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august 30, 2004 -> blasting through bulgaria

When I awoke, our train was rumbling past blocks of ugly apartment buildings.  The thickness of the late morning mist suggested cold weather.  Signs written in Cyrillic established that we were definitely back in Eastern Europe.  I sighed with a mixture of regret and nostalgia; goodbye Greece, hello Bulgaria. 

Nori and Barry were feeling it too.  A malaise had settled in, as dark and smothering as the skies above Sofia, Bulgaria's capital.  There was a brief conversation about skipping Bulgaria altogether.  It wasn't Bulgaria's fault: we had Eastern Blocitis - a severe depression that afflicts tourists who have visited several former Communist states in quick succession.  Variety is the spice of life, and as anyone who has traveled in Eastern Europe knows, spices are in short supply.  We found a hostel, but struggled to find the energy to explore Sofia.  We did not need to read our guidebook to know what we would find: a Baroque Opera House, a leafy (though down-at-heel) central park, a big Cathedral (Catholic or Russian Orthodox?), outdoor cafes with watery cappuccinos, smoky restaurants, guys with buzz-cuts and good-looking girls in dodgy outfits. 

Bad attitudes aside, Sofia had its charms.  We soon found a modern food court with wine, cheese, and meat shops – the thought of an afternoon picnic lifted our spirits.  Bulgaria is the world's fifth largest exporter of wine; it is quite good, and very cheap.  In an underpass, we came upon the hoary remains of Old Sofia – bricks from the east castle gate of Serdica, the name of the original settlement founded here in the 7th century BCE.  Many ruins lie beneath modern buildings.  We watched the changing of the guard at the President's Office, housed in a rectangular building that partially enclosed the ruins of the ancient St. George rotunda.  Oh, and true to expectations, we sat and had watery cappuccinos at an open-air café in the leafy central park, next to the impressive Baroque Opera House, watching guys with buzz-cuts and their good-looking girlfriends in dodgy outfits walk by. 

A seriously hip club in the basement of the National Library was hosting a popular international DJ.  The place could have been in London.  This started a conversation about how quickly world cultures were converging.  In ten years, we surmised, Sofia would look like Budapest, which in ten years would feel like Prague, which in ten years would feel like Vienna or Berlin.  The Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Church was stunning; architecturally similar to the St. Sofia (coincidence?) mosque in Istanbul (which was first a Byzantine church) but without the trappings of Islam.  A religious ceremony was underway when we arrived.  We stood at the back and watched bearded and spectacled priests in long black robes chanting, lighting candles, and disappearing mysteriously behind the iconostasis, their words echoing from within.   

A long line of tables, covered with bric-a-brac and Soviet kitsch, extended from the entrance of the Nevsky Church.  There were war medals and Olympic pins, pith helmets and fur hats, and strangely, several framed photographs of Hitler.  Barry is an expert on World War II history, and was amazed by some of the items on offer, like the medal commemorating the day that a plan to assassinate Hitler was foiled.  “Only a few people could have been up for this award,” he said.  Much of the market was probably fake goods, he explained.  A thriving trade in imitation ‘antique' Russian and German war memorabilia had sprung up since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.  It seemed ridiculous, but in a way, it is Cold War/Communist nostalgia that brings many tourists to Eastern Europe in the first place.                               

The morning after our arrival, Micho picked us up in his old Mercedes and drove us to the Rila Monastery, an ancient cloister hemmed in by the Rila Mountains.  The monastery is a place of pilgrimage for Bulgaria's primarily Eastern Orthodox population; on that day it was full of Bulgarians eager to pray in its church and munch on river fish and fresh yogurt.  The metal-domed church sits in the cobbled courtyard, surrounded by the monastery's high walls.  Delicate-looking wooden alcoves projected from the top floors of the monastery, offering dramatic mountain views.  The stones on the arched passageways were alternately red and white, giving a distinctly Ottoman/Moorish feel to the place.  Tear-drop shaped niches that once held portraits of the saints now sheltered swallows' nests.  A domed ambulatory outside the church contained startling frescoes of Old Testament stories, done in a unique realist style.  Later, we hiked up a short path to the tomb of St. Ivan (the area's patron saint) and squeezed through the nearby cave where the ascetic lived many of years of his life.  Our sins were now forgiven, said Micho. 

Our last stop in Bulgaria was Veliko Tarnovo, a picturesque city built above the meandering Yantra River.  We liked the place immediately.  Narrow, multistory, Ottoman-ish homes with red-tiled roofs clung to the river-carved cliffs.  Above a bend in the river sat the Art Gallery - in a beautiful yellow stone building - and an amazing sculpture of four warriors on horseback ("The Asens.")  At Micho's suggestion, we checked into the Comfort Hotel.  (He kept referring to it as "This Comfort Hotel", which in his Slavic accent, sounded like the “Discomfort Hotel.”)  Just a short walk from our hotel was the fortress of Tzarevets, a heavily reconstructed complex whose rough stone walls mirrored the area's natural escarpments.  The restaurants were quite good, and the people (as in all of Bulgaria) were very friendly.  Perhaps too friendly.  Young men kept trying to pick Nori up at the Internet Cafe. 


We said goodbye to Barry on our third day at Veliko Tarnovo.  He was pressed for time, and wanted to spend a few more days in Romania before heading back to the USA.  It had been a lot of fun traveling with him in Albania, Greece and Bulgaria...we hope others can join us on our travels!