Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bulgar Woot


Sofia is not a terribly nice town. Fortunately, the warmth of our reception overwhelmed any shortcomings. For some time prior to arrival, Jason had been in contact via email with the sister of a co-worker from back in Pasadena. Margarite and her son Roman met us at the train station and made sure we were well looked after almost up to the moment of departure. She arranged for us to stay on the university campus in a small hotel that was an ideal combination of comfortable, affordable, and convenient. We spent the better part of three days together chatting, shopping, eating, and walking in the nearby hills. It was a good opportunity for me to speak a bit of French, as Margarite prefers it to English. She was very tolerant of my haphazard grammar, vocabulary, and accent.

The Bulgarian capital suffered from what seems to be a common problem among formerly communist countries: lack of maintenance. The town was laid our well with wide avenues, an extensive tram network, ornate buildings, and many parks, but all of them were in a state of bad repair. Concrete is universally cracked, grass goes uncut, and it is not uncommon to find piles of rubble here and there. An afternoon spent walking around the city center was not entirely wasted - the Alexander Nevsky cathedral and the more upscale shopping district are worth a look - but the attractions are small in number and compacted into a small area. The city's nightlife was surprisingly active. We spent one evening downing beers in a very nice modern bar and another enjoying an extended hip hop / drum and bass concert in the city ice rink featuring some excellent international talent.

The daytime highlights of our visit to Sofia were all outside of town. Chief among these was the Bulgarian National History Museum. A former government palace, the building itself was an impressive monument to bad taste. Fortunately, the collections were more than enough to distract you from the elaborate chandeliers, sunken marble floors, and shiny wood paneling. Most memorable was the display of funerary objects that were the oldest gold artifacts ever found. The museum sat in the hills and mountains that closely border Sofia. We spent a relaxing few hours walking paths among trees and melting snow at a nearby ski slope. We also took a few minutes to visit a monument to the creativity of children - a semi-circle of bells donated from around the world. It was not tremendously inspiring, but I did enjoy making a great deal of noise.

A friend of Roman's called Daniella and her friend Andre graciously offered to take us out to the Rali monastery - an important site in the history of Romania and the Romanian Orthodox Church. It was about a two hour drive out to the site through green countryside only occasionally interrupted by gigantic, semi-derelict factories. On the way, we hiked up some hills behind a village to view "the pyramids" - pointy rock formations that look something like small karsts. On arrival at the monastery, we had a very good Bulgarian lunch before visiting the impressively large stone building. It was built like a fortress or castle with a high outer wall enclosing a large courtyard and a small church. The chapel was notable for its extensive collection of saintly relics and the graves of the much-revered founder of the monastery and the last king of Bulgaria.

After Sophia, we travelled by train to Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city, and on to Veliko Tarnovo, a former capital. We ignore advice to travel by bus and paid the price for it. Bulgarian trains are uncomfortable, crowded, and confusing. The discomfort of getting there did not ruin the destinations, though. Plovdiv is an energetic place with attractive streets and a very beautiful old city. There were lots of nightlife options and we had a fun but undistinguished evening on the town. Veliko Tarnovo is a much smaller town built along the steep banks of a river's s-shaped curve. The skyline is dominated by a very striking monument to the liberating Bulgarian tsars, a few churches, and a large ruined castle. It must be the most picturesque place in Bulgaria. Our night on the town was notable because was prom season and there were lots of kids in gowns and suits in the cities active but lame (YMCA!) discos.

After Greece, Bulgaria was refreshingly inexpensive. Most things costed a third to a fourth as much as you might expect in Western Europe. This was clearly symptomatic of general economic troubles. Most young people we met were dreaming of moving elsewhere. We ran across one guy in particular that had spent several years illegally in South Carolina (Greenville, yeck) and was itching to get back abroad as soon as he finished his degree. Other people complained that widespread corruption and mafia influence were so strong that they would block the much-discussed entry into the European Union. Most predicted that it would be some time yet before Bulgaria fully recovered from the communist era. I see some reason for optimism, but I can only agree that there is a lot of room for progress and it will probably come slowly.


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