Strangers, Friends & Enemies With Benefits – Crossing The Danube In Bulgaria (Travels In Eastern Europe #15)

My lasting impression of Ruse will always be the inquisitive, staring eyes of Bulgars. Their dark eyes and suspicious expressions followed me and my traveling companion Tim as we bought bus tickets for Bucharest. When we then proceeded to purchase food, the entire gathering of silent strangers followed us with intense stares. Their stares were not mean or harsh, but focused. They could not take their eyes off of us. It was obvious that we were foreigners, ethnically we looked the part. Tim, with his Asian features, was an obvious outsider. I was quite noticeable due to my red hair and fair skin, a rare trait in Bulgaria. Our every move was scrutinized by watchful pairs of eyes. We were guilty of being different.

The most disconcerting stare came from a middle aged man standing off to the side. Tall with broad shoulders, he could not hide his interest and not just in us. His eyes were fixated on our baggage. I half expected him to make an attempt at trying to steal them. After we got our food he slowly and deliberately approached us. I had my mind made up that he would either ask us for a cigarette or try a scam. Instead he pointed at our bags, than signaled towards a door. He was offering to keep our bags safe behind a locked door, which he would guard until our bus arrived. Strangely for such a suspicious acting character there was a mysterious charm about his behavior. Our intuition said to trust him and so we did. It turned out that he was a man you could trust, for a very small price.

Aerial view of the Danube Bridge (former Friendship Bridge) spanning the Danube River between Bulgaria and Romania

Aerial view of the Danube Bridge (former Friendship Bridge) spanning the Danube River between Bulgaria and Romania (Credit: Yavor Michev)

The Unknown Danube –  A City Called Ruse
Ruse is the largest city on the stretch of the Danube River that borders Bulgaria and the fifth largest in the entire country. That is notable, though it is hardly ever noticed. A host of spectacular cities are known for their placement on Europe’s most famous river. When the Danube comes to mind, thoughts of it are inseparable from Vienna and Budapest and to a lesser extent Bratislava and Belgrade, all capital cities which the mighty river flows through. With that kind of competition Ruse does not stand a chance. Nearly all tourist cruises of the river end at Budapest. The lower Danube that skirts Bulgaria and Romania scarcely exists in the popular conscious. That is a shame, but also an opportunity for more adventuresome travelers.

Unfortunately I did not have time to explore the Bulgarian portion of the Danube, let alone Ruse. I regret seeing nothing more of the city than its bus station. It would have been great for cocktail conversation to say that I toured one of the great cities on the Danube, Ruse. That will never happen since I cannot stand cocktails or the conversation that goes with them. Not to mention the fact that Ruse commands little to no interest, even among hardened travelers, except for the fact that it has a bridge over the Danube. For Bulgaria and neighboring Romania that makes it a very big deal.

Bridging a troubled relationship postage stamp from a 1948 stamp portraying the future bridge over the Danube River between Bulgaria and Romania

Bridging a troubled relationship postage stamp from a 1948 stamp portraying the future bridge over the Danube River between Bulgaria and Romania (Credit: Karen Horton)

Imperial Forces – Romans And Soviets Bridging The Danube
On July 5th, 328 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great was present at Oescus (the same place exists today in Bulgaria) for the opening of what would be the longest bridge ever constructed in the empire. Known to history as Constantine’s Bridge, it was built largely of wood with abutments on each end acting as gates. The bridge spanned the Danube from Oescus to Sucidava (Corabia, Romania’s present location). Running over a mile in length, the bridge was in use for at least forty years. It would be over sixteen hundred years later before another bridge would span the lower reaches of the Danube. Neither Bulgaria nor Romania was capable of achieving such an engineering feat. This was due not to a lack of scientific knowledge, but instead political disagreements and territorial disputes that proved intractable.

These disputes were mainly over the region of Dobruja through which the lower Danube flows. Even after these were settled the two sides still could not agree on how or where to bridge the Danube. The solution came from of all places, the Soviet Union. Following the end of World War II with the imposition of hardline Communism a new force was brought to bear upon the situation. Under the guise of Communist solidarity and with the will of Stalin bearing down upon the parties, a bridge was constructed in just two and a half years. Opening in the summer of 1954, it was ironically named the Friendship Bridge. Former enemies were now forced into a friendship of convenience that benefited the strategic and economic needs of their Soviet overlords. Over a mile in length, the steel truss bridge has in more recent times become known as the Danube Bridge. Today it bisects an internal border of two European Union members. This bridge would be our corridor to Romania.

Friendship Bridge (now Danube Bridge) from Ruse, Bulgaria to Giurgiu, Romania

Friendship Bridge (now Danube Bridge) from Ruse, Bulgaria to Giurgiu, Romania (Credit Tiia Monto)

Crossing Over – From Many Centuries To A Few Minutes
Our crossing of the Danube was rather easy. The baggage guardian summoned us at the appointed time for our bus ride. The fee for his services was the equivalent of a couple of dollars. He led us not out into the main bus terminal, but through a back door and down a stairway. We were in for a pleasant surprise. There was no “bus” to be found. Instead we were part of a group of four taking a maxi taxi (a hybrid car/bus vehicle) to Bucharest. The vehicle looked almost new, it was a shiny Volkswagen that could have seated several more passengers. The driver was yet another suspicious looking person, who spoke no English and would stay almost completely silent throughout the ride to Bucharest. He was there to do his job without conversation or pleasantries. Crossing the Danube from Bulgaria had been extremely difficult for centuries on end, but now we crossed the bridge in a few minutes to Romanian border control. The Danube Bridge was hardly worth noting. It was nothing more than a large bridge, over a large river. It had taken so long, to build something so simple, a historical metaphor for the idea of progress in the Balkans. Nothing came easy in this region.

The World That Will Not Go Away – A Thousand Year Plan On A Bus Ride To Ruse (Travels In Eastern Europe #14)

The bus ride from Veliko Tarnovo to Ruse was the usual sleep inducing experience. I have no idea what it is about buses, but a person can be wide awake, fueled with adrenaline when they board and within a half hour they are reduced to a comatose state. The good part of bus travel is that it is for the most part a silent, contemplative experience. Passengers rarely raise their voices above a whisper. The downside is that even something as short as an hour long trip can seem like a marathon. Time inside a bus is suspended. There is an unreality to the sleepy silence that pervades the cabin. It as though everyone on board has lost all emotion. If you ever want to get forty adults to all be quiet at once, put them on a bus and start driving.

Waking The Dead – Surviving A Bulgarian Side Road
As the bus made its way through northern Bulgaria I fell in and out of sleep. My traveling companion Tim was in a separate row of seats.  Each of us had separately taken different sports, hoping to get a pair of seats to ourselves. This did not work as planned. We sat a third of the way from the front which soon filled up. I was beside a woman who was polite and preternaturally quiet. I had the window seat which turned out to be more curse than blessing. This trapped me for the length of the ride. Unable to stretch my legs I spent most of the ride trying not to brush my arm or leg against the lady. This made me ridiculously self-conscious, the pervasive silence added to my restrictive demeanor. At first, the landscape was one of barren hills covered with leafless trees. The transition from winter to spring had stalled. Winter chill, mixed with spring warmth had left the landscape half thawed. It had a depressing look to it, giving me a feeling of sustained mediocrity. As the bus traveled north, the landscape slowly opened up, fewer trees and more agricultural land. For the half of the bus ride there was really nothing of note. It was not until we pulled off the highway for a stop at a town that the ride took on air of excitement.

Up to this point the road had been relatively smooth, a little bumpy in spots, but serviceable. Then we exited the main highway. What happened next was a wake-up call of seismic proportions. The bus was thrown into upheaval as it encountered a roadway consisting of collapsed concrete and crater sized potholes. Somehow the bus stayed upright, but passengers sitting side by side were tossed into one another, bounced around and attempted to steady themselves. I was jolted wide awake. After an initial reaction of wonderment and horror I prepared myself for more aftershocks and tremors. Fortunately this only went on for about five minutes, yet it was bad enough that my back was lucky to survive the experience.

Survival instincts - A Bulgarian villager collecting branches

Survival instincts – A Bulgarian villager collecting branches

A Thousand Year Plan – Surviving Bulgaria
What came next was just as unsettling. The “town” we stopped in contained an abandoned factory that was an icon of dereliction. It looked like someone’s idea of a sick joke at the Communist Central Planning Committee. It was an unsightly mass that made junkyards look edenesque. The windows were shattered with loose wires protruding in all directions. Rust grew like moss on industrial detritus strewn all over the place. It looked like a person might get tetanus just by touching something inside the building. It was obvious that the factory had been placed in this rural netherworld as a sort of make work project. More to the point, it was a “Make Communism Work” project that had not worked in years. For some reason it reminded me of my elementary school, likely because of its elongated, rectangular shape and flat roof. This low rise nightmare of five year plans past was a fitting monument to the ossification and death of communism, both ridiculously optimistic about what the system could achieve and utterly depraved in its execution. Just looking at it made me want to start drinking again after over a decade of sobriety. I shuttered to think that anyone could live in the ramshackle town surrounding it, but people somehow did, but by the looks of things not very well.

After collecting a passenger the bus began to pick its way through the potholes back to the main highway. Then as if scripted, walking out of a copse of woods on the other side of a field, appeared a crowd of older men and women, the latter wearing headscarves. They were carrying large bundles of sticks in their hands and on their backs. This could have been any day in the last thousand years of Bulgarian history. Nothing had ever really changed in these rural hinterlands. It seemed that the more people and ideologies tried to change things, the more tradition became entrenched. They were integral to survival. These people carrying their bundles of sticks were acting out of an instinct for self-preservation. The system they relied upon was based on self-sufficiency and nature. It was the only one that had proven consistently reliable in the Bulgarian countryside. The system may have looked primitive, but it worked. This was because it was based purely on human instinct. Beliefs in the party or ideology had been proven worse than useless. They were destructive to human life and the environment, the antithesis of how Bulgarians had survived and would likely continue to survive for centuries.

Open Wounds – The Exhibition of Experience
The Bulgarian National Historical Museum in Sofia does not contain an exhibition hall for the communist era though it is housed in the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov’s former residence. This absence is best explained by the fact that most Bulgarians would probably like to forget those four decades of hardship and stagnation. The recent past strikes a raw nerve and is still an open wound that has not yet healed. This history is slowly dying every day. It lurks in downtrodden villages, towns and cities with gutted factories that are still experienced by those unlucky enough to be left behind in a world rusting all around them. Looking out the bus window into this morass, I was looking at a world that will not go away.

A Hostel Situation – The Way To Ruse & Romania (Travels In Eastern Europe #13)

Two men were quietly conversing among themselves while sitting in a kitchen at a hostel deep in the mountains of Bulgaria. All the while rain played a percussive rhythm on the rooftop. If this had occurred during the Cold War it might have been the opening to a spy thriller, but this was the 21st century, at a hostel where backpackers and freelance travelers hunkered down, exhausted from partying and pleasure seeking while plotting their next adventure.

Hostel Mostel in Veliko Tarnovo

Hostel Mostel in Veliko Tarnovo

Eavesdropping In Eastern Europe – Changing Plans, Making Friends
The two young men I overheard were speaking English and by their accent I could tell they were Americans. Their discussion concerned the easiest way to get from Veliko Tarnovo to Bucharest in order to see the infamous Palace of the Parliament, the piece de dictatorship of the Romanian communist ruler, Nicolae Ceausescu. I fixed a cup of coffee while eavesdropping. One of the men, with a tall, rangy build, dark hair and a thick New Yawkish accent was heading out the next morning on the first bus he could find to Ruse, Bulgaria, a city on the Danube that sat just across from the Romanian border.  There he planned to get a bus north to Bucharest. The other man, an Asian-American who looked to be just out of college had a friendly demeanor and was planning to stay an additional day in Veliko Tarnovo. The man leaving promised to send the other one travel information on buses headed from Ruse to Bucharest. After hearing this, I decided to introduce myself and was met with almost instantaneous friendship.

The New Yawker, was from the city, but now taught English in China. He had done a remarkable amount of travel in Eastern Europe. Every place that came up in our conversation, from Skopje to Sarajevo, elicited an affirmative response. He rattled off one anecdote after another. In Pristina, Kosovo a local had “rolled out the red carpet” for him, happy to finally meet an American. The Kosovar had an abiding affinity for Americans because they had saved him and his country from the wrath of Serbia. In Bosnia, he had been detained in a holding cell for a night because he had been caught with a bottle of prescription Xanax. His “arrest” was in an effort to elicit a bribe. He did not give in and so was let go the next morning. In Tirana, the capital of Albania, he had visited the Pyramid, a bizarre monument/cultural center built by Europe’s most insular communist regime. It was now a kitsch tourist attraction, quite a change from its former use as the “Enver Hoxha Museum”, a surreal honorarium to the super paranoid lunatic leader. And so the tales of travels near and bizarre went on. The other young man asked me if I wanted to check out Veliko Tarnovo with him the next day. I readily agreed. This led to a change in my trip plans for the better.

Palace of the Parliament In Bucharest, Romania

A Plan Changer- Palace of the Parliament In Bucharest, Romania (Credit: Marco Almbauer)

The Allure Of A Remarkable Monstrosity
Traveling alone is a wonderful way to see the world, but can lead to intense periods of loneliness. Put a person in a country where they do not know the language, alphabet or culture and they will eventually feel a need for the familiar. The anti-social self may begin to long for conversation and friendship. I experienced such a feeling after several days to myself in Bulgaria. When the chance presented itself for a few days traveling with a fellow American I jumped at the opportunity. This changed my trip itinerary. Instead of doubling back through Sofia and then transiting through Belgrade to Sarajevo, I would now be traveling to Bucharest and flying from there to Sarajevo.  This suited me for more than just social reasons. It was not just companionship that I sought, but also the chance to see the second largest building in the world, the Palace Of The Parliament, a remarkable monstrosity of Ceausescu’s abysmal rule, a monument to failed ideology and personal tyranny.

The young man I would be traveling with, Tim, was extremely interested in Eastern European history. Unlike me, he was too young to have experienced the fall of the Iron Curtain. This did not stop him from spending hours discussing the countries of the former Warsaw Pact and their recent Cold War history. He was on a three month trip around Europe before he settled down to start a career. He had spent considerable time – over a month of his trip – in the Balkans. Tim was now of the opinion that the Balkans were the most interesting part of Europe with their kaleidoscopic history of struggle, horror and contradiction.

I spent another day in Veliko Tarnovo with Tim dodging downpours while exploring the Old Town, then we set out on a chilly, but bright Monday morning for to our first destination Ruse. The New Yawker had sent word that maxi taxis (a cross between a small bus and a car) were easy to get in Ruse. We should have no problem crossing the Romanian border and find ourselves in Bucharest by late afternoon if all went well. Veliko Tarnovo had been a gem of a town to visit, with layers of history, a rich architectural legacy and an old town filled with quaint shops. Maybe this was why it was such a shock when we got to the bus depot. It was little more than a vacant lot covered with busted pavement. Buses entered and exited haphazardly, people wandered about aimlessly. There was hardly any organization. Instead groups of people stood loitering in small crowds. The place looked dangerous, but was actually benign. It would be an especially good place to get bit by a stray dog. I suddenly felt like it was the 1980s in Bulgaria all over again.

Veliko Tarnovo - One last look

Veliko Tarnovo – One last look (Credit: Nikola Gruev)

Bulgaria Shrugs Its Shoulders – A Changing Of Time
The bus finally did arrive, just not on time. I began to understand that time had a very different meaning in the Balkans. It was elastic, a guideline rather than a rule of thumb, something useful, but that could also be ignored. My experience was that nothing quite ran on time in Bulgaria and no one was really bothered by it, just as they were not bothered by the condition of the bus terminal. I imagined Bulgarians as a nation of people who collectively shrug their shoulders at the state of their nation. The bus terminal was just another unsightly mess, in a Bulgarian landscape that was filled with them.

Where I Will Always Live Forever – The Church of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki In Veliko Tarnovo (Travels In Eastern Europe #12)

There is a certain place that has stayed with me for years after visiting, a place that still speaks to me across space and time, a place that I was drawn to at first sight and will stay in my heart forever. This place is the Church of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki in Veliko Tarnovo. A reconstruction of the famed Bulgarian Orthodox church – where the uprising of Asen and Peter was proclaimed against the Byzantine Empire and which led directly to the creation of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom – that sits beside the dark tranquil waters of the Yantra River. I felt a magnetic attraction to this brick and stone structure due to a combination of its presence, beauty and natural setting. This attraction gripped me well before I knew or understood its historical significance. Set below the walls of Tsarevets citadel, the church can be easily overlooked, but it caught my eye and possessed my imagination, just as it has for Bulgarians over the past 800 years.

The Church of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki in Velika Tarnovo

The Church of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki in Velika Tarnovo (Credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis)

A Reconstruction Of Radiance – Architectural Transcendence In Tarnovo
Reconstructions are usually something I try to avoid, being a history purist at heart I long to see an original building, not a pale imitation. The cliché that “there is no substitute for the real thing” usually applies, but the Church of St. Demetrius in its present form changed my view on this. Without a reconstruction the church would not exist except for a pile of stony ruins. That is because the original building was destroyed within a century of its construction. This was due to an earthquake in the latter half of the 13th century. Over a half century later a replacement was built. This would stand for half a millennium as part of a larger monastery complex, the church occupying only its southeastern corner. By the 19th century, the church had fallen into disrepair due to years of plunder by thieves. Then in 1913 a second earthquake destroyed the latest version of what remained of the church. This left only a couple layers of medieval frescoes and an apse (a semicircular niche). These scant ruins were the only thing to work with as an eight year reconstruction project took place in anticipation of the 800th anniversary of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom in 1985. This effort yielded what stood before me that murky March afternoon when I approached it. A scene of swirling clouds threatening rain with the church in effervescent glow, an unforgettable illumination set against a stormy backdrop.

How was it that a single piece of architecture could exert such a magnetic pull on me? It was not as though I had any compelling interest in Orthodoxy, medieval Bulgarian history or Balkan sacral structures. For me there was a bright radiance about the church, perhaps it was the color of the stone and brick work contrasted with a dark and foreboding mountain landscape. I imagined that the church was forever in bloom. The decorative ornamentation covering much of its exterior added a touch of Byzantine inspired exoticism. Blind arches gave it a pleasing symmetry, while the multi-colored brick work added a sense of style. The church looked strong, solid and dignified, like it had been built to last the ages. This was quite the effect since the structure I saw was only twenty-five years old. A wave of emotion poured over me. This was all the more impressive since the church was closed and I never could step inside.

St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki depicted in a 12th century mosaic

St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki depicted in a 12th century mosaic

Mystique, Mystery & Miracles – Saint Demetrius Of Thessaloniki
Being unable to enter only added to the church’s mystique for me. I wanted to know what lay behind those stone walls, to go deeper and penetrate all the layers of history and spirituality cloistered within the church. There was no way that I could gain access, but that would not stop me from learning more about it, specifically the life of the saint whose name it was given. Saint Demetrius was once a real flesh and blood human being. That fact seems obvious, but once a person achieves sainthood – even to non-believers – they become almost supernatural. Who was this man that had this church deep in the heart of Bulgaria named for him? Demetrius was not from Bulgaria, such a place or people in the Balkans did not exist during his lifetime. He was a Christian from the city of Thessaloniki who was murdered when run through with spears during the Roman persecutions in 306 AD. A century and a half later his veneration as a saint began in the same city where he had been murdered. Ironically he was credited with several miracles that later saved Thessaloniki from Slavic invaders, the ethnic kin of Bulgarians.

Written accounts of Demetrius life did not appear until five hundred years after his death, nevertheless he became one of the most venerated saints in the Orthodox world. His connection to the church at Tarnovo was vague in the extreme, basically in name only. This did not stop Demetrius from becoming the namesake for one of Bulgaria’s most important churches. Perhaps that is because he could be whatever the Bulgarians needed him to be, a performer of miracles, a saint who answered the call of their prayers, a figure who brought them strength and courage when they needed it most. An abstraction firing a faith that burned down through the centuries and right up to the present. The relevance they found in him then and now was perhaps the greatest miracle of all.

An Open Door To The Power Of Art - The Church of St Demetrius of Thessaloniki

An Open Door To The Power Of Art – The Church of St Demetrius of Thessaloniki (Credit: Klearchos Kapoutsisiki)

A Saint Made Out Of Stone – The Power Of Art
In much the same way, the Church of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki became my saint. One created not from flesh, blood or abstraction, but created instead from brick and stone. The church was a miracle that brought a power and presence to me beyond myself. It made me believe, in what I was not quite sure, but I believed all the same. This attraction was mysterious and incomprehensible, an emotional allure that transcended all logic and reason. I felt a sense of strength from the moment I first saw the church. Standing outside those reconstructed medieval walls, studying the details of its design, there was a connection for me that transcended past and present. It went beyond history, beyond reality, to a place where time evaporated. It was art in the purist sense, a place where I will always live forever.


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.


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.