Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

“Just call me Daisy,” she said. “You know, like in the movie Driving Miss Daisy.” Her name is actually Desislava Natzkova but, as she later explained to me, her Bulgarian name is difficult for most Americans to remember or wrap their tongues around. “So I just make it easy for them.”

I met Desi in 2015, during my Viking River Grand European Tour, a 15-day cruise that traversed four countries on its route from Amsterdam to Budapest. She was Viking’s Concierge on that voyage, and as the person responsible for booking extra tours, I had the opportunity to work with her directly. When Desi learned I had visited (and fell in love with) her home town of Sofia, Bulgaria, what started as a pleasant customer service relationship blossomed into a long-term friendship. We stayed in touch over the next few years, even after she left Viking. I kept saying I wanted to discover more of Bulgaria, beyond my previous visits to Sofia, Rila Monastery and the ancient Black Sea port of Sozopol. She kept encouraging me to return, promising to show me many more things to see in Bulgaria.

Main square in the town of Berkovitsa, Bulgaria

Main square in the town of Berkovitsa, Bulgaria

I finally made it back this past summer. True to her word, Desi took me on an amazing cultural tour of Bulgaria. We began in the northeastern corner of the country, in the town of Vratsa, an ancient city founded by the Thracian civilization. Other than the fact that they were a group of Indo-European tribes that inhabited a large area in eastern and southeastern Europe, relatively little is known about Thracians. Their Greek and Roman neighbors in antiquity considered them to be barbarians, however caches of gold and silver treasures from ancient Thrace unearthed by archeologists seem to dispute this assessment. Read More

This ancient Roman Amphitheater in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, is still being used for present-day concerts and plays

The ancient Roman Amphitheater in Plovdiv is one of the most stunning sites in Bulgaria. Records show evidence of occupation in Plovdiv as far back as 6,000 BC, during the Neolithic Age, making it one of Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. In the Bronze Age it became a Thracian settlement named Eumolpias, and in 342 BC it was conquered by Philip II of Macedon, who renamed it Philippopolis in his own honor. The amphitheater was constructed during the late first century AD by the Romans, who conquered the city in 72 BC. In ancient times the theater could hold up to 7,000 spectators, who likely attended exhibitions of gladiators fighting savage animals. Over time, as the city suffered numerous occupations, the theater was abandoned and was eventually buried under sediment. Read More

The red rocks of Belogradchick, Bulgaria, turn fiery at sunset

The weird and fabulously formed rocks of Belogradchik, Bulgaria, turn fiery red at sunset. Composed of sandstone, limestone, and conglomerate, the formations resulted when ancient seas that covered the area millions of years ago receded. Over time, the sediments that had lain at the bottom of the sea were eroded by wind and water. Legends have sprung up around the rocks, many of which resemble human shapes. Perhaps most famous is “The Madonna.” As the story goes, a beautiful nun breaks her vows after falling in love with a man who rides up on a white horse. Her sin is discovered one sunny day when she gives birth. Determined to banish her, the monks and other nuns chase her out of the monastery. As she flees, day turns to night and the entire procession is turned to rock. Read More

My goal to travel to every country in Europe was upended a couple of years ago when I started researching how to visit Belarus. I was eligible for a single-entry tourist visa on arrival at the Minsk National Airport, but the $480 price was prohibitive. I could have gotten a visa at a Belarusian embassy somewhere on the road, but the $114 price was still too high. In addition, the government of Belarus required me to have a health insurance policy that would cover me while in the country, adding further to the cost. When a friend of mine said the city was dull and full of uninspiring Soviet architecture I put my plans on hold.

Artists make the use of a brilliant sunny day in Minsk, Belarus, to paint scenes of Freedom Square en plein air

Artists make the use of a brilliant sunny day in Minsk, Belarus, to paint scenes of Freedom Square en plein air

This year, since my travel plans included visiting Copenhagen, Denmark and Stockholm, Sweden, I decided to take another look at Belarus. To my surprise, visa fees been reduced to $71 for stays of up to 90 days. Even better, since February of 2017 the country began allowing visa-free entry into Belarus for up to five days for Americans who arrive and depart from Minsk National Airport. A health insurance policy was still required, but one could be purchased upon arrival at a special counter at the Immigration entry point. I booked my flight and hoped that my friend had been wrong about Minsk being dismal. Read More

The National Opera House in Minsk, Belarus

The Opera House in Minsk, Belarus, is officially named the National Academic Grand Opera and Ballet Theatre of the Republic of Belarus, but most just call it the Bolshoi Theatre. Originally completed in 1939, the venue was subsequently renovated and reopened in 2009. During the renovation, sculptures were added inside and around the grounds, the stage was slightly moved, modern lighting and audio-visual equipment were installed, and seating was increased. Today the facility hosts ballets, operas, concerts, chamber music, singing competitions, children’s performances, and even a New Year’s Ball. Read More

Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus

These days, Belarus is a truly European country, but emerge from the Metro onto Independence Square in Minsk and you would be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to Russia. Construction on the square began in 1964, well before the breakup of the Soviet Union, and in some ways it perfectly reflects the Russian penchant for function over form. First, the square is immense. It was designed for rallies, ceremonies, and military parades. Second, a number of monumental buildings scream Soviet Brutalist style, including the high-rise Belarusian State University (left in the above photo) and the former Supreme Soviet of Belarus (now the Supreme Council of Belarus), in the center of the photo. Read More