Coming Out of the Cold

[What a great memory to happen across this old feature I wrote about Bulgaria years ago, published in BulgariaOut There magazine as their Destinations feature of the month.]

Budget-friendly Bulgaria has horse-drawn ski-lifts, an ancient history as colourful as its frescoed monasteries and a drab, sad communist past.

Large clods of snow somehow manage to find a nesting place in my non-existent cleavage. These immediately melt and start making an icy trail to the bottom of my boots, but no matter. All my concentration is on those flailing hooves, flying snow missiles and the whoops of the cowboys up front. In its eager emulation of Western European counterparts, the Bulgarian prized ski resort of Borovetz does offer the more conventional lifts, but those of us from sunny South African climes are hardly likely to take a seat to the top when we can hold on to a rope behind galloping horses and ski up the slope. Especially when, like Mr South Africa Michael Mol, with whom I happen to be travelling, you’ve never touched this magic medium before, let alone had all your view swamped by it. 

He and I turn at the top and race those horses and their leather-clad, Marlboro-smoking, image-is-all ‘cowboys’ back down the slope. But exhilaration brings oblivion and a series of coinciding zigzags that end in a crash and a heap of colour and giggles. Timing, we reflect, is everything. 

An out-of-season visit to the ski resorts of this former Soviet country might not seem like a great feat of scheduling, but the timing is perfect thanks to a cold front’s collision with the Balkan’s highest peaks and record snowfalls in what should be spring. It is a coup too for us, the inex-perienced skiers, in that, with other business dried up, we have about 12 ski instructors to ourselves. Local men, who have grown up in these mountains, and have wives and children in the village, not the itinerant flash-and-dash brigade usually associated with this occupation. Snow is no novelty to them. 

They scoff from on high as their ski-lift passes over the snow angels we are childishly moulding with our bodies, or when, in a frequent re-enactment of our favourite cartoon scene, Suzy’s snowball catches Calvin by surprise. But as the powder continues to drench the Christmas card scenery all night, they too find some of the fairytale wonder. 

Snow’s like that, I reckon. There’s no other element quite like it ­ and no sport like skiing. Also, in unfashionable Bulgaria, there’s not the Vogue set to impress. Just plenty of place to play. And play we do: on skis, snowboards, skidoos, snowcats, even a Bulgarian superman’s shoulders. In the powder, over the ice, through the trees … 

As charming as the snow might be, the truth is that Bulgaria is not all sparkling white; pollution and smog paint it grubby and grey. 

For all the spectacular scenery of mountain tops and Black Sea coast, there’s melancholy too. The country might border on Greece, but it’s Eastern Europe all the same and, like the bulk of the former Soviet Union, it’s been pillaged. The capital is dull apartments and regimented walkways, where outer adornments such as paint and plaster are missing; old balconies drip with ice and weeds and even the Soviet sculptures have lost their glister faster than the floodlights their bulbs. Even the archaeological museum seems to be history. “Faded grandeur,” some-body tells me. Crumbled grandeur, I see, and am saddened. 

My first impression is of passionless people whose strongest emotion is irritability. CNN reports in the weeks subsequent to my visit had portrayed Bulgaria as a struggling democracy with less the spice of freedom than the dank stuffiness of bureaucracy. Much of this we find at customs. 

For various very sound reasons, our group has no visas. Somebody, we’d been told, would have them there for us. ‘Somebody’ proves elusive and so, with my party held hostage by an irritable bureau-crat in an exhausted uniform, I bore sufficient officers with my story until we are waved through the various checkpoints and out into the sub-zero temperatures where we find our gorgeous guardian angel, Linda. She has the vital scraps of paper, as well as a packed itinerary, a sound knowledge of English, and a longing for Africa. Lesson number one: in a country whose alphabet is at best only tantalisingly familiar and the language completely strange, a tour guide is a great invention. 

After installing ourselves in a faded 70s rendition of modernity, the four-star Rodina Hotel, we hit the streets for the guided city tour, primed by the tourist brochures: “Sofia is a city that grows but never ages,” one says. “Founded over 7 000 years ago, Bulgaria’s modern capital testifies to the country’s eternal bond between past and present. Monuments to its rich Thracian, Roman, Bulgar and Ottoman history … blend in with the city’s modern skyline …” Blend in, they sure do. One is as drab as the next ­ or so my disappointment makes them seem. I had come with unfairly high expectations, naively imagining the rich cultural heritage would paint the city in golden hues. 

Now, with first impressions so clouded by judgement, all I can see is a dull, grey polluted city. Set at the crossroads of many of the world’s historic powers ­ India, Persia, China, Russia and Western Europe ­ this country has been invaded by any conquering power so inclined. Although each culture that’s passed through has woven its own strands into the tapestry that is modern Bulgaria, the only colours with any lustre left are those of the most recent invader ­ the red neons and plastics of America: Coca-Cola, KFC, MacDonald’s, Marlboro … 

I gaze longer though, and my heart softens. A haunting beauty starts to seep somehow from the old city, evidencing itself in emotive details. Set neatly between two of the city’s most prized possessions, the grandiose Byzantine-Muscovite Aleksandar Nevski Church and the humbly ancient Sveta Sofia Church, a little cluster of trees stands naked in the cold of an unenthusiastic spring. Bare, that is, of leaves. 

Once again the colour red features: those black boughs are wrapped in red-splattered bandages as a discreet yet eloquent commentary on recent protests quashed by armed police. Looking now with more interest at the trees that line some of the wide boulevards, I’m touched by previously unnoticed poignancies. Tiny buds blackened by an untimely chill seem so symbolic of the country’s attempts at coming out of the cold that I wonder at the indomitable nature that lets hope arise in such inhospitable conditions, only to be crushed by icy reality. Yet there are dreams the cold cannot kill, and little twists of red and white threads hanging in the trees testify to this. 

Our guide speaks disparagingly of the “gypsies” and blames the presence of these good luck charms on that slighted group, but other sources reveal that this is an ancient Bulgarian pagan tradition which predates Christianity and still survives strongly today. The martenitsa is traditionally tied on the wrists of children, in the hair of girls, on farm animals … anywhere, it seems, where a blessing of abundance is desired. One guidebook explains the presence of these threads on the trees (“Some people tie the martenitsa on a fruit tree and hope that the ailments troubling them will be buried deep through the roots and branches”) and comments revealingly on those who scoff at the practice: “Although they smirk at the womenfolk, men also wear martenitsa ­ but deep inside their baggy trousers, next to the asset they cherish most.” 

Those with a cultural bias can spend days in the dilapidated capital, swotting up on a country that’s been washed by the rising and falling fortunes of so many regimes. There are museums and monuments aplenty that demand a return visit, but right now my fascination is with the living. 

Women in non-PC fluffy fur stride past to buy cut-priced goods from previously outlawed, now ubiquitous street vendors. (During the socialist period, Bulgarians were only classified as workers, academics or professionals. Traders and small merchants were considered criminal until 1989.) 

Everywhere lovers submit to their passions on struggling benches, seemingly oblivious of my embarrassed stares. Linda tells us that the privacy of rooms or cars is a luxury many cannot afford, so I can only wonder whether the sub-zero temperatures serve more effectively as contraceptive or aphrodisiac. 

Old men play chess in big dark coats with unravelled lining. Clanging clocks time their moves as cigarettes drip careless ash onto the well-worn wood. Only the mumble of “check … check … check …” breaks the crisp quiet of the city square. 

Melancholy with musings about this Eastern European country, we leave its capital behind and head on into the mountains in search of action. En route south to Bansko, however, there is a stop we must make. It’s the tourists’ pilgrimage to the famous 10th century Rila Monastery. 

The snow is already falling as we make our way through the forests, up into the Rila Mountains. The first impression is of a great grey fortress but, as we step through the arched entrance, this ancient monastery reveals itself as a carnival of colour. All around the enormous courtyard are tiers of monk cells with boldly decorated arcaded balconies. At the centre is the church itself ­ absolutely covered in frescoed figures of intricate detail and expression. 

As this monastery is highlighted in every tourist brochure in the country, we expect its inhabitants to be accustomed to cameras. Not so; our television one causes a stir. An angry black-robed monk yells abuse that our dear Linda is too polite to translate as she disappears into the shadows behind him. She emerges a considerable while later with smudged mascara and a smile: the bishop has declared his willingness to be interviewed. 

We all traipse up to his rooms, where he snuggles up to Michael, touching his nose tenderly and describing his monastery as the Bulgarian Jerusalem. The large, amiable, egg-shaped character goes on to explain that “Rila monastery is a symbol of the nation under communism ­ for seven years there was no service and no monks.” 

Now, of the 45 monks at the monastery before the Soviet invasion, only nine remain. It’s obviously lonesome for the old man ­ his tactile attentions speak volumes before his words confirm the invitation to Michael to join the monk ranks. Ever the gentleman, Michael politely declines, explaining that he is already married. We take our photos and leave without Linda ever admitting that the man of the cloth’s change of attitude cost her US$100. 

This kind of ‘donation’ (in a country where the average monthly salary is US$40), together with the monastery’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, should keep the bishop in the style to which he was formerly accustomed. 

The snow keeps falling and we can’t wait to hit the slopes. First on the itinerary is the quaint historic village of Bansko which gives us a taste of the rustic set-up Sofians choose for their weekend getaways. The unseasonable snows mean the road is not cleared, and it’s a long walk to the ski-lift, with very little time left to play. Next day we move on to the post-heyday ski-city of Borovetz. There the Hotel Samokov impresses us with its proximity to the slopes. The gondola outside the front door is not operational today, so we take the back door and find ourselves virtually at the foot of the nursery slope. 

Borovetz, at 1 350m above sea level, offers about 40km of marked ski runs for all proficiency levels, based on the Western European grading system of green for beginners, through blue and red, to black for experienced skiers. For those only recently graduated from the nursery, a wonderful winding blue route wends its way through the scented indigenous pine forests the resort is named for. The more advanced can try some black runs from the 2 925m top of Mount Moussala, which means ‘close to God’. With the gondola out of operation, we take the snowcat ­ that great, big slope-preparing giant that makes anything but the most extreme four-wheel-driving seem like a stroll in the park. Clinging to the back on seemingly vertical gradients, I am delirious with exhilaration and the tingling burn of frozen lips. 

‘Moussala’ is apt ­ I do feel close to God. The summit reveals more views of mountains, and a delightful bowl of deep powder and radiating ski-lifts which today are deserted and ghostly. We turn, and it’s time to take off. Dodging the edges, the trees, the fears, this is my graduation ceremony. I can ski! 

Afterwards, while the taste of the thrill still lingers, it’s the magnificent silence that awes me about skiing. Evidently others are not as enchanted, as I discover weeks later while paging through an American FHM magazine. In the December 1996 issue, a soulless writer reckons “the problem with skiing is that it’s bloody quiet. Apart from the clicking of ski-lifts and Tyrolean oompah music, ski resorts are irritatingly silent in a getting-back-to-nature kind of way. So surely the easiest way to feed your need for noise is to rent a snowmobile and go blasting around the slopes.” 

In Borovetz, we do just that with a group of Hell’s Angel-types, but these boys, snow toys and their noise do nothing for me. Their “blasting around” seems almost sacrilegious. Like putting a chain-saw to the serenity of the ungroomed glades. 

For getting to areas ski-lifts can’t take us, horses are a lot more fun and don’t detract from that back-to-nature ethos of the body and elements at play. Of course, riding is rather more … umm … interesting when your feet are too encumbered in the great hulking plastic monstrosities they call ski boots to actually fit in the stirrups. And some peoples’ shoulders aren’t beefy enough to support bouncing skis for more than ten minutes, especially after aptly-titled Butch, the self-styled cowboy, has given me aptly-titled Victory to ride, neglecting to mention that this uppity chestnut is not thrilled by overhead ski-lifts and absolutely detests snowboarders. Now that the novelty of skiing up the slopes behind the horses has worn off, it’s wonderful to go further afield at a one-handed gallop before leaving the horses to their Marlboro-smoking masters and skiing back down through pristine forests. 

If those days at the resort are high adventure, the last day of the trip leaves a deeper impression: gloomy in tone, but profoundly peaceful in mood. 

Just on the outskirts of Sofia is a mountain that peeps provocatively through grey alleys and crumbling boulevards, and there we are deposited in deep and falling snow with bright plastic contraptions attached to our boots. These simple snow shoes are oddly reminiscent of cheap children’s tennis racquets in pinks, greens and blues, and they enable us to walk through the deep snow up the mountain. Sceptical about their usefulness, I take mine off at one stage and sink to my thighs in the powder as my companions’ laughter breaks the silence. 

Meanwhile our tour guide nonchalantly skis uphill on touring skis which have strips of fake sealskin attached to their undersides. (With the material’s preference for a particular lie, they grip on the uphill and slide on the down.) Thus equipped, we make our way through this grainy world of blackened trees, grey skies and fast-falling powder to discover yet another face of this fascinating country. 

For the metres and metres of snow and the centuries and centuries of culture, I’ll head back to Bulgaria. Back to a country where the rand is worth a fortune, the edelweiss grows wild, and faces freeze into a grin. 

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