Postmark Bulgaria

This month's great read, selected by our editors: A childhood stamp collection propels our author to a far-off land of monasteries and memories.

From the November 2015 issue of Traveler magazine

IT'S my backside that feels Bulgaria first, through the seat of a taxi as it speeds over cobblestones in the capital city, Sofia. “This country is like the Piccadilly Circus!” my taxi driver exclaims in rough, if enthusiastic, English. “Everyone comes here. Goes round and round!” He removes both hands from the steering wheel to illustrate Bulgaria as the whirlpool of civilizations. I picture us plowing into the church looming suddenly, like a glittering Christmas ornament, in our windshield.

What he says is trenchant: Everyone, it seems, has come to Bulgaria. The Thracians, with their gold. Rome, with its legions. The Asiatic Bulgars, the country’s namesake. Also Huns, Slavs, Jews, Turks, with their many traditions. In the past two decades they’ve been joined by hordes of holidaying Brits with a thirst for cheap beer and a good time.

I’ve come with old postage stamps.

THE ATTIC FAN rumbles in a Michigan house, sucking out the humidity of a muggy June day as three ten-year-old boys sift through a hillock of stamps at a table.

“Purple Liz,” my brother, Fred, says, dropping the British queen atop the heap of empire.

“Pink head,” blurts my friend Shawn; it’s our name for the portrait of Belgian King Baudouin.

My turn. “Another orange Franco,” I mutter glumly. What I really want us to look at are the colorful images in the smallest pile, for Bulgaria, a country at the time sequestered behind the Iron Curtain. Its stamps are large, with faraway scenes of craggy mountain ranges, ancient hill towns, dueling knights. The one that most intrigues me shows a richly decorated monastery that could be out of a book I’m reading about dwarves, elves, and castles in a place called Middle-earth. Bulgaria, with its wild landscape, exotic people, rugged fortifications, and runic Cyrillic lettering, has become, in my imagination, a land from The Hobbit.

I’ll travel there someday, I know then, and find that monastery.

IT'S ALMOST MIDNIGHT when the taxi pulls up to my hotel. I pay the driver, who then roars off into the night, his open window trailing notes of chalga, electrified Bulgarian folk music. I look around. Dark windows on belle epoque facades stare back. Then I notice something familiar about the building across the street—the bulkiness of its neoclassic exterior, its spire thrusting upward like a Stalinist spindle. I rifle through my stamp envelope, excited. The miniature engraving I extract, tinted a Marxist red, is identical to what sits in front of me: Sofia’s old Communist Party headquarters. My stamps and I are off to a good start.

I meet my Bulgarian translator, 25-year-old Polina Simeonova, the next morning. She looks like the dark-haired ballerina on my stamp of a Bulgarian ballet duet, though thoroughly 21st century with her smartphone and jeans.

“Everyone under age 30 here learned English watching the Cartoon Network,” she reassures me. “Trust me.”

We plunge into Sofia, a city of more than a million that has all the pediments and pillars, pastel colors and classical details of a proper Old World capital, spiced with Ottoman touches, a vestige of what Bulgarians refer to as the “Turkish Yoke.” The Turkic Ottoman Empire conquered the Empire of Bulgaria at the end of the 1300s; the land would form part of the Ottoman dominion for 500 years, endowing Sofia with Islamic mosques, minarets, filigree, and a hammam, or Turkish bath. A more recent empire endowed Sofia with another architecture: large apartment blocks, now coated with soot and spray paint.

“See? Soviet architecture and American graffiti,” Simeonova deadpans. She also points out the new, thrusting office towers clad in glass and capitalist sass, a reflection of Bulgaria’s accession in 2007 to the European Union.

As Simeonova shows me her hometown, I spot another landmark pictured on my stamps. The multidomed Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky, a glorious stratocumulus of neo-Byzantine cloud, billows up in front of me, unchanged from the image I pull out. A small group of families stands gathered around a tour guide, who recites the facts. Construction started in 1882; the cathedral commemorates the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War; with more than 34,000 square feet, the building accommodates 10,000 worshippers.

A father reaches out to gently realign his son’s head toward the guide. “Listen,” his gesture says. “This is important.”

I’m beginning to regret that I’ve allowed only one day in Sofia; eager to see as much of Bulgaria as possible, I have packed a lot onto my itinerary. Simeonova and I hoof it to different neighborhoods, where she introduces me to vendors selling cupfuls of fat raspberries, like a pasha’s collection of rubies; points out skateboarders busy “shredding” at the base of the gray Soviet War Memorial, whose stone soldiers were repainted in 2011 as comic-book heroes (that didn’t last); and treats me to a chopska salad, a mix of onions, peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers complemented by fresh, tangy farm cheese. As I wolf it down, she eyes me and wryly comments, “You’ll have plenty of chopska tomorrow, in Veliko Turnovo.”

A TWO-AND-A-HALF-HOUR drive east from Sofia the next day brings me to the setting for another of my stamps, a place Bulgarians consider a national icon: the Tsarevets fortress, a stronghold that protected the town of Veliko Turnovo, capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, until it succumbed to Ottoman invaders in 1393. My stamp shows a huge walled compound being fought over with palpable ferocity by medieval knights.

When I cruise into Veliko Turnovo, today a city of more than 68,000 people that hugs the steep hillsides of the Stara Planina mountains like a Slavic Mesa Verde, I’m in a pensive mood. The siege of the Tsarevets fortress lasted three months and ended with Turkish forces conquering and destroying the redoubt, according to my stamp. The capital’s inhabitants were mostly killed or sent into exile.

The fortress I enter today, a bastion of stone walls and towers, was reconstructed in the 20th century. Battlements surround the great keep, which rises straight from rock cliffs flanking the Yantra River. Atop the hill sits a small church. I climb its bell tower and emerge to a view of steep hillsides and dizzying gorges—the very landscape on my stamp! To my right, I make out the streets of Veliko Turnovo, lined with 200-year-old town houses. It is near one of these that I come upon antiques for sale, like a display of Bulgarian history: samovars, Turkish tiles, a bust of Vladimir Lenin, and a rusted alarm clock with a familiar, if fading, design on its face—the five Olympic rings. Behind them loom the words “Berlin 1936” and a swastika. It’s a souvenir from Adolf Hitler’s infamous Summer Games.

“You like it?” The inquiry comes from behind me. “I give you good price.”

“No thanks.” I set the clock back down. Bulgaria was a reluctant ally of Germany in World War II; faced with the threat of a Nazi invasion, it signed a pact in 1941. That year, Germany forced it to declare war on America; in 1943, the U.S. bombed Sofia, destroying much of the city and killing more than a thousand people. Interestingly, despite being Nazi allies officially, Bulgarians saved many Jewish citizens. As with everything in this strategically located land, its history is complicated.

A MORE DISTANT HISTORY, and another stamp, transport me to Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv, southwest of Veliko Turnovo. Tracing its settlement back 6,000 years, Plovdiv—slated to be a European Capital of Culture in 2019—may be best known for what an expanding Roman empire left behind, including a series of arcaded aqueducts and a good-as-new Roman amphitheater in the Old Town.

“They say the acoustics here were so exact, you could drop a coin on stage and it would be heard in the back row,” says a mustachioed Bulgarian in English as I step onto the temporary wooden floorboards. Around us, a perfect half circle of white marble tiers stacked like sugar cubes rises, attesting to the wealth that once flowed through this land. Built by Emperor Trajan in the second century, when the city was a major Roman settlement, the theater hosts performances to this day. I watch attendants place cushions on the seats for tonight’s show, the Verdi opera Nabucco.

Shuffling through my stamps of Plovdiv, I find a set of intriguing half-timbered houses in the cobblestoned Old Town, my next stop. Built mostly in the 1800s by rich businessmen, the houses sport coats of vivid blues, purples, and ochers. Knockers of braided iron hang on oak doors. I enter one residence, a museum known as the House of Nikola Nedkovich, to find ornate wood furniture and embroidered fabrics that speak to the flowering of a native pride suppressed by the Ottomans.

Making my way from the Old Town to Plovdiv’s main avenue, Tsar Battenberg Boulevard (named for the first regent of modern Bulgaria), I pass the 15th-century Dzhumaya Mosque, one of the oldest Ottoman religious structures in the Balkans. Its geometrically patterned minaret appears on one of my stamps, and I dearly want to see the sumptuous interior, with its floral flourishes and quotes from the Koran. But the shadow on the mosque’s sundial reads 4 p.m., giving me just a few more hours of daylight to wander town, joining the pedestrian crowds as they stroll past restored 19th-century buildings and fountains. Taking in the swarms of fashionable men and women, their eyes hidden behind designer sunglasses, I become a boulevardier in what the first-century Greek writer Lucian dubbed “the largest and most beautiful of all cities.”

THAT NIGHT I SPREAD my stamps on my hotel bed and zero in on one I’ve saved, like dessert. It depicts Rila, my Middle-earth monastery—and tomorrow’s destination. Guided by a GPS navigator I nickname “Garminovka,” I’ll head west of Plovdiv on a three-hour drive into the Rila Mountains, the highest peaks between the Alps and the Caucasus range. I’m beyond eager to see the real version of the monastery that so seized my imagination as a ten-year-old.

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I make good time until the road begins to narrow and trees grow dense. Garminovka starts babbling. “Recalculating,” she finally says, then lapses into silence. I’ve come into a deep, wooded valley. Yellow butterflies pirouette across the road, and the sound of the rushing Rilska River overpowers the engine’s grumble. In the distance, I make out mountains, dizzyingly steep and felted in a sage green. They greet me as they did pilgrims and monks in the tenth century, when the original monastery was founded by Ivan (John) of Rila, a hermit who would become Bulgaria’s patron saint.

Ivan chose his site well. The complex, a quadrangle walled on all sides by monastery buildings, sits on a wooded knoll in the middle of nature. I park, then walk past a knot of Japanese tourists to traverse the passage connecting to the inner courtyard. As I step through under a bright noonday sun, I’m flung into another era. The transition feels almost physical, a shove back to the Middle Ages.

My stamp depicts the monastery only in outline; the reality that faces me is an explosion of columns, arches, crosses, and carved wooden balconies in rich reds and umbers and charcoals—an apotheosis of “Bulgarian renaissance” architecture. In the center of it all rises the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, fronted by columns striped black and white in the Islamic Mamluk tradition. I step under the cathedral’s portico and find detailed frescoes of the glories of heaven and the terrors of hell. A bearded monk in black robes and cap appears to be the cathedral’s gatekeeper. I pause. May I enter? He nods his assent.

The cathedral’s cool interior, all gilded icons and vivid frescoes of biblical scenes and haloed saints, glows softly in candlelight. It is a lot to take in. As my eyes adjust to the darkened space, I notice other visitors, who have assembled around something towering up front—a magnificent (that is the only word for it) gold-plated iconostasis that soars some 30 feet, a 19th-century work by a master craftsman from Thessaloniki.

Next to me, a man starts to genuflect, his face serene with worship. I am a stranger to Eastern Orthodox ritual, but his piety needs no translation. This is a holy place, so holy to Bulgarians that when a fire destroyed it in the early 1800s, it was meticulously rebuilt. During the centuries of Ottoman rule, the monastery became a powerful symbol of Bulgarian identity and a major destination for pilgrims from the greater Balkans.

The opulence of the cathedral, I soon discover, contrasts with the simplicity of the monks’ white-walled quarters, where bed sheets are hung out to dry and water is scooped from a stone fountain. As I use the dented ladle to get water to wash my hands, I think of how my Rila stamp had seemed a talisman that illuminated an alternate world. The real thing is proving far more powerful. Symbols are important, but it’s the details of everyday life—this metal ladle, the man genuflecting, the bright chattering of the Rilska River—that have brought Bulgaria alive for me.

BACK IN SOFIA, before my flight home, Polina Simeonova and I meet to share a farewell walk through tree-lined Borisova Gradina, or Boris’s Garden, the capital’s equivalent of New York City’s Central Park. The sun is hot, so we’ve chosen a shaded path. As we stroll, I notice what look like bracelets of red and white yarn dangling from tree limbs.

“Martenitsa, the last pagan tradition we have,” Simeonova explains. “The colors red and white signify the coming of spring—for us a time of hope and renewal—so on March 1 we wear woven red-and-white bracelets. When we spot the first stork returning from its wintering grounds, or the first flowering tree, we remove the bracelet and place it on a branch so our wishes will come true.”

I laugh. I have one stamp that hasn’t been matched on my journey into Bulgaria. It depicts beachgoers sunning along Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, which was too far for me to visit this time. Consider it my wish for the future, I say to my young guide—with postage due.

Contributing editor Andrew Nelson returned from Bulgaria a fan of its red wines. Contributing photographer Aaron Huey, who is based in Seattle, also shoots for National Geographic magazine.

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