“Ticket!” The raspy, muscular voice thundered through the cavernous, empty station, as Maydi rushed to the counter and presented the pass.
The late-November night was frigid. As I looked out to the tracks, a somber guard stood in attention, full dark-blue uniform neatly pressed, hands clasped firmly behind his back, feet shoulder-width apart, steely eyes fixed toward the front, side to side, as if watching for prowlers in the dense forest on the other side. Two large stray dogs strolled across the opposite end of the platform.
“Thaank you.” The voice broke the silence once more. “Hav a guud trrip.” His smile and warm eyes belied the husky physique and hard-earned wrinkles under the clanky salt-and-pepper hair, a contrast that would follow us around during our three-day stay in Bulgaria.
The train was pure Soviet era, worn maroon paint sprinkled with faded graffiti, rusty parts between cars, creaky brakes as it ground to a halt. Maydi and I wound our way through several cabins full of people, until we found one with room, occupied by a sole aged 19th century man wearing a thick white mustache, farm-dirty boots and a bulky red wool sweater.
As the train slowly pulled away, the noise from the wheels was met with loud barks from the dogs, the guard standing in the exact same spot, hands still clasped, eyes still fixed.
Our stay at Koprivshtitsa in this remote center of the country had been…fascinating. We came because Maydi has made it a thing to visit authentic villages away from capitals and tourist centers in lands far, far away. This summer, it was Sighisoara in Romania. Last week, it was here. Both times, they were travels through time. And peeks into the future.
The ambiance at the station may have been an eerie throwback to the 70 years under communist rule prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union and Bulgaria’s transition to democracy in 1989, but Koprivshtitsa threw us further back. Way back.
It is vintage Middle Ages, dare we say pre-Ottoman 16th century. Cozy streets paved with cut stones, the roof tiles and architecture vividly reminding us of numerous movies set in the times, curious 5-foot doors made of dark wood tested by time and opened with round, heavy steel handles, horse-pulled carts parked behind the tall stone and brick walls covering each property, two we saw pulled by workers down the street.
The low-rise doors seemed particularly strange, as if people were shorter back then, or today. The obituaries plastered on street-facing walls and bulletin boards also caught our eye. So tight-knit must the community be, we figured, that advertising deaths this way must be a sign of intimate bonding and shared mourning.
We dined fantastic Bulgarian cuisine at the quaintest restaurant, walls lined with classic, colorful décor from this beautiful, intriguing land. As we sat next to the warm fireplace sipping Rakija, the grapy brandy favored by locals throughout the Balkans, the owner snuck between us to throw in three cut logs and stroke the fire a bit.
Fireplace wood, we noticed in our walk, is everywhere. The residents are ready for winter, as was clear had been done, exactly this way, in this same place and surely others like it, for hundreds of years. Time stands still, the people rattled, it seems, by nothing at all. The Ottomans came and went. The Soviets had their turn. And that may have altered matters to some extent. But not much. Not here.
The resilience jumped out at us everywhere we went, as did the pride. When we asked a kind souvenir-shop attendant earlier that evening about the amazing music she had on, she flashed a broad smile and said, excitedly: “It’s Bulgarian,” typing the name of the artist on Maydi’s phone so she could look her up.
The waitress at the restaurant where we had our after-dinner coffee, next to the one with the fireplace dinner, ran to the back to get her iPhone and, with bubbling joy, showed us a YouTube video of townspeople in traditional attire performing a folk dance during a recent village festival. Native music was playing in this restaurant, as well, and in the previous one.
She also explained why the town seemed so desolate and the establishments so empty, with few interior lights visible after the sun disappeared on this Monday night and scant few people walking around. It seemed odd to us, since nearly every property was cleanly painted, the lawns finely groomed, certainly not consistent with abandonment.
“Oh, we’re full on the weekends, when people return home,” and when tourists come and fill the numerous inns dotting the town. She struggled to translate thoughts into English, as did the souvenir-shop attendant, and the dinner restaurant waitress, and others in the village. Maydi helped with her start-up and extremely useful Bulgarian and Russian.
When I asked how many people live in Koprivshtitsa, the coffee-restaurant waitress looked up, waved her hands a bit, pulled out her order notebook and wrote 800, the number during your typical weekend.
A hazy soft-white mist invaded the town, feeding the mood. At 7:20, the scheduled time precisely, the shuttle arrived at the stop to take us to the train station and our return to Sofia, and we were off.
The Balkans is a region largely forgotten, at least by those of us consumed in the life and business of the West — in the case of the two of us, America.
Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, the lot of them north of Greece and south of Austria, Hungary and Ukraine, have long been plagued by civil hatreds and strife, great-power invasions and plain-old underdevelopment.
So much so that the very term Balkans is now being replaced in diplomatic circles by the less loaded Southeastern Europe, a valiant attempt to bring greater standing to the region.
Only Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Slovenia have been allowed into the European Union, with others in various stages of the entry process. Bulgarians had high expectations when the country joined in 2007, but have since become the least happy of all EU members, still with the lowest income and gross product, still with a corruption-plagued government not even a decade of EU membership has been able to fix.
The unrest hurt the center-right government of President Rosen Plevneliev and led to the election two weeks ago of socialist Rumen Radev, who assailed Plevneliev’s soft stance toward the EU and pledged greater transparency and accountability at home.
The verdict is out, though, and according to polls, the Bulgarian people are the first skeptics taking a wait-and-see approach, an attitude palpable when strolling the streets of Sofia.
So at first glance, this doesn’t strike you as THE place to move to or do business in, maybe even visit. Bulgaria is not an aspirational country or market.
That said, what Maydi and I saw is quite the alternate reality. Yes, Bulgarians are stoic, definitely not inviting. They are dry on the surface, even if gentle and friendly upon striking a conversation. A people burdened by centuries of foreign repression and internal struggles.
The city’s gloominess on these chilly days feels outright Soviet. The stair-raised, tinted-windowed observation towers are still there in key intersections, reminders of those Big Brother days. The feeling of being followed by some suspecting officer hangs in the air, at least to the writer in me, who can’t help but see stories even where none may be evident.
But even that is cool and enticing, to visit a place that oozes this history, knowing that today it is only the imagination playing with your mind, making Sofia and mysterious spots like the Koprivshtitsa train station experiences you don’t want to miss.
The colorful and eventful Ottoman past is everywhere, as well, awesome-interesting and awe-inspiring, particularly in the majestic temple architecture and grandiose government buildings of this capital city. The cultural scene absolutely rocks, from exquisite plays in the Ivan Vazov National Theatre to the drinking and dancing of Planet Sofia, to the countless museums, quaint shops and coffee shops lining the streets, and the pedestrian Vitosha Boulevard.
Nowhere is this more so than in the city of Plovdiv, selected by the EU as a European Capital of Culture for 2019. Two are chosen each year. Timisoara, Romania, coincidentally, also visited by Maydi this summer, is one of the favorites for 2021. In Plovdiv, organizers are hard at work planning a dizzying, year-long calendar of celebration under the motif Together Plovdiv 2019.
“What do we live for? To live together,” read the banners, “together in our unique historical and cultural diversity and in the big European family. To make Plovdiv known and visible in Europe, as it deserves.”
Deserving it is indeed. Plovdiv is a vibrant, magical city of half a million people, resting on hilly territory in the country’s south-central valley. It boasts an intoxicating Old Town dating back to 4000 B.C., one of the oldest settlements on the continent, complete with an ancient fortress, stone gates and the coolest museums ever. The city’s original layout was built on seven hills, which now feature unique attractions.
One is a stunning outdoor theatre, in the style of Roman and Greek antik tiyatrosu, or antique theatre, preserved exquisitely as the star attraction of a modern pedestrian mall on cobblestone streets lined with old buildings themselves a captivating treasure, in turn connecting seamlessly with the more official, commercial section of the city.
If Plovdiv rivals Sofia in grandiosity, it is because it, too, was once a capital — of the autonomous Ottoman region Eastern Rumelia, which joined Bulgaria in 1885.
At some distance, as we exited the space, we were drawn by the sounds of folklore. A man dressed in traditional attire and holding a Bulgarian flag was leading a large circle of 50-or-so random citizens joined in hand as they glided forward and back to the front steps and side steps of a patriotic folk dance.
That was one joyous group, as was the one in Maria Luiza, a neat little darkly lit smoke-filled corner pub decorated in red and black, with the greatest urban art hanging on the walls. It didn’t take much for Maydi to stir a two-minute party the moment she asked for two glasses of Rakija. Only a small amount in a single bottle was left at that late hour, but it was enough for us, and we sat in a corner table reflecting on the beauty of this place and its people.
The lady with the beige sweater was the only one who appeared misty, perhaps going through some tough moment, but uplifted by all the others who felt her pain, even if not sharing her mood. We found it a telling tale in this country of rustic intrigue and potential.
On the way here in my connecting flight out of London, I sat across the aisle from Gergana Nikolova. She dislikes her name and asked that I call her Gia, like everyone else does. So let’s oblige. Gia was born in Sofia and at 13 was sent to boarding schools in the United Kingdom, where she picked up far more than an impeccable English.
“Let’s say that Bulgarians are generally…” She struggled not with the language, but with whether to spit out the word. “Unsophisticated. It partly explains the corruption.” Her tone was analytical, but warm. Blunt, but empathetic.
“We’re well educated. We value our education in Bulgaria very deeply. But you know, we’re blue collar. It’s been centuries of hardship, and it continues to this day.”
She described a proud, hyperlocal people facing a fork in the road, anchored in an old, even ancient past, debating whether to join the world or remain absorbed within, a combination of isolated Koprivshtitsa and cosmopolitan Plovdiv, with a Sofia looking for place and definition.
After completing her studies in luxury management — one of her things is this related blog — Gia remained in London for a while. Two years ago, she decided to return to the land of her birth.
“Bulgaria presents some challenges, but this is family, and there is truly no other place like it.”
Then she brought up an angle that can only come from no other place like it. “Bulgarian women,” she revealed, “stay away from global beauty pageants like Miss Universe.”
Hmm, I thought. If there is one thing absolutely striking about this country is the fantastic beauty and stylishness of its women, in contrast to the grit and stoicness of its men.
I mentioned that in the Caribbean, where I live — Venezuela, Colombia, Dominican Republic and my Puerto Rico — we take enormous pride in our multiple Miss Universe winners, and how they join pageants to open doors and strengthen their otherwise impressive resumes.
“We see them as…” Again, searching, eyes rolling. “Beneath us,” the eyes of this beautiful woman in her own right now fixed on mine. “Women here don’t see the elegance in beauty contests, and we don’t need them.”
It dawned on me that, unknowingly, she was talking about the country as a whole, capturing the mindset of a people she had returned home to.
”We don’t need the world to acknowledge or ratify our beauty. It’s just who we are.”
My daughter Maydi and I visited Bulgaria on November 20–22. We’re seen here enjoying some fine Rakija at Maria Luiza in Plovdiv.