ARBANASI, Bulgaria -- It was with a particular mix of surprise and satisfaction that, while walking down a lane tucked on the north side of the Balkan range, and surrounded by friends from Argentina and France, Italy, and the United States, Alexandar Kirov said, ''You know, I always knew my country could be so beautiful, but I just hadn't seen it."
It was, this comment, both true and false.
False, because for more than two decades, during a childhood that was witness to the decline of communism behind the Iron Curtain, Alex had managed to grab the rewards of sport and study, friends and family. But it was true, too, because while his country did not, like its neighbors, suffer a violent climax, or the wars that followed, it muddled along in the cradle of the Balkans, offering up a life that was, essentially, full of frustration.
So Alex left, four years ago, for Paris, where he and I met amid a crowd of journalists and quickly joined an Argentine and Italian in a circle of friends dubbed ''la famille." When we would talk about Alex's country, he would speak with affection, or disdain, but always distance. Not so when I joined him this summer for his return visit to Bulgaria.
We met in a village in southern Serbia and drove his family's vintage orange Lada sedan east, a rumbling ramble at 50 miles per hour, past signs pointing south to Skopje and Thessaloniki, then into the hills and through three border checkpoints to Sofia, the capital and Alex's hometown.
While on our way to pick up two friends, Alex spoke with simple authority, about the star taken from the top of the Communist Party headquarters soon after the decades-long regime of Todor Zhivkov fell Nov. 10, 1989, or quieter memories from a shady schoolyard. I noticed that Alex had changed pronouns, from ''they," as in ''the Bulgarians," to ''we."
''You see this one," he said critically, pointing to the cracked, sagging facade of an old building in the city center. ''There are nice offices inside, some are very expensive. But on the outside, we just don't care."
With turn after turn, particularly after the Lada got towed from a seemingly valid parking spot at the train station, Alex's tone turned toward disdain.
This did not fit for Alex, a tall, lean man who prefers calm, earnest conversation, or for the occasion, a gathering of 10 friends. As we returned from the station to Alex's childhood apartment, set in a sprawling quarter of high, modern buildings, he looked stressed.
So we regrouped and considered trips that would take us to places where, if the past had not been gentler, at least time and memory had conspired for an easy, celebratory destination. We would head northwest, into the Balkan range and the city of Veliko Tarnovo, the capital of Bulgaria's Second Kingdom, from 1185 until 1396, when it fell to the Ottomans.
Past Sofia's last blocks of towering buildings, their white facades colored with hanging laundry, and then past a field of smokestacks, a smooth, black highway snaked into foothills and craggy notches and, 150 miles later, arrived at modern Veliko Tarnovo, a city dominated, sadly, with the same anonymous apartment blocks. We sighed and groaned and finally pushed on, following a guidebook's advice, 3 miles north of the city to Arbanasi, a hilltop village of stone walls, modern villas, and restaurants that offer tables laden with roast lamb, chunky salads of tomato, cucumber, and feta, and an excellent local Cabernet Sauvignon, sold for $6 a bottle.
The next morning, after a coffee-fueled swim, we descended a back road toward the old quarter of Veliko Tarnovo.
''This," Alex said, ''is more like a capital."
A shallow river cut beneath a stone bridge. Forest hugged stout buildings. Above a high wall, a fortress rose to a small peak topped by an Orthodox church.
We paid a small entrance fee and wandered up a long pathway and through a stone arch. A man sat before a small box, from which cables ran to life-sized puppets of Tsar Kaloyan, a fabled 13th-century monarch, and members of his court. The man pushed a button in the box and the king moved his arms and spoke, in English: ''Each one of us must remember that we are a Bulgarian and that we are the heirs of a majestic kingdom."
Another button replayed the broadcast in Bulgarian. Alex noted that here, in the hills considered to be a sort of cultural heartland, Bulgarian is spoken with a softer accent, not as rushed and harsh, for example, as that in Sofia.
We idled up steep pathways and stairs, some of which dwindled to crumbled stone and dry earth. On the hilltop, a door opened into the modern church. The original had been hammered by the Turks in the 15th century, then leveled by an earthquake in 1913. By the mid-'80s, a new building rose on the 3-foot-high foundation, and the Bulgarian artist Teofan Sokerov was enlisted to paint murals recounting Bulgaria's historic glories and sufferings on interior walls. ''I don't like this," Alex said. ''It's very much in the communist hard line of paintings. 'Let's build a new society, a new world.' That was my first impression."
Outside the fortress, a busy street led past well-stocked shops and on to a terrace cafe. Midway to the cafe, on the wall of a simple house, graffiti penciled in a shaky script read: ''No money. No funny."
With a developing routine of three-cafe mornings, late-afternoon siestas, and four-hour dinners, continued historical exploration took particular commitment. But we continued the next afternoon, at the Dryanovski Monastery, set in dense woods alongside a stream a half-hour southwest of Veliko Tarnovo.
In 1876, Bulgarian nationalists had used the monastery as a seat of uprising against the Ottomans. Today, cars crowd a cobblestone parking lot ringed with shops selling ice cream, icons, and postcards. Inside a small Orthodox church within the compound, we met a young monk, dressed in black, his hair pulled in a ponytail.
''Here, you are closer to God," the monk said. ''But it is not worth talking about the role of the monasteries, because most of them are turned into hotels, and it's a kind of sin. That this, a place where people used to come to hide from the world, to find themselves, should be used as a hotel."
One hundred yards from the church, behind a high wall, a shallow stream flowed, its waters a kind of cool refuge. We rested, then motored on, with the help of a kind man on a street in Gabrovo who pointed the way to Etara, a historic folk village. Wooden water wheels turned in more cool water, and shops with low, timber ceilings held crafts.
In one, Alex picked up a small mug made of copper and tin and chatted with the craftsman sitting in the rear of the shop. Alex held the mug for several minutes, enjoying its color in the light, its weight in his hand. He was thinking, he said, of his one-room apartment in Paris, to which he would soon return.
''I will use this mug," Alex said, ''when I take my morning coffee."
That evening, he reflected further. ''I have discovered that the best thing is to be a tourist in your own country," he said. ''You are just scratching the surface. You don't care about problems and you have a good time. What you see is just the beauty, which is unreachable for people who live here, actually."
The Bulgarian countryside and its highways were in better shape than he'd expected. Life for villagers, somehow, seemed better.
''But it doesn't change my view," Alex said. ''I don't belong to this country. I have my parents, a few friends. Take them away, and Bulgaria is gone."
Tom Haines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.