SOFIA (Reuters) - Yordanka Hristova was once called "the bride of all Cubans" and was so popular on Fidel Castro's island that Cuban families named their daughters after her.
Forty years on, the 64-year-old Bulgarian pop diva keeps the gossips guessing about her relationship with the revolutionary icon himself, saying all that matters is her love for Cuba and her admiration for its leader with the beautiful brown eyes.
The singer was first introduced to Castro during his visit to communist-ruled Bulgaria in 1972 and fell for what she called his macho charisma. He praised her for her good Spanish rather than her looks, she recalled.
"I was impressed with his eyes, which looked very beautiful, brown, slightly transparent," she told Reuters.
Dismayed by the collapse of ties between Havana and Sofia after the end of communist rule in eastern Europe in 1989, Hristova has helped set up a foundation to revive cultural links, named after Cuba's national hero, Jose Marti.
Marti, a poet and writer, died in a cavalry charge in 1895 in the fight against Spanish colonial rule. Hristova says his life mirrored that of Bulgaria's own revolutionary hero Hristo Botev, also a poet, who died in an uprising against Ottoman rule in 1876.
The foundation has erected a statue of Marti on a small square in Sofia and is pushing the capital's mayor to name the square after the fighter for Cuban independence.
In the communist era about 40,000 Bulgarians worked in Cuba, mainly as engineers and agriculture experts. The Balkan nation exported chemicals, machinery, wine and canned food to Cuba and imported the Caribbean island's sugar and citrus fruit.
Bulgarians still have fond memories of Cuban bananas and oranges, which reached their shops in winter and were so popular they had to be rationed.
These days trade is negligible and cultural ties have faded away, much to Hristova's disappointment. "The Cubans loved us very much. They considered us relatives and used to say that we were the Latin Americans of Europe..."
Hristova first sang in Havana in 1967, when Castro had embraced Soviet-style communism and the Beatles and other "decadent" Western rock groups were banned.
"It was mutual love at first sight with the Cuban audience. That's probably why they started naming baby girls after me."
Yordanka is now a common name for Cuban women in their 30s.
PASSION FOR LATIN RHYTHM
With her passion for Latin rhythms and dances, Hristova made a splash at the Varadero Song Festival in 1967 and has performed in Cuba almost every year since, often passing the winter there.
Of all the Soviet bloc singers who toured their country, Hristova won the warmest reception, her open manner earning her the affectionate title of "bride of all Cubans," her repertoire including Cuban, Italian, French and English songs.
Hristova's own loyalty to Castro and his socialist vision is unswerving. "I bow down to Fidel, to a person who has devoted his life to a cause -- Cuba's independence," she said.
"All this is at the expense of the Cubans and severe shortages. But they think it's meaningful. That helps them to be a spiritual rather than a consumer, material society."
Asked whether Castro was a fan, she said: "He is not a music aficionado and a bohemian. He doesn't like to dance, unlike his brother (Raul) who is a much more typical Cuban.
"The Cubans like to have fun, they like music. He is different, he is an intellectual, he likes to read."
Middle-aged Cubans still recall Hristova's sex appeal.
"She was pretty sexy and had a lot of Latin rhythm, especially compared to the Russian singers," said computer technician Guillermo Orosa.
The singer, a widow with two children who speaks at least five languages and is still a star at home, admitted her looks played an important part in winning Cubans' hearts.
"The Cuban men don't like skinny women, they prefer them plump," Hristova claims. "I am that type -- more sporty, plump, and I was very popular," said the singer, who favors shawls, hats and bright red lipstick.
Hristova attended Castro's 80th birthday celebrations in Havana in 2006, just a few months after he had emergency surgery for an undisclosed stomach illness.
She regularly receives his writings from the Cuban embassy in Sofia and occasionally sends him telegrams, signed "your friend, Yordanka Hristova."
(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Havana)
(Editing by Tim Pearce)