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

hot bulgarian womenI 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.
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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.)

sexy bulgarian womanBut 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.

bansko bulgarian gypsy bandBut 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.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

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

Vampire Skeleton On Display In Bulgaria

vampire, vampiresLast 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]

Souvenirs: Anatomy of a prized possession from the road

souvenirsSouvenirs are difficult for travel writers. We travel too often to be slapdash with souvenir selection, for one. Some frequent travelers focus on a particular thing: snow globes, pens, local magazines, liqueur, rugs, candy.

Others ignore the self entirely and redirect the impulse, choosing to make souvenir purchases for their friends, family, and neighbors.

Me? I like beach towels. I’m picky, mind you. Few make it into my collection. Those that do, however, are true prized possessions.

As souvenirs go, beach towels are extremely useful. They can do service as standard towels when bath towels are not available. They are great for beach runs in the position of reserve towel. (Who wants to dry off with a sandy towel?) And they can be washed and dried quickly and used over and over again.

I’ve got some doozies. There’s the grotesque print of the Titanic movie poster on a beach towel I bought in Croatia in 1998. It’s held up remarkably well, despite the thinness of its material. The likenesses of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are barely recognizable, their skin tones inaccurately flan-like in a loveably inarguable instance of copyright infringement. And now, almost 15 years after Titanic hit theaters, it’s also got an undeniable near-retro cache. Bonus.

There’s another beach towel in my collection from the Balkans, purchased several years later, an enormous beach towel patterned with a replica of the €500 bill in all of its pink and purple glory. I’ve never held a €500 bill in my hands, but I can relax upon a blown-up version of it, even if a French friend once pronounced it “kitsch” with a sniff.

And then there’s the crowning glory of my beach towel collection, a yellow and red number with the slogan “Wipe out in Guam” in a Flintstones-like font above a figure of a hapless purple-skinned surfer sailing through the air.

The thing is, I’ve never been to Guam.

I bought the towel on Anegada in the British Virgin Islands, an island I visited with my high school friend Mike. We stayed in a cheap motel without beach towels. Finding ourselves on a perfect beach island without beach towels, we promptly headed to the nearest store to rectify the situation. Sorting through a stack of BVI-specific towels, we found a handful of specimens clearly supposed to have been included in a shipment to Guam. We both snapped one up, to the marked surprise of the shop owner.

The material of the towel is thin but wiry, almost viscous. Structurally speaking, it’s not a great towel. But it’s got a back story and an in-built hilarity. What more does a souvenir need?

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Ciao macho man (or how to help Albanian breakdancers win a grammy)

I was standing on a stage in an auditorium in front of about 500 people frozen in terror at Nota Fest, which is like the Grammy awards for Macedonia’s ethnic-Albanian community. The organizers of the event had invited our Ambassador, Larry Butler, to present a lifetime achievement award and when he, and several other more important people at the embassy declined, the duty was punted down to me, a lowly first tour diplomat.

Attending b and c list events in host countries is a big part of life in the Foreign Service and the more junior you are, the more likely you’ll end up at Tajikistan’s national day (think warm, generic cola and greasy mutton) instead of Italy’s. (think prosciutto and fine wine). It was a command performance but I was assured that I wasn’t going to have to say anything in Albanian.

“All you have to do is get up on stage, smile, and hand someone an award,” said Lindita, a charming local employee from the embassy who probably could convince the Taliban’s Mullah Omar to muster “you go girl” enthusiasm for the Ellen DeGeneris Show.

I had only been in the country for a few weeks and was still feeling insecure about speaking Albanian one-on-one, let alone in front of an audience of hundreds of people, so not speaking was a key point in the negotiations.

After sitting through three hours of live performances, many of them shockingly bad, with nary an alcoholic beverage in sight, I was finally called up on the stage, ostensibly to present the lifetime achievement award. Immediately the jazzily dressed hostess handed me a microphone, sending a wave of panic straight up my spine. Please do not ask me a question, I thought.

Suddenly a torrent of Albanian words filled the air and my mind raced to understand what was being said. I froze as the sold-out crowd waited to hear my response. But what the hell was the question? I didn’t understand it, so I made some general remark about what a great evening it was, in Albanian. She repeated the question and on the second go-around I realized that she was asking me for an opinion on what had been the best performance of the night. Good grief.

The only two redeeming acts of the night were folk groups that I couldn’t conjure the names of for the life of me. In that instant of panic, the only song I could recall the name of was a ridiculous little ditty called Ciao Macho Man. The number featured a slutty-looking, bleach blond, Spice girl wannabe, nicknamed “Tuna,” bopping around the stage encircled by about 7 or 8 break dancing (yes break dancing) teenage boys wearing wife beaters and auto mechanic costumes. It was more or less akin to Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl video, only there was break dancing rather than singing into wrenches.The hostess and five hundred impatient Albanians demanded to know my opinion on the best song of the night, so I said, in Albanian, “Maybe it was Ciao Macho Man,” to a hearty round of applause. This seemed to satisfy the hostess and, thankfully, I was allowed to leave the stage.

I made a beeline for Lindita, who was accompanied by Rita, another one of our colleagues.

“I am so embarrassed,” she said, before I could speak.

“What the hell happened?” I asked.

“The person who was supposed to get the award didn’t show up, so she was ad libbing,” Lindita explained.

“Well, please don’t tell me that Ciao Macho Man is going to get the award on my account,” I said.

Moments later, the hostess reappeared on stage and announced that Ciao Macho Man had indeed won the award for best performance. The three of us fled into a taxi as snowflakes began to fall all over the macho men and women of Skopje. Rita got a phone call and then gave me some comforting news.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I just found out that Ciao Macho Man won because one of the Albanian political parties here fixed the contest, not because you said they should win.”

I felt momentarily relieved that Macedonia’s pervasive corruption, rather than my linguistic ineptitude had won the day for the macho men, but then my phone went off. It was Marija, one of the local employees I supervised at the embassy.

“Hey, macho man, I am so proud of you,” she said.

“Wow, word travels fast, how did you hear about it already?” I asked, totally confused.

“I didn’t hear about it, I just saw you on T.V.” she said.

Apparently I had just expressed a preference for Ciao Macho Man on live national television. I should have been ashamed but the beauty of living in a foreign country is that you can make a complete fool of yourself on television and feel safe in the knowledge that none of your friends and relatives will ever know about it. That is, unless you write about it, ten years later on a blog.

Read more from a Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via flickr user Tibchris.

Uncornered Market Q&A: Audrey and Dan on Iran

uncornered marketUncornered Market is one of the most popular travel blogs out there. A quick gander will demonstrate why this is the case. Audrey Scott and Dan Noll’s labor of love boasts some of the most arresting travel photography around. The subjects the two take on are of broad interest as well–from reflections on cultural traffic to recipes, to reflections on the importance of diplomacy on a personal level, and even to a particular brand of self-help.

Audrey and Dan talk to Gadling hot on the heels of their first visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran with a range of opinions, suggestions, and tips.

Q: Good day, Audrey and Dan. Define your occupations.

A: Storytellers, writers, photographers, world travelers. Mostly, we’re known as the husband-and-wife team behind the travel blog Uncornered Market.

Q: You recently traveled to Iran. Tell us how the trip came about and where you went.

A: Our interest in Iran dates back to 2003 when we befriended Audrey’s Iranian colleagues at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and attended a slideshow presentation from travelers who’d recently returned from Iran. Our curiosity was piqued; we wanted to see for ourselves what the country and people were like, to find an alternative story than what the media tends to portray.

We’ve been on the road for five years and now seemed like the right time to satisfy our curiosity despite the fact that our family and friends thought we were crazy given the current political climate.

Our trip began in Tehran and then made a loop through Hamadan, Kermanshah, Ahvaz, Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan, Abyaneh, Rasht, Masuleh, Ardebil, and Tabriz. We finished the journey with an Iranian train trip from Tabriz to Istanbul, Turkey, which took two and a half days.

Q: In your interactions with Iranians, did politics ever enter the picture? Did you discuss geopolitics or the actions of the US and Iranian governments with anyone?

A: We never began our conversations on the topic of politics, but particularly after we earned people’s trust, it entered the discussion. Most of the Iranian people we met took issue with their government, its rules, its rhetoric, and its disengagement with the rest of the world. Many would conclude with: “People are good. Politics and governments are bad.”

The impression of America, and especially of the American people, was strikingly and overwhelmingly positive. The Iranians we met wished to engage more with the rest of the world. However, most Iranians we spoke to did not expect change within their own government, and as a result, they were not optimistic that relations between the Iranian and American governments would improve any time soon.

Q: How were you received, generally speaking?

A: Like rock stars. We traveled with a small group of Americans, Australians and a Dane. We were all well received, but as Americans we were often shown special positive attention. Being American got us a lot of handshakes, hugs and invitations to people’s homes.
Q: Did you find yourselves unpacking assumptions made in advance? Did you encounter any surprises along the way?

A: Yes. What we found in Iran – and particularly regarding ordinary Iranian people — was so profoundly different than the prevailing media narrative. Iranian people, as a rule, are kind and are not a bunch of terrorists.

Iranians also actively seek and find ways to circumvent censorship. For example, everyone seems to have Facebook accounts and satellite dishes, both of which are technically banned or blocked.

We were also pleasantly surprised by how often we managed to slip off, walk the streets, and talk to people on our own and how safe and normal it all felt.

Q: What were your favorite places in Iran?

A: Shiraz — like the wine, though they don’t serve wine there anymore. (Iran is a dry country.) The Shirazi people are friendly and the archeological sites (Persepolis, just outside town) and various religious sites like the Pink Mosque and Shah Ceragh Mosque really blew us away with their elaborate and dizzying designs.

We also really enjoyed the Persian Islamic architecture of Esfahan and the Zoroastrian burial sites in Yazd. Throughout the country, bazaars (markets) were fun and served as great places to meet people.

In the north, we were big fans of the ancient Armenian monastery near Jolfa and its ethereal mountain setting.

Q: Do you have any recommendations, logistical or otherwise, for Americans interested in visiting Iran?

A: Three things. First, Americans are required to have a private guide or join a group tour. The tour company will sort your visa paperwork. The visa process involves obtaining an authorization number from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then procuring an actual visa from an Iranian consulate. The entire process can take up to two months, so get started early.

Secondly, try not to bite off too much. There’s a ton of Islamic history and pre-Islamic history in Iran, including around ten UNESCO World Heritage sites. But the country is huge, so being selective will help you avoid spending all of your time in transit.

Lastly, always be aware of the context, but don’t be afraid to talk with people on the street.

Q: What’s next for the Uncornered Market duo? (Or should I ask where’s next?)

A: We are in the midst of planning 2012. Israel is near or at the top of the list. We’ve collected numerous invitations from newfound Israeli friends and travel companions. We’d like to see Israel for ourselves, especially after our experiences in other parts of the Middle East.

In addition, Audrey would like to visit Australia, which will be her seventh continent. Japan, Papua New Guinea, and the Balkans are in the conversational mix.

Our 2012 non-travel plans include redesigning our blog and completing several publishing projects. It’s also about time to write that book we keep talking about.