Darmon Richter: "Throw your guidebook in the bin"
The creator of The Bohemian Blog talks about local hidden gems
Edited by Gabriella Permaul, photos Darmon Richter.
I grew up in Britain, and while I always enjoyed travelling, I had never really thought about living anywhere else. My plan was to study a PhD in Britain, but after I finished my psychology degree I decided to take a year out first. I wanted to spend it travelling, and seeing different places before I got too busy with a career back at home. The first place I landed was Bulgaria. I had three weeks to explore the country... but around that time I saw an ad from a company in Varna, who were looking for a native English speaker to come and work as a writer for them. If I earned while I travelled, I thought I could make the trip last longer! So I took the job.
Over the next few months I grew to really like Bulgaria. The food, the people, the architecture, and the beautiful nature... I never planned to stay here for a long time, but I haven’t got bored of it yet, so here I am. There is so much to see in Bulgaria, so much history, that even after nine years I’m still finding out new things all the time. I stayed with that company in Varna for a few years, before eventually going freelance – selling my own writing and photographs, and leading tours too. So nowadays, exploring Bulgaria (and other countries in the region) has become my full-time job.
I started The Bohemian Blog a few days after Christmas in 2011. I had been in Bulgaria for almost two months by then, and the blog was a way for me to keep in touch with friends at home. I shared short articles about the places I visited here, and posted photos too – back then I was pretty terrible at taking photos, but I’ve slowly got better over time. It felt like quite a private thing at first, so I was surprised when strangers started leaving comments! Since then though, the website has grown significantly. I have written a lot about Bulgaria, but I write about many other countries too – there are articles from 40 different countries on the website now.
I am not going to say that anyone ‘should’ read The Bohemian Blog... because I know not everyone will share my interests! I would say the main mission of the site is to share interesting stories and research about the kind of places that most people don’t even think about. Sometimes I write about the history of abandoned places like tunnels, bunkers or factories, or it might be political places like monuments or former presidential mansions. Right now, I’m researching for a future article about alleged UFO sightings in Bulgaria! It’s definitely not the typical sort of travel website, but if any of the above sounds interesting to you, then perhaps you might enjoy it.
I have had countless surprises since coming to Bulgaria, and honestly, I think that’s partly because Bulgaria is not very good at marketing itself. The tourism industry here promotes the country’s beautiful monasteries, its beaches and mountains, medieval fortresses, Roman ruins, and so on. And it’s true – Bulgaria is very good for all of these things. But so are a lot of other countries. For example, we have some pretty incredible Roman ruins and medieval castles in Britain, so I don’t think many British people would be travelling to Bulgaria just for that. A lot of British people already go to Spain for beaches, or to France for their skiing holidays. If they want wine tourism, they go to Italy. For people who don’t know Bulgaria, the main advantage they can see is that Bulgaria offers all the same things as Italy, or Croatia, or Turkey... but cheaper. And while the beach bars, ski resorts and casinos might bring a lot of money into the Bulgarian economy, I don’t think they do much for the country’s image overseas. I think Bulgaria deserves better than being advertised as Europe’s ‘cheap holiday alternative.’
As a foreigner in Bulgaria what interests me the most are the things that are unique to Bulgaria. For example the geological formation at Pobiti Kamani, outside Varna, is like nothing I have ever seen before. I could say the same about the ‘Eyes of God,’ at Devetashka Cave… or the ancient site at Perperikon. The Rila Lakes are beautiful, but the history of the White Brotherhood, who still hold their mystical gatherings there, is the thing that, for me, makes this place special compared to the alpine lakes in many other countries. I was also genuinely surprised by Bulgaria’s cuisine, which I now think is one of the best in Europe – travellers coming to the Balkans expect a lot of grilled meat, and while Bulgaria certainly delivers that, the salads, vegetables and dairy products are much better than I had any reason to expect. Bulgaria’s folklore traditions are very unique too. For example, Surva Festival in Pernik. Lots of other countries have their own ancient midwinter rituals, but I have never seen them organised into one big festival like this before, and I’m surprised it’s not more famous outside of Bulgaria.
My favourite thing about Bulgaria though is the Modernist architecture. It’s a subject that really interests me, and I have travelled around the world photographing huge concrete monuments and buildings from the 1960s to ‘80s. Bulgaria doesn’t advertise the subject at all, so I was surprised to come here and find some of the best Modernist architecture I’ve ever seen. Places like NDK or the Buzludzha Memorial House have to be amongst the most interesting examples anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, though, people here still associate these buildings with the politics of that era, and so they don’t seem to receive a lot of maintenance or promotion. To me that feels like a mistake and a missed opportunity. Because the truth is, that type of architecture was a global trend in those years. Modernist and Brutalist buildings were being built in the East and the West, by monarchies, democracies and dictatorships alike. Even if Bulgarian politics had been different, there would still have been a lot of big concrete buildings left over from that time! And Bulgaria did them better than most – for a small country, it does incredibly well at architecture, art and mosaics.
So for me this one was a double surprise, both positive and negative: learning that Bulgaria made some of the greatest works of Modernism that the world has ever seen... but also, that it let many of them fall apart afterwards.
I really wish someone could have downloaded the Bulgarian language direct into my brain, like in the Matrix. I have taken various lessons and courses over the years, and I’ve got to the point where I can manage most basic communication. I can buy food and bus tickets, pay my phone bill, chat to taxi drivers, send packages, ask for the time and discuss the weather. All the polite, necessary stuff. It felt important to me that I get to the point where I never need to ask strangers to switch to my language. But I still can’t really sit down and get to know someone in Bulgarian. I can read newspapers, but I can’t keep up with a heated political conversation. My Bulgarian is improving all the time but it still has a long way to go.
Everything in my life changed after I moved to Bulgaria. Before, I was a barman in a pub getting ready for a career in an office. Now I’m having adventures, getting paid to write about them, and leading tours as well – recreating some of my favourite trips for travellers from all over the world. My life is much more interesting than it was before, but it’s a lot more difficult too. I don’t get weekends or evenings off anymore! For all its excitement, I don’t think this lifestyle would work for everybody. I feel distanced from a lot of my friends and family, and that can sometimes be lonely. But I have also made new friends since coming here, and Bulgaria still keeps surprising me even now – so I don’t think I’m tired of it yet.
My advice is this: If you really want to get to know Bulgaria, the first essential step is to throw your guidebook in the bin. According to the Lonely Planet guide to Bulgaria, “Soul-stirring mountains rival golden beaches, while cities hum with nightlife and art.” It’s the kind of generic phrase you could copy-and-paste into the description of a hundred different countries around the world. If that was the best that Bulgaria had, then I wouldn’t still be here after nine years.
One of the most memorable experiences I ever had here was driving around Bulgaria for a week with a local friend – getting lost in the forests, finding weird and wonderful monuments in the mountains, then stopping to talk to all the old people sitting outside on benches in the villages. Some of those people have a lot to say! One old man spent three hours telling us his memories of WWII. There is history in Bulgaria that has never been written down, and when you start to go looking for it – that’s when you’ll really fall in love with this country.