Located in the Balkans, in Southeast Europe, Bulgaria is one of the least well-known countries in the EU. However, it is far from being an unremarkable country. Today it is becoming a popular tourist destination and it is easy to see why. Here is a brief overview of Bulgaria’s recent history and 15 facts that are worth knowing.
Although it is one of the newest members of the EU, it was founded in the seventh century, making it one of Europe’s oldest countries. However, due to its location – at the junction between Europe and Asia – it was susceptible to foreign invasion. As such, it was under Ottoman rule for nearly 500 years, and only regained its independence in 1878.
Following its newly gained independence, Bulgaria went through a turbulent 20th century. It was involved in multiple different conflicts during the first half of the 20th century – including 2 Balkan Wars and both World War I and II – which resulted in significant territorial losses and displaced ethnic Bulgarians outside of the borders. After World War II – in which it fought alongside Nazi Germany – Bulgaria fell into the Soviet sphere of influence and was ruled by the Communist Party, mostly under Todor Zhivkov who lead the party from 1954 until 1989, when communism ended in Bulgaria.
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Post-communism, the transition to capitalism was not easy, and it was during this time that the Bulgarian mafia or мутри (pronounced: mutri) took control over much of the local business. A lot of corruption and criminality is linked to this period, and some of its effects can still be felt today. In the summer of 2020, for instance, people protested for over 100 days, mostly in the capital, but also in cities around the world, calling for the resignation of the government. This was largely seen as the result of the long-standing grievances against endemic corruption, particularly by people associated with the government.
Today, Bulgaria is a country of nearly 7 million people. It became a member of the European Union in 2007 along with Romania, and it is slowly becoming a popular tourist destination for European holiday goers. Some of its main attractions include its coast on the Black Sea, its ski resorts, and its historical monuments dating as far back as Thracian times. Furthermore, it is very accessible, safe, and cheap! Overall, it is a country with a very rich history, a unique culture, and many attractions, which is definitely worth a visit!
Here are 15 fun facts about Bulgaria that are worth knowing:
- Bulgarian is the official language. It is a slavic language and is very similar to the related Macedonian language. There are quite a few loanwords used in the language which predominantly came from Russian and French, as well as English and Turkish.
- Bulgaria is a country in Europe that has kept its name the longest. Since its establishment in 681, it is the only country in Europe that never changed its name.
- The Cyrillic alphabet originated in Bulgaria. Saints Cyril and Methodius created the first known Slavic alphabet in the 9th century in order to translate liturgical books and help spread Christianity. This was necessary as the Greek and Latin alphabets were ill-suited to transcribe the Slavic language. Their version of the alphabet – called the Glagolitic script – was later adapted by students of the two monks to create the Cyrillic alphabet, which has since become the basis for many alphabets around the world, including the Russian alphabet.
- Plovdiv – Bulgaria’s 2nd largest city- is the oldest inhabited city in Europe. The city has been continuously inhabited since the 6th millennium BCE. It was first a Thracian settlement and was later ruled by many different powers, including the Greeks, the Romans, and the Turks, which explains its position as the cultural capital of Bulgaria and the European Capital of Culture in 2019.
- Bulgarians nod for “no” and shake their heads for “yes”. There is a legend which explains that this is linked to the 5 centuries of Ottoman rule, during which many were forced to become Muslim, and, if they declined, they were often killed. The legend states that the Bulgarians agreed to swap the signs for yes and no so they could nod in agreement while actually meaning “no” in their hearts.
- The highest peak in the Balkan Peninsula is Musala Peak (2925m), located in the Rila Mountains. It is exactly 6 metres taller than Mount Olympus in neighbouring Greece.
- Over half of the rose oil in the world comes from Bulgaria. Most of this is then exported to countries like France and used in cosmetic products, such as perfumes.
- Every year, on the 1st March, Bulgarians celebrate Baba Marta and welcome spring by handing out мартеници (pronounced: martenitsi)- red and white wool bracelets – to their friends and family. These are a symbol of good health and prosperity, and should be worn until the person sees a stork or a blossoming tree. Once you have spotted either of these, you should hang up your martenitsa on a tree.
- Name days are celebrated similarly to birthdays in Bulgaria. Almost every day of the year corresponds to the name of an Eastern Orthodox saint, and each person with a name relating to it may celebrate their name day. The tradition is for the person celebrating to prepare or buy something to treat every person who wishes them a happy name day. Often people will even hold a small party.
- Bulgaria ranks 3rd in Europe for biodiversity.
- There are 9 UNESCO sights: 7 cultural and 2 natural.
- Along with Ireland and Scotland, Bulgaria has the bagpipes as a national instrument. The local version is called гайда (pronounced: gaida).
- The main bacterium used for the production of yogurt was first discovered in Bulgaria. Lactobacillus bulgaricus, as it is called, was first identified in 1905 in Bulgaria by the Bulgarian doctor, Stamen Grigorov, but it can be found naturally in the gastrointestinal tract of mammals in some parts of the Balkan peninsula.
- Sofia is the cheapest capital in Europe.
- Finally, Bulgarian Pink tomatoes are possibly the best tomatoes you will ever taste. (Yes, this is my own personal opinion, however, I have never been proven wrong!)
If you are interested in getting a taste of Bulgarian culture (literally), you can do so by visiting the Bulgarian grocery shop “Balkan” on South Circular road in Dublin. It imports its products directly from Bulgaria and even sells the delicious tomatoes I mentioned above. Another highly recommended product would be a popular dipping sauce called лютеница (pronounced: lyutenitsa), made of mostly red peppers and tomatoes mixed with some other vegetables, which is perfect to spread on bread or use as a side dish.