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Bulgaria is situated in south-eastern Europe, in the north-eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula. The country earned its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, but having fought on the losing side in both World Wars, it fell within the Soviet sphere of influence and became a People's Republic in 1946. Communist domination ended in 1990, when Bulgaria held its first multi-party election since World War II and began the contentious process of moving toward political democracy and a market economy while combating inflation, unemployment, corruption, and crime. Today, reforms and democratization keep Bulgaria on a path toward eventual integration into NATO and the EU - with which it began accession negotiations in 2000.

Bulgaria has a territory of 110 911 square kilometres which is 22% of the Balkan Peninsula. Its length is 520 km and its width is 330 km. The overall length of its borders is 2245 km. Bulgaria borders to the north on Rumania (the frontier line runs along the Danube river and continues on land to the north-east), to the south - on Greece and Turkey, to the west - on Serbia and Macedonia (former Yugoslavia) and to the east - on the Black Sea.

The climate in Northern Bulgaria is moderate continental, while the climate in Southern Bulgaria is intermediate continental tending to Mediterranean. The climate in the regions with an altitude of 1900-2000 m above sea level is mountainous and along the Black Sea coast it is maritime. The climate of the seaside regions is milder in the winter and cooler in the summer than the climate of the interior of the country. The average annual temperature is 10,50C, in winter about 00C. The lowest temperature - 38,30C - was measured in 1947.

The official language is Bulgarian and uses only the Cyrillic alphabet. To facilitate tourists, road and direction signs in populated areas, resorts, railway station, airports and along the main highways are also spelled in Roman letters. English, German, French, Russian and other languages are spoken in the country.

The capital of Bulgaria is the city of Sofia. The post-1989 changes have manifested themselves most visibly in Sofia in the explosive growth of small businesses. Smart boutiques and chic restaurants provide a sharp contrast to their somber state-run counterparts. Even the humble outdoor food bazaars have been spiffed up and now feature larger and more varied selections, with imported fresh fruits and vegetables available year-round. Luxury BMWs and Mercedes overshadow the once-ubiquitous Ladas and Moskvitches. The building boom in the mountainside suburbs of Boyana, Dragalevtsi and Simeonovo, with posh villas going up in rapid succession, demonstrates that at least one sizeable segment of the population is enjoying new-found wealth.

One readily apparent downside to the "changes" is the city's nin-down appearance and neglected infrastructure as evidenced by crumbling building facades, pothole-filled streets and litter-strewn public places. Yet, while Sofia - a city of 1.1 million - may not at present compare favorably to other European capitals, progress is undeniably being made. Certain sections of the city, most notably Maria Louisa Boulevard and the area around the pedestrian Pirotska Street, are gradually giving way to gentrification. The European Union has allocated $300,000 for a "Beautiful Bulgaria" campaign to refurbish the city's building facades. The municipality has recently allocated funds to repair the streets and clean up the litter, plant greenery strips along the motorways, and revive the park and garden fountains which have not functioned for years. The underground metro, which debuted in January 1998, should help to reduce traffic snarl and engender a measure of civic pride. Given heightened foreign investment and continued sound planning by the city administration, Sofia could become - while not quite the "Paris of the Balkans"- at least a city worthy of its historic pedigree and choice natural setting. Indeed, few cities anywhere can boast such a scenic backdrop as that provided by imposing Mount Vitosha.

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