We’re halfway through our 31-day vegan travel challenge this Veganuary, and still going! Last weekend we flew out to Bulgaria, not a country known for it’s vegan cuisine, but so far we’ve been pleasantly surprised about how well being vegan in Bulgaria has gone.
Our second week of travelling vegan has been… more challenging. After an easy transition into veganism in Luke’s home town of Brighton during week 1, finally getting on the road and travelling in Bulgaria has meant that being vegan hasn’t been such smooth sailing.
We’ve had more highs and lows this week – we’ve discovered amazing vegan places in Bulgaria’s capital city, but had mayo squirted all over our grilled veggie burger before we could get a word out and been grouchy about not getting to eat Bulgaria’s local yoghurt.
Vegan in Bulgaria
I read a blog by a native Bulgarian earlier this week saying that this is a country where “meat is king and bread is queen.” It’s pretty true – there are smoky meat joints everywhere and more bread than the average person would ever be able to digest. But despite all of that, we’ve enjoyed being vegan in Bulgaria exploring the vegan scene in Sofia (yes, there are a number of vegan restaurants that exist in Bulgaria!)
When we arrived at our Airbnb apartment in Sofia, we headed straight round the corner to grab a bite to eat and were ridiculously excited to find that the first restaurant was a vegetarian/vegan place called Sunmoon Bakery. We later found out that this is the best vegan restaurant in the city (probably the country). We eagerly studied the menu for items with a vegan sign next to them and were excited to find loads of traditional Bulgarian options that were vegan.
We got to try lutenica (a tomatoey relish), kyopoolu (aubergine relish), bob chorba (bean soup), vegan mish-mash (scrambled tofu with onions and peppers), and mashed nettles. Not only that, but the two relishes, two mains, homemade bread and a glass of wine only cost 19lev total (that’s £7.32). We thought the price was wrong, but it wasn’t! Massive high point #1.
The next morning we were amped to get out and find more vegan options! We headed to a breakfast place called Hlebar where you can get banitsas, a long stuffed pastry that Bulgarians eat for breakfast. We saw someone mention the word “vegan” on TripAdvisor so assumed we were all good, read the little labels next to the pastries and ordered an apple, raisin and brown sugar banitsa and a potato and mushroom banitsa.
They looked good, smelled good and had the flakiest pastry. We had an espresso shot and started devouring them. Part way through though we had a horrible sinking feeling that maybe the pastry wasn’t vegan (low point #1) because it was so much like filo pastry (which usually has butter). We still don’t know if they were vegan or not, but we later had vegan banitsas at vegan cafes that had a very similar texture and flavour.
We explored a couple of other vegan places, including a hippy teahouse, a hipster vegan and raw cafe, and a really gross vegan fast food joint (that was low point #2). We walked out really pretty far to another vegan place one night but were bummed to see it was closed, which is so much more annoying when you’re vegan than when vegetarian because you can’t just hop into any old cafe with the same confidence.
Are We Really Experiencing Local Culture as Vegans?
Although we were able to get some delicious vegan Bulgarian food at Sunmoon Bakery, we definitely experienced really massive grumpy spells because of not being able to try Bulgarian feta cheese and locally made Bulgarian yoghurt which are staple parts of Bulgaria’s traditional food. I couldn’t help asking myself whether we were really getting a taste for Bulgaria’s culture and cuisine by just eating in exclusively vegan restaurants and avoiding all non-vegan foods.
I realise that probably many people feel the same about meat dishes when travelling, but vegetarianism is so ingrained in us that we never think that way about meat. I guess that’s how many vegans feel about eggs and dairy. There always seems like so many vegetarian options on the menu that you can just pick one, but vegan options aren’t on the menu. The solution is probably to be braver and start asking if there’s anything vegan or if something can be rustled up.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about being vegan in Bulgaria though – aside from the language barrier – is that it’s just not a concept that people in Bulgaria are all that familiar with. One guy we ordered grilled veggies in a bun from was totally okay with us not wanting cheese then turned around and squirted mayo all over the bun. He gave it to us with a big smile, so we took it. Back in our apartment we grabbed a knife and started scrapping off the mayo into the bin, picking out chunks of lettuce that looked the least contaminated. Then we realised how pointless it was. The chicken had already laid those eggs and scrapping off that mayo wasn’t going to help, if anything it was just more wasteful.
I also read a lot of vegans complaining on restaurant review websites that options labelled as “vegan” actually contained honey. In our experience though, in most of the places we ate the ingredients were written out on the labels next to food and on the menu.
Out in the Mountains of Bansko
Two days ago we left Sofia and headed to the Bulgarian mountain town of Bansko where we’ll be skiing for a few days. Before taking the bus here, I grabbed some vegan snacks from the supermarket – including these delicious dried apple slices – as well as some vegan cookies from the vegan bakery.
We’re not sure what being vegan in Bansko is going to be like, as I’ve read that it’s filled with very traditional Bulgarian mehanas that aren’t very veggie-friendly, so bought supplies like oat milk and muesli from Sofia and made a conscious decision to book an Airbnb apartment that has a kitchen.
So far we’ve mostly cooked bean stews in our apartment, but we did speak to the very friendly owner of a cafe called Le Retro who kindly made us a vegan pea soup and salad for lunch. Over the weekend we’ll be heading out to some mehanas to see if we can manage to get maybe a vegan stew and some bread, but we’ll see!
How Are We Doing?
Aside from the moments of grumpiness and getting hangry when vegan places haven’t been open, we’re doing really well. We’re still happy and healthy, although are a little more tired than usual. This week has been much more up and down for us, but we’ve had a lot of support and advice from the vegan travel community (thanks, guys) and that’s helped to pick us up at our lower points. The highs are definitely still out numbering the lows though, and we’re feeling confident about our next two weeks of vegan travel!
If you’ve got any knowledge about being vegan in Bansko under you hat, do share it with us in the comments or over on our Facebook page.