Bulgaria is a total delight. If more people knew how beautiful, interesting, and welcoming Bulgaria is, it’d be overrun with tourists. But they don’t…so it isn’t. In the meantime, it sits just off the radar…one of Europe’s most underrated countries.
Our crew was continually surprised by how altogether pleasant Bulgaria was. The original Rick Steves’ Europe show on this country — produced for Season 1, way back in 1999 — was actually titled “Surprising Bulgaria”…and that name still fits. During the shoot, the “surprising” theme quickly became a running joke. “This place is amazing,” cameraman Karel would say. “I had no idea how rich the history would be here. It’s so… so…” “Surprising?” I’d finish his sentence, a bit too helpfully.
The success of our Bulgaria show was thanks to two very special local contacts. On my scouting trip, I traveled all over the country with Lyuba Boyanin. Good tour guides are enthusiastic about their subject matter, and I’ve never met one more enthusiastic than Lyuba — who fiercely and unrelentingly celebrated everything that’s beautiful about her homeland. Wherever we went — even to tiny villages far off the grid — everyone knew Lyuba…and everyone was thrilled she was there.
Sadly, Lyuba passed away before we returned to Bulgaria to film. We dedicated the episode to her memory, and we like to think of the show as one small part of her legacy: sharing Bulgaria with the world.
Another part of Lyuba’s legacy is her successor, Stefan, who took over managing Lyuba’s company and guiding her tours. If anyone can come close to matching Lyuba’s passion for Bulgaria…it’s Stefan. Tirelessly optimistic and endlessly patient, Stefan was our guide and fixer throughout the shoot, and appeared on-camera as Rick’s sidekick. Behind the scenes, Stefan (and his colleague in the office, Sirma) grappled with unwieldy Bulgarian bureaucracy to obtain all of the needed permissions. If you enjoy the new show, it’s largely thanks to Lyuba and Stefan.
With Stefan leading the way, our Bulgaria shoot went remarkably smoothly. Everything we filmed was gorgeous — even better than expected — and we began to worry we’d have too much great footage for one TV show (a good problem to have…but still a problem).
We could tell that Stefan was particularly excited to take us to his hometown, Kazanlak. Thanks to scheduling serendipity, we woke up in Kazanlak on the morning of the town’s annual Day of Slavic Culture parade. Stefan took us through the crowded streets to the schoolyard where local kids spun batons and waved banners featuring Cyril and Methodius — the ninth-century missionaries who converted many Slavs to Christianity and invented the Cyrillic alphabet still used today from Bulgaria to Russia. It was fun to film this small-town celebration — an intimate and endearing slice of Bulgarian life.
We were also in Kazanlak at the right time to film the production of rose oil. First, Stefan drove us deep into the countryside — on rutted gravel roads — to a distillery. While a “rose oil distillery” might sound romantic, the reality is starkly practical: a concrete loading dock lined with huge, empty metal vats.
When we arrived, the place was completely dead…just a couple of listless workers, sitting around waiting. “Soon, they will bring roses from the fields and begin to process them,” Stefan promised. Mindful of the many other bits we needed to film that day, we prodded him: “When, exactly?” He smiled and winked. “Soon.”
Making TV comes with lots of hurry up-wait. We know that. But after about a half-hour of waiting, we were growing impatient. Could we call someone to bring in some roses, just for our camera? Or maybe we should try to come back later?
We were just about to give up when a rickety truck came peeling around the corner and skidded to a stop by the loading dock. Eight guys hopped out and begin unloading big plastic sacks full of delicate pink roses. Karel and Simon scurried around, filming like mad. Stefan and I hid under the loading dock like scared puppies, trying to avoid wandering into the shot.
Stefan and I silently cheered and high-fived as we peeked out to see the camera capturing the entire procedure: Bags of roses being unloaded, weighed, and stacked next to the distillery. Then, workers executing their routine with precision: picking up each bag, holding it by its base, jamming its open mouth into the distillery hatch, and then, in one smooth and confident motion, shaking out all of the roses with one big, dramatic “whoppp!” When it was all done, a few broken pink petals were scattered across the loading dock, and the decadent aroma of rose hung heavy in the air.
Of course, the distillery was only one step. To make all of that great footage usable, we needed to show the rest of the story: Picking the roses. The harvest takes place just before dawn — when the essential oils had worked their way up into the freshly opened flower, but before they’re evaporated by the sun’s rays. Simon and Karel dutifully woke up at 4 a.m. and drove deep into the middle of nowhere, where workers plucked newly opened roses from the vine. Finally, to finish the story, we swung by a rose-products shop to film a customer sniffing rose oil. While all of this added up to a lot of work to produce just one minute of television, we all agreed: totally worth it. As it turns out, little Kazanlak gave us some of our most vivid memories…and some of the show’s best bits.
Nearby was another favorite stop: The looming communist-era conference hall and monument called Buzludzha, which sits lonely and rotting atop a mountain range. A fascinating artifact of a failed system, Buzludzha is a popular stop for anyone seeking Europe’s offbeat sights.
The building — like a UFO beached on a mountaintop — is fascinating from the outside, but I’d heard the interior was even more striking. Filming the exterior, we noticed several intrepid explorers squeezing through a makeshift hatch in the front door. Crawling in after them, we found a crumbling world of deteriorating mosaics, damp asbestos, and a rickety ceiling barely held up by its hammer and sickle. Rick has an ethic of never filming something that the general public doesn’t have access to — after all the purpose of our show is to make travel accessible to anyone. But on this one rare occasion, we made an exception and filmed a fine little sequence. (To be fair, anyone can go inside Buzludzha…if they dare.)
We enjoyed mostly good weather until we were on our way to our final stop, Veliko Tarnovo, the medieval capital of Bulgaria. The weather report — and the gathering storm clouds — indicated that rain was imminent. Stefan and I navigated as Simon hurriedly drove us around the vertical townscape — pausing at several different viewpoints just long enough for Karel to hop out and shoot.
The very moment we got the final establishing shot — the big-picture overview over the town and its castle — the skies opened up, and we scurried the camera back to the safety of the van. It rained the entire time we were in Veliko Tarnovo, but fortunately we got just enough sunny shots in those first few minutes to do the town justice.
The next day, filming street scenes under misty skies, we kept noticing that everyone had the same umbrella — making some of our footage unusable. Turns out a Viking riverboat cruise was docked on the Danube nearby, and everyone had come to Veliko Tarnovo toting cruise line-issued umbrellas, emblazoned with the Viking logo.
The rain required just one change of plans: The folk dancing troupe that proudly performs for our Rick Steves Best of Bulgaria Tour was booked to do their thing for our camera in the serene garden courtyard of a historic stone mansion. We had to move the shoot indoors, filming in the troupe’s own theater. In retrospect, this may have been better anyway — no scenery to upstage the musicians, singers, dancers, and their colorful costumes.
Filming a musical segment with a single camera is tricky. To allow Steve Cammarano — our editor back home — to cut together a smooth segment, we need to film the same performance several times, from different angles. First the troupe ran through a few songs for us to choose from. We made our selection, and they performed it three times: Once to film in a wide shot, and then twice more with Karel on stage weaving between performers — camera on his shoulder — to grab close-ups of the swarming dancers.
Once filming was complete, the performers were curious to see what we’d shot. So Karel played back his footage on his camera’s tiny viewfinder screen, and the dancers all gathered round to watch and giggle.
One great episode in the can, we woke up, said goodbye to Stefan, and piled into a rusty communist-era minivan to head north across the border and make one more: Romania. That’s next.
This is part five of my “Behind the Scenes” blog series about Rick Steves’ Europe Season 9 — now airing nationwide (check your local listings). You can also watch the Bulgaria and Romania episodes for free. And in case you’re in a gift-giving mode, the brand-new, 10-episode Season 9 DVD is currently on sale in our Travel Store.