Archive | October, 2018

BULGARIA — at last.

14 Oct

Ever since the fall of the “Iron Curtain” in 1989, I have been fascinated with the idea of visiting the countries of eastern Europe, that for much of my life, had been strictly off-limits. I have made a good fist of it. I have been to many of the ex-Communist states which have extricated themselves from the Russian stranglehold and are now making their own way in the world. A few years ago I even made it to Albania, which for a long time, was the most isolated state in the whole continent. The Balkan countries have particularly fascinated me because of their complicated histories, their racial and religious mix and their pivotal role in the outbreak of the First World War. So it’s somewhat of a surprise that until this autumn ( 2018), I have never visited Bulgaria. I once thought about going on a walking holiday in the mysterious- sounding Rhodope Mountains, but in the end, deemed that too energetic for me at the time. Bulgaria then went off the radar for a long while until last year, when 2 things flagged it up again.  First of all, I read 2 books by the excellent Bulgarian author: Kapka Kassabova, who now lives in Scotland. One: “Street With No Name” describes her teenage years growing up in a totalitarian state in the 1980s. The other” Border — A Journey to the Edge of Europe” describes her travels along the much-disputed border between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Both books rekindled my interest in Bulgaria. And then … I visited Doncaster!

Doncaster is a gritty, industrial town in England’s South Yorkshire, part of the Sheffield conurbation. I went there with a pal to do a Heritage Trail. The walk round the town threw up more than a few interesting surprises, but perhaps the biggest surprise of all was when we stumbled upon the Sofia Supermarket. Sofia, of course, is the capital of Bulgaria. The question was: why was a South Yorkshire supermarket named after an obscure, east European capital? The answer was supplied by the guide at Doncaster Minster. Ostensibly a loving Christian, he had nothing but bad things to say about Bulgarians. Apparently, they and the Romanians had “invaded” and taken over a whole area of the town. They had quickly turned it into a filthy slum in his view, and had even been seen defecating in the streets. We were reminded why Doncaster was one of the strongest “Leave” voting areas in the 2016 EU referendum. Many Donny voters blamed the European Union’s freedom of movement policy for the partial “take-over” of their town and the subsequent threat to their British identity. I had already been to Romania, a beautiful and delightful country, although not without its post- Communist problems. Now it was a must that I should go to Bulgaria. What terrible things would be in store for me there, the things that were driving so many of its citizens to leave and endure suspicion, discrimination and prejudice in a cold, damp country on the opposite side of Europe?

So it was that I persuaded my wife, Chris, to come with me on a small group tour of Bulgaria, entitled ” Mountains and Monasteries.” There was a slight feeling of trepidation in the air as the departure date approached. To a certain extent, it was another journey into the unknown, but that, in my opinion, is what makes travel so exciting. What about cleanliness? Would we encounter bed bugs while staying in remote mountain villages. What about the food? Would meat eating Bulgaria be able to supply us with adequate vegetarian food? What would the roads be like? Were we letting ourselves in for a bumpy, pot-holed nightmare? We were not opting for the comfort and safety of a Black Sea beach resort with its cliche of a pool, sunloungers and an all-in package deal. I had once stood behind 2 people in the post office queue, discussing whether to visit “Sunny Beach” or “Golden Sands”. I thought they were discussing places in Devon or Cornwall until I later found out that these were Black Sea resorts, given anglicised names to attract British and other western tourists. No, we were not going to wrap ourselves in the safety blanket of a “fly and flop” holiday. We were heading for the largely mysterious interior of Bulgaria, a land reputably of:  beautifully decorated churches, fine mosques, carefully preserved rustic villages, rich folk-lore, striking mountain scenary, and , possibly, — people defecating in the streets!

Well reader — it was great! OK, it wasn’t exactly relaxing, but sight-seeing holidays rarely are.  It’s a pity tour companies cannot devise more leisurely itineraries, especially for older travellers like ourselves. ( Our small group of 5 were all in their mid 60s to early 70s.) Staying in a hotel more than one night would have been very welcome. We only did this once, apart from the 2 nights in Sofia at the beginning and at the end of the trip which we organised ourselves. However I repeat — it was really great. All the hotels and guest houses were spotlessly clean, the food was unfailingly delicious ( think Turkish or Greek mezze style), the wine and beer were excellent and cheap, and all the people were welcoming, generous and friendly. Not once did we see someone going to the toilet in public view. In fact, unlike in the UK, we were hard pressed to spot any litter. I think we only encountered a couple of cigarette butts in the entire 10 day trip. Bulgarians smoke a lot and tobacco is one of their most important industries, but they observe a ban on smoking in public buildings that is now in force across much of the west.

So what did we see? Don’t worry, I don’t intend to give you a blow by blow account of the whole trip. Sighs of relief all round!  I just plan to give a few of my main impressions.

Obviously, from the title of the tour, we saw a lot of mountains and monasteries. The fact that they are often found in the same places is not a coincidence. In the past, monks sought out the natural beauty and sheer isolation of the mountains to be nearer to God and far from wordly temptations. The result is that many of Bulgaria’s monasteries, founded in medieval times, sit in very picturesque locations. This was particularly true of Rila Monastery in the Rila Mountains and Bachkovo Monastery in the Rhodopes. Monasteries stand in their own walled courtyards, surrounded by arcaded and tiered ranks of monks’ cells and centred around one or more beautiful churches. They usually have a bell tower. Their exteriors were often plain and unassuming as they didn’t want to upset their muslim Turkish rulers. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Bulgaria in the 14th century ( and subsequently went on to rule it for 5 centuries), their architects were so impressed with Balkan churches that they unashamably designed their mosques along the same principles. Thus, both mosques and Orthodox churches consist of graceful domes resting on cube-like structures of brick or stone. Many of the mosques have been destroyed or converted to other uses since Bulgaria escaped from Ottoman subjugation in the late 1880s, but we were still able to visit exquisite examples in both Sofia and Plovdiv. Interestingly, non- Muslims are allowed to visit mosques so long as they remove their shoes, although women have to wear a gown and cover their heads. ( something that Chris understandably did not appreciate very much.)

Going back to the churches — they are all spectacularly frescoed. This goes back to the time when most worshippers could not read or write, so the churches had to get their messages across in pictoral form. The idea of painted churches was borrowed from the Byzantines ( Eastern Roman Empire) who ruled Bulgaria in the early middle ages. Most of the pictures depict Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist holding his own head, and one of the church’s many saints. Bulgarian monasteries and churches also seem to be very fond of graphically representing the Day of Judgement, when it is decided whether a departed person goes up to heaven or down to hell. A person’s soul is shown being weighed on a pair of scales, seeing if it is clear enough of sins to balance a feather. Gruesome devils are often seen poking poor people with vicious, large forks or trying to drag them down into the fires. Many of their potential ” victims” seem to be naked young women leading me to blasphemously suspect that this might have been some sort of medieval soft porn. ( Sorry!)  Bulgaria was one of the first eastern European nations to adopt the Christian faith. Two learned brothers were instructed to devise the Cyrillic alphabet so that this southern slav nation could be welded together under the umbrella of Christianity. It saved everybody from having to learn the more alien language of ancient Greek. The invented language has 30 letters, all pronounced totally phonetically and all recognisable to the slavic speaker. The language and the new religion helped to create a communal, Bulgarian sense of identity. In 1054 came the “Great Schism” when Christianity divided into the Roman Catholic Church in the west, and the Orthodox in the east. This reflected the earlier split of the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves. Bulgaria ended up firmly in the eastern, Orthodox camp as it still is today. Just out of interest, it is the only member of the EU to use the Cyrillic alphabet. Something to remember for that pub trivia quiz. Two more interesting pieces of trivia:—  Sofia is the second highest capital city in Europe ( after Madrid), and Bulgaria is the second best wi-fi connected country in the world ( after South Korea.)

Going back to the churches again — the entire trip was a bit like a crash course in the Orthodox religion. Bulgarians are not overtly religious but since the austere, atheistic years of Communism, they have returned to the church, particularly for baptism and wedding rituals and to celebrate various saints’ days. Our group never witnessed a full scale service but did see individual worshippers. Upon entering , the devotees cross themselves. They then buy a few candles and light them, before placing them on a candalabria.  There is a higher one for the living and a lower one for the dead. Candles are symbols of faith and of the light of knowledge. Unfortunately, the smoke from constant candle burning has led to the dulling or damaging of many of the originally gleaming paintings. The faithful then approach one or more icons, cross themselves again, say a prayer, perhaps while spreading a hand on the image and then, finally, they kiss the icon. The icon is not regarded as a mere picture. It is a sanctified object that helps the faithful feel the presence of God. The picture is a sort of portal to heaven. The most striking feature of an orthodox church is the iconastasis. This is a richly decorated screen of icons and delicate wood carving. The latter is often covered in gold leaf. The iconastasis symbolises the division between earth and heaven. It has ornamental doors which are opened during a service to reveal the altar beyond. The whole scene is colourful and spectacular. It makes a typical English parish church look dull and boring. Once we observed a wedding. Large crowns were placed on the heads of the bride and groom after being symbolically tied together by the chanting priest. At the end, the married couple and guests all joined hands for a circle dance to live music in the street. The musicians played pipe and accordian. Sometimes goat-skin bagpipes are played. There was also rich, emotional male-voice harmony singing.

Bulgaria has several huge mountain ranges dominating its hinterland. Here we travelled through large forests. In the forest are brown bears, wolves and European lynx but we never saw any as we were never up early enough in the morning. The only creature we spotted was a brightly coloured Flame Salamander — a dark lizard- like creature with bright orangy -yellow markings.  We saw large swathes of meadowland populated by herds of cows and flocks of sheep and goats. Invariably, these were cared for by a cowherd or a shepherd with a long stick, helped by a couple of dogs. Once we watched a flock of goats being shepherded quietly across a hillside above a mountain village, the only sound being the quiet clanking of the bells around their necks. To use the old cliche, it was like travelling back in time. Sometimes it was as if the whole of inland Bulgaria was like one big, open-air museum. We saw old, rustic villages where life had seemingly not changed very much for centuries. In one, Dolen, we discovered the female church guardian, patiently shelling a huge mound of beans. She took time off to tell us her sad life story and a brief history of the church which was in bad need of restoration. Our excellent guide translated. It was a privilege to enter this closed off, forgotten world, if only for a few minutes. That village had people walking around in traditional costume and featured architecture of the “National Revival” style from the 18th and 19th centuries. Wattle and daub walls were plastered over and topped by pan-tiled roofs with tall, striking chimneys. On the top of each chimney there was what looked like a tiny replica of a house. This architectural style came in as Ottoman power gradually drained away.

We visited two cities: Sofia, the capital and Plovdiv, the second largest. Both had an array of interesting buildings, galleries, shops, restaurants and museums. Both also had partly exposed Roman cities beneath street level. Sofia got pulverised by Anglo-American bombers in 1943 after Bulgaria became a reluctant ally of Nazi Germany. Thus today, it only has isolated historical buildings , although there are still a fair scattering of them. Plovdiv is more of an harmonious whole, with an evocative cobbled old town clinging to the side of one of its hills. It has a partly restored Greco-Roman theatre, now used for modern productions, plus part of its Circus Maximus, formerly used for ancient Roman sports and chariot racing. We loved wandering round Plovdiv. Next year, it’s going to be the European Capital of Culture. Going back to the war, Bulgaria managed to save all of its Jews from the death camps. For his trouble the Nazis poisoned the last King, Boris. His tomb is now in a revered corner of the Rila Monastery. Bulgaria had been tempted into the Second World War with the promise of regaining its lost territory of Macedonia. This had originally been part of Bulgaria when it emerged from Ottoman rule but just a short time later, the Great Powers took it away again at the Congress of Berlin in 1876. Countries like Britain, France and Austria-Hungary didn’t want Bulgaria, a Slav ally of Russia to get too powerful. This is why Bulgarians who know their history, still hate Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister at the time. They blame him for the emasculation of their newly independent country. The Bulgarians went to war 3 times in the 20th century to get back Macedonia, but lost them all. ( 2nd Balkan War, First World War and Second World War.) Our guide, Sloven, scoffed at the idea of the independent Macedonia that exists today. ( soon to be renamed North Macedonia after its long naming dispute with Greece.) He called it “Disneyland” because he said it has had to make up a fantasy history and heritage.

We saw ancient Thracian passage tombs, stunning limestone ( karst) gorges and cave complexes, and breath-taking mountain vistas.  We experienced really hot and really cold weather depending upon what altitude we were at. We did wine tasting and tried our hand at folk dancing and singing. ( not very successfully). We visited the Valley of the Roses where 70% of the world’s  essence of “rosa damascena” is produced. Originally from Damascus in Syria, this special red rose with a powerful essence is now mainly a Bulgarian speciality. It forms the basis of many of the world’s perfumes. We also learnt that so-called Greek yoghurt is actually mostly produced in Bulgaria. I won’t go on. Suffice to say it was a stimulating and endlessly fascinating journey through the lesser known hinterlands of Bulgaria.  We found that the Bulgarian people we met were all proud of their country, its heritage and its culture. The trauma of the end of Communism and the abrupt break-off of trade with Russia did cause serious economic problems however. These were compounded by  next door Yugoslavia’s Civil wars in the 1990s. Obviously great hardship and poverty ensued, made worse by constant corruption at governmental level. This is probably why some Bulgarians have felt compelled to travel and find work in the richer countries of the west. This is probably why some have ended up in Britain, despite its current “hostile environment” for migrants.

So, I have now been to Bulgaria — at last. Another piece of my personal Balkan jig-saw has been slotted into place. Travel , they say, broadens the mind. I have now learnt a lot about one of our often misunderstood European neighbours. It has been a greatly enriching experience.

 

 

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