interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

On good books, opera and how Bulgaria has changed in 20 years

Giuseppina Zarra

Giuseppina Zarra is no novice to the Balkans. She is one of the rare breed of diplomats who have made a comeback to Sofia after her initial spell here in the 1990s. Then she served as a first secretary, now she is the host of Italy's palatial embassy on Ruski Boulevard, in the middle of Bulgaria's capital. Zarra's love affair with Bulgaria ranges from literature to music and from history to exploring the hidden treasures of Sofia. A talk with someone with such deep knowledge of Bulgaria and things Bulgarian may take hours, but my first – and very obvious – question is to what extent Bulgaria has changed since the 1990s – and what has remained the same.

I left Bulgaria in 1998 and moved on to my second assignment abroad, at the Italian Embassy in Ottawa, Canada. However, I kept close contact with many friends and acquaintances that I had here. I followed the developments and changes in the political, economic, social and cultural life. I kept coming back for few days once in a while until 2005, and then the last time I visited Bulgaria briefly was on a working trip in 2010. I already saw some changes coming but I think that the most important ones occurred after Bulgaria joined NATO and the EU. We must not forget that the EU is not a simple international organisation but a political union in which the member states agree to give up many aspects of their sovereignty for a common governance and vision. Every member state is committed to negotiate and adhere to common standards, regulations, convergence towards common objectives and positions. We have recently approved new tools like Next Generation EU and we are pushing ahead with discussions on common defence. Once the member states approve common regulations at the EU level, they automatically become domestic laws. Bulgaria has benefited by its membership and yes – it has helped Bulgaria to go on with its development. By joining the EU Bulgaria came back to the European family.

At the same time, like every other EU member state, including Italy, Bulgaria kept its essence, its national character, its spirit, that I learned to know and love in my first years here. What makes the EU great and strong is its diversity.

Nevertheless not everything has changed and I can say that I have found intact the characteristics that made me love this country and its inhabitants: the strength of character, the sociability, the irony, the welcoming attitude, love for culture and knowledge. The beauty of the landscape as well as the richness of ancient history and the popular traditions.

After many years I still indulge in the old beautiful sensation of walking along the streets of Sofia, or visiting the monasteries in the countryside, or celebrating traditional family parties.

Bulgaria has succeeded in discovering even more hidden treasures from the ancient Thracians: how can I forget the first visit to the archeological museum in Varna to see the initial discoveries of the oldest golden artefacts by the great archaeologist, Ivan Ivanov, in 1979? And since then Bulgaria has brought back to light many more findings that helped framing its ancient history and contribution to world culture.

Giuseppina Zarra

When I first arrived in 1994, Bulgaria had just begun on its path towards democracy and the profound changes in the economic structures were yet to come. At the same time it started a complex process of relocation in the international political scenario which then paved the way to NATO and the EU. I can therefore say that certainly the country I find now has changed from the one I left, and I am very happy, having followed this path, to be back in a country that is a friend and ally of the great family of the EU.

What do you like to do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?

I like reading, especially literature and history – and sometimes I write too. I am very fond of getting to know Bulgaria's modern authors and meeting with some of them. I am currently reading the latest novel by Georgi Gospodinov who was recently awarded the most prestigious prize in Italy, the Strega, for the best foreign book. A demanding and fascinating book, and at the same time I have a copy of the most famous work by Ivan Vazov. Did you know that Ivan Vazov wrote a poem dedicated to Italy?

I learned Bulgarian because when I arrived I understood that to know and fathom a country and its people you have to speak the language. Returning to it, in my daily and working life, knowing Bulgarian is of great help. However, I do not claim to know Bulgarian so well that I can read Bulgarian literature in the original. I therefore had to content myself with the Italian translations which unfortunately are not so many. For example, I read Tobacco by Dimitar Dimov in Spanish, the only language in which I could find it and which I know well. Another book that I really liked was The Peach Thief by Emiliyan Stanev. And the poems of Blaga Dimitrova in a very beautiful Italian translation.

I love the opera. I have many friends among Bulgarian opera singers. I had the chance to know and listen to Ghena Dimitrova, Nicola Ghiuselev, Nicolay Ghiaurov and Hristina Anguelakova, and I am very fond of Raina Kabaivanska whom I had the honour to receive in my residence and host a concert of the students of her masterclass. She is a great lady and a superb artist. For us Italians opera is not only art, it is a part of our culture, history and life. Giuseppe Verdi played a significant part in supporting the Italian Risorgimento (one of the most famous movies by Luchino Visconti starts with a scene at Teatro La Fenice in Venice during the Austrian occupation with the Trovatore by Verdi). Italian opera is for us one of the most important vehicles for our language and culture abroad.

So I like going to the Sofia Opera and the Bulgaria Concert Hall, but I also think the jazz and club scene are very interesting as well. Some clubs have remained in place since the 1990s.

On Saturdays I like visiting galleries and exhibitions, especially by contemporary artists. And when I need to have some time for myself, I go to the National Gallery and I admire Bulgaria's old painters.

I enjoy walking in the countryside where I discover new locations. I am planning to visit the recently developed archeological sites and also the Seven Lakes of Rila, Shipka and the Rhodope mountain range. And going back to the Valley of Roses.

Can you name three locations in Sofia that you like particularly?

I love the Doctors Garden area with its beautiful park, streets and houses, the intimate feeling that you are downtown but in a way detached from the traffic. I like its small and cosy restaurants, very different from the splashy, sometimes overdone restaurants in other parts of the city.

I like walking along Tsar Shishman Street, cross Graf Ignatiev Street and Slaveykov Square and Solunska Street for a stop at the Cocktail Bar.

Can you name three locations in Bulgaria where you feel at home?

First would be Sofia because I know its centre like my pockets. Then Varna, where I have spent many beautiful and happy summers. And the Preobrazhenski Monastery, or Monastery of the Transfiguration, where I feel perfectly in peace and immersed in nature and spirituality.

Suppose you have friends from Italy visiting you in Sofia. What would you advise them to do?

Walk through the least known part of the city, beyond Dondukov Boulevard and the mosque, to soak the atmosphere. Then visit the crypt with the icons and the old church in Boyana with its marvellous frescos. Then walk at night with no traffic in the centre after a good Bulgarian dinner until you get a bit lost. It is the only way to start finding the right direction.

And what would you warn them against doing?

Stay away from the mainstream restaurants and bars. Don't come without having read at least some history. And leave your preconceived notions and prejudices at home. You have to open your eyes and ears to see and listen and learn. 

Palazzo in the middle of Sofia

Italian embassy in Sofia

The Italian Embassy in Sofia is one of the most beautiful historical buildings in the capital and a precious heritage for Italy. Built in 1882 and subsequently expanded in the early 1900s as the seat of the Austrian diplomatic mission, it was transferred to Italy after the First World War. Located between the Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard with its telltale yellow pavement stones, Paris Street and Shipka Street, since 1925 it has housed the diplomatic and consular chancery in the section overlooking Shipka Street and the residence of the ambassadors of Italy in the section overlooking Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard.

Over the years and even through troubled historical events, the Italian embassy has preserved its structure, its historical furniture and decor, and the charm of a large house that expresses the spirit, culture and elegance of Italy.


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