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Bulgarian History

After five centuries of Turkish rule, Bulgarian culture reappeared in the 19th century as writers and artists strove to reawaken national consciousness. Zahari Zograf (1810-1853) painted magnificent frescoes inspired by medieval Bulgarian art in monasteries. The carvings of highly contemplative monks appear in monastery museums throughout Bulgaria: saints the size of grains of rice are a particular highlight. Bulgaria's poets show a tendency to meet with a violent and early death, lending a poignancy to the high idealism of writers such as Hristo Botev (rebel folk poet of the late 19th century), Dimcho Debelyanov (lyric poet killed in WWI) and Geo Milev (poet of the post-WWI social upheavals, kidnapped and murdered by police). The grand old man of Bulgarian literature, Ivan Vazov, is one of the few who made it over the age of 30. His novel Under the Yoke describes the 1876 uprising against the Turks.

An ancient Greek myth ascribes a Thracian origin to Orpheus and the Muses, a heritage which Bulgaria's singers still take very seriously. Orthodox religious chants convey the mysticism of regional fables and legends, whereas the spontaneous folk songs and dances of the villages meld classical origins with a strong Turkish influence. International interest in Bulgarian vocal music was ignited by groups such as Le Mystere des Voix Bulgaires, who have taken Bulgaria's polyphonic female choir singing to a world audience.

Bulgarians fill up on meals of meat, potatoes and beans, crisped up with salads, and tossed back with dangerous liquor: beware of water glasses filled with rakia (ouch) and mastika (aaah). Breakfast is a bread-based snack on the run - look out for hole-in-the-wall kiosks selling delicious banitsi - cheese pastries, often washed down with boza, a gluggy millet drink which is an acquired taste. Lunch is the main meal of the day. Dinner appears late at night, mostly to signal the end of aperitifs and the start of serious slugging.

Bulgarian is a South Slavic language written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Saints Cyril and Methodius, two brothers from Thessaloniki, invented the Cyrillic script in the 9th century and one of the strong bonds between Bulgarians and Russians is their shared use of this alphabet. Russian is the second language of older Bulgarians and is still taught in schools. Younger people are more likely to be interested in speaking a version of English peppered with classic rock lyrics and advertising slogans. Bulgarians waggle their heads Indian-style to mean yes, and nod to mean no. It's normal to feel like your head is a pogo-stick; just try to stay upright.

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