Bulgarian Horizons: A Conversation With Nikola Yanakiev

Harry Goodwin 18 January 2021
Image credit: Nikola Yanakiev

Nikola Yanakiev is a Cambridge student renowned for his sultry voice and commitment to liberal pluralism. Nikola recently sat down with TCS to discuss his home country, Bulgaria. His answers have been lightly edited to avoid tedium.

TCS: I have forty-eight hours to spend in Sofia. What should I do?

NY: I would suggest dedicating the first day to sightseeing in the city. Start by finding a place to have breakfast – somewhere where they serve Banitsa and Ayran. Then stroll through the capital, visiting the following places along the way: the Ivan Vasov National Theatre; the Ivan Vasov Museum; the Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski church; the St. Aleksandar Nevski Cathedral; the St. George church-rotunda; the St. Sofia monument; the Serdika Fortress.

After that, have lunch – perhaps a cheap Doner kebab will do the trick. In the afternoon, provided that the weather is nice, visit one of the many parks in Sofia. Borisovata Gradina is home to our national football stadium, which also has a sports museum. The huge expanses of the park contain various symbolic features: the Lake of Water Lilies; Ariana Lake, where you can go ice-skating in winter or paddle-boating in summer; the Sofia University Astronomical Observatory.

Then take one of the oldest tram lines in the country and go back to the city centre, where you might eat a traditional Bulgarian dinner in one of the many meyhanes. These typically stay open till pretty late, but if you feel like it, you could move to a bar or a club to consume some alcohol responsibly. Clubs tend to play Bulgarian folk-music which definitely isn’t for everyone, but I would nonetheless recommend giving it a shot. Alternatively, the Petuk (‘Friday’) bar is a perfect option too.

On the second day, visit Vitosha Mountain in the outskirts of the capital. The hike starts at the Aleko hut, and ends at the Cherni Vruh hilltop. This trek will probably take all day, but the sights along the way are astonishing. Finish off the day with another traditional Bulgarian meal in one of the best restaurants in the capital, Boyansko Hanche. Once you are done, you should definitely go and have a couple of drinks in perhaps the liveliest place during the late hours of the evening: the park in front of the Ivan Vasov National Theatre.

TCS: What should I drink when I’m there?

NY: There isn’t really a bar there which serves drinks, so people typically just have cans of beer. Of course, you definitely cannot go wrong with a bottle of vodka – or, if you’re up for the challenge, some traditional Bulgarian rakiya.

TCS: What residual influences has Ottoman and Soviet imperialism left on Bulgarian society and culture?

NY: Ottoman imperialism has left a significant influence on our culture, which is most noticeable in our traditional dishes and our language. A lot of our meals are very similar to ones they have in Turkey, and a significant fraction of the words we use on a daily basis have Turkish origins.

You can see Soviet influence all over the country. Most of the central buildings where people live exude a distinctive Soviet vibe. Our national railway system hasn’t changed much since its construction by the Soviet regime. The trains are quite old and slow, but I suppose that is part of their charm – perhaps their only charm.

People have actually tried to overcome this association with the Soviet culture, and I would say we are on the right track. New and modern buildings are being built all the time and you can barely find any of those old Russian cars on the streets (although they are still considered a cultural classic – look up Lada Riva). Some aspects of Soviet culture will most likely forever remain part of our identity: the Slavic language, the literature from the revolutionary period, music and films from the late twentieth century, tracksuits.

TCS: What Bulgarian delicacies should I eat?

NY: For breakfast, have Banitsa, Ayran, Mekici and Kiselo Mlyako (Bulgarian yoghurt).

During the morning, snack on some sweets like Bulgarian delight (yes, Bulgarian, not Turkish) or baklava.

Lunch: for starters, have Shopksa salata with Tarator soup. Then have Sarmi; Güveç (my favourite kind is called Sirene po Shopski); peppers filled with minced meat and rice, or with eggs and Bulgarian fetta cheese; moussaka; Bulgarian fried meatballs.

On the side, have some homemade Lutenitza (a friend of mine makes it best, so slide in my DMs), Bulgarian fetta Cheese, Russian salad and Snow White salad.

TCS: Tell me about shisha consumption in Bulgaria.

NY: Shisha (Nargile) is very popular in Bulgaria, especially with the younger part of the population. This is another instance of Ottoman influence within Bulgarian culture. There are many shisha bars across the country and every club now serves not only drinks but hookah as well. There are a couple of large communities on social media which discuss the equipment one can purchase in order to smoke the best shisha possible.

TCS: Out of ten, how smooth has Bulgaria’s assimilation into the European political order been since the collapse of Communism?

NY: Seven. The collapse of Communism in Bulgaria wasn’t a result of a military revolution. Rather, the Communist regime fell in 1989 after one or two civilian protests. Bulgaria is relatively poor, so has always aimed to be part of western Europe in order to accelerate its development. Indeed, we have played a role in European culture even before the communist period in Bulgaria: for example, we were allies of Germany in both world wars and were given all kinds of useful new technologies by Berlin.

TCS: Where should I catch some rays?

NY: My dad is from Kavarna, which is a small town on the northern stretch of coast. One of the nearby beaches, Bolata, is considered one of the twenty most beautiful in Europe. You could also visit Tyulenovo, where you can throw yourself off the highest cliffs in Bulgaria.

TCS: What souvenir should I get?

NY: I would definitely recommend getting a large Güveç, which is an earthenware pot for cooking. If it is too big to fit in the suitcase, you can get a couple of small Güveçs. We are also the largest distributor of rose oil, so that is also a great option. Finally, this may be quite difficult to carry back, but you should at least consider purchasing a Chiprovski Kilim, which is part of Bulgaria’s national heritage.

TCS: Out of ten, how Slavic is Bulgaria?

NY: Eight. We created the Cyrillic alphabet and use it to this date; we are directly descended from the founding fathers of the Slavic race; we represent the Slavic community in the EU. I mentioned that park in front of the Ivan Vasov National Theatre earlier on: people sit there and play chess, both competitively and leisurely, all day long. I consider this a very Slavic trait.