So I thought, since Bulgaria is… not necessary a place I knew much (of anything) about, and maybe you’re the same (are you? Tell me things!), I’d drop you a little update on the first impression. Before leaving, I’d been unintentionally – but willingly – terrorizing myself with Ross Kemp documentaries and this memoir that is … not terrorizing, just kind of grim.
I got to Bulgaria on Sunday afternoon in Sofia (the 15th largest city in the EU? Who would have guessed). I dropped my stuff off and then tried finding the conference, but realized really quickly that – woah – I have never been anywhere (save Ethiopia) in the world that doesn’t use the Roman alphabet. At least throw me an occasional cognate, that’s all I’m saying. So I ask the people at the front desk where Sofia University is and they just kind of give me a smirk and say, “it’s really close – it’s just there [gesture].” I’m like, right, okay, great, it’s [gesture], but I literally can’t understand anything? Can you write ‘Sofia University’ in Bulgarian? There are virtually 5 suspects looming within a block of me. “It’s just there! No, just there!” “I! Don’t! Understand anything! [gesture to show overexagerrated sob miming]” Anyway, much more confusion ensues, I meet up with my colleague, and nothing has shown up. Anyway, we do our best.
After we left set-up and grabbed an early dinner, I was meandering my way back to the hotel and stumbled upon a congregated group all looking at a dude holding a ‘Free Sophia Walking Tour’ sign, so just walked up and joined. I asked some guys between sites how long it had been going on & they said it had just started and would be about 2 hours, so I just thought, yeah! Serendipity! Really interesting tour, and a few highlights for you to follow.
So first of all, unlike many other old, large European cities, Sofia doesn’t really have an old and new section of the city… rather, it has layers. They find Roman ruins while starting building projects all. the. time. Like for example, they started a building project for a new hotel in about 2004, and during the digging to create the foundation, the builders discovered an old Roman ampitheatre only slightly smaller than the Colosseum. Sofia is only the third European city to host an ampitheatric building (after Madrid and Rome) but rather than call off the construction of the hotel and completely unearth it? The proceed to build the hotel. Eh-hem: Coliseum Hotel. No joke! Although it dates from the 4th Century, it will just become part of the hotel’s design. “Wi-fi, airconditioning, mini bar, turn-down services and … gladiator colosseum in the Lobby.” Crazy. The other hilarious detail about this story is that the hotel is literally nextdoor to a center for historical preservation. The world is weird! Weirder still in Bulgaria.
This kind of segues into something else the guide touched-on: the Bulgarians are just not entirely sure of their cultural heritage. There’s a great deal of contention around it: Thracian? Mongolian? Iranian? Another Asiatic origin? Slavic, Greek, Ottoman? Our guide was like, “yeah, I’mma let you finish, but it wouldn’t be such a crazy suggestion to say we might be of Roman dissent. Romans are lazy with preservation just like Bulgarians! When they want to erect a statue but can’t be bothered to build a new one, they’d knock off the heads of an exising one they were bored with and just replace it with a new head and inscription. Hence, the Coliseum Hotel.”
We also explored the Communist Party Headquarters and the other Communist buildings around it. Before WWII, Bulgaria was ruled by a monarchy, which was then overthrown by the BCP (Bulgarian Communist Party) in 1946. But before that! The monarch of Bulgaria at the time went to pay a little visit to Hitler in 1943 and, coming back to Bulgaria, died shortly thereafter. It wouldn’t be so unlikely that he would’ve been murdered* by either the Nazis or the Bulgarians because the Communists hated the monarchy and the Nazis hated the Bulgarians for not wanting to get involved in the war. So his son, born Tsar Simeon II but then called Simeon Borisov of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (mouthful), ascended the thrown as a 6-year-old for the following 3 years. When the Communists took over power, he fled the country went into exile for 55 years only to come back… 55 years later… as the Prime Minister! The world is weirder in Bulgaria! That has got to be the only democratically elected politician who was formerly a monarch. Right? Everyone thought he would rule (pardon the unintentional pun; I’m young and uncool) and make Sofia great, but he was a huge let-down.
*Can I also shout here, while we’re talking about strange murders, about the umbrella murder? Does anyone know what I’m talking about? The KGB had a member murder this journalist-defector dude, then working for the BBC, with a resin-pellet gun disguised as an umbrella in the late 60s. The Bulgarian government’s effort to silence a squeaky wheel? And yes, this seems to be much better known than much of anything else about Bulgaria, it seems.
We also walked by these gorgeous mineral bathhouses (none still open in Sofia – most recently closed in the 80s), saw the Vitosha Mountain (ski slopes 30 minutes from central Sofia), saw buildings representing most world religions (except Buddhism), theatres, museums… then towards the end of the tour, the guide was like, okay, I’m going to take a group picture! And if you weren’t supposed to be here, you can either be in it or not… WHAT! I was like, I’m the biggest dope ever. And got in the picture. But I looked the company up online and he was just teasing – he did actually say this, “I mean, if you said you were going to be somewhere else and you don’t want anyone knowing you were on this tour…” But for a full 24-hours I was like, waow, did I just join a tour and have mocking eyes looking my way all night without even feeling them?!
Bats living between columns of the court house:
Back at the hotel, such an international menu of channels: Bulgarian, Russian, US English, UK English, French, German, Chinese, Arabic… so many that I couldn’t figure out, too. Only 30 channels but about a 1:1 or maybe 2:1 ratio of language to channel.
Today was a bit more standard – booth time most of the day; still no materials but finding a few temporary solutions and just generally making conversation rather than silently watching silent browsers. I went to this ‘folk’ Bulgarian restaurant for dinner. I was pretty fascinated beforehand about what Bulgarian cuisine would be like, but the jury is still out. It’s kind of Lebanese-meets-Russian-meets-Greek?-meets-meat.