My Bulgarian Spring Break

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It was snowing. We were driving through a blizzard on April Fool’s Day, aiming our Subaru in blind hope towards a beach on the Black Sea: our first spring break since moving from sunny Florida to Bulgaria. My crazy-meter, never designed for such rigors, had long since gone on strike.

The whole enterprise had required a leap of faith. My wife would help run the embassy school, where our nine-year-old daughter would attend the fourth grade. I would transplant my writing from the fertile soil of Tampa to the rocky Balkans.

But just now, our needs were far simpler. Watch out for the pothole, the unexpected horse cart on the highway, the mafia Mercedes speeding from behind with darkened windows.  Find our hotel on the cobbled, one-way streets of Nesebar, a history-laden peninsula on the Black Sea. Locate a restaurant that was open in the off-season.  If ancient Greek mariners could find this port town on the edge of the known world, surely we could track down a bowl of spaghetti. Continue reading

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The Ghost Pumpkins of Bulgaria

I can always tell when the seasons are changing in our Sofia neighborhood.

In summer it’s all about watermelons. From the moment the weather turns hot, a vendor sets out huge, green pyramids fresh from Bulgaria’s fields. To seal the deal he cuts a few in half, displaying their cool red innards, as if to remind the tough or forgetful customer what’s inside.

Then, one magical day in autumn when the breeze runs cool, all is transformed. Gone are green melons, replaced by – can it be? – white pumpkins. Continue reading

Summer reading

It’s been a strange season to come and go from Sofia.

The night before we left on a trip overseas, a forest fire burned atop Mount Vitosha. The craggy horizon burned red as we packed our bags – a discomfiting omen, I thought.

While we were gone, terrorists set off a bomb and killed Israeli tourists in the port city of Burgas, which we had driven through in April. Summer floods soaked our basement garage with two feet of murky water, judging from the flood marks and squishy floor mats in our Subaru. And just weeks before, in May, an earthquake jolted us out of bed.

All that in the space of three months: fire, flood, war and earthquake.

“Is this normal?” I asked a Bulgarian friend.

“That’s life,” she said with a shrug and a grin. Continue reading

Inspiration zone: Veliko Tarnovo

What is it about Veliko Tarnovo that grabs your imagination and doesn’t let go?

Certainly its location, high on a cliffside in the rugged Balkan range, is a show-stopper. When Bulgarian nationalists needed a place to make their stand against Ottoman invaders beginning in the 12th century, this is where they came.

Tourists have been tromping up Tsarevets hill ever since for a glimpse of those fortifications. And don’t expect American-style guard rails everywhere. You thought this was Disneyland? It’s actually possible to walk off the edge of a castle and plunge to your death here.

Continue reading

Photo journal: Quiet season on the Black Sea

People say the spring is not the time to visit the Black Sea. Too quiet. Too cold. Not enough action.

I say they’re crazy.

On a recent trip to Bulgaria’s coast, I was blown away by the natural beauty. The beaches are pristine, the towns placid and laid back.

We found workers still painting signs and fishermen readying their boats for the busy season. They seemed surprised to see tourists on their streets.

Too soon, their posture said, come back in a month or two! Continue reading

Five reasons why skiing in Bulgaria isn’t what you think

Sadly, ski season appears to be winding down here in Bulgaria. With each passing day the mountains above Sofia seem a bit less white.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out what an incredibly great season it has been, with plenty of snow and comfortable temperatures for the last month. Last weekend my daughter and I ventured up to Borovets in the Rila Mountains for what could be our final runs of 2012, though in truth we’re already scheming for a return in December.

In that spirit, I offer a few observations on how much better skiing in this corner of the Balkans has turned out to be than I ever expected. For a skier who was raised (okay, spoiled) on Rocky Mountain powder back in the day, it has been a revelation. Continue reading

Photo journal: Ode to Tram 18

I love Tram 18 in Sofia.

All through this frigid East European winter, when every instinct tells us to hide under the blankets, my family has journeyed downtown on this steel relic from Bulgaria’s past. It provides a perfect, nicely-heated portal for journeying through a city that was made for walking.

The trip starts at the southern terminus in Istok, directly opposite the Russian embassy. Passengers line up at trackside, pull up their scarves, and point their faces away from the wind like seagulls on a pier.

When the tram arrives, be prepared to wait a few minutes longer. First the southbound passengers disembark. Then the tram reverses and disappears into a cul-de-sac in the neighboring park. Wait for it. A few minutes later – time enough for the driver to switch tracks, move from back to front, and perhaps take a swig of coffee – the tram reappears for the northward journey. Continue reading

Hibernating in Sofia

Bloggers will give you all sorts of reasons why there hasn’t been a post lately. Ferret ate it. Got hit by a tram. Been renditioned to a foreign country. Probably you’ve heard ’em all.

But the simple truth is, it’s winter! And paid work presses. And even as I write this, I’m running a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius. (That’s 101 in Yankee.)

Suffice to say, Bulgaria has indeed been walloped by snow. Plowing has been hit or miss in Sofia, and apparently mostly miss in the countryside. Folks are stranded, dams are bursting. Even for die-hard Slavs, it’s been a hard season.

Anyway, please accept my apologies for hibernating this blog in January and, okay, a good part of February. More soon!

“Happy New Year! Good luck.”

We returned to Sofia on New Year’s Eve after a trip to visit family. The city was freshly painted in crisp, white snow.

At midnight the city erupted in fireworks. We raced from window to window in our apartment, trying to catch the best view. The neighborhood of Lozenets appeared to be under an artillery bombardment, so intense was their celebration.

The next day Sofia appeared to be nearly deserted, what with the family parties and feasting going on indoors, except for those hearty souls who emerged to walk their dogs on the icy streets.

It’s said one of the ways Bulgarians celebrate the New Year is by wearing new clothes. On the evidence, I’d have to say that’s true. We saw a Chihuahua wearing a red sweater and a Dachshund proudly sporting a green lizard suit. Every dog, it seemed, was wearing a new outfit. Continue reading

The lost synagogue of Vidin

I nearly missed it.

Walking through the riverfront park in Vidin, Bulgaria, the eye is naturally drawn toward the Danube or distant monuments. It would have been so easy to overlook the ruin in the trees just to the south.

I had heard mention of a synagogue here. What I hadn’t realized — could scarcely have conceived — was the sheer extent of its decaying presence.

We wandered around the perimeter fence and, spotting the Star of David, realized what we had stumbled upon. Nestled amid houses and apartment blocks, it appeared to be completely abandoned and forgotten.

And then we saw that the gate had been left ajar. With a gulp and a look over my shoulder, I plunged through the weeds and into the shell of this once grand building. Continue reading