Tuesday, May 10, 2016
Bulgaria (Part II -Easter holiday)
To go from Bucharest to Veliko Tournovo is less than 200 km. However, the journey is taken on a rusty train, which has about five people in it (all tourists) and takes over seven hours, including long waits at the border and waiting for a locomotive to arrive from Bulgaria-you’d think they know about it by now, as this train passes every day.
It is not an unpleasant ride, however. On arrival I feel like I have landed in the middle of nowhere. Worried that I get ripped off, I ask a Bulgarian to get me a cab. The worry is baseless. This country has not been spoiled by tourists and the attitude to do so is not there. A long taxi ride often does not cost more than a few Pounds/Euros.
I am welcomed into a comfortable, modern apartment by a local young couple. They met as he, fresh from university, was teaching her at school. The next day I get my bearings, mostly thanks to another excellent free tour (obviously tipped well) and discover how quaint this small town is. This is not so much the classical town with a square and a church. This former medieval capital has been built on three hills, with a river running through it. It has a rather romantic feel to it.
The stop after this is Plovdiv, which should just be mentioned for its name, I guess! It has a nice car free centre and the place has been cleaned up and renovated and boasts both a Roman amphitheatre and a big Mosque. I meet an elderly Israeli artist and spend some time in her studio and decide the next day to stay with her in a village outside town. There I read my book in a tree and walk to a nearby monastery in the heat, while greeting the local goats on the way. I feel rather passive and I am not used to having the option of ‘nothing to do’, but it is not that bad…
The next stop is the capital. I reconnect with someone I had met seven years ago and we spend every dinner together. It is nice to get some insights on local life. I don’t just do a local tour of the city, I also catch a ‘free food tour’, which is equally as interesting. We are taken to various stalls and restaurants where we hear about local foods and markets, and get to have tastes of various dishes. We also learn interesting facts, such as how during communism tomatoes were exchanged for ABBA records (good deal, I’d say).
Sofia feels more pleasant than Bucharest, even so, it does not quite reach the beauty of many other European cities. As a day trip I go to the Rila monastery. This is a rather long ride into the mountains to visit this splendid monastery and for a short hike in the forest.
Romania and Bulgaria might be next to each other, but both countries feel they don’t have much in common; language, alphabet, history, religion- it is all different. People look different as well. The one thing they have in common and I ask many questions about this, is that both countries were subjected to a communist regime for decades - roughly from just after WWII up to 1989/90. In both countries the overall feeling of the younger generation, born after the fall of communism, was that they have no reason to want it back. How its influence is still living on in this generation, I wonder. A lack of trust in others, I often hear, even though they open their doors to a stranger like me, they would not easily invite local strangers into their lives. Not surprising; their parents grew up in a time in which a neighbour, a friend, even a family member could have been part of the secret police and would find a reason to turn them in. I am also told that often there is a lack of communal responsibility; ‘the state should take care of it’, but this has for long not been the case any more. I could notice a difference between the younger and older generation; the younger generation wanting to find more modern comfort, while a lot of older people hold on to their old houses that once, during communism might have been assigned to them, and never changing anything to it- not moving to another place. What both countries also have in common, is that most city centres looked well taken care of, but you only need to turn a corner to find worn down, dilapidated buildings. Where both countries are going and whether it is in a positive or negative direction, depends on who I speak to. The software designing industry seems strong here. Poverty is definitely still present, but nicely kept away from tourists, with one big advantage: everything is very cheap when coming from the west.