Issue 73

PLOVDIV TEMPLES PART 2

Plovdiv's claim to be the Bulgaria's most diverse and cosmopolitan city can be spread not only over the peoples who used to live, or are still living, in it. The diversity covers also the heavens above. A short walk round the historical core of the city leads you to temples of many different religions and denominations.

Some of them have been here for centuries, other have resurfaced after long periods of sometimes forced hibernation. And, of course, there are the recent "immigrants."

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EPHESUS

The best way to enjoy in (relative) solitude Ephesus, one of the cultural, archaeological and tourism gems of Turkey, is to come in autumn. In the summer, the crowds can get a little overwhelming. They pour in from opening to closing times, busload after busload after busload of organised tours. They queue to be photographed sitting on the ancient Roman public lavatory.

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YASSEN ATANASSOV, POET AND WRITER

Many branches of the arts are struggling in the current economic climate, but there are still examples of culture that show how, with courage and vision, much is possible. The international Sofia Poetiki Festival is one. Since 2010 it has attracted prominent artists from Bulgaria and abroad, creating an ingenious mixture of poetry, prose, dance, theatre and performance. The man behind Sofia Poetiki is a poet and writer himself, Yassen Atanassov.

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KAREL VAN KESTEREN

At 64 and in remarkably good shape Karel van Kesteren, the Dutch ambassador, seems to be at equal ease riding his 25-year-old Yamaha Maxim 700cc motorbike in Sofia and up the Iskar Gorge, sitting behind his desk in the elegant Dutch Embassy near the Doctor's Garden, and lobbying in the Bulgarian parliament for the adoption of important pieces of legislation such as the Illegal Assets Forfeiture Act. By some twist of fate we are meeting on the exact day when 38 years ago Van Kesteren started his diplomatic career at the Dutch Foreign Ministry.

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DIMITROVGRAD

Travelling in Bulgaria can become a surreal experience when you look at the expensive cars parked in front of shabby apartment buildings, at the stunning landscapes dotted with relics from either Antiquity or Communism, and when overwhelming hospitality alternates with plain rudeness and paranoid suspicion.

Few places in Bulgaria, however, can rival Dimitrovgrad in strangeness. It seems to epitomise best the three main characteristics of 21st Century Bulgaria outside the gated communities and the five-star spa hotels: chalga, tackiness and post-Communist destitution.

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RESCUE OF BULGARIA'S JEWS

While the details of the latter seem to be well-known at least internationally, the reasons for and the exact sequence of events leading up to the former remain, at best, contentious.

Up until the beginning of 1943 the Bulgarian Government was preparing itself for the implementation of the Wannsee Conference guidelines to exterminate Europe's Jews.

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THE PARABLE OF THE PRODIGAL FATHER

I told my wife on the telephone I was coming back. I would be catching the bus in an hour's time and by the evening I'd be at home. I wasn't home that evening because – albeit unwilling – I was duty bound to catch another bus which drove me in a completely different direction. Come off it, I told myself, stop mucking about. Get the job done and get home! Sometimes I talk to myself. My wife rang and I explained what had happened. She believed me and said she loved me very much. And I love her very much too. Later I'll let her read these words from the story.

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SOFIA TRANSFORMED

Even the casual walker through the streets of Sofia will immediately notice the many eyesores dotting the city. Death notices and small ads compete for space on lamp posts. Derelict buildings cohabit with rusty newspaper stands and stalls of street vendors selling cheap socks and underwear. Rubbish blooms in the planters originally meant for greenery.

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DEAF ROCKS

You have probably visited Perperikon, the mighty fortress inhabited for millennia and hailed as the site of the famous oracle of Dionysus, where the destinies of Alexander of Macedon and Augustus were foretold. It is now popular to use it as evidence of the ancient and sophisticated culture of what is now Bulgaria.

The Rhodope, however, is home to a site which can rival Perperikon in importance, grandeur and charm. Gluhite Kamani, or Deaf Rocks, about 13 kilometres by car from Lyubimets is much less crowded. There, the Thracians created a rock sanctuary about 3,000 years ago.

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FACING THE PAST, BUT FAILING TO LOOK TO THE FUTURE

In its short post-Communist history Bulgaria has tried, with varying success, to slough off elements of its past and its behaviour as a Balkan nation where Communist-era propaganda used to distort or ban outright any public debate. These elements include, but are not limited to, the historically controversial figure of King Boris III, Bulgaria's last king. A war-time ally of Hitler, he was father to Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the country's prime minister in 2001-2005.

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ENEMIES OF THE STATE?

The DANS, the Bulgarian equivalent of the FBI, has charged 13 Bulgarians with conspiracy to destroy the constitutional order of this country. The 13, all Muslims, come mainly from villages in southwestern Bulgaria and the Rhodope.
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QUOTE-UNQUOTE

I am not a joker. I am a big joker.

Culture Minister Vezhdi Rashidov

GERB without populism is like a tribe of cannibals declaring a fast.

Sofia City Councillor Rosen Milanov (BSP)

While Greece and Turkey developed their tourist markets, Bulgaria has remained stuck in a netherworld of beer, chips and some of the most gruesome souvenir dolls on the planet.

The Independent in London

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