In the Palace | Balchik, Bulgaria

I just got to spend four days at the northern Black Sea town of Balchik, courtesy of the In the Palace Short Film Festival.

The festival itself was a pleasure to be a part of. Its atmosphere was friendly and relaxed  – surely helped by the location, but also by the very international group of filmmakers, volunteers, journalists, organizers and other film people who attended. They were numerous enough to make the town buzz with excitement, but not too many, as to overwhelm it. The fact that only short films were shown, in this case, also assured that much of the pomp that sometimes comes with bigger festivals was missing.

The town of Balchik itself is, at first glance, plagued by many of the ever-present annoyances of other Black Sea resort towns – the crappy pop music constantly blasting from every possible eating establishment, the hoards of loud Russian tourists and the services industry’s general attitude towards visitors, ranging from negligible (at best) to aggressively appalling (at worst). The town also boasts many communist-era hotels, which would have had a certain kind of old-school appeal if they weren’t so hopelessly decrepit.

In spite of all that, Balchik is one of the most charming towns on the Bulgarian coast. This charm is owed entirely to the so-called Palace, located in the southern end of the town, which is in fact an enchanting complex of small buildings scattered around a lush and beautifully arranged botanical garden. The complex was built in the 1920’s by Queen Marie of Romania, who established her summer residence there.

The queen was the first royal to declare herself a follower of Baha’i faith.  Her belief in the unity of religions is apparent throughout the complex in the unlikely combination of symbols: from the minaret topping the main residence to the Roman-Arab bathhouse, the traditional Bulgarian-style verandas, a Moorish courtyard, the huge earthenware pots from Morocco, a Hellenistic marble throne from Florence, the giant inscribed stone crosses from monasteries in Moldova and the Muslim gravestones. The whimsical garden has a slightly overgrown feel to it, although the thousands of flower, tree and plant species it boasts are in fact all meticulously labeled and diligently looked after. The sea can be seen from everywhere, as the whole complex is built on a steep hill overlooking the water.

While best viewed (and photographed) in the daytime, I discovered a special kind of pleasure of walking around the Palace’s grounds at night, when they are at their most peaceful and quiet and one can hear the leaves of the old trees rustle, the frogs croak and the waves breaking against the nearby shore. In addition to running into other festival guests along its alleys, walking around the garden at night also made for other memorable meetings. Although it almost gave me a heart attack when it happened, one evening we had the rare pleasure of running into two stocky badgers, which – in retrospect, were probably much more startled by the encounter than we were.

The other image that I am definitely keeping from this visit to Balchik is the dozens and dozens of flying paper lanterns, which the guests released from the beach on the closing night of the festival and which twinkled and drifted slowly over the sea in a display that obnoxiously tacky and exploding fireworks have nothing on.

CBB*: isolacinema 7 | Izola, Slovenia

I was sad to miss this year’s edition of Kino Otok/Isola Cinema film festival on Slovenia’s Adriatic Coast. Happily, one of the fine2meline was there again and brought back some memories from last September, as part of our Cross Balkan Blogging Project.* (Coincidentally, in the last couple of days, I have been constantly reminded of Izola, where I was for last year’s Kino Otok, as I am now at another film festival taking place on the coast of another sea. But more on that coming up later.)

from 8th till 12th of june -isolacinema- film festival was the place to be.

here we were drawing an animation. it was a part of the film workshop.

* More about the Cross Balkan Blogging project and all posts from it.

À bout de souffle | Shishman Street, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Sofia Breathes initiative, which closed down the city’s most atmospheric street to cars and opened it to art, design and pedestrians for the day was a really good way to end Sofia Design Week, whose motto this year was “Design is All Around.” A good way to end any week, for that matter.

Besides the bars, restaurants and cafés spilling over onto the sidewalks, the children’s chalk drawings on the pavement, the tchotchke stalls and the intentional and spontaneous art installations, my most favorite part of the day was running into all kinds of friends.

In the span of the six-odd hours, I think I bumped into friends from all the distinct and seemingly unconnected periods of my conscious life – from my recently rediscovered first best friend from elementary school who was wearing the exact same outfit as me (Hi, Maia!), my partner in crime starting in middle school (Hi, Maria!), two lovely high school friends I studied with in the Middle East (Hi, Lika! Hi, Annie!), to my wingwoman ever since grad school in London (Hi, Krissy!) and many, many other cool, fun and exciting people I have met since. I think that at some point, I ended up standing together with most of them in one spot, which was a little uncanny.

Speaking of improbable gatherings of unlikely allies, I went to get a look at the nearby Monument to the Soviet Red Army. It usually looks like this, but – thanks to the brilliant recent work of an anonymous graffiti artist, now commemorates the unlikely get-together of Superman (gun in hand, rocking red boots and a cape), Santa Claus (toting binoculars and a Kalashnikov), Ronald McDonald (waving the American flag), the Joker (sporting a purple trench coat) and several other cartoon characters and superheroes I couldn’t exactly identify. If Sofia Design Week had anything to do with this, which I don’t think it did, then what a coup! Design is all around, indeed. The final touch to the monument’s transformation, which I especially appreciated, is the phrase scribbled underneath, roughly translating to “In step with the times.” No kidding.

*Update (Monday): In spite of reports that claimed the graffiti was washed off on Sunday, a friend of mine told me today that the superheroes were still around when she passed by the Soviet Monument in the afternoon – just in time to see a lone, apparently self-motivated older guy show up with some rags and a bucket and start scrubbing away the paint. The organized cleaning, reportedly initiated by the Sofia Municipality but financed by non-governmental organizations, is scheduled to take place early tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, over 1,700 people – in several groups on facebook, have said they are against the washing up of the monument, some of them making plans to create a human shield around it when the cleaners come.

**Update (Tuesday): In efforts to avoid the above-mentioned protests and human chains, “emergency” measures were taken and the monument was washed off in the wee hours of the morning, with only faint traces of colorful paint left as a reminder of what, briefly, was.

This is starting to be alarmingly reminiscent of this… talk about being out of step with the times.

So fresh and so clean, Sofia Design Week | Sofia, Bulgaria

The third edition of Sofia Design Week is in full swing this week, with dozens of exhibitions, workshops, lectures, presentations and screenings taking place at exactly 50 sites around the city.

I appreciate the initiative because of the multitude of cool events that it brings to the city, even though my interest in design is that of a layman. But more importantly, I’m a fan of Sofia Design Week because, in the brief period over which it takes place, the festival somehow manages to change the entire city’s atmosphere and how it feels as a whole. I have come to associate the event with the beginning of summer when people cannot wait to go sit and hang out outside and Sofia Design Week gives them a reason to do it. It spills over from the standard places that usually contain things related to art and design – the galleries and museums, and goes into public space – onto the streets, the squares and the courtyards. And makes the whole city breathe just a little bit more excitedly.

Initially, I was disappointed to find out that this year the courtyard of the Art Academy wasn’t going to be used as extensively as it had been in the last couple of editions. Back then, it acted as a kind of focal point throughout the week – with outdoor parties, exhibitions and presentations constantly taking place there, and I loved passing by it almost every night. But it turns out that one of the new sites and a kind of focal point this year might even be better.

The City’s Central Bathhouse now hosts several exhibitions as part of SDW. Each night, the beautiful square in front of it – overlooking a fountain and the Banya Bashi mosque, gets filled with crowds of people hanging out, drinking beer and watching screenings.

Also, I couldn’t help but notice – though that’s probably just me, that the square is covered in different-colored cobblestones, creating an intricate pattern that references water, while the pathway right in front of the bathhouse is paved with the Sofia’s iconic yellow cobblestones.

The building itself, which I now had the chance to enter for the first time, is kind of wonderful too. Built at the beginning of the twentieth century to make use of the natural thermal water springs at the site and to take care of the hygiene needs of Sofia’s inhabitants, it served its purpose as a public bathhouse until the late 1980s. At that time, it was deemed no longer necessary and shut down, presumably because the citizens were now expected to have their own private bathrooms in their homes. In the next two decades, the beautiful building fell into dismal disrepair while debates raged on whether to turn it into a spa or a museum.

As far as I’ve heard, it has been decided to do both – a part of the bathhouse will become the Museum of Sofia, while another will be made into a spa center that would presumably use the natural hot water springs. When this will actually be realized remains unclear.

The building’s façade has now been completely renovated. Its high domes have also been recently whitewashed on the inside, but parts of the interior are still somewhat ruined – walls and ceiling are peeling here and there, wires stick out of corners and parts of the staircase’s railing have gone amiss. The old, beautifully tiled floors, cracked here and there, are still there though.

There was something weirdly melancholic about walking through the cool, crumbling corridors of the bathhouse. I was thinking that it would be sad and a waste if this feeling – of a time long gone, gets lost in the building’s renovation. And I really hope they keep the tiles.

CBB*: sharing the same sea | istria and korčula, croatia

And finally…. the first installment from my favorite twin sisters Tina and Nina (from fine2meline), as part of our Cross Balkan Blogging project*, is here. Enjoy!

this first cross balkan project post from mali vrh will be of course something special. it is that nina and i were in different places these last days. so this post will be done from two parts. but we were sharing the same sea. in a way things are not so far away.

istria. the last few days i spent in istria. in september this part of croatia is really special. not just that most of the tourists are back home (this year it’s a bit different, the season is still on) and the local people can be more relaxed, but also the weather conditions are mostly great. nice temperatures again and friendly. and if you combine this with great culinary offers, then i call this a victory. just on the way home…. no wait …. to go from the beginning, because it is important. on the way there, we always stop at one coffee place (there has to be something really serious not to do so). and not so much for the coffee, though it is good, but for the one cookie they give with it. oh, joy. so good. the cookies, it turned out, are from the little local bakery called “Delicia.” i remember the first time we were at the coffee place and got the coconut version of them cookies. it was immediate addiction. at the time there was no option to buy them. and today….the cookie at the coffee place is with chocolate drops and there is an option to buy all kinds in the factory just few minutes away. so we stopped of course. first in the bakery and then at the coffee place. i went into the bakery to get 1kg and came out with 3. the lady there was so nice, we had a little talk and at the end she gave me one big bag of cookies gratis. and not just this, they were also still too hot to be sealed! and what a smell there was in the bakery….would be great place just to come there to read a book.
the next few days we spent in the little village, some km from the sea. very silent, except of the neighbor, who can’t stop talking.
rest…..a bit of reading next to the sea, driving around with the car and good music. on the way home there was a really good lunch at the local place called “Danijela.” nice istria all together.

korčula. so, while one melina was in istria, the other was exploring the wonders of korčula island, also in croatia. training body by swimming, riding bike, reading books, picking figs, admiring big ship visiting the island and most of all…  cooking. at the end i got a bit ill, which lead to little eariler “coming back to slovenia action,” but didn’t ruin anything. marko … polo … marko …. marko … polo … was the name of the ship that took us there. and he, marko, was born in korčula, but… uuuu i really like purple figs, more then greenish ones ;)

* More about the Cross Balkan Blogging project and all posts as part of it.

Love* on the Butchers’ Bridge over Ljubljanica River | Ljubljana, Slovenia

Having officially opened in July, the Butchers’ Bridge is Ljubljana’s newest bridge over the Ljubljanica River. Although the bridge looks very modern, it’s design is in fact an interpretation of a plan from nearly a century ago by the iconic Slovene architect Joze Plečnik, who transformed the city in the 1920s and 1930s. Some law prevented the exact design to be used after Plečnik’s death, but – as far as I’m concerned, the result isn’t at all shabby.

The footbridge’s surface is divided into three parts: a light gray granite runs along its middle, while two glass sections stretch along the railings on both sides, on which one can stand and look at the river flowing below (a little eerie).

On the bridge, there are several large standing statues of figures from Ancient Greek and Christian mythology, including Adam and Eve, banished from Paradise; Satyr, startled by the Serpent; and Prometheus, running and disemboweled, in punishment for having given the knowledge of fire to mankind.

Lined atop the bridge’s wide railing, there are also some smaller bronze sculptures, slightly grotesque but at the same time nice to look at, of animal skulls, shellfish and frogs. Here and there, padlocks are latched onto the beams connecting the sculptures. Initially, I was perplexed that they didn’t come up with a more subtle way of ensuring the sculptures weren’t stolen, but when I took a closer look at one of them, I noticed it was engraved: “Vesna + Tomaž,”** it read, and in fact, it was simply latched on and not actually keeping anything in place.

Then, I realized that love padlocks were clamped not only to the smaller sculptures but they also hung from the steel wires of the bridge’s railing.

This practice of latching padlocks engraved with the names of couples in love isn’t unique to the Butchers’ Bridge in Ljubljana. It’s already been done in the Hungarian town of Pécs, where lovers have been clamping padlocks to a fence in a street that links the mosque in the main square with the city’s medieval cathedral since the 1980s as a sign of commitment; in Florence, where love padlocks were latched on the railing at the center of the Ponte Vecchio; in China’s Mount Huang, where love-struck couples “lock their souls” together and throw the key over the edge of the cliff; and in downtown Moscow, where newlyweds latched padlocks onto the Luzhkov Bridge until authorities installed iron bars to prevent them. Most famously, perhaps, this is practiced in Paris, where almost 2,000 cadenas d’amour adorn the railings of the Pont des Arts Bridge and the Passerelle Léopold-Senghor over the Seine. Better than tattooing messages of undying love on your arm, I suppose.

Despite the cheesiness potential, I thought the padlocks on the Butcher’s Bridge were rather charming. Since they haven’t yet had time to get rusty, I found their shimmering brass blended quite well with the bronze sculptures, and created a cool combination of intentional art with a more incidental, and unpredictable, participation by the public. And since Ljubljana is no Paris, these declarations of love didn’t seem overwhelmingly tacky.

Plus, I rather like the contrast between the implied brutality of the bridge’s name and the romantic notion of the padlocks. Another instance, in which the word ‘butcher’ for me is divorced from its original meaning and stands for something light-hearted instead.

* In another case of the same word having a different meaning in two Slavic languages (is there a term for that?): ljubezen in Slovene means ‘love’ (noun); in Bulgarian, it means ‘polite’, ‘courteous’, ‘amiable’ (adjective).

**Thanks to Tomaž for the impromptu tour of Ljubljana and for only half-heartedly denying he is the one from the padlock inscription.

Nature: In the woods is perpetual youth | Trška Gora, Slovenia

As a self-confessed urban addict, I usually never feel the need to get out of the city and spend time in nature. But I have to admit that – to my surprise, I’ve enjoyed the last two-odd weeks of greenery overload in the hills around Krško.

My eyes got so used to seeing green hills, trees and grass everywhere, all the time, that when I went to Ljubljana for the afternoon before I flew back to Sofia, it felt strange to be surrounded by buildings and to walk on concrete.

I always thought that spending time in nature would leave me bored and with nothing to do, but the documentary filmmaking workshop I attended in Trška Gora was nothing if not busy and exciting. And, somehow, it managed to combine all the benefits of summer camp (being in nature, tasty meals three times a day, sleeping in tents, a constant supply of people to hang out with) with all the advantages of adulthood (freedom to do whatever I pleased with my time).

I especially enjoyed eating tomatoes off the stem; reading in the grass, filming in the grass, sleeping in the grass; having breakfast, lunch and dinner outside; observing horses roaming around; watching films in the open air; napping in the hammock; hearing the late-night sound of crickets and seeing the early-morning fog in the surrounding hills. Just so you don’t think I became a total hippie, I’ll have you know that I kept my walking barefoot to a minimum*, only sat in a circle while somebody played the guitar twice and tried to take a shower at least once every few days.

When we left the camp, the only thing testifying for the past two weeks were the dozens of squares in the grass – discolored and dry, where the tents had stood.

Anyways, presently, in addition to withdrawal symptoms from not being able to constantly hang out with Tina, Nina and a few others, which were somewhat expected, I am also experiencing anxiety from my separation with nature, which comes as a surprise. So, I’m now re-training my eyes to get used to the urbanscape visible from my house and my feet to walk on concrete again.

*And yes, maybe I did bring too many pairs of shoes on this trip.

Camping in the hills above Krško | Trška Gora, Slovenia

At night, when I’m falling asleep in the tent and everything goes quiet, all I can hear are the noises made by the nuclear power plant in the valley below. They sound almost like the waves crashing against the shore when I’m falling asleep in my tent on the beach on the Black Sea.

The village of Küstendorf and the Šargan Eight narrow gauge | Mokra Gora, Serbia

Maybe because of my passionate love affair with New York and Berlin – two cities which always lose the battle for traditional beauty to Paris, Prague or Venice, or the fact that I was born in Sofia – which requires quite a stretch of the imagination to be called beautiful, I often find myself slightly suspicious and ill at ease in places that are pretty in an unquestionable way.

I distinctly remember the eerie feeling, as if walking through a film set, that I got last fall, when I took a stroll around Warsaw’s Old Town. After the Second World War, during which it was blown up and destroyed, the medieval city was meticulously rebuilt from scratch, based on drawings. More recently, in Ljubljana, I also felt like it was too beautiful and too quaint, which is nice to look at but couldn’t get under my skin the way grittier cities do.

Sometimes, as a reaction to overwhelming quaintness, I try to find unintentional things that somehow ruin it, as I did in the tourist paradise of a town, Tryavna.

All this is to try to explain my reaction when, on the way back from Sarajevo to Sofia, we stopped by the village of Küstendorf in the Mokra Gora region of Serbia. Also known as Drvengrad – meaning ‘Wooden Town’, it was built up from scratch by Emir Kusturica for his film “Life Is a Miracle.”

The village’s wooden, Hansel-and-Gretel-like houses and structures have a variety of functions and names – the Ivo Andrić Library; the Stanley Kubrick Bioscope (cinema); the Saint Sava Church; a café, a souvenir shop, a hotel; and even a place named the City Prison Humanism and Renaissance, with the faces of George W. Bush and a villain I couldn’t identify painted behind bars on its gate.

The streets between them, also lined with solid wood, carry the names of a variety of historical and show business figures – from Nikola Tesla and Ernesto Che Guevara, to Federico Fellini and Bruce Lee, and even sports starts, including Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic and football superstar Diego Armando Maradona, seemingly united by nothing more than Kusturica’s personal sympathies.

Even the place’s name is a joke – a word play on the German word dorf (‘village’) and Kusturica’s nickname, Kusta.

My favorite was the Johny Depp “statue,” which I had read about when it was first unveiled at the beginning of this year, by Depp himself who came as a special guest of the last edition of the film and music festival that takes place in the village every January. Though the concept of any kind of statue of Johnny Depp can’t be entirely serious, I was nevertheless imagining something bronze and stately. In reality, it turned out to be a flimsy, smaller-than-life-sized figure, which had all the grandeur of Madame Tussauds’ wax figures. Cross-armed, the pale copy of my high-school crush, leaned on a pole with one foot lifted against it and a brooding expression on his papier-mâché face.

So, yes, it was all a bit much. So much, in fact, that after initially being overwhelmed by the complete artifice and kitsch of the whole place, I started to find it funny. I no longer felt strange, as if walking through a film set, because I was in fact walking through one. Unlike Warsaw’s newly rebuilt Old Town or Ljubljana’s quaint center along the river, the place was screaming that it was completely made up. It was nothing more than an extension of Kusturica’s absurd, farcical humor and materialized product of his sense for the fantastical. And nothing less.

Another attraction stood on a neighboring hill on the other side of the main road – the so-called Šargan Eight – a unique narrow gauge railway, which when viewed from the sky looks like the number 8.

The 76-cm gauge railway was an important part of the former narrow gauge main line between Sarajevo and Belgrade, which closed in 1974. In the early 2000s, Kosturica joined the Serbian Ministry of Tourism and the state railways company in reconstructing it, and filmed parts of “Life is a Miracle” along the rails and in a specially built railway station.

We sat at the restaurant by the station – which boasted what was possibly the worst service in the history of the Balkans, and watched the retro-looking train take tourists on a tour around the surrounding hills.