Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Simon in Bulgaria

For many of us in the UK, Eastern Europe – and by that I mean anything east of Germany – is a place where horses haven’t been replaced with cars, all the women are at least 6’2 and Vodka is the cornerstone of a healthy diet. Countries Like Romania and Poland have provided Britain with  variety of sandwich meats, ideas for Stephanie Myer and sources of cheap labour. So when my girlfriend asked me to go with her to Bulgaria, her motherland, naturally I thought I knew everything there is to know about the place. Second World War documentaries on the History Channel had provided me with all the information I could ever need. Needless to say, I was wrong.

A few months ago she decided it was high time to take a trip to Bulgaria. My girlfriend was long overdue for a visit to her family. I hadn’t been anywhere close to Bulgaria before and, to tell the truth, I wasn’t exactly excited to be going. It doesn’t really jump to the front of my mind when asked to think of places I want to visit. Don’t misunderstand me; I was looking forward to meeting her parents and learning new things about her. We agreed she would leave before me and I would fly out a week later.

About half way into the week, while I was enjoying the freedom to leave my underwear lying around the house, I picked up the Evening Standard (a London periodical) and flipped through it. I came across a headline that made me stop. Wait, this can’t be right. In big bold letters the article read “Underground Union Walkout on the 3rd of October”.
 Being a recent graduate and very poor means the underground -London’s version of the subway trains – is my sole method of transport. And when your sole method of transport goes on strike three times a month it can get very tedious. This particular walkout was scheduled just to piss me off. From 6pm on Sunday until 6pm on Monday there would be no trains running, and my flight was 10am Monday morning. With no other options left, I resolved myself to needlessly spending a night at the airport.

I arrived in the capital of Romania by the late afternoon. In order to get to Ruse in Bulgaria it’s easier just to fly to Bucharest and get a ride over the Bridge of Friendship, which links the Romanian side of the river to Ruse, northern Bulgaria. My girlfriend and her father picked me up from the airport, and soon enough we were on our way through rush hour Bucharest. We drove around Bucharest for a long time, taking in some of the local sights, getting a good idea of Romanian history from my girlfriend’s dad, but mainly we were just lost.

By the time we crossed the bridge it was dark, but a fresh wind blew through Ruse. It was deliciously cold and its icy touch woke me up as soon as I stepped out of the car.

Day 2

The next day was spent exploring Ruse. It’s a small city that used to have a population of about 150,000. More than half the residents have left in the last ten years. This is because of people seeking out better work or higher education in Western Europe.
I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. One look at the place and I was enchanted. Everything draws you in like a detailed painting. When viewed from afar its beauty is easily visible, but it takes a closer look to see the small brushstrokes that make up the larger picture, revealing the tiny details of workmanship that create the whole thing. Ruse is the same, with her many faces and accumulated culture from past conquers and regimes.

Being led down the narrow streets is like walking through a seamless and beautiful mesh of old, new and ancient. I became totally immersed in this time warp of Soviet apartment blocks that stand like guardians over the renovated native buildings influenced by Austrian design. The only downside was the sheer number of banks and casinos that litter almost every street corner, but it’s all part of experiencing Ruse’s many faces and complex personality.

 Ruse slopes towards the river, so walking up the streets into the centre is an experience which affords a view of the cultural scenery leading to the lavishly maintained and well looked after city centre. The central area subtly oozes history and culture. I was a little late in the year to admire the elegant flower beds that sprinkle their colour beneath The Statue of Liberty, but I was still able to see the sights, and walk along the Danube clutching my jacket, hiding from the chilly autumn air.

I have to say that the best part of being in Bulgaria was meeting my girlfriend's family and getting to know them. They took me all over the city, explained the little details that coloured the experience of being there and, more than anything, made me feel welcome. Also, I can't forget to mention the homemade Rakia. If you ever get to go, make sure you get to taste this alcoholic beverage. Trust me, one taste is all you'll need.

I only spent a few days in Bulgaria before flying home to London. My second day was definitely a more profound experience because I got to meet the local Gypsy community living on the outskirts of the city. Meeting these people, talking to them and seeing their living conditions were a real culture shock to me, and something I was totally unprepared for.

Because I want to go into detail about my visit to the Gypsy Quarter, I will discuss it in my upcoming post. I’m sorry I’ve been absent for awhile, but I’ll make sure there isn’t a massive gap between this post and the next. Watch this space!


  1. Sweet read. Thanks for posting. :D

  2. updated version with corrections and pictures. Keep watching for more!