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


Driving in Bulgaria, Part 3: Destination Vidin

Lacking my own car, it was my friend Boyko who did the driving today on a reporting trip up to Vidin, a city on the Danube River in northwest Bulgaria. This experience only reinforced my keen appreciation for the challenges and pleasures of operating a motor vehicle in the Balkans.

For one thing, he drives fast. Everyone does. Only horse carts — of which we saw more than a few — go slowly here. Speed adds a thrill to daily life and also gets you to your destination more quickly. Continue reading

Capitalism 2, Socialism 1 in tight Bulgarian showdown

It was a classic matchup.

On Monday the government of Bulgaria unveiled the Museum of Socialist Art, its first institution dedicated to the experience of 40 years under a planned economy. On Tuesday, Swedish furniture giant IKEA opened its first retail outlet here under Greek franchiser Fourlis Holdings.

But if you were expecting a clear, convincing win in this contest between left and right, think again.

Granted, Bulgarians have been IKEA-mad for some time now, to the point of taking shopping trips down to the nearest outlet in Thessaloniki in Greece while awaiting their chance to buy Swedish meatballs at home. And while today’s influx of shoppers didn’t exactly overflow the parking lot, they certainly beat yesterday’s turnout for socialist art. Continue reading

Socialist art museum opens, quietly

I didn’t know quite what do with myself this morning at Bulgaria’s new Museum of Socialist Art.

I arrived around 12:30 – about an hour after Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had been scheduled to cut the ribbon. By the time I got there, the media scrum had mostly departed. A few stragglers gulped down a bit of wine and cheese under tents that had been set up near the bust of Che Guevara.

Out in the sculpture garden, too, things were largely quiet amid the statuary of this country’s 40 years under communist rule. An elderly couple were in the midst of a heated discussion in Bulgarian. A television reporter finished a report seated  – I’m not making this up – in Vladimir Lenin’s lap. Continue reading

Photo journal: Throwing stones

This afternoon I was headed to a meeting in downtown Sofia when I saw a group of teenagers at the base of the Monument to the Soviet Army. They were standing amid a rubble of rocks and dead flowers. I wasn’t sure what they were up to, so I hung around for a moment to watch.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, many governments have torn down these tributes to the Red Army forces that pushed the Nazis back to Berlin and brought Eastern Europe under Soviet rule. But in Bulgaria they’re still here, transformed into skate parks and youth hangouts.

I snapped my shutter just as one boy heaved a rock, catching him in the same liberator’s pose as the long-forgotten soldier above him.

Later someone told me about those flowers.They had been arranged on a stone pedestal beneath the statue for last week’s anniversary of the communist takeover in 1944. Then someone came and destroyed the pedestal. And then these kids threw a few pieces down the steps. Stone by stone, it seems, the tribute will come down.

Sofia tour offers plenty of value

Volunteer guide Petar Stanchev speaks to a group near the historic Central Bath House in Sofia.

From a distance, it looked like any other tour group.

But right from the start on Monday, guide Petar Stanchev let his audience know things would be different.

“You’re free to leave at any time,” he told them. “Free to ask questions. Free even to correct my English.”

That operative word gets flung around quite a bit on the Free Sofia Tour, a year-old venture in the Bulgarian capital that doesn’t cost a single stotinka.

And it’s not just about the price. Unlike paid guides, who might feel bound to a just-the-facts approach, Petar freely offered his opinions and perspectives during a casual 2.5 hour tour of the downtown sights.

He criticized the government for knocking down the mausoleum of former communist leader Georgi Dimitrov in 1999. (“Erasing your history is not a good way to deal with it,” said the 22-year-old university student.) And he said it wasn’t a good idea to allow the Arena di Serdica Residence Hotel to be built atop newly-discovered Roman ruins. (“I personally believe that wasn’t the best way to attract tourists in Sofia,” he said.) Continue reading

Why Bulgarians flip over chocolate

So I was sitting on a train the other day, rumbling through the late-summer countryside somewhere between Kostenets and Stamboliyski, and I fell into a conversation with a guy who helped me to understand something huge about Bulgarian culture.

Everyone loves chocolate here. Not likes. Loves. Adores. Flips out.

Need a co-worker to help you fix your computer? Chocolate. Having a birthday? Chocolate. Wooing a secret someone? Yep, chocolate works for that one, too.

Not that people in other countries don’t crave the cacao. I once worked in a newsroom where the good stuff came out every Friday afternoon, and suddenly the weekend deadline seemed attainable. Fridays for me have never been the same.

But in Bulgaria it’s different. Forget the Euro. Adopt Godiva as the national currency and this place wouldn’t miss a beat. Continue reading

Bulgaria’s socialist museum coming – but not today

Rumors were swirling leading up to today’s 67th anniversary of the start of communist rule in Bulgaria. Would this be the day the government opened the country’s first museum of totalitarian art?

Some media reports said they would, and suggested the timing would be unseemly – an insult to those who feel strongly about the anniversary, as many do. Others said it wouldn’t open until Sept. 16. No one seemed to know.

I decided to find out. It was easy enough to locate, just east of Blvd. Dragan Stanchev on Lachezar Stanchev Street near the Dimitrov metro stop.

When I arrived there was a big crowd at the museum — all working feverishly to get the place ready. Construction crews were busy laying a new tarmac driveway, watering the grass, and ordering each other around. A guard had his own theory on when the place would open.

“19 Septemvri,” he said, wagging a stern finger when I asked whether it might be all right to take a look around today. Continue reading