For many reasons, Bulgaria has long been a country of emigrants. You may have heard about prominent people of Bulgarian ancestry like the American John Atanasoff, one of the pioneers of computing, or Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff… but there are many more unknown cases of how Bulgaria and Bulgarians left their mark on other countries in a curious way.
Including one of Uruguay’s most beloved football clubs, a full-fledged research station in Antarctica and a huge monument to a Bulgarian communist leader in West Africa, kashkaval tourist presents 7 curious examples of Bulgarian heritage abroad you had no idea about.
1. We’re at every kilometre: Cotonou, Benin
Bizarrely and almost surreally, a monument of Bulgaria’s first communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov, stands in the middle of a busy roundabout in Cotonou, the largest city of the West African country of Benin. The monument, brightly painted and significantly over-life-size, dominates the intersection which was appropriately named Place de Bulgarie, or Bulgaria Square.
How exactly this monument came to be can only be conjectured. But in the 1970s and 1980s Benin was trying hard to be a communist country, so this honour must have been bestowed to the late Dimitrov during that period.
2. The cast iron church and the dairy man: Istanbul, Turkey
The Iron Church in Istanbul is one of the most important examples of Bulgarian heritage abroad. Standing by the Golden Horn in the historic neighborhood of Fener, the church impresses with its Gothic and Baroque exteriors… and the metallic clang of its cast iron walls!
The Orthodox church, dedicated to Saint Stephen, was prefabricated in Vienna. All iron elements (weighting 500 tons in total) were shipped to Istanbul via the Danube and the Black Sea and assembled in the Ottoman capital in 1898. Today, it’s one of the few remaining iron churches in the world and a glorious remnant of the struggle for an independent Bulgarian church.
For a taste of more Bulgarian heritage in Istanbul, make sure you visit the legendary dairy shop of 88-year-old Bulgarian Kaymakçı Pando Shestakov. His kaymak cream is reputed to be the best in Istanbul and the shop was founded by his ancestors in 1895!
3. Other Bulgaria on the Volga: Bolghar, Russia
If you’ve seen the movie The 13th Warrior, you may remember that Antonio Banderas plays an Arab ambassador who joins a group of Vikings on the Volga River in the modern Russian steppe. Surprisingly, this unlikely story contains a bit of fact – indeed, the Arab traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan did go to the Volga, but to visit the ruler of Volga Bulgaria, and he met the Vikings who happened to be Volga Bulgaria’s neighbours.
The city of Bolghar was the capital of this second Bulgaria which was founded in the 7th century by Batbayan, a brother of the ruler who established “proper” Bulgaria in 681, Asparuh. Nowadays, this ancient ruined city in Russian Tatarstan preserves the glorious palaces, tombs and temples of the Volga Bulgar rulers whose subjects have long been assimilated into Russia’s Tatar and Chuvash minorities.
4. At the southern end of the world: Antarctica
It may come as a surprise, but Bulgaria is the smallest country by territory that has its own, fully functional research station in Antarctica. Bulgaria’s Saint Clement of Ohrid Base was founded on Livingston Island off the Antarctic mainland in 1988. The station boasts not only living and research quarters, but also the southernmost Eastern Orthodox place of worship (the Chapel of Saint John of Rila) and the southernmost Bulgarian Posts office in the world as well as the Livingston Island Museum, a branch of the National Historical Museum of Bulgaria.
What’s more, thanks to the efforts of the Bulgarian Antarctic Institute, 19,000 landforms in Antarctica now have names related to the history, geography and culture of Bulgaria!
5. In the heart of Austria-Hungary: Banat, Romania
The Banat Bulgarians are a curious bunch. Unlike most other Bulgarians, they’re Roman Catholic by confession and have been living in the colourful region of Banat (mostly in its modern Romanian part) since the mid-18th century. They speak a very distinct Bulgarian dialect and don’t use the Cyrillic alphabet – instead, they have their own Latin alphabet based on the Croatian and Hungarian writing systems.
A few thousand Banat Bulgarian continue to inhabit this region, and their predecessors have left behind some impressive heritage in the villages of Dudeștii Vechi and Vinga. The imposing Bulgarian cathedral in Vinga is an amazing sight, dominating the village with its beauty and proportions. Several monuments in Vinga (including an active Bulgarian House and a Levski Sofia fan club!) remind of the place’s Bulgarian past.
6. South America’s Danube River: Montevideo, Uruguay
Admittedly, Bulgarians haven’t really left any grand buildings in South America, at least to my knowledge. However, a significant Bulgarian trace can be found in one of Uruguay’s favourite football teams, the three-time national champion Danubio F.C. of Montevideo.
Danubio was established in 1932 by schoolmates from a Montevideo school, among which two Bulgarian brothers, Miguel and Juan Lazaroff, stood out. On their mother María Mincheff de Lazaroff‘s suggestion, they named the club after Bulgaria’s largest river, the Danube. Reportedly, the name Maritsa was considered too feminine! Some famous football players who have worn Danubio’s kit include superstars Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan and Álvaro Recoba.
7. Inside the Holy Mountain: Mount Athos, Greece
Mount Athos, an autonomous part of Greece and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is quite a unique place. Taking up one of the legs of the Chalkidiki peninsula not far from Thessaloniki, it consists solely of 20 Orthodox monasteries. Access to Mount Athos is quite restricted – indeed, women are absolutely forbidden to enter it, and only Orthodox adult males are ever permitted to live there.
Out of the 20 monasteries on Mount Athos, the Zograf Monastery is traditionally Bulgarian. It was established in the 9th or 10th century and has enjoyed the continuous support of Bulgarian rulers throughout the centuries. Behind its impenetrable stone walls hides one of the richest libraries of medieval Bulgarian manuscripts, making it a key location for Bulgarian history.