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Thoughts From Varna

It occurs to me that I’ve been writing as much about the tour as about Bulgaria, underlining one of the problems I have with tours. I have a tendency to let details – the quality of the guide, the minutiae of the itinerary, the foibles of my fellow tourists – overshadow the country I’ve come to see. In the case of Bulgaria, a place with a long history and plenty of good scenery, that would be a real pity.

The early history of Bulgaria is that of the Thracians, and the only reason I wanted to visit Varna, our next stop, was to see the Thracian gold in the city’s museum: the oldest gold artifacts in the world (fifth century B.C.E.). (Again, no photos allowed.) While the Thracians seem to have been good warriors, like their neighbors the Greeks they were unable to hold off Philip of Macedon, or the Romans. After the Roman Empire fell, there was a mass influx of Slavs to the area, and a series of wars between the peoples who became Bulgarian and the Byzantine Empire. While the Bulgarians enjoyed periodic success aginst the Byzantines, they lost decisively to the Ottomans.

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After I left the museum, where Lyuba was still explaining the details of a series of icons to a dwindling audience, I visited the nearby Orthodox cathedral. Bulgarian Orthodox, that is. The Eastern Orthodox church is much less monolithic than the Roman Catholic church, although it hardly matches the fragmentation of the Protestants, but all the divides seem to be along national lines: Russian, Greek, Georgian, Armenian, Serbian, etc. etc. I don’t know how that relates to the Ottoman habit of identifying people by their religion rather than their ethnicity, but it can’t have helped in the recent Balkan wars.

The Bulgarian capital, however, is notable for having an Orthodox church (two if you count the Russian church), a (beautifully restored) synagogue and a mosque within easy walking distance of each other. And while the occupied Balkan peoples periodically attempted to get rid of the Ottomans, at least under them, as under earlier Islamic empires, there was a measure of religious toleration for the other “people of the book”. You had to pay higher taxes, there were limits on the height of your church or synagogue, you even saw your eldest son taken to Istanbul to be a janissary, but at least you didn’t have to worry about being hauled off to be tortured and burned to death because a neighbor had denounced you as a heretic or a witch, or that your part of town would be invaded by a murderous mob inflamed by libels about your religious practices.

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Most people, of course, go to Varna for the golden beaches, not the Thracian gold. I have miles of sandy beaches a two hour drive from my house in North Carolina, which I visit maybe every third year for a couple of days. Once I found that there were no cafes overlooking the beaches I lost interest in them, and I found the town pretty unexciting, too. I did take the elevator up to the Panorama Bar for photos of the view – I tend to skip roof-top views these days when I have to climb stairs, but I won’t pass up one that’s elevator-assisted.

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After Varna we had another long drive back across country. While I enjoyed the views, the best part of the longer drives was the descriptions Lyuba gave us of her life under Communism, and during the transition – “when democracy came”, as she put it. She started out as a construction engineer, but was one of the first to lose her job when the system changed. We may like to think of democracy as a panacea, for those who lived through the fall of Communism, in Russia, in Bulgaria, in other former Soviet republics, life suddenly became very difficult indeed, with starvation sometimes a distinct possibility. Even now, a couple of decades later, the transition is not complete. The economics expert who talked with us in Sofia was open about the problem of corruption, which extends to the judiciary. It takes more than elections to create a fully functioning democracy.

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