I travel, cook, eat, observe, interact, live and write.
As a culinary and cultural travel writer I seek connections among people, activities, the environment and what they eat that tell the story of a region/culture, whether that be in the remote Andes Mountains or the streets of Philadelphia.
Publications include my travel web site on Argentina (www.travel-with-pen-and-palate-argentina.com) and articles covering a diverse range of countries and cultures at www.travelpenandpalate.com and both the digital and print editions of the Hellenic News of America.
Industry experience includes over 45 years as a chef, chef educator, hotel and restaurant manager, catering as well as teaching history, writing, theater, culinary arts and business.
I'm an active member in the American Culinary Federation.
What forces make a legendary region a tourist attraction? Conflict and nature are two factors. Pella was Alexander the Great’s new showpiece capital and over 1,500 years later nearby Edessa profits greatly from an earthquake.
It’s easy to understand why fun loving Dionysius was a favorite deity among humans. Vineyards have existed in northern Greece since antiquity. The earliest archeological records for wine production are at least 7,000 years old. Wine was essential to the Greek psyche and in everyday life Macedonia and Thrace was its motherland.
When Hercules had to perform twelve labors one of them took him to the westward extent of the then (at least to humans) known world. Trouble was that the actual end of the world was on the other side of a great mountain (which if true would effectively have made the Mediterranean a lake). So what’s a super-hero in a hurry supposed to do?
The dome of the planet was a glittering display for the Pachamama. No wonder for thousands of years the indigenous people of the Andes worshiped the land as a living force and looked upon the Pachamama – the Earth Mother – as their benevolent protector.
“Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen.” ― Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals
Built in 1870 in the Venetian style by an English architect for a Corfu merchant, Villa 1870 is for discerning guests to experience the magic Durrell felt in the 1930s. Except, unlike the Durrell’s, your personal chef will be roasting the lamb while you relax by the heated pool overlooking the Ionian Sea. Perhaps after lunch your personal driver will take you the short distance into UNESCO World Heritage Corfu Town or to explore this legendary island’s countryside.
Dimitrious and Nancy bought the house in 2017, made a total restoration, installed the heated swimming pool and opened for their first guest in April 2019 – me. I have had the pleasure of previous experiences being guest number one, and it does provide a travel journalist a unique perspective.
It is possible for one guest to have Villa 1870 to themselves since this impressive house is a vacation rental – five bedrooms, five bathrooms, housekeeper, car and driver and a personal chef to cook to your needs. Obviously it’s the perfect venue for a vacation with friends, family or a small wedding.
Each of the spacious five bedrooms and baths are individually decorated in 19th century style with 21st century conveniences. An antique armoire is still a functioning piece of furniture. Even the rain shower in the marble bath hearkens back to the luxury of Villa 1870 when it was first constructed.
It was only six years earlier, 1864, that Corfu Island was united with Greece for the first time in its history. Although the Ionian Islands off the west coast shared many similarities with their mainland and Aegean Island neighbors, Corfu was either independent or part of empires. From the Romans through the British – especially during the nearly 500 years of Venetian rule – Corfu was at the center of Asian-European international trade and influences.
Being on Corfu at Villa 1870 for Greek Orthodox Easter highlighted some of these unique influences. Already the most celebrated holiday in the Orthodox calendar, on Corfu there is the tradition of throwing water-filled red clay pots.
Dating back to pre-Christian days of getting rid of winter’s cooking pottery at the Spring Equinox, it morphed in Christianity to symbolize the earthquake that proceeded the opening of Christ’s tomb. At noon on the Saturday before Easter, after a solemn procession, thousands of people gather on the narrow streets of Old Corfu Town and the balconies of buildings and drop the pots to smash on the street below.
Within an easy stroll or even easier ride from Villa 1870 is UNESCO World Heritage Site of Old Corfu Town with its pedestrian friendly streetscapes lined with an eclectic mixture of architecture. This is not a “typical” blue roofed whitewashed Greek town. World class museums (the Museum of Asian Art) and restaurants (The Venetian Well) are all within easy walks.
Yet Chef Themes Iliabis at Villa 1870just might entice you to eat in. From classic slow spit roasted whole lamb at Easter dinner, jewel like maze with late afternoon drinks to sumptuous and surprising breakfast treats, dining at the Villa matches any restaurant.
Corfu has been a vacation mecca for centuries and a stay at Villa 1870 will evoke the magic of time standing still. An elegant mansion, the Ionian Sea, your driver, your chef, your housekeeper and the heated pool will settle over you. Surrender.
When you go: Direct flights connect Corfu International Airport (CFU) to many European cities including London, Frankfurt and Rome. Frequent flights connect the island to Athens and Thessalsoniki. Ferry and coach bus connections to major Greek cities are frequent as well. For Villa 1870 booking information please visit their web site.
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Makes perfect sense why Naxos is home to Mardi Gras. Dionysus was its first Rex!
Venice, Rio de Jeneiro and New Orleans may capture headlines, but no destination other than Naxos and the Small Cyclades can claim Dionysus, the patron of Carnival, as their native son, as well as his father, Zeus.
The Carnival of Naxos 2019 (2 – 13 March) blends timeless Greek festive elements from ancient Dionysian spring rites through to the evolution of modern Mardi Gras. Tracing roots back to rituals of sowing winter crops and praying for the coming of spring through to the Christian celebration of Easter’s promise of rebirth, the Carnival of Naxos 2019 captures all – and their web site details all!
The classic Koudounatoi – based on ancient rituals during Dionysian celebrations – is a hallmark of the Naxos festival. The Koudounatoi dance and rituals are performed by men dressed in traditional white costume bedecked with colorful ribbons and a belt of cowbells. Their dancing movement makes the bells create a very loud sound in order to clear away bad spirits that may bring plague and famine.
The Temple to Demeter overlooks the productive agricultural land of Naxos Island. Agriculture had made Naxos wealthy and in the 6th century BCE the island erected this first all marble temple in the Greek world to Demeter, goddess of grain. Dionysus was the protector of Naxos and maintained one of his divine residences on the island.
In more traditional form the men are covered with a brown coat wearing a belt with hanging bells. Holding large sticks that symbolize the Dionysian phallus, the Koudounatoi challenge each other and anyone who interacts with them and the divine right to ensure a bountiful harvest.
Wedding of the century
On Friday March 8 at the Temple of Apollo’s Portara this fertility theme is dramatically recreated with a retelling of the arrival of Theseus and Ariadne, which through a series of complications worthy of Greek story telling (including pirates!) ends with her marriage to Dionysus, elevation as a goddess and blessings upon Naxos. Ritual weddings are a common theme during Carnival.
Parades night and day
The island villages are studded with individual folkloric events during Carnival, the preparation and presentation of traditional foods, the beloved Torchlight Parade and the culminating Grand Carnival Parade on the Chora waterfront.
The Greeks elevated revelry to divine status. Christianity added its themes to the pre-Spring/Lenten season, and Naxos’ several century occupation by Venice all embossed their personality on the Carnival of Naxos 2019. Travel to the heart of the Cyclades and experience three millenniums of Carnival.
From food festivals and music on the Malecon to affordable week long book fairs, just walking Puerto Vallarta offers too many distractions from work.
A recent email from a friend living in a popular south Florida destination praised its beauty but bemoaned a culture not interested in much more than lying around a pool or beach. Although that is fine for some, for others there’s vibrancy on Puerto Vallarta streets and beaches rare in North America. Whether it’s the riot of colorful craft stalls on the Isla de Cuale, neighborhood street festivals, processions, parades or oyster vendors on the beach, there’s no lack of stimulation.
Of course that’s all beyond the major events that attract locals, expats and visitors from vacationing Mexican families to gay singles. Food, naturally, is a major focus either as a side component or on the center stage. Northwestern Mexico with its Pacific waters teeming with sea life is a veritable food market.
It’s appropriate that Puerto Vallarta and a nice selection of its many restaurants annually honor aguachile with its own festival – a native dish that can define Mexican food in the northwest. Aguachile (chili water in Spanish) is a “cousin” to ceviche. Like most regional dishes, recipes do not believe in boundaries.
Whereas both dishes include seafood and lime juice, aguachile infuses the lime juice with hot chilies. Both dishes also have variations from the most common, shrimp, to octopus, scallops, salmon or any combination of shell, seafood and fish. The single imperative is that these raw ingredients are as fresh as possible – sushi grade is not too extravagant.
Additional ingredients are both traditional and optional. Ceviche has a bit more onion and less chili. Both include cilantro, frequently other vegetables and even a combination of juices. Aguachile always includes generous slices of cucumber for the soothing qualities that vegetable provides given the spicier nature of the dish – after all, it is called chili water.
If you happen to own a molcajete for preparation, it doubles as a beautiful bowl with its black basalt contrasting with the colors of the ingredients. A number of internet sites have recipes for aguachile. Hispanic Kitchen has a good basic shrimp aguachile recipe. America’s foremost chef on southwestern Hispanic cuisine, Rick Bayless, provides ideas outside the box.
The annual January Aguachile Festival was held in Parque Lazaro Cardenas, currently undergoing a transformation with stunning mosaics.
On the same day, the annual Book Fair, a week long event, was taking place on Puerto Vallarta’s main Plaza de Armas. Dozens of book stalls sell new and used books in a variety of languages for all age levels. The prices are below reasonable.
Food for the stomach and the mind, stimulation for the eyes and the ears with enviable weather and fronting the Bahia de Banderas: no wonder Puerto Vallarta greets all with “Welcome to Paradise.”
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The peppy opening number of Naked Boys Singing, “Gratuitous Nudity,” pokes fun as to why we’re in the audience but promises, “No crudity. Just gratuitous nudity.” (Certainly easy on the eyes and naked 99% of the time the ensemble of Max Albertos, Mitchell Guzman, Joby Hernandez, Fidel Rebolledo, Renzo Sotelo and Luis Villanueva are handsome talented singers). Yet, most important, at the end of the opening number the men sing, “Than nakedness is just another window to the soul.”
Naked Boys Singing is an entertaining comedy revue with some real life pathos. Yet the lyrics and even the sequence of songs fail to develop this cohesive theme. The lyrics are gay oriented, a good selection for Incanto Theater situated in Puerto Vallarta –the gay friendly capital of Mexico. Yet most people evolve beyond potty humor after discovering the magic our naked bodies can create.
Perhaps edgy when originally produced Off-Broadway in 1998, I was getting bored and puzzled with Robert Schrock’s current version of his 20-year-old musical Naked Boys Singing by the end of the third song. I stress bored with the production not the boys.
Is Naked Boys Singing a vaudeville revue poking fun at our attitudes on nudity and sex? Or is it a musical of how we men see ourselves, literally, develop from the potty humor of 9-year-old boys, through teenage angst, to a celebration of why we (men and women) have beautiful, biologically designed bodies that produce fun, brainpower and love. Unfortunately creator Robert Schrock fails to ask himself these questions.
A lack of imaginative direction leaves six handsome naked men basically singing a concert in a straight line. One potty humor opening number would have been fine. “The Naked Maid” is silly but at least it was choreographed.
“Fight the Urge” (sung by Max Albertos, Mitchell Guzman, Joby Hernandez) speaks to many men, especially when gay teens, of uncomfortable moments in school locker rooms. It’s funny, true and in the last stanza sets up what could have continued a developing theme for the musical, “I can’t let anyone know what’s happening inside. I am all alone.”
Following that number, “Window to Window” (sung by Fidel Rebolledo and Luis Villanueva) provides a glimmer of thoughtful lyrics that brought more meaning to this play. In “Window to Window” two neighbors view each other frequently from across their apartment buildings’ divide. In a beautiful duet they communicate through attraction and desire. In the final lines their thoughts mesh even though physically separated when they sing, “Take a risk. Be daring.”
The beauty in “Window to Window” is that we do not know if the desire will be fulfilled. How many of us, gay or hetero, have not felt this same longing? That is the direction that could make Naked Boys Singing relevant theater and still retain its humor.
Unfortunately Robert Schrock concentrates on a miscellaneous list of minor topics from gay gym rats in “Muscle Addiction” to being a “Perky Little Pornstar.” Too many songs are just gratuitous entertainment. The lack of creative direction and a thematic vision fails to take advantage of the talents of six handsome naked men.
Yet the second act does have three songs of significant interest that capture a universal sense of humor, longing, fear and acceptance. The lyrics in “Nothing But the Radio On” (sung by Joby Hernandez) comically compare reactions to Marylyn Monroe’s famous 1950s nude calendar photo with still hypocritical sexual image attitudes.
“Work of Art“ (sung by Luis Villanueva) was appropriately a tableau recreating athletic nude marble statues with four of the cast members. The central, classically posed statue (Luis) sings of a particular man that frequently visits the museum. In silence they are doomed in expressing their mutual love. Once more the longing for love shines in this song.
The third to last number, “Window to the Soul,” a tender duet sung once more by Fidel Rebolledo and Luis Villanueva, should have been the final number in the production sequence. The “Window to Window” couple discovers the true nature of their love. They take the risk as scary as it is, “And now I know that who I am isn’t shameful or obscene.”
Naked Boys Singing should be an entertaining exploration of nakedness as both physical beauty and its impact on everyone’s self-image. Yet out of fifteen songs only a handful explore this identifiable theme – “nakedness is just another window to the soul” – that the musical introduced in the opening number, “Gratuitous Nudity.”
Still, the six talented naked young men in this Incanto Theater production have fun proving that nudity is the ultimate selfie.
Despite production flaws, Naked Boys Singing is entertaining and worth seeing. It is running several times per week along with Incanto’s stellar concert calendar for the 2018/2019 Winter season.
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“A business we can do together; something we can grow together.” Alan Mundy
Just imagine light, creamy, hand crafted peanut brittle and rich aromas of organically grown Mexican coffee. Alan Mundy and Ausel Diaz Arguello did, and in the process La Fortuna Organic Coffee and PVs Finest Peanut Brittle blended their lives. Yet when Alan and Ausel met just a few years ago they were both in flux.
The date “1985” on the package of PVs Finest Peanut Brittle means more than the start of a business. It wasn’t actually the start of a business. It was Alan’s stress therapy.
In Louisiana Alan was in the real estate and electronics businesses. Yet in an urge to do something creative, he started making his grandmother’s peanut brittle in 1985 as gifts for friends. That soon turned into a marketing tool – gifts to clients at the holidays.
For thirty years Alan made upwards of 2,000 pounds of peanut brittle annually as gifts. Yet his life altered several years ago when his mother’s health started to decline. For a variety of reasons, relocating to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was desirable for both Alan and his mother.
Ausel was fresh from culinary studies at Puerto Vallarta’s Casserole Instituto Gastronomico. He was also from Chiapas, the southwestern most state in Mexico, known for its lush tropical beauty, abundant agriculture and poverty.
Ausel’s grandfather had developed a 20 acre coffee farm nearly a century before. Despite the fact that it grew to 120 acres, like many small farmers, his grandfather and father sold the beans wholesale to coffee dealers. Profits were meager.
A regional outbreak of Coffee Leaf Rust five years ago led to a downturn in both coffee production and prices, which resulted in the loss of the family farm. Prospects for Ausel’s family were dire. Then Allan and Ausel met in Puerto Vallarta and a plan that would benefit all developed.
With Ausel’s knowledge of Chiapas, family ties and traditional organic farming methods used for centuries, Alan’s entrepreneurial logic saw a way to revitalize the family by reverting to tradition. In the process they created La Fortuna Organic Coffee by elevating common Arabica beans to premium status.
Securing title to 200 acres for the family simply started the process. The densely planted acreage thrived in the mineral rich tropical mountains of Chiapas. The chaff from the roasted coffee beans was the only enrichment added back to the soil.
Planting, maintaining and harvesting coffee have always been hands-on tasks due to necessity. During harvest season in 2017 (November to March) demand for workers exceeded the local supply. La Fortuna employed four workers from Guatemala.
Alan and Ausel created a business plan for La Fortuna that relied on personal attention to every detail by those involved. Traditional hands-on techniques from sorting, roasting, packing and marketing have been essential to ensure premium quality. “It’s a labor of love,” quipped Alan, and he was correct, but not just in the common understanding of that phrase applied to business.
Coffee beans are food, and the cooking method has a major influence on flavor. Using a clay oven, the beans are hand roasted in small batches in a heavy iron bowl topping the wood fire of Indigenous pine and robles. The beans are stirred with a wooden spoon.
Subtle chocolate and spice undertones were enhanced by the gentle roasting process while hints of smoke from the pine and robles wood complimented rich, earthy notes in the beans. The coffee was smooth, medium bodied and light on acidity.
Hand packaging of the beans minimizes breakage that releases essential oils, which trap flavors. The packaged beans are shipped to Puerto Vallarta where Ausel and Alan take over marketing. Yet that’s not the end of the Chiapas connection – there are peanuts.
Peanut brittle was a Southern United States invention from the late 19th century. The South was awash with peanuts and sugar so their combination was to be expected. The recipe Alan grew up on was from his grandmother, who like many gleaned knowledge from regional variations.
Alan had the idea that once in Puerto Vallarta the peanut brittle recipe he had used the past thirty years could be turned into an enterprise that involved his mother. Unfortunately, her health soon made that an unrealistic expectation. Then culinary trained Ausel entered Alan’s life along with peanuts from Chiapas.
What makes the superlative “finest” believable was not just the taste but also the texture. Having grown up on Northern versions where the caramelized sugar was truly brittle – like breaking glass – PVs Finest was creamy. The tan brittle crumbled in the mouth becoming a smooth caramel counterpoint to the deep flavors of roasted peanuts.
Sponge peanut brittle was one variation in Louisiana that existed for well over a century. Alan and Ausel have taken note that Canadians liken it to English sponge toffee. Considering Puerto Vallarta’s popularity among Canadian tourist, that’s a good marketing connection.
Organic peanuts and small batch production are the hallmarks of PVs Finest Peanut Brittle. The peanuts are sourced from farms owned by Ausel’s extended family, which provide over 3,000 kilos (6,600 pounds) of roasted peanuts per season. No changes have been made to the recipe of Alan’s grandmother.
Enhancing the basic recipe though was always considered. Alan and Ausel are developing a recipe with the addition of coconut. Coating PVs Finest with chocolate would pair a Southern tradition with the birthplace of chocolate.
Made by Ausel in their climate-controlled kitchen, the week’s production sells out quickly. PVs Finest Peanut Brittle winter production coincides with the seasonal schedule of Puerto Vallarta farmer and craft markets. During the winter season Alan and Ausel work five major markets selling La Fortuna Organic Coffee and PVs Finest Peanut Brittle.
Before meeting, Alan and Ausel had separate desires to make a difference in the lives of loved ones. Together they succeeded – a proud mother and a revitalized family – based on centuries of tradition. What they could not have foreseen was how candy and coffee would grow their own love.
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Epirus is a rugged, heavily forested and mountainous region largely made up of the Pindus Mountains. Considered the “spine of Greece,” the Pindus Mountains separate Epirus from Macedonia and Thessaly to the east.
Even though the clothing, architecture and food may have a Balkan feel, today generally older men and women gather on benches around Metsovo’s church of Agia Paraskevi to observe life on the Central Square and speak the ancient Aromanian dialect.
Livestock grazing on the green Pindus mountain slopes and crafts are still a part of life in Metsovo. To that foundation, tourism has had a significant impact over the past half century. Winter skiing, summer hiking, vineyards, unique foods, charming hotels and restaurants with a view add to the allure of this northwestern Greek enclave.
Naxos is the most fertile island of the Cyclades. It has a large aquifer under the island in a region where water is usually inadequate. Mount Zeus at 1,004 meters (3,294 feet) tends to trap the clouds increasing rainfall. Agriculture is an important economic sector making Naxos the most self-sufficient island in the Cyclades.
This abundance is obvious in Naxos restaurants, artisan food shops and food markets. Besides produce Naxos is famous throughout Greece for its cheese, meats, fish and seafood. Simply walking along the wide, beautiful, long, crescent, pedestrian friendly waterfront of Chora (Naxos Town) is a gastronomic delight. Some of the best cafes and tavernas in Naxos are sandwiched between shops offering Naxos crafts and food products – it’s the center of nighttime social life in town.
No matter how murky the legends of St. Trifon Zarezan, the Orthodox Church patron saint of vine growing and wine production, Bulgarian wine is worth celebrating. Since the days of ancient Thrace and their reverence for Dionysus, Bulgaria’s neighbors have prized the wine from this region of the Balkans. At the World Travel Market London, the nation showed off its viticulture bounty to impressed attendees from around the globe.
The existence of wineries for thousands of years in what was then northern Thrace meant the industry flowed with history, sometimes with bumps. Through countless wars, Ottoman Empire restrictions on wine production to Stalinist collectivism, both the quantity and quality of the vintages varied. In the past 40 years the trajectory for quality has been steadily upward.
President Rosen Plevneliev (2012-2017) put it succinctly at a St. Trifon Zarezan Festival celebration, “If during the Socialism we were the symbol of mass production, now we enjoy quality Bulgarian wines. The Bulgarian foreign policy must focus on showcasing the success of our home winemaking; Bulgarian Ambassadors must be Ambassadors of Bulgarian wine as well.”
Constituting 42 micro climates in the five wine regions of Bulgeria classic Western European varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, riesling and chardonnay thrive along with the indigenous Bulgarian grapes gamza, mavrud, melnik, and the white misket and dimiat. Although more than 80 commercial wineries collectively produce over 100 million liters per year with 60% exported, supply does not keep up with demand. Although available in select stores and distributors, it’s difficult to find the wines in the United States.
What was particularly striking about the vintages at this tasting was their bouquet. It was difficult to put the glass to the lips because the nose was being so pleasured. The aromas of berries, especially raspberries, chocolate, hints of honey and the fragrance of oak and summer herbs was as satisfying as their taste on the palate.
Bulgarians favor red wines, hence a higher percentage of vineyards are focused on those grapes. Image Reserve was a basket of ripe summer fruit, smooth with hints of chocolate, soft and full flavored from sip to finish. A blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, it’s rare and prized with an annual production of only 700 cases.
Rhapsody 2009 Chateau Valle de Roses oak and blackberry notes would pair well with grilled meat.
Some of the vines for Ross-Idi Pinot Noir are 2,000 years old. It was light in body with oak overtones. Ross-Idi Winery Nikolaevo Vineyard merlot had a complex mix of berry notes, pleasantly dry with a slightly acidic finish.
Angelus Estate’s Stallion was a blend of merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and syrah from the Thracian Valley in southeastern Bulgaria. It continued the aromas of blackberries with a soft finish and would match well with pastas or lamb.
Maryan Ivan Alexander red had only slight oak hints and sparkled with summer fruit notes such as plumbs and blueberries.
When my nose did not want to exit the glass of Butterfly’s Rock red, it was explained that they use special egg shaped oak barrels that are rotated frequently. The results are defined notes of oak, coffee, acorns and raspberries that are as pleasant to smell as to drink.
The average Bulgarian does not take white wines seriously. Even during St. Trifon Zarezan Festivals the reds are favored. Nevertheless, a smaller selection of Bulgarian whites is not to be ignored.
Izba Karabunar Ltd’s Misket & Dimgal was light in texture with slightly sweet melon tones. It would make a pleasant iced summer wine.
Midalidare sauvignon blanc added semillon to give it body. It had a surprisingly complex herbal bouquet finish.
Maryan Kera Tamara 2012 sauvignon blanc had definitive grapefruit tones with a crisp, dry, slightly acidic finish.
Angelus Estate’s White Stallion chardonnay managed to combine grapefruit with hints of honey – a terrific flavor combination of chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc.
Levent 2012 is an Italian owned winery but with Bulgarian grapes vrachanski misket and traminer.
Orbelus Melnik organic wines sum up Bulgarian wine history. Today’s southern Bulgaria was northern Thrace 7,000 years ago. It is accepted that the ancient Kingdom of Thrace was the motherland of wine grapes. Soldiers of Alexander the Great brought melnik grapes to the Tharcian Valley over 2,300 years ago. The flavor notes of this full-bodied red were dark chocolate and walnuts accentuated by the smaller amounts of grenache noir and petit verdot added to the mash.
There is a good reason why wine is part of literature and science since nearly the beginning of the written word. Isn’t all of gastronomy meant to take simple ingredients and transform them into the extraordinary? Wine was an early success, and Bulgaria proudly continues the legacy.
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