Sunday, 11 March 2012

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

As promised last week, the Philippines is now finished and so I can introduce to you the first installment of my latest work: Balkania. Charting a trip I made across the Balkan Peninsular last summer but including comment and reminiscenes from previous trips in the region, this is a monster work and so will be taking up more than a few updates. However, that is for later, now all there is to say is here is Part 1, back in my beloved Bulgaria. I hope that you like it!
Keep travelling,
Uncle Travelling Matt
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Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)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Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)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…?


A trip across the Balkans

Thanks must go to the following people for their help in producing this work:
Fatme Myuhtar-May for help on the sections involving Bulgarian Muslims.
Father Samuel Carter for assistance and advice on Orthodoxy and the sections dealing with the Orthodox Church.
Martyn McGettigan for offering a Roman Catholic perspective on the sections dealing with Christianity and for listening to my Balkan monologues in the Duke William every Friday night.
Dimitur Popov, Anushka Asparukhova, Pavel Marinov, Plamen Atanasov and the Rashidovi family for the welcome and conversations in Bulgaria that inspired so much of the Bulgarian section of this book.
Marjan Semaj and Vaso Aliu for offering an Albanian perspective to my Balkan thoughts.
Apostolos Hatsiastros for proffering a Greek perspective to it all and for inadvertently providing the title of the book.
Kristina and Pierre Renwick for inviting me to their wedding.
Sally Nevin for some of the Herzegovina pictures.
Sally and Sam Kawamura for welcoming me in Berkovitsa and reading through the section concerned with my visit there.
Ryan Carroll for a great night in Mostar and for reading and reviewing sections of this travelogue.
Amar Demirović and Selma Puce for the great welcome in Mostar
Miran for the insight into Mostar during the war
Dragan, Ivan and Nežena for the great night in Višegrad
It is the summer of 1996 and I am sat on the balcony of the house of Dr. Apostolos Hatsiastros that also doubles as his surgery. We are in Greece, on the island of Corfu, but before me is a view, a view of the Ionian Sea and beyond that the harsh, arid mountains of Albania. I however, am not looking at the view. Instead, I am reading the paper, or at least, I am trying to. I have learnt the Greek alphabet and some of the basics of the language and I’m trying to fathom out what is written on the pages of Ta Nea, the popular daily that my friend the doctor subscribed to. After tackling the headline I move onto the inside and come across various subheadings. One means ‘World’ and the other ‘Greece’, obviously the locations of the news stories contained on that particular page, but what is this word, it is unfamiliar to me. Μπαλκάνια. I spell it out into the Latin alphabet. M-P-A-L-K-A-N-I-A. Mpalkania, but that doesn’t mean anything! No! Wait a minutes, in Greeke, M and Π together make a B. Balkania. “Pos, please, could you tell me, where is ‘Balkania’?”
“Balkania is here, Greece and all the countries around it, Bulgaria, Albania, Skopje, Serbia. That is Balkania.”
Now it made sense. In English we say ‘The Balkans’. I liked ‘Balkania’ more though, it made more sense, sounded much more like the name of a region than ‘The Balkans’ which doesn’t sound like anything. “This section of the paper is a new one,” the doctor continued, “but to me it is very good. Yes, you see all these countries we are trading with now. Before, when they were communist, they were all closed off, but now it is open and we need to do business. Of course, there are problems coming from them as well; bloody Albanians coming over in boats and nicking everything and bloody Skopje country calling itself ‘Makedonia’ when Makedonia is Greek, only Greek and nothing to do with those bloody Slavs, but even considering this, it is good that we know about these countries and do business with them. For our future it is necessary.
Dr. Hatsiastros was right of course. The 1990s was the start of a new era. Although it had been a disastrous decade for all the Balkan states apart from Greece, it had also been a decisive one. The map had been redrawn, new countries created and old ones resurrected. Most importantly though, these new borders were open and for the first time in five decades the Balkan peoples were establishing real contact with each other. Sometimes that resulted in acrimony, such as the Macedonian Question that the doctor mentioned, sometimes benefit, such as the increase in trade, but whatever the case, there was change. A wind of change that was sweeping across the entire ancient peninsular bringing with it who knows what.
But that day something else changed to. A spark, albeit small, was lit in my soul to find out about those weird and wonderful countries north of the Greece that I loved so well. That day a desire began to explore, to learn about, to understand Balkania.
And that desire is still with me to this day.
Standing in the night, bathed by the platform lamps, ticking over quietly, was the great red beast of the Machine Age. I walked up to it and let my hand brush its side. It had no name, only a number, 44 118. This was the engine that would be taking me on my journey through the night, across an entire country, the first stage on my trip that would, in less that two weeks’ time, find me by the sea and ready to fly back to England.
But I was already by the sea. Stood on that platform, admiring that locomotive, I could also see the twinkling of moonlight on waves beyond the confines of the railway station. Those were the waves of the Black Sea, the great body of water that separates Europe from Asia, the Caucasus from the Balkans. The sea that I would end up beside at the end of my journey would not be this one, but the Adriatic, a side-water of the great Mediterranean that cleaves Italy from the Balkans.
The constant in it all is the Balkans, that mystical region of Balkania, for that is what I was aiming to cross. That infamous peninsular of ethnic hatreds and excessive nationalism, of fratricidal wars and some of the worst poverty in Europe that triggered off the First World War and played a full and bloody part in the second. A region that the great German Chancellor Bismarck once described as, ‘Not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.’
Well, he is entitled to his views – and to be fair, he was more concerned with external threats to his glorious new German Empire than with sightseeing – but I have to beg to differ. Unlike him, I regard the Balkans to be worth far more than just the bones of a single Pomerian grenadier, (whatever one of those might be), for ever since I first set foot in the region back in 1996, I have had a growing fascination and love affair with this eclectic, mixed-up, troubled, blessed and intriguing mish-mash of a corner of our great globe. Despite nowadays having travelled to over fifty countries worldwide, the Balkans still retain the No. 1 spot in my heart and every part of the peninsular exerts a pull on my senses. I have lived in Bulgaria and Greece, and visited Albania, Kosova,[1] Macedonia, Turkey and Romania yet rather than sating my desires, these travels have merely inspired me to plan expeditions and long for a time when I can reside there again.
But why do I love the Balkans so much? Standing there on that platform one balmy summer’s night, I couldn’t really say. The thing is you see, one of the most endearing and yet irritating qualities of the region is how elusive it is. That elusiveness, that essence of the country is my Balkania, the region that exists and yet is hard to find, to understand, to digest You can compare Balkania to an onion; peel off a layer and there’s always another underneath and yet they all taste equally delicious. But try to capture it, document it, catalogue it, now that I have never been able to do and nor, to the best of my knowledge, has anyone else. After all, is not the most famous travelogue of the Balkans, the most perfect capturing of Balkania yet, Rebecca West’s glorious Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, over one thousand pages of prose inspired by a single trip of only six weeks in length that covered only a small part of the peninsular, and that leaves more questions than it answers? Yet no other book does come closer to grasping the Balkan nettle and giving the interested outsider a look inside this cavern of wonders.
Consider this for starters. I tell you that the Balkania is elusive, that it is hard to define, but even the most basic question about it I cannot answer. Where is the Balkans? South-east of Europe, yes, but where exactly? Which countries and regions does it include and which does it not. Most people would agree on Greece, Albania, the Former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, but what of Romania? You might be inclined not to include that country for the Danube which forms the Bulgarian-Romanian border is a natural dividing line, but if we are to use the Danube as the fault line, then this also slices Serbia in two, including her capital, Belgrade, which lies on the river, yet includes the Romanian province of Dobrogea.[2] Another natural barrier which the Romans used as their defining line are the Rhodopi Mountains, but using that most of the countries we now consider ‘Balkan’ would be excluded, only Greek territory and a few other scraps being left.
But, you may argue, the definition is not geographical but cultural; the Balkans are what was once referred to as ‘Turkey in Europe’, the area dominated by the Ottoman Turks. Fair enough, but then if that is the case, not only Romania, but also Hungary should be included, whilst the Ionian Islands off Greece’s western coast should not, as too should Dubrovnik and other pockets of Dalmatia for they were Venetian and never taken by the Turks. And what too of the remaining scrap of Turkey in Europe that includes Istanbul, solidly Muslim, modern and urban whilst the Balkans is traditionally characterised as Orthodox Christian, backward and rural? No, even this most basic of questions is an invitation to debate, argument and long postulations over centuries old battles and kingdoms.
And such activities are definitely Balkan!
I too have no definite answers to this first of the Balkan dilemmas. After my Trans-Europe Trip in 2003 I would consider southern Romania (Wallachia) to be rather Balkan in character, but Transylvania and Hungary to be definitely Central European.[3] I had however, never travelled into the Catholic regions of the Balkans, (save for Northern Albania where there is a sizable Catholic minority), nor indeed, to the Balkan heartlands of Bosnia and Serbia and one of the main purposes behind this trip was to see how all these disparate elements fitted into the tapestry.
My aim was to traverse the peninsular, east to west, taking in parts of Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro en route. In doing so I would not only be exploring four countries that I’d never before set foot in,[4] but also getting a clear geographical and cultural cross-section of the region. But that was all to come, after I had boarded the carriage coupled to that great monster of the Iron Road. First of all though, it is time to rewind and explain how I got to be standing on the platform of Varna’s railway station in the first place.
My carriage awaits…


Sofia (1)
My first ever contact with Bulgaria came on 20th January, 1997 in the unlikely surroundings of Jerusalem. I was volunteering on a kibbutz at the time and had befriended a pair of Kiwis with a camper van. They offered to take me to the Holy City for the day and I accepted. It was only when I climbed on board that I was introduced to the other two passengers.
They were a young Bulgarian couple named Pepa and Simeon Kovatchevi.[5] Both were friendly and charming; he was hilarious and she was pretty. I knew there and then that there must be more to Bulgaria than Hristo Stoichkov and an uncle in The Wombles.[6]
My first day with Bulgarians: at the Wailing Wall with Simeon (far left) and Pepa (far right)
Less than a year later I was at university pondering over which electives to take. I had chosen to study Politics for my degree – spending time on a socialist commune and then on a Balkan holiday resort tends to do such things to a man – but aside from the mandatory units of study, electives could be taken in any subject on offer at the university. My time overseas had taught me that I needed a foreign language and so I asked about Russia, (there had been lots of Russians on the kibbutz too, many of them pretty), but was told that it just was not possible as I’d never studied the subject before and the course was quite advanced. My D in GCSE French did not inspire any confidence in my linguistic abilities but I was undeterred. “You could study Bulgarian instead,” suggested the lady at the Slavonic Studies Stand, “as that course is for beginners and to be honest, it’s quite similar to Russian.” Images of evening spent drinking with men like Simeon and nights cuddled up with women like Pepa floated into my head and I signed up straightaway.
But a language is no use without an opportunity to practise it and so the following summer saw me booked onto a flight to Bucharest, (direct flights to Bulgaria for few and expensive back then). I was going out to meet Iva, a pen friend that I’d acquired during the intervening months. She lived in Stara Zagora – incidentally the same city that Pepa and Simeon were from – and had invited me to stay with her and explore her country. On that holiday I was introduced to Iva’s friends and family as well as those of Pepa and Simeon, and most importantly of all, to the beautiful country and culture of Bulgaria. I fell in love with that land then and I have been in love with it ever since. I returned for two visits after that and Iva came to live with me in Leeds for six months before I eventually left Britain for Japan. After my two years there though, still infatuated, I returned to the country, this time to live and work as an English teacher in Varna. The year that followed was the happiest of my life and I only gave it up to enter the hallowed institution of marriage.
But since then I hadn’t returned. Living in the Far East, a shortage of cash, a child and other places to explore all conspired against it. Still I kept in touch with my Bulgarian friends and still I longed to go back, but it wasn’t until 2011 when I finally booked myself another plane ticket. The impetus came from a friend and ex-student, Kristina, who now lives in London but announced that she was getting married to her British fiancé in Varna and that I was invited. As it was, I’d been thinking of some sort of Trans-Balkan expedition ever since my trip to Albania and Kosova[7] and how better to finish such a trip off than at a wedding in my old stomping ground? Thus, it was fixed and only one problem was encountered on the way: my boss declared that the days chosen were not possible, so after taking a look at the calendar and the Easyjet website, I turned the whole trip on its head, starting rather than finishing at the wedding, and on the 26th May, 2011 I was on a plane to Sofia.
I had two concerns upon arrival in Sofia. The first was to see how much Bulgaria had moved forward in the eight years since my last visit. During that time she’d become a member of the European Union and I was hoping that, like I’d seen in Slovakia and Albania, there’d be noticeable leaps forward. The second concern was more immediately pressing: I wanted to make sure that I caught the 13:15 train. Research on the internet, (how marvellous it is that these days one can find out such things as Bulgaria train schedules from the comfort of a house in Stoke!), showed me that if I missed the 13:15 I would have to wait until the night train. That or take a bus and trust me, I did not fancy trekking across the entire country by bus.
Most people would be annoyed that, in an effort to traverse the peninsular from east to west, I would have to fly to an airport somewhere near the middle and then take an eight hour train journey to the coast. Many would have paid the extra and flown direct to Varna, or perhaps taken a connecting flight; most Bulgarians would have taken the bus instead which shaves two hours off the journey time and has the added attractions of curtains to cut out the view and Hollywood blockbusters relayed on a screen in front of you so that you can forget the fact that you’re travelling through a beautiful, ancient and fascinating land and instead pretend to be blowing up aliens or implausibly evil terrorists in downtown LA. I however, rather irrationally and eccentrically, believe that trains are civilised, that views are worth looking at and – horror of horrors – that fellow passengers are occasionally worth talking to and so train it had to be, if only I could make it to the station in time.
On both counts, things did not start favourably. Sofia Airport had not changed; it was still the same dump with a languid air that it had always been. Also, the minibus that was to take me to the station wasn’t leaving soon and I was left on the tarmac with other travellers – who all looked in far less of a hurry than I – whilst the driver drank coffee, smoked cigarettes and touted for more business. Eventually however, he climbed it, lit another cigarette and the bus shuddered into life. It then made its way through a scruffy moonscape of Roma shacks, overgrown tram tracks, potholed roads and concrete apartment blocks that looked like it hadn’t changed much since 1973, let alone 2003, before we were finally disgorged at the railway station.
From then on however, things looked up. We were in time and a brand-new bus terminal had been built alongside the rail one, replacing the old motley collection of portacabins centred around a muddy patch of ground which had served as the country’s main bus hub in the 2000s. So nice and plush was it that I was almost tempted to take a coach instead.
Whilst the bus travel on one hand seemed to have been revolutionised, rail travel on the other hand, appeared to have stood still. Not that I minded of course; I wanted civilised travel, not modern travel, and trust me, there is a big difference. On the way down to London I’d been treated to the very best in modern rail travel, being whisked along at over 200km an hour in a tilting Virgin Pendolino. That had been jam-packed, cramped and there were no windows that opened to dissipate the funny smell coming the air conditioning and we moved so fast that if I tried to look at any scenery closer than mid-distance, I developed a headache. In Britain I long for the slower, emptier, fresher-smelling trains of my youth. In Bulgaria, one still gets them.
But before the train comes the station, and Sofia Central is one of my favourites. It’s a Brutalist concrete modern monolith and for those reasons I should hate it being something of a died-in-the-wool traditionalist when it comes to architecture, but instead I have to admit to loving the place. It’s the scale you see; it’s huge, ridiculously big, built to speak of power, of progress, of a Brave New World. The terminal was constructed in 1974 to replace a much smaller building erected in the 1880s that the city had long since outgrown. A competition was held and Brutalist architect Milko Bechev’s design was chosen -  a bold statement symbolising how much the Bulgarian state had moved forward under socialism. Nowadays of course, it looks a little dated, but that only adds to its appeal – it’s a time capsule of a different, simpler, more hopeful age when worker could become master and all mankind brothers. I’ve spent hours waiting in its great foyer, perhaps meeting a charming young lady or idling away the hours before a train pulls in to whisk me across the country or even beyond, to Thessaloniki, Athens and the Hellenic wonders of the Southern Balkans. Railway stations are gateways to the glories of the globe and Sofia’s certainly lives up to that role. My only regret was that this visit I didn’t have time to savour the atmosphere as, after buying my tickets and grabbing some food for the journey, I had to make my way straight to Platform 6 where my carriage awaited.
The eight hour, 400km trip from Sofia to Varna may not be officially classed as one of the world’s great railway journeys, but in my opinion it should be for it has almost everything. I’ve made it dozens of times in winter, spring, summer and autumn and it never ceases to impress. There are sights to see, halts at stations that hold special memories and, above all, people to meet. For some reason that journey always results in a chance encounter with an interesting stranger who ends up enriching your life with their conversation, kindness and smile.
The train pulls slowly out of Sofia Central and clatters through the dingy suburbs. Then, as soon as it is out of the city, at the small town of Thompson – named after a British Army Major who died there fighting alongside the communist partisans in World War II – the scenery begins. For the next fifty or so kilometres the train twists and turns its way in and out of tunnels along the dramatic Iskur Gorge. There the views are spectacular and one cannot help but hang out of the corridor window in a vain attempt to drink them all in – the fast-flowing river below, the forested slopes and the rocky peaks above you – although on this trip it, rather annoyingly, started to rain upon entering the gorge and only stopped once we’d exited at the other end, at which point there was little to see.
The Iskur Gorge, 2002
My most abiding memories of this section of the trip come from two separate journeys. The first was back in 1999 when I was travelling with Iva and we shared a compartment with an old man who turned out to be a Vlach, (an ethnic group scattered across the Balkans who speak a form of Romanian – the word ‘Vlach’ comes from ‘Wallachia’, the name of Romania’s southernmost province), and who had fought as a partisan during the war. He described vividly hiding under the floorboards in peasant dwellings whilst the fascists searched for him above. After the war he participated in the socialist drive to modernise the country, including working on the very railway line that we were travelling along, converting it from single to double track running which essentially required building a whole new line alongside the old one. These stories, in such a setting, were music to the ears of a budding socialist with a fascination for Balkan history and as we chatted I felt the past coming alive before my very eyes, visualising a younger version of our travelling companion laying rails outside as our train sped past.
My second abiding memory is less cultural and more emotive. I was travelling to Sofia in the depths of winter to see someone very special and thick snow covered the land, turning the gorge into a winter wonderland through which the train snaked, the warm, bright, welcoming lights of the carriage windows contrasting with the dark, forbidding landscape beyond. Never have I seen a sight so magical – all that was missing was Santa Claus traversing the sky in his sleigh above our heads.
The highlight of the gorge is also what marks its end. On the opposite side of the valley, high up above us on the top of a peak named Lakatnik, are two monuments, one a large stone with a red star emblazoned upon it and the other a white cross. The socialist monument, dating from communist times, commemorates rebels killed in the uprising of September, 1923, whilst the cross symbolises the post-communist return to more traditional beliefs.
After Lakatnik the hills grow smaller and softer and before you know it the gorge is but a memory and we are in the flatlands of Northern Bulgaria. After Vratsa, where the line up to Vidin curls away, we rumble on until we reach Cherven Bryag, a name which literally means ‘red sands’ after the red clay in the local river but which is a euphemism amongst Bulgarian males for something else, for if a young man ever tells you that his girlfriend has “gone to Cherven Bryag” it indicates that he won’t be getting any that night since it’s her time of the month. Don’t think about it, it’s not pleasant and indeed, my only experience of the town is unpleasant also, for it was there in 2003 that some bastard nicked my mobile phone.
After Cherven Bryag the flatlands continue past the towns of Pleven and Levski to Gorna Oryahovitsa. I fell asleep here, tired as a result of spending the previous night awake in Gatwick Airport waiting for my flight, but I have memories of Pleven, Bulgaria’s seventh city with a population of over a hundred thousand. Back in 1999 on my second visit, I stayed in Pleven with Iva at the apartment of a friend of hers. It was an unremarkable place I recall, (although the friend was rather pretty), save for two things: the Panorama and a rather nice park next to the central square.
The Panorama is Pleven’s big draw card; it’s a life-size mock up of the view from the top of the hill of the Siege of Plevna (1877), a bloody battle between the Ottoman Turks on one side and the combined forces of Russia and Romania on the other. The siege began on the 19th July and there were four distinct battles in all, the defending Ottomans only capitulating on the 9th December, almost five months later. The death toll was horrific: around twenty thousand Russians and five thousand Turks perished but the battle was crucial, for although it made the world sit up and notice how well the supposedly ‘sick’ Ottoman army could fight, it paved the way for the decisive Battle of Shipka in which the Turks were finally defeated and an independent Bulgaria became a reality.
The park and square are less famous and notable, although there is a church in the square built to commemorate the victory. After the Panorama, we spent a pleasant few hours in the park drinking coffee and learning all about life in Bulgaria’s seventh city. The detail that sticks most in my mind is that Bobi (the name of our host) had recently got a summer job with the Coca-Cola company that involved walking around the city and counting how many times the Coca-Cola brand was displayed. Even at pleasure, she was still working. “They don’t sell Coke here but they have Coca-Cola umbrellas,” she remarked looking up, “I must remember that.” Only in the messy aftermath of communism and the stirrings of nascent capitalism could such a silly job be entered with such enthusiasm I think. But despite all that, I liked sitting and drinking (but not Coke) in that park. For all their faults, one point that cannot be denied is that the communists seem to have provided all their cities with excellent central squares and parks and throughout my travels in the Balkans I have often found myself, a coffee or beer in hand, sat in a park café watching the girls go by; an activity which is particularly enjoyable in those parts.
Pleven’s central Square with Iva and Bobi, 1999. And not a Coca-Cola sign in sight…
Gorna Oryahovitsa marks the halfway point of the line and the grand station gives us the impression that we have arrived in a major city. That however, is misleading, for Gorna Oryahovitsa is a small place, barely thirty thousand souls, but it does have the distinction of being Bulgaria’s Crewe – a town built by the railways due to it lying at one of the most important junctions in the country, where the main east-west line crosses the main north-south route. It has one of the most important stations and loco depots and without the railways it would just be another village, but because of the Iron Road its barely pronounceable name is known to all Bulgarians.
After Gorna Oryahovitsa I fell into conversation – as one so often does in the compartments of the Sofia-Varna train – with a fellow passenger, a young lady of twenty-four years named Neli. She was a native of Pleven and a member of Bulgaria’s bright new generation: well-educated, intelligent and most likely destined to spend her life overseas. She was currently living in Belgium she told me enthusiastically, where she had been studying on the Erasmus Programme, (“Do you know it?”) but was now organising internments for other students. She was hoping to go on one such internment herself though; to China maybe, or America or perhaps somewhere else in Europe. We chatted for hours about Belgium, Bulgaria and the Far East, (“You have lived in Japan and Vietnam! What is it like? Have you ever travelled in China?”), and she told me about her English friends in Varna who owned houses there and congregated in a particular bar (“I can show it to you if you like?”). That was a far cry from when I lived there in 2002-3 for then the only Brits in town were me, the Head of the British Council, two young teachers on an EU volunteering programme and an old guy who’d married a young Bulgarian. Today though, due to low prices, an agreeable climate and the legal protection of being in the EU, Bulgaria is one of the places for Brits to buy a second home and the majority of them follow the pattern of ex-pat Britons everywhere and the buy by the sea.
Neli was good company as we rolled on ever eastwards, getting closer to the parts of the country that I know well. I looked out for Shumen, possibly my favourite Bulgarian city, with its monolithic Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State perched on a hillside above the town. In a country full of oversized communist monuments, this monster still manages to stand out. Built to celebrate the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of the first Bulgarian state, it looms over the city and surrounding landscape 450m high and visible from thirty kilometres away. It’s a colossal slab of concrete cheese plonked on the hilltop by Cubist sculptors Krum Damyanov and Ivan Slavov that its detractors say cost as much as eight kindergartens, but its promoter boast is the only monument in the world that represents the entire history of a nation in one place. Well, with one thousand three hundred steps to climb to reach the bloody thing (one for every year you see), one definitely has time to decide which side of the fence you fall on, although whatever your point of view might be, for scale alone it is impressive and deciphering the abstract sculptures and mosaics can be intriguing too.
At the foot of the steps to the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State, Shumen, with Lenin, 2002
The city beneath the monument however, is even more intriguing. Shumen is the country’s tenth largest city with a population, (according to the 2011 census), of 80,855.[8] That in itself is a very telling statistic, for back in the days of communism the population was well over 100,000 peaking at over 110,000 in 1990-1. So, how does a city lose a quarter of its population in only twenty years? A combination of low birth-rates and mass migration due to the poverty of the area are the main factors and a quick stroll around reveals an aura of decay and dereliction that, whilst sad, is also curiously enticing.
Take the main square, Ploshtad Osvobozhdenie, for example. Whilst the plaza and the buildings that line two sides of it, are pleasant enough, the third flank must be seen to be believed. One feature of the old communist town planners seems to be that they had a certain affection for monolithic projects, complexes so huge that one wonders what use was ever envisioned for them. Perhaps the most famous of these wonders is to be seen, almost completed, not two hundred kilometres away from Shumen, across the Danube in Bucharest. There, the infamous dictator Nicholae Ceacescu decided to build a Palace of the People, a Stalinist pile so huge that reputedly only the Pentagon is bigger. It sits at the end of an equally enormous boulevard and dominates the entire city with its bulk. It also sits however, largely empty and mostly purposeless, for except as a home for the country’s parliament, no other uses have been found for its countless rooms.
Perhaps Shumen’s city fathers once paid a visit to their northern neighbour and came away inspired? I know not. All that I do know is that they too decided to modernise their town in one big fat mega-project. There were to be underground shopping arcades and car parks, a huge cultural centre and a thirteen-storey high, (should they not have spotted the unlucky omen there?), hotel and wide, fast roads with swish pedestrian underpasses.
Problem was, they’d only just got stuck into this Project of Projects when the regime fell and the money abruptly dried up. The roads are there, but largely without cars, and the underpasses, (unused as it is much easier to cross an empty highway), have become stinking rubbish dumps. The unfinished underground mall has steel gates across its entrance, the hotel is over-priced and empty and the cultural centre-cum-car park is an enormous, fenced-off hole with the eerie concrete skeleton of a skyscraper rising up out of the site to complete and dominate the sad scene. It is dereliction, despair, downfall and doomed mega-project at its most awe-inspiring. Walking around it, one feels more like on of the few survivors in those films depicting the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, who pick their way through the ruins of a modern metropolis.
Ploshtad Osvobozhdenie, Shumen, 2002. Note the skyscraper that someone forgot to finish and the hotel big enough for a town ten times the size.
But Shumen is not all doom and gloom, and should one proceed past the Square of Unrealised Ambitions then one reaches its architectural gem, the fine Tomboul Mosque, reputedly the second-largest in the Balkans.[9]
The Sherif Haili Pasha Camii, (to give it its proper name – ‘Tomboul’ just means ‘plump’- a reference to the shape of its dome), was built in 1744 under the auspices of, (surprise, surprise), Sherif Haili Pasha, Turkish general with some money to spare, as a gift to the people of Shumen. It was a generous gift indeed; the mosque boasts a forty metre high minaret, a twenty-five metre wide dome and an attached medrassah making it something of a monster mosque by Balkan standards. The gift was probably much appreciated too. From the early days of the Ottoman occupation, the town has always had a large Turkish minority and even today, there are still close ties with the Mother Country to the south where many of Shumen’s Muslim inhabitants have relatives. I stayed with one family from the town whilst I was in Istanbul and when trying to book a bus back to Bulgaria, I discovered that most of the services headed not to the major population centres of Burgas, Varna, Sofia and Plovdiv, but instead to Shumen and Razgrad, two Bulgarian cities with large Turkish minorities.[10]
But enough of Shumen, for that is not the destination today. After we left the station the train rumbled along the metals of the original route of the Orient Express – before the rail link to Constantinople was constructed, the famous train travelled from Budapest through Romania instead of Yugoslavia, before entering Bulgaria at Ruse and journeying down, through Shumen before terminating at Varna after which the passengers proceeded to the Ottoman capital by boat – and as the sunk sank Neli and I chatted whilst our train carried on through more familiar territory – the town of Provadia with its ruined mosque, the great soda works at Devnya, a village once infamous for its vampires, the grand sweep of Lake Varna traversed by the Asparukh Bridge and then the city itself, the self-proclaimed Marine Capital of Bulgaria (?) with the train finally shuddering to a stop at the buffers of the glorious red and white baroque station crowned by a magnificent clock tower.
I said goodbye to Neli on the platform and was greeted by two far more familiar figures – Dimitur Popov, my former boss and Svetlo Stanev, my old landlord. But more of them later, for that evening, awake for the best part of  forty-eight hours, I was tired and thought only of a nice long sleep in my old apartment in the resort of Druzhba, just a few miles up the coast.

[1] Throughout this travelogue I have referred to this country/region using the Albanian ‘Kosova’ rather than the Serbian ‘Kosovo’ unless quoting sources that use the latter term. I use that term because that is what the people of the country use themselves and that is what they have called their new state. However, when discussing the Battle of Kosovo, I have always used the Serbian term since discussion on that battle focuses on the Serbs.
[2] The most common definition using the Danube as the dividing line is called the Danube-Sava-Kupa line. This definition also chops Croatia and her capital in half and leaves most of Slovenia out of the region.
[3] As with the Balkan confusion, the same too could be said about Central Europe or ‘Mitteleuropa’ as it was commonly known in the 19th century. Whilst Turkish occupation could be said to be a major defining factor for the Balkans, it was Austrian or German domination in this region. The situation is further confused in areas such as modern-day Transylvania and Slovakia where the towns were largely German settlements whilst the villages were Slavic or Romanian. The traveller however, tends to go from town to town and so the Germanic element is exacerbated. One thing I wanted to discover on this trip was whether the same is true in Bosnia-Herzegovina which the Austrians also occupied for a time.
[4] Oh dear, we seem to have strayed into another Balkan minefield here; that of whether I had visited Serbia before or not. In 2009 I visited Kosovo for several days. Kosovo was a part of Yugoslavia with Serbia but then was occupied by NATO troops in 1999 and has been administered by the UN ever since. On 17th February, 2008 the province declared independence and this has so far been recognised by 83 states, (including Britain). Serbia however, does not recognise Kosovan independence and states that Kosovo is still a part of Serbia, albeit governed by the UN. Significantly, the UN itself does not recognise Kosovo due to only a minority of its members (82/193) recognising the state and Russia objecting on the Security Council. So, had I visited Serbia or not? To be honest, whatever the Serbs say or want, on the ground Kosovo is more or less independent these days and so I regard it as such and thus Serbia too, was a new country to me. This issue crops up later by the by, once I hit Serbia itself.
[5] A note here on Bulgarian – and indeed all Slavic – names. Masculine words end in consonants, feminine in an ‘a’ or ‘ya’ (‘я’ in Cyrillic), whilst a plural is usually formed by the addition of an ‘i’ (‘и’ in Cyrillic). Therefore, he was Simeon Kovatchev, whilst she was Pepa Kovatcheva and as a family (lit. ‘the Kovatchevs’), they were Kovatchevi. This applies to every Slavic name you will encounter in this book, although the Turkish Muslim names do not follow this pattern. My friend Gilbert Fuchidji has a sister who is Jamila Fuchidji and together they are the Fuchidji family. Interestingly, their name has a Slavicised form – Fuchidjiev/a/i which seems to be used by some of the people in the town but not on official documents, etc.
[6] That most famous of all Bulgarians, Uncle Bulgaria, had in fact nothing to do with the country at all. Instead he got his name from the Womble practice of naming their offspring by picking a word at random from an old atlas they had. Hence we also have an Orinoco and a Wellington.
[7] See ‘Albanian Excursions’.
[9] This is what I was told by the guide anyway, although I have doubts as to the accuracy of his statement, as I saw several larger-looking ones in Skopje, let alone Balkan Turkey. It is definitely however, the second-largest in Bulgaria.
[10] In terms of Turkish population, Kurdzhali comes top with 86,527, (66.2% of the total population of the province), Razgrad second with 57,261, (50.02%) and Shumen third with 50,878, (30.29%). Overall, the percentage of Turks in Bulgaria is 8%. Statistics taken from

1 comment: