The region that is now Bulgaria has a long recorded history. The Thracian culture emerged here towards the end of the Bronze Age before the Romans came along, and by 50 AD the area had become a Roman province. When the Roman Empire split into its Western and Eastern sections Bulgaria remained under the control of the Eastern (Byzantine) Emperor. An independent Bulgarian Kingdom emerged in the 7th century but by the early 11th century the Byzantines were back in charge. Bulgaria was an independent Kingdom again by 1190 but less than 200 years later the whole of the Balkans came under the control of the Ottoman Turks.
Bulgaria remained under the yoke of the Turkish Empire until 1878 when the Turks were kicked out of the Balkans by the Russian Empire and Bulgaria regained its independence once again. It has retained it since, although within constantly changing borders, the result of a series of short Balkan wars at the beginning of the 20th century, and backing the losing sides in both World Wars.
Like the rest of Eastern Europe after World War 2 Bulgaria came under communist control and remained so 1990. Bulgarias post-communist experience was similar to most of the rest of Eastern Europe, with corruption, inflation and economic collapse. Like many other countries the former communists quickly found themselves back in power, although this time re-elected under a different name. When that didnt work the Bulgarians did something a bit different and decided to elect their former King (Simeon II, or plain-old Simeon Saxe-Koburg Gotha as he was now known, a distant relative of the Queen of England) on an anti-corruption ticket. He was made prime minister in 2001 and since then things have probably improved; the economy is certainly more stable, and at the beginning of 2007 Bulgaria became a member of the European Union.
Bulgarian food is relatively simple and is usually based around meat (typically grilled pork, lamb, or chicken) and fresh vegetables (usually organically grown). Traditional Bulgarian foods are often based on stews (with a mix of meat and vegetables), or vegetables (e.g. peppers) stuffed with meat.
Veggies should be OK; fresh vegetables are excellent and widely available, and Bulgarians are big salad-eaters (try the shopska salad, topped with grated sheeps cheese). Various combinations of cheese (sometimes fried, sometimes covered in breadcrumbs) and eggs are on the menu in most restaurants. Fish is also popular; sea fish (e.g. mackerel) is available even away from the Black Sea cost, and fresh water fish (such as trout, usually served up whole) is eaten throughout Bulgaria.
Pizza and pasta places are widespread, often very good (some are even owned and run by Italians), and excellent value for money. Chinese food, although not always authentic, is also gaining in popularity. Even in the big cities you wont find a huge variety of cuisines. Sofia has a couple of Indian places, as well as regional variations like Russian or Turkish restaurants.
If youre after fast food you might be pleased to know that the usual suspects (McDonalds, etc) can be found in Sofia. Local variations on the same theme are also available (youll find lots of branches of Goodys in Sofia. I dont know what the food was like but I did notice that their waitresses wore rather tight shorts). Hot pizza slices and the like are a cheaper option, and even better news is that kebabs are very popular too..
Moving onto the booze, Bulgarian beer is decent enough, usually pilsner style lager. Every bar and restaurant we tried had at least one variety on draft, and a few more bottled. Brands we tried and enjoyed include Azteka, Zagaorka and Kamenitza. In most bars a pint will set you back around 50p. Imported beer is available in most bars in Sofia, Amstel and Heineken seem to be particularly popular. As these are not always on draft, and as theyll usually set you back at least 3 or 4 times the cost of a pint of the local stuff I wouldnt bother if I were you.
Bulgaria is one of the worlds largest producers and exporters of wine. Bulgarian wine is usually found in the bargain-bins at UK supermarkets, but the quality of even the cheap stuff can be surprisingly good. International styles such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and Chardonnay are churned out in oceans, but its worth trying out some of Bulgarias more indigenous varieties that are harder to get hold of in the west. Mavrud is red and very rich, melnik is a little mellower, tramminer is a semi-sweet white best drunk chilled and on its own. We drank gallons of each, and I recommend them all. Even in a decent restaurant you should pay no more than £5 for a bottle.
Spirit drinkers will be pleased to know that most international brands are available, often at much cheaper prices than t home. Vodka is popular and is produced locally, but the most common locally distilled spirits are various types of fruit brandy, often lethally strong and tasting like paint-thinner. Not that Ive ever tried paint-thinner.... its pretty cheap stuff though.
Bulgarians speak Bulgarian. That's straightforward enough, but they also read and write Bulgarian and they read and write it using the Cyrillic alphabet. All street signs, road names, etc are written in Cyrillic and usually the Cyrillic names bear absolutely no relation to how they would appear written in the Roman alphabet. For this reason it really is well worth spending even just a couple of hours trying to get to grips with the basics of the Cyrillic alphabet (preferably before you go, and not after you get back, as I did), it'll be of enormous help while you're there.
Anyway, here are a few useful Bulgarian phrases; they appear as they'd be pronounced, rather than transliterated from the Cyrillic: zdra-vey-tay ("hello"), i-mah-tay li pri-ya-tehl ("do you have a boyfriend"), i-marm veh-neh-ri-chnah bo-les ("what are you doing tonight"), sam zhah-dane ("I'm thirsty"), peht bira mo-lya ("five beers please"), i-marm ghlah-vo-bo-li-eh ("I have a head ache"), ahs sam ot u-ehls ("I'm from Wales"), tar-sya ghraht-skar to-ah-leht-nah ("I'm looking for a public toliet"), neh znah-ekh cheh var-shah neh-shto neh-reh-dno ("I didn't realise I was doing anything wrong").
German is the most widely spoken second language, especially in restaurants and hotels, but English doesn't seem to be too far behind. Every restaurant we tried in Sofia had an English translation of their menu (not always entirely accurate, but you can't complain) and someone who spoke English.
The currency of Bulgaria is the lev (plural leva). The economy is now reasonably stable and the value of the lev is tied to that of the Euro. As of December 2003 £1 was worth 2.8 leva