“Never return to the haunts of your youth,” warned the poet Felix Dennis. “Do not look back” whispered the beautiful Eurydice to the Thracian King Orpheus. If the great affair is to move then travel becomes a kind of abandonment to nature, a personal commitment to beauty, a spontaneous work of enchantment. In a remote corner of Bulgaria lies the cave that Orpheus once passed through on that ancient quest to save his beloved Eurydice. In his grief, Orpheus journeyed to the underworld after her, where his music so moved the hearts of Hades and Persephone that they allowed Eurydice to return with him, but warned “do not look back.” Orpheus embarked and Eurydice followed but, after crossing the threshold, he turned to gaze at her beauty and they were torn apart. No, do not look back. Memory holds all you need of the truth.
Like Orpheus’s journey to Hades, my forays into the Balkans began and ended with a girl. The traveler is haunted by visions of paradise lost and the sentience of place — registered in sights and smells, taste and touch — becomes, through the personal connection, a meditation upon love. It is not traveling then, but love, that widens our perspective and beauty that shapes the journey. In the end, we awake from the dream clutching only memories, photographs plucked from the fire. No, do not look back, but only remember and be glad.
The Bulgarian dream began one night in early June when I stepped onto the tarmac at Sofia airport.
“Zdrasti – Welcome.” Maria was a Thracian beauty with striking dark features, caramel eyes, and a mischievous smile. She seemed to possess an immanent wonder, a frenetic allure. Bulgaria seemed to welcome me into her sacred heart as we waltzed through arrivals to the waiting car.
“Kak si – How are you, John?” Her father hopped out of the idling car.
Nils was a Viking giant with short white hair. He looked relaxed in a tennis shirt and loafers — transformed from the suited businessman I first met over dinner the previous winter, in Stockholm’s Operakallaren.
20 minutes later we turned into their apartment complex in Lozenets, a leafy suburb across from the trendy restaurants on James Bourchier Boulevard and the metro station that bears his name. Back at the apartment, I greeted Maria’s mother — the beautiful but fierce Gigi, who looked decided more at ease in her homeland. Midnight was fast approaching when we sat for dinner. Gigi had prepared a welcome feast of grilled trout and stuffed peppers with salad, piled high with white cheese and walnuts. The white Dimyat flowed into the early hours when we retired to the terrace.
Maria pointed to the silhouette of the Vitosha New Otani Hotel (now the Marinela), opposite.
“That’s where my parents married. It’s got a Japanese garden.”
Over beers — local Kaminitza — Nils announced his plan for the summer, “I hope you didn’t buy a return ticket because we’re taking you on a tour of the country.”
“You’ll get to see the real Bulgaria,” Gigi winked.
“Sounds great,” I glanced at Maria, smiling serendipitously.
The next morning I was rudely awoken by the blinding Balkan sun.
“Don’t go upstairs — you’ll roast” Maria laughed. The upper floor — a glass-walled lounge and roof terrace — was uninhabitable during the day. The modern apartment was spacious, with three floors of open plan Scandinavian beech and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Mount Vitosha.
“Loznets is full of old Communist families.”
From the outside, the neighborhood was a dour affair; shades of gray interrupted by terracotta tiles and laundry that billowed like sails from every other balcony.
“Our block was built by my grandfather, and then my parents added their own layers. My uncle has the ground floor and basement, but he rents them out.” Maria explained.
“They look built to last.”
“They contain more steel than the titanic.” Maria laughed.
After a late breakfast of Banitza — white cheese sandwiched between golden filo pastry — Maria showed me the neighborhood.
“Be careful! They’re diseased.” Maria pointed to the stray cats watching from the shadows.
“My cousin Teddy stroked one and all her hair fell out!”
“Growing up Theodora, or ‘Teddy,’ was like my older sister. Now she’s an air hostess in Dubai.” Maria explained.
Back at the apartment, I met ‘Todor Enchev’ a tottering, fedora-wearing octogenarian.
“Toshko” Maria exclaimed, hugging her portly grandfather.
“He was sent to the labor camp three times. It’s a miracle he survived.”
The lead up to the holidays passed in a flurry of social engagements, ceremonies and evening receptions. Each summer Maria’s parents hosted an extravagant Midsummer party. Several hundred ex-pats and well-connected Sofians gathered in the Vrana royal palace gardens to drink and dance into the night. Gigi seemed to come alive as she charmed their guests with her razor-sharp wit. Meanwhile, Nils introduced me to old family friends and their offspring, permanent fixtures of Maria’s Bulgarian childhood.
“Ex-pats are always passing through.”
Later, on the veranda, we met several of Maria’s school friends.
“The few who are still here.” There was a hint of sadness.
By the end of June, I had been inducted into the city that Constantine once called “My Rome.” How the mighty had fallen; Sofia was now an epitaph to bygone opulence, a footnote to resplendent grandeur. Her fortunes seem to rise and fall like her crumbling boulevards, where graffiti slurs and AC units adorn her bleak façade. At the junctions, ugly Soviet watchtowers stand guard and cigarette kiosks peep from cellars.
Maria’s eyes sparkled in the midday sun and framed a playful, mesmerizing smile.
“That was our hangout spot.” She pointed to the Starbucks on Vassil Levski Boulevard.
Carts laden with scrap tottered beside idling supercars as we headed downtown.
“Did I mention that Russia copied our alphabet? St. Cyril invented it in the 9th century.” Sofia pointed to the Cyrillic script on the metro, a source of considerable pride that managed to find a way into every conversation. Downtown Sofia was undergoing invasive surgery. We emerged from the metro into the center of an archeological dig. The sunken square displayed the strata of historical sediment hidden beneath Sofia’s skin.
“She will never be Paris or Milan — but we don’t pretend to be.”
The Neo-Byzantine spires, Ottoman minarets, and moderne high-rises stand in solidarity, bearing witness to Sofia’s shifting fortunes; pockets of peace and prosperity carved out between the recesses of war and occupation. The sun beat down on Tzar Osvoboditel Boulevard as we entered the elegant Alexander I square; home to the Bulgarian Parliament, the Royal Palace and the handsome Ivan Vazov National Theatre.
We crossed the yellow cobbles of the National Assembly Square — the eponymous heart of downtown Sofia.
“A wedding gift to Ferdinand I from the Austro-Hungarian emperor.” Maria pointed to the curious yellow cobbles, before translating the inscription on the Parliament building.
“‘Unity yields strength.’ Which, when you look at our national history, is profoundly ironic — a sick joke.”
“It’s actually quite edifying in comparison to our other landmarks. Wait until you see the National Palace of Culture.” Maria was referring to the octagonal megalith, a deformed lovechild of brutalism and figurativism. Meanwhile, outside The National Assembly, the Tsar-Liberator Alexander II is immortalized astride his horse by the Florentine sculptor Arnoldo Zocchi.
“All four hooves are grounded. It means he didn’t die in battle.” Maria explained.
On the hour, a saber-wielding captain led the changing of the guard and opposite the Presidency an old Mosque houses the Museum of Archaeology. On the corner, next to the National Assembly, stands the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. The Clement Ohrid University was founded by a disciple of St. Cyril, immortalized in stone beside the entrance. We turned left through a gated courtyard to examine Sofia’s oldest surviving building, the diminutive 4th-century redbrick basilica of St. George.
The grandiose piazza imbibes Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Alice and the Royal Palace built for Bulgaria’s first post-liberation ruler, the young Alexander I of Battenberg, houses the National Art Gallery. Outside the theatre, Sofians relaxed in the City Garden park and greeted one another in their abrasive language, “kak si!” and “dobŭr den?” Nearby, obnoxious teens skated, and the leathery faced elders squinted over backgammon boards, cursing the state of affairs.
“Life was better under communism,” the elders complain, “At least crime was punished.”
We returned to the square in the direction of Sofia’s most famous landmark, the Alexander Nevski.
Beneath her iconic turquoise domes we ascend the Cathedral steps, as pugnacious beggars shake their cups and cry, “Stotinki, stotinki — A penny, a penny.”
Greeted inside by cool air and incense, we lingered to admire the intricate frescoes depicting the final judgment. Tourists gazed up at her Iconostasis, and from the balcony, heavenly choruses descended. Bearded priests paced towards the altar; bronze thuribles swung and incense burned as the faithful lit candles and kissed icons. Meanwhile, somber seminarians scraped candle wax from the tiles.
“Fancy having a tribute to Russia as your crowning glory.” I thought of Moscow’s “Christ the Saviour.”
Outside, a flea market stretched from the church’s entrance across the piazza where cluttered stalls displaying all manner of artifacts from Sofia’s colorful history: Byzantine coins, Ottoman daggers, Nazi medals, knuckledusters, even Ushankas emblazoned with the red star. On one stall I picked up a bayonet, admiring its crude form.
“That’s probably killed someone,” Maria gasped. “It’s probably cursed.”
Bulgarian folk superstition was alive and well. Many wear red ribbons to ward off the “evil eye.”
Eventually we left empty-handed, to visit the Baroque Russian Church of St. Nikolai the Miracle-Maker, honoring the patron saint of TzarNicholas II.
“Tzar Nicholas was killed by the Ottomans for refusing to convert.” Maria explained.
Vitosha Street runs north towards the Mountain whose name it bears, lined with bistros and bars, upmarket shops and restaurants. The former Bulgarian Communist Party headquarters is flanked by the Hotel Balkan and the TSUM department store, where the “Bodies Revealed” Exhibition was on — a disturbing collection of polymerized cadavers, dissected to display their bodily systems.
“They’re rumored to be Chinese dissidents. The Bulgarian Church was outraged. ‘Godless, inhumane and harmful,’ they called it.”
“Such absurdity,” complained Metropolitan Gavril “reduces the human personality to its bodily form.”
Pondering the sanctity of life we headed north past the Sephardic Synagogue’s bulbous black dome.
“During The War, Tzar Boris refused to deport our Jews to the death camps.” Maria explained, “Bulgaria’s Jews were spared ‐ all 50,000 of them.”
Across from the 16th-century Banya Bashi Mosque, stands the central Market — equal parts Victorian crystal palace and Eastern bazaar. Further on, through another courtyard is the church of Sveta Nedelya.
“The original was completely destroyed . . . bombed by the Communists.” Maria informed me, “Tzar Ferdinand survived but, 200 Sofians died.”
North of the market, towards the Perlovska River, and behind the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, stands Sofia’s second-oldest church, Sveta Sophia, where ‘Holy Wisdom’ is depicted in female form standing above her daughters: Faith, Hope, and Love.
“I had my handbag stolen from there.” Maria pointed to a trendy bar. We turned the corner, where Maria pointed out The Residence — a neo-baroque mansion, restored far beyond its original splendor.
“It’s invitation-only. That’s how they keep the mafia out.”
Opposite is a bald patch of rubble where the Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, the ‘Father of Bulgarian Communism’, once stood.
“People still have mixed feelings about bulldozing our history like that.” Maria mused, “but it was ugly!”
“There’s a book you’ve got to read.” The conversation never strayed far from Communism, the mysterious bogey monster responsible for all of Bulgaria’s woes.
“The Porcupine by Julian Barnes. It’s basically an imaginary trial of Zhivkov, the last leader of the BCP. It was 1993 and Barnes prophesied our difficult transition first steps. When democracy arrived the same leading figures returned as the Bulgarian Socialist Party,” Maria lamented.
The harsh Balkan sun had relented by the time we moved on from Borissova Gradina, Sofia’s Central Park.
The bronze Soviet Army monument still guards the entrance and nearby the ‘Ruski Pametnik’ obelisk honors the 200,000 Russians who fell during the liberation.
“They call us little Russia and we’ve always been close. Even through Khrushchev’s thaw, Brezhnev’s détente, Gorbachev’s glasnost. My mother’s generation learned Russian at school but you won’t hear them speak it.”
“I heard the Communist leaders forced peasants to run through the forest dressed as bears. Then they shot them in a twisted game.”
“It’s probably true,” Maria confirmed, almost nonchalantly. “But nowadays the cruelty is more subtle; cartels, monopolies and corrupt utility boards, are the ones in power. Corruption lubricates everything here. Bulgarians are a proud race existing in a strange time. A culture ravished Communism’s indiscriminate blowtorch.”
“It goes back to Ottoman repression when neighbor was forced to betray neighbor. It’s a deep-rooted metaphysical suspicion of other people ingrained in the national psyche.”
We walked back along James Boucher Boulevard, and now and again Maria pointed out the Roma Gypsies.
“I’m planning to write my thesis on the Roma.” Maria commented.
They were a constant presence, but existing on the periphery of Bulgarian society. Whereas ethnic Bulgarians possess broader, paler faces, and brown eyes, their gypsy counterparts are dark and slender, with angular features and shimmering blue eyes. The two races coexist, each as obnoxious as the other. The Roma are disdained, labeled as thieving miscreants and mentioned in the same breathe as drug addicts. Whether the perception was justified, they suffered from horrific PR.
“Roma stole the water meters in an entire neighborhood and sold them for scrap;” “Underage Roma rummaged through 15 graves for iron;” “Father Ivan shelters 18 Roma children, they mug him;” “Mugged granny in shock: Roma were threatening her to cut her head off!” Maria reeled off headlines, ranging from the bizarre, “New atrocity from a Roma from Krusharska — they blew a snake up with a pump,” to the terrifying “Gypsy attacked a bus driver with an axe.” To Bulgarians, The Roma are equal parts ridiculous caricature, and detestable menace.
In time I came to understand another aspect of the Bulgarian mentality. “An ill person carries a healthy one on his back,” their saying goes. Schadenfreude took on a whole new meaning in Bulgaria, where reveling in the misfortune of others was ingrained in the national psyche.
“It’s not surprising,” Maria explained. “Kids here are raised on the fairy tales of Sly Petar, a facetious little prick, who’s always one-upping his Turkish friend Nastradin Hodja.”
The summer wore on and Sofia was in the grip of a particularly insufferable heatwave. On the weekends we traded the sweltering city for the mountains. The Borovets ski resort on Rila’s northern slope was transformed into a pony trekking and hikers’ paradise. We had a suite in a small inn run by a legendary Bulgarian alpine skier and his ex-model wife. In the hotel restaurant, Nils and Gigi talked into the night with their Sofia clique, grazing on course-after-course of grilled kababche and befkeke, fried potatoes, shopska salads. The heat made a change from England’s mild summers but it was not such a novelty for Gigi, who was particularly uncomfortable in the heat. Back in Sofia, the Roman empress lounged on her daybed, watched Turkish soap operas, filed her nails and spat sunflower husks into a pile. For hours on end, Gigi lay slumped in her TV chair, surrounded by remote controls, lotions and a floor-to-ceiling stack of Vogue back issues.
“Does she speak Turkish?” I asked.
“No, she just likes the style.”
To outsiders, they can appear insecure and narcissistic, but Bulgarian women are undeniably fashionable, even if they appear to be in perpetual mourning; black boots, black leather jackets, black skirts, and always the same movie star sunglasses. Gigi was a ferocious woman who I never saw smile — not even in photographs.
“She grew up under Communism,” Maria constantly reminded me, excusing her mother’s coldness. Apart from her Turkish soaps, Gigi was careful to always appear busy.
“It’s important to always look busy,” Maria commented. “We think inventing mystery side projects will make us appear more interesting . . . more intriguing.”
“Appearances are everything here,” Maria confessed. “Some of my friends have never tasted bread. Their mothers didn’t allow it.”
When the beauty of youth dissipates they turn to plastic alterations.
“You should go to a Bulgarian party — they inject Botox around the dinner table!”
“Believe me, I’ve noticed.” The work on display was jaw-dropping, but the line between stunning beauty and horrific disfigurement was not always clear.
“When you’ve suffered as much as us, can you blame us?
“In Bulgaria, it’s almost cheaper to eat out than cook yourself,” Nils explained, “Sushi is big in Bulgaria. It’s cheap too.”
I had noticed that Gigi only cooked on special occasions. Most evenings we dined on the James Boucher Boulevard, or at The Residence; a members club with gardens backing on to the National Assembly Square, the scene of year-long protests. By mid-July Sofia was in the grip of civil unrest; night after night 80,000 protestors assembled outside the Parliament demanding the Borisov government resign. The sunset and from the safety of the walled garden, we listened to Rome burn.
Meanwhile, in The Residence, we ate our cake in style.
“Being an ex-pat here is great”, Nils reflected, between platefuls of Wagyu streak and Beluga infused oysters. “But not for the average Bulgarian, they live on 200 euro a month.”
I remember my first taste of the protests. One evening we were outside in the gardens enjoying Teppanyaki.
“We’re in the eye of the storm,” Nils joked, “but we’re invisible here.”
“Six weeks and they still continue demanding the government resign.” Gigi didn’t look up from her phone.
“Will it work? Who can say?” Gigi shrugged, “The people are fed up with the crazy utility bills.”
Flares illumine the sky as the enraged masses chanted as one. Back at the apartment, the TV news showed the politicians being smuggled out in buses pelted with rocks.
I was still in Sofia months later when the second round of protests began. This time mass outrage against the Oresharski government. In truth, injustice was everywhere; teenage mafia kids cruised around in stolen supercars, then retreated to their gated mansions. Meanwhile the Bulgarian everyman struggles to survive.
“You can only let them eat cake for so long.” Nils sighed.
“The Oresharski coalition is a pact between BSP, liberals and, ultra-nationalists,” Gigi informed me.
Somehow they would somehow retain power for another year.
Elsewhere, the cosmopolitan vibe is diminished by symptoms of post-soviet capitalism. The familiar multinational logos, bulwarks of capitalism, are emblazoned across rooftops. Meanwhile, the miserable poor forage through bins in the gutter below. The Western idyll is displayed by airbrushed models on garish billboards, promoting shiny new shopping malls. The natives rushed to fill their dour lives with cheap nastiness. In truth, the tasteless fakery is only a temporal escape from Balkan decay.
“Ikea opened a store here last year and the Bulgarians went crazy.” Nils reflected, “Gigi loves it, she goes there every other week.” Nils chuckled.
I came to understand how a nation of natural beauty had fallen upon hard times. By night the cornucopia alluded to by dancing neon’s disintegrates as daylight exposes the bleak surroundings. The few elegant establishments are indicted by their immediate neighbors; the brutal and the beautiful – ignominious siblings. There is no though to context, no cohesion nor harmony in the Balkans – only stark individualism. Everywhere haphazardly parked cars blocked the pavements.
“The Bulgarian mentality – No job is ever worth doing well!” Maria gestured to the uneven hexagonal paving, a common fixture.
That evening Nils outlines his plan for the weeks ahead.
“Pack your bags; we’re going on a road trip to see the real Bulgaria.” •
This is a work of creative nonfiction. Names have been changed and some creative choices have been made for the purpose of the narrative.