International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Bulgaria
Adventure: A Trace of Thrace
Plovdiv, Bulgaria, John M. Edwards snitches on the mystery-shrouded
Balkans best-kept secret: an ancient (and enduring) heresy
I was on the train
from Budapest through the Balkans, on my way to Bulgaria, chainsmoking
and guzzling Bulls Blood wine, when the train came to a juddering
halt and was boarded by heavily armed Serbian soldiers. A Serb with
an impressive handlebar moustache and an assault rifle demanded my passport.
Americansky! The Serb spat. You
must get off train!
Knees buckling, I asked, The train
wont leave without me, will it? With all the political turmoil
in the ex-Yugoslavia, I was seriously creeped out. I hoped this wasnt
an internment camp or something.
You must get Serbian visa! he
announced officiously. He rattled off something in a Cyrillic alphabet
soup to his comrade, then briskly led me off the train. I knew I should
have taken the more roundabout route through Romania rather than Yugoslavia.
But for this to be a true trip through the Balkans I had to take the
more direct path.
Inside a wooden shack they interrogated me.
Im going to Bulgaria, not Serbia,
I assured them.
Why are you going to Bulgaria?
the moustached man asked, in an accent thicker than Boris Badonov's,
eyeing me suspiciously.
I didnt want them to think I was a
spy, or, even worse, a reporter. Instead of saying, Because its
there, I said, Uh, for vacation.
They burst out laughing. The border guards seemed amused 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 didnt. Judging
by their somewhat sinister laughter, I really had no idea what was in
store for me in Bulgaria. Destination: Plovdiv!
The blond-haired, blue-eyed Moslem stood defiantly, playing the Rhodope
bagpipes in the square, its sad wail reminiscent of the ululations of
the muezzins who were rapidly disappearing throughout 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, but like all Balkan nations, it had its fair share of Moslems
and Gypsys who hadnt quite integrated under the former communist
governments enforced Bulgarization program. This is
just an example of a paradox in what could be the dizzying mystery-shrouded
Balkans most puzzling jigsaw piece.
off the beaten European tourist trail, Plovdiv had a lot of remnants
of the past to recommend it. There was a gorgeous Ottoman mosque,
as well as Roman ruinsand, too good to be true, even older
ancient pre-Greek Thracian ruins. The place did indeed have a magical,
almost Orphic atmosphere. Over there a Turk unrolling his prayer
mat in the marketplace, over there a man leading a trained bear
on a leash, and over there a midget in evening clothes waiting tables
at a restaurant.
It felt like I
had jumped into a Tintin comic. Surely Bulgaria must have been the inspiration
for the mythical kingdom of Syldavia that Tintin visited
in King Ottakars Scepter? The only other things I knew about Bulgaria
were that Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian defector, was killed on London
Bridge in broad daylight by being casually poked in the ribs with a
poison-tipped umbrella, and that Bulgaria was the setting for the evil
baron who hated children from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!
Built over an ancient Thracian site, Plovdiv was called Philippopolis
when it was founded in 342 B.C. As I walked around the lower town I
noted the Byzantine walls, Roman columns, and Ottoman minarets. The
Hisar Kapiya (Fortress Gate) was built back in the times of Philip II
of Macedon: a trace of Thrace. Walking into the Stariyat Grad (Old Town),
I couldnt believe how picturesque were the 19th-century timber-framed
mansions almost coming to loggerheads on the narrow cobblestone streetsall
the product of the so-called Bulgarian Renaissance. Amid this stunning
Balkanesque backdrop were more people than the city could hold: I had
arrived in the middle of an international trade fair, the largest in
the Balkans. Said a dodgy Brit with bad teeth in for the fair, The
fair is great, mate; my trade is pharmaceuticals.
the korso (evening promenade) down Ulitsa Knyaz Aleksandar I, I
set off to uncover a restaurant. Although most of the eateries were
full of trade-fair revelers, I finally landed at a table outside
a small dump on a sidestreet. I wondered why the eatery was almost
empty. I also wondered why such a beautiful city was almost unknown.
With a little renovation we had another undiscovered Prague or Talinn
on our hands.
After waiting an
hour for my Bulgarian grub (tripe soup!) I was steaming mad. I should
have just gotten some fresh yoghurt and baklava (both purportedly Bulgarian
inventions) at the marketplace. When my lukewarm special
and red wine finally arrived, I remarked on the poor quality of both
to the dwarf waiter, and I asked for the bill.
The wine is very special, the dwarf explained in a piping
castrato voice, as I eyed the bill, featuring a hefty markup. Id
heard of this before: a simple case of a menu switch.
Nah-un. No way.
After arguing about the bill for several
minutes, the dwarf ran back inside and got the cook, who, believe it
or not, was wearing one of those big bulgy Chef Boyardee hats. He yelled
loudly at me in Bulgarian. I felt like I was in one of those Tony Curtis
Great Race movies, facing the outlandish villain.
I refused to be extorted.
Then two youngish travelers, looking very
Lonely Planet, came out, saying, Hey, whats all the trouble?
An American with a Midwestern accent, who
was teaching English in Plovdiv, expertly negotiatied in cutting down
the bill somewhat, as I noted the strange Bulgarian mannerism and custom
of nodding the head no and shaking the head yes. An inexplicable paradox.
Which made it hard to follow the course of the convo.
Finally, it was all hearty guffaws and blagodaryas
(thankyous) all around. Then I left with the American and his Bulgarian
sidekick and went to the amazing almost-perfectly-preserved Roman ampitheater
to sacrifice a bottle of Bulgarian red in the moonlight. One of Bulgarias
early rulers, Khan Krum, used to drink wine out of his enemies
skulls, I remembered reading somewhere. Probably better and more hygienic
than passing around the bottle. In the moonlight, among the ruins, the
American said, I can tell youre different. . . .
I had been a houseguest of the American and
Bulgarian for several days, when the American (name withheld) hinted
that he may or may not work for a well-known intelligence-gathering
company usually referred to by three letters. He also offered to take
me on a tour of the Bachkovo Monastery.
Christianity in Bulgaria is a little
different, the Bulgarian said sotto voce, a mysterious smile parting
his beard. Its a kind of mix between Christianity and Paganism!
this in mind later the next day, I accompanied the American on a
series of bus rides, filled with Universal-Pictures-like Gypsys
wearing outlandish garb, until we found ourselves at the beginning
of a wide valley leading to Bachkovo, founded in 1083 and now a
UNESCO World Heritage site. After tramping a while, I asked if we
could head back. There was something strange about the valley that
gave me the willies. We stopped and the American found a stone sculpture
that he had made and left behind on the trail on a previous trip.
He commented, apropos of nothing, Did you know that some people
think monks can walk straight through mountains?
began to go uphill.
We came across a small enchanted fountain for washing our feet.
We also ran into some other pilgrims walking the path, their icon eyes
blazing. They said something to us. The American translated for us,
Entering the monastery through a door leading
into a cobbled courtyard, we saw some frescos depicting the torments
of hell. At the Sveta Bogoroditsa, a church built in 1604, we admired
the transplanted Georgian icon of the Virgin, which the American said,
Looks like its from outer space. Indeed, all the Byzantiney
mosaics and frescos had figures with golden-halo helmets and otherworldly
robes. On this day, black-robed Bulgarian monks swung censers to drive
away evil spirits. On the walls I noticed little eyes in pyramids,
which many believe are Masonic symbols. The Cyrillic alphabet was invented
somewhere in these parts by the Bulgarian monks Cyril and Methodius.
After admiring the church, we took a hike
to reach a remote chapel, which would have been impossible to find without
the American as a guide. Going up a steep hill we came across an old
picture of Christ in a cracked glass frame, then went on up the hill
to yet another chapel farther up the mountain. On the way I noticed
little bits of rags tied to the branches of trees.
Whats that for? I asked.
When an old babushka crone came out of nowhereyes,
The Baba, the Baba! the American
laughed cryptically, as she ascended the hill with her gnarled wooden
cane. A witch! He whistled.
At a chapel on the edge of time, the American
led me inside: Theres something I want you to see.
Inside, there was an ancient Christ Pantocrator painted on the ceiling
and a prayer niche with a velvet curtain in front of it. Can I
borrow your camera? Theres something scary I want you to see!
He shot a photo into the recess, and there was a bright flash! The Manichaean
fresco was thus illumined. What the?! Nooo. I have to admit I was startled
by what I saw. You have to go there yourself to see what it is. Lets
just say, there was an ancient heresy in Bulgaria called the Bogomils
(circa 10th century), who believed the world was created not by God
but by Satan. . . .
Back in town at a Thracian excavation site,
we puzzled over why there was no one to protect the ruins from plunderers.
The Thracians, who practiced an orgiastic free-love religion linked
to the Greek god Dionysus, were skilled archers and equestrians. One
group called the Capnobatae (Smoke Treaders) got high on
hemp seedsthe ancient worlds first hippies. I carefully
arranged a pile of ancient stone Thracian phalluses, an archaeologists
wet dream, and snapped a photo. I was really digging Thrace.
You can take some if you want,
said the American. Except theyd probably confiscate them
at the airport.
Grabbing a phallus as a souvenir and inserting
it into my daypack, I had for the first time in my life become an amateur
smuggler. (But if you fink on me and tell a soul, Ill claim it
dropped out of my bag on the way to the train station.)
Right before I left Plovdiv, while boarding
the train to Instanbul, I noticed a tour group of people wearing T-shirts
emblazoned with "Florida Friendship Front." I pointed this
out to the American, who laughed, Lets see, FFFa
David Letterman-like smile creased his faceSo F is the sixth
letter of the alphabet, so 666, the number of the Beast! Everyone
laughed uproariously. Clever, yes, but I have to admit I was also a
little spooked. I hoped the train didnt have some secret ulterior
destination I didnt know about yet.
I boarded the train, waved goodbye, and settled
into my compartment. And off went the train.
Then somewhere in European Thrace, there
was a sudden crash! On impact I went flying backward in my cabin. The
bunk above my head slammed down off its hinges like an accordion in
a crowded beerhall. I would have been killed had I not been thrown backward.
Wow, the train had hit a truck and was now derailed! Thanking my lucky
stars to be in one piece, I got off the train as Turkish workmen grimaced,
ran around like maniacs, and dangerously smoked cigarettes near leaking
oil. Nobody seemed to know what to do.
It was a fitting end to my hellish little
trip through the Balkans. Eventually a dolmus arrived and I pressed
in like Jim Morrison breaking on through to the other side,
headed for Instanbul, the ex-Constantinople, sort of lost with my secret
(and stashed phallus) in the Turkish part of European Thrace, in the
place where Europe ends and Asia begins.
M. Edwards February 2009
pigafet at earthlink.net
Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus),
with stunts ranging from surviving a ferry sinking in Thailand to being
caught in a military coup in Fiji. His work has appeared in such magazines
as CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape,
Endless Vacation, International Living, Condé Nast Traveler,
Literal Latté, Coffee Journal, Lilliput Review, Poetry Motel,
Artdirect, Verge, Slab, Glimpse, Stellar, HackWriters, Richmond Review,
Borderlines, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, and
North American Review. He recently won a NATJA (North American Travel
Journalists Association) Award, a TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative
Essay Contest) Award, a Literal Latté Travel Writing Award, and
a Solas Award (from Travelers' Tales). He lives in New York City's "Hell's
Kitchen" area. His future bestsellers, Move and Fluid Borders,
have not yet been released. His new work-in-progress, Dubya Dubya Deux,
is about a time traveler.
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