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Profile: IN BULGARIA, A ROSE AMONG ROSES

December 2nd, 2009 46 comments

Text and Audio by Joe Linstroth

Photography by Evan Martin

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“The whole world renders homage to me, and I render homage to the Master Petar Deunov from Bulgaria.” — Albert Einstein

KURTOVO, BULGARIA — For Dimitra Grambelova, affectionately known as “Baba” Dimitra or Grandmother Dimitra, her daily hikes up to the crest of a foothill near the base of the Stara Planina mountains are more than just healthy doses of exercise. The dirt path worn in the tall grass above this hamlet in central Bulgaria is where she finds inspiration for her songs and poetry.  It’s where she has built her temple of worship, or perhaps where one has been built for her. The chirping finches and mimicking mockingbirds, the bells and bleats from the village flock interrupted by the shepherd’s occasional barking, the worn rocks that time and weather have shaped into a frog or a woman’s lips; they all speak to her in a single voice — the voice of a place only a divine hand could bestow.

Baba Dimitra’s spiritual connection to the land here is forged by the teachings of the Bulgarian philosopher Petar Deunov. Though the height of his popularity began at the turn of the century, Deunov still has a smattering of devoted followers in Bulgaria, as well as around the world. These devotees call themselves the Universal White Brotherhood, a reference to purity not racial bigotry.

Deunov’s philosophy is a combination of physical meditation exercises, spiritual writings that stemmed from his peripatetic lecturing, and rhythmic, circular dances, often done in groups, that all strive to bring one closer to the Divine. Some of his stuff is out there, like his practice of phrenology, but as a whole Deunov’s philosophy seems to blend the more enlightened tenets of other religions, both Eastern and Western, into his own cohesive set of Christian beliefs. Central to them is the notion that all things in nature transcend their physical form and offer the purist way to grow closer to God.

At age 76, Baba Dimitra believes that her conversion to Deunov’s teachings 15 years ago was what rid her of the various ailments, including kidney problems, that were starting to pull her down life’s rickety back slope. She credits the thinker for her decision to return to her childhood home in Kurtovo after years of working as a forester and living in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city. He also gave her the youthful energy that fuels her daily hikes, and the motivation, five years ago, to plant a field of roses here.

The village of Kurtovo is situated on the eastern edge of the Karlovo Valley, one of two flat, fertile expanses that stretch along the southern base of the Stara Planina mountain range. Roses have been grown for their oil in the two valleys for more than 300 years, and to this day, Bulgarian rose oil is prized around the world for its purity and fragrance.

The roses in Baba’s field will make their way from the valley’s sandy soil to a local distillery, which will extract the oil using only water and heat. The yield from each rose is astonishingly miniscule. It takes approximately 5.5 million roses to make one kilogram of rose oil, which sells on the international market for about $7,000. The distillery will most likely export the finished product to France or the U.S., where it will be added to the cosmetics and fragrances of well-known brands like Estee Lauder and Aveda. More recently, Bulgarian rose oil has also become popular as a food supplement in Japan. Some believe that when ingested, the oil’s bouquet permeates the sweat glands.

The profit for rose farmers is meager. Baba Dimitra will fetch only about $1 for every 1,100 roses, which she picks by hand. But for her the profits are secondary to the beauty they add to what would otherwise be an overgrown field. Through Deunov’s teachings, she has developed a preference for the simpler life, no doubt augmented by the generally depressed conditions of life in Bulgaria’s villages. A small pension covers the bare essentials.  She grows fruits and vegetables and crafts cheese from local sheep’s milk. What she can’t buy, grow or make, she barters for with her neighbors — a common practice in village life here. Last year, she traded her grapes to a nearby winemaker for his hand in chopping the winter firewood. She lives alone, with occasional visits from family and friends, but she says she is never lonely with Deunov and the mountains close by.

To the more empirically minded, Baba Dimitra’s beliefs may seem like bloated hyperbole at best. Others may just dismiss her as a crazy old woman. They wouldn’t be alone. Many of the village’s 250 pensioners and farmers, as well as some of her family members, already think she’s been pricked by one too many thorns. It is doubtful, however, that any of them have ever gazed across the valley at the sun sliding behind the distant peaks while the crickets lend their rhythm to one of Baba Dimitra’s melodies. After such an experience, only the most frigid of souls could deny the possibility that something or someone unseen has touched this place. And the goose bumps are evidence enough that the old woman’s mind is as fit as they come.

Sun and Moon Festival Celebrates Traditional Culture in Delchevo, Bulgaria

June 25th, 2009 42 comments

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Photography by Evan Martin and Joe Linstroth

Audio by Joe Linstroth

WINE TOURISM SLOW TO DEVELOP IN SLIVEN, BULGARIA

June 22nd, 2009 45 comments

A translation of this story appeared in the September issue of Bacchus wine magazine, published in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Text by Joe Linstroth

Photography by Evan Martin

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SLIVEN, BULGARIA — Hidden amidst the weeds and behind a rod-iron door that once marked the entrance of a World War II bomb shelter is the degustation room of one of Sliven’s oldest and largest wineries.  There are no signs or posted hours of operation.  There is no indication whatsoever to the public that what lies behind the graffiti-covered facade near the center of this sleepy city in central Bulgaria is a place to taste the wines made by Vini Sliven.  By appointment only, large groups can see what lies behind the secret entrance.  Inside is a series of cool, arched tunnels that house the winery’s oldest wines and long tables where the visitors can sit and taste them.  The dusty, moldy bottles add to the ambience.  But the stash is also a buried clue that reveals a neglected treasure, and only recently have the Sliven region’s wine-producers begun to realize that they might be sitting on gold.

 Wine-making in Bulgaria dates back nearly 3,000 years.  In fact, it is theorized that the Thracian societies who inhabited what is now Bulgarian soil were the first to introduce commercial wine-making to the civilized world.  Wine tourism in Bulgaria, however, is a new concept.  The Sliven region, with its own long wine-making tradition, is just beginning to explore its potential. 

 But building elegant chateaus that serve good wine and offer free tours is only the first step.  Wine tourism in Sliven has suffered for many reasons, and only some of them can be attributed to the lack of new facilities.  There is little information or advertising to direct wine tourists to the places that currently exist.  Cooperation between the wineries to promote the region has been non-existent, as has significant support and additional marketing from the Sliven municipality and local tourist agencies. But there are signs that producers are beginning to take wine tourism seriously.

 The Potential Exists

 Sliven’s wine history combined with its close proximity to the Blue Rocks, which attracts tourists with its panoramic views and accessible hiking trails, makes it an ideal place for wine tourism in Bulgaria. Located just 100 kilometers from many of Bulgaria’s popular Black Sea resorts, Sliven’s wineries are a short trip away for international tourists looking for more than just sun and sand.  

“What is on the Black Sea is not Bulgaria,” said Georgi Zhekov, the finance and planning manager for Vinex Slavyantsi, one of the region’s largest wine producers.  The company sees the potential for wine tourism and Zhekov said it has future plans to enter the market. 

“Tourists can touch the countryside and taste good wine,” said Zhekov. “They can see another type of Bulgaria.”

For Bulgarian tourists, most of the wine cellars are located just off the main road from Sofia to Bourgas and easily accessible by car.  

Elka Mihaylova, manager of Sliven Tours, one of the only travel agencies for local tourism, said she has seen increased interest in wine tourism among Bulgarians.

“Wine production is very important for the Bulgarian economy and it’s maturing.  In the last two years, Bulgarians have started to show interest,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”

 Plans for the Future

On a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon in June, the main dining room at Chateau Windy Hills was filled with 20 Belgian tourists tasting wine and having a light lunch.  Afterword, they toured the facility, taking pictures of the modern production equipment and the oak barrels lining the cellar walls.  

“In Belgium, we know Bulgaria has good wine,” said Eric Cambien.  “It’s not only the French wine that’s the best.” 

Opened in 2006, Chateau Windy Hills is one of the first models for wine tourism in the region.  Unlike many of the Sliven region’s large wine factories such as Vini Sliven, Vinprom Karnobat and Domain Boyar, which produce wine in large quantities that sell at lower prices, Windy Hills is more focused on quality, producing smaller batches of wine with higher price tags.

 “You don’t find many chateaus like this one in Bulgaria,” said Mariana Vassileva, the manager of Windy Hills.

 But more are coming to the Sliven region. 

 Earlier this year, another boutique winery opened a chateau in Elenovo, which is approximately 45 kilometers from Sliven.  Like Windy Hills, Edoardo Miroglio’s Soli Invicto has a restaurant and hotel rooms in addition to wine degustation and tours of the facility.

 Some of the region’s largest wineries are also recognizing the potential.  They have acknowledged that industrial factories discourage tourism and are devising different approaches to enter this new market.

 Vinprom Karnobat, one of Bulgaria’s largest wine producers, is putting the finishing touches on its Chateau Karnobat, Brothers Minkov.  Located 50 kilometers east of Sliven on the main road to Bourgas, the winery, which will feature wines from Karnobat’s Cycle label, will officially open this September, said manager Ivan Ivanov.

 “We have two big wine factories and now is the time to make the wine cellar for boutique wine, where we will show special wines, more expensive wines,” said Ivanov. 

 Maria Dimitrova, executive assistant at Vini Sliven, said her company has plans to move into the boutique wine business as well.   It will transform an old wine cellar in the village of Padarevo, which is approximately 45 kilometers northeast of Sliven, into a microvinification winery, complete with a barrel room, a small bottling line, a tasting room and, eventually, a hotel. 

 Just a few kilometers down the road from Padarevo, Vinex Slavyantsi is formulating a different plan.  Zhekov said the company wants to renovate a house it owns in Sungurlare, the village adjacent to the wine factory.   Instead of a boutique winery, however, they will offer hotel accommodations, wine degustation and feature mountain bike rentals and trails that wind through and around their vineyards.

 “In Bulgaria, some companies with tourism concepts want to have them in their wineries.  Our concept is to go out into the country, into nature and into the vineyards, because our winery is more industrial,” Zhekov said. 

Both Vini Sliven and Vinex Slavyantsi said they expect their new facilities to be completed in two or three years.  All of the companies said they plan to pursue funding from the European Union for these projects. 

But securing the funding and building the necessary facilities to attract tourists is just the beginning.  The real challenge, it appears, will be for all parties involved, from the wine companies to the Sliven municipality to the local tour operators, to work together and to focus their attention on the business of wine tourism.

 Challenges Lie Ahead

Chateau Windy Hills sits prominently on a lone hilltop a few hundred meters from the main road between Sofia and Bourgas.  Yet no signs direct passersby and tourists to the wine cellar’s access road.   Their business seems to rely on contracts with tour operators, online advertising and word-of-mouth.  Judging by the manager’s reluctance to provide the number of visitors the chateau has received this year, this strategy seems to have produced limited results.

The large wineries are also struggling to attract tourists.  Vini Sliven has its unused cave.  Domain Boyar has a tasting room in front of its factory on the outskirts of town. But, surprisingly, it is not open on the weekends, when tourists are most likely to visit, nor was it open on a Monday, despite the sign on the door that said otherwise.  A representative at Vinprom Yambol, another one of Bulgaria’s largest wineries, which is located 30 kilometers south of Sliven, had to get approval from the owner before even discussing the company’s efforts in wine tourism.

In the last few years, the Bulgarian wine industry has been focused on planting more vines and modernizing equipment and methods.  But it is still hampered by the reputation that it produces only low-quality, cheap wines.   By connecting domestic and international wine enthusiasts with Bulgaria’s unique terroir and native grape varietals, wine tourism could help change Bulgaria’s image and support the wineries’ top priority, which is to make and sell good wine.  

“It is the way to show people the new side of the Bulgarian wine industry,” said Zhekov. 

With most of the larger wine companies focusing on production, however, opportunities for attracting tourists have been neglected.  The companies may feel there are not enough tourists to devote resources to wine tourism, but without more commitment, the situation is unlikely to change.  

“The possibility for wine tourism is not so big at this moment,” said Dimitrova. “This is a secondary aspect of our business.  But I think that everybody could improve – the municipality and our company.”

Stoyan Markov, the city’s director of Economic Development and European Programs, said he is preparing an information packet, to be ready by year’s end, which will be printed in both English and Bulgarian to promote tourism in Sliven.  In addition to information about hiking in the nearby mountains and the city’s museums and art galleries, the packet will include a map of local wineries.  

“Our idea is to attract different kinds of tourists to Sliven,” he said.

The map, however, is likely to have only a few dots, as it appears there are just two or three noteworthy degustation rooms for wine tourists to visit.  But it is a start.  The last round of promotional material the city produced in 2007 had almost no mention of the wineries.

Markov said that compiling information for the wine map has been a challenge because the local wineries have not organized collectively to promote wine tourism in the region.  Such a long-term, collective vision has yet even to be conceived.  And this may prove to be the wineries’ most difficult task. 

Vassileva at Windy Hills was reluctant to offer suggestions of other places where tourists can go to taste wine in the Sliven region. 

“The competition is fierce,” she said, after hesitating to mention Edoardo Miroglio.  

Ivanov at Chateau Karnobat recommended that tourists go to one of his company’s other vineyards or factories.  But Vinprom Karnobat does not have anywhere else in the Sliven region for tourists to go.

Collective entrepreneurialism, through promotion of the region’s wine tourism, will require a change in mentality – a far more difficult task than building chateaus.

For guidance, they could look at the formula for success of most other wine tourism regions in the world.  From Napa Valley to Tuscany to Alsace-Lorraine, competing wineries have organized to promote their region’s wine.  Many areas, like Napa for instance, offer trains and buses that take tourists to the area’s many producers to sample their wines.  By promoting their regions’ tourism together, the producers were rewarded with more than enough business to go around.   The Sliven wineries’ competition is less among each other than it is with other wine-producing regions.  For international tourists, they are competing with these famous wine areas around the world.  Among Bulgarian tourists, Melnik is the most well-known. 

Some of the wineries also expressed future plans to export their products.  Cooperation could support these ambitions as international wine sales are most often linked to the good reputation of an appellation or a geographical region, rather than the individual reputations of the producers. 

But there is evidence that a few Sliven producers may have begun to recognize the economic benefits of working together. 

“We are helping each other, because it’s difficult in this business. It’s really difficult to promote,” said Silvia Kiuchukova, the sales manager at Soli Invicto.  “For example, if we have a group in Elenovo, they taste our wines and stay for two hours, and we send them to Windy Hills to taste their wines and compare.”

Some of the other wineries with future plans also expressed an interest in working together when they are ready.  The success of wine tourism in the Sliven region may depend on it.  At the very least, their collective promotion will make it easier for tour operators, like Sliven Tours, and the local municipality to join their efforts.  Together they could work to ensure that the region’s natural beauty and the wineries’ new facilities don’t end up like Vini Sliven’s wine cellar – hidden and forgotten.

 **Evan Martin contributed reporting from Sliven, Bulgaria.

Youth Still Have Ways to Go to Realize Power

May 25th, 2009 112 comments

students-in-varna

Krassimir Kolev (left), an attorney for the Interior Ministry, moderator and journalist Alexander Andreev, and Dimitar Dimitarov, Varna's Chief of Police, address security and privacy concerns with young people in Varna. On the board it reads: "State -- Citizen; Security -- Freedom." EVAN MARTIN

By Joe Linstroth

VARNA, BULGARIA — There was a disappointing turnout, to say the least, last Wednesday, in this city on the Black Sea, where a rare opportunity was missed for young people to discuss, face to face, privacy and security issues with high-level officials. Just 25 people, mostly university students, sat in a corner of a large lecture hall at the economics university here as the chief of police of Varna, the country’s fourth-largest city, and an attorney from the nation’s Interior Ministry, addressed growing concerns over the lack of police protection and increased monitoring of online activity. With the poor turnout, however, it is unlikely the officials left with anything to seriously reconsider.

The meeting was the seventh in a series organized by New Moments, New Ideas, a public relations firm subcontracted with EU funds to hold similar forums at universities throughout Bulgaria to engage young people on issues related to the European Union in advance of the upcoming June elections. Aglika Georgieva, the project’s director, said the sparse attendance at all of the meetings has been a disappointment, despite publicity campaigns and direct phone calls. The offer of free cocktails couldn’t even penetrate the apathy and mistrust.

aglica-in-varna

Project Director Aglika Georgieva says attendance at the meetings, designed to engage young people in Bulgaria with EU issues, was extremely disappointing. EVAN MARTIN

In Aglika Georgieva’s own words:

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The topics of the meetings varied depending on the region and the university. For example in Svishtov, which has a prominent economics university, Georgieva succeeded in bringing in the head of Bulgaria’s National Bank. The attendance was even less than in Varna.

She chose security and privacy issues for the Varna gathering because there have been recent protests here over inadequate policing and corruption after two young people were murdered outside nightclubs earlier in the year. Some of the largest protests were led by the Union of Students and Young People, whose leaders in Varna and Sofia assured Georgieva that they would rally members for the meeting.  None showed.

One person who did was Misho Shamara, aka Big Sha, a well-known Bulgarian hip-hop artist who cut a music video with Snoop Dogg and another Bulgarian pop-singer last year. His concern was mainly about the growing lack of privacy, from street cameras around Varna to the increased monitoring of the internet proposed across the entire EU.

Misho Shamara, a prominent Bulgarian rapper, in his night club, Chocolat, in Varna, Bulgaria, in May 2009.

Misho Shamara, a prominent Bulgarian rapper, in his night club, Chocolat, in Varna, Bulgaria. EVAN MARTIN

In Misho Shamara’s own words:

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With Bulgaria’s seat at the EU table only two years old, it has been a struggle to inform many Bulgarians, both young and old, about the ways in which a governmental body located 1000 miles away in Brussels can improve their lives, especially after years of disappointment in their own government.  More investment, both in time and money, must be made to encourage young people to become more active citizens, to participate in the democratic process, and to volunteer for causes they believe in.  Currently, Bulgaria’s allotment for the EU’s Youth in Action Program, which supports such efforts, has gone largely unused because few are aware that the funds even exist. 

This lack of interest from university students is disheartening. They are the ones who will lead Bulgaria into the future and without their involvement — without the recognition of their power in numbers — it’s more difficult to see where the impetus for change will emerge.