A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Europe’s ‘Most Beautiful’ Women And Other Reasons To Love Bulgaria

I had to go to Bulgaria just to see if Bill Bryson was full of crap. In his book, “Neither Here Nor There,” published in 1991, Bryson wrote, “Sofia has, without any doubt, the most beautiful women in Europe.” I was in college when I read the book, and at the tail end of the Cold War it seemed like an improbable assertion. We’d been led to believe that women behind the Iron Curtain were ugly, and, given the fact that our only exposure to them was watching the Olympics, where all we saw were women with hairy armpits named Olga who could powerlift 800 kilos, it was easy to believe the jingoistic Cold War propaganda.

But Bryson’s line about Bulgarian women stayed with me, and in 1997, when I was 24, I finally had a chance to see the place for myself on the tail end of a long overland trip that started in Portugal and concluded in central Turkey. For a young, single guy on a tight budget, Bulgaria was like paradise. In smaller cities and towns, you could get by quite comfortably on $10 per day.

A bed in someone’s home went for $5, you could eat out for a buck and big bottles of beer went for as little as 30 cents. There were cities filled with history, medieval monasteries to discover, beaches on the Black Sea, and of course, dark-haired, head-turning beauties everywhere. But were they, as Bryson insisted, the most beautiful women in Europe?The Internet is filled with contrived lists ranking the best-looking women and men around the world. A list of the top ten cities with the most beautiful women on Traveler’s Digest, for example, places Kiev at the top of the heap, but Varna, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea came in a very respectable fifth.
Trying to quantify beauty on an international, comparative basis is, in a way, ridiculous because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But just about any seasoned traveler will tell you that they’ve been to a place where they found the locals to be simply irresistible. I’ve never heard any Western women rave about Central and Eastern European men, but there is something very compelling about the women in this region. (Traveler’s Digest’s list of top ten cities with the hottest men completely excludes this region.)

But are Bulgarian women the best looking in Europe? I wouldn’t argue with Bryson or anyone else who makes that case but the competition is awfully fierce. I’ve been to a handful of countries around the world, which I won’t name, where I didn’t find members of the sex particularly attractive, but one can make a pretty compelling case that the women of almost any country in Europe are the most beautiful. If you don’t believe me, take a long walk through the streets of Belgrade, Kiev, Zagreb, Budapest, Copenhagen, Berlin, Rome or Madrid, and you’ll see what I mean.

After I joined the Foreign Service and was posted to Skopje, Macedonia, for two years as a married man, I found other reasons to love Bulgaria. After Bryson visited Sofia in 1990, he wrote, “I’m certain that if I come back to Sofia in five years, it will be full of Pizza Huts and Laura Ashleys and the streets will be clogged with BMW’s.” His timetable may have been a bit off, but he was basically right.

Sofia is a very interesting city but living in Skopje, I was most impressed by the fact that they had Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway. (Married men can still enjoy munchkins and foot-long meatball subs.) But my favorite places in Bulgaria were all outside the capital – I loved Veliko Tarnovo’s gracefully crumbling architecture, Varna’s tacky seaside charms, Melnik’s wineries, Blagoevgrad’s youthful energy, Koprivshtitsa’s colorful houses and Plovdiv’s sense of history.

But the place that really hooked me was Bansko, a lively little town nestled in the Pirin Mountains in the southwest of the country. Bansko now hosts a World Cup ski race and it has plenty of hotels and bars, but it’s still a place where local farmers walk their cows through the streets, wedding processions take over the center on weekends and photos of the dead are plastered all over buildings.

Bansko’s bars alone make the place worth a visit. They serve the excellent Pirinsko beer on draught, dirt cheap, and feature live gypsy bands almost every night of the week. But what I liked best of all about Bansko, was the way I felt each time we visited: blissfully cut off from the wider world and all of its problems.

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(Photos courtesy of Klearchos Kapoutsis on Flickr and Dave Seminara)

Archaeologists Analyze John the Baptist’s Bones

The Black Sea port of Sozopol has been making the news quite a bit lately. First, Bulgarian archaeologists uncovered two vampire skeletons there, and now its relics of John the Baptist have been submitted to scientific analysis.

Back in 2010, archaeologists uncovered six bone fragments from a marble sarcophagus in the ruins of a medieval church on the island of Sveti Ivan, “Saint John,” near Sozopol.

The bones are on display at a church in Sozopol. One of them, a knucklebone, was radiocarbon dated at the University of Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. The team found it dated to the first century A.D.

The radiocarbon results will no doubt cheer the faithful, who generally dismiss radiocarbon dating when it proves the world is more than 6,000 years old or that the Shroud of Turin is a medieval fake.

Geneticists at the University of Copenhagen analyzed three bones and found they belonged to the same male individual, and that he hailed from the Middle East.

So could this be John the Baptist? It’s possible, although of course it can’t be said for sure. One point in favor is that a box made of volcanic tuff from Cappadocia, Turkey, was found next to the bones. On it is an inscription in ancient Greek of John’s name and feast day. Researchers note that many relics came from the Holy Land via the religious communities in Cappadocia before ending up in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, modern Istanbul. They were then distributed throughout the Empire.

Many relics from John the Baptist can be found in churches throughout the world, including several examples of his head. Gadling blogger and relics researcher David Farley came across one story of a Spanish monk who went in search of a relic for his monastery. As Farley relates:

“During his wanderings he happened upon a black market relics salesman who told him he had a fine relic he could sell him. It was the head of John, the Baptist. But this wasn’t just the head of John, the Baptist. It was the head of John, the Baptist…as an infant.”

[Photo of Serbian painting of John the Baptist, c. 1235, courtesy The Yorck Project]

Vampire Skeleton On Display In Bulgaria

Last week we brought you the story that archaeologists had discovered two vampire graves in Bulgaria. Now one of those skeletons, complete with an iron spike through his chest, is going on display at the National History Museum in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.

The medieval skeleton will be revealed to the public this Saturday. No word yet on how long it will be on view.

Museum head Prof. Bozhidar Dimitrov has tentatively identified the skeleton as a man named Krivich, who was both a pirate and the mayor of the town of Sozopol where he was buried. When the Genoese besieged the town in the 14th century, Krivich bungled the defense. The town was sacked.

When Krivich died, he was punished for his failings in life by being staked through the chest. According to folk belief at the time, this kept him from becoming a vampire or ascending to heaven.

Even if you don’t get a chance to see the dead vampire, the museum is well worth a look. Bulgaria has a rich heritage stretching back to earliest times. I visited the museum when I was excavating a Bronze Age village in Bulgaria and found the collection truly impressive.

In addition to many prehistoric artifacts, there are golden treasures from the Thracian period, fine art from the glory days of the medieval Bulgarian Empire and more modern displays showing the struggle to become independent from the Ottoman Empire.

Besides history, Bulgaria offers beautiful trails in the Balkan Mountains, beaches along the Black Sea and very cool people. It’s a country worth visiting.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Vampire Graves Dug Up In Bulgaria

Bulgarian archaeologists have discovered two vampire graves in the city of Sozopol on the Black Sea. The burials, which are about 700 years old, were each held down with a massive iron stake through the chest. One vampire was buried in the apse of a church – a spot usually reserved for aristocrats – and showed evidence of multiple stab wounds.

Bozhidar Dimitrov, head of the Bulgarian National Museum of History, says more than a hundred vampire graves have been found in Bulgaria. He says that most suspected vampires were aristocrats or clergy. Interestingly, none were women.

One possible explanation for the vampire myth comes from anthropologist Paul Barber in his book “Vampires, Burial, and Death.” He posits the vampire legend started because people didn’t know how bodies decomposed. Rigor mortis is only temporary. After a few days the muscles ease up and expanding gases in the body will actually shift it within the coffin. Blood seeps out of the mouth and the face and belly get a flushed and puffy look. So. . .a guy dies, they bury him, and shortly thereafter several more people die. The villagers decide the first guy is a vampire, and when they open up his grave they find he’s moved, looks fat and flush with life, and has bloody teeth. When you drive a stake through a body filled with corpse gas it lets out a shriek.

There are several good vampire attractions in Europe, such as Dracula’s Castle in Romania, the Vampire Museum in Paris and Highgate Cemetery in London, scene of a wave of vampire sightings in the 1970s.

Vampires have long captured the imagination. Vampire stories were popular in the nineteenth century and some of the best early horror films are vampire tales. “Nosferatu” (1922), a still of which is shown here in the Wikimedia Commons image, sticks close to the Bram Stoker novel. A different take can be found in the film “Vampyr” (1932). Both monsters are spooky, kick-ass killers, not the angsty pretty-boy teens of today’s vampire craze. As Bart Simpson once said, “Girls ruin everything, even vampires!”

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Bulgaria Is The Place To Break Down

Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) know how desirable their post is upon discovering how many houseguests they receive. If you live in Paris, people who you once shared a peanut butter sandwich with in grammar school and long lost cousins you don’t like to begin with will come out of the woodwork looking for a free place to stay. But friends who are willing to come visit you in Niger or Kazakhstan are real friends indeed.

Macedonia is a beautiful country, but it’s a tough sell for Americans, so the only houseguests we had while living in the country for two years were our parents and one of my brothers. Flying into a small airport like Skopje from the U.S. is a huge effort and expense, so we wanted to show them everything in the region while they were in town. The first road trip I had planned for my parents was to Sofia, Bulgaria, which is about 2.5 hours east of Skopje.

It was my parents’ first trip to the Balkans, and I was behind the wheel, with both my wife and mother in the backseat barking driving instructions at me as we twisted and turned our way towards Bulgaria’s capital. Slow down! Watch that guy, he’s not stopping for you! What does that sign say!?Yet as we thundered down a rare straightaway only miles after crossing the border into Bulgaria, the backseat drivers, bless them, were strangely quiet. Out of nowhere, I saw a huge mound of dirt and rocks laying smack across the entire width of the two-lane road and tried to slam on the brakes, to no avail.

We went airborne, Dukes of Hazard Style across the mound, and the car slammed down front end first, knocking my glasses right off my face. The road, as it turns out, had come to an end with no warning. We were OK, but the car was making odd noises. We coasted into a gas station, which was staffed with very cute young girls working as pump attendants.

They seemed to think our problem was hilarious, but we soon realized that we had oil leaking from our transmission fluid pan. The girls, in their smart one-piece gas station attendant outfits, pointed us towards a garage up the street.

By this time, the car had lost too much fluid and I couldn’t even steer it properly. Luckily the road was straight and we coasted into what seemed to be a deserted mechanic’s garage. A few young people sat huddled around a space heater in a freezing cold café attached to the quiet garage on an unseasonably frigid April afternoon.

The café was empty and the group seemed to view our entrance as an unwanted intrusion on their quiet, uneventful day. Lacking any Bulgarian language skills, I pointed to the car, which was perched at their entrance and said, “PROBLEM.” They summoned a young man with filthy, coal black hands.

The young man looked at the car and began asking us questions in Bulgarian, as we stood around looking concerned and cold. Soon, another short swarthy man came around and starting poking at the undersides of our leaking car.

“PRO-BLEM,” he said.
To which, I retorted, “BIG PRO-BLEM?” Hoping against hope he’d say it wasn’t.

He shook his head yes, meaning no, in that odd, counterintuitive way Bulgarians are famous for.

We repaired to the icy cold café and my father shouted at the lackadaisical youths huddling around the space heater, as though they were hard of hearing rather than unable to understand English.

“COFFFFEEEEE???” he shouted.

He startled them but they brewed him a fresh cup, and when they asked for the equivalent of 25 cents, my father was thrilled.

“Where can you get a cup of coffee for only 25 cents?” he said to no one in particular.

As we sat in the empty café looking out onto a tableau of heavy gray skies, I silently assessed our situation. We were stuck in a small town, the name of which I did not know, in the Bulgarian countryside. Our car had some unknown malady. None of us knew a thing about auto repairs, nor could we speak Bulgarian.

We’re from the United States. Our car has diplomatic plates. We’re rich, at least so they think. They’re poor, or at least so we think. It’s freezing cold. My dad is hollering at the staff in his friendly, gregarious way, trying to befriend them, but quite possibly also making them angry.

I was quite convinced that the men were about to gouge us. Would they demand our first-born child? My wife? Quarts of my blood? Only time would tell.

The mechanics ascertained that the pan, which holds the transmission fluid, had been sliced open in the accident. The swarthy man and his apprentice were welding and pounding it back together with a hammer. In the U.S., most mechanics would have told us that they had to order a new part and charge us a fortune for their time. But this plucky crew was actually fixing the darn thing. But would it make it to Sofia?

As we sat in the café staring enviously at the “employees” who clung to the only space heater in the place like leeches, my mother and wife broached the topic of turning back to Skopje. But like Clark Griswold in the movie “Vacation,” I was not to be deterred. One hour away from Sofia and they want to turn back? I had promised my family a Bulgarian holiday, and a Bulgarian holiday they would have.

After a little more than two hours of merciless hammering and welding, the men in jumpsuits proclaimed that the car was fixed. I followed them to the front desk to pay with butterflies in my stomach. Here it comes, I thought.

The elder mechanic punched the figure 67 onto a calculator and turned it around for my dad and I to see the digits. He looked at us as if to determine if we found the figure acceptable. 67, 67 what? I thought. Gold bouillon coins? Heads of cattle? Virgins to be sacrificed at the Temple of Bulgarian Mechanics?

This prince of a man broke the suspense by saying “LEVA,” Bulgaria’s currency. As if reading my mind, he then did some calculation and came up with a price of 30 euros. I thought that my father was going to leap across the counter and embrace him in a bear hug, but I just wanted to pay and escape before he changed his mind.

As we hopped into our car, which started and seemed to work just fine, we were all giddy with excitement.

“Boy, if I was him I would have charged you enough to retire on!” my dad said.

We barely used the car after arriving in Sofia and the weekend passed without further vehicular incident. But on Monday morning, I went out into the icy streets to dust snow off the car, and noticed that we had two flat tires.

I alerted the staff of The Hotel Meg, where we were staying, and thankfully, they felt some kind of responsibility, even though the car was parked across the street from the hotel.

An extraordinarily nice young man named Goce immediately went out into the freezing cold and began putting our spare on one of the flats. In less than an hour, Goce had the spare on one flat, and the other jacked up. He, my dad and I then piled into a battered old Communist-era taxi with the two flat tires hanging half out of the tiny little trunk.

There was something wrong with the driver’s seat and it literally hung down onto the back seat into my dad’s lap. The driver asked for the equivalent of $1 for the ride to the garage, and even offered to stick around until the tires were fixed and then drive us back to the Hotel Meg.

The little garage was busy, but the men dropped everything to deal with our bum tires. As they dipped the first one into a huge vat of awful, sludgy, icy cold water, my dad remarked, presciently, “Godammit, I’m glad I don’t have to dip my hand in that cold, dirty water!”

As we waited for the mechanic’s verdict, I sat in a tiny little makeshift café attached to the garage, watching people with dull, blank expressions drink ebony black coffee from small white plastic cups. I felt so happy that it would be my last time hanging out in such a dismal place.

I felt certain that the man would tell us we needed new tires. I was wrong. They patched them up, charged us 7 Euros, and we were back in the battered taxi, with the driver on my lap this time, heading back to the Hotel Meg.

“Bulgaria is alright!” my dad proclaimed, and I laughed.

“No seriously,” he continued, “You can get things fixed here! I wish we would bring some of these mechanics back to the States!”

Read more from “A Traveler In the Foreign Service” here.

[Photo by Sludgegulper on Flickr]