In the expat world, Bulgaria doesn’t get as much pub as, say, Germany, the Netherlands or Spain. But this is a country that will surprise you with its cultural connections to the West and especially to the United States.
In the dark times of the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain in 1980s socialist Bulgaria, we watched American movies on video. Rocky, Rambo, Conan, The Terminator and other action films were some of our favorites. Hollywood stalwarts such as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and Dolph Lundgren became our favorite actors.
Long after the crash of communism, Bulgaria is no longer a communist country, obviously. Far far from it … influenced by Western media for 30 years, our culture has transformed faster and more dramatically than just about any other former Soviet Bloc country. The result is a country that most Americans and Europeans will find pretty familiar.
Bulgaria has been a NATO member since 2004 and joined the European Union in 2007.
In the action movies, Bulgaria is often the star
Bulgaria is not merely an American ally. The Hollywood action heroes from the films from our childhoods have all come to Bulgaria to shoot movies including Bruce Willis, Stallone and Schwarzenegger.
“Rambo 5: Last Blood” was filmed in Bulgaria, and Sylvester Stallone met Bulgarian Prime-minister Boyko Borisov to present the movie.
Jason Stratham filmed “The Expendables 2” and “The Expendables 3” in Bulgaria. Some of the scenes in “The Expendables 3 ” were filmed on the streets of Varna, the third largest city in Bulgaria and the largest city and seaside resort on the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast.
A number of “Hollywood” movies were shot at Nu Boyana Film Studios in Sofia including “The Expendables,” “Hellboy” and “London Has Fallen.”
That’s reel life.
In real life, our grim, grey communist world has given way to different Western-influenced action subcultures you see all across the country – motorcycle enthusiasts, motocross racers, drifters, bicycle riders and even vegans.
Of all the major metropolises, Varna’s atmosphere is the most cosmopolitan, young, dynamic and modern. Any and all contemporary styles can be seen here. Varna is the European City of Sport 2019, with hundreds of events through the end of the year.
Bikes and rock n’roll
No cultures have been as embraced as completely as rock ‘n roll and motorcycles – banned by the communists – and the two actually intersect. On 6 April, the official opening of the 2019 motorcycling season, hundreds of bikers gathered in front of Varna ‘s Cathedral Assumption of Holy Mary.
Every biker meeting and fest is accompanied by rock concerts with music styles from hard rock to EDM.
And remember those Hollywood action stars? Well, Bulgaria has its own action stars.
• There are the off-road motocross and enduro racers who race in the dirt over jumps and whoop-de-dos, through woods and fields. Bulgaria hosts various races including the FIM’s 2018 Motocross Grand Prix of Bulgaria that attracted the top riders in the world. You can also sign up for a Motocross Bulgaria Guided holiday tour this fall, with some of the best riding in Europe.
• Inspired by the Hells Angels and Outlaws from the States, Bulgaria has its own version of outlaw motorcycle gangs including Bad Company and Old Bastards. Most are apolitical, with members – men and women – who simply love riding. But there are also Bulgarian clubs with ties to the Night Wolves, Vladimir Putin’s biker gang. That said, the Night Wolves tend to receive a very chilly reception any time they venture into Bulgaria.
• There’s a huge drift culture in Bulgaria, especially in Varna. For the uninitiated, “drifting” means sliding your car through a turn, using what race drivers call oversteer to break loose the rear wheels in a sustained and stylish “drift.” Men and women get together at race tracks and old airports and see who can drift the best and longest.
So, yeah, there’s a LOT of action for thrill seekers and real-life action heroes.
Yet, Bulgaria is a secure country, with little serious crime … a place where mass shootings are unknown. (Gun ownership is by permit only.) Sure, there’s serious political maneuvering and more than a little corruption. But that rarely trickles down to expats or tourists.
In short, Bulgaria is a place – too often overlooked by expats – where you can indulge in extreme sports, motorcycles and movie-star fantasies, yet go home at night and know you’re in a county that’s not just safe, but that shares your values.
Bulgaria is simply a pleasant place to live.
About the author:
Kalina Varbanova freelance journalist based in Varna, Bulgaria.
Kalina’s interests include culture, tourism, archeology and politics.
Also, see why we love Bulgaria here.
Kalina Varbanova freelance journalist based in Varna, Bulgaria. Kalina’s interests include culture, tourism, archeology and politics. She's been a Dispatches contributor since 2017, and has written some of our best-read posts.