We went to Belogradchik the other day. Actually we went to two Belogradchiks, one timeless and one frozen in time. It’s not the same thing at all.
There is Belogradchik the ancient fortress and even more ancient rock formations. Then there is Belogradchik the town, which seems unaware that the world—and most of Bulgaria—has moved on since pre-1989 days.
Our original plan had been to drive to Belogradchik from staying with relatives in Kozlodui and to stay overnight. We thought that the famous fortress and unique rocks formations, a natural environmental tourist attraction if ever there was one, would have inspired development in the small town on the order of quaint cafes, artisan shops, small family hotels with warm service and pleasant conversation. We thought wrong.
Instead we walked up and down the main street lined with communist-era bleak storefronts, many of them deserted. The “999 Products” store had long been emptied of however many products it actually had on its shelves and seems now to be full of empty cardboard boxes piled so high that one can’t see anything else through the windows. One store had the forlorn name of the product it sold, Българско бельо (Bulgarian underwear). What might have been an attractive atelier for the master craftsman making sheepskin coats and hats to order was an oversized former store with only a bench containing scraps of sheepskins, a калпак (traditional cone-shaped hat) or two, and no one to be found.
After roaming around for a bit for a place to each lunch, we found a small place serving buffet-style. Serving would be a misstatement. The choices were limited but sufficient. The food was not appealing in its presentation, but was made well. The employees were not in sight. After some time standing in front of the counter, an unsmiling woman appeared saying only, “I’m waiting for you to say what you want.” We ordered three bowls of soup, paid, and found a table. We were the only people in the place. Another woman, also expressionless, bellowed “Soup’s ready,” and we stood to retrieve the steaming hot bowls. The soup was good.
Had the entire scene been filmed, any audience watching outside Bulgaria would have thought it exaggerated in its drab appearance and militant bad service. So bad it’s good, frozen in time, any number of clichés would suffice. When we described the experience to friends back in Sofia, they only groaned in recognition of the universal pre-1989 experience they hoped never to experience again.
We decided to go see the fortress and rocks, after which we would drive straight back to Sofia rather than discover what would surely be pre-1989 Balkantourist style accommodations and personnel who resent any guests as an intrusion on their solitude and smoking breaks.
The little information on the few signs—and these translated into English in the manner of Google translate—did not take away from the stark beauty of the red rock formations. It was an overcast day, windy, and unusually cold for the end of June. The fortress remains are vast, encompassing some of the rock formations while overlooking others.
The 45 years of communism that cast such a pall over people’s natural inclinations and created structures that merely began to deteriorate immediately upon completion have had no effect on the immutable natural structures created by wind and water over two hundred million years ago. The red peaks, rocks, and precipices are garnished with the greens of trees, bushes, and grasses. Better, we thought, to be disappointed by the town and overwhelmed by the magnificence of the view. We went to Belogradchik the other day and we were glad we went.