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The Mystery of Bulgaria
Published in the July 1999 issue of Egypt Today magazine

For a dose of the red tape and helter-skelter services that plague post-communist Europe, head for Bulgaria. The average pack-a-day smoker could outrun a Bulgarian train, and maps seem to be drawn by an astigmatic drunk. Travelers risk a $200 fine for failing to fill a "carte statistique" with pointless hotel stamps, although custom agents don't always provide the card. When something is backwards or breaks down, the natives simply shrug and say it's Bulgarian.

It's well worth the occasional hindrance to penetrate Bulgaria's poetic soul, wordlessly expressed in its heather-sweetened mountain air, the dancing hues of its old houses and the eerie weave of its folk songs. The highlight of a trip through modern Bulgaria is seeing history catch its breath, as communism passes into democracy and traditions fuse with technology.

Free of the violent chaos braved by its neighbors, Bulgaria's slow shift to a market economy hasn't made headlines. A decade after the revolution that snuffed out communism, national statistics are bleak. Salaries average $100 a month, and unemployment and inflation rates are in the double digits. Add in the government-sanctioned mobsters who cruise around town in import autos, and it's not surprising that Bulgarians are pessimistic about politics and disillusioned with democracy. 

Bulgaria is my passage into Eastern Europe after five months in the Middle East. I enter via Sofia overnight train from Istanbul.  At 5 am, we come to Bulgaria's western border and arrive in the capitol city. Exhausted, I come upon a run-down hotel. All the rooms are empty, but the hotel doesn't officially open until 8 am. Only using sign language, I must beg the clerk to bend the rule and offer me a room for 15,000 leva, or about $8 U.S.  

The room's door takes twenty minutes to unlock; its only frill is an ancient, mammoth stereo (busted, of course). Before testing the soggy bed, I must complete a lengthy personal form and another card to track my whereabouts in Bulgaria. Welcome to the Bulgarian run-around, a legacy of the communist reign that ended when Todor Zhivkov was forcibly ousted in 1989, after 35 years.

 Sofia expresses the uneasy clash between past and future. I walk wide-eyed through time, from the faded grandeur of the old Party Building to a modern art museum marred by punk graffiti. Old Sofian women in floral housecoats and giant eyeglasses roam the streets with their dogs. Outside the Russian Church, a wooden-heeled lady stops to dance to the staggered rhythm of a three-accordion band. 

At Sofia's heart and soul is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This golden-domed Bulgarian Orthodox church is dedicated to the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died in the 1877-78 war to free Bulgaria from the Ottomans.  (Bulgarians call the five-century Turkish occupation the "Ottoman yoke.") 

Joining old women with shawls and young maidens in mini-skirts, I take solace in the cathedral's Saturday mass. Only clusters of slim prayer candles light the solemn, musky interior. The congregation is still and silent while a chanting priest repeatedly blesses us with the smoke of incense and parades a silver-plated Bible. 

Then we line up before icons of Jesus and Bulgaria's patron saints Cyril and Methodius, who created the first Bulgarian alphabet. Worshipers genuflect, then kiss the icons. Mass ends abruptly, sending us back into the chaos of urban life.

The city's sordid edge is hard to miss. Hookers and homeless, glue-sniffing children stumble the sidewalks in high heels and bare feet. My hotel's only other guest keeps a red-eyed lady in his room. Between the heat and fear of intruders, I don't sleep well a single night. 

Sofia teases. The city's welcoming lobby often leads to a maze of deceit and dead ends. My map promises a music hall on one corner, but nothing is there.  No one speaks angliski, and I become a comic mime, gesturing wildly to an audience of warm, genuine smiles.

 Luckily, food needs no translation. Deciphering the menu isn't easy, though, since Bulgarian is written with Cyrillic letters. On my first restaurant outing, I blindly point to several menu items, which brings tripe soup with vinegar and onion; an earthenware pot of baked peppers, tomatoes and cheese; and rakia (plum brandy). My diet quickly dwindles to cafe pastries like banitsa, layered with fresh, salty cheese, and baklava, made from walnuts, honey and phyllo dough. 

After Sofia I journey south to the small town of Bansko, joining eleven volunteers, mainly European college-aged students, on a two-week work camp. We are here to help the local forestry department on small projects like cleaning up litter and debris from the national parks. 

Nestled in the Pirin mountains, Bansko is the quintessential country village. The town's historic stone houses are shaded by cherry trees and weeping willows. Motor traffic is scant. The peasants ply the cobblestone streets with horse-drawn carts or else walk home, hoes slung over their shoulders. 

Although most of Bansko's residents are farmers, tourism also helps feed the people. Foreigners and Bulgarians alike come here in winter to ski Pirin's peaks and in summer to hike and tour the town. 

The camp leader Youlia's family owns the beloved local tavern Dedo Pene. The restaurant is a model success story for the post-communist era. Originally built as a pub in 1820, Dedo Pene was captured by the state in the 1950s. The building stood empty until Youlia's father bought and rebuilt it eight years ago. 

 Locally made pottery and linen adorn Dedo Pene's chunky tree-trunk tables; noisy rows of cow bells hang from the rafters. Every night our crew feasts on three-course meals and listen to the Macedonian Gypsy house band. Youlia teaches us line dances to accompany the folk tunes, sung in striking four-part harmonies. After dinner we hit the town disco, where Bansko's youth dance to the latest rap, metal and pop hits. 

On the weekend our group camps out to climb 2914-meter Virhin, Pirin's crown peak, and explore the 180 lower-lying lakes. At night, we join the locals in too many rounds of rakia. 

Our mountain mascot is a hunter with the forest department. "Rambo" dons a red headband, camouflage fatigues and a clunky belt displaying his tools of destruction. Rambo takes to the girls, giving us peaches, and Nacho, a Spanish volunteer. 

"Banderas," he calls to Nacho. "Red wine. Drink." Once everyone is blurry-eyed, the Bulgarians rev up the chainsaw to cut more firewood, a seven-year-old swigs from the bottle and Rambo arm-wrestles the guys. It's all part of a Saturday night in the Pirins. 

We spend the next week in Yakoruda, a village in the nearby Rila mountains. Most of the villagers are Muslim Bulgarians, who converted to Islam during the Ottoman occupation. Bulgarians tend to treat Muslims and other minorities, particularly Gypsies, with some suspicion and resentment. Yet compared with the bloody "ethnic cleansings" in former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Croatia, Bulgaria's struggle for democracy and national unity has been peaceful. 

Our odd task in Yakoruda is to gather a yellow-blossomed plant used to make the anti-impotence drug Viagra. Each day we pile in a rickety old bus with the local laborers and climb into the pines. Surrounded by Rila's quiet blue ridges, we strip the yellow from rainbow fields of flowers, breaking for leisurely cheese-and-sausage lunches under grandfatherly willows. 

Farmers wielding hand-carved pitchforks rake grass into domed haystacks; their chestnut horses sometimes pull us home. Our conversation is limited to "Dobar den (Good day)" and "Kak ste? (How are you?)" Nevertheless, I am happy to work beside the natives.  The Bulgarians comment to Youlia how well we, a hybrid group of strangers, collaborate, and how eagerly European men and women share the same work.  

Youlia complains that Bulgaria has only inherited democracy's vices -- social neglect, competition and materialism -- and that the country will never progress without solidarity and cooperation. Today, the nation's elders try to live by the old rules, though the game has changed. Meanwhile, young Bulgarians imitate the West, either by consuming its tasteless pop music and fast food or striving for jobs and education abroad.

Ten years after communism's fall, it's true that democracy hasn't fulfilled the Bulgarian dream. Still, freedom of choice has brought new opportunities. Bulgarians were once confined to traveling within the communist bloc; at least now young people can scrape their leva together to see the outside world. 

If history repeats itself, Bulgaria will rise out of its melancholy and into the 21st century with bravado. These Slavic people managed to recover their kingdom in the middle of the gargantuan Byzantine Empire, and secured their territory again after the Ottoman yoke.

Indeed, Bulgaria's most impressive sights were born in troubled times. Mountain monasteries, rich with imaginative frescoes, helped to keep Bulgarian art, culture and religion alive during the Muslim Turks' rule. 

As a final outing, our group visits one such refuge. Rila Monastery was built in the 900s as a forest hermitage; since then it has been moved, plundered, burned and reconstructed. The monastery continues to guard Bulgarian culture; in World War II, forbidden religious texts were kept here, safe from the Nazis. 

From the fortified windows of Hreylu's Tower, we gaze at the steep green peaks surrounding the sanctuary. The cloister, painted with fairy-tale colors and patterns, looks like a resort for gingerbread men rather than a place of retreat. More than 200 monks once lived in these cells, now used as guest rooms. 

The church, too, is dense with layers of detail and meaning.  The chapel's vivid exterior accommodates 1,200 frescoes. Inside, the crowded altar culminates in a gold cross, itself intertwined with flowers and birds. 

Rila's murals are painted in the National Revival style, which dates from the late 1700s. Bulgarian clergy, artists and writers started this movement to stop the spread of foreign influence by reviving popular customs and expanding public education. By the 1870s, over 2,000 free Bulgarian-language schools had opened in the name of the National Revival.

From Rila I travel east to Varna, my final port of call in Bulgaria. An ancient playground for Greek sailors, today Varna is Bulgaria's premier Black Sea resort. 

A rumpled lady at the gara (train station) attacks me with offers for a room. Private accommodation is the cheapest, most interesting way to explore Bulgaria, and most towns have agencies that will book rooms in private homes. Her dilapidated building is conveniently labeled "C block"; without an identifying letter one would need graffiti to recognize the flat. 

It's Friday night. I'm in Bulgaria's largest beach town at the height of summer's heat. Instead of action, I find an empty boardwalk devoid of lights and people. I stumble upon a Mafioso bar with roaches, inflated prices, and thick-necked guys with bored blondes. Several such places -- all with synthesized lounge bands -- colonize the waterfront.

I thought Bulgaria was luring me to try its false doors again, but it's just a matter of persistence. At midnight I finally come upon The Place. It doesn't seem to have a name, or need one. A queen in a pink-bobbed wig invites me in for 1,000 leva. The door opens onto a sandy dance floor packed with the chicquest clothes and the highest heels available in Bulgaria. Drag divas, belly dancers, contortionists and men in leather take to a stage whose only prop is a pole. I finally swagger home at 4 am, for a morning bird, the sign of a great evening. 

After another day on the beach and evening in the disco, I pack up for Romania. Despite Bulgaria's unique culture and majestic scenery, people are often puzzled that I have bothered to tour the country. They assume foreigners only come here to work or study. But once conversation turns to its neighbors, Bulgarian pride comes out of the woodwork. "Bucharesti's no good," warns the landlady, as I embark on my next adventure.


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