6 Fascinating Facts You Didn’t Know About Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a country filled with beautiful architecture, unique natural environments and rich cultural traditions. Here are six fascinating facts that took us by surprise during our journey through Bulgaria!

1. Bulgarians shake their heads for “Yes” (and nod their heads for “No”).

When I first noticed this, I was instantly reminded of the famous Indian head wobble. For me it looked like a very different head shake to one you would use to say “No” but maybe that’s just me! Whilst head shaking as negation is very rare worldwide, it’s not unique to India or Bulgaria, and apparently can also be seen in Albania, Greece and Turkey.

There are various theories as to why this is, although the most famous is that it originates from the time of the Ottoman conquest of Bulgaria; when Bulgarians were asked whether they would convert to Islam they would nod their heads for yes but say no in their hearts. As it’s not believed that forced conversion was widely carried out by the Ottomans, if at all, this is an interesting theory that is most likely untrue. Non-Muslims did have to pay an additional tax, so possibly head nodding was an early form of tax avoidance!

Outside of rural areas, head shaking for “yes” is less prevalent, as people adapt to the more common international standard. However, we were mostly in the countryside and it was definitely noticeable!

2. Bulgaria has it’s own pyramids

OK, the Pyramids of Melnik are a geological phenomenon and not man-made. However, they are certainly intriguing! Formed out of a very crumbly form of sandstone, erosion caused by rainfall and the Melnishka river has created these otherworldly spires.

The town of Melnik is renowned for it’s traditional architecture and long history of wine production, which makes it the perfect place to sip wine whilst gazing at the one of nature’s wonders.

3. The Horse and Cart is still a frequently used mode of transport

In Bulgaria, horse and carts are not only considered a tourist attraction but are also used as an actual mode of transport. People use them to get around as well as to transport goods and materials. During our stay in Kyustendil, we actually saw someone cut the grass with a scythe and then load the cuttings onto a cart to take them away. However, what we find anachronistically charming, is sadly at least partially due to poverty. Interestingly, in certain French towns, there has been a resurgence of horse and cart usage for municipal tasks and even as a form of “school bus.” The reintroduction of this traditional mode of transport has yielded positive psychological effects, alongside the environmental benefit of reducing emissions.

4. The national instrument of Bulgaria is the bagpipes

Commonly associated with Scotland, the distinctive sound of the bagpipes can also be heard in Bulgaria and across South-Eastern Europe, where the instrument is known as the Gaida. It looks a little bit different to Scottish bagpipes; the Gaida has a much bigger bag which is made from a whole goatskin, and there is a lack of tartan. We were lucky enough to enjoy a live performance during our stay in Yagodina!

5. Bulgarian Bridges are Incredible

Driving through the countryside of Bulgaria you will encounter many fantastic “devil’s bridges” looking dramatic and fairytale-like surrounded by ancient pine forest. One of our favourites was the Devil’s Bridge near Ardino – a beautiful and elegant bridge over the river Arda. Bulgaria is not just home to man-made bridges but also, in true Bulgarian style, a natural wonder called “The Wonderful Bridges“. These marvel arches are yet another reason to visit the Rhodope mountains and one that’s now on my list for next time!

6. You get a little surprise when you order a coffee

A charming tradition in Bulgaria is to give a little rolled up paper with a message on it when someone orders coffee. We asked a waiter about this and he said “it’s like a fortune cookie”.

After a bit of digging, we discovered that this tradition was started in around 2000 by a man named Kiril Kerin as a way to bring a little joy to morning coffee rituals. This clever marketing ploy was so successful, it’s spread from Sofia all around Bulgaria, even as far as Slovakia and Poland.

Fortune telling using the coffee grinds from the empty cup has long been a tradition in Bulgaria and possibly inspired Kiril. Bulgarians love little notes, and also bake them into Banitsa (a type of savory pastry) for New Years celebrations.

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