Ivo Gospodinov Featured
Bulgaria,  Burgas

Was Communism better for Bulgaria?

Burgas Black Sand
Ivo Gospodinov
Shkembe Chorba

The Place: Burgas, Bulgaria

“Spring was breathing life back into the Bulgarian countryside, and the browns and yellows of last years’ shrivelled but stubborn flora were slowly forced aside… I whizzed between trees reaching towards me from the roadside, and felt the invisible scowl of ‘Baba Marta’ tracking my movements…. the mythical, grumpy old woman is the living embodiment of the month of march, her mood swings reflecting the meteorological whiplash emblematic of this time of year.”

Read More About Burgas

Branches, at long last speckled with green, curled over the road, as though designed to its shape. Spring was breathing life back into the Bulgarian countryside, and the browns and yellows of last years’ shrivelled but stubborn flora were slowly forced aside to make way for the new. Rays of sunlight spilled across my handlebars, no longer just aesthetically pleasing as they had been for weeks. They carried warmth, and I felt my body relax as the aching tension from several months-worth of shivering evaporated.

I whizzed between trees reaching towards me from the roadside, and felt the invisible scowl of ‘Baba Marta’ tracking my movements. I was in her territory; the mythical, grumpy old woman is the living embodiment of the month of march, her mood swings reflecting the meteorological whiplash emblematic of this time of year. Catching the light around my wrist, my Martenitsa – a bracelet worn in Baba Marta’s honour, and a gift from a shop-owner in Varna – must have caught her attention. Ancient tradition dictated that I must remove it and hang it next to the first flower or leaf I noticed in Spring, but I’d broken the rules, and intended to keep mine as a souvenir. Twigs snagged at the fabric of my fleece, as though she was commanding them, beckoning for me to stop and pay her tribute. I resisted their call, risking Grandma Marta’s ire, and continued pedalling onwards, flanked by blossoms supplemented with handmade threads similar to my own, each with their own flare of individuality, intricately woven between flowers and budding leaves and fluttering gently in a warm breeze.

I made my way to the coastline as blocks sprouted from the horizon, growing larger and larger, their features morphing into shape until I could make out rows of windows, and a patchwork off clothes swaying on lines and draped over concrete balconies that, with one strong gust of wind, threatened to be whisked away into the Black Sea.

Conforming to the same shape as the wash of the surf a few metres further down the beach, sand, stained black by heavy minerals, spilled onto the cycle path ahead of me like waves frozen in time, forcing me to weave left and right as I approached the city. It’s peculiar colour was otherworldly, and made even more ethereal by what lay inland on the other side of me. A watery mosaic, carved up by rails and lop-sided, planked walkways stood between me and Burgas’ skyline. Uniform ripples flowed over its bright, orange-pink surface; it was as though it had absorbed the hue of the soon-to-be setting sun, trapping it below the surface but radiating it within its depths, so that it mirrored it’s colour. Carts bumbled along rusting metal tracks, and I realised I was looking at Burgas saltworks. The strange phenomenon was a result of halophilic brine shrimp, which draw the unique colour in their shells from the pigment ‘astaxanthin’, the very same one that gives flamingos their pink shade.

I’ve always preferred the countryside wherever I go; when travelling, cities merge with one another, none too distinct from the next, and I’m sometimes left wondering if I’ve actually cycled in a big circle and ended up in the same place. It’s the small villages and towns that boast the idiosyncrasies I find so enthralling. So, as with Varna, I found myself more enamoured with the city’s surroundings than with Burgas itself, so much so that I returned twice to the black beach and saltworks during my stay there.  I gazed across the water, which by my second day there was for once calm and still, at the horizon, taking a moment to appreciate that, if I drew a straight line in front of me, I would next make landfall on the shores of Georgia, the second-to-last country on the Arctic to Asia Cycle Tour. I felt a rising sense that I might actually make it all the way to Baku, Azerbaijan, something I’d doubted time and time again.  Standing there, I lost track of time before the ding of a bicycle bell behind me drew me back to reality. Instead of rushing around sightseeing in my new surroundings, I told myself I’d earned a rest, and am not ashamed to admit that I spent most of my time in my final major stop before Turkey relaxing, rather than exploring.

Burgas Black Sand


Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.

The Person: Ivo Gospodinov, 27, Bartender

“I prefer my hometown, but after graduation from high-school, a lot of people move away to Sofia, Plovdiv and Burgas. So a lot of my friends just disappeared from the city, so I changed cities. Here in Burgas you have more opportunities for work, for living, and for marriage.”

See Ivo's Full Background

I had a pretty good childhood. Here in our country, before 10-15 years ago the way of living was quite good. Before smartphones and computers, we had our games outside. Now it’s quite difficult for kids to play outside. I see a lot of kids who do go outside, but they are still on there smartphones! It’s not good. 

I like to go hiking in the mountains, and ride bicycles a lot. But for the last two years I didn’t have a bike. I have a car. This is a big city, you know? I used to live in a small city called ‘Sliven’ and it was good for the bicycle, but this one is double the size, so I drive.

I have lived in Burgas for 5 years. 22 years of my life I spent in Sliven, my hometown. Our history has a lot of wars; a lot of dictatorships. But out rebellion started from Sliven, and it spread through the whole of Bulgaria, so it’s a historical place.

I prefer my hometown, but after graduation from high-school, a lot of people move away to Sofia, Plovdiv and Burgas. So a lot of my friends just disappeared from the city, so I changed cities. Here in Burgas you have more opportunities for work, for living, and for marriage. The work is the main reason I came here. I studied transport technology in University in another city, but after I started my education I realised there weren’t many places to work with that degree, so I left after the second year and started to work instead. It’s really hard to find a job to do with your education. 

 What does ‘home’ mean to you?

“I just need one thing; comfort. I am ok living in one small room, as long as I have comfort and some peace and quiet. I feel as at home here in Burgas as my hometown, although I really miss my parents… I call Burgas ‘home’.”

See Ivo's Full Answer

First of all, it’s comfort. When you’re at home, you have this feeling of comfort, safety and cosiness. After that, comes family. I don’t say friends any more because they don’t live near my home. I move a lot in my life, so I can make home anywhere I go. I went to Macedonia, and in one week, because the languages are very similar, I was speaking their language, and in two weeks I had their accent. For other people, that can be really difficult.

I just need one thing; comfort. I am ok living in one small room, as long as I have comfort and some peace and quiet. I feel as at home here in Burgas as my hometown, although I really miss my parents. I used to live with them. But I call Burgas “home”. I see my parents every month, which is good. It’s only 100km from here.


Bulgarian Martenitsa

Martenitsa are thread bracelets hung from trees and bushes in honour of ‘Baba Marta’, a mythical grumpy old woman prone to mood swings who is seen as the living embodiment of the month of March.


What is special about Burgas that makes it different from other cities in Bulgaria?

“My hometown, Sliven, is a small place and I know everybody. When I go to the centre to walk around with some friends, I’m just like “hi, hi, hi…”… Everywhere I go, I see a familiar face. Here it’s not like that. It’s good for me because every day I see new people coming in, and I make new conversations, new friendships, and the best thing about Burgas is that those people are open to you.”

See Ivo's Full Answer

Maybe the people. Because I don’t know them. My hometown, Sliven, is a small place and I know everybody. When I go to the centre to walk around with some friends, I’m just like “hi, hi, hi…” everywhere! Everywhere I go, I see a familiar face. Here it’s not like that. It’s good for me because every day I see new people coming in, and I make new conversations, new friendships, and the best thing about Burgas is that those people are open to you. 

When you have a lot of acquaintances, everyone is asking you something “can I borrow this, can you help me with that”. I don’t like that; I just want to go around and see different faces. It makes me curious about them. I think about how they live, how they manage their work, or homework, or anything else in their lives. There’s nothing new for me in my hometown. I have discovered everything there. I’ve explored every street, and the mountains around. So I moved here. I like to learn new things.

Can you think of something that makes you proud of Burgas or Bulgaria?

“Do you know of John Atanasov? This is probably the first person who ever made a computer. His father and mother were Bulgarian.”

See Ivo's Full Answer

It’s difficult. I bet most Bulgarians say 1994, because of the football world championships. But I’m not really proud of that fact. Do you know of John Atanasov? This is probably the first person who ever made a computer. His father and mother were Bulgarian. But after that, I would like to say that our battle flag was never defeated, in all our history. And our history is 1,200 years old. So our army was never defeated by the enemy. Twice in our history we were occupied by the enemy, but our battle flag was never defeated.  

What is your main concern or worry about Burgas and Bulgaria?

“…the young people are leaving Bulgaria… [politicians] keep increasing the prices of things like electricity. People can’t afford to pay for it, and the government can shut off your electricity when you don’t pay for it. And if you can’t pay your rent, you’re out on the street. If that happens to me, what am I going to do? I’ll say “ok, f*ck Bulgaria” and go. I’m really sad to talk about it like that, but it’s the truth.”

See Ivo's Full Answer

The biggest problem is that the young people are leaving Bulgaria. They go abroad to work, for like 10 years. Then they come back, buy their own apartments, have children, and then one of the parents goes abroad again to make enough money for their family. The population of Bulgaria is melting. Three years ago, we had 8 million people. Now we’re 6 million. They pay taxes to another country, not this one. When they come back, they have no pension. That’s another big problem. If you don’t have enough money to pay taxes, or to support yourself, you’re just dead. Or you’re out on the street. The government doesn’t help these people. They are actually the reason this happens. Our government doesn’t serve our people. They serve foreign interests. For example, we have a goldmine here in Bulgaria, but the gold mined from it does not stay in our country. It goes off to Canada, and the Canadians don’t pay for our gold. We make a tiny profit, but just like 1%. There are three actually. Two of them have gold that goes to Canada, and one sends gold to Austria. This is all thanks to democracy. The government doesn’t try to do anything about this. 

And the government is pushing more people to leave the country. They keep increasing the prices of things like electricity. People can’t afford to pay for it, and the government can shut off your electricity when you don’t pay for it. And if you can’t pay your rent, you’re out on the street. If that happens to me, what am I going to do? I’ll say “ok, f*ck Bulgaria” and go. I’m really sad to talk about it like that, but it’s the truth. But I still love my country. I have been abroad, and after a while I still want to come back here. Everyone should visit our country. We have beautiful nature, and a lot of history. 

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in your lifetime here in Bulgaria?

“…the way of living is changing. People are getting more mad and sad. Happiness has, like, disappeared. That’s because of the government.”

See Ivo's Full Answer

First, the army is getting smaller. In my home city, we used to have three military bases. Now there is one, and it’s just one-quarter of the size that it was. For me it’s a good thing; if you shrink the military there will be less war. After that, I’d say the way of living is changing. People are getting more mad and sad. Happiness has, like, disappeared. That’s because of the government. You see a paradox. We don’t like our government, and we don’t like our politicians, but when elections come, we vote for someone different, and after that the one who we voted for is not elected. There is a big manipulation of the votes. The Prime Minister now is serving his second term. He did some real sh*t in his first term; he’s the one who increased the prices of everything.  Everyone was saying they didn’t like him, and that they wouldn’t vote for him. But somehow, after the elections, it’s him again. We actually saw a lot of pictures where people were switching votes, or throwing ballots away.

There are cases where if you work in a factory, the owner can come in and say “all of you have to vote for this person, or you’re fired”. In our minority communities, like Gypsies or Turks, people will go in and give them money or food, and say “you must vote for us, because we’re giving you these things”. They buy the votes. This isn’t supposed to happen in the E.U. But we are in the European Union just on paper. We kind of pretend to be in it, but really we’re not. I think every Bulgarian will tell you what I’m telling you. 

They say that we’re supposed to equalise our living standards with Western Europe. But at the moment, the prices are rising to their levels but the salaries are staying the same. The salaries should increase to Western levels, too! Instead, they’ve gone up by 50 Лв every three years. One hour of work here gets you 3 euros. It’s really bad.

Do you think Bulgaria has been doing better since the fall of communism?

“After democracy came, most of the factories became privatised… after that, the people who bought them were not capable of paying their taxes, so they shut them down… each had like 500 workers, so no more work for them. It was a bad time… and it still is…  You see, not everything in democracy is good and shiny and new!”

See Ivo's Full Answer

We used to have quite developed medicine before democracy came. Before then, biology and medicine were good; we produced a lot of cures for diseases. But after democracy we just shut down everything. You know, under communism every single factory was run by the government. After democracy came, most of the factories became privatised. But three years after that, the people who bought them were not capable of paying their taxes, so they shut them down. When they shut down, each had like 500 workers, so no more work for them. It was a bad time for them, and it still is a bad time I think. Now, everything is just destroyed.  You see, not everything in democracy is good and shiny and new!

The biggest problem in democracy is the people; you give them freedom – freedom to speak, to write, to do anything… but this changes the way of thinking of people. After the fall of communism, many turned to drugs and alcohol. Back then, we didn’t have coca-cola, or oranges, or jeans, and that was bad, but everyone had jobs and we didn’t have as much crime or drugs. The thinking of the people has changed with democracy. I was born two years after the fall of communism, and during the rise of democracy, and I saw this move from one system to another.

Since the rise of democracy, the bills for electricity and water started rising every year. So did things like food. After 10 years it’s a big difference. I used to buy bread for 50 stotinki Now I buy it for 1 lev and 50 stotinki. Things have changed, but we don’t see a lot of good changes. The minimum salary is 510 Лв(leva)/month, which is 275 euro. But to live normally in Burgas, for example, you need 1,000 Лв per month. If you’re like me in a rented apartment, the rent is 400 Лв. That doesn’t leave much to pay for electricity, the phone, food, gas and so on. It’s difficult. When I get a salary of 600 Лв, and I don’t live with my parents, it’s really hard.


Burgas Saltworks
Burgas Saltworks

The water in Burgas Saltworks in Lake Atanskovo is pink in colour. That’s because brine shrimp, with pink shells that draw their colour from the pigment ‘astaxanthin’, thrive in high numbers in such a high-salinity environment.


What is the role of religion in Bulgaria today?

“…in our Orthodox religion we have several big celebration days. Those days bring us together. Children may have gone abroad, or to a different city like me, but on these big days of celebration, I go home to see my parents. A lot of my friends are coming from other countries to see their parents, too.”

See Ivo's Full Reccomendation

It’s quite big. But it’s important in helping families stick together, because in our Orthodox religion we have several big celebration days. Those days bring us together. Children may have gone abroad, or to a different city like me, but on these big days of celebration, I go home to see my parents. A lot of my friends are coming from other countries to see their parents, too. People don’t follow the religion as much as they like the family gatherings. Some do, of course, and there are a few people who go to church every single Sunday, and who before Easter are fasting. 

For me, religion is made for people who want to control the crowds. You know, when you divide the people, you manage to control them easily. There are so many different religions in the world, but the people are the same. I don’t categorise them by religion. For me, you are a person so I will respect you. 

What is your favourite and least favourite Bulgarian Dish?

I like Shkembe Chorba. This is a kind of soup which is mad from a cow’s stomach. You clean it, cut it and boil it, and after that you put in some ingredients like milk, carrot and flour. There are several dishes I don’t like, though. We have many foods that uses a lot of peas, and I don’t like them. 

What food should I try to get a “taste of Bulgaria”?

Shkembe chorba! It’s delicious. They serve it with garlic, and some hot chilli peppers. In Turkey they have it as well, but there it’s called “ishkembe chorba”.

Life According to Locals #Bulgaria #Burgas #InterviewsWithLocals Click To Tweet

Ivo Gospodinov


The Plate: Shkembe Chorba

“A hint of citrus danced amongst the heat, emerging and then disappearing again as each flavour took turns to draw the focus of my taste buds. Though the meal lacked complexity, its components seemed in harmony with one another; it was a choreographed performance, rather than a competition.”

Read More About Shkembe Chorba

I braced myself. I’d heard the hype; how strange it was, how my weak tourist’s palette wouldn’t be able to handle such a peculiar Bulgarian dish. We’d met once before on the battlefield, and now we’d duel again; my encounter with Tripe in Eastern Europe wasn’t over yet. The creamy colour and consistency of the meal before me highlighted the islands of orange oil floating on its surface. Its fiery colours told me a kick would be coming, as did the small glass of chilli flakes that came along with it.

The knowledge that today and tomorrow would be the most physically challenging days of cycling for a while fuelled my appetite and I probed, unsuccessfully for a few seconds at first, before I felt something soft caught between my spoon and the bowl. Careful not to lose my catch, I dragged it from its lair, broth slipping over the edges of my utensil, splashing into the soup below and causing the orbs of oil on its surface to swirl and scatter. Whether intentional or not, it was a good thing the meat had been concealed at first. It was pale and grey; the kind of grey that, rather than looking like a tone itself, appears totally devoid of colour, as though someone had turned the ‘vibrancy’ setting down to its minimum on Instagram. It lay limp, flopped over the edge of my spoon in such a way that each movement of my hand caused half of it to wriggle as it were alive, and feebly attempting to escape its imminent fate. After a brief moment of hesitation, I told myself I’d need the energy for the mountains ahead, and took my first spoonful.

A subtle burn tingled my tongue as the chilli delivered its blow. I prepared for the sensation to mount, to build to a crescendo leaving me scrambling for water, but none came. The cream seemed to act as its antidote, soothing whenever the heat began to feel too intense, and retreating when it began to mask it too much. The taste of the soup alone was surprisingly mundane, so I put the glass of crushed Garlic served alongside the chilli to good use. A hint of citrus danced amongst the heat, and Garlic’s pungency, emerging and then disappearing again as each flavour took turns to draw the focus of my taste buds. Though the meal lacked complexity, its components seemed in harmony with one another; it was a choreographed performance, rather than a competition.

The tripe stood in contrast with the Flaki I’d tried in Poland; this meat was rubbery and tough, and, instead of boasting its own flavour, absorbed that of the liquid it had been drowned in, releasing it in again in a cascade when it was crushed between my teeth. A side of toast compensated for the absence of any ingredients save for the tripe itself, giving variation in texture and providing a crunch that Shkembe Chorba had been crying out for. Despite its initial, unappetising appearance, and monotonous consistency, I had no trouble draining the bowl of its contents, which may be why I was able to cycle an extra 15km beyond my regular distance as I made my way towards the Turkish border later that day…

Shkembe Chorba


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Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

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Hilda
Hilda
11 months ago

Loved your introduction to Burgas.9 Felt as though I was there. Yet another East European country suffering hardship – where is the European Union? Have my reservations regarding Shkembe Chorba.

Dennis
Dennis
11 months ago

Quo vadis Bularia..Communism….Democracy…..EU…?