When my husband was growing up in the concrete panel block apartments of Druzhba, his family of four had to share their small apartment with another family of four. The families didn’t know or even like each other, but the People’s Republic of Bulgaria in its wisdom decided that this would be best. The People’s Republic of Bulgaria made such wise decisions regularly. As questioning authority was ill-advised and as no one on high particularly cared about the comfort of the much vaunted working class, eight people remained in a one-bedroom apartment for well over a decade until, at long last, the other family was moved to a different apartment. By then my husband was an adult and was essentially a squatter in a colder water studio with no bathroom or kitchen.
For all those years of unasked for communal living, my husband’s family of two parents and two children had the kitchen and the bedroom. The other family of two parents and two children had the living room and the bathroom. They shared the toilet.
So once a week my husband’s family trouped off to Sofia’s Central Mineral Bath. His mother went to bathe and socialize on the women’s side and he, his father, and younger brother went to the men’s side. The Central Mineral Bath was completed in 1913 and continues, at least on the outside, to be a building of true beauty.
Unfortunately, my first trip to Bulgaria in 1987 was a year too late in the Central Bath’s working life; it had been closed in 1986 due to its poor condition.
For centuries prior to this building, however, the natural thermal mineral waters were valued and the 16th century Banya Bashi Mosque next door was built in part so that Muslims could more easily make their required ablutions before prayers. And even more than a millennium before the Ottomans, the Romans extolled the waters of Sofia, then called Serdika. Reportedly, Serdika was such a favorite with Constantine the Great (reign 306-337) that he declared, “Serdika is my Rome.”
Many times my Grandma Lil recounted how her Old Country mother, born somewhere in the far eastern portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had difficulties with her legs. Wrapping them tightly with lengths of cloth did not offer enough relief. Something was swelling, something was aching, and the only correct and known to be sure cure would be found in the healing mineral baths of old Europe. So I have a respect for the power of mineral baths, even if I don’t necessarily believe they can cure all ills.
From time to time, my in-laws also went to the baths at nearby Pancharevo. Bulgaria has been known since ancient times for its wealth of thermal mineral waters and Pancharevo is just one more of these. My husband and his family would make a day of it, first going to the Pancharevo Baths and then spending time picnicking and relaxing by the lake steps away.
I’ve been to the Pancharevo Baths several times and, despite the now decrepit building, bathing in this ancient way puts you in another space and time like nothing else. You cannot but relax and release tensions as you go through the time-worn rituals of cleansing and soaking.
Once we took my then two-year old daughter to Pancharevo. There was a drought that year and the lake, artificially made by damming, was virtually dry. Those that liked to fish after a bath or picnic were out of luck that year. When we lived in Bulgaria 2010-2012, we discovered that Pancharevo had transformed. Two wonderful outdoor pools had been constructed and filled with the thermal mineral water. One pool has a depth and slide that accommodates young children while the other a depth (and bar) that accommodates adults. It’s a thoroughly luxurious feeling to lie on a lounge chair in, say, October and warm yourself in the natural hot pool. It’s not cleansing like the baths, but it’s rather nice all the same. The original baths, looking quite forlorn though still operating, must be passed to reach the new pools so you in fact can combine old and new and do it all. There’s a spa as well with all the expected services, though we didn’t try it. You can lunch at the restaurant, picnic on the grass by the lake, or just pull sandwiches out of your bag to munch by the pool. Much time has passed since my in-laws went there, but you can still spend the day enjoying yourself at Pancharevo. And you can take the bus—I think it is bus line №1—straight from Sofia.
We spent a few days one winter in the small town of Dobrinishte, about two and a half hours south of Sofia. One of the attractions for me was the mineral baths. Particularly in winter, the idea of soaking in a hot mineral bath has a powerful pull on the imagination and the body. The baths in Dobrinishte are in a large building fronted by extensive grounds and a circular garden surrounded by a stone path leading to a central entrance. Once inside, signs alert you to the water’s mineral composition, temperature, and the chronic diseases/complaints aided by bathing in the water (e.g., arthritis, sciatica, eczema) as well as those aided by drinking it (e.g., nephritis, hepatitis, colitis). My daughter and I left the males in our party to their side while we entered on the women’s. None of us admitted to any of the listed diseases.
Much ritual is involved at such a place. Yelena Akhtiorskaya in Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel
describes it recreated by Russian immigrants in Brighton Beach: “A full-blown conversation…was frowned upon. The process demanded respect. The banya experience was ritualistic, sacred. An air of immense gravity was brought about by the sense that one’s ancestors had been heating their bones in the same way for millennia.” Mineral baths are not reserved for the well-to-do or the occasional treat, but an ancient practice for all that has continued today uninterrupted.
My daughter and I undressed in the large anteroom and put our things into the lockers provided. Locker is perhaps a misnomer since there were no locks. We then entered the women’s bath with our soap, shampoo, sponge and towels, wearing nothing but our flip-flops. These are known as джапанки (japonki) in Bulgarian as they mimic traditional Japanese sandals. Wearing them is a necessity to prevent slipping on the wet tiled floor and to avoid the unsubtle censure of ever-present older women who frown on bare feet and who would not hesitate to call you out on any real or perceived departure from ritual. After washing ourselves at one of the taps continually feeding hot mineral water into the knee-high basins that lined two sides of the room, we carefully stepped out of our flip-flops and entered the bath.
We were among several mother-daughter pairs there on both occasions that we went. Bathers from small children to the elderly quietly washed and soaked, periodically chatted softly, and often closed their eyes in the bliss of absolute and total giving in to the warmth of water and the steam rising all around. At ten years old, my daughter found it impossible to quietly soak in what seemed to her the biggest bathtub in the world. It was hard to maintain a Zen state while counting how long she could hold her breath under water “one more time, Mama, one more time.” And still, it was a wonder to soak in a hot mineral bath while all around the bathhouse snow was piled six feet and higher.