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

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

Entrance to the abandoned House of the Bulgarian Communist Party

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

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

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

Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan

Required reading – Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan

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

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

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

Street Without A Name by Kapka Kassabova

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

To Watch The World & Yourself Fade Away – Banksa Stiavnica

When you end up in the middle of a place you never could have imagined, in a town whose name you have never heard of, when you learn fascinating details about the place that they probably should have taught you in history class but never did and never will, then you know you are in Banska Stiavnica.

In Defiance of Disbelief – All the Banska Stiavnica’s
There are countless Banska Stiavnica’s and you never even noticed them. They can be discovered hiding throughout Eastern Europe. That’s because Banska Stiavnica is representative of all the Gyors and Soprons, the Sibius and Clujs, the Veliko Tarnovas and Plovdivs, the Lvivs and Uzhhorods that exist outside both historical and travel consciousness. They are all uniquely distinct cities, both large and small. Secret finds and fascinating surprises that capture, first your imagination and then steal your heart. They punch above their weight in atmospherics and aesthetics. Delightful in the way they soar through you and then seep back into your memory many months later. They are the delights of the selfish traveler, all yours and only yours because the people you keep company with back home would not even begin to consider visiting them.

One World Fades Into Another - A scene looking up and out from a corner in Banska Stiavnica

One World Fades Into Another – A scene looking up and out from a corner in Banska Stiavnica

Banska Stiavnica is a hallmark example for these types of places. It has a quaint grandeur all its own. This little city, with a population of barely ten thousand, has an outsized history which is betrayed by its current size and lack of prominence. A potted history of Banska Stiavnica goes something like this: It was a mining mecca starting in the early Middle Ages. First declared a royal free town in the mid-13th century by King Bela IV of Hungary (Hungarians call the city Selmecbanya), the town grew quickly into one of the most important mining communities in the world. Skilled German miners (Germans call the city Chemnitz) were invited by the Hungarian kings to provide the expertise and labor to excavate the vast silver and gold reserves in the area. The city enjoyed a series of recurrent booms spurred on by the ingenuity of miners and engineers.

Historic & Forgotten Firsts – The Hidden History of a Five Hundred Year Boom
Among the historic firsts that happened at Banska Stiavnica include the first use of steam driven mechanisms to expunge water from mining areas and the world’s first polytechnic university. Incredibly the good times ebbed and flowed for over five hundred years. By the late 18th century Banska Stiavnica was the third largest city in the Kingdom of Hungary, ahead of even Buda and Pest in population at that time. Strangely enough, while the population was at its pinnacle with 40,000-odd residents in 1782, the mines had already been in terminal decline for several decades. Lacking economic diversification, Banska Stiavnica soon faded into obscurity.

Stary Zamok (Old Castle) in Banska Stiavnica

Stary Zamok (Old Castle) in Banska Stiavnica

The city’s rich (quite literally) past is still physically represented by the superb architectural wonders straddling its serpentine streets. There are two castles within a ten minute walk of one another. The most impressive of these, Stary Zamok (Old Castle), is a three nave Romanesque style, part spiritual, part military fortress. What had started as a church had been fortified to fend off the Turks during the 16th century. It is an intriguing synthesis of the religious and the martial. In Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square), at the city’s heart, stands a very large Baroque plague column. It attracts the eyes and humbles the heart, a monument to those who suffered the scourges of centuries past. Either side of the square is lined with Romanesque and Renaissance era burgher’s houses. Further afield the colorful buildings continue.

The Baroque Plague Column in Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square)

The Baroque Plague Column in Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square)

A Lifetime’s Worth of Discovery – Glory of the Faded & Forgotten
The city’s setting, in an expansive wooded valley with hills rising on several sides, lends an air of dramatic natural beauty. Taking it all in, the traveler gets the sense of a deep and penetrating history that pervades Banska Stiavnica. It is enough to make the traveler want to settle in for what might become a lifetime long sojourn of sipping coffee and reading historical tomes in sleepy cafés. Another alternative is just as inviting, to use Banska Stiavnica as a stimulus to continue teasing out all the hidden in plain sight places that lie in between the more well-known places on the map of Eastern Europe. How many other Banska Stiavnica’s are out there, likely a lifetime’s worth. For those who say that everything has been discovered, Banska Stiavnica and cities like it put the lie to that cliché. Discovery is not about some vague historical personage stumbling on the New World. Instead discovery is something deeply personal, finding a place where you find yourself.

The crazy thing is that for the completely curious, those who cannot wander far enough, who have to keep pushing into the deeper recesses of the atlas, there are always going to be more remote spaces and unimaginable places with semi-pronounceable names to discover. The idea that they are all out there waiting, is enough to set the pulses of wayward travelers racing. They are an avenue into a wider world, stretching across thousands of invisible kilometers, space and time captured by a wandering heart. True discovery lurks in these in-between spaces. The places you were never required to know or consider but forever exist in a state of suspended anonymity.

A window into the present and a reflection of the past - the allure of Banska Stiavnica

A window into the present and a reflection of the past – the allure of Banska Stiavnica

Stay (Faraway, So Close)
There is this idea with travel that if you go long enough and far enough, you will eventually have seen it all or at the very least exhausted your curiosity. Then abruptly the affair will end and you will retire to a cubicle and life of disciplined domesticity, climb the ladder into middle management, live a nice quiet life sleeping in on Saturdays and one day telling the grandkids you visited Banska Stiavnica. They will look at you like the crazy old man you have become, dreaming of the days when you owed the world nothing and tramped into parts unknown. There is another way this comfortingly sad tale might end. What if you went to Banska Stiavnica and never left. Decided to stay there and watch the world along with your life slowly grow old and familiar until, like this slumbering old mining city, it finally fades away.