If You Give a Bulgarian Man Some Grapes…

If you give a Bulgarian man some grapes, he’ll want to make wine. After he drinks the wine, he’ll want to use the pressed and fermented remains of the grapes to make a traditional brandy called rakia. This is easily the most famous cliché about Bulgaria, but in my experience it’s not that far from the truth.

Pitting plums to add to the grape pomace
Pitting plums to add to the grape pomace

And so I found myself pitting plums in a remote village one Saturday afternoon this summer, taking part in a long tradition of fermenting grapes in Bulgaria. With last year’s wine nearly finished, we were starting the preparations for this year’s rakia.

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Katarzyna Estate and the Legend of Thracian Wine

Much of modern-day Bulgaria and Northern Greece was inhabited by loosely organized Thracian tribes during the first millennium or so before Christ. Legend has it that they have made wine along the banks of the Maritsa river for the last 5,000 years. The ancient Greek poet Homer partially corroborates this in his epics written around 800 BCE. From The Iliad:

Prepare a feast for your councillors; it is right and reasonable that you should do so; there is abundance of wine in your tents, which the ships of the Achaeans bring from Thrace daily.

In The Odyssey Homer even describes the hero Odysseus using “sweet black wine” from the Thracian city of Maroneia to escape being torn limb from limb and eaten by the one-eyed Cyclops named Polyphemus.

Now, at least 3,000 years later, the Katarzyna Estate winery continues the Thracian tradition by making its wine just a stone’s throw from the Maritsa river in Svilengrad, Southeast Bulgaria.

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Vratsa Is a Picturesque Thracian City

The picturesque little city of Vratsa (Враца) sits at the foothills of the Balkan Mountains in Northwest Bulgaria. On a recent road trip I was amazed when I saw the city sitting under the craggy cliffs of the “old mountain” (Стара Планина/Stara Planina in Bulgarian). What with the water and all it’s kind of like a poor man’s Cape Town!

The city of Vratsa below the Balkan mountain
The city of Vratsa below the Balkan mountain

I’ve never actually been to Vratsa, but after reading Wikipedia for a few hours I am fascinated by the history of the region.

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