year, Bulgarians exchange red-and-white woven bracelets with one another. They wear these Martenitsi bracelets throughout the month, until they see a stork or a blooming tree. Then, the bracelets are tied to trees as a way of welcoming springtime. This is a holiday of sorts, called Baba Marta (“Grandmother March”), and celebrates the passing of winter.

I was in Bulgaria in July, and there were still Martenitsi tied to tree branches.

Bulgaria
Martenitsi in the trees in Sofia.

And see, I’ll bet you never knew any of this about this Eastern European country!

Who's ready to go to Bulgaria now?

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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43 Comments on “8 Things You Might Not Know About Bulgaria

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  1. I was in Bulgaria in March and well, I still wear my martenitsis (I have 4 of them;)), I just like them so much 😉

      That’s awesome! Clearly Bulgaria left an impression on you!

        actually not really. It’s nowhere near my fave countries but I wanna give it a second chance and explore it some more. It was interesting but nothing very special. Or maybe I was just in wrong places…

          Definitely check out the countryside if you go back – it’s absolutely gorgeous!

            yeah, it looks so from your and other pictures I’ve seen! I was only in Sofia and Plovdiv and they were fine, especially Plovdiv. but the food was really amazing in both of them, and that’s why I enjoyed Bulgaria a lot!

      We have them in Romania too. They are called “Martisor” and the tradition is similar to the Bulgarian one. Seems like we are neighbors 🙂

    Me! Me! I’m ready to go to Bulgaria now!

    And wow, I never would have guessed that about the Cyrillic alphabet. I really wouldn’t have guessed MOST of this stuff, really. But I guess that was the point of this article. 🙂 I seriously need to get to Eastern Europe.

    Do you ever worry that as more people like you spread the word about how awesome places like Bulgaria are, they’ll get a bump in tourism and lose part of what makes them so special? I know you’ve written before that Bulgaria isn’t well-suited for mass tourism . . .

      There’s always some worry that some of these less-visited destinations will become popular and lose some of their charm. But that’s just the nature of tourism development, really. When I find an interesting place, or somewhere I love, I’d much rather share it with someone rather than keep it all to myself, though!

      And I’m glad you learned a few things from this post! 🙂

    I had no idea that Bulgaria had such Roman influence! Amazing!! …and cheese? I’m sold!!!! (although the nodding for no thing must be a bit of a nightmare) xx

      Yeah, I had no concept of how Roman Bulgaria’s history is! Just one of the many fascinating things about this country!

    Interesting article -even more so since I am reading it while vacationing in Bulgaria. One thing you could add to the list is the abundance of warm mineral springs in the country .

      Good call on the mineral springs! Probably another thing many people wouldn’t expect to find in Bulgaria.

    I had a very brief experience in Bulgaria: it lasted half an hour, i drove 8 kms in, and bought a water melon from an old lady for 3 leva!

    It was at dusk. There was almost nothing but open fields, woods, the road… and the Black Sea on the background. Beautiful.

    Sounds like an interesting place! I think the nodding for no would really mess with my head…

      That was definitely one of the hardest things to get used to!

    I loved Bulgaria! I went to Melnik, which is a tiny wine making town in the SW corner fo the country only about 15 km north of Thessaloniki. Amazing wine and cheese. Bulgarian sheep cheese is AMAZING!

      I can say that we are mostly famous about our youghurt milk. Recently I saw a China’s advertisement talking about Bulgarian’s youghurt. haha

    Very interesting post! I was in Bulgaria briefly when I was… 6 years old, and would love to go back at some point. I was familiar with some of the things on your list, but had to idea about the roses, nodding and bracelets.

      Glad I could teach you a few things with this post then!

    I was only in Bulgaria for half a day. I wish I could have spent more time there, especially after reading this piece! I mean, hello, CHEESE.

      I think I’d go back just for the cheese!! SO GOOD.

    Apparently we began nodding our heads to say no and shaking to say yes to fool the Turks when they were attacking our country! Some of the stuff in Bulgaria have interesting origins…

      Oh cool! I did not know that… so many surprises up your sleeves in Bulgaria!

    Oddly enough, bagpipes are also traditional in NW Spain (where they are called “gaitas”). Anyhow, love your site, great read! 😉

    Hi there,
    I just want to tell you that Bulgaria is a really small country, one of the smallest in Europe, but here is the most beautiful nature you can see. And the seasons – we’ve got them all!!! I’m really proud of my country. It’s not easy to live here, but honestly…..there are a lot of people all around the world who don’t live the dream life.
    If you really want to know more interesting facts about Bulgaria just turn around…. Why?? The answer is simple – you can meet Bulgarians everywhere and maybe you’ve already knew one!!!

      It’s great that you are proud of where you come from!

      I want to move
      I’m thinking about Bulgaria as I love the seasons and the mountains and the beach

    Why s there no Chalga on the list!?

      I didn’t really learn a whole lot about it when I was there – feel free to tell us more!

    Great post! We just returned from Bulgaria for 2-weeks in the Western part of the country and was skimming the internet for people that have had the same experience. Took me about 10 days to figure out why all the threads were hanging from the trees! Could have just read about it read before I left… My wife and I did a 12-part series on Bulgaria in case you wanted to read another perspective: http://www.freerangetravel.com/traveling-bulgaria-hooked-on-phonics/ Keep up the great writing.

      Haha, yeah, it took me a while to get the threads explained to me, too!

    Nice summary! I love Bulgaria! Went there on a student exchange in 2003 and had a brilliant 2 months living and working with lovely Bulgarian students in Plovdiv! Isn’t a great city? So cool to see you went there too! I remember my first encounter with the confusing head shake/nod too but eventually got the hang of it after about 2 weeks – it just feels so strange saying yes by shaking your head doesn’t it!

      Yes I really loved Plovdiv! Must have been a fun place to spend a couple of months!

    Actually the two monks that created the Cyrillic Alphabet were in fact Macedonian. They were NOT Bulgarian.

      Everything is Macedonian… Even Batman I heard

    I was born in Vidin in Bulgaria but now I live in Brisbane, Australia. A piece of my heart will always remain in Bulgaria. I visit relatives with my immediate family every 2 years, and leaving is the worst feeling. The food and yoghurt in particular is out of this world!

    Cyril and Methodius are Byzantine monks of Slavic origin. Before being monk Cyril was a scholar in the famous Bizantine Magnaura school under the name of Constantine Philosopher. They have created the so-called Slavic Glagolitic alphabet https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glagolitic_script.
    The graphical form of the modern Cyrillic alphabet has been created in Bulgaria in the so-called Preslav school by the pupils of Cyril and Methodius, who have been expelled from Moravia by the German priests and welcomed by knyaz (prince) Boris-Michael I, who had just adopted the Orthodox Christianity to Bulgarians in the 9th century.

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