Now that Toronto has entered its typical “winteresque” state, giving us all – I’m sure – a nostalgic, if slightly guilt-ridden, feeling of long summer days lost, I can safely post an homage to last winter’s epic vacation back home. Images of Bulgaria’s snow covered mountains and its people, the food, the wine, the simplicity of every day’s life…I’m craving a trip back home but, this year, I am unfortunately unable to feel the fresh(est) of air fill up my lungs. I am, however, taking a trip to Germany – our other home – and Da Kid and I are stoked to spend Christmas in the Bavarian Alps. But before we jet off to Hamburg, road trip to Schwartzwald and visit all of the Christkindlmarkt(s) in between – at which point I will flood your feeds with endless images of food, European Architecture and…gluhwein – I want to throw it back to last year. Because memories aren’t to be left in the past, but rather meant to warm up gloomy days. And I’ll be damned, if I don’t mean it when I say that “Today IS a gloomy Monday!”
Living away from home isn’t easy. I’ve been doing it for over 18 years. It gets easier when you finally build a home somewhere else, when you start your own family and plant your roots in a different land; a place that I now call home. And while Toronto has been a city that has both embraced me AND thrown a variety of opportunities my way, visiting my birth place is always the sweet(est) of treats. With an abundance of mountains throughout and the Black Sea, as its East Boarder, Bulgaria is a country that can offer you the best of both worlds: you can spend your day at a beach – crowded or remote, or trek up the Rila Mountains to the highest of Balkan peaks – Mussala. Last year, we drove towards the Rodopi Mountains to Pamporovo – a popular winter resort with slopes, attracting the most avid of snowboarders (and some unusually confident ski- mamas, accompanied by their privileged brats. I’m clearly just trying to be funny. Or mean…leave it up to you.)
All jokes aside, I’m simply going to take a minute to admire the purest of beauties – Mother Nature, my home and the people and traditions that come with it.
Our flight form Hamburg landed in Sofia at noon on New Year’s Eve and we immediately headed for the resort, checked into the hotel, made sure the staff knew we weren’t messing around – but that’s a story for a different day – and got ready to enjoy a New Year’s celebration, which later left the kid and I feasting for the state of bodies the day after. Surprisingly, a hangover isn’t a scary thing when the altitude is high and air fresh: we were up at 9 for breakfast and braving the snow banks a couple of hours later. It’s a Bulgaria tradition to go to church the first day of the year – at least it is one in my family. It’s not a religious thing, but rather a soulful one. We visit churches built centuries prior to our existence, feel the spirit of the people before us and light a candle for the health of our families and all of the people that we love: alive or long gone.
The Rodopi Mountains are a beautiful place – both in winter, when buried under heavy snow and in summer, when the sun lights up its green hills. The people are wonderful and the only time they pressure you is when they want to drag you into their place to eat. Cause what else is there to do on a cold winter day than stuff your face with home-style food, in a family-owned restaurant with no menu, and wash it down with homemade wine after a long walk?! Tell me, I’ll wait.
And of course, there’s the slopes. And (possibly) more food. A quick drive down the mountain road and you can find yourself a small shed, where someone’s grandma is selling her homemade wine, jams and honey. And it doesn’t get better (or more organic) than that.
Five days later, on our drive back to my hometown, we stopped at another church; a monastery actually. It was St Iordan’s Day and on its eve all of the priests gather to bless buckets of water for people to take home. Another tradition prompting many to head over to the chapel, empty plastic bottles in hand, in an attempt to inject a doze of health and soul into their family and lives.
I’m especially proud to be able to share this sort of experience with Da Kid. A few days prior to our Bulgarian wedding, he chose to get baptized in an Orthodox Church. It wasn’t religion based, it was tradition. He fell in love with Bulgaria from the moment he first stepped foot in the country. He became a part of my family years before we even got hitched and he felt this one step solidified his relationship with the country even further. Even more, back in the summer of 2015, it allowed us to get married (for the second time) in a church 500 years older than Canada itself. And THAT was something that we could never put a price on!
And then, there are moments like this one…
Bulgaria may be my homeland, my beginning and my roots. But I will not be biased when I tell you that you should visit it. You should make time to visit a country with a history of 14 centuries (and counting), a place where the Cyrillic alphabet was born, where 15 century old ruins still stand, where the Thracians first lived and where the spirit of many old civilizations still live. It’s cheap to get there, it’s cheap to visit (if you’re coming from the West). But you can never put a price on the experience that will live with you forever. I promise!