Ever Growing, Never Aging | Sofia, Bulgaria

Sofia_growsI came across these delightfully retro-looking tiles, embedded at equal intervals into the sidewalk of a tiny street, tucked away in one of Sofia’s oldest, grandest and most aristocratic and charming neighborhoods, which occupies several blocks around the Doctor’s Garden, locked in between the Tsar Osvoboditel, Vassil Levski, Yanko Sakazov and Evlogi and Hristo Georgievi boulevards.

If I had to, I’d guess that these tiles were put in around 50 or 60 years ago, and stepping onto them somehow felt like stepping half a century back in time. The tiles are embossed with the city of Sofia’s coat of arms, which contains (clockwise, from top left): the image of a woman’s head, supposedly taken from an ancient coin and belonging to the Empress Julia Domna, which is meant to symbolize Ulpia Serdica, as Sofia was known in Roman times; the Saint Sofia Church, which is Sofia’s second oldest church (dating back to the sixth century) and which in the fourteenth century gave the city its current name (changing it from Sredets); a baldachin and a statue of Apollo Medicus, which represents all the mineral springs in and around the city; and the Vitosha Mountain, located on Sofia’s outskirts. Written just below the coat of arms is Sofia’s motto, Raste, no ne staree, which translates roughly to “Keeps Growing but Never Aging.”

The coat of arms dates back to 1900 (it was created for the city’s participation in the Paris World Expo), and the motto was added to it in 1911 – this was a great period of modernization for the city and almost all of Sofia’s now iconic buildings date back to it, many of which are actually in or around the Doctor’s Garden neighborhood. The neighborhood itself – as the place where the city’s changing (intellectual and/or political) elite has lived over the last century, captures much of Sofia’s turbulent history in a nutshell, or as the case may be, in a radius of just a few blocks. Like the tiles themselves, the entire neighborhood – although still considered very fashionable, seems to belong to a bygone era and whenever I walk around its cobblestone-covered streets, I feel like I can still smell the old spirit of Sofia in the air.

Cowboys & Indians | Marvelous Bridges, Rhodope Mountains, Bulgaria

indianMy last “outing” for the year was a visit to the so-called Marvelous, or Wonderful, Bridges – a short drive from the Chepelare ski resort in the Rhodope Mountains, where we spent New Year’s Eve.

These so-called Bridges are a couple of pretty impressive natural arches, at 1,450 meters (4,760 ft) above sea level, formed over hundreds of years by the erosive activity of the once larger Erkyupryia River. There are all kinds of legends about the place – one involves shepherds fighting off a dragon who devoured their flocks, but none mention the presence of any Indians. And yet today, when one climbs to the top of one of the bridges and looks down at the rocks, there’s a Native American’s face carved into them.

In the Footsteps of the Romans and Van Gogh | Arles, France

arles_manhole_coverThe small town of Arles, located on the banks of the Rhône River in the South of France, has two major claims to fame.

The first is the town’s Antique history, testified by the Roman architectural remains, including: the humongous Arena, where – in addition to plays and concerts, corridas are still being held; a smaller open-air theater, which is currently undergoing restoration; the Alyscamps (Roman necropolis); and the Obelisk, located on the Place de la République.

arles_antiqueThe second is the relatively short period that Vincent Van Gogh spent living and working in and around the town between 1888 and 1890, during which he produced over 300 paintings. All over Arles, there are plaques embedded into the pavements, which take visitors on a walking tour of the spots, where Van Gogh set up his easel to paint some of his best known canvases, such as Starry Night Over the Rhône, The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night, and The Yellow House. arles_van_goghInitially I thought the image on the plaques, somewhat inexplicably, represented a hiker with a backpack (oops!), though it turns out that apparently it is based on one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits The Painter on His Way to Work, which showed the artist walking on the road to Montmajour. (The painting used to be part of the collection of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Magdeburg, but is unfortunately believed to have been destroyed by a fire in World War II.)

arles_tilesArles was very much a delight to walk around in, not just on, but also off the tourist paths, over grey cobblestones and faded mosaics. We went to the enormous Saturday market; visited the Salon international des santonniers (the makers of the simultaneously very weird and strangely fascinating traditional “little saints” nativity scene figurines), which was housed in Arles’ former Hospital (where Van Gogh was admitted, following the infamous ear-severing incident and whose internal courtyard he captured in one of his paintings); wandered around La Roquette neighborhood, where our gracious hosts live and which – with its narrow, winding and deserted streets and colorful doors and windows, looked like a film set; and spent almost an hour in the shop&studio of Léon – the jeweler and international man of mystery, who was probably one of the most eccentric people I’ve ever met (though that’s a whole different story!).

Snow in August | Aiguille du Midi, the Alps, France

mont_blanc_rangeGoing up to Aiguille du Midi was a both pretty intense and quite insane.

cable_carTogether with a hoard of probably around 60 other people, we packed ourselves into the cable car, the Téléphérique, which climbed the almost vertical ascent from Chamonix to the summit in about 20 minutes – this is pretty mind blowing, considering that the altitude gain it made in that time was over 2,800 meters (Chamonix is at 1,035 m and the peak of the summit is 3,842 m). In that time, as I tried not to think about the fact that we were suspended on a rope in mid-air, we basically went from a pretty lush mountain and green mountainscape, through bare and wind-swept slopes, then onto glaciers and finally to the level of the snowy peaks. It felt as though we were taking off in an airplane.

Once we reached the top, slightly weak in the knees, we stepped out of the cable car and onto the packed snow.snow

We went out to various terraces and viewing platforms and watches mountaineers come back from their expeditions and climb over the railings, while some of the tourists shivered in their sandals and I felt smug at having had the foresight to wear closed shoes and a few layers of clothes, despite the fact that it was August.

dizzyIt was cold, windy, almost blindingly bright, dizzying and a little hard to breathe.

stairsBut very much worth it to see Mont Blanc from close-up, at what seemed to be about eye-level (though technically it was another, almost 1,000 meters higher) – it felt somehow like cheating, like it shouldn’t be so easy to see it without having climbed it.

mont_blanc_heightIncidentally, the date we went up there was just a couple of days after the date of the first ascent of Mont Blanc, in 1786!

first_ascent

#ДАНСwithme | Sofia, Bulgaria

dancewithmeEvery single evening, for the past 17 days, thousands of Bulgarians have been going out on the streets in protest. Their indignation was originally sparked by the newly-elected government’s appointment of a well-known oligarch and media mogul with shady but seemingly well-established links to the mafia as chief of the State Agency for National Security*. After his appointment was quickly retracted, the public outrage did not just end but continued and grew into widespread demands – with nightly and more recently, morning and day-time protests, for the government to resign, which it seems to be ignoring.

Being away from Sofia while all this is taking place has been hard and not a little frustrating, but I’ve been trying to follow these momentous developments from afar, via official reports in the Bulgarian media, as well as friends’ updates on facebook and twitter. (A big thanks goes out to my friend Kati for sending me this post’s picture!) It’s also been quite frustrating to notice the international media’s almost non-existent interest in reporting on the Bulgarian protests (which Petya Kirilova-Grady explains eloquently in this piece), although they seem to be slowly catching on (as this article in the New York Times testifies).

I don’t feel really qualified to analyze the reasons people are protesting, or to predict the possible outcomes of this wave of publicly and unwaveringly demonstrated dissatisfaction, but – as I read and think about all this, I keep being reminded of something my friend Yana wrote about (and I summarized in English here) more than a year ago – about the difficult choice that many Bulgarian have made to stay and live in Bulgaria, while it continues to be a place where “many things have not changed: the mafia guys, the insolent politicians, the absurd outrages (as much as you might fight against them), the sell-out media, the apathy, the baseness, the envy, the hate, the ocean of fools and losers that splashes right under your window.” It now occurs to me that the incidents that sparked the street marches are just symptoms of a situation that not only remains unchanged but seems to be getting worse and that for many of the people on the street, these protests must be the latest and possibly the last attempt to transform Bulgaria into a place where one could live normally and with dignity.

*The Bulgarian abbreviation of the agency’s name is ДАНС – pronounced ‘DANCE’, which gave birth to the clever hash tag #ДАНСwith me, used as a tag for movement not just in social media but also in its overall identity.