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)

Under These Circumstances: Traveling For A Funeral

The twisting highways that cut through West Virginia and lead to my hometown, which is on the border of West Virginia and Ohio, are terrifying at night. The last time I made the drive, the fog was thick and low – a meteorological manifestation of my cloudy, burdened mind. Because the hills are steep and street lights are rare, the dim headlights were the only aid my vision had. I couldn’t plug in and listen to my own music because I didn’t have an auxiliary cable and there was nothing on the radio. The hum of the highway was the only sound accompanying us for the ride. My childhood friend, Karin, was sitting at a spine-straight 90 degree angle in the passenger seat and scanning the blackness for shining pairs of deer eyes. My husband was doing his best to stretch across the tiny car’s back seat and rhapsodizing about beauty, undoubtedly in an effort to help unload some of the weight Karin and I were carrying. But we were on the way to the funeral of one of our close childhood friends and our availability for consolation was erratic.

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Just 48 hours earlier, my husband and I were departing DC and on our way up to New York for a five day vacation when I received the news that she had died. She died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 28. The misfortune of her passing was paired with the serendipitous fortune of having arranged to stay with Karin in New York. She was a good friend to both of us and as I slumped down on Karin’s futon in her dark Bushwick apartment, I was grateful that, if nothing else, we had each other. We spooned, ordered in food and reserved a rental car.

We had made plans to stay with our friend, Liz, at her parents’ house. Their house was our safe place growing up, a home with both a revolving front and refrigerator door. Her parents have known me since I was 6 years old, but I hadn’t seen them in a decade. Our little car slid quietly into a space in front of their house, which looked exactly as I’d remembered, around 1am. Liz and her boyfriend were waiting for us with Karin’s younger brother on the front porch, illuminated beneath the overhead light. Liz and her boyfriend had just arrived a few hours earlier themselves after a long drive from Milwaukee. We embraced and then discovered that we were gripped by manic exhaustion, the kind that makes your stomach turn while your brain still races. We tip-toed down into her basement, which was still littered with the toys from our childhood, and hung out on the worn-down couches we always hung out on, this time as adults. Contagious, unstoppable laughter erupted every ten minutes or so between the six of us as we recounted hilarious stories of the friend we’d lost. We were childishly frightened of waking Liz’s dad, which meant that our bursts of laughter were followed by a swarm of shushing, which triggered more laughter.

She would have wanted it that way, she was a funny girl, we said.

She was one of the only people I went out of my way to see during the handful of visits home I had made since high school graduation. I hated Marietta when I lived there and I couldn’t wait to move away. But during one of the last visits in Marietta I had with her, she showed me where to find love for the town. We sat side by side in Muskingum Park during the late afternoon, ripping up handfuls of grass as we talked. The meticulously green park hugs the Muskingum River and in the late afternoon, everything glows with the warmth of over-saturation and shimmers with the river’s reflections. A golden beam of light was cast over her face. She looked so unmistakably beautiful.

Her family had asked me to learn and sing a song that was special to her at the funeral. Without hesitation, I agreed. As I removed the tags from the new black clothes I’d purchased in New York with trembling hands, I choked. I didn’t know where or how to find the strength to use my vocal cords in front of a room filled with people I hadn’t seen since high school under such bewildering circumstances when I hadn’t even yet processed the news enough to cry. I bit my tongue and looked out the bedroom window and onto that flawlessly paved, wide street on which I’d learned to ride a bike, on which I’d regularly parked my first car. I went downstairs.

It was weird to see us all dressed up. I didn’t even wear heels at my wedding and yet, here we all were, balancing and clicking in unison. The three of us held hands and walked slowly into the funeral home. We’d given all the hugs and condolences we could give and we still had 45 minutes before the beginning of the ceremony. We walked like a pack of wolves who’d grown up in the wild together down the main street in town and into a bar, one of the few. With urgency, we ordered shots, ciders and beers. Tucked into the wooden booth only briefly, we left as quickly as we came. We walked back in the direction of the funeral home although we were unwilling to reenter a minute earlier than we needed to. Instead, we crossed the street and entered the park, the same park I’d sat in with her not that long ago. We walked down to the river and we sat on the stairs, chewing on our cheeks from the inside out, trying to calm our racing hearts. The sky glowed with that amber hue and I looked over at Liz and Karin, both of their faces washed over with a beauty I now know I’ll never forget.

How to Find Bereavement Support Groups

Video of the day: The Mountain, El Teide, Spain

The Mountain from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.

This video by Terje Sorgjerd, called “The Mountain”, came into my Tumblr feed yesterday. I’ve watched it several times since that first breathtaking viewing and I’m still in awe. This time lapse video was filmed on El Teide–Spain‘s highest mountain. The mountain is reportedly one of the best places in the world to view the stars and the Teide Observatories call the mountain home.

The video was shot between April 4th-11th, 2011. Sorgjerd is a landscape photographer from Norway and, according the video’s Vimeo description, didn’t spend much time sleeping during this week-long shoot. With stunning views of the stars, the trees, and even a sandstorm that rolled through during the shoot, watching this video is an easy way to brighten your day in just a few minutes.

Video of the Day – San Francisco fog timelapse

San Francisco and the outlying Bay Area is widely known for its natural beauty. Today’s Video of the Day is a collection of timelapses that captures a slice of the remarkable scenery in and around the best that “NorCal” has to offer.

Photographer Simon Christen collected the various scenes over the course of a year by taking 4-5 second exposures on a Canon 40D. He named the video the “Unseen Sea” after the famous rolling fog that blankets San Francisco on a regular basis.

Do you have any videos or pictures from the Golden State? Share them with us! Add it to our Flickr Pool or leave a link in the comments below and it could be our next Video/Photo of the Day.

BYO-Spa – June Jacobs luxe beauty products for travelers

June Jacobs Travel Kit
You can only buy certain products in that “Travel Items” aisle in the drugstore, and they’re not the best ones. Isn’t it time that a decent spa company came out with a line of luxurious, skin-friendly products you can get safely through TSA?

June Jacobs, known for rich, protective botanical products infused with antioxidants and anti-aging agents, has released a Flight Friendly Skin Care collection, consisting of a Face Travel Kit ($100), Body Travel Kit ($95) and Intensive Age Defying Travel Kit ($165). Those prices may seem steep, but for small versions of so many great products, you’ll find it’s actually a deal. And, unlike those drugstore products, June Jacobs’ products contain no parabens, preservatives, synthetic dyes or sulfates.

The Face Travel Kit, pictured above, contains the following elegant, crave-worthy potions:

  • Creamy Cranberry Cleanser
  • Pore Refining Oatmeal Scrub
  • Aroma Mineral Mist
  • Advanced Cell Repair Serum
  • Skin Amour Day Shield SPF 15
  • Ultra Light Citrus Moisturizer
  • Cooling Cucumber Eye Gel
  • Lip Renewal

One splurge on this package, and you’re likely to be more beautiful when you travel than when you’re home. Fortunately, these are all just mini versions of products available in full sizes from JuneJacobs.com. Even if you’re not traveling, dipping into one of these kits is a cost-effective way to try out the June Jacobs line.

Thank you, June Jacobs, for recognizing that luxury beauty consumers also tend to be travelers.

[Photo by Annie Scott.]