At first glance France and Bulgaria may seem worlds apart – the refined sophisticate meets the impoverished cousin. Yet French photographer and diplomat Eric Weiss discovered a rich culture and an enduring love affair.
Weiss has been travelling the world since he could crawl. As a child he lived in Algeria and then Morocco for nearly 15 years, experiences that stirred his wanderlust. Before he joined the diplomatic service he worked as a navy diver and oceanographer. His subsequent career took him to, among other places, the African countries of Djibouti, Madagascar and Angola, none particularly auspicious postings for diplomats.
Since 2004 he's been serving the French Embassy in Iraq – perhaps another unenviable assignment – but Eric Weiss has always relished a challenge. A man of passion whose photography expresses his love of the countryside, he's forthcoming about his time in Sofia.
An old woman in the village of Kachina, near Melnik
Ask him about the nature of his Baghdad mission, however, and the circumspect civil servant re-emerges. “For reasons of tact and discretion, I don't wish to comment on my current posting,” he replies. Weiss began his five-year tenure as secretary general at Sofia's French embassy in September 1990. In November 1990, just one year after the overthrow of Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria was paralysed by demonstrations and a general strike, designed to topple the government of Andrey Lukanov – the prime minister of the former Communist Party, or BKP, that had changed its name to Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP.
Lukanov even tried to court figures like Robert Maxwell – the disgraced media tycoon who died the following year – in a bid to court foreign investment. The government was unwilling to adopt necessary market reforms, however, and it soon collapsed. A coalition government was formed in December 1990 followed by the liberalisation of prices in February 1991. Spiralling inflation, growing unemployment and soaring interest rates caused widespread social misery.
Such was the austere backdrop to Weiss' arrival in Sofia. Yet he was smitten. “We enjoyed some marvellous moments in Bulgaria together with my wife and daughter,” he reveals. Though the country was affected by petrol and food shortages, power cuts, language barriers and supply problems, Weiss viewed it as a humbling experience. “I think it was a salutary lesson for us. People around us were suffering greatly. Our grievances were insignificant by comparison. I think we were looked on as people born with a silver spoon in our mouths!” he recalls.
Weiss loved exploring Bulgaria's countryside. “I must have taken more than 20,000 photographs – mostly shots of nature, people, history and the environment. I also was fortunate enough to be able to share my vision of Bulgaria with the people of Sofia.” Weiss had numerous exhibitions during his time in Bulgaria, usually in the capital's hotels. The titles of the galleries – including “Bulgaria Passion” and “Churches of Nesebar” – speak for themselves.
Kukeri in the Stara Planina mountain
He was also a member of the Sofia Rotary Club from September 1993 to December 1995, becoming active in many charitable causes. He produced a series of 14 postcards about Bulgaria, the proceeds from which provided Bulgarian orphans with essential supplies, as well as support and cash donations towards Gotse Delchev Hospital and the Varnentsi Orphanage. Proceeds from his exhibitions also helped the Sirak, or Orphans', Foundation and the restoration project of the 12th Century St Nicholas Church in Tsarevets.
His website extols the virtues of a hidden Bulgaria that he describes as “seductive, attractive and fascinating”. He believes that there's so
much more to the country than simply the Black Sea. He feels that Bulgaria's diversity – religious sites, thermal spas, extensive vineyards and eco-tourism – augur a great future as a travel destination.
“Bulgaria deserves more than just to be the subject of lengthy sermons, “he says. “It has suffered greatly in the past. Yet now, in the wake of EU accession, the country is facing the future with renewed optimism. It's also attracting more French tourists who've avoided the country thus far,” he believes.
A period house in the town of Malko Tarnovo
With so many photos of Bulgaria, Weiss found he had sufficient material for a second publication. So it is, supported by Bulgarian pop singer Irina Florin, Weiss is currently searching for a sponsor to finance another book to be printed in Bulgaria. When he left Bulgaria, Weiss continued Franco-Bulgarian cooperation by creating a foundation called Solidarité Enfance pour la Bulgarie, or Bulgarian Childhood Solidarity. This association awards scholarships to Bulgarian orphans, enabling them to pursue higher education in the arts and humanities.
Recently in Sofia to launch his new book of photography, Weiss' romance with Bulgaria looks set to continue. And the whisper has grown into a clamour – more and more French tourists are visiting Bulgaria and finding a kindred spirit in their Balkan ally. Truth is, the cousins have more in common than they thought.
Eric Weiss's site's 450 photos are mainly of rural scenes – Rila, Borovets, Vidin and Pirin among them – featuring shots of village folk and farmers as well as monasteries and churches. “I consider myself a man of the countryside – very sensitive to all things rural,' he says. “I really found happiness in Bulgaria. And the temptation to express my feelings through photography was overwhelming,” he recalls.