Tag Archives: Vitosha

Bulgaria Summer 2016

We’re going to Bulgaria this summer. We’re going for a month, all four of us, and we’re getting excited. A month sounds like a lot of time, but we know it will pass in a rush and we won’t get to see or do nearly all the things we would like. A good trip needs to balance just the right amounts of planning (so you’re not spoiled for choice) and serendipity (so you’re not so scheduled you miss unforeseen opportunities). Of course, each of us likely has in mind a different itinerary. I have a little Да Правим (To Do) list on my desktop that assures me all my decisions are the right ones—at least until the others in the family assert their opinion.

Cherni Vruh August 1894We’re planning to start off in Sofia. Assuming cooperative weather, at least one visit to Vitosha seems a must. I’d love to get our son and daughter to agree to a hike up to Черни Връх (Black Peak). In the late 19th century, beloved Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov founded the Bulgarian tourist movement with calls to “Sofia lovers of nature” to re-energize themselves physically and mentally by climbing Mount Vitosha.

Алеко Константинов2In the photo of Black Peak from 1894, Aleko—it seems no one ever refers to him as Konstantinov—is on the far right. Mountain air is lauded for its clean air, critically important for physical and mental health. Mountain hiking is a strong part of the national ethos. So that’s how I hope we’ll spend at least one day while in Sofia. If we walk down Vitosha Boulevard, we can meet Щастливеца (The Happy One, Aleko’s pseudonym) face-to-face, via the statue just placed there this month.

We’ll eat a lot I know. We’ll have кифли с шипков мармалад (something like brioche with rose hip jam). We’ll stop by the Turkish woman’s small bakery on Graf Ignatiev Street, opposite Sedmochislenitzi park, and have some baklava. We’ll wаnder through Борисова градина (Boris’s Garden) while munching on popcorn. And, it goes without saying, we’ll enjoy the best tomatoes in the world in our шопска салата (shopska salata).

Our daughter will want to take a horseback riding lesson or two in Борисова Градина (Boris’s Garden) at the entrance just south of the Vassil Levski metro on Dragan Tzankov Boulevard. Our son remembers feeling humiliated that he was too small to ride when we lived there. He had sit on a small pony and be led around in a circle so he’s anxious to prove himself on a horse just like his big sister. He’s still a bit smaller than she was then, though, so our fingers are crossed that he isn’t disappointed.

Where to after Sofia is the question.

My imagined southern route would take us to Rila—monastery and mountain, which the children have never seen and which neither of us adults have seen since the 1980s. But that is what is so wonderful about seeing something timeless, three decades is meaningless for an ageless mountain and a monastery founded over a millennium ago. From Rila to Blagoevgrad so that our daughter can see American University in Blagoevgrad, just in case, since she’s in high school and college is beginning to get a foothold in our thoughts. Then on to Bansko, one of our favorite spots so that we can spend hours eating, drinking, and talking at Dedo Pene’s. From Bansko in the Pirin Mountains, we might go to the town of Kovachevitza in the Rhodope Mountains. We’ve never been and who knows what we might fall in love with there.

From Sofia, we could well take an eastern route and stop off in Koprivshtitza to stay at Pri Bai Gencho, the very small семеен хотел (family hotel) and restaurant. Maybe we’ll get to stay in the same room as twice before, the one with the New York City souvenir key chain to open the door. Below is Bai Gencho flanked by his son Bai Toshko and daughter-in-law Ani.

Pri Bai Gencho

Hotel-Restaurant “Pri Bai Gencho”, City of Koprivshtitza, Behind the school

Home telephone 07-184-2068, Mobile 0878-889-264

IDevetashkan the morning we’ll have hot milk and мекици (something like the New Orleans fried dough specialty beignet) with homemade jam made from tiny wild strawberries. We’ll wander around the town’s cobblestone streets admiring the beautifully painted Bulgarian Renaissance (19th century) houses. When we’ve had our fill of Koprivshtitza, perhaps we’ll go on to see the remarkable Пещера Деветяшка (Devetashka Cave) and Крушунски Водопад (Krushunski Waterfall). In Bulgaria, there is an embarrassment of riches in terms of natural beauty.

My daughter wants to know exactly how long we’ll stay and where we’ll stay, but I can’t give her a satisfying answer. If we love it, we’ll stay longer. If we’re done, we’ll leave. If we get distracted by something unplanned, we’ll be sure to give in to the moment.

Natural beauty, archeology, history—we can do all of that with a trip north of Sofia. We can go to Пещера Леденика (Ledenika Cave) and then spend some time, a day really, at Белоградчик (Belogradchik) fortress and rocks.

From Belogradchik, we’ll go visit family in Kozlodui. There I want to see what I can find out about my father-in-law’s family history for a future blogpost I’m planning. I would like to poke around in the cemetary and see the names and dates on the headstones, perhaps go to the municipal office and see what can be found that seems lost to memory. Kozlodui is both a substantial town supported by the nuclear reactor there and a traditional village. Much has changed, but the steady employment from the reactor has in its own way financed the continued village life that remains. And village life means that we’ll be fed within an inch of our lives.

Of course, it just might happen that we do not want to be fed within an inch of our life and we just might not have any room left having just come from another relative’s before reaching the current one. We cannot with any ease say no because this is to insult our hosts. At a minimum, we will be encouraged not to be shy and we will insist to anyone listening that we are not being shy—we are simply not hungry. And being slim, we will of course be encouraged to eat all the more as it is obvious none of us are eating enough and more food could only be to our benefit.

PlovdivBut maybe we’ll mix it up and the idle plans above will be shifted around. Maybe we’ll go to Koprivshtitza on our way to Plovdiv. We’ve always loved Plovdiv and it’s apparently blooming more than ever now that it’s been declared the European Capital of Culture 2019. I’ve read more posts than I can count, seen more photos of reborn neighborhoods and cafes and artisan shops and street art—amazing street art—so we have to go to Plovdiv. From city life maybe we’ll plunge back into the natural wonder of the Rhodope Mountains and see the famed Дяволски Мост (Devil’s Bridge).

 

It’s the summer. There has to be ample beach time built in. So this summer we’re planning our first visit to Синеморец (Sinemoretz). This we have not left to serendipity, but have reserved a room.

Did I say we’re excited to go to Bulgaria this summer? We’re leaving in just four weeks. We all need bathing suits. We need a t-shirt or two. Passports both US and BG. Everything else is there. Because as Bulgarians are fond of saying—despite massive societal pessimism documented by countless international surveys and complaints galore (often valid) about their country’s problems—“България е райска градина” (Bulgaria is a Garden of Paradise).

 

 

The Palace of Sports

Пламен Атанасов

After ten months of whining that I wasn’t exercising after years of regular gym attendance, I finally walked into the Sportna Palata, the pool and fitness center attached to the Ministry of Physical Education and Sports building, and turned myself over to personal trainer Plamen. Other than a few weeks here and there, for the rest of our stay I went five days weekly to the basement gym. It was just a ten-minute walk away and I felt I was in the best shape of my life—largely due to the fact that I wasn’t left to my own devices and Plamen deftly contrived an ever-changing fitness program.

Спортна Палата

The fitness center at the Sportna Palata does not have the most luxurious surroundings or the latest equipment, but the staff is made up of knowledgeable and warm professionals and the atmosphere couldn’t have been friendlier. That is, in the fitness center itself.

The expansive locker room above the fitness center has banks of showers, a wonderful sauna, one squat toilet, one quiet cleaning woman/attendant who is fond of needlepoint, and one not so quiet cleaning woman/attendant who did not like the fact that I used the locker room to change into my fitness gear. Perhaps a week or two after I started, she came to me and asked if I was using the pool. I said no. She then questioned why I was changing in the “pool” changing room. I assured her that I had paid for the fitness center. “Oh no,” she asserted, “they have nothing to do with us. There is a changing room there.”

map
Well, that’s true in a manner of speaking, but the basement changing room is simply a closet with a curtain, less than ten lockers, and not even one squat toilet. So I explained that I preferred changing in the larger room, using the one toilet in the entire building and then taking all of my belongings downstairs. She retreated. After somewhat nervously confirming with Plamen my right to use the upstairs locker room, I felt better. For sometime after, I was happy to see that the attendant ignored me when she saw me there during her shift.

Weeks passed and then, as if all was new, she approached me in the locker room and asked if I was using the pool. This time, I felt assertive and, looking deliberately around at the nearly empty room, asked if I was bothering anyone. “Oh no, of course not,” she was quick to answer. And didn’t I have the right to use the toilet?, I asked. “Of course, there’s only the one,” she reassured. I take all my belongings downstairs, I pointed out, and I change back into my street clothes there as well. Was I causing a problem?, I challenged. “No, no, of course not,” and she backed away.

At that point, she started a sweetness campaign that baffled me, greeting me the next time with “Hello little dear, how are you?” and using the familiar form of “you” that is used only between relatives, friends and colleagues. Over the coming days, the sweetness campaign progressed to greetings of “My little one, little golden one.” Upon Sportna Palata’s re-opening after a two-week summer closing, I entered to find her waiting with open arms as if to hug me and I instinctively stepped aside, though normally I strive to be as polite as possible.

My husband contends this approach is a form of manipulation, used particularly by those guardians of the gates (e.g., porters, security personnel, attendants) who feel they justify their presence in their positions by zealously exerting control. His cousin suggests that this is the way a person of relatively low status “feeds the soul.” The control and/or soul-feeding continued. The saccharine applied intensified as the week progressed. By the end of the first week back, she was positively a fan, “I’m filled with admiration for you, you come so regularly.” This continued, addressing me as “daughter” even as she assiduously searched for opportunities to admonish me—for washing my hands with the bar of soap left on the sink by the toilet, for letting my bare feet touch the floor while I changed, (Q: “How can I take off my pants otherwise? A: You put your ass on the bench.) and other sins.

There is no smoking allowed in the building, which is used particularly for the large pool and the swimming classes for all ages. And so what seemed like the entire Sportna Palata cleaning/attendant staff, men and women alike, smoked like fiends just outside the door of this building dedicated to healthful activity while children scrambled in and out. My son began going to swimming lessons shortly before he turned five and my daughter joined a class for older children some months later; the quality of the teaching staff was excellent and both children made great progress. To get to the fitness center in the basement, I had to walk along the length of the Olympic-size pool. It was always a treat to see a group of young girls training for their synchronized swimming team while their coach beat out a rhythm with a rod or eager pre-schoolers in the small rear pool dedicated to beginning swimming lessons.

synchronized

Having finished swimming—be it laps or lessons or synchronized training—it was apparently a requirement to blow dry one’s hair. There is something indescribably sweet seeing grandfathers and fathers assiduously blow drying their young children’s hair in the unshakable belief held by all Bulgarians I have ever met that no matter the season or temperature cold and flu viruses immediately target, in the manner of heat-seeking missiles, anyone with wet hair, and thereupon immediately strike without mercy.

1980 JulyOf course, not everyone has the time, resources or inclination to go swimming or to a fitness center. But Bulgarians believe strongly in the constitutional, the physical and mental benefits of a walk. Let’s take a walk, let’s walk there, no matter that we’re early or s/he is late—we’ll walk around. It’s an airing out, it’s getting the kinks out of your legs, it’s clearing your head, it’s time for food to digest, and it’s an opportunity to talk to friends. Everyone loves to walk. I have to go pick up my daughter at school—no problem, I’ll walk with you. You don’t know where that is?—we’ll take a walk and I’ll show you. National Geographic’s July 1980 article observed that “everywhere in the country—it is practically a national pastime—Bulgarians walk.”

aleko_konstantinov

Nicely paired with the value of the walk is the cult of “clean air.” Many locations rise and fall in Bulgarian estimation depending on the assessment of the air’s cleanliness. In the late 19th century, beloved Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov founded the Bulgarian tourist movement with calls to “Sofia lovers of nature” to re-energize themselves physically and mentally by climbing Mount Vitosha. Mountain air is lauded for its clean air, critically important for physical and mental health. Mountain hiking is a strong part of the national ethos. But even in Sofia, even on the coldest winter days, windows in homes and offices will be repeatedly opened for “clean air.” Different neighborhoods will be valued according to their reputation for having more or less clean air. With no apparent irony, even passionate cigarette smokers (Konstantinov was among them) often use weekends to flee the cities for the mountains’ health-giving clean air and then light cigarettes as they sit peacefully at the summit.

Considering his plea to get out of the city for one’s health, Konstantinov might have been surprised to find that Sofia has been proclaimed the European Capital of Sport 2018. I hope the cleaning woman at Sportna Palata is prepared for the influx into her domain.

Спортна Палата вън

Concrete Jungle, Bulgarian Style

In 1987, I had my first glimpse of the ubiquitous concrete, pre-fab, no architecture required, block apartment complexes that the Communists propagated throughout the USSR and Eastern Europe in a mad drive to house as many people as possible. Driving from the airport in the small yellow Moskvich car that my husband’s family had waited ten years to purchase, I saw a mural nearly covering a side of one of the blocks far from the city center. Inexplicably in English—who could have possibly been the audience?—it read, “From Crude Oil, We Derive Confidence.”

moskvich

As a visitor, I needed to register my whereabouts with the police. We went to an office near the National Assembly building, in a part of the city paved with yellow bricks. There was a very long line. It moved very slowly. Eventually, my future brother-in-law took me to buy postcards while his mother held our place. I was able to fill several postcards, address them, go to the central post office, buy stamps, and mail them. On our return, his mother had barely advanced in line. Finally, it was my turn and I immediately saw the problem. A lone woman sat at a manual typewriter laboriously hunting and pecking to complete the carbon forms. Clickety clack clickety clack clickety clack as the carriage moved across and then “ding” as she shifted the lever to begin again. I was fairly confident that Big Brother could not have been watching me altogether efficiently.

жълт паваж

The enormous pre-fabricated panel concrete block apartment complex where I had to report I was staying is called Druzhba (fellowship). The family apartment is still there and our base whenever we visit. All 199 “blocks” were quickly filled by people like Rumen’s parents fleeing the hard agricultural life of the villages for the capital city, so the government built the equally appealing Druzhba 2. In other parts of the city, there are similar complexes filled with rows and rows of concrete block apartment buildings, each with numerous entrances, each entrance with numerous apartments. Like Druzhba, they often have evocative names like Nadezhda (hope) and Mladost (youth) that belie their drab appearance. Nadezhda and Mladost each sprouted into five like named complexes. All of these complexes have been absorbed into Sofia proper for government purposes, but they function like an American city’s outlying suburbs, with a greater population than the city center and their own bustling markets, small stores, office buildings and small businesses. The blocks have stayed the same as when I first saw them in 1987, but now there is a good deal of development in and around them to serve the multiple generations of residents living in them. Instead of “From Crude Oil, We Derive Confidence” in English, now there is a nearby restaurant with a sign in Bulgarian reading “Pizza Sushi.”

Druzhba3

Still, the drab gray blocks themselves are set up in rows, all right angles with none of the curves or organic feel of Sofia’s city center or of the villages— both of which show development that feels more human and more humane. The grid is hyper-organized and all the blocks are built with precisely the same materials and structure. Big Brother’s centralized planning did not extend to the spaces between the blocks; they are entirely undeveloped blocks of “no man’s land.” Druzhba, Nadezhda, Mladost, and countless others are quite literally the Soviet and Eastern European version of U.S. low-income, government-built “projects.” My husband used to say, “Now that they’ve made so many buildings in Sofia, it’s time to introduce architecture.” It’s too late to introduce architecture to complexes built over half a century ago and millions of people live there without the means to buy better elsewhere. And finances aside, it’s not easy to leave friends and extended family after so many decades.

Aesthetics or no, the blocks are home. My husband remembers their excitement at moving to Druzhba after years of living in one room and sharing a common kitchen, toilet and running water with their neighbors. Coming out onto the small balcony of their fifth floor apartment, he was fascinated seeing for the first time from so high a vantage point people on the street below. My in-laws were appreciative not only of the apartment itself, but of the view of Vitosha Mountain. Sofia is in a valley on Vitosha’s northeast foot and even the tallest, ugliest pre-fabricated concrete panel block cannot blot out the mountain’s beauty. In lighter winters, cottony white clouds lie below Vitosha’s snowline, which never fully melts even in summer. The manmade lake is reasonably maintained, with a walkway all around, a bridge, grassy areas, and now restaurants, a new playground, and a fitness center.

езеро

Once the 1989 changes happened, the government stopped asking for the nominal rent it had required and instead offered the possibility of ownership through a reasonable mortgage quickly paid off. From that point, the renovations within began as money and materials became available. A few years ago, my brother-in-law renovated the entire apartment down to the floorboards and it now has quite the Scandinavian aesthetic. You can renovate your apartment any way you wish without interference, but the public spaces—the elevator, the stairwells, the exterior walls—these require the cooperation of everyone who lives in your particular entrance.

When we returned to Bulgaria in 1993, it was summer. We frequently went out on the back balcony to water the many plants my mother-in-law tended there, especially the ever-blooming red mushkati (geraniums) that were her pride and which can be seen on block balconies throughout Bulgaria. One day we noticed that the adjacent old three-story, two-entrance block long predating Druzhba was being re-plastered and painted. As the weeks went on, it became clear that only one-half was receiving this treatment. Only the people living in one entrance had agreed to pay for the renovation. By the end of our stay, one-half remained with falling plaster and the other appeared brand new.

мущкати

In June 1995, we moved to Sofia for a two-year stint. Hanging laundry on the back balcony one day, we saw that the other half of the old three-story block was being re-plastered and painted. Clearly the residents of this entrance now felt they had to maintain appearances with the other. But not all the residents in the entrance felt this way. There was a lone holdout and we knew this because the entire face of the entrance was re-plastered and painted except for a one-sixth square on the first floor. Two decades later, that one-sixth was still untouched. Perhaps the holdout was right since by January 2015 the rest of the building’s façade looked less than fresh, and the line between re-plastered and never touched was barely perceptible. The A4 size nekrolozi (death notices) may proliferate in the block entrances, the uninviting play equipment long consigned to decrepitude, but the blocks themselves solidly—perhaps eternally—continue. With so many people still dependent on them for housing, the only choice seems to be maintaining and improving them. Habitat for Humanity has a program to assist—take a look.