Plovdiv, Bulgaria // 19 January 2019
Dearest friends and relations,
I’m in Plovdiv, the coolest place you’ve never heard of. I hadn’t heard of it, either, until a few days ago. I arrived this morning and I wish I could spend more time here, but I’m on my way to meet E. tomorrow in Istanbul.
I spent the last four days in Sofia. Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, is the second-coolest place neither of us have ever heard of. I went there expecting some sort of Eastern European backwater, which it is, but mark my words: in five years’ time, Sofia will be where all the cool young questionably-employed Europeans are moving.
Berlin? Too mainstream and overpriced. Sofia is where the REAL European hipsters are going now!
At least this is what young Sofians are trying to make happen. The entire tourist infrastructure there is run by hipster artist types. They make pamphlets, run informational website, and organize at least a dozen free tours. There’s a general Sofia tour, there are two competing Communist tours (ironically), there’s a “graffiti tour” (for Instagram, I guess), there’s a food tour, there’s a pub crawl, there’s an “alternative tour” (which sounds like a guided scavenger hunt) and so forth. I went on quite a few, and they were all fantastic. Every single guide was an actor. (“Oh, I am in a Bulgarian web series, and also theater,” one said. “New York!,” another said. “My brother lives in Brooklyn! Park Slope.”)
I counted at least three separate hipster-DIY-tourism-bureaus. So you might say that the hipster-tourism-bureau industry is a bit… Balkanized.
One of the hipster-tourism-bureaus makes a very helpful “Sofia Trend Map,” a free fold-out street map, with recommended third-wave coffee shops, craft breweries, slow-food restaurants, and so forth marked on it. Except for the presence of a “Roman ruins” symbol on the legend, it could be a map of Portland. There’s even a hipster barbershop (“where you will get first-class care for your hair or beard, have a nice straight razor shave, or just find your favorite accessory or hair pomade while drinking beer with some friends.”)
It felt like I was in Williamsburg with Cyrillic characters. I wasn’t trying to find this stuff. I came to Sofia with absolutely zero expectations or foreknowledge. Yet that’s what was there. At all the tourist information centers there are no pamphlets pitching the city’s many museums, or its extensive set of excavated Roman ruins. There’s none of the standard stuff produced by underachieving bureaucrats in a municipal tourism bureau. Instead, there’s just all this young-hip-person stuff. And it’s not just marketing: Sofia really does have all this stuff.
I was impressed to see so much energy and vibrancy, especially an economically depressed region. Bulgaria’s population has dropped from nine million in 1989 to just under seven million today: the fastest population decline in the world. They joined the EU in 2007, which I assume must have accelerated the exodus, but perhaps there’s some back-flow: perhaps it’s where all the other young Europeans who want cheap rent are coming, or will come.
I went to an amazing unlicensed bar in a 19th-century barn that in the 1930s and 40s had been the secret headquarters of the Bulgarian communist sympathizers. It’s where they had their printing press, and where they printed all their political leaflets before seizing power in 1944 (though that was less the result of a successful publishing operation than of the invading Red Army).
The bar is hidden down an alley and unmarked, with a locked door that has to be knocked. Inside there’s no electricity, except for one extension cord snaking in to power the refrigerators. The entire bar is lit by candles. A few dozen of them are scattered around the 40' square room. Even the bathroom is lit entirely by candles. Each one of them is surrounded by a stratocone of wax drippings. The bar(n) has huge dark exposed wood timbers, with a giant vertical timber (an entire tree trunk, I guess?) in the center holding up the roof. The floor is made of irregularly-shaped flagstones. There’s a mezzanine, and a very non-compliant staircase up to it, with no railing or bannister. On the exposed side there are candles on each step. So if you fall, not only do you fall all the way to the floor, but you get lit on fire in the process.
(I also went to a rubber-ducky-themed dive bar/club, with a giant rubber ducky disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Did someone really glue all those tiny mirrors onto a three-foot-long rubber ducky by hand?)
Bulgarian food looks delicious, but with one exception, I didn’t eat any of it. I didn’t even go in any restaurants. Instead the only thing I’ve eaten for the last four days is the national (well, regional) breakfast pastry, banitsa: rolls of filo dough layered with cheese and other fillings and baked until hot and greasy. We have it in the U.S. in the form of spanakopita, but spanakopita is just a particular instance. Banitsa is the generalization: it can include spinach as a filling, or eggs, or onions, or just white (a/k/a feta) cheese. Unlike the sad refrigerated spanakopita I’ve had in the US, all the banitsa here has been piping hot. It’s made on site and sold from tiny little holes-in-the wall — just a guy (or girl), a commercial oven, some dough and cheese, and some baking trays. Only 75 cents USD for half a square foot. It’s wonderful.
Tonight I realized I hadn’t had any protein since Sunday night in Athens, and so desperately sought out kebabs.
I stayed in a hostel an hour’s walk from the city centre in a quiet residential neighborhood. The two other people in my six-bed room were a 20something guy from Palestine, and a 50ish guy from Italy. They were both very nice, but neither of them seemed to ever leave their beds. The only other people staying in the hostel were two 50something guys from Moldova (they showed me their passports) who were very enthusiastic about having long and detailed conversations with me despite the fact that we spoke no languages in common. There was a three-digit code to open the front gate to the hostel, but no lock on the front door, or any of the interior doors. No lockers, either. The heat in my room was set to 80, despite there being a foot of snow outside. It was so hot I had to sleep without a blanket or a sheet. The shower was very hot, too. Occasionally the power was out. I only saw the receptionist once, when I checked in. He spoke no English. It seemed like a pretty good deal for four euros a night.
On Friday I checked off three important adventure boxes: go skiing, soak in hot springs, and ride Bulgarian city busses.
When I told people about this trip, “I’m going skiing in Bulgaria!” is what I said. I had the vague plan to traverse from Athens to Istanbul via Bulgaria, and there seemed to be skiing there, and of course skiing is great, and it’s even better when it’s cheap, just like sex, and how could I resist the bizarre novelty weirdo value of saying, “I’m going skiing in Bulgaria!”
Until late on Thursday, I didn’t think it actually was going to happen. The ski-place I had been looking at seemed to require slightly more logistical and financial effort than my lazy and cheap self wanted to exert. Then (thanks to one of the hipster-tourism-bureau informational pamphlets) I discovered that I could ski REALLY CHEAPLY and REALLY EASILY! Vitosha Mountain, which looms a mile or so above Sofia, is gorgeous, cheap, alpine, and right near the city. You take the subway out to a suburban stop, ride a public bus another 20 minutes to an IKEA, get into an ancient gondola next to the IKEA, ride the gondola for half an hour through a boreal forest, and then you’re at treeline, most of the way up the mountain, and at the base of the ski area.
A day’s lift ticket was $20 USD. I’ve NEVER bought a lift ticket that cheap — not in Chile, not even 20 years ago in dingy Upstate New York resorts. (I mean, my lift tickets 20 years ago cost me nothing, but I’m sure my parents paid way more than $20.) Rental skis were $12. The skis were old and pieces of junk, and for some reason they gave me really short ones (160cm). The camming mechanism on the boot closure kept opening up. I assume it was worn-down, which I didn’t know could even happen. The snow, despite being way up there in alpine terrain, was all packed powder. Crappy skis on crappy snow: that’s what I’ve been doing for 25 years! I’m really good at that! It was familiar, and I was able to ski really, really, really fast, which is what I like.
The views of the surrounding mountains, and of Sofia, would have been beautiful if not for all the smog. “East Coast snow; West Coast views” is what I wanted to say, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t scrubberless coal power plants in Aspen.
It was a weekday, so the only other people there were little kids learning how to make snowplow turns and pensioners who I assume must head out there to ski every morning. I’m glad I didn’t have ski instructors screaming at me in Bulgarian when I was a kid. I saw some of the older folk on their way out: a group of 70-year-olds with expensive brand-new skis and boots, getting into an ancient falling-apart car.
A lovely morning on the slopes. In the afternoon I reversed the gondola, reversed the bus ride, took the subway a few more stops, and then took a different public bus to a hot springs complex elsewhere in the mountains south of Sofia.
The main building had scorch/smoke marks coming out of all the first-floor windows. I had to pay an old Bulgarian cleaning woman 12 lev ($7) to get in. “No Eenglisch! Bulgarski!” She pointed me to a changing room in the basement. The showers were just open pipes producing long laminar columns of water. It was like standing underneath a sink.
The pool itself was outside, overlooking Lake Pancharevo, Sofia’s dammed municipal water source. The lake was covered in ice and there were snow-capped mountains beyond. There was a long printed list of the various minerals in the water and their concentrations. The only one I could smell was chlorine. Everything was made of peeling concrete and rusting metal, except for the pool itself. There was a swim-up bar, covered in seashells (all faded to match the concrete in color) and two dolphin statues (with peeling paint). A dozen or two Bulgarians, of all different ages, were floating around the pool. Steam was coming off the surface. There was a cold pool, too, but it was covered in ice. All three phases of water!
It was dark when I took the bus back to Sofia. I’ve now ridden more public city busses in Bulgaria than I have in the US in the past year.
a) In Thessaloniki, the day before I went to Sofia, I saw the saddest thing I’ve ever seen: a homeless dog lying in front of a pet store. Not near the front of a pet store; literally lying curled up on the entry mat, so that anyone entering or leaving had to step around him. It wasn’t a pet supply store, either; it was a store where you buy actual pets. And you have to step around this poor sad homeless dog to do so.
b) In Sofia, like in so many middle-income countries I’ve been to, there’s lots of unfinished construction. Not buildings under construction, and not buildings that are falling apart, but buildings whose construction appears to have halted in media res. I wonder why this is. On some level it’s obviously financial: the developers get the money to start construction, but somehow lost funding. Or perhaps they started with partial funding in anticipation that partial completion would beget further funding. I don’t know. Is it a problem of poor real estate development practices, or of poor financing? If the latter, I wonder what’s going wrong in the financial systems, individually and systemically, that causes this to happen.
c) The buses, trams, and subways in Sofia are all painted shades of orange, green, and yellow taken from the “baby vomit” color palette.
d) I went to the Museum of Socialist Art, which had a sculpture garden full of the various statues of Lenin and generic Communist motivational figures (“The Award-Winning Builder,” “Woman Diggers”) that were removed from public buildings and squares after the fall of Communism. The museum is in an old Party building that’s now surrounded by a suburban office park. There are statues of Lenin literally overshadowed by ten-story, newly-built, glass-and-steel office towers. You know the type. 100% identical to any newish American commercial development. If I were writing this in a novel, you would criticize me — justifiably — for being too heavy-handed with the symbolism. But that’s really what was there.
e) People still smoke in bars in Bulgaria.
f) All the hipster tour guides were eager to tell us that Bulgaria is where yogurt was (supposedly) invented (by the Thracians, several thousand years ago).
g) The buses to the ski gondola and the hot springs complex went through endless fields of drab gray concrete apartment towers. The map I had said the areas we drove through were “MLADOST 1,” “MLADOST 2,” and “MLADOST 3.” Imagine living in a neighborhood that has a number instead of a name.
g) On the two-hour train ride from Sofia to Plovdiv, I saw far more abandoned and crumbling buildings than not.
Bulgaria is really awesome, and I’m so glad I came here. I wish I had more time to spend in Plovdiv. It’s got an absolutely gorgeous historic center and old town. There are seven “hills” in downtown Plovdiv, which are really just giant bare rocks sticking hundreds of feet above the plain. The main shopping district was built on top of an old Roman stadium, which wasn’t discovered until a few decades ago. “The most unique H&M in the world is in Plovdiv,” my guide on the free-hipster-tour said, “because it is having Roman seats in the basement.” (Not many clothing stores have archaeological exhibits.)
Tomorrow I’ll meet archaeologist friend E. in Istanbul, and we’ll spend a few days exploring. E. says he’s never actually spent time in Istanbul, despite having passed through it many times. So it’ll be an adventure for both of us! I’m in Plovdiv Station right now, waiting for the sleeper train. I’ve got a couchette in a six-berth compartment (the cheapest option, at USD $28).
There’s a major orthographic benefit to going to Turkey: it’ll mean that on this trip I’ll have been to three contiguous countries with three different scripts! (Though the Cyrillic character set is half-Roman and half-Greek, so maybe I’m only experiencing two different scripts, in a set-theoretical sense.) If I REALLY wanted to keep it up, I could hop the border into Syria, and continue to Israel — FIVE contiguous countries with different scripts. Problem for the reader: what’s the longest chain of contiguous countries, all with different scripts?