Or, to be more specific, a lunch composed of traditional Bulgarian dishes. But let’s not get caught up in semantics. That first morning, after ogling beers and changing money, Nick and I took a walk up Boulevard Vitosha, Sofia’s most upscale shopping street. (I was disappointed that things weren’t ridiculously cheap, but I did get a cool pair of Diefel [sic] sunglasses, upside-down logo and all.) We wandered through the older part of town, stopping in a couple of churches along the way. The highlight of the morning was definitely the St. George Rotunda.
Originally built in the 4th century, this is the oldest building in Sofia. Inside the Rotunda (which has been, over the course of history, a church, a mosque, and a museum, among other things) you can see three layers of frescoes. The Roman ruins surrounding it date from the 2nd century. Around this historic site sits a large, modern building housing a fancy hotel and the Presidency. Bulgaria seems to be very industrious that way. They manage to preserve their history while at the same time progressing with the modern world. In the corner of this courtyard (behind the tree in the photo) there is a cozy little cafe where Nick and I spent one afternoon writing postcards. Outside the Presidency, there are two guards who do a ritual march every hour, and across the square there’s a guy pontificating over the strains of “Ride of the Valkyries.” All day long. (Nick pointed out that no moderate political group has ever adopted that song as their theme.)
Moving on, andtrying to get away from the loudspeakers, we found ourselves walking through a park. We came out in front of the National Theater. By this time we were getting pretty hungry, so when we saw a shady patio and a sign that said “PECTOPAHT” (that’s what “restaurant” looks like in Cyrillic), we walked right in. This was the first of several restaurants we visited that had no menu in English. Feeling like children learning to read, we managed to decipher “water,” “beer,” and “salads,” as well as a couple of traditional dishes that were listed in our phrasebook. And we were even successful in communicating our desires to the waitress! (Of course, she spoke some English, which made it easier.)
First we got a couple of large, unpronounceable beers and a bottle of mineral water. Bulgaria is quite mountainous and is full of natural springs, so mineral water is as popular there as it is in France. And it’s good, too. Better than most French waters (except Volvic) in my opinion. Soon our first courses arrived. I had a bowl of TAPATOP (tarator), a chilled soup made of yogurt, cucumber, and dill.
It was very refreshing in the afternoon heat. Like a thin tzatziki, I believe this dish is made in many countries around the Mediterranean Sea. This one, too:
The shopska salad, composed of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, parsley, and sireneh, is highly reminiscent of what we in the States call a “Greek salad.” These are the kinds of dishes that made us very glad we visited Bulgaria in the Summer, when tomatoes and cucumbers are at their peak.
For the main course, I asked is they made sarma, which the guidebook told us were traditional Bulgarian stuffed vine leaves. They did not, so I just got a plate of grilled chicken and veggies. Not bad, but nothing to write home about (or blog about, as the case may be). Nick got kyufteta, often translated as “meatballs,” but really more like small patties of seasoned meat.
When asked how many he wanted, Nick wisely deferred to the waitress, who suggested he have three. They were served with bread on the side, and it turned out to be just the right amount.
So far, we were loving Bulgaria. Loads of history, friendly people, and great food. What’s not to like?
Originally published on Croque-Camille.