June 22, 2016
It’s the first day of summer and we spent hours of it in Sofia’s oldest park, Борисова Градина (Borisova Gradina, Boris’s Garden). The park was actually begun in 1884, several years before Tzar Ferdinand became Bulgaria’s ruler, let alone married and had a son named Boris. Tzar Ferdinand was an accomplished botanist so it is likely he took an avid interest in the park’s development. The park is large and varied, old and new, planned and wild, for leisure and athletics, frequented by all ages.
During the communist period, the park was renamed. As communists are known neither for their sense of humor nor their sense of irony, they renamed the park Парк на Свободата (Park na Svobodata, Freedom Park) and in 1956 stuck a large monument there called Братска Могила (Bratska Mogila, Brotherly Mound). Hence Freedom Park in Bulgaria’s capital memorializes Soviet “partisans” who died fighting fascism. Whether for or against communism generally or the USSR specifically, it was clear to all Bulgarians that they were in no way free of their Soviet “big brothers.” Someone has now painted a graffiti red star where the official red star used to be. It’s hard to know whether using a red star as graffiti is honoring the original intent or mocking it.
Borisova Gradina is bordered on the southwest by Dragan Tzankov Boulevard and on the northeast by Tzarigradsko Shossay. We began our walk at the top of the park at Орлов Мост (Orlov Most). There the manmade Lake Ariana hosts paddle boats and rowboats in the warm weather and a skating rink in the cold. The plaza is lined with cafes and with vendors selling ice-cream, popcorn, and freshly squeezed juices. The fragrance of linden trees gently accompanies you enter the long alleys into the park itself.
The park is maintained, but not to a stellar degree. There is someone mowing the grass around the playground and someone raking. The playground is large, but has not been painted in anyone’s memory. The fountain’s water is cold and fresh, but half of the spouts on the old fountain have stopped working. The benches are plentiful, but peeling and scattered. Nonetheless it is a living park. It is not an immaculate thing for promenades and for attention paid. The lamps remain as beautiful as when they were first installed.
Children can pedal a toy car, and at three leva for 15 minutes you can easily say yes to this treat every day. Or they can follow, frighten, and feed the pigeons who charge nothing for this entertainment. The pigeons seem to enjoy обикновени бисквити (ordinary biscuits). These are made by many companies. Nestle calls theirs житен дар (wheat gift) and the pigeons were happy to have their gift crumbled and thrown to them.
You can pull the benches wherever you have a mind to and read the paper. Or let your baby sleep in the fresh air.
You can walk to the lily pond and perhaps come across a policeman directing not traffic but horses to drink at a nearby fountain.
Everywhere you turn, there is another path, reminding one of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Take one path and you see a perhaps forgotten partisan with his children, another and you see an outdoor concert stage.
There are many busts of Bulgarian literary figures. I find myself often surprised when doing the almost inadvertent calculation and realizing how young so many of them died, how fierce and worn by life the sculpted faces appear.
There are many small clearings, gazebos, small structures, where people can find themselves private spaces in the midst of the big city park. Or one can always lean a bike next to the appropriate trees and sling a hammock for an afternoon nap.
In the midst of the most wild, most untouched parts of Borisova Gradina, there are very well kept clay tennis courts where a summer youth tennis camp is currently underway. Not far away the Republic swimming complex that was my husband’s favorite as a boy has been completely abandoned. We hope it gets a second life, but we’re not too hopeful this will actually happen.
From time to time on the dirt footpaths with old growth trees towering overhead, you see a small wooden bench to surprise you with its contemplative possibilities.
Keep walking and eventually you come to Коколандия (Kokolandia), a children’s paradise. A brilliantly planned series of rope and wood courses differentiated by difficulty, it is a modern entertainment and sport that blends seamlessly in and with the surrounding forest. It is modestly priced, creatively structured, and requires of children of all ages ingenuity, strength, and resourcefulness.
And as the sign says, “There is no WiFi…only secure ropes.”
Our son fell asleep on a nearby bench after his exertions. Earlier I had lain on the grass looking up at a nearly cloudless blue sky through the branches of the tree providing me with shade. Contentment is never a bore. Borisova Gradina never disappoints.