Obsessive Propulsive – Still Running: 2 A.M. Through The Streets Of Sofia (Travels In Eastern Europe #40)

Running is a ritual and an obsession for me. No matter where I am at, no matter how far from home, no matter what my schedule, a daily run has been a necessity in my life for well over a decade. Some might call my daily runs, a jog or even a trot. That is because I do not aim for speed, just to keep going for one hour. I have been told – quite correctly – that if I would take a day or two off every week my runs would be much better. That is heresy to me. If I can get in in an hour running each day, then I am satisfied. Life would not seem normal without the daily run. Trying to maintain such a rigid standard can be difficult, nowhere more so than while traveling.

Sofia

Sofia

Dogged Persistence – An Exercise In Cultural Understanding
I have been a lucky man when it comes to running during my travels, specifically in Eastern Europe. I have run along the Danube in Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, across the Stari Most in Mostar, the Charles Bridge in Prague and the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, dodged traffic in Transylvania and cut corners across Krakow. Most of my runs have not been in or around famous sites, but in neighborhoods or other run of the mill places such as a sports club in Kispest and farm fields on the outskirts of Debrecen.  These places I recall just as fondly as the old cities of Vienna or Vilnius. The runs helped me familiarize myself with local areas and life, especially in Hungary. By running I have learned that many Hungarians have large ferocious dogs guarding their yards. I cannot count the times that I have been startled by a massive dog suddenly smashing their snout up against a fence, snarling and salivating at me. Anyone who would consider robbing a house in Hungary better be prepared for a fight to the death from an oversized rover ready to have them for brunch. Hungarian dogs have helped keep me aware of my surroundings.

I have also learned about the stoicism and reserve of Eastern Europeans on these runs. A smile is at best met with a shrug, greetings are ignored. The people I have met along these runs are not the superficial, perpetually smiling American types. Friendliness seems to be forbidden, they take a “do not talk to strangers” attitude seriously. I can see this in their look away avoidance, a willful attempt to ignore my existence. This left me with a rather lonely feeling, making me feel more foreign than I already was. Nevertheless, I would not trade my experience jogging down the cracked sidewalks and unkempt parks found in every former Eastern Bloc country. I have gotten to see so much that I otherwise would have missed. The drunks passed out in the woods in Warsaw’s Saxon Park , the Romanian soldiers slouching while standing guard in the early morning hours at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Bucharest, the empty serpentine streets of Sibiu just after dawn. My daily run may be an obsession, but in eastern Europe it has also enhanced my passion for travel and given me unforgettable experiences. My favorite run was also the toughest, one that coincidentally happened in the earliest hours of the morning, when I could see next to nothing and the experience devolved into a dream.

The Final Destination –Running To Stand Still
I crawled out of the bed in Sofia at 2 a.m. on a Monday morning, knocked back a cold cup of coffee and grabbed my IPod. It was time to go for a morning run, a very early morning run. This would be the earliest I had ever went running before. Why was I going for a run in a strange city, where I could not speak a word of the language or even read the alphabet at such an early hour? The only reasonable explanation – as though anyone going running at 2 a.m. can provide a reasonable answer – was that I had a 6 a.m. flight from Sofia to Paris. This would be followed by two more flights to get back home. If everything went according to plan I would not arrive in my final destination of Billings, Montana, until 10:00 p.m. This meant that it would be especially difficult for me to get in my daily run unless I did it in Sofia. I had barely slept during that short night. Even so I did not feel that tired. I was in a wired state of sleep deprivation, shaking slightly with a fast forward like motion sickness.

My nerves were on edge. I was kept awake for most of the night with worried thoughts of impending danger. What if I ran into a crowd of drunks or a gang of young males looking to kick the ass of a stupidly dressed stranger in sweats, a hoody and trainers on a street in Sofia during the wee hours of the morning? What if some corrupt police officer noticed me? I imagined being dragged away to the police station for questioning then missing my flight while trying to explain away this daily run madness. As I walked outside into the chill morning air, I noticed that the streets were deserted. There was scarcely any traffic except for the random taxi. I began to run down one of the main streets, a moving target in super slow self-propulsion. I quickly formulated a plan to safeguard my existence and remain anonymous. I would find a quiet, mostly dark side street, then repetitively run back and forth along it. This would be quite tedious, but the goal was to complete the daily run, not try for speed or stimulation. It was not long before I found such a street. For the next half hour I did little more than jog 400 meters one way and then do the same again in the opposite direction.

Isolation Chamber – Passing Thoughts
Boredom got the better of me halfway through the run. I found another street, rather well lighted where I could do the same thing. It was not much better, but at least it was different. With music blasting in my ears I lost track of everything. I was in another world, beyond Bulgaria. It was like being in an isolation chamber, alone with just my thoughts. This must be what it is like just before dying. Then suddenly I was frightened into reality. I found myself suddenly upon the heels of two people who were walking up the street in front of me. I almost ran into the back of them. They were startled, said something which I could not hear, then parted so I could pass. I accelerated out of fear and did not look back until several minutes later. When I did glance behind me, they were nowhere to be seen. I realized that they were probably more scared of me, than I was of them. It was not long thereafter that the run was finished. I was relieved to be done with it. My daily run goal for the day was attained. I could live another day in contentment. Now all I had to do was spend the next 24 hours traveling. I was not worried about the flights or the waits or the lack of sleep. My only worry was about tomorrow and the next daily run.

The Red Star of Sofia – Falling Up:  From The Sky Down In Bulgaria (Travels In Eastern Europe #39)

Boykan, our Bulgar guide, began the Free Tour with a short overview of the importance of Sofia in the history of the Balkans and Bulgaria. Today Sofia is one of the least visited European capitals, but it had once been of great importance. During the Ottoman occupation, which all Bulgarians, including Boykan, refer to as “the 500 years of slavery” Sofia was of prominence due to its location as the midpoint between Constantinople and Belgrade. Like so much of Eastern Europe, Sofia was a “used to” place. This was a recurring theme in the region’s history. The Bulgars “used to” have an empire, the Hungarians “used to” occupy large swaths of Eastern Europe, the Lithuanians “used to” have a massive kingdom and so forth. Sofia “used to” be important. As a marker of just how far they had fallen geopolitically, Bulgarians were elated when they were allowed into the European Union. This seemed to re-legitimize their importance. Sofia and Bulgaria were not what they used to be, but the decline provided some fascinating history, especially during the 20th century.

St. Nedelya Church after the assault in 1925

St. Nedelya Church after the assault in 1925

Terror In Bulgaria – An Explosive Situation
The inaugural tour stop was at St. Nedelya Church, which had also been the first attraction I noticed upon my arrival in the city two weeks earlier. At that time, there had been crowds coming out from a noon time service, the same was true today. A crowd gathering in and around a church is usually not of great interest, but once I learned the history of St. Nedelya that crowd took on a whole new meaning. The church looked ancient, but its Byzantine Revival architecture was deceptive. While there had been a church on this very site since the 10th century, the latest version was only consecrated in 1933. The church I attended while growing up in my little hometown of western North Carolina was older than the current iteration of St. Nedelya, so much for Old Europe. To be fair, any architecture in a region as riven by conflict as Bulgaria has been over the last thousand years has virtually no chance of still standing in its original form. The present St. Nedelya was the umpteenth version of the church. The previous one was irreparably damaged in the spring of 1925, during what has come to be known as the St. Nedlya Church assault. Boykan pointed out a memorial plaque which commemorated that event. A plaque can never do justice to what happened during the worst terrorist incident in Bulgarian history.

On April 16th, Holy Thursday, a funeral was held at St. Nedelya Church for General Konstantin Georgiev, who had been assassinated a few days earlier by communist radicals. The assassination was actually part of a larger plot to murder important Bulgarian governmental and military leaders who would attend General Georgiev’s funeral.  The act was carried out with almost perfect precision. During the funeral, 25 kilograms of explosives were detonated in the attic of the church causing the roof to collapse. 150 people were killed and another 500 injured. The church was condemned and had to be completely rebuilt. What our group stood looking at was the result of that effort. As crowds milled around outside, I tried to imagine what the scene must have been like on that horrific day. Terrorism does not care about churches or beautiful blue sky days, families or their loved ones. The ends can always be made to justify the means. And sometimes the terrorists eventually end up in charge.

St. Nedelya Church as it looks today

St. Nedelya Church as it looks today (Credit: Stolichanin)

Long Shadows – The Death & Life of Communism
Twenty years after the roof was blown off St. Nedelya Church, the communist radicals were ruling the country. Communism’s long shadow loomed over Sofia and informed the tour. At one point a Bulgarian man who looked to be in his sixties was drawn to us. He must have heard Boykan speaking in English. He suddenly let loose with a rant of “Death To America” and yelled at all within earshot that “the Soviet Union will rise again”. Boykan hardly batted an eye. He calmly ignored the provocateur, than after we moved on told us how much of the older generation had trouble letting go of the past.  The upheaval experienced in Eastern Bloc countries during the fitful transition to capitalism had made many look back on the era of communism as a time of stability, a time of full employment and few worries about life’s necessities.

Even if the country was impoverished during that time, everyone shared in that poverty. The problem with communism was that it was static and intolerant of dissent. This made the system incapable of reform. Any hint of reform was met with the black boot of repression. This rigidity led to a total collapse from which Bulgaria had yet to fully recover. It would take generations before the legacy of communism would finally fade. Its symbols had disappeared much faster. One of these was the red star of Sofia. For decades a five pointed red star crowned the pinnacle of the Communist Party Headquarters building. When it was finally taken down, this red star was left propped up against a wall in the courtyard of Sofia’s Central Bathhouse and that was where it had stayed.

The red star of Sofia

The red star of Sofia

The Star That No Longer Shines – A Symbolic Message
Boykan was proud to offer us a peek at the red star. Without his guidance, we would never have known that it was hidden in plain sight behind a fence. Looking at it, I was astounded by how fragile and nondescript it looked. This symbol of Soviet might, that Bulgarians had been forced to look up to for years, was now abandoned. It looked rather lonely and pathetic. A few months later, the red star would be removed from the courtyard. It was taken away to be displayed at the forthcoming Museum of Totalitarian Art. When I first heard this, I was saddened. I felt that the red star should have been left where we saw it. It was a stark illustration of just how far the Soviet empire had fallen.  I could not thank Boykan enough for showing everyone the red star. Boykan was part of a new generation, pro-European, looking to the west. The generations that had grown up under communism were still struggling to make sense of this new world. The old stars from the east had fallen, including a large red five pointed star. It was tucked away behind a fence and propped up against a wall. Now it was history.

Ghosts In Daylight – The Largo: Sofia’s Spectral Presence (Travels In Eastern Europe #38)

Several stops on the Free Tour were in Sofia’s most famous architectural area, known as the Largo, home to some of the most outstanding examples of Communist architecture to be found anywhere in the world. The buildings themselves dwarfed our group. As our youthful guide, Boykan began to talk about these buildings, I wondered how his generation felt about what they had inherited. He, like other young Bulgarians I had met, were cautiously optimistic. This was totally opposite of the menace expressed by the architecture of the Largo. The future of Bulgaria – even a democratic one – would be decided within the confines of Stalinist-inspired structures. Aesthetically the buildings were impressive, if uninviting. Their style, a megalomaniacal neo-classicism enhanced by the ideological steroid of totalitarianism.

The Largo under construction in the 1950s - Party House in the background

Largo under construction in the 1950s – Party House in the background (Credit: stara-sofia)

The Nightmare Vision – Landscape Of Intimidation
The most magnificent or revolting of these buildings, depending upon one’s political persuasion, the Party Building, reminded me of a gigantic ship that had been anchored in the heart of Bulgaria. While the country sank into stagnation around it, this grim beast of a building stayed afloat. The Party Building was flanked on either side by a pair of sizable monoliths. Presently these structures housed, among other things, offices of the National Assembly of Bulgaria, the President’s Office and the Council of Ministers, as well as a department store, archaeological museum and hotel. Much of the current Bulgarian government worked out of the same buildings that the communist party elite had inhabited less than thirty years before. How much had really changed in the country from a political standpoint was open to debate.

The Largo is both the most enduring symbol of Bulgaria’s communist era and of the post-communist cronyism that plagues the country. The actors had changed, but the setting was still the same. Standing in the cobbled square, I found the inhuman scale of the architecture intimidating. Row upon row of windows lined these buildings. I had the feeling that someone or something was watching me, whether it was or not seemed beside the point. I could not shake the feeling of me versus the massive, a place where the individual did not stand a chance then or now. For all the showiness and symbolism of the Largo, there was a pervasive lack of transparency to the space, a sort of facelessness to these facades. It was difficult for me to envision what went on behind all those windows. Bulgaria was riddled with corruption, there was virtually no separation between government and business, one was used for the purposes of the other or vice versa. How could it be otherwise when the most important governmental space in the country was hidden behind monumental amounts of concrete and murky windows.

Lenin's replacement - The statue of Saint Sophia

Lenin’s replacement – The statue of Saint Sophia (Credit: Bin Im Garten)

Dream Quest – A Tantalizing Transparency
At least there had been a few superficial, yet symbolic changes to the Largo since the fall of communism. The ruby red star of Soviet power that once crowned the Party Building, had now been replaced by a Bulgarian flag unfurling in a gentle, spring breeze. A gigantic statue of Lenin on the western end of the Largo had been removed for a much smaller statue of the city’s namesake, Saint Sophia. Sophia had been selected because she was viewed as a non-ideological figure, symbolizing wisdom. She looked like a miniature goddess, her golden skin covered beneath the folds of an immaculate robe. The utter antithesis of Lenin, erotic rather than revolutionary, open armed instead of close fisted. If the statue of Sophia was viewed at a certain angle, a Unicredit Bank building stood positioned perfectly in the background. Perhaps Sophia was promoting the wisdom of capitalism, the benefits of which most Bulgarians had struggled to acquire amid the scourge of endemic corruption.

The west had won the Cold War and colonized Sofia with capitalism, paradoxically it was also the West that was inadvertently responsible for the Largo’s totalitarian architecture. In 1944, American and British bombers had badly damaged this area of the city. Once the rubble and ruins had been cleared away, the post-war Stalinist government decided to rebuild the area as a symbolic showpiece for the communist ideology. Despite such a gargantuan makeover, one set of ruins were not plowed under. These undergirded a greatness that had not been seen in Sofia since antiquity, namely that of the Roman city of Serdica. When I visited the Largo, the remains of Serdica could only be viewed by going underground. That situation has changed. Now visitors walking along the Largo can look down through glass at them. Ironically, this is one of the only transparent things to be seen in the Largo. It is also a reminder of Sofia’s former importance.

Serdica was made an administrative capital of the surrounding region in the first century AD. Two hundred years later, it gained eternal fame when the Roman Emperor Galerius issued an Edict of Toleration from the city in 311 AD. The edict was the first time Christianity was legalized in the empire. In the coming decades, Rome would increasingly turn to Christianity, but this did not save Serdica or the empire. In 447 AD the Huns destroyed the city, but it was rebuilt by the Byzantines. It would be several centuries later before the Bulgars appeared on the scene. The subterranean ruins of Serdica were impressive to look at, several streets have been unearthed. The remnants of what were once the city’s protective, eight-meter high, stone walls could still be seen in shortened form. I found these ruins interesting, but not much more than that.

Larger than life - The Largo in Sofia

Larger than life – The Largo in Sofia

Staying Power – The Free Tour
I could not help but wonder how Roman ruins had anything to do with modern Bulgaria. Maybe the point was to link Bulgaria and Sofia with the greatness of the Roman Empire. It was a strange, disconcerting connection. The ruins were worth seeing, but the giant buildings now towering over the Largo somehow seemed less worthy. I wondered if, in two thousand years anything would be left of the Party Building. Despite the colossal structure’s size, I doubted it. The Soviets were no Romans, their presence lacked permanence, instead it was spectral. A ghost that could be seen at any time and was just as frightening in the day, as it was at night.

Boykan led us away from the Largo to show us a few more of Sofia’s sights. I eagerly followed, soaking in everything he said. Just a couple of hours earlier, I had barely been able to entertain the thought of doing anything in a city that I felt was forgettable. I had been wrong, Boykan changed my opinion of Sofia. The Free Tour introduced and then interpreted Sofia as a place with a rich spirit, despite or perhaps because of its deep and dark history. All this left me enthralled. When the tour ended I thanked Boykan profusely, then began the walk back to my accommodation. It was not long before that last day travel depression started in on me again. This time it was different though, I felt it not because I wanted to leave Sofia, but because I wanted to stay.

 

A Second Chance For Sofia – Boykan The Bulgar: The Cure For Anti-Curiosity (Travels In Eastern Europe #37)

It was my last day in Sofia and I did not have the eagerness or energy to explore the city. I have always found the day before the end of a trip to be among the most difficult. The moment when there is nothing left to look forward to is fast approaching. A feeling of resignation sets in, putting an end to any ambition I may still have to explore. My thought process can best be described as: “it will all come to an end soon enough, so why bother.” Everything I see or do on the last day will be a painful reminder of all that I will leave behind.  The mysterious, the exotic, the otherworldly will soon vanish, replaced by forty hours a week of frustrations, made worse by the displeasures of domesticity. Such a fatalistic instinct does not lend itself to site seeing, it is more conducive to laying in the bed at midday with the curtains closed and covers pulled over my head. I have come to understand this as a form of travel depression. It is quite the opposite of the usual maladies that plague travelers such as bad flights, impure water and foreign food. Instead, my depressive malaise was induced by a counter-reaction to all the life altering experiences and magnificent memories that came earlier on the same trip.

A Second Chance For Sofia

A Second Chance For Sofia (Credit: Falk2)

Sleepless In Sofia – A Broken Relationship
To be honest, thoughts of re-experiencing Sofia did nothing to lift the cloud looming above my final day in the city. My flagging spirits were reinforced by thoughts of when I first explored the city two weeks earlier. I had found it confusing and disjointed. The main attractions, such as a clutch of magnificent churches and a fine mosque offered windows into the mysterious beauty of Bulgaria, both spiritually and architecturally, but I had trouble developing a coherent idea of the city or country after hopscotching around for a couple of days. The gigantic Stalinist structures in the government quarter had left me aesthetically intimidated. While the seemingly endless rows of concrete apartment blocks that loomed on the urban horizon were the height of soullessness, both literally and figuratively.

There was a disconnect between me and Sofia. I could never mesh the city’s beautiful name with what I felt while visiting it for the first time. My intuition told me there was something wrong.  In short, Sofia and I were headed for an inevitable breakup that I was looking forward to. My attitude was not helped by the fact that I had barely slept in the stifling hot box compartment of the night train from Belgrade. A couple cups of ultra-stout coffee kept me upright as I stumbled down the street wondering just what to do. I was not a day sleeper, even when at the point of exhaustion. Besides, I would likely be kept awake by the screaming sunlight of a brightly lit Sunday morning, thus I had a choice to make, either summon what strength I had left or hide beneath the bed sheets. This was likely to be my last day in Sofia, not just on this trip, but forever. I had to do something, but did not have the energy to formulate an independent plan. In my current state, all I could hope for was to be led around.

Free Sofia Tour Logo

Free Sofia Tour Logo

Motley Crew – Foreigners On A Free Tour
There was one thing that might provide an antidote for such overwhelming lassitude, the Sofia Free Tour. My friend Tim, who had first introduced me to free tours in Bucharest and Budapest, had recommended the Sofia tour. I discovered that the tour would meet at the noon hour, ironically outside what I imagined to be one of the least friendly places in Sofia, the Palace of Justice. The Bulgarian government is notorious for its opacity and corruption. I half-wondered if the tour was meeting at the Palace of Justice so the government could keep all foreigners under surveillance. In my groggy, zombie like state I found it to be an unsettling thought. Just making it to the meeting spot at the appointed time was a triumph. I was surprised by how many other foreigners were there as well. Tour participants numbered well into the double digits. All were foreigners, the lone exception being our guide.

I met a very handsome and well-spoken Spaniard who enjoyed having photos taken of himself. An older Swedish husband and wife couple. I admired the husband more than he could possibly imagine because of one simple fact, he was retired. His wife had taken a job with a multi-national company in Sofia. While she worked, he planned on hanging out. With a Swedish pension, he could live like royalty in Sofia. According to the husband, wine was very cheap in Bulgaria. From the look of glee on his face, he planned to enjoy many libations.  There was also a short, skinny and rather scared looking Argentine. I imagined his role in life was to look frightened. I just had to talk to him, if for no other reason than to ask how he found the courage to travel abroad. He looked terribly worried when I asked him where he had been. His previous stop had been Edirne in the European part of Turkey. It was famous for a beautiful mosque, I inquired if he had visited it. Yes, he had, but he was glad to get away from the city. I asked him why?

He said the Turks would not leave him alone. They kept trying to sell him things and followed him everywhere he went. He could not get away from them. Listening to this man, I began to get worried as well. Not so much about Edirne, as to how many nervous breakdowns he had each day. By the looks of it, he was on the verge of another one at any moment. There was also a Greek family, with an older mother who could not understand a word of English, but smiled pleasantly. I talked with her daughter about how I had planned to visit Thessaloniki, but the debt crisis had hindered that trip since all international trains into Greece had stopped running. She gave me a go to hell look that put the fury of Electra to shame.

Boykan the Bulgar - Sofia Free Tour guide

Boykan the Bulgar – Sofia Free Tour guide

The Optimistic Bulgar – A Guide To The Future
Our pleasant and affable guide, a young Bulgar by the name of Boykan, was there to greet everyone. He was young, still at university and very enthused about Bulgaria’s membership in the European Union. His English was excellent. The cold diffidence with which older Bulgars treated strangers was nowhere to be found. Communism was history, rather than a memory for Boykan. I was looking at an exemplar of Bulgaria’s future. Youthful optimism was something Bulgaria badly needed. As Boykan began the tour, his affable nature and intelligent discourse helped clear the cobwebs out of my head. This tour might be better than advertised. I was ready to give Sofia a second chance.

 

 

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.

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