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In many ways, Bulgaria remains the unknown country of the Balkans. Less newsworthy than the former Yugoslavia, and less heavily touristed than neighbouring Greece and Turkey, it's a place that brings few distinct images to mind. Despite being the site of extensive Black Sea package resorts and the source of several good wines, it's all too often dismissed as the dour place it was before 1989, when it served as one of the Soviet Union's most loyal East European allies. As with many little-known destinations, however, there's a great deal to discover here: much of Bulgaria is like an open-air museum of Balkan culture, with beautifully decorated churches, fine mosques, wonderfully preserved rustic villages and a great deal of enduring folklore. The mountainous interior makes it one of the top hiking destinations of Europe, while over on the Black Sea coast, the white-sand beaches are just as magnificent in reality as they look in the tourist brochures.
Bulgarians are frustrated by their country's lack of a clearly defined image abroad. Heirs to one of Europe's great civilizations, and guardians of Balkan Christian traditions, they have a keen sense of national identity distilled by centuries of turbulent history. In a constantly repeating cycle of grandeur, decline and national rebirth, successive Bulgarian states have striven to dominate the Balkan peninsula before succumbing to defeat and foreign tutelage, only to be regenerated by patriotic resistance to outside control.
The Bulgarian nation was formed in the seventh and eighth centuries when the
, warlike nomads from central Asia, assumed the leadership of Slav tribes in the lower Danube basin and took them on a spree of conquest in southeastern Europe. The resulting
First Bulgarian Kingdom
, after accepting Orthodox Christianity as the state religion, became the centre of Slavonic culture and spirituality before falling victim to a resurgent
in the eleventh century. Recovery came a century later when the local aristocracy broke free from Constantinople and restored past glories in the shape of the
Second Bulgarian Kingdom
. However, the rise of Ottoman power in the fourteenth century ushered in the 500-year-long period of
", when the achievements of the medieval era were extinguished. Bulgarian art and culture recovered during the nineteenth-century
, and the emergence of a potent revolutionary movement prepared the ground for Bulgaria's eventual
in 1878, achieved with the help of Russian arms. However, Europe's other Great Powers conspired to limit the size of the infant state at the Berlin Congress of 1878, the first of a series of betrayals which denied Bulgarian claims to a territory which had long been considered an integral part of the historical Bulgarian state,
. In the twentieth century alone, Bulgaria went to war three times (in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, World War I and World War II) to try and recover Macedonia, only to be defeated on each occasion. By 1945 it seemed like a country that had somehow missed out on its destiny, and rapidly turned in on itself during the subsequent deep sleep of Communism.
Today, while undoubtedly more open to the outside world and more visitor-friendly than ever before, Bulgaria remains a country in transition. Back in the momentous winter of 1989, it looked as if it was dragging its feet on the road to democracy while others forged ahead. The Communist Party ditched a few of the old guard, changed its name to the Socialist Party and promptly won the first multiparty elections for more than forty years, remaining the country's most coherent political force until the elections of April 1997, when the SDS took over. Despite stabilizing the economy, the SDS failed to stamp out corruption, and were swept aside four years later by a new movement, the NDSV, centred around the former Tsar of Bulgaria,
Simeon of Saxe-Coburg Gotha
. With the Tsar installed as Prime Minister, and a Socialist (ie former Communist) occupying the post of President, Bulgaria is in for some interesting times.
Since 1989, market
have been introduced more cautiously than in the more developed former Communist states, but the steady growth of private enterprise is making its mark nonetheless. Locals are quick to point out that the move towards capitalism has meant poor conditions for many. Full employment and job security are things of the past, and the new business culture is riddled with corruption and organized crime. While these problems shouldn't affect your enjoyment of an invigorating and little-experienced culture, it's a good idea to remain sensitive towards such issues.
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