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Originally published May 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 21, 2007 at 12:24 PM

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Into the Bulgarian countryside

Two words to learn if you're coming to Bulgaria: Da (yes) and Ne (no). This may seem obvious, but here it's key. Bulgarians nod their heads up and down to say "no'' and side ...

Seattle Times travel writer

Da, da, da

VELIKO TARNAVO, Bulgaria - Two words to learn if you're coming to Bulgaria: Da (yes) and Ne (no).

This may seem obvious, but here it's key. Bulgarians nod their heads up and down to say "no'' and side to side to say "yes,'' unless you or they say the words, communication can get confusing.

Fedio, the outgoing owner of the Nomads Hostel where we're staying in Veliko Tarnovo, says "Da'' a lot. "Da Da Da,'' as in "Yes, yes. I understand, or "Yes, it's true.''

Into the countryside by car

Bulgaria has its share of ugly reminders of its recent past under Communism. Coming in on the train from Romania, we saw plenty of abandoned factories and ugly cement block apartment buildings.

Many of its treasures are hidden in the forests and mountains, and the only practical way to reach them is by car.

Just 20 miles from Tarnovo, instance, the peaceful Dryanovo Monastery operates a small hotel where double rooms with balconies go for $21.

Bulgaria's tourist information offices can arrange rental cars for day trips, but Fedio's an entrepreneur, so we took him up on an offer to be our driver and guide for a day for $40.

Sixty or so miles from Tarnovo, centuries of history unfold, and as Fedio predicted, a few paradoxes.

He drove us over a twisting mountain pass thick with truck traffic that led to the Valley of the Roses, an area that produces about 70 percent of the world's rose extract for perfumes, oils etc.

Poking through the trees were a crop of gold onion-shapes domes. This area was the site of an important between the Bulgarians and their Russian liberators against the Turks, and an Orthodox church built in Russian style stands as a memorial.

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This part of inland Bulgaria is dotted with ancient burial mounts. Inside what looks like a futuristic glass concrete entrance to an underground house, it's possible to visit the 2,300-year-old tomb of a Thracian ruler uncovered in 2004.

Juxtaposed to all of this is one of the strangest sites you'd expect to see in the wilderness - a huge, spaceship-shaped concrete monument atop a mountain, where on a clear day Fedio says you can see a third of Bulgaria.

Left from the Communist era and marked by a huge red star, it marks the spot where the Bulgarian Socialist Party was founded in a secret meeting.

To get there, we parked the car and hiked along a steep path. The walk brought back memories for Fedio who was 11 at the time Communism fell in Bulgaria in 1989.

It took the military years to build it, and soldiers died as they worked in the wind and cold.

"It's the way Communists showed their power - by building things of huge, solid blocks,'' he said. "And now it's dead,'' abandoned at the top of one of the most scenic lookouts in all of Bulgaria.

"Da, Da, Da,'' was all I could think of to say. "Yes, yes. I understand."

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