By Louise Hogan
“What is your religion?” “What do you think of Hillary?” These weren’t questions I had planned for when I flew to Bulgaria. I had planned for questions about where I was from, so I brought postcards from my birthplace in Galesburg, Illinois and my current home in Greenwood, Indiana. But these questions started on the plane from Paris to Sofia. They told me I had a lot to learn about this Bulgaria and its people.
This trip was a rare opportunity to spend time with my great nephews as well as see a different land. Michael and Stephen Sherman are in their early twenties and decided to backpack across Eastern Europe. I admit to being a bit apprehensive when they suggested meeting in Bulgaria; it would surely be very dull for them to travel with a great aunt. But apprehension was easily tossed aside when compared with the adventure of traveling to a country I had only barely heard of.
Bulgaria is the size of Tennessee and has the longest history under its own name of any nation in the world, starting in 681 A.D. Now it has embarked into a new era by joining the European Union on January 1, 2007. Preparations included projects large and small, from massive airport and subway projects to hotels painting their lobbies. Bulgarians both look forward to and fear the changes that will result from being an EU member. This turned out to be a pivotal time to visit.
I flew into Varna, which is the third largest city in Bulgaria. It is the ancient Odessos, situated on the Black Sea. It reflects its history as a crossroads for migration and trade. The archeological museum exhibits startling golden treasures unearthed from ancient grave sites north of Varna. As I was to come to find in Bulgaria, the ancient is always closely associated with the modern.
A controversy erupted while I was there. A well know Bulgarian scientist, Georgi Kitov has been excavating and cataloging ancient treasures found in various sites in Bulgaria, including a large area north of Varna. National Geographic (See “Bulgaria’s Gold Rush” December 2006 p, 106 – 121) and Discovery Channel came to interview him, acting very supportive and quite impressed with what he and other noted archeologists were doing. Feeling relaxed in the interviews, the scientists also shared problems with looting and controversies within the scientific community about styles of excavation. When the article came out, they felt it concentrated on the looting and controversy, misrepresented scientists as “Bulgaria’s Indiana Jones”, discredited the country and its possibilities for foreigners. The scientists held an interview to try to clear the record, stating the article was negative in tone, very subjective and completely disregarded the significance and heritage of the ancient Thracian culture. The important ancient civilizations and sanctuaries throughout the country were barely given coverage.
The last I heard when I left was they were still considering whether to file an official complaint and demand a new article. Reading the article when I got home put me in a quandary. I grew up with the National Geographic, with my father reading me stories out of it starting when I was a small child. But being immersed in Bulgaria even for a short time, made me see there is a definite East-West cultural difference to the way we perceive things. The story read like an adventure between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”, complete with colorful quotes to build characterization. That is not the way in Bulgaria. Stories are not told – they are facts; they are lived; and they are part and parcel of the pride, the history of the country and the intensely felt nationality of each person. It is far too complex to be reduced to “good guys” and “bad guys” and controversy as seen by Western eyes. I don’t know how this will all turn out, but I do know from here on out, I will read National Geographic with newly opened eyes, wondering how well the cultural background is understood and presented.
Adjoining Varna on the north is an area of expensive hotels and casinos called Golden Sands. They cater to a northern European market and are too expensive for Bulgarians to visit. Though the beaches were devoid of any tourists when we were there, massive lights stayed on all night to allow construction to go on nonstop.
VELIKO TARNOVO AND ARBANNISSI
West of Varna, but still in the eastern one-third of the country lies the ancient capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (1100 AD – 1300 AD). Veliko lays stair stepped on the sides on several mountains. Watching over from above, an ancient citadel stands partially renovated. The chapel, ancient on the outside and reconstructed on the inside, has 20th century frescos painted in the Communist style.
In the city itself, you can see a modern gas station, complete with a quick market, side by side an old round top train car and a horse-drawn wagon filled with stoves.
A few kilometers northeast lies a small town of Arbannassi, left much the same as it has been for the last several hundred years. Some older women still wear the flat black hat of the old Eastern Orthodox style, while our hotel clerk there had spiked hair and chain smoked.
PLOVDIV AND BACHKOVO
As the second largest city in Bulgaria, Plovdiv lay in the south central section of Bulgaria. Surrounded by the Rhodope Mountains, it reminded me of Rome laid out on its seven hills. Ancient Philippi, as Plovdiv was formerly known, must have reminded the Romans of their home also, for they built a forum, stadium, theatre as well as roads and aqueducts there. Underneath the central pedestrian walkway known as Vanity Street, lays the ancient stadium. Walking by the sparkling up-to-date stores, McDonalds and modern sculpture seems odd when you think of what lies underneath.
History lives here. Along side the Roman ruins is evidence of the destruction from the Ottoman Empire and the 20th century restorations under the Communist government. The Romans are praised for leaving the buildings and adding infrastructure. The Turks are blamed for tearing down churches and building mosques in their place. In more recent times, the local communist government is praised for starting renovation of historic areas in the 1960’s. The current democracy is praised for allowing joint ventures involved in restoration and blamed for the criminals who have stolen needed money.
A little to the south, Bachkovo is a small village built at the foot of a monastery started in 1083. The monastery is both a working monastery and a work in progress as local craftsmen repair and renovate it. On the winding road to the monastery are small stands where you can buy homemade brandy (rakia) and wine, food and handicraft items. It will be forever remembered in our minds for the homemade Turkish Delight. It was so good we finished the package while walking down to the village.
Steve and Mike made friends with little old ladies in the village and managed to buy homemade rakia and wine; they were often given homemade foods and offered a place to stay. Everyone could speak a little English, and they were quick to smile and offer help if you needed it.
We saw our first gypsy camps here. They were traveling in small campers and gathered around a bonfire on the cool nights in the mountains.
Located in the western part of Bulgaria, Sofia is its largest city and the capitol. It was on the morning of November 2, 1989 that news spread of the communist government’s fall. The overthrow came from within the communist party and people believed that the president of 35 years, Todor Zhivkov, would be back in power in a few days. When he was brought up on charges, people did not push for harsh punishment for fear it would trigger open conflict as had happened in other Eastern European countries.
The history of Bulgaria shows how divisive such a conflict could be. After Roman rule, the next conquerors to come along were the Turks. The huge Ottoman Empire engulfed the area, taking over customs, government and religion for 500 years. People still talk of being “under the yoke”. Liberation came in the form of Russia in 1878, a liberation the people truly welcomed.
In World War II, Bulgaria sided with the Germans, yet Bulgaria was the only German ally that refused to transport its Jewish citizens to German death camps. When Russia “liberated” them a second time, a liberation the Bulgarians didn’t want, they changed sides and fought against Germany.
Surprisingly to western ears, Bulgarians did not speak as harshly of the Communist dictatorship I would have thought. They praise it for helping to preserve Bulgaria’s history, making Bulgaria a country with one of the highest literacy rates (97%) in the world, and stabilizing the economy. The economic praise is in contrast to what has happened since a democratic government was set up in 1989.
Democracy has not been kind to Bulgaria. When it was first started, many people lost their jobs and old people lost their pensions. Most of the older generation was against democracy; it was a very fearful time for them. The younger generation was in favor of the change; they had less to lose. But they expected immediate improvement. In the next two years, Bulgaria lost about 1.5 million of their best educated young people through migration to primarily Western Europe and Canada.
Much fault has been found with the leadership. Many were family members of former communist officials. Corruption has caused the closing of banks, misuse of loans and failure to investigate crime. While some of the elected officials have been praised as good men, it is felt they surrounded themselves with people who were not.
Another bad effect of democracy concerned education. Bulgaria is still one of the highest educated nations in the world, but education is no longer mandated and literacy is falling. Many of the highly educated can no longer get jobs in Bulgaria because so many industries have closed.
The closing of industry has led to another result, a severe imbalance of trade. Bulgaria is importing much of what it needs from China and exporting very little. Bulgarians are still captive to Russia for their fuel, being dependent on the natural gas pipeline. Prices are rumored to rise 30 to 40 percent for natural gas next year.
I asked several people what the biggest change was after the fall of the government in 1989. The answer was consistently that people are no longer afraid to talk.
Now they face a new change with the European Union. Again the older generation is afraid and the younger generation looks forward to the opportunities. The average income is approximately $200.00 a month and people are fearful of large price jumps. They think it will be better in ten years and they want this for their children.
Given this background, Sofia appeared to be a city that has been in constant transition. A major construction project for a massive subway expansion lay next to a cathedral, mosque, and Roman ruins. The 20th century styled government buildings were surrounded by yellow brick paved squares. Nearby, cars were parked on cobblestones.
What I found most however were the people. Near where I stayed in the gypsy and immigrant area was a Ladies Bazaar. This several block long area was a treasure trove of vegetables, fish, fresh baked breads, household items, clothing, and tools. There were even wood barrels for home wine. But the most intriguing were the venders. Old women sat on low boxes while they knitted. Dressed in scarves, old coats, leggings under long dresses, and heavy boots, they waited for someone to buy a little produce, packaged figs, wilted greens, carrots, and in some cases, flowers. Life is hard here. In spite of that, they were quick to smile. I could not bring myself to bargain over a cup of walnuts that cost me $0.30.
A hotel receptionist asked what I liked best and I said the bazaar. She answered, “Pah! Gypsies – dirty. Be all gone with EU.” I sincerely hope not.
A few blocks away sat a new “Centre”, a shopping mall. Inside were young saleswomen, wearing the latest in fashion and makeup, striking model like poses. The stores sold European and US brands. The only differences from our malls were the security and doormen. They and the sales people outnumbered the shoppers.
Outside, I walked past a small store with a little Christmas tree set on the side walk. It was decorated in blue netting. As I was standing looking at it, I heard the call to prayer from the mosque down the street.
Sofia has a massive communist built Cultural Palace. Set at the end of a long park, it was lit up with bright neon lights. In front was a full grown pine tree decorated in Christmas lights. At the top was a large lighted Pepsi symbol.
RILA AND MELNIK
Rila Monastery is set high up in the mountains south of Sofia. In this beautiful setting, a hermit named St. John of Rila started the monastery in the 10th century. It was destroyed by Ottoman raids in the 15th century, then after liberation, it was rebuilt by donations from the Russian Orthodox church. In 1976, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Driving through the Rhodope Mountains by bright moonlight has to rank as one of the memorable ways to see a country. Heading further south, the mountains changed into high sandstone cliffs that were eroded into mystical looking sharp peaks. This was Melnik.
Early Thracian settlements in the area began in the 1st century and the town was officially called Melnik by Slavs moving into the area in the 6th century. It became an important stronghold of Despot Slav, who was allied with the Constantinople Emperor. The Byzantine rule lasted, with the exception of a 15 year capture by Serbia, until the 500 year Turkish occupation started in the 14th century. Because it was an important center, there was a flourishing trade in goods and art with Africa, Asia, Venice and Genoa.
Melnik today is a compilation of all of its history. The houses are unique, built on the hillsides, among and on the ruins of various centuries. The art and handwork reveal the vivid colors and designs from past centuries of trade. Now it is known for its winemaking. One winery was in a cave high up on a hillside over the town. There has been a winery here for 250 years, 150 of it in one family, the Manalevs. The current winemaker is Mitko Manalev who is nicknamed “Shestaka”. Shestaka means “six” in Bulgarian and indeed he has six fingers. Wine is made here in old wooden barrels with wooden spigots and without any preservatives. It must be kept cool, dark and be used within two months.
The streets are of rough cobblestones and sand. A small dry riverbed runs down through the middle of town which showed evidence of flash flooding. The people, like the Bulgarians we met elsewhere were reserved, but quick to smile and help. Steve met an elderly couple who sold him home made wine and offered him a place to sleep at night.
Melnik is off the beaten path now. The main highway has passed it by and there are no train or bus connections. This will hopefully preserve it. Between the sites and the people, it was hard for us to think of a place we liked any better.
SOFIA AND HOMEWARD BOUND
The time had come for Mike and Steve to head to Romania, Moldolva and Transdniestria, and for me to head home. Thinking back on my ideas of what the trip and people would be like when I came, I realized how little I had really known about Bulgarians. They are literate, engaging, curious and gifted with a sense of humor. One of the well known folk stories is about how Bulgarians got their land. When God gave out land to his people, the Bulgarians, true to their nature of always being late, were last to arrive. God said, “I have no more land to give, but you are good people so I will give you a little bit of my paradise.” This story was usually followed by a comment about how their land was a paradise but their government wasn’t.
I found out their questions about religion and politics weren’t meant to be intrusive, but were from a genuine curiosity about how our country worked. I soon stopped feeling defensive. They also wanted to know about the relationship between the House and the Senate; what are the differences and which is more important, the House or the Senate; what are checks and balances; how does the Electoral College work and why would the popular vote winner lose the election; will the U. S. change course in Iraq in light of the recent elections; would we have been in the Iraq war if Al Gore had won. They uniformly dislike the current President Bush and make the distinction that they admire his father. The U. S. wants to put three air bases in Bulgaria and they are concerned about crimes on their soil by our service men and women. These questions put me to shame not only because I couldn’t answer them, but also because I didn’t even know the name of their president or prime minister.
Mike and Steve came in to see me off at the airport. It was hard to say goodbye to the boys. If it wasn’t for them, I would never have been able to visit this beautiful country at such a pivotal moment. As travel companions, they challenged me to think, made me laugh, and were never afraid to try something new.
Bulgaria is now a proud new member of the European Union and will be forever changed. But whatever happens, the Bulgarians will walk hand in hand with their history and their future. Their characteristics of pride, hard work, kindness and fair play will never be forgotten.