Black Sea Coast (Varna) culture
The first thing to remember is that, in Bulgaria, a shake of the head means 'yes' and a nod means 'no'. In the cities and resorts the locals are used to tourists and make allowances. However, if you're a regular nodder, it's worth sparing a thought for the person you are talking to, who may be a little disconcerted by the barrage of negative gestures.
Bulgaria is a friendly country, but some locals can be quite reserved and formal in dealing with foreigners. The usual courtesies will do the trick, including a handshake to say 'hello'.
If you're visiting a mosque, remember to remove your shoes before entering, and women should cover their heads, arms and legs. It's also worth watching your step; walking in front of someone who is kneeling in prayer is a 'no-no'!
Since January 2005, Bulgarian restaurants, cafes and nightclubs have had 'smoking' and 'no-smoking' areas. There is no smoking in public places.
Most people in Bulgaria are associated with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. However, there are significant minorities of Muslims, Roman Catholics and Protestants.
From around 2000 BC, Bulgaria was part of an empire ruled by the Thracians, a powerful and rich civilisation. By the late 7th century the empire had fragmented and some Bulgars migrated into the northern Balkans, where they merged Slavs and Thracians to form the First Bulgarian Empire in AD 681. Constantine IV called them a 'new and vulgar people'.
Around 1185 the 'Second Kingdom' was formed as a breakaway state from the Byzantine Empire, creating a truly independent Bulgarian state. But by the end of the 14th century, weakened by internal feuding, it had been conquered by the Ottomans.
It wasn't until the 19th century that Bulgarian nationalism began to re-establish itself. The War of Liberation in 1877-78 led to the Treaty of Berlin, which provided for an autonomous Bulgarian principality comprising Moesia and Sofia. After uniting with Eastern Rumelia in 1885, it became a fully independent kingdom in 1908.
The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 re-drew the map of Bulgaria once again, and hopes of regaining territory drew the country into the First World War in 1915. A military coup and political unrest characterised the 20s and 30s, while Bulgaria was overrun by the Nazis early in World War II. Thereafter, the country fell within the Soviet sphere of influence, becoming a strict communist state, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
Bulgaria joined NATO on 29 March 2004 and joined the European Union on 1 January 2007.
Bulgaria's population is mainly ethnic Bulgarian, with two sizable minorities, Turks and Roma, as well as some 40 other ethnic groups, including Russians, Armenians, Vlachs, Jews, Crimean Tatars and Karakachans.
The population of Bulgaria is just under 8 million. Apart from the tiny Caribbean island of St Kitts & Nevis, Bulgaria has had the slowest population growth of any country in the world since 1950. In fact, population growth has been negative since the early 1990s, due to the economic collapse and a high emigration rate.
The majority of inhabitants speak Bulgarian, a South Slavonic language akin to Slovene and Serbo-Croat. It's also close to Russian, which many Bulgarians learnt in school before 1989. Since the fall of Communism, English language lessons have become much more popular, and in major cities and resorts, English is widely spoken, particularly amongst younger people. However, in rural areas a few words of Bulgarian will prove invaluable.