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Published: August 16th 2014
We are finally leaving Europe behind after seven weeks of some great experiences and support from a wide collection of old and new friends. Sofia was our final destination in Europe, where we had been invited to stay by Iva, who I had last seen at Cambridge in 1982.
Not for the first time my retired PhD supervisor, Tony Kirby, had come up trumps and put us in touch after just a few days of enquiries. I had written to Iva explaining about our trip and immediately got an invitation to stay. We could not miss that opportunity and made sure we cut back to Sofia from Ruse before heading for Turkey and Asia.
I have to say on the bus to Sofia I was a little nervous. The same type of feeling you get when you are waiting to meet a new high potential customer. I guess a mixture of nervousness and excitement really. After all we had not seen each other for 32 years.
And of course the nervousness was totally misplaced with Iva and Blagoy welcoming us so warmly from the second we got through the door. We stayed
the first night at their flat in William Gladstone Street. You may wonder, as I did, why Bulgarians honour the great Victorian politician in this way. Iva informed us that apparently he been a vocal supporter for Bulgarian independence from the Ottoman Empire.
At our first breakfast Iva suggested we went to their summerhouse in Zelenigrad, 'Green' Town, 80 minutes west of Sofia very close to the Serbian border. We jumped at the idea and preparation were made to leave that evening.
This gave us the chance to see some of Sofia during the day. It was a pleasant city dominated by the Saint Alexandar Nevski cathedral built by public subscription after the Russians helped them kick out the Turks. It's gold domes catch the sun and stand like large beacons in the middle of the city. Almost more impressive was the St Sophia church next door. There are not many churches around built in the sixth century. Both churches have crypts which are worth visiting apparently. Our only opportunity was to tour on a Monday when both were closed.
Sofia has it share of communist era buildings and subsequent decay.
Maybe the Romanians could learn from the Bulgarians a few marketing tips since in one tour guide they were promoting amongst others, 'Ugly' Sofia sites and admirable trying to make the best of this architectural legacy.
We did our usual thing of heading for the markets and enjoyed picking lunch from various stalls at the City Hall. The vegetable and fruit selection clearly showed we were getting closer to the Mediterranean.
Iva's and Blagoy's summer house sits at the end of the village at the point where you think the road can not get any narrower, bumpier or grassier. It has wonderful views across the valley. With in minutes of arrival the grill was on.
The next day Iva took us for a tour of the village. It had been home to Blagoy's Grandfather and his father was the first to head for the city lights in Sofia. A number of the inhabitants were cousins of some sort. Zelenigrad is depopulating like the rest of Bulgaria which has lost over 10% of its population in the last 25 years. There are nice houses built by Sofians and a number of old
buildings, including the village school, going to ruin. This does mean it is an incredibly peaceful place and at 900m a lovely place to get away from the city heat in the summer.
Iva let us into the tiny village church which had been restored with the help of one of Blagoy's cousins who had been a successful opera singer and wife of some wealth husbands in Austria. It had the classic Orthodox format and a short wooden separate bell tower. It was now used only for special occasions with no regular service.
The comparison with the Maramures in Romania where emigration seems much newer (one generation instead of two?) was striking. This rural area of Bulgaria may be a model of where the Maramures may be going in the years to come.
Iva then left us as we went in search of Serbia. We walk up the valley towards the border ridge on a good track. Rock outcrops loomed above us on occasions. After a while the track forked in several places and at each we scratched our heads about which one to take. We 'pushed' each one in the end and I got over the ridge to a stream that appeared to be running into Serbia. As I walked back a text welcomed me to 'Bulgaria', but that can happen at the summer house, so we have no idea whether we added another country to our list on this journey or not.
It did suggest that the tourism could be developed further. Iva had pointed to the one pension in the village which did not look very open when we passed. You could probably develop a border path but it all needs money!
We did not get back to the house until after 2pm just in time to prevent Iva and Blagoy coming to look for us. Instead, we were immediately served with Tarator, the traditional cold Bulgarian soup with yoghurt, cucumber, dill, chopped walnuts and garlic. Absolutely marvellous! The key is how you cube the cucumber and Iva shared the 'secret' with Jane. We will make it again it was so refreshing and tasty.
After a rest we started to tackle the grass. The summerhouse has a big pasture lawn peppered with flower beds and fruit trees and a glorious walnut tree. Well at least we started the job. Our conclusion was that it called for a sit-on tractor!
We really loved Iva and Blagoy's company and happily swap stories of Cambridge memories and our lifes in the intervening years often over glasses of glorious Bulgarian wine. At one meal Blagoy served us a Bulgarian Gewerztraminer which we really enjoyed. Their tremendous generosity matched what we have seen throughout travels to date and the fantastic cooking has certainly left us a few pounds to shed.
The next day we set off back to Sofia after lunch. There was a brief interlude while I rescued the car's exhaust by hitching it back to the chassis with wire. I haven't worked on a car for years and it was satisfying to do something positive, even if on the 'cowboy' end of the spectrum, when I did.
Iva and Blagoy took us to bus station that evening. We were leaving Europe and heading for Ankara via Istanbul. We will treasure many memories of the European leg of journey which has underlined how little we know of and how much there is to explore in our continent.
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