Saturday, September 4, 2010


For a much needed vacation, I took the family to Bulgaria. We were joined by another family - good friends of ours.  In once sense, this was for me, something of a roots-finding journey.  I found no roots - I will reveal why,  later.

We decided to avoid the touristy Black Sea resorts and focus mainly on the mountain areas in the south-central and southwestern part of Bulgaria. We began the trip in Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest city and ended in Sofia, the capital.  Except for the historical areas of each city which warrent no more than half a day each, neither city had any charm to recommend them. Both cities suffer from East-European-Post-Communist angst. I don't claim to have seen all of these two cities, but what I did see, was ugly.  The view is one of dirty and deteriorating buildings and streets and almost every wall defaced with graffiti (unheard of even 10 years ago).  Even the Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia did not escape the spray paint of the urban vandal.

Driving in Bulgaria is, to say the least, a challenge. Bulgarian drivers are collectively insane.  The only rule of the road that I could detect is that there is no rule.  Having come from Israel, that is saying much.  Another difficulty is that one must be able to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet to be able to read the road names in the city.  The problem is that most intersections have no signs, and even if you ask someone on the street what the name of the street is, more often than not they do not know.  Leaving the city, the signs designating places have both Cyrillic and Latin letters.  However, all other road signs, are only in Cyrillic.

Plovdiv was humid and sweltering hot (tribal elders say that this is the hottest summer they can remember). It was torture and we were glad to drive south into the Rhodope Mountains.  The air temperature immediately dropped 15 degrees and was clean.  On the way to our first destination, we stopped at the Bachkovo monastary. I personally don't like monastaries for their dark and oppressive atmosphere.  The monks remind me of our yeshiva dosim. Both are Men in Black (tm).  Theirs pray all day and paint kitchy iconic scenes on the wall; Ours pray all day and study Gemarra.  Neither do manual labor. The reasons for stopping to see this monastary were: 1. To break the drive up into bite sized portions, especially for the children. and 2. The Patriarch of this particular monastary during WWII was very active in protecting Bulgarian Jews, so we came to honor his memory.

We continued to Momchilovtsi, our first destination.  It is a small (550 homes) mountain village named for Momchil who is a local hero. Anyone who resisted the Ottoman Empire is considered a hero in Bulgaria, even if they failed, which is what happened more often than not.  The people of Momchilovtsi are simple, welcoming folk.  It was an honor and a pleasure to meet them.  They spend most of the summer gathering wood and preserving fruits and vegetables for the long winter.

The cool breeze and the vegetation in the mountainside above the village was soothing.

We took day trips to see the sites and hike. This is a church tower in Shiroka Laka:

The air in the Rhodope mountains is particularly clean. The locals claim that is is negatively ionized.  I have no idea what that means. All I know, is that those in our party who suffer from allergies were completely symptom free. The mountainside is cool, lush and tranquil.  This being blueberry season offered bunches and bunches of blueberries begging to be picked.  Which is what we did. All the children turned the task of mashing the fruit for jam into a great jolly blue game.  The jam was marred when the preteen lasses mistook salt for sugar.  The purple conconcoction was pulchritudinous to the eye and absolutely inedible. No amount of sugar could salvage it from terminal salinity.

The neighbors across the road, Elena and her grand-daughter Elena, warmly greeted us. One afternoon, the elder Elena invited my wife into her home and found out everything about us that there was to know.  Most of the interrogation was conducted with much hand waving and when non-verbal communication failed, Elena the younger (like most young Bulgarians, learn English) was summoned to facilitate conversation. A natural connection was made. When it came time to leave, Granny Elena tearfully hugged my wife, made the sign of the cross and blessed us for the rest of our journey.

We made our way west leaving the fertile Rhodope mountains into the drier and dustier Pirin mountains.  Here our base was the ski resort of Bansko.  Many businesses were closed for the summer.  The winter ski-hordes are still several months away.  The day hikes into the Pirin were spectacular.  We first drove up to Vihren Hut.  The "hut" is actually a lodge.  And by Bulgarian law no traveller may be refused lodging. During the busier seasons this means that one might sleep in a hallway. This is still better than freezing to death. The "hut" was the starting point for our first hike here:

As desert folk, we are used to hiking with liters and liters of water.  We soon abandoned this custom when we discovered that everywhere are mountain streams flowing with crystal clear and absolutely freezing potable water.  Thirsty? Just dip a bottle into the gurgling brook and enjoy.  Just as our thirsty lips where satisfied with the delicious mountain spring water, our vegetation-thirsty eyes were sated with the endless forest and the wildflowers:

The next day we took a ski lift to the start off point for our next hike.  The ski lift was an adventure for the children.  The lift took us to Bezbog Hut. Bezbog, ironically means "without God".  This epithet was probably earned for the relative lack of water. No streams, but there was a lake. The vista was absolutely breathtaking.  During the climb, everytime I turned around I was greeted by artwork made by the Almighty Himself:

And each time, I was inspired to record the view even though it was the same view.

Returning to the lift, we were greeted by workers who had taken advantage of being on the mountain by picking buckets and buckets of blueberries. I assumed that they had consumed as many berries as they had loaded on to the lift because they waved us on our way with beaming bluetoothed smiles.

After 5 days in the Pirin mountains, we passed through the Rila mountains and the eponymous monastary, the largest in Bulgaria, on our way to Sofia, our final destination. Here is were I hoped to find some evidence of my roots in the place.  On my father's side we are Sephardic Jews. As such, after the Spanish expulsion, my family wandered all over the Balkans, some settling in Greece and some continuing to Bulgaria. My father was born in Sofia and my grandparents were married in the Sofia Central Synagogue.  It was there, with a sense of relief that I finally found something jewish, something with which to identify.

The Jewish community is tiny.  Only about 2000 are left out of 48,000, most of whom left for Israel when the communists took power.  It was a Sunday, and the synagogue was empty. But I felt a need to try to connect with my ancestors.  I prayed the short Minha prayer alone.  Just me and the Lord in a private conversation.  The connection I wanted to make just didn't happen.  Instead, I got the connection that I needed.   I realized that my roots are here in Israel, just where they always were.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. With some nice photos.

Anonymous said...

Indeed very interesting post, very informative, inspite of being quite economical in words. Surprisingly, my visit to Sofia and Plovdiv was very enjoyable, without the dirt, graffiti, and the locals were friendly and happy to meet an American (we used reside in the U.S.).

Minnesota Mamaleh said...

your photos are divine (the black backdrop seriously *works* here!) and your words told me so very much about a place i admittedly know nothing about! thank you :)

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