Mystery of Bulgaria
in the July 1999 issue of Egypt Today magazine
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.")
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.