The group of teenagers looked like any other school group on a vacation week exploration. They playfully pushed each other as they walked up Congress Street and instinctively reached for phones whenever idled at a crosswalk.

But this Tuesday stroll in Munjoy Hill was different. The teens hailed from Bulgaria and are visiting Portland this week as part of the Casco Bay Elite USA-Bulgaria Wrestling exchange.

None of the seven Bulgarians – five youth wrestlers and two coaches – speak English, but their tour guides served as interpreters. South Portland residents Petko and Maria Delev and their son, Michael, a freshman at South Portland High, are fluent in Bulgarian. The elder Delevs grew up in Bulgaria. Petko, a two-time youth Bulgarian wrestling champion, was a student at the state-sponsored school where young wrestlers live and train.

“The kids are impressed by tall buildings, new foods and fancy sports cars. They’re kids. It doesn’t matter where they’re from,” Maria Delev said.

This is the second year of the exchange between Casco Bay Elite, a Portland-based youth wrestling program, and the Vasil Levski Sports School in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

Last year, eight Maine wrestlers and seven adults, including Delev and Casco Bay head coach Tony Napolitano, went to Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian wrestlers range in age from 13 to 16. They and coaches Pavel Mitev and Petyu Kirev had to obtain visas through the U.S. consulate in Bulgaria. Casco Bay Elite raised $7,000 through donations and sponsorship arrangements to help offset the cost of their travel. The Bulgarians are staying with families in southern Maine.

“We would like to keep doing it,” said Napolitano, who is also the Portland High wrestling coach. “The reason it’s Bulgaria is because of (Delev). Wrestling has this amazing power to bring people together. We’re speaking a universal language on the mat.

“And I think the fact that they’re seeing where we live and how we live is important. I know our kids were blown away by going to Bulgaria last year. To see how someone else lives has merit.”

The exchange includes plenty of wrestling – 11 practices at Portland High leading up to Sunday’s USA-Bulgaria 2 p.m. exhibition dual meet at Portland High.

Each Bulgarian will have two matches. There will also be some exhibitions. Admission is $5 for adults or $10 for a family. All proceeds support the exchange program.

“We really want to pack the gym with the Maine wrestling community to make them feel special,” Napolitano said.

In Portland, the Bulgarians are taking in sights between practices.

“There’s not that many people and here I notice that the people are more relaxed and not in a hurry,” said 16-year-old Galin Etimov.

On Tuesday the group walked – with frequent outbreaks of spontaneous grappling slowing the pace – to the 210-year-old Portland Observatory. Aleksandar Dimitrov, 13, was fascinated by the lighthouse-shaped maritime signal tower. He grew animated as he learned about the Fourth of July fire in 1866 that wiped out 10,000 buildings and stopped just short of the tower.

Another wrestler, Dimitar Petrov, 16, is quick with a smile and a handshake. He once lived in Spain and has been to numerous European cities. Coming to America was important, “to see a different world.” Taking in the panorama from the Portland Observatory was nice, Petrov said. But it couldn’t top his most memorable moment of the trip, going to the 104-story World Trade Center when the Bulgarians visited New York City for two days before coming to Portland.

“He’s never been so high before,” translator Michael Delev explained. “In Bulgaria there aren’t buildings that big.”

As the group ambled back to Portland High, Coach Mitev posed for pictures next to a fire engine outside Central Station. Mitev, it’s discovered, teaches self-defense to police and firefighters in Bulgaria. A minute later several members of the Portland Fire Department came out of the Congress Street station to pose with the Bulgarian entourage.

One firefighter joked it was good the Bulgarians could learn about, “Maine wrestling. Real wrestling.” None of the Bulgarians responded, the gentle jab lost in translation.

So how do the Bulgarians compare to American wrestlers? The question was put to Zhivko Petrov, 14.

“They are thinking that our kids here are really strong and they have very good cardio fitness,” translated Maria Delev. “They may have better technique than our American wrestlers.”

Told later of Petrov’s assessment, Petko Delev laughed. The Bulgarians’ technique is much better, he said, because they train year-round, and only young wrestlers with special skill and desire can attend the Levski Sports School. Delev is proud of his former school and his native country’s wrestling heritage.

Two of the visiting wrestlers are national champions. Dimitrov – the one who asks questions – is already a three-time champion. Borislav Bramchev, 14, another national champ, is training for the European championships in May.

“They’re good. Way more experienced,” said Jake Craig, 14, of Skowhegan, who spent his vacation week at Napolitano’s house so he could practice and sight-see with the Bulgarians. His older brother, Cody, a four-time Maine high school champ, went to Bulgaria last year.

“They’re very nice. Even though there is the language barrier, you can understand what they’re pointing to when they’re trying to show you a move. You can kind of communicate just because you’re all wrestlers.”

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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