Thursday, September 26, 2013

Twisted Vagabondage Tale From Bulgaria Part I

I was on the way slow train from Budapest through the Balkans enroute to Bulgaria, guzzling Egri Bikavier (Bull’s Blood) wine and chainsmoking, when the train came to a jolting halt in order to be boarded by some heavily armed Serbian soldiers.

A Serb with an impressive handlebar moustache and assault rifle demanded my passport. 
“Americansky!” the Serb spat. “You must get off train!”

Knees buckling, I asked “The train won’t leave without me, will it?” Considering all the seething turmoil in ex-Yugoslavia, I was seriously creeped out. I hoped the stop wouldn’t turn out to be an internment center or refugee camp.

“You must get Serbian visa!” he announced officiously. He rattled something off to his comrade in a Cyrillic alphabet soup, then briskly escorted me from the train. I knew I should've taken the more roundabout route through Romania rather than Yugoslavia. However, for this to be a real trip through the Balkans, I had taken the more direct path.

Inside a wooden shack, resembling an entrance to a concentration camp, they interrogated me. 
“I’m going to Bulgaria, not Serbia, I assured them.

“Why are you going to Bulgaria?” the moustached man asked while eyeing me suspiciously.

I didn’t want them to think I was a spy or (even worse) a reporter. Instead of saying, 
Because it’s there, I said, “Uh, for vacation.”

They burst out laughing. The sinister border guards seemed amused that I was taking a “vacation” in Bulgaria. They let me back on the train but not in on the joke. They obviously knew something I didn’t. Judging by their odd laughter, I wondered what was in store for me in Bulgaria. Destination: Plovdiv!

* * *

The blond-haired, blue-eyed Moslem resembling author Bruce Chatwin going native stood defiantly, playing the Rhodope bagpipes in the square with its sad wail recalling the ululations of the muezzins who were rapidly disappearing across modernizing Bulgaria. He was a Pomak: an ethnic Slav Bulgarian whose family had converted to Islam under Ottoman rule.

Now, Bulgaria is a staunchly Orthodox Christian country. Yet, like all Balkan nations, it has its fair share of Moslems and Gypsys who didn't quite integrate under the former communist government’s enforced “Bulgarization” program. This is a widely prevalent paradox in what could be the dizzying Balkans’ most puzzling jigsaw piece.

Well off the beaten European tourist trail, Plovdiv had a lot of ancient remnants to recommend it. There was a gorgeous Ottoman mosque, some Roman ruins, and even older pre-Greek Thracian ruins. The place had a magical, almost Orphic atmosphere. There was a Turk unrolling his prayer mat in the marketplace, an old guy leading a trained bear on a leash, and a midget in formal attire waiting tables at a restaurant.

It felt like I had jumped into a Tintin comic. Surely Bulgaria was the inspiration for the mythical kingdom of Syldavia that Tintin visited in King Ottakar’s Scepter. The only things I truly knew about Bulgaria were that the Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov was killed on London Bridge in broad daylight by being casually poked in the ribs with a poison-tipped umbrella and that Bulgaria (Vulgaria) was the home of the evil baron who hated children in Cubby Brocolli’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Built on an ancient Thracian site, Plovdiv was called Philippopolis when it was founded in 342 B.C. As I walked the lower town, I noted the Byzantine walls, Roman columns, and Ottoman minarets. The Hisar Kapiya (Fortress Gate) was built in the time of Philip II of Macedon: a trace of Thrace.

Walking into the Stariyat Grad, I just couldn’t believe how picturesque all of the 19th-century timber-framed mansions were, almost coming to loggerheads on the narrow cobblestone streets like a fantastical setpiece for a German Expressionist film. (Bulgaria's King Boris, who resembled Boris Karloff, actually was German.) This was all the product of the so-called Bulgarian Renaissance. 

Amid this stunning Balkanesque backdrop were more people than the city could comfortably hold. I had arrived in the middle of an international trade fair, the largest in the Balkans. A dodgy Brit with bad teeth bellowed, “This fair is great, mate. Should you need anything at all, my trade is ‘pharmaceuticals.’”

I joined the "korso" (evening promenade) down Ulitsa Knyaz Aleksandar I, hoping to uncover a restaurant, any restaurant. Though most of the eateries were packed with trade-fair revelers, I finally landed a table outside a small dump in an alley. I wondered why such an incredible city was almost unknown to tourists. With a little renovation, it was an undiscovered Prague or Talinn, albeit with a different architectural legacy.

After waiting an hour for my Bulgarian grub (tripe soup), I was steaming mad. I should've just gotten some fresh yoghurt and baklava (both are purportedly Bulgarian inventions) at the outdoor markets. When my lukewarm “special” that resembled cannibalism and locally-produced red wine finally arrived, I remarked on the poor quality of both to the tiny waiter and asked for the bill.

“The wine eez wery special,” the dwarf explained in a loud castrato voice, as I eyed the hefty markup. I’d encountered this menu switch ploy before.

Nuh-uh, no way!” After arguing about the bill for several minutes, the waiter ran back inside to get the Bolshevik manager, who was actually wearing one of those big bulgy Chef Boyardee hats. He yelled at me loudly and redfaced in Bulgarian. I felt like I was in one of those Tony Curtis Great Race movies, facing the villain with a pencil-thin Cantinflas mustache, or almost any flick with David Niven. I refused to be extorted.

Out of nowhere appeared two youngish travelers, looking very Lonely Planet and asking, “Hey, what’s all the trouble?” An American with a Midwestern accent who was teaching English in Plovdiv expertly negotiatied down the bill somewhat, as I noted the Bulgarian mannerism of nodding the head no and shaking the head yes. This made it even harder to follow the course of the conversation.

Eventully, it was hearty guffaws and “blagodaryas” (thank yous) all around. I then left with the American and his Bulgarian sidekick to the almost-perfectly-preserved Roman ampitheater, where we sacrificed a bottle of Bulgarian red in the moonlight. One of Bulgaria’s early rulers named Khan Krum used to drink wine out of his enemies’ skulls, I remember reading somewhere. Probably more hygienic than passing around the bottle. In the moonlight among the ruins, my new companion mused, “I can tell you’re different.”

John M. Edwards is a writer and photojournalist. He has traveled five continents with experiences ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Siam to getting caught in a military coup in Fiji. His writing has appeared in CNN Traveller, Entertainment Weekly,, Condé Nast Traveler, Islands, Matador, World Hum, BootsnAll, and other publications. He received five NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Awards, two TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Awards, and three Solas (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He edits the Rotten Vacations anthology.


  1. A terrific post, John, and a part of the continent I'd like to see, if just for the fact that so much of it would be completely unfamiliar to me, hence the appeal.

  2. Thanks for the story, John, which we will continue in part two. Bulgaria is one of my favorite places. I wrote about it in the chapter of Sacred Ground & Holy Water called "My Big Fat Bulgarian Orgy." Stumbled into the birthday party of Bulgaria's original blues singer Vasko the Patch and had a wonderful time with his gaggle of gypsy and biker pals. The only similarity I saw to the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang film was that the food and ladies were both Truly Scrumptious.

  3. Terrific story, John. Can't wait for Part 2.