Monday, 16 January 2012

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna


I've been beavering away this week on my latest travelogue, an account of my travels last summer across the Balkans from Bulgaria to Croatia. So far it's over 50,000 words long and I'm really pleased with how its going. However, I'm pleased but is anyone else impressed? In a pathetic attempt to find out, I offer another short extract, this week's offering dealing with my first day back in Varna, Bulgaria where I used to live and work. The background is that the day/night before I flew in from England and then travelled across the whole of Bulgaria by train, arriving late in Varna where I went to stay at Villa Rai, the place where I used to live...

Pleas, please let me know what you think as this is very much a work in progress!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

My Flickr album of this trip

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?


Varna (1)
Bulgaria, like all the Balkan countries to a greater or lesser extent, in so many ways a modern European state. Unlike the Cameroons or Cambodias of this world, she has metalled roads, a highly-educated population, a national grid that reaches every home, a fairly reliable and transparent legal system and, as we have already experienced, a good rail network. All in all, quite like my homeland in many ways. Yet there is one crucial difference between Bulgaria and her Balkan neighbours and the nations of Western Europe and that is that, despite all the trappings of modernity, in the Balkans the village is never very far away.
Take for example my first contact in the country, Iva Metchkarova. She was university educated, so too were her parents; her father a vet and her mother a trained chemist. They all lived in a very communist apartment in one of the largest cities in the land and her aunt was even a communist MP. In other words, they were about as modernised as you’ll find and yet every weekend the whole family bundled into their Lada and drove the ten miles or so to ‘the village’ where her father had built a house (his own design), and where they grew their own vegetables, brewed their own rakiya and were generally far happier than they ever were in the city. I mention all of this because it explains so much about the place in which I woke that morning, my former home, Villa Rai.[1]
When I came to live in Bulgaria back in 2002 I was met, like on this journey nine years later, at the railway station by Mr Popov, my boss. Dimitur Popov is a remarkable man. A former university lecturer in engineering, he sensed the wind of change in 1990, got out of academia and set up a private high school. He’s been doing it ever since, through boom and recession, and in so many ways is the model of the successful post-communist Balkan businessman. Yet like the Metchkarovi family, Mr. Popov too is never far from the village and so when he needed somewhere to barrack his ex-pat English teachers, instead of getting an apartment in the city or booking a room in a hotel, he instead called up Svetlo Stanev.
If Dimitur Popov is never far from the village, then we can also say that Svetlo Stanev never left it. He knows Popov through dint of his wife having attended the same (village) school as Popov, but whilst he chose the path of pedagogy and profits, she married Svetlo. What path Svetlo is on, I’m not sure. He certainly doesn’t have a job, but he is always busy doing odd jobs for himself and others, some of which he must get paid for. One of those jobs was to build himself a house and, in a moment of visionary extravagance, he decided to not only build a home for his family, but also to include several apartments for tourists.
Svetlo reckoned that tourists might be a good bet because the village that he had grown up in had started to be developed as a tourist resort by the communists back in the 1960s. Renamed Druzhba – literally ‘Friendship’ in Russian, for the benefit of all their Soviet comrades who came to spend their holidays there – it fast became one of the top resorts in the country. The coming of capitalism changed nothing save the name – now it’s called Sveti Konstantin I Elena; understandably everyone still uses Druzhba – and the pace of development with huge new hotels and apartment complexes being thrown up daily, turning the place into a plush tourist paradise, (save for the old lane on which Villa Rai stands).
So that is why Svetlo chose the tourist trade as his route towards prosperity but unfortunately, unlike Popov, he never had a thorough understanding of how the modern world works. He failed to understand that foreign tourists come with big companies who block book entire hotels or apartment complexes and who expect certain standards sadly lacking in Villa Rai. So it was that apart from when Popov provided him with some business, Mr. Stanev’s apartments, by and large, stood empty whilst Svetlo, oblivious to the tourist metropolis all around him, continued as if he was still in a genuine village, sawing wood, tinkering with cars, building walls and, more often than anything else, drinking his home-brewed rakiya in his home-built bar with other local gentlemen of a similar mind.
Imagine my surprise then when, being shown into my former home the night before, I was not directed to my old apartment, but instead the one next door. Had Svetlo actually drummed up some other business? The morning after I found out the answer. In true village fashion, Svetlo’s son, after marrying and starting a family, had moved in. The tourist dream had obviously been abandoned in the face of family matters which is, in a village, how things should be.
I took the bus into the city just as I had done everyday during my time spent living there. Back then the buses has been ex-Turkish cast-offs, half-empty in winter, packed to the rafters in summer. Nothing had changed save that the buses were now Israeli pensioners and the ticket price had doubled.
The journey was both familiar yet alien. In amongst all the landmarks that I knew so well were some new intruders – hotels, shopping centres, apartment complexes and other trappings of the capitalist world. Back in Sofia I’d searched for signs of change and found them to be depressingly few and far between; here they abounded and indeed nowhere on my subsequent journeyings across the peninsular did I find as much recent development save for on the Adriatic Coast around Dubrovnik and the Montenegrin resorts. The future for the Balkans it seems, is touristic.
My destination was Gyurlata, my favourite eatery back in 2003. Whereas British proletarian culinary culture is enshrined in the greasy spoon café, that of Bulgaria is in establishments like this; canteens stocked with a selection of traditional, filling dishes such as shkembe (tripe soup), kebapche (spiced lamb sausage) and salads such as the cabbage one that I ordered. Thankfully, progress has not caught up with either the establishment or its prices although for some reason the name has now changed to Kronstadt, quite fitting I thought, for a proletarian eating house in a port.[2]
Refilled I had nothing to do for a couple of hours before my rendezvous with Mr. Popov so I decided to take a walk through Varna’s Old City, my favourite part of the town. So many ‘old cities’ in Europe – such as those of Dubrovnik and Budva that I as to visit later on – are pretty, quaint, preserved timepieces of the Pre Modern Age. Varna’s on the other hand, is not at all like that; it is still very much part of the working city and to the casual observer there is nothing to differentiate it from the rest of the town. Indeed, the clearest way to see where it starts and ends is to look at a map for the area once enclosed within the city walls is a higgledy-piggledy jumble of streets whilst the (19th century and later) new city follows a strict grid plan. Indeed, it is probably this organic and very human street plan that makes it – and most other pre-modern towns – so very appealing.
Old City Panorama (taken from the top of the Cherno More Hotel
There is layer upon layer of history here and the guidebooks only point out the highlights. These include two sets of Roman baths, the better of the two, built in the 2nd century BC, are so extensive that one realises that Odessos – as Varna was then called – must have been quite a large city indeed. There’s also the Church of St. Atanas which is perched above the baths and is Varna’s most venerated church and supposedly extremely effective for women trying for a child.[3] I attended the Easter service there when living in Varna where thousands were gathered for what is the holiest day in the Orthodox calendar and we were treated to a fiery sermon detailing how Bulgaria was, is and always shall be an Orthodox country and as such, how the twin dragons of Islam and Secularism should be fought. Hmm…
To me though, it is the lesser-sung heroes of the Old City that are most fascinating, particularly those concerning the town’s minorities past and present. There’s a haunting ruined Catholic church up one side street and just off
Ezarkh Yosef Place
there’s an active Armenian church dedicated to St. Kevork (St. George). Whilst working at Mr. Popov’s school I’d become interested in the Armenians who have lived as a distinct minority in Bulgaria for centuries and who have had a profound impact on the country’s culture.[4] I had several Armenian students, all of whom were exceptionally intelligent but one of whom, a pretty eighteen-year old named Araksia stands out. She was a fervent Armenian patriot who liked nothing better than to talk about her culture and people and in particular the many tragedies that have befallen them, not least of all the 1915 Armenian Holocaust[5] and the 1988 earthquake that flattened her hometown of Leninakan (now called Gyumri) killing twenty-five thousand. Chatting to her and visiting the Armenian Church inspired me to write a short story about the Armenians in Varna[6] and the characters of Araksia and Kevork Manuelyan in the Onogurian Three trilogy of novels. Furthermore, seven years later they were also much of the inspiration behind me visiting Ani and other Armenian sites during my journey from Tbilisi to Istanbul[7] and indeed, I still intend to visit Armenia itself whenever I next head to the Caucasus.
Since I’d wandered around the streets of the Old City countless times before, I was shocked when I came across a building this time that I’d never noticed before. The Armenians are not Bulgaria’s only minority and down a backstreet I found a relic of another; a synagogue with a Star of David on the front. Sadly, it was no longer in use since they are few if any Jews left in the city, but some enterprising soul had instead converted it into office accommodation with a rather incongruous plate glass extension stuck onto the side.
Varna’s synagogue, now ready for business…
However, unlike in the rest of Europe, Bulgaria’s Jews are not absent because of the Holocaust. Indeed, Bulgaria is notable as the only country in the Nazi sphere of influence that saved its Jews, each and every one of them. True, they had to spend the majority of the war in labour camps but the conditions in them were positively holiday-esque compared with the alternative: the living hells of Treblinka, Auschwitz and Sobibor. What is even more incredible is that those Jews were saved by an unlikely alliance of the Socialists under their leader, the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Dimitur Peshev; the king, Boris II, an ally of Hitler and the Orthodox Church – an organisation not always noted for its tolerance of other faiths – under Metropolitan Kiril. They used every tactic they could to prevent the Jews being taken away and in the end they succeeded, largely through a strategy that can be summed up as, ‘Our Jews? Don’t you worry about them Adolf, we’ll sort them out, forget about them. Yes, of course we realise the threat they pose, of course they should dealt with but later, yes, no need to do anything at the moment…’ Of the troika the king himself possibly paid the highest price, for on the 13th August, 1943 he was summoned to meet Hitler at his Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia. Boris, a superstitious man, refused to travel that day as it was a Friday, but he left the following morning and had a day of conversations with the Nazi Fuhrer before they both emerged looking upset and angry and giving each other grim goodbyes. In the days that followed Boris told friends and aides that Hitler had tried to force him to both enter the war against the USSR, (Bulgaria was Germany’s ally but they had refused to take up arms against the Russians, their one-time liberators), and to hand over Bulgaria’s Jews. Boris had refused on both counts and said to Dobromovitch, his oldest advisor, “I saved you [i.e. Bulgaria] even if I have to pay for it!” Nine days later he started having spasms of pain in his stomach and on the 28th August he died. Even before his death, rumours of a poisoning were being bandied about.[8]
On a personal level, I have to be thankful to King Boris, Metropolitan Kiril and Dimitur Peshev for it was the Jews who first introduced me to Bulgaria back in Israel in 1997. Simeon Kovachev’s grandmother had been Jewish, (that’s how he’d managed to acquire an Israeli passport), and there had been another Bulgarian on the kibbutz, one Katya Niego, a full-blooded Jew whose family, like those of most of Bulgaria’s Jews, hailed originally from Spain from whence they had been expelled during the time of the Inquisition. These are the Sephardim, (or Oriental), Jews, different to the Ashkenazi who traditionally lived in Germany, Poland and the lands of the Russian Empire. Many of the Sephardim had sought refuge in the Muslim lands, aware from the reaches of the Roman Catholic Church, and the greatest Islamic power of the age was the Ottoman Empire in which they were welcomed. Most of the Jews of the Balkans were Sephardim and indeed one of the arguments employed by King Boris et al was that their Jews should not be exterminated since whilst the Germans may have legitimate grievances about the Ashkenazi, the Sephardim are quite different in both character and culture and so deserve to be left alone of at least, dealt with only after the Ashkenazi. It was not an argument however, that the Nazis bought at all and as a result, outside of Bulgaria, virtually all the Jews of the Balkans were wiped out including the sizable Jewish population in Thessaloniki, (over fifty thousand and another fifty thousand emigrated just prior to the war), which was traditionally a majority-Jewish city, and the Jews of Sarajevo who Rebecca West describes so vividly in ‘Black Lamb, Grey Falcon’.[9] But if Bulgaria saved its Jews during the war, then where are they all now? Well, Israel did what Hitler could not and when the Iron Curtain fell most of the emigrated, like Simeon and Katya, to Eretz Israel. I once had the privilege of spending an evening with many of them and their descendents, at a New Year’s Eve party in Tel Aviv where I and several hundred others whose parents and grandparents had escaped a holocaust, drank, laughed and danced the night away to the sounds of Shturtsite, a rock band of great longevity and talent nicknamed the ‘Bulgarian Beatles’. It was a night that I shall never forget.
Partying with the Bulgarians in Tel Aviv, New Year’s Eve 1999. Left: The Niego sisters with Pepa; Right: Me and Katya Niego
Mr. Popov was waiting for me in the bar of Hotel Dimyat, (by coincidence, the venue of Kristina and Pierre’s wedding reception the next day), along with his son. He wanted to discuss a business venture and to see if I could play a part. His idea was to open up a primary school, but as always in Bulgaria, he was being held up by bureaucracy. We discussed issues concerning recruitment and qualifications and he promised to keep me posted. Then, moving onto lighter issues, I asked him if he knew of anywhere to buy shoes as I needed a pair for the wedding, (I’d refrained from buying any in the UK because Bulgarian shoes are both good quality and reasonably priced). This prompted a tour of Varna’s glitzy shopping centres, all erected since my last visit and all stupidly overpriced. After seeing a nice pair for a measly 360 leva (€180 – a month’s wage for an unskilled labourer), I knew that I was never going to find what I wanted so we headed downmarket to the bazaar area of town where I picked up a good leather pair for 39 leva (€20). Much more within the Pointon price range!
That evening I had an appointment with Plamen Atanasov. Plamen was my drinking buddy back in the old days and he’s a unique fellow. Although 100% Bulgarian born and bred, at fifteen he left for the States where he stayed until he was twenty-five, gaining a degree and a high-powered job in computer programming. Then however, he did something virtually unknown amongst Bulgarian émigrés. He came back.
When I say he came back, I mean he came back. Not for a holiday or a secondment; not to another well-paid job, but to settle, as a Bulgarian, with nothing else other than a belief that life in his homeland was better than life in his adopted country, for although there’s less money, there’s also less stress. I first met him when he had only just made that great leap back and he was still finding his feet again in the land of his birth. The Plamen that I met was a surreal mix of toilet humour American college kid and Balkan Man, (in his own words, “I’m just fucked up dude, let’s not beat around the bush here!”), and it was a mix that I liked. Like me you see, he had a foot in both worlds and he could understand and empathise with my frustrations with Bulgaria as well as my loves. As both an insider and an outsider he could, at times, produce some of the most insightful and telling observations and commentaries on Bulgaria.
In between jokes about smoking weed.
And lengthy analysis on the female behind.
Plamen back in 2003: American College Kid meets Balkan Man
Plamen was sat at a table outside the Happy Bar & Grill on Sevastopol. Plamen always liked to frequent Happy because Happy is so very Plamen. Happy you see, is a chain of restaurants offering Bulgarian traditional fare served by waitresses who are always a). hot and b). wearing an incredible uniform that consists of a tight red top and a ridiculously short red skirt. And as Plamen likes both Bulgarian food and the legs of Bulgarian women, then Happy truly does make him… well, happy.
“Dude! How are you?” We hadn’t met for five years, the last time being when he’d come over to my house in Stoke to chill after a conference in Portsmouth. He was fatter and a little greyer now, but apart from that it soon became apparent that little else had changed. Indeed, it was as if I’d never been absent those past nine years.
“Dude, I love it here; look at them all! Stunning! Bulgarian girls are the best man! Look at that one! That is an ass dude, and I mean an ass!”
Sevastopol is one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares in the city and it was teeming with pretty young things in their best summer outfits.
“But this year, there’s a problem man; have you seen those trousers? I mean, ok, you should respect your history and all, but there is no call for them! Look at them; loads of girls are wearing them now and they are simply not on!”
The trousers in question were a recent fashion innovation that seemed to be gaining in popularity with the women of Bulgaria, (although thankfully the trend has not yet been taken up by their British counterparts). They were tight at the ankles and waist but baggy in-between, vaguely reminiscent of the old Turkish trousers, (hence Plamen’s comment about respecting your history), but, to be fair to my tight-trousers-transfixed friend, pretty naff to look at. “But are they as bad as the skort?” I asked, remembering a similar diatribe eight years previously on another, equally awful, female fashion “Dude,” replied with style-conscious comrade, “nothing is as bad as the skort!”
Ladies! No! The baggy trousers and the skort: Detested by Plamen
We went on to talk about old times and new. Like me, Plamen is now a father although unlike me, he is still with his partner who I gathered must be a pretty easy-going girl. He then went on to share his views and observations on how Bulgaria had progressed during my years away. “The big thing was joining the EU; everyone thought that that would change everything, that we’d become rich and modern overnight. Of course, it didn’t happen and that disappointed a lot of people, but that’s not such a bad thing. You see, people were all more pie in the sky before, now they’re more realistic and that’s gotta be good. Before they just looked to the EU or the US to solve all their problems for them whereas now they’ve realised that they’ve gotta do it themselves. Things are getting better, but slowly; the mafia still run the place and the politicians are both corrupt and stupid.”
“As bad as before?”
“Sure. Take this for example: Our president Georgi Purvanov went to Saudi Arabia recently and when he met with the king he says, “Don’t worry Your Highness, we Bulgarians understand your culture well. We’ve got a kebab shop on every corner you see!”
“He said that?!”
“Dude, he actually fucking said that!”
We would have gone on except that instead we got talking to two fellows on the next table who turned out to be Dutch and most fascinating indeed. They were two friends in their fifties who had arrived in town that day by yacht, a yacht owned by the first of them, a gentleman called Arte van der Toorne. He, it transpired, had created a website named Marktplaats (Market Place) on which people could buy or sell things much like eBay. I told him about how I have a friend who deals in antiques and whose business has been revolutionised by eBay as now he can sell specialist items all around the globe, but to my surprise Arte replied, “Some people think that the genius of that kind of site is that there is this man selling some kind of unique product like a rare set of stamps or piece of pottery in say, Oslo, and he can now sell it to someone else in say Milan or even Australia. It is true that the internet makes this kind of trading possible, but that is not the genius and main trading of sites like Marktplaats or eBay. No, the genius of those sites is that you need, for example, the pushchair for your new baby and there is a mother only in the next town whose baby has outgrown its pushchair so now she can sell it to you easily rather than just throwing it away or putting it in the attic. Marktplaats made its money through these kind of items, not the specialist ones.”
He said ‘made its money’ because Marktplaats is no longer owned by Arte van der Toorne. In 2004 he sold the site to its global rival eBay for a whopping €225 million and since then he’s been enjoying life to the full, marrying the love of his life and sailing his yacht. “I bought this yacht and I have been sailing the world in it ever since. It is incredible; I have been right up to the North Pole and down to the Tropics.” I told Arte about some of my travels and then asked where his favourite place was. “Without doubt it was the North Pole. When you are there you are truly on your own. There are no people, no animals, no noise and no distractions and, if you get into trouble, there is no one that can come to help you,” he explained. I have not, of course, travelled anywhere like that (yet) but I did think of my time in the desert and the absolute feeling of standing alone, face-to-face with God with no animals, plants or wind to distract you and I think I caught an inkling of what he was talking to. Plamen too concurred. His hobby is paragliding and he confessed that what he enjoys most about it is the feeling of being so totally alone when drifting through the air.
“I also went to the World Cup,” Arte continued, “last summer in South Africa, but that time I went in a camper van all the way through Africa from top to bottom. That was an incredible experience, I can tell you. I remember going through Sudan and stopping in this small town somewhere for something to eat and I got talking to the man who owned the restaurant. He was complaining about how poor his country was and how he wanted to be rich like in Europe and as to how that could be achieved. ‘What is your job?’ I asked him. ‘I run this restaurant,’ he replied. ‘Then why are you sat here drinking coffee; why are you not working?’ I asked. ‘I don’t need to; my wife is doing it all. She is doing the cooking in the kitchen and I just sit out here as a woman cannot serve the men,’ he replied. ‘Well then,’ I said, ‘you have the answer to your question. In Europe the woman is equal to the man; in Europe you would both have to be working. You will never be successful if half of your population acts as servants to the other half. It is simple: to move forward you must give your women equality!’”
“And what did he think of that?”
“He did not like it, but it is true.”
But what did Arte think of Bulgaria?
“I was here before during the communist times and it was so drab everywhere. There was nowhere to eat and drink and you could not buy anything. How things have changed is remarkable. During the communist times I tried to do business with Poland. They were a third of the price compared with Switzerland but there was so much bureaucracy and red tape and the quality of the goods was awful. Now though, we do business with Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria all the time. And look here now; it is so colourful! The shops are full, everyone looks so happy and your women are educated and equal. Yes, and also they are very beautiful, very beautiful indeed!”
As if this were a cue, the mobile of Arte’s companion rang and he bade his goodbyes. It was a lady, an unspecified lady who he seemed to have contact with but who did not know what he looked like and he was meeting her for some kind of activity. Nonetheless, despite being down to three, we carried on drinking and chatting until Plamen and I had to depart for the airport.[10]
Plamen Atanasov and Arte van der Toorne: Happy.
We were going to the airport because Plamen’s sister was flying in from America, (she’d stayed there when he’d come back), and he had to pick her up. We got there just in time but the plane did not and after a while spent commenting on the physical attributes of several of the females also waiting for planes – particularly one very tasty TUI rep – he went to enquire as to the whereabouts of the Gatwick flight only to find out that it hadn’t even departed from London yet. Thus giving up the notion of being chivalrous to his sister, (“Dude, she can get a taxi!”), we retuned to the more important task of drinking the night away.
And drink we did, long into the night, stopping at a heavy metal establishment till it closed and then onto wherever was still open. Finally though, at a time that only God Himself knows and in a state that I’d prefer only Him to have witnessed, we called it a night and I took a taxi back to Druzhba.
Where I did something that only a drunken man would do.
Back when I’d lived there, a favourite activity of mine had been to stroll down to the beach with a few beers or bottle of wine and Kate and Dave who lived downstairs,[11] where we would sit in the pools and drink and chat the night away.
The ‘pools’ were a series of rock pools into which hot thermal spring waters poured from a large pipe that jutted out over the beach. Submerged up to one’s neck or waist – your choice – with the moon and the stars above you, the waves of the Black Sea crashing onto the beach before you and a large fake pirate ship that served as a fish restaurant just to your right, it was quite simply, the most heavenly way to spend a relaxing evening.
And so it was that on this great voyage of rediscovery, I decided that the pools too needed to be re-experienced. Nowt wrong with that you might say, but really is some time past three in the morning in such a state of inebriation that you can hardly stand, well… the phrase ‘neither the time nor the place’ springs to mind.
But reason and sense bother not the drunken man, and so I staggered my way down to the pools, (no small task when it’s about a kilometre’s walk and I could only manage a few metres before falling into something), but eventually I made it and stood there when… oh no!
The pools were gone!
Well, that’s not exactly true. They had not entirely gone, in fact they were very much still there, but the problem was that now they were, well… without water. The pipe was still in situ but only a dribble of hot thermally goodness flowed from it; a dribble that collected in a measly puddle below. Enough to bathe my big toe in perhaps, but little else.
But does the drunken man give in at such a setback? Does he whom the alcohol has conquered ever admit defeat? And does not the Inebriated One not possess such a great intellect and powers of deduction, reasoning and problem-solving that he is capable of saving any situation? Never fear, the Mighty Pisshead is here!
“There is no water,” he reasons, “because the source is being diverted higher up. And what is more,” that Hero of the Bottle deduces, “I know exactly where that is!”
Above the beach there is a bathing establishment with several thermal pools fed by the same spring as the rock pools on the beach, (indeed, the pipe is the overflow from this establishment). So if the water was not in the pools, then it must therefore, be in the bathing establishment instead! Thieves! Scoudrels! Hottentots! There was only one thing for it: to go to the bathing establishment!
The Inebriated One climbed up to the gates of the bathing establishment – no mean feat, as it involved the perils of a pebble beach and a flight of steps – only to find – surprisingly considering that it was 4am and in the off season – that they were well and truly locked.
“Evil fiends!” the Mighty Pisshead exclaimed. “First they steal the thermal waters and now they lock them away from me! Aha, but they shall never outwit one such as I!”
The Inebriated One returned to the flight of steps for there only a high fence separated him from the pools of thermally goodness and then majestically threw himself at said fence. Three painful arse landings finally convinced him that a different approach might be in order, so then he attempted to scale the fence and climb over the top. But again he ran into trouble, his rather large stomach not wanting to go over the wire barrier. Undaunted he stood back and surveyed the situation and then, like a revelation from above, the answer was presented to him. Yes, the fence was high beside the steps, but just around the corner it dropped to waist height. Walking around said corner he then easily surmounted the evil barrier and thus attained his nirvana. Yes indeed, the Mighty Pisshead had done it through effort and deduction; he had outwitted the forces of thermal darkness; he was in!
I climbed into the pools and relaxed. It was heaven; the warm, healing waters, the starry night above, silence, bliss…
The next thing I knew it was light. I was still hammered but the night was now day. After reflecting for several minutes on this beautiful change of circumstances, I slowly began to realise that it might be best to move on, since the pools opened in the morning and I was trespassing. Thus I heaved myself out, my clothes dripping on the concrete – hmm, so I’d forgotten to remove them when getting in; damn, why do I always screw up with the little things like that?! – climbed back over the fence and started to make my way back up to Villa Rai.
Near the entrance to the bathing establishment, I saw a security guard. He looked at me and my dripping attire somewhat strangely. “Good morning sir!” I announced heartily in the tongue of the Bulgars. “Do you perchance happen to have the time on you?”
“Erm… yes, it’s almost seven.”
“Jolly good! Thanks awfully! Time for bed I think!” replied the Mighty Pisshead who conquers all evil and surmounts all obstacles in his path, before making his way slowly up to that warm bed that he’d mentioned.[12]

[1] ‘Rai’, lit. ‘Paradise’.
[2] Kronstadt is a naval base in Russia on the Baltic Sea, famous for its socialist mutinies against the established order. Kronstadt mutinied during the February and the October Revolutions but a further mutiny against Bolshevik rule in 1921 was harshly quelled by Trotsky and the Red Army.
[3] I heard a story about a woman who could not have children and so gave up and instead tried to adopt. Even here though, she seemed deemed to be unsuccessful, bureaucracy ensnaring her at every turn. In desperation she prayed at St. Atanas and the very next day she received the papers granting her permission to adopt. Divine intervention or just chance? You decide.
[4] Most notably in the establishment of the monastery at Bachkovo, often seen as the second most important in the country after Rila. For details I recommend reading ‘The Crossing Place’ by Philip Marsden.
[5] That this was a holocaust or genocide is hotly disputed by the Turks. I discuss the issue at more length in ‘Latvia, Georgia and Turkey 2010’.
[6] The Silver Crucifix
[7] See ‘Latvia, Georgia and Turkey 2010’.
[8] For more information on anything relating to the saving of Bulgaria’s Jews during World War II, I recommend ‘Beyond Hitler’s Grasp’ by Michael Bar-Zohar.
[9] Although not her friend, the book’s central character, ‘Constantine the Poet’. His real name was Stanislav Vinaver and he survived the war in a German POW camp, (West sent him Red Cross parcels). He eventually passed away in 1983. Information from ‘Constantine the Poet’ by Michael D. Nicklanovitch.
[10] The big question is, was the guy for real and telling the truth about his €225 million deal, yacht and African escapades? Well, he may have been, he may not. However, when I got back to Britain, I had a chat with one of my Dutch students who said that there was a guy, quite well-known in the Netherlands, who had sold Marktplaats to eBay for over €200 million euros and had travelled widely since, the story of his journey across Africa being well-publicised. So, it was either true or Arte had nicked a life story off someone in the news. However, his accounts were so detailed that I personally believe that he was for real.
[11] These were an English couple who were over in Bulgaria on some sort of EU exchange project for four months. She taught at Popov’s school whilst Dave worked at a high school near the football ground that was apparently a bit rough. They’d met whilst studying French at university and were both fluent French speakers. After Bulgaria they’d moved to Paris where they still live, albeit in the state of Holy Matrimony these days.
[12] Breaking and entering into a bathing establishment is not the worst result of drunken reasoning. Better was the time when I got drunk at one end of a crescent-shaped bay and my home was at the other. ‘Why not take the direct route?’ I thought and I did, wading through neck-high water and feeling very pleased with my genius. I then promptly forgot about it and only remembered when the next day a friend asked why I had salt all over my jeans. Topping that though is the time when I abandoned a Toyota Tercel in the middle of one of the busiest road junctions in the city. Funnily enough, when I got back the next day, it had gone.


  1. happy sounds like a nice place to be indeed! love your drunken tail a good interesting read..its Mike btw

  2. Matt, this took me back! Villa Rai and the strange hump under the floor that appeared and got bigger and bigger between our lounge and bathroom, being followed round the village by a squad car and two policemen while I was out for a run... stomach soup, the mafia café at the bottom of the lane, and frying eggs directly on the radiators.

    Glad to hear of Popov, I hope his school venture gets off to a good start. And also Plamen - interesting insight on Bulgaria and the EU, it sounds like attitudes have change significantly over the past ten years, unlike you, Plamen and the appreciation of the female form! The pools though... gone?

    I have dipped into your blog a couple of times and very much enjoyed hearing about your recent travels. Glad to see you are still passionate and prolific about writing and travel!

    We really enjoyed this! Hope to see you soon... where are you now? Travelling or home? Paris is not far from Stoke.

    She who Taught at Popov's School xx