Tag Archives: the balkans

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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WHY I’M GOING TO ALBANIA.

14 Mar

I’m going to Albania this April. When I tell people this, their reactions range from surprise to incredulity. Maybe that’s the first reason  I’m going — I like to be unpredictable. Most people want to know “why?” The fact is that I’ve wanted to go there for ages but for most of my lifetime Albania was cut off from the rest of the world. I wasn’t allowed to visit it. Up until 1990 it was difficult to freely visit any of the communist countries on the other side of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain.” However Albania was probably the most sealed- off country of all, because it’s rulers not only opposed the capitalist countries of the west, but also eventually fell out with their Communist allies — firstly Yugoslavia which was next door, then the USSR (Russia) and finally, it’s last major friend: China, after the death of Mao. Albania became one of the main “Billy No Mates” of the world. It had many similarities with the mysterious, cut-off country of North Korea, except that Albania is not some remote country at the far end of Asia but a European nation, sharing a border with Greece and just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. So now that Albania has at last opened itself up to visitors from outside, I am desperately curious to go. What will it be like to visit a country that has been completely separated from the rest of the continent ( and the world) for most of my lifetime? Will it be like some modern-day Pompeii — trapped in time, its past preserved? In some ways, I imagine it’s going to be like travelling back in time. I’m surprised that there’s not been a stampede to  visit this “strange” country on our doorstep. Yet the truth is,  most people seem to have only barely heard of it and have probably never dreamt of visiting it. Most seem to have little idea where it is located. Even my travel buddy, Eric, who has travelled extensively round the world, only had a vague idea about Albania, at first tentatively suggesting that it might be close to Russia. OK, I’ll come clean — I’m an ex Geography teacher and what’s more: an ex-stamp-collector, so I’m pedantically hot about where places are in the world. For most of my life, I have never been far from my atlas. As a child looking at all those exotic sounding places on map after map was the stuff of dreams. Now, in my adult life, I am resolved to visit as many of them as possible, and that includes Albania.

People go on holiday for many different reasons. Some want a change of scene, some seek the sun, some want a rest from the hurly-burly of everyday life. I have empathy for all these tourists and over the years, have joined their ranks for the very same reasons.  I have done my share of lying on a beach or sitting by a pool, reading a book and having the occasional refreshing dip. Others like to stay in expensive spas and hotels in order to be petted and pampered and be waited on hand and foot. I must admit that that sounds pretty tempting too but I’ve never done it because I haven’t had enough money. My main aim when I travel is to experience a different culture. I’m a cultural tourist. They say a change is as good as a rest and one cannot get more of a change than visiting a foreign country. I find it very stimulating to be in a country where everyday life is very different from what I’m used to. Bill Bryson compared arriving in a far-away, foreign country as being like a 5 year old again because everything is new, surprising and exciting. It gives me a buzz to be in a strange environment where everything is potentially interesting and a fascinating novelty. Whether its the language, the food and drink, the architecture, the dress, the religion, the traditions — all is different from life at home and constitutes a big adventure. For instance, have you eaten any “ajvar” with a glass of “salep” lately?  Of course it can all be a bit frightening and nerve-wracking as well, but that’s what gives this type of travel its edge. I think it’s boring to play safe all the time. To me Albania will be a wonderful adventure precisely because I don’t know what will happen and what to expect. Australia is much further away on the other side of the world, is a spectacular place to visit and a fantastic holiday destination. However, to me Australia is nowhere near as exciting as Albania because I already know Australians speak familiar, comforting English, watch TV channels that I can understand, drive on the left and have an easily recognisable western life-style. Going there is largely playing safe inmy opinion. Unless I decide to go swimming with sharks or try to survive in the heat of the bush, Australia doesn’t really represent as much of a challenge as going to an obscure country in a forgotten corner of my own continent. I’m taking a risk going to Albania but it’s that very risk that makes the destination so appealing.

So Eric and I are going to a country where a shake of the head means “yes” and a nod represents “no.”  We are travelling to a country that is part Muslim and part orthodox Christian but which also officially embraced atheism in its recent past. We are visiting a place which has 17,000 round concrete bunkers which it doesn’t know how to get rid of. In Albania every town and village has 2 names for some unknown reason and the buses don’t have their destinations displayed. We will have to take a torch in order to avoid falling into large potholes during one of the regular power-cuts. We will have to steer well clear of packs of mangy dogs while trying to locate undecipherable addresses. But we are also going to drive through spectacular mountains and perhaps glimpse shepherds in traditional dress. We will walk on empty but beautiful Adriatic beaches and visit Ancient Greek/Roman/ Venetian/Ottoman archaeological sites that nobody’s ever heard of. We will be visiting medieval mosques and churches and hope to see some strikingly beautiful icons. We will also be surprisingly following in the footsteps of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, who described it as like being in paradise. ( Mind you — that’s probably something to do with the fact that he was a guest of the famously debauched ottoman prince, Ali pasha, whose court was notorious for its sexual license.)  Strangest of all, we may encounter a ” sworn virgin.” I know Eric is particularly excited about this! Apparently in the north there is a big shortage of males, so some women or their families make this decision to avoid an unwanted arranged marriage or keep a “male” heir in the family. Once the decision has been made the “sworn virgin” becomes a man and is treated as such in all aspects of life — from clothes, job, hairstyle, eating, drinking to smoking. It sounds fascinating doesn’t it? Don’t think you’d get much of that in: London New York or Sydney. Maybe that’s why Byron was so keen to include it in his itinerary?

This is not meant to be a tourist advert for Albania so I won’t list all the attractions I’ve researched. Anyway, I’m sure there are many sights and experiences that I don’t know about. There’s not even a Rough Guide for Albania as far as I know. But to be honest, this very lack of information is the main attraction of the place. It creates an aura of mystery about Albania and makes it a fertile place for exploration. When Eric and I fly off from Gatwick to Tirana it will be a case of: into the unknown. Inspired by Captain James T Kirk, if you’ll excuse me comparing the Balkans with Outer Space, we will be pushing back our personal frontiers of knowledge and experience. We are absolutely determined to boldly go where neither of us has gone before! That’s why we’re flying to Albania this April.