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.


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.