A Visit To The “New Constantinople” – Tsarevets: An Empire Lost In The Balkan Range (Travels In Eastern Europe #11)

My introduction to Veliko Tarnovo was a lung bursting hike up to the old town while dragging a stuffed suitcase behind me. The accommodation I had chosen – another Hostel Mostel – turned out to be on the opposite side of the city from where the bus had dropped me off. After trudging almost a mile, I arrived at the front desk with my clothes completely soaked in sweat. After a quick check in, I dropped off my suitcase and skipped showering so I could spend the entire afternoon exploring the ruins of the medieval citadel known as Tsarevets. This was my number one reason for coming to Veliko Tarnovo. I was not to be disappointed.

Tsarevets - Ruins of the New Constantinople

Tsarevets – Ruins of the New Constantinople

Gloriously Dangerous – Ruling The Second Bulgarian Empire
While crossing over the stone causeway that acts as an entrance to the citadel, I was immediately struck by the size and breadth of the ruins. Stone walls up to three and a half meters thick lined the hillside. There were towers, battlements, remnants of a large royal palace and the restored Church of the Blessed Savior crowning the complex. Below the citadel flowed the Yantra River. Tsarevets stood high atop a hill in a natural defensive setting that contributed to its stunning beauty. During my visit the sky was a dark cauldron of brooding gray clouds that looked to be on the verge of bursting at any moment. This stormy atmosphere added to the fantastic impression of a mighty fortress that once stood unassailable against all but the elements of nature.

The power and majesty of the Second Bulgarian Empire was conveyed to me through these ruins. I could see why it had once been referred to as the “New Constantinople.” Tsarevets looked like something that would be associated with ancient Rome, rather than a lost empire in the heart of the Balkans. The Empire had once been the major threat to Byzantium, ruling a land mass stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, now the ruins of its fortress capital stood slowly crumbling in majestic solitude amid quiet mountains. I imagined that rulers of such an Empire were fierce warriors who ruled with unquestioned authority. A bit of research shattered this illusion. To be a Tsar of the Second Bulgarian Empire may have been glorious, but it was also a precarious undertaking that cost many a ruler his life or even worse.

The personal danger for a Tsar of the Second Bulgarian Empire cannot be understated. It was an inherent hazard of the position. The first four Emperor’s of the Second Bulgarian Empire including its founding figures, Petar IV and Ivan Asen (both originally from Tarnovo) were murdered. As for the fifth one, Boril (1207-1218) he was deposed and blinded. Blinding could be a fate worse than death and in many cases more painful. It involved gouging out the eyes, including at times with a white hot poker. In other cases an acidic, boiling substance such as vinegar would be poured into the victim’s eyes. Such methods could lead to infection, followed by an excruciatingly slow death. Blinding was used as a way of incapacitating a ruler or rival so they would no longer be able to lead an army in warfare or take part in politics.

Entering Tsarevets - Capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire

Entering Tsarevets – Capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire

The Power And Majesty – The Insecurity & Depravity
The first ruler to die a natural death in the Empire was Ivan Asen II (1218 – 1241) who ruled for more than two decades. Ivan’s successor and son, Kaliman Asen I (1241 – 1246) was not so lucky. At the tender age of twelve he was poisoned to death. Other emperors died of strangulation, beheading, fighting in battle or murdered by family members. The latter cause of death was especially frequent. For instance, while on a hunting expedition in the woods surrounding Tarnovo, Emperor Michael Asen II (1246 – 1256) was murdered by his cousin Kaliman, who took the throne for a short period before also being murdered. Of twenty-four rulers in the Second Bulgarian Empire, only eight are sure to have died a natural death and three of these were only able to do this by fleeing abroad.

Any potential ruler who wanted to call the splendor and might of Tsarevets their home had to fight for it. There was no such thing as a popular election of rulers. Glory and power was most often won on the field of battle. Emperors were self-promoted through cunning, guile and military exploits. These same traits helped the best of them to keep power. The massive scale of Tsarevets was more understandable to me after I learned how difficult it was to hold power. The emperors needed all the protection they could get from both within and without. Unfortunately there was little protection other than the sword or purges against ambitious family members and treasonous retinues.

The greatness and grandeur of Tsarevets was matched only by the insecurity and depravity of those vying for the throne. But what would be termed depravity today was a survival technique in the power struggles of Bulgaria’s early medieval era. It was an era of kill or be killed, with lurid court politics that more often than not turned lethal. There were also external enemies, the Byzantines, Magyars and Serbs. Besieged from within and without, it is little wonder that two-thirds of the Second Bulgarian Empire’s rulers died violently.

Church of the Blessed Savior - crowning the top of Tsarevets

Church of the Blessed Savior – Crowning the top of Tsarevets

The Greatness of Bulgaria – An Iron Grey Sky On A Stormy Spring Day
The emperors ruled over an empire that was either threatening or threatened, expanding or contracting, on the verge of conquest or calamity. Tsarevets was a symbol of the heights to which the empire ascended. The ruins were also a symbol, of its ultimate fall. What was left standing before me was a rough approximation of the best this empire had to offer, but by the late 14th century it was not good enough. The Ottoman Turks surrounded it in 1393. For three months the fortress held out, until finally taken in July. With its fall the Second Bulgarian Empire was history. For the next five centuries the Ottoman Turks would rule Bulgaria with a heavy hand, but the memory of Bulgarian greatness was kept alive by the ruins at Tsarevets. And under an iron grey sky on a stormy spring day I could still feel the power of that greatness.

The Habit Of Premature Punctuality – Sofia To Veliko Tarnovo By Bus (Travels In Eastern Europe #10)

Many years ago when I first began contemplating long distance traveling I seriously considered going across the United States by bus. I mentioned this to a friend of mine, an art history professor at the local community college. He was always interested in adventurous ideas, especially ones that involved travel.  When I told him my initial plan, the expression on his face immediately turned to one of bemusement. He pondered the idea for a moment then said “You might want to take a short bus trip first.” I asked why. “Because those buses stop constantly and it takes forever to get anywhere. Riding a bus can be exhausting.” Right then and there the great American Greyhound bus trip came to an end. My idea had not survived first contact with a contrary opinion.

Sofia Central Bus Station

Sofia Central Bus Station (Credit: Nikola Gruev)

Bulgaria By Bus – Getting There The Hard Way
It would be over twenty years later before I would embark on a bus trip that was not part of a guided tour. This would be a trip from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo, the medieval capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire located in the mountainous Balkan Range. I would have preferred to take a train, but there was no direct connection between the two cities and I wanted to lose as little time as possible. My goal was to see Veliko Tarnovo in a day and a half, then move on. Nevertheless, I dreaded the bus trip. Most of my anxiety was related to fears that came in the form of questions. Would we be stopping at every little village along the way? What would my fellow passengers be like? Would the roads be in decent condition or a minefield of potholes? Several days prior to departure, I began to have doubts about taking the bus.

I thought about going to Plovdiv instead, just because I could take a direct train there from Sofia. Trains are comfortable, spacious and relaxing. Buses are jarring, cramped and nerve wracking. The last time I had endured bus travel was on a two week trip around Turkey. This was on a guided tour with a reputable company. It soon turned into a series of hours long, exhausting odysseys, where the driver availed himself of numerous opportunities to pass in dangerous conditions. I imagined the same or worse could happen in Bulgaria, which was known for bad roads, poor drivers and Soviet levels of comfort when it came to public transport. One thing was for sure, it would be an experience, one that I would have to repeat on this trip and many others in Eastern Europe.

Surprisngly smooth - On the road in Bulgaria

Surprisingly smooth – On the road in Bulgaria

The Baggage Of Habit – Bringing It All The Way From Home
The Sofia Central Bus Station is located close to the Central Train Station. This makes it very convenient for travelers, but also means that the strange characters always lurking around urban public transport facilities are double in number. I scouted out the station in advance. Compared to the dreadful, communist era concrete pile of the Train Station, Sofia’s Central Bus Station was a classy upgrade. It was relatively new with a sparkling glass covered exterior. The shops inside were brightly lit and the ticket area efficiently manned. I later learned that it also has over a hundred surveillance cameras, likely for good reason. It certainly looked safe enough and I saw none of the glue sniffing, homeless that were rumored to be in and around the station. My departure was scheduled for mid-morning. Out of habit I arrived at the station an hour and a half early. I developed the ritual of premature punctuality as a child from time spent with my grandmother. She made it her mission in life to always be early for meetings, family gatherings and church. If someone arrived earlier than her, she was visibly shaken. It is incredible how even half a world and thirty years away from that upbringing, I still obeyed a habit ingrained during summers spent at my grandmother’s side. The people, language, alphabet and culture were all foreign to me in Bulgaria, but habit was the baggage that I carried with me everywhere. It gave me a sense of security.

I found the platform for my bus and joined a group of Bulgars who were managing to look both bored and anxious at the same time. Soon the bus arrived. Out jumped the driver who began to sell tickets for luggage which was to be stored in a compartment beneath the bus. This led to less a line and more of a crowd forming around him. My competitive instincts kicked in. I managed to jostle my way into prime position where I quickly purchased my luggage ticket, which was then packed away into the storage. I entered the bus and found an empty seat halfway to the back. My fervent wish was that no one would sit beside me, I was in luck. When it looked like everything was ready to go, quite suddenly a man appeared at the front of the bus. He held up what looked to be some kind of magazine-like travel guide. He then launched into a speech several minutes in length, at the end of which he stood silently holding the guides up in both hands. There were no takers. He exited as fast as he had appeared and soon we were on our way.

Destination - Veliko Tarnovo

Destination – Veliko Tarnovo (Credit: Nikola Gruev)

From Gridlock To Comfort – Journey To Destination
The ride to Veliko Tarnovo got off to a glacial start due to Sofia’s traffic. The snarl was maddening. Each time the bus stopped there was a minutes-long wait. Vehicles were packed almost on top of one another, bumper to bumper where nothing could move. Lines extended as far as the eye could see. There was no accident, only gridlock. It was ten in the morning yet it looked like rush hour. It was hard to imagine that it could be much worse, than again it could have been eight in the morning. Slowly, ever so slowly we crawled out of the city, idling for long moments beside the gigantic concrete apartment blocks that ringed the city. Finally after nearly an hour we broke free of Sofia.

A ribbon of black top in surprisingly good condition opened up before the bus. The bus made a gradual ascent into the Balkan Range, passing grassy meadows and rising hills covered with barren trees still a few weeks away from producing spring foliage. The smoothness of the ride was the opposite of what I had imagined. We only stopped a couple of times and made excellent time once outside the capital. I grew a bit sleepy, but forced myself to stay awake so I could have a look at the central Bulgarian countryside. It reminded me of the mountain areas of western North Carolina close to where I grew up. The familiar landscape brought me a feeling of comfort. It was not long before we arrived at the outskirts of Veliko Tarnovo. I ended up getting overly anxious and exited one stop too early. This left me standing at the bottom of a hill, with a steep trek in my immediate future. I could have cared less. The fresh mountain air energized me, it tasted just like home. I had a new city to explore in a beautiful landscape, with an incredible history I knew hardly anything about. I was deep in the heart of Bulgaria with nothing but time to myself.

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The Presence Of An Absence – Jews & Muslims In Sofia (Travels In Eastern Europe #9)

Sofia can seem like little more than a massive, heaping jumble of buildings with little continuity outside of the frightening concrete apartment blocks that fringe the city. During my first walk through the city center I had trouble getting my bearings. Stubbornly I refused to study the map in my guidebook, only glancing at it from time to time, enough to get further lost. For me, the city seemed to have been thrown together in fits and starts. Fortunately I happened upon a couple of buildings in the center that represented the history of Bulgaria in all of its textured diversity. Each of these brought the city and its past alive for me. Suddenly I could make sense of Sofia. These buildings were the Sofia Synagogue, which is the third largest of its kind in Europe and the Banya Bashi Mosque, the only active mosque left in the city today. In different ways each of these buildings represents a fascinating aspect of modern Bulgarian history, a recent past riven by upheaval, violence and survival.

Sofia Synagogue

Sofia Synagogue
(Credit: Plamen Agov)

The Unfulfilled Void – What Used To Be & What Might Have Been
The Sofia Synagogue is an imposing structure. With its Moorish style architecture the building has a presence unlike any other in the city. It was built a little over a century ago by Viennese architect Friedrich Grunanger who modeled it after the Leopoldstadter Tempel in his hometown. Though the synagogue can seat up to 1,300 people, only a small group of worshippers can be found at any service. This is nothing new for southeastern Europe. The Holocaust led to the destruction of Jewish communities throughout the region. Yet it was not the Holocaust that led to the disintegration of Bulgaria’s Jewish community. Uniquely among Eastern European nations the Bulgarian people objected to the deportation of their Jewish populace during the Second World War. This resistance saved most of Bulgaria’s Jews as well as preserving the synagogue.

Unfortunately after the war ended, the country’s Jews faced state sponsored oppression, this time in the form of the atheistic Communist regime which discouraged any religious activity. In 1946 there were approximately 44,000 Jews in Bulgaria, over the next five years 90% of them left for Palestine. They would never come back. Today there are only 2,000 Jews in the entire nation. Put another way, 65% of Bulgaria’s Jewish population could fit in the Sofia synagogue. Visiting the synagogue left me with an eerie sense of absence. There was something vacant and hollow at the heart of this grand space. Standing beneath a magnificent 2,000 kilogram chandelier and a ceiling painted in the image of a blue, starry sky, I still felt an abiding emptiness. It was hard to stand amidst all the beauty and splendor of the synagogue without thinking of what used to be and what might have been. If not for ideological oppression this would be less a museum and more an active house of worship. The lifeblood of human community was missing. Not even the stunning architecture could fill the void left by the absence of Jews in Sofia and Bulgaria.

Banya Bashi Mosque in Sofia

Banya Bashi Mosque in Sofia (Credit: Dudva)

The Oppressed Becomes The Oppressor – Role Reversal
Little more than a stone’s throw away from the synagogue was the Banya Bashi mosque, a symbol of another religious community, the Muslims of Sofia that had also largely vanished. While Bulgaria still has plenty of Muslims today, an estimated 550,000, very few of them live in Sofia. Prior to Bulgarian independence in 1878, there were 44 mosques in the city, today Banya Bashi is the only active mosque left. I was drawn to the structure mainly because I had never been in a mosque anywhere outside of Turkey. I was interested to see what it was like at a lone mosque in the capital city of a country that still bore signs of latent hostility towards its Muslim population. During the final decade of communist rule, the Bulgarian government had made the country’s Muslims scapegoats in an effort to distract from their misrule and widespread economic depravity plaguing the country. This led to an exodus of some 310,000 Muslims, almost all of whom fled to Turkey. Since that time there had been some improvement in relations, but the legacy of mistrust had never been fully overcome.

A large part of the problem has been the fact that Bulgaria’s sense of patriotism comes from the successful struggle to overthrow the Muslim Ottoman Turks in the latter part of the 19th century. Bulgaria’s Orthodox Christians had suffered mass repression during what Bulgarians so often referred to as the “500 years of slavery” under the Ottoman yoke. That repression was reversed after the Bulgars regained control of their country. Since that time, any overt religious expression by the country’s Muslim population has been met with suspicion at best and violence at worst. Islam is still regarded as a threat to the Bulgarian nation’s existence, despite the fact that Christian Bulgars vastly outnumber Muslims in the country today.

Visiting Banya Bashi was a very different experience from my visits to mosques in Turkey.  People were very welcoming and friendly, while it is a serious spiritual place Banya Boshi is also a local attraction. Those who manned the entrance seemed glad that a foreigner had decided to visit. This behavior I ascribed to the “minority effect.” When a group has been oppressed or vastly outnumbered in a place they are usually on their best behavior. This is induced by fear of a backlash. Entering a mosque is always a strange experience for me. I am used to people sitting silently in church pews, not open spaces covered with eye popping colors and geometric patterns. Because the floor space is used for prayer, this makes acts of ritual much more noticeable. I tried not to stare, but it was difficult. Most of my time was spent people watching or marveling at the beautiful colors and exotic interior design. The worshipers inside paid me little to no attention. I had no idea what to do other than stand. It is a bizarre sensation to feel totally lost in a space where all four walls can easily be seen and everything is out in the open. After about ten minutes I left. My visit to Banya Bashi was a strange experience that left me feeling out of place.

Blue Starry Sky - Ceiling At The Sofia Synagogue

What Has Been Lost – Blue Starry Sky Ceiling At The Sofia Synagogue (Credit: Mark Ahsmann)

Another Country – Not Their Own
Though both the Sofia Synagogue and Banya Bashi Mosque are in their rightful place at the heart of the city, they still feel foreign to Sofia, as though they are part of another century, another country, another city, that has long since vanished. These fantastic and otherworldly architectural set pieces offer a window into the richness of Jewish and Muslim cultures that once thrived in the city. They also offer a window into what has been lost and can never be brought back, specifically the peoples who brought these places to life.

The Unvisited – Georgi Dimitrov’s Missing Mausoleum In Sofia (Travels In Eastern Europe #8)

After tourists visit a city, they usually come home excited to share stories about the sites they have seen. Conversely, they sometimes regret not seeing everything a city has to offer. My experience in Sofia was quite the opposite. After arriving back home, I was excited about a site that I had not visited. My regret came from the fact that it was impossible to visit this site, for the precise reason that it no longer existed. The site was the once infamous and now vanished Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum. For over forty years, hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians, along with dignitaries and tourists from Eastern Bloc nations, filed past the body of Bulgaria’s most famous communist leader. In a setting that mirrored Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, Dimitrov’s pale faced, waxen figure was on display for everyone to see. Whether a Bulgarian revered or loathed his memory was beside the point, each one of them at some point in his or her life was expected to pay their respects to Comrade Dimitrov. The mausoleum stood on what was then 9 September Square, so named because that was the date when a communist coup took place in Sofia, liberating it from the fascists and beginning the imposition of communism. Until 1990 Dimitrov lay in the white marble, neoclassical style mausoleum as a representation of the totalitarian system that had transformed Bulgaria. After the Iron Curtain fell his body was removed. Dimitrov’s expulsion did not herald the immediate end of the mausoleum. Instead it had a long and infamous afterlife prior to demolition several years later. Bringing down the mausoleum turned out to be much more difficult than constructing it.

The Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum - stood in Sofia from 1949 to 1999

The Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum – stood in Sofia from 1949 to 1999

Deifying A Dictator – Preserving Dimitrov
The death of Georgi Dimitrov was just as rapid and improbable as the construction of his mausoleum. In the summer of 1949 Dimitrov suddenly became ill while in Moscow. He had just turned 67 and there had been no previous signs of failing health. Nonetheless, his condition quickly worsened and on July 2nd he unexpectedly died at a sanatorium outside the city. Speculation has been rife ever since that Dimitrov was poisoned by Stalin, ostensibly because he had once been a close ally of Yugoslavian leader Josip Tito. Two years earlier these authoritarian rulers had been on the verge of creating an alliance between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Tito soon fell out with Stalin and later with Dimitrov. The Tito-Dimitrov split mattered little to Stalin. His paranoia was such that he could not stomach any leader of a Soviet satellite state making an alliance without his approval. Tito had become a sworn enemy of Stalin and Dimitrov had once been close to him. This guilt by association may have led to Dimitro’s death.

Dimitrov’s sudden death came as a dramatic shock to Bulgarians. The government quickly convened and decided that the grand statesman of Bulgarian communism must be deified. A mausoleum would be built to house Dimitrov’s embalmed body. This would mirror what had been done in the Soviet Union with Lenin. The government decreed that the mausoleum must be constructed immediately. This led to a herculean effort. In just six days a monumental work was erected. It would later be reinforced to the point that it could survive a nuclear war with secret tunnels underneath it that were connected to the Bulgarian Communist Party Headquarters. The marble mausoleum was built to stay, but keeping Dimitrov on permanent display was highly problematic and labor intensive. The body required the care of four full time physicians who would totally refurbish it every year and a half. It was encased in a temperature and humidity controlled glass sarcophagus. Though the mausoleum was constructed to endure a nuclear conflagration, Dimitrov’s body was to be evacuated in the event of a conventional war.

A Cult Symbol of Bulgarian Communism - The Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum in 1969

A Cult Symbol of Bulgarian Communism – The Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum in 1969 (Credit: Angela Monika Arnold)

The End Of An Afterlife – Rubble & Dust At The Heart of Sofia
Throughout his long afterlife Dimitrov became less of a dead man and more a symbol for the regime. There was something ghoulish about his deification that defied human dignity. What exactly was the point of keeping Dimitrov alive in death? It was as though the communists believed that his continued presence justified their creaking, ossified system. This frightening set piece at the heart of Sofia was front and center during every ideological extravaganza. Among the viewers were wide eyed school children who shuffled past in silent awe.  In 1989 the communist system in Bulgaria collapsed. The following year Dimitrov’s corpse was removed from the mausoleum, cremated and buried in the Sofia city cemetery. His long and public afterlife had finally ended, but the same could not be said for the mausoleum which would stand for another nine years.

There were varying opinions of what should be done with it. Some thought that the mausoleum should be kept as a reminder, a sort of living museum of what had transpired in the country for two generations. Others wanted it totally destroyed with the residue of communism swept away once and for all. Still another group thought it should be preserved as a symbol of Dimitrov’s positive legacy, whatever that was supposed to be. In the meantime, the neoclassical tomb became among other things, the setting for rock concerts and a pissoir for a public lavatory. Vandals defaced it with graffiti. Finally, in 1999 the government then in power decided to demolish the structure because it was a symbol of past tyranny. The demolition should have been simple, but soon turned into a farce. The first three attempts were unsuccessful. Over a thousand kilograms of explosives did little more than cause the mausoleum to tilt lopsided. It ended up taking more days to demolish, than to build. A decision was made that rather than one large detonation, to try a more methodical dismantling. This fourth attempt proved successful. The most enduring symbol of communism in Sofia was soon turned to rubble and then dust.

Life After Death - Georgi Dimitrov Mausoluem before its destruction in the 1990s

Life After Death – Georgi Dimitrov Mausoluem before its destruction in the 1990s

Without a Trace – Standing In Place Of The Past
Today the former site of Georgi Dimitrov’s Mausoleum is part of the renamed Prince Alexander of Battenburg Square. During my visit I strolled across this square totally oblivious to its former centrality in the life of every Bulgarian. If only I would have known about the mausoleum. I could have stood in the exact same place and contemplated what it must have been like not so long ago. Then again recreating that history would have been difficult, since a café and parking lot now stand on the very spot.

In The Dumps – A Bulgarian Lesson In Economic Survival (Travels in Eastern Europe #7)

Bulgaria may be a member of the European Union, but economically it has a long way to go before it arrives at parity with the rest of the union. For a first time visitor such as myself, the tenuous economic circumstances of Bulgarians was one of the most dramatic and noticeable aspects of the capital, Sofia. Within minutes of leaving the city’s gleaming airport my eyes were assaulted by the nearby Roma mahala (quarter) with its corrugated shacks, collapsing houses and men congregating aimlessly in dilapidated doorways. It looked like a scene straight out of a Third World country. This was followed by the looming concrete apartment blocks that house an outsized proportion of Sofia’s citizenry. The lots surrounding these were largely vacant, with plastic bags blowing across dun colored earth. They looked like the kind of place where grass could not be grown, the soil contaminated with skepticism. Litter was strewn about and the ubiquitous stray dogs of Sofia roamed the surroundings. In any other European city these blocks would have been either repainted and spruced up (see Berlin, Budapest and Bratislava for examples) or labeled as derelict, no go zones. In Sofia they were a place called home.

The haves and the have nots - Kids searching through trash bins in Sofia

The haves and the have nots – Kids searching through trash bins in Sofia

Stealing From Themselves – The Plague Of Corruption
In direct contradiction to such scenes were the classy, upscale shopping areas and glitzy fashion boutiques in the city center. Sofia’s economic situation left me with an impression of three classes, rich, poor and a middle class just trying to get by. The latter group was in the majority, perched between relative prosperity and a precarious existence. They had the most to gain after the fall of communism with the transition to a democratic capitalist system and membership in the European Union. And yet disparities in wealth and income have persisted into the 21st century for a variety of reasons, the main one being endemic corruption. Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index placed Bulgaria 68th in the world out of 169 nations. This was the lowest ranking for any EU member state. Seven spots lower than wealthy Europe’s chronically corrupt problem child Italy. Eleven spots below both Romania and Greece, nations notorious for corruption. Bulgaria tied with Jamaica.

Alarming examples of economic deprivation occurred even in the touristy sections of Sofia, where I noticed time and again people digging through trash bins in an effort to procure necessary household items or recyclables that might be sold for a meager amount of money. Astonishingly, they scavenged without a hint of self-consciousness. They did not beg or even seem to notice passersby, instead they combed through heaps of refuse with a stoic determination. It was tragic to the point of heartbreak. From such behavior I discerned that this was the only job most of these people could find. Such scenes were mind boggling. Bulgaria was just as much an EU member as Slovenia or Hungary let alone Great Britain or Germany. Sofia was the capital city of an EU nation the same as Budapest or Berlin, Ljubljana or Bratislava. Those cities seemed a world away from Sofia. The EU has been good for Bulgaria, but obviously no short term solution for its economic ills. The disparity in its standards of living compared with other EU members is glaring and from a statistical standpoint bears a closer look.

Going Backwards Forwards – Coming Out From Behind The Iron Curtain
It would be unfair to compare Bulgaria, far and away the EU’s poorest member to western European countries. The differences in historical, political and economic development are huge. A better comparison can be made with fellow EU members that were sealed off by the Iron Curtain for over forty years. These countries, all former Warsaw Pact nations had centrally planned, state controlled, communist economies. The most prosperous of these, the Czech Republic, has a nominal GDP per person one and a half times larger than that of Bulgaria. GDP per person in Bulgaria is only about 55% of what is in Poland or Hungary. Bulgaria comes closest to Romania in this regard, but its GDP per person is still 30% lower. It does retain decided advantages over non-EU neighbors Serbia and Macedonia, though the former is still recovering from a decade of war and the latter is a European backwater par anonymous.

Bulgaria fares much better when GDP per person is measured at Purchasing Parity Power (PPP), a figure that takes into account such things as the cost of living and exchange rates. At PPP its income is half that of the EU average, whereas it is only 20% of the average when measured by nominal GDP (GDP at current market prices). The Bulgarian economy was bolstered by a series of reforms that started after economic crisis hit hard in the mid 1990’s. These business friendly laws brought in a great deal of foreign direct investment. This led to a rise in overall living standards prior to the 2008 financial crisis. Since then the economy has stalled and a period of political instability exacerbated the situation. All along corruption has continued to plague Bulgaria, with well-connected politicians and oligarchic business men stealing from the public purse.

Another problem hurting the economy is demographic difficulties that are set to worsen. Bulgaria has the fifth oldest median age (43) for a population in the world. It is also fifth in the percentage of elderly citizens, over a quarter of Bulgarians are 60 or older. This, coupled with a low birth rate and the third highest death rate in the world, has led to a dramatic decline in the population. When the communist system collapsed in 1989 Bulgaria’s population was 8.7 million, today it is 7.1 million, a decline of nearly 20%. The population has fallen every year since the change of system and will continue to plummet. The National Statistical Institute of Bulgaria forecasts that by 2060 the population will drop to 5.3 million. This will have widespread ramifications for economic productivity and the already struggling social welfare system.

Bulgarian population since 1887

Bulgarian population since 1887 (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Search For Prosperity – Past Is Future, Future Is Past
Bulgarians have a tough economic future ahead of them.  Viewed through the wider lens of history, this is nothing new. Bulgaria has always been a tough place to earn a living in the modern era. Since it gained independence in 1878, the country has been riven by a vicious cycle of war, radicalism and corruption. These have upset the economy time and again. The search for economic prosperity continues to be a never ending process in Bulgaria. It is little wonder that many people have resorted to sifting through trash bins in order to make ends meet.

Dogged Determination – Straying With The Strays Of Sofia (Travels In Eastern Europe – Bulgaria #6)

My first trip to Europe was a visit to Scotland where I stayed exclusively in Bed and Breakfasts. On my next trip, I visited Berlin and Dresden where I stayed in hotels.  Then for my trip to Bulgaria, I decided to spend several nights in hostels. I was going backwards in the world of accommodation or so it would seem. As someone who had just turned forty, I was about to discover whether I was getting too old for this kind of thing. I had visions of sex crazed backpackers, gap year wild asses, scruffy hangers on and legions of misfits acting out juvenile fantasies. The idea of noise all night and day sleepers was not very appealing, but this trip was supposed to be an adventure.

Hostel Mostel in Sofia, Bulgaria

Hostel Mostel in Sofia, Bulgaria

A Hostel Situation – Running Into An Obsession
I had selected Hostel Mostel because it received rave reviews. Travel websites consistently named it one of the best hostels in Europe. It did not disappoint. I got my own room, which was a small apartment in a building close to the main sights. The room was small, but spotlessly clean. The only issue was trying to sleep. A group of American expat teachers bunking next door to me drank themselves to oblivion until the wee hours of the morning. They taught in Saudi Arabia so this was their release. During my stay I also met a few memorable people, mostly at the free spaghetti dinners each evening. My favorites were a couple of smiling, elderly German women bounding with energy. Their backpacks and trekking garb were in contrast to their age which had to be close to eighty. I spent one evening listening to a young French financial consultant tell me how he was setting up a business in Bulgaria because it was easier than in France. He was staying at Hostel Mostel to save money. He had no idea whether his business would work out, but it was still better than France. Everyone else was either glued to the internet or in the process of getting very drunk before, after or during spaghetti.

My first foray onto the streets of Sofia was quite unorthodox.  I wanted to go running. It was a daily ritual that I had been doing for years, less a passion and more of a commitment. The problem was that my running shoes were in the lost luggage somewhere between Paris and Sofia. Being a totally committed obsessive, I had no choice, but to attempt a run in dress shoes, khaki slacks and a buttoned up shirt. The idea was ridiculous, my execution not much better. I tried to look as though I were running to catch a bus or taxi. Block after block I feigned a hurried rush. The dress shoes were surprisingly comfortable, my clothes less so. To say I was a bit self-conscious would be a massive understatement. I kept watching out of the corner of my eyes to see if anyone was noticing me. The great thing about cities is that they offer even the most bizarre behavior virtual anonymity. There is so much going on that no one notices people acting out of character. And if they do, something else soon distracts them. Perhaps this was why the Bulgars paid me little to no attention. They were busy with all the distractions around them.

Waiting for a friend in Sofia

Waiting for a friend in Sofia (Credit: Apostoloff)

Herd Mentality – Man’s Many Best Friends
I finally ran right into a park that offered refuge from the crowded sidewalks. I started running circles across the grassy expanses. I was now almost totally anonymous to the Bulgars. The same could not be said for Sofia’s stray dogs. Each time I made a circle, groups of stray dogs trailed close behind me. Other groups of dogs eyed me warily. They were everywhere. I counted at least fifty stray dogs of every size, shape and color.  The dogs tended to collect in packs of five or more, wandering aimlessly until something or someone caught there attention. Stranger than the stray dogs was the fact that almost every person in the park was walking their own dog. I thought this might be a clever ruse. These Bulgars could have just showed up at the park with a spare leash and picked out whichever dog they wanted to walk for the day.

The stray dog population of Sofia has been estimated at anywhere between 35,000 and 70,000. Though official estimates of the number of stray dogs are much lower, the mayor of Sofia acknowledged that stray dogs are the city’s biggest problem. This problem has turned deadly on occasion, most notably when an American businessman was mauled to death by a pack of stray dogs in 2012. At least the dogs accompanying me all had tags. Otherwise contracting rabies would have been a real concern. The park was in an area of the city that was middle class. I shuttered to think what the stray dog problem might be like in poorer districts of Sofia. The problem originated during the years of communist rule when tens of thousands moved into the tower apartment blocks of the city and were not to take along their dogs. It was hard not to be both touched and bemused by this surreal experience. No human being in the park paid me any attention, but the stray dogs certainly did. I felt like I was being herded.

The Homeless of Sofia

The Homeless of Sofia (Credit: Elena Chochkova)

Running To Stand Still – Sofia Without A Suitcase
When I finally left the park and headed back toward the hostel, the stray dogs of Sofia abandoned me. This was a relief. I can only imagine what it would have been like trying to weave my way through foot traffic with a pack of stray dogs in tow. By the end of my run I was haggard. My clothing was soaked with sweat and my feet were developing large blisters. In the most literal sense, my first day in Sofia had been an exercise in exhaustion. My luggage was still lost, I had seen next to nothing of the city and had no idea what tomorrow would bring, though I hoped it would be a pair of running shoes.

Sofia At First Sight – A Beautiful Name, A Not So Beautiful Place (Travels in Eastern Europe – Bulgaria #5)

Sofia is a beautiful name for a city. Unfortunately, much of the city from an architectural and aesthetic standpoint does not match the beauty of that name. On the drive into the city I could not help but notice the concrete apartment blocks which surround much of Sofia. These unsightly tombs of the masses rose up around the city after World War II. During the war, twelve major air raids from Allied bombers resulted in the destruction of over 2,600 buildings and another 10,000 suffering grave damage.  History was especially unkind to Sofia in the decades following the war.  The reconstruction of the city fundamentally altered its look and feel. It was built for a rapidly industrializing, mass proletarian society ruled by an iron fisted communist regime. Stalinist and Brutalist architecture emphasizing gigantism reigned. The number of dwellings rose ten-fold between 1950 and 1989, swallowing up whole swathes of Sofia in a maze of mindless concrete and prefabricated constructions. There were more buildings constructed in the 1950’s than existed in the entire city before that time. This construction was for the living and working quarters of a population that exploded from a meager 68,000 in 1900 to over a million by 1980. Sofia was transformed from a small and rather dull European capital into an uninviting and mind numbing urban jungle. This massive growth created a city that valued the state over the citizen, masses trumping the individual.

Tower Apartment Blocks in Sofia

The Enduring Legacy of Communism – Tower Apartment Blocks in Sofia (Credit: Mrs. Robinson)

Penetrating The Depths – Ancient Serdica
My first impressions of Sofia were intimidating: concrete, chaotic traffic, a city with little semblance of order. Only the tower apartment blocks seemed to have any sort of symmetry. Lost amid all this detritus was the important role that Sofia played through the ages.  This had once been THE place, rather than just another place. Sofia had been so much more than the capital of Bulgaria through the centuries. Its civilizational history reaches back into a past that predates the Greeks and Romans by many thousands of years. The city bills itself as the second oldest in Europe. By the looks of things I would have believed that Sofia was only a century or two old. Architecturally that is pretty much true, but historically Sofia’s depth is almost impenetrable. The city’s quasi mystical motto expresses this quite well, as a place that “grows but does not age.”

Thracians, Celts and Romans all conquered what is now the city of Sofia. In the towering shadow of Mount Vitosha, they imposed civilization in the form of urban settlements known as Pernik and Serdica. Once the Romans took over in 29 BC the city boomed, becoming the most important settlement in the eastern Balkans. It occupied a highly strategic position on the Roman military road, a midway point between Belgrade and Constantinople. It was the capital of successive Roman provinces during the 3rd and 4th centuries, acting as a residence for several later emperors, as well as the birthplace of the emperors Aurelian and Galerius. The first edict legalizing Christianity in the empire was issued in Serdica. Constantine the Great almost chose Serdica instead of Constantinople as the new capital of Rome. This brush with greatness was short lived as little more than a century later the Huns demolished the city almost overnight, leaving little more than dusty ruins smoldering in their wake. The Byzantines under Justinian would rebuild the city, an approximation of its former importance. This time surrounded by a series of fortified walls.

The 4th century St. George Rotunda behind remains of Serdica

The 4th century St. George Rotunda behind remains of Serdica (Credit : Ann Wuyts)

The Five Hundred Years of Slavery
The Bulgars did not arrive on the scene until the early 9th century. Despite the fact that they have now inhabited the city for over 1,200 years, this accounts for less than a fifth of the time that the Sofia area has been occupied. The Bulgars reign over Sofia was also interrupted by five centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule. This period left a lasting imprint on the Bulgarian psyche. From the time I arrived in Sofia until my departure, I heard over and over again from English speaking Bulgars about, “the five hundred years of slavery.” This constant reference to Ottoman Turkish rule was spoken of as though it had ended just yesterday, rather than in 1878.

Ottoman rule in Bulgaria had led to Muslim dominance of the country. This was especially true In Sofia which was a major commercial center and the Ottoman capital of Rumelia (Turkey in Europe aka Balkan Europe). During the 16th century, Muslim households outnumbered Bulgar ones by five to one. Only in the 19th century would Bulgars once again decisively outnumber their Muslim overlords. When the Ottomans were finally thrown out of Sofia once and for all – with major assistance from the Russians – nearly every Ottoman mosque was destroyed, including eight in a single night. Today there is only one mosque left in Sofia.

Panoramic view of Sofia as seen from the National Museum of History

Panoramic view of Sofia as seen from the National Museum of History (Credit: Ann Wuyts)

A Carnival at Every Crossing – Modern Sofia
Bulgarian independence inaugurated the beginning of modernity in Sofia. At the time of independence only 11,600 people were still living in the city. In just two decades the population grew six-fold. Starting in 1900, the population doubled every twenty years, becoming by far the largest and most important city in Bulgaria. This growth – especially during communist times – led to the unsightly architectural monstrosities that I saw on the way to the hostel.  The fall of the Iron Curtain had brought more prosperity to Sofia and with it snarls of traffic.

Cars and buses were jammed together on the streets. The city had not been designed with motor vehicles in mind. In 1989, very few people had owned an automobile. Now Sofia teemed with traffic packed together in the streets. All the noise, honking, and aggressive driving made me question my decision to travel several thousands of miles to experience this mess. I was totally confused. The city streets were like a maze with a carnival at every crossing. My driver finally pulled up to the curb and pointed at a door, smiled and said, “Hostel.” I jumped out of the car and headed for where my driver had just pointed. I promptly went in the wrong door, an entrance to a casino, recoiled and then found the doorway to Hostel Mostel. My introduction to Sofia had been an exercise in disorientation.

The Past Crumbling All Around The Future – Baggage Claim: A Lost Arrival In Sofia (Travels in Eastern Europe – Bulgaria #4)

I can think of few lonelier feelings than being the last person standing in front of an empty baggage carousel waiting for your luggage to appear. This is after everyone one else has collected their bags and blissfully left the airport. The carousel goes around and around and around, emanating an eerie kerclunk noise, a conveyor conveying nothing, but the fact that all hope is nearly gone. Now imagine having this experience just after arrival in a new country for the first time, where you cannot speak the language or read the alphabet. Your final smoldering embers of hope are extinguished as the carousel comes to an abrupt halt. You look around to find only yawning space and a pervasive, uncomfortable silence. Minutes before there had been a crowd of eager arrivals, picking up their luggage and heading blissfully for the exit. Now you are the only one left, hopeless and helpless. I was faced with exactly this situation after arriving at the airport in Sofia, Bulgaria. To compound my predicament, I imagined that just beyond the exit doors awaited legions of aggressive cab drivers ready to pounce on me and my wallet.

Welcome to Happy Bulgaria

Welcome to Happy Bulgaria (Credit: Ali Eminov)

Everything I Knew Was Wrong – Meeting The Bulgars
After subjecting myself to ridiculous worries for weeks on end prior to departure, a real problem was upon me. How did I feel? Strangely calm. I have always liked the odds when everything seems to be against me.  In such cases, the situation can only get better and that is exactly what happened. I was sure my suitcase was still in Paris. I had barely made the flight, so my bag was probably sitting on the tarmac somewhere. A kindly woman in an official looking uniform approached me. From her lips came soothing words, not in Bulgarian, but perfect English. “Did your luggage not arrive? Well I can help you.” She proceeded to take down all my essential information, getting the name of my accommodation and providing me with a website where I could check for updates on the delivery of my baggage. The process was seamless, likely because the woman had done this many times before. American airlines and airports could learn something about customer service from the Sofia airport. My stereotypical image of the nation as cold and threatening had just been shattered. Welcome to Bulgaria!

As I made my way out into the main arrivals hall I braced myself for the legendary scamming cab drivers of Sofia. Men much greater than me had been fleeced out of hundreds of dollars during an hours long cab ride into the dark side of the city. I came though the exit doors trying to affect an air of cool detachment. And what did I find? A half empty hall with a few bored looking middle aged men asking if I needed a cab. From these somber types my pickup appeared with a gentle smile and quickly whisked me away. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, was pudgy, sweaty and friendly, the kind of guy who looked like he never skipped a meal of six sausages. His broken English was a mess of misplaced grammar. Somehow I was able to understand his general discourse.  We walked out to a car waiting at the curb and off we went. I was on my way to Hostel Mostel, supposedly one of the best hostels in Europe. It was known for its excellent service and had a reputation as the place to stay for affordability, service and meeting fellow foreigners while visiting Sofia.

Lying in wait - taxis at the Sofia airport

Lying in wait – taxis at the Sofia airport (Credit: Apostoloff)

Trusting Strangers With My Life – Taken For A Ride
The one word that best defined my first hour in Bulgaria was trust. There was nothing else this confused and disoriented foreigner could do other than trust strangers. Not all strangers, just the right ones. Trust that the friendly and professional lady taking down my name and information would actually help me find my baggage. Trust that my airport pickup would deliver me safely to my accommodation. There was really no way of knowing for sure if he worked for Hostel Mostel. Was the fact that he held a sign with my name on it enough to trust him with my life? Now that I was in a land where I knew no one, it seemed to make perfect sense to put my life in the hands of strangers. I had no choice, but to rely on these Bulgarians sense of duty, humanity and purpose. This trip would force me to rely on others as much as myself.

After leaving the airport we soon passed through an area I had read about it before arrival, specifically with warnings to avoid, a Roma settlement on the edge of the city. I had very little experience of the Roma (popularly and incorrectly known as the Gypsys), beside a few I had heard play music at restaurants when I was in Turkey. What I saw on the way into Sofia was sobering. People were wandering about aimlessly. Men stood listlessly in doorways staring at the cars passing by, women dressed in dirty, but bright clothing were surrounded by crowds of half clothed children. One home was little more than crumbling concrete walls. I could see a child inside playing with dirt that had been dug up from the floor. My driver started speaking in an angry tone, pointing at the Gypsies and shaking his head in disgust. This introduction to the Roma left a lasting impression. Unfortunately I would see lesser versions of the same scene on future trips to Eastern Europe.

A state of transformation - commercial advertising on a building in Sofia, Bulgaria

A state of transformation – capitalism not communism on a building in Sofia, Bulgaria (Credit: Juan Antonio F. Segal)

The Architecture of Everything Imaginable
It was not long before we were making our way into Sofia proper. The city was a maddening jumble of architectural styles, ramshackle houses and concrete tower blocks with everything imaginable in between. Here was a city in a state of transformation, trying to rise above its difficult past which was crumbling all around it. Meanwhile sparkling new capitalist constructions in the form of hotels, service stations and office buildings were surfacing. It was a city of confusing contrasts, snarled by dilapidation and innovation in unequal measure. It was hard to believe that this mélange had been the setting for so much history, but Sofia was a city with a gloriously checkered past and an uncertain future.

A Whole New Old World – Bulgaria By Air (Travels In Eastern Europe – Bulgaria #3)

I would never have thought in my life that I would be running across an airport terminal in Paris to catch a flight to Sofia on Bulgaria Air. With a heart pounding, lung bursting, adrenaline surging sprint I made it just in time to catch my flight from Paris to Sofia. In retrospect, only the flight to Bulgaria should have been surprising for me. Running to the gate at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris is likely something many have done when they were unlucky enough to have connector flights in different terminals at the airport. There is no tram between terminals, thus the passenger is forced to take a shuttle bus that seems to make concentric circles around maintenance yards. Finally the bus arrives at an anonymous entrance a thousand meters from the nearest gate.  In my case, the distance to the gate was exaggerated since departures for Eastern Europe board in the terminal’s netherworld. Somehow I made my connection before the plane took off.

Sweat covered my forehead as I entered an entirely different world, transported from the noise and bustle of an overcrowded gate area to a mid-sized, abnormally quiet cabin. No one was speaking. The passengers, many of whom I assumed were Bulgarians due to their dark, rugged features, looked somnolent. I had imagined that a flight on Bulgaria Air would be chaotic, filled with beefy toughs and post-communist apparatchiks taking whatever seat they wanted. Instead, everyone quietly found their places and kept themselves busy reading books, magazines and newspapers. Conversations were carried out at a level barely above a whisper. This was the quietest, most orderly flight I had ever taken. Bulgaria might have been the poorest nation in the European Union, but their flag carrier certainly knew how to run an airline. It had not always been this way.

Bag tags - from Balkan Bulgarian Airlines circa 1978

Bag tags – from Balkan Bulgarian Airlines circa 1978

Crash Landing – Bulgaria Takes Flight
Bulgaria Air was created in 2002 as a successor to the bankrupt Balkan Bulgarian Airlines. The earlier iteration of the airline had its fair share of horrific incidents during four decades of communist rule. Balkan Bulgarian had first been known as TABSO, an acronym that literally translated means Bulgarian-Soviet Transport Aviation Corporation. The key word in that name being “Soviet” since everything was centrally controlled by the all-encompassing state, first by the Soviet Union and then later by Bulgaria’s communist authorities. The airlines used a fleet of Tupolevs, Ilyushins and Antonovs that were built in Soviet factories. By the 1970s Balkan Bulgarian was flying to over 20 countries on three continents. As service expanded so did the accident rate. Beginning in 1971 the airline suffered eight crashes over the next seven years, including two in Sofia. One of these occurred in the autumn of 1975 when an Antonov turboprop plane failed to gain enough lift at takeoff. The aircraft proceeded to slide down a ravine and into the Isker River. Incredibly, only three of the 45 passengers onboard lost their lives.

The two worst air disasters in the history of Bulgaria took place in 1978 and 1984, both involving Balkan Bulgarian flights with the Tupolev Tu-134 aircraft. The first happened within an hour of takeoff from Sofia. It made an abnormal descent which ended in a crash near a small village, all 73 onboard died. A definitive reason for this crash was never established. The second disaster occurred in Sofia when a flight crew attempted landing in a bad snowstorm, missing the runway by 4 kilometers (2.5 kilometers) and hitting a power line. The 45 passengers and 5 crew members were all killed. On a much more positive note, after the Iron Curtain fell, Balkan Bulgarian experienced only one major incident, when an aircraft overshot the runway in Varna. Fortunately, no one was injured. As for Bulgaria Air, it has never had a crash.

A Balkan Bulgarian Airlines Tupolev 134 on display at the Sofia airport

A Balkan Bulgarian Airlines Tupolev 134 on display at the Sofia airport (Credit: Gmihail)

Freedom For Foreigners – Approaching Bulgaria From The West
When I booked the flight I used two rationalizations on my decision to fly with Bulgaria Air. The first was that if it was unsafe no one would be flying it. Secondly, my ideas about Bulgaria were still stuck on Cold War stereotypes. Bulgaria was now a modern European country that was slowly, but steadily overcoming a tumultuous 20th century history. There was one other deciding and much more important factor in flying with Bulgaria Air, it was the cheapest option. The flight turned out to be smooth and pleasant with excellent customer service. The level of service was as good or better than any short haul flight I had taken in the United States. Then again that is not saying very much.

Between dozing on and off, I spent much of the flight looking out the window, scrutinizing the landscape carefully as we got closer to arrival. The terrain of the Balkans was impressive from 20,000 feet. Looking over the rippled mountains a strange feeling swept over me. This land had been terra incognita to outsiders only twenty years ago. Flying over or into Bulgaria was risky. It could only happen with proper planning and permission from the authorities. Now all one needed to do was pay for a ticket through a few simple clicks on the internet and they were free to go anywhere in or over Bulgaria. When Bulgaria went democratic, it not only brought capitalism and consumer products, but also tourists. Millions of them who came to enjoy what they considered to be an exotic locale filled with natural beauty at bargain basement prices. The change of system had brought freedom for Bulgarians and also foreign travelers. A whole new Old World had opened and I was looking out of a plane window down on it.

Taking flight - Bulgaria Air

Taking flight – Bulgaria Air (Credit: Aldo Bidini)

The Moment Of Arrival – The Moment Of Reckoning
The plane slowly began its descent. I was almost there. My palms grew sweaty, my pulse quickened. I began to focus on what would come next, mainly my luggage and a pickup I had arranged weeks ago. I began to worry. What if the pickup failed to show? Was I willing to try my luck with the less than reputable taxis of Sofia? They had a well-deserved reputation for fleecing naïve foreigners. Would I be descended upon by touts exhorting all kinds of false promises? I tried to push these thoughts out of my mind by focusing on the fact that I would need to get my luggage first. That is if my bags had made it. A moment of reckoning with both real and illusory fears was about to arrive.

That Unnamed Darkness – The Morning After Midnight: Imagining Bulgaria At 50,000 Feet (Travels In Eastern Europe – Bulgaria #2)

A long distance air traveler’s dream came true for me. On a flight from Salt Lake City to Paris while I was traveling to Sofia, Bulgaria there were vacant seats on both sides of me. I was actually able to lie down across three empty seats. This would be the first (and likely last time) I would ever have such luck. For once, I would be able to sleep on a trans-continental flight. This went some way in setting my mind at ease while traveling to Bulgaria for the first time. This would help me take a break from worrying about the fact that I did not know a word of Bulgarian, could not read the Cyrillic alphabet and my itinerary was changing by the hour. My worries went way beyond Bulgaria.

Entrance to the abandoned House of the Bulgarian Communist Party

Entrance to the abandoned House of the Bulgarian Communist Party (Credit: vitaligio)

The Will To Change – Impulsive Itineraries
My first plan had been to travel by train from Sofia to Thessaloniki, Greece by train via Macedonia. This plan fell through after Greece canceled all international trains to save money during the debt crisis.  I then considered taking a bus, but this would have meant making a transfer in Skopje, Macedonia at one o’clock in the morning. This idea gripped me with fear. In my experience, a public transport station late at night is a haven for sinister, seedy types with petty thieves and black market money changers at best, would be kidnappers and grasping thugs at worse. I do not consider myself a coward, just overly cautious, thus transiting through the Skopje central bus terminal an hour after midnight was more than I could fathom. I changed my plan to include visits to Veliko Tarnovo, the historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and Plovidiv, the nation’s second city. Then I would double back across Bulgaria, making my way by train to Belgrade, Sarajevo and finally back to Sofia. This plan was open to change every other minute. I was sure of nothing on this trip, most of all myself.

Between fitful hours of sleep punctuated by strange bouts of night sweats I comforted myself by thumbing through a ten year old edition of The Rough Guide to Bulgaria. Contemplating a visit to places such as Varna, not for its beaches or the Black Sea, but because it gave me another option to further stimulate my restless, impulsive nature.  Actually, I never liked going to the beach and did not give a damn about Varna, but for some bizarre reason I still held a soft spot in my heart for the city mainly because I had memorized its name out of the World Almanac years ago in a bid to learn the five largest cities for each European nation. I had spent a fair amount of my life memorizing useless information and now was putting it to good use. This gentle madness acted as a welcome distraction, but the problem of Bulgaria still loomed.

Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan

Required reading – Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan

Looking Backward For The Future –  The Bulgaria That Was
Before getting my hands on a hopelessly outdated Rough Guide I tried to recall something about Bulgaria other than brute, steroid suffused weightlifters. There were the Maleevas, a trio of professional tennis playing sisters – Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena – who had climbed to the upper echelons of women’s tennis in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. There was the sensationally sinister murder of dissident writer Georgi Markov by poison tipped umbrella in London, a macabre touchstone of the Cold War. Then there were three chapters dedicated to Bulgaria in Robert Kaplan’s personal political-historical travel account of southeastern Europe, Balkan Ghosts. The chapter names – “The Warmth of Each Other’s Bodies”, “The Price of Friendship” and “The Bad and The Good” – go some way in explaining the reputation of Bulgaria as a less than inviting place during the latter part of the 20th century. Kaplan paints a vivid and devastating picture of the capital city with sentences such as these. “The first time I saw Sofia, in November 1981, snow was falling. White snow. Only after some hours did the polluting lignite fumes turn it brown. But the sweet, deathlike odor of the lignite reminded me of old steam engines and of burning leaves in autumn.” With travel accounts such as these it was hard not to worry. I could look forward to a rough approximation of Kaplan’s experience when I arrived or so I imagined.

In the weeks before departure I read the enlightening and intensely depressing memoir Street Without A Name: Childhood And Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by the superbly named Kapka Kassabova. The author grew up in one of the numerous concrete flats on the muddy fringes of Sofia. She relates her thoughts and feelings on what it was like to grow up in a stagnant hard line communist society, marked by rigidity, material poverty and little hope for a better future. Her writing communicated the mind numbing sameness of a system that valued the masses over the individual. Kassabova tells how, ‘Listening’ to the news was like ‘reading’ the paper The Worker’s Deed, which was the only national paper, and seemed to simply rearrange the same content on its pages from day to day, year to year.” There was the heart rending tale of her kindhearted piano teacher Keti, a woman who taught her more about life than anything having to do with playing the piano. That was until Kassabova “lost her to that unnamed darkness that slowly drains luminous people first of their dreams, then of their beauty and finally of their lifeblood. Keti was too refined for our lumpen world of humming trafoposts, burst sewage pipes, and dentists who pulled teeth without anesthetic. Between the garbage dump and her piano, the battle was cruelly unequal.” Passages like this one left a taste of rust in my mouth. They also made me question just what I was getting myself into. This was supposed to be a vacation, not a nightmare.

Street Without A Name by Kapka Kassabova - A fabulous and depressing read

Street Without A Name by Kapka Kassabova

Into The Half Light – Everyone Against Everything Else
Of course, Bulgaria was different now. There was capitalism, cars (real European ones not Ladas) and most recently membership in the European Union. From all accounts, the nation was moving forward if only in fits and starts. It was now much better off than the dystopian, Soviet-esque stolidity that had pockmarked this land for half a century of soul destroying communism. Expat entrepreneurs were moving in to startup businesses and take advantage of low labor costs, the mafia were killing each other and anyone who would not do their bidding with brutal efficiency, loads of college educated Bulgars were heading abroad and the Black Sea coast was packed with foreigners enjoying cheap holidays. Bulgaria was becoming a destination, while its journey out of post-Communist darkness into the radiant light of European prosperity was still years away. I was traveling to a nation in the midst of a slow and painful transition, being transformed by legions of outsiders who had no idea what to expect when they arrived. From everything I had read it was hardly ever good.