No, this is not about the melancholic tango by Astor Piazzola (for a beautiful performance by two world-renowned Bulgarian musicians, click here).
This post is about one of my childhood villages, which I visited on Sunday. It is located between the towns of Montana and Lom in north-western Bulgaria.
Montana assumed its current name after the collapse of communism. It derives from the name of Montanesium, which the Romans had given to an ancient settlement located on the same land. In the late 19th century the village, then called Kutlovitsa, was proclaimed a town and was renamed to Ferdinand, in homage to the second Bulgarian tsar of the third tsardom. During Communism, the town was called Mihaylovgrad, to honour a local communist activist.
Lom is located on the Danube River and is the closest river port to the capital Sofia. The town’s centre boasts many belle époque buildings, which had been built at the time our future capital was just a muddy village. Before the advent of communism, Lom, Montana and Vratsa were the towns where people from the surrounding villages used to go to study.
Now the situation is such that everybody flocks to Sofia, leaving the smaller settlements mainly to the elderly, the unemployed and those who do not want to work. Needless to say, burglaries are a constant and ever worsening scourge that has resulted in frail grandmas sleeping with police bats and pepper spray by their side. So not funny.
I travelled with my father and two relatives. For a while, I drove the car, a BMW X5. That was a totally new experience for me. The car was so easy to drive and felt so heavy, in the good sense, smooth and stable – like a tank, or an excellently oiled machine running impeccably. The feeling was incomparable to the one I get in my ladybird of a city car. I can totally see now why every babe in high heels and large sunglasses wants to drive one of these monsters – they simply make you high!
We drove through the Petrhohan Pass (проход Петрохан) which was known and used as early as the Roman times. The pass connects Sofia and Montana through the Balkan Mountains (yes, the ones that have given the name to the entire peninsula and are the apple of every Bulgarian’s eye, sung in many songs and poems.)
The construction of the paved roads used today started in the second half of the 19th century. At the top of the pass, there is a modest restaurant where tripe soup is served. The place does not have ventilation and reeks of vinegar and garlic – the typical condiments for tripe. I wouldn’t have that at home, but did not mind it there. Tripe is by the way an excellent remedy for hangovers and so, part of the Bulgarian cultural heritage.
This restaurant also offers sheep and buffalo yoghurt and home-made blackberry jam. The yoghurt is sold in clay pots and is uncovered. This means that when you buy it, they tie a napkin with a thread on its top and give it to you like that, to the horror of all EU straight-cucumber purists. Bulgarians are die-hards for homemade stuff like that. If you want to infuriate a Bulgarian, or learn a juicy expletive, tell them the EU does not want them to sell or buy homemade rakia, yoghurt, jams, sausages and spiced pork lard.
The Petrohan Pass is hard for driving as it consists of some 50 km of curves only. I swear there isn’t a straight section more than 50m long…But the views are worth this. Especially on Sunday, as it was rainy and misty. Dense mist looking like fluffy clouds covered the valleys below the meandering road or hanged above it like a blanket. There were many caves visible in the rocky slopes and also many brooks that looked like small waterfalls in their stony and mossy beds.
In some places the pine trees are so thick that it is virtually dark on the ground below them. We passed through a wood consisting of intertwined birch trees and pines, seeing through which was practically impossible, they were like a wall. Really, one wouldn’t want to be alone in a forest like that at dark…
The villages that we passed by were generally looking derelict – the logical consequence of the mass migration to the cities. Still, everywhere the building of the village administration was adorned with the Bulgarian and the EU flags. The Bulgarian flag was also waving from many homes, which is not something done often in the city. Seeing the national flag hanged from a window somehow warmed my heart every time. It created a kind of bond between me and those people I did not know anything about, like in the teenage years when I saw someone wear a T-shirt of the same heavy metal band as I did.
The village that we were headed to is really depopulated and our house was like a jungle – overgrown with weeds to the point of being unrecognizable. Thieves regularly visit it in the search of some previously undiscovered treasures.
What made me go there is my grandfather’s huge collection of books, which had been accommodated there for lack of space for it in Sofia. I dream of having a home with a separate room for a library so that I can give a proper home to these books, some of which are really old and rare.
In a couple of hours, I went through everything that was accessible and not in cardboard boxes piled one atop of the other, and selected about 20 books to bring home. Now I have great stuff on my To Read list.
The village’s church is locked and a priest from the neighbouring village is called in for occasional services, mainly funerals. On Sunday, when the Orthodox celebrated the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, no liturgy took place in the village. If this is not oblivion, I don’t know what is.
The people I met, both my relatives and the neighbours, were great, very interesting and entertaining to talk to. They were all elderly people and, naturally enough, their use of language and topics of conversation are very different compared to those of younger people. I am really thankful for this trip which I think strengthened my spirit and did me good. And I can’t wait for the end of Lent to taste the buffalo yoghurt too!