Bulgaria Travel Reading List

Some of you will be joining me in Bulgaria’s Rose Valley this May, and I’ve received a couple of requests for reading that would prepare you for a trip. Bulgaria is one of the largest countries in the EU, and yet like so many places that fell on the other side of the Iron Curtain, it remains  terra incognita. Yet, it’s a place with an ancient history, delicious food, beautiful music, picturesque churches, and of course, roses. Bulgaria supplies 50% of the world’s rose essence.

I’ve decided to put together a list of non-fiction and fiction books that would be interesting even if you have no plans to visit Bulgaria and simply want to learn something new. These novels and travel accounts present a fascinating and rich land, a place where many different cultures, influences and traditions meet.

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova

The most dangerous borders are the ones in our imagination, says the writer Kapka Kassabova. The borders that cause fear of the other, prevent people from bridging differences and seeking to understand what moves others. In Border, the author travels along Bulgaria’s border, crossing into Turkey and Greece and meeting people whose lives are influenced by the lines on the map.  Kassabova’s poetic, elegant style makes this journey particularly memorable, while the subject of her book is timely and important. You can read my full review here.

I should also mention A Street Without a Name by the same author, which tells the story of growing up in the socialist Bulgaria, explores family dynamics and gives a reader a glimpse of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians by Garth Cartwright (2011)

This is my other favorite book from this list. Imagine a trip through Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia and Romania in pursuit of music. The Balkan Romani people have a rich tradition of songs and melodies, and Cartwright plunges into it and takes his readers along on an exhilarating ride. The Romani people often live on the margins of the society that saddles them with negative stereotypes and locks them into a cycle of poverty and problems. Yet, the Romani music is one of the world’s treasures, and Cartwright’s is a great guide to it. Your reading will be slow, since you’ll be dropping the book to search internet for the songs described in the text. Helpfully, Cartwright provides a list of over 100 CDs and films.

The Balkans by Mark Mazower (2002)

Bulgaria is one of the countries situated in the Balkan Peninsula, along with Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania, Albania, Greece, and the European part of Turkey. I liked The Balkans because Mark Mazower, a talented historian, puts the national histories into a wider framework and gives a sense of the region, its complexity, its layers. Balkan history is far from an easy topic to handle, but Mazower navigates it well.

The Balkans are often associated with the conflicts, specially among the adherents of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, or Islam, but as Mazower reminds his reader, the interaction has also created hybrid believes and examples of co-existence. The belief in the every day magic that recurs in Kassabova’s book finds its echoes here. 

Imagining the Balkans by Maria Todorova (1997)

While in Western Europe, the Balkans often symbolize “the otherness” and serve as an example of how one should not do things, Todorova offers not just a corrective to this vision, but paints a vibrant portrait of the places. First of all, Todorova asks what does “the Balkans” mean, what is real, what is invented. Todorova doesn’t tell you a conventional history book story, but rather creates a mosaic of travelogues, letters, newspaper articles and lets you appreciate how the intertwined the influences and customs are. She also reminds us how powerful the received ideas can be, and nowhere is it more the case than in the Balkans.

East of the West: A Country In Stories by Miroslav Penkov

As an introduction to Bulgarian fiction, this short story collection is a great choice. It garnered a few awards for its writing style, and the topics are universal–love, betrayal, quest for happiness and meaning, along with the distinctly Bulgarian preoccupations and reflections.

Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov

Modern here is the 19th century, and this satirical story features a rose oil seller out to make a profit–and fool others, if need be. Bai Ganyo is a fictional character, but he was inspired by a real person, a rose oil dealer from Kazanlak, whom Konstantinov met at the international fair in Chicago in 1893. The adventures of Bai Ganyo as he travels to Chicago made me laugh out loud more than once.

Under the Yoke: A Romance of Bulgarian Liberty by Ivan Vazov

A Bulgarian literature classic. Bulgaria’s modern sense of self is defined by its struggle against the Ottoman Empire, under whose reign it has been for over 500 years. 1878 is the date of the Liberation of Bulgaria. Published in 1912, Ivan Vazov’s is a classic story about the Bulgarian uprising against the Ottomans that ended up tragedy. (You can read the archive.org version here.)

Valley of Thracians: A Novel of Bulgaria by Ellis Shuman

A fun, easy read, with vivid descriptions. A thriller set in Bulgaria that involves recovering a missing Thracian artifact.

Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov

Georgi Gospodinov’s novel is both bizarre and memorable. A young Bulgarian writer is determined to write a “natural novel” using whatever he encounters in his daily life, such as snippets of conversations, graffiti, and movie lines. Yet, his own world crumbles as he and his wife begin the divorce proceedings. Moving, sad, poignant.

Finally, I have two recommendations for history books focusing on Bulgaria, and while I haven’t read them, they were suggested by friends who did. If you like to brush up on dates and facts before traveling, do take a look at The Shortest History of Bulgaria by Nikolay Ovcharov and A Concise History of Bulgaria by R.J. Crampton.

If you have any other suggestions for a Bulgaria-themed reading list, please let me know.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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18 Comments

  • Mariann: A reminder to pick up Border again. I started it but havent finished yet. Thank you for the list will definitely be taking a look at some of these! Do you have any recommendations for women fiction writers from the area by chance? Im trying to read as many books by women from all over the world as I can this year and I love your recommendations. Justfinished the one on Empress Nur and it was eyeopening and entertaining! April 22, 2019 at 8:19am Reply

    • Victoria: I can recommend Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Tania Romanov’s Mother Tongue. They’re not from Bulgaria specifically, but the region generally and they write beautifully.

      It’s sad how few writers from the Balkans get translated into English and how even fewer female writers do. It’s telling that many of the female authors I’ve mentioned either write in English (Kassabova, Obreht) or live abroad. April 22, 2019 at 8:39am Reply

    • Victoria: Here is a good list that shows how much we’re missing:
      https://lithub.com/10-books-by-women-wed-like-to-see-translated-balkan-edition/ April 22, 2019 at 8:40am Reply

    • Marilyn: Victoria and Mariann – The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is not to be missed, in my opinion, anyway. Kostova is from the U.S. but married to a Bulgarian man and has spent lots of time in that part of the world. I got the feeling that she was describing places she has actually been. Wonderful descriptions, too, of the old monasteries, the countryside, and the people and their customs. April 22, 2019 at 2:50pm Reply

      • Victoria: I enjoy books that do just that, so I’ll definitely be taking a look. April 23, 2019 at 1:59am Reply

      • Karen A: The Historian was a fun summer read when it came out, remember sitting under the trees reading for hours. April 26, 2019 at 6:11am Reply

    • Mariann: Thank you so much Victoria and Marilyn, I’ve now got some great books to add to my reading list! 🙂 April 23, 2019 at 5:30pm Reply

  • Becky D.: Thank you for this reading list. It heightens my wish to visit the Rose Valley! Just this morning, I was pruning roses, and I was getting frustrated with all the thorns/prickles. Now, I am back to loving roses. As for the area and history, I am ashamed to admit that I know so little, but you have given a nice framework to understand it better. April 22, 2019 at 10:10am Reply

    • Victoria: This whole region is fascinating, and as any place with a long, complicated history, its culture is layered and rich. Definitely take a look at any of these books, if you have a chance.

      Roses are such beautiful and adaptable plants. And the more the difficult the conditions, the more fragrant they tend to be. Or so I’m told by the growers. April 22, 2019 at 2:17pm Reply

      • Becky D.: I tossed aside my Easter Monday afternoon plans to read Under the Yoke. Thank you so much for providing the link! I absolutely enjoyed it, even though the realistic parts made me sad. I was struck by the author’s observations of human nature. The historical context was eye-opening, because I know so little about the area. I highly recommend it to others.

        Regarding roses, I am still learning about when they are most fragrant. While reading Under the Yoke, I was tempted to add a few more roses to my collection. The story’s sensory descriptions were enjoyable to read. April 23, 2019 at 6:39am Reply

        • Victoria: I’m so glad to hear that you liked it! I did too, especially Vazov’s descriptions and language. I liked his emphasis on the importance of education. I do hasten to add that as a nationalist romantic novel, it has a very distinct aim, which is to remind the Bulgarian who it means to be Bulgarian, free–and free from the corrupting Turkish influence. So it paints the characters black and white and there are few shades of grey. The good characters are the Bulgarians. The bad are the Turks and the ones who like the Turkish culture too much (hence, potential collaborators and untrustworthy.) The reality is always more complicated, of course. If you want another excellent book from my list that would be a great complement to what you’ve read, please take a look at Kassabova’s Border. April 23, 2019 at 7:04am Reply

  • Marilyn: Regarding The Historian: I forgot to say that it is fiction, and not only about Bulgaria but about Romania, Hungary, bits of Slovenia and Croatia as well as the U.S. and England; primarily Eastern Europe, however. Oh, and Istanbul!
    Thank you so much for this reading list, Victoria. I only got as far as Princes amongst Men, and stopped to order it. Cannot wait! Now I see two others that I must have —- April 22, 2019 at 3:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Marilyn! I’m definitely adding it to my list. April 23, 2019 at 1:58am Reply

  • micheline lamoureux: Allo Victoria,
    I’m very happy to get your newsletters even though I don’t say much! I am learning from you and I thoroghly enjoy everything you write.

    Bulgaria seems very beautiful. Does the culture resemble the Old Russia’s culture? I bet you know some very good recipes of Bulgarian delicacies! April 22, 2019 at 8:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Micheline!
      When you say the Old Russian culture, do you mean a specific period? Although in general, I’d say that it doesn’t, because the two countries have very different histories and paths. Bulgaria was under the Ottoman rule for 500 years, and if anything, that left a big imprint on its culture, food, language, traditions, etc. Obviously, such interactions and influences go both ways.

      Bannitsa is one of my favorite Bulgarian dishes. It’s a pie made with thin pastry, filo sheets, and filled with cheese, pumpkin, potatoes, etc. So delicious. April 23, 2019 at 1:58am Reply

  • Figuier: Thanks for this list! I won’t be travelling this spring or summer so I look forward to doing some good armchair travelling with these 🙂 hope you all enjoy the course, it sounds fantastic. April 25, 2019 at 2:42pm Reply

  • Karen A: Looking forward to reading Princes Among Men! And always appreciate your reading lists – and seeing other suggestions. April 26, 2019 at 6:15am Reply

  • Aurora: What a marvellous list. I know very little about Bulgaria but tasted some wonderful Bulgarian Merlot recently. I hope that during your stay there you will have the occasion to discover a lot about local wines too. April 28, 2019 at 1:59am Reply

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