A Travellerspoint blog

Religion and government

(By popular demand, I've included a picture of the skinny lion. It's from a distance, so you can't really tell it has a mohawk, but check out those ribs!)

Breakfast this morning was the usual European array of meats, cheeses, yogurt, muesli, breads - both savory and sweet - eggs and bacon. Also, stewed vegetables, olives, celery sticks and sliced tomatoes. I had a nice conversation with Barb from Illinois/Arizona (and who looks so much like a Barb that it would be weird if she were called something else) and Ray from Camano Island. He makes glass art (not blown glass though), and his wife was wearing a pretty example of some earrings he made.

We met in the lobby at 8:55 for our walking tour of Sofia. It was very cool this morning, which I thought was great, but some of the Californians were cold. It warmed up quite a lot later in the day, so I felt vindicated at having not brought a sweater or jacket.

We stopped for a few minutes in front of a recently placed statue of St. Kliment Ohridski, the inventor of the Cyrillic alphabet. A slightly more difficult system of letters had originally been invented by two brothers, Cyril and Methodius, but Kliment thought it was much too complicated for ordinary people to use, so he simplified it and called it after the first brother. Stefan was very happy to make the point that the Cyrillic alphabet came from Bulgaria, not Russia as a lot of Russians would have you believe.

Our first real stop was at Alexander Nevski church. I've been referring to it as a cathedral, but it's just a church commemorating St. Alexander Nevski, a 13th-century Russian prince. It is a Bulgarian Orthodox patriarchal church, which means that no weddings, funerals, or baptisms can happen inside. This rule has been broken a handful of times, but only for VIPs.

Whereas the outside of the church is gleaming with gold and mosaics, the inside is very dark and seems strangely small for what looks like a giant structure. It was built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and so used candlelight for the longest time, which means that the walls have darkened. There was also a big fire in part of the church in the 50s or 60s, and the damage from that still has not been fixed. It seems small inside because a great deal of the church - the altar, in fact - is behind an iconostasis, and only the clergy are allowed to enter that area. During services, the people stand for anywhere from 40 to 50 minutes, longer on holy days. There are only a few pews along the walls for the elderly and infirm.

The lower clergy in the Orthodox church (referring to the Bulgarian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, or Russian Orthodox churches, for example, essentially refers to the same tenets and rites, but each region is headed by its own Patriarch, a position similar to a pope) are encouraged to marry and especially to have children, but the higher clergy must not be married. One lady asked how a priest could rise in the church if he had a wife. The answer is that they don't. The higher clergy never practice as priests and, in fact, go to a sort of officer training school and become monks before getting on the career ladder, so to speak.

A few years ago, church authorities opened their accounting books and found that the largest donor was a now-101-year-old man who spent most of his days sitting on the steps of the church begging. He is always neatly dressed in the style of the 1940s and wears a white beard like Santa. He is nicknamed Grandpa Dobri, or Grandpa Good. Every bit of his earnings from begging has been given straight to the church; he even sold his property to help fund the church and now lives in a small room in one of the churches that has benefited from his patronage. He lives 20 km outside of Sofia but comes in every day to beg.

We stopped at a memorial to Bulgarian Jews that sits directly across from what used to be the Nazi party headquarters during the war. Bulgaria didn't enter WWII immediately, but sided with Germany when it did (just as it had done in WWI). The king was told to round up all the Jews and send them to Germany, and this process was begun. However, one day the Patriarch was walking by a school (or maybe it was a church) into which Jews were being herded. No one would tell him what was going on but, having a suspicion, he told the young soldiers that they should let the Jews go. "No. We are just following orders." So the Patriarch climbed over the fence of this place and refused to leave unless the Jews were released with him.

In another part of Sofia, Jews were being put into train cars to be transported, but priests lay down across the tracks so that the train couldn't move. The people in the train cars started to sing. Instead of singing a folk song or a Jewish song, they sang the Bulgarian national anthem. The Bulgarian intelligentsia appealed to the king, Boris III, to stop the transportation. And he did. Soon, he was called to a meeting with Hitler in Berlin. First, Hitler said that he was not happy with Boris for not evicting his Jews. And second, Hitler reminded the king that he hadn't sent a single Bulgarian soldier to the Eastern Front. Boris returned to Sofia, where he promptly had a heart attack and died. He most likely was poisoned while in Germany.

As a way to appease the Nazis, Jews were taken out of cities and resettled in the countryside to at least give the appearance of there being no Jews left in Bulgaria. After the war, they were all able to return to their homes, though many of them chose to go to what became Israel. All the efforts of Bulgarian Christians (not to mention Muslims and ethnic Turks) saved the entire population of 49,000 Jews from the Holocaust. Today, there are roughly 4,000 Jews in the entire country.

We walked by the Russian Church and the National Theater, both of which I saw yesterday on my own. The National Theater got started when workers brought in to staff the various Communist offices built a wooden stage in the park and started putting on shows. Eventually, they realized that they made more money performing than they did as party functionaries, and so a theater building was commissioned. All of the machinery under the stage (for controlling stage positions, trapdoors, etc.) was installed in the 1930s by a German company, and it all still works perfectly today.

We got to see the changing of the guard at the Bulgarian president's house. The guards' uniforms are kind of adorable, and all of them looked like they were trying very hard not to smile while we snapped away with our cameras.

We got a look at the former Communist Party headquarters, which once was topped by a "ruby" star. It's now topped by a Bulgarian flag and used as a government office. Two other buildings extend down the boulevard on either side of the party HQ and have that unsettling architectural combination of neo-classical and brutal. They were all built in the 1950s but are made to look older. At the other end of the boulevard from HQ once stood a large statue of Lenin. This was recently replaced by a statue of St. Sofia, who holds a laurel wreath in one hand and has an owl sitting on her other arm. It's a bit overblown, but certainly an improvement on ol' Vladimir "Sourpuss" Ilyich.

Our next visit was to the Sofia Synagogue, one of the biggest (quite small) Sephardic synagogues in Europe. Supposedly it can fit over 1100 people in it, but I'm skeptical. In fact, today's congregation is so small that the women, instead of using the upper level, sit down on the main level. I've never been in a synagogue before, which struck me as odd when I realized it. How have I not been inside one? Anyway, it was pleasant and pretty, with lots of light, interesting pews, and a small but very loud group from Israel. The synagogue was consecrated in 1909, and there is a beautiful two-ton brass chandelier (the biggest in Bulgaria) in the center that was made by a German company. This company went on to make Messerschmitts during the war.

To round out our day of religion, our last stop was at the Banya Bashi Mosque. It's been around since the 16th century and, though plain on the outside, is obviously a mosque based solely on its minaret. Again, the inside was very small, about the size of a classroom, and we all had to take off our shoes, while the women also had to wear scarves to cover our hair. (We were warned about this in our tour information booklets, and all but one of us had brought a scarf. That lady just took off her cardigan and covered her head with it. A hoodie would've been acceptable too.) I'm glad this visit was included because I wouldn't have had the gumption on my own.

The inside was tiled beautifully, though I think the prayer carpets could use replacing (or perhaps a good cleaning). Not that they were dirty, but they were starting to curl and I kept tripping. There is a niche inside that's roughly the equivalent of a Christian altar, and a set of steps that rises into a small turret where the imam goes for special blessings. There were a few men in the mosque, some praying and some on their cell phones, but none of them seemed bothered by a group of Americans or of women who probably weren't covering their hair properly.

There's a little tension from time to time, but mostly these three religions get along in Bulgaria just fine. (Tangent: Earlier, Stefan stopped us in front of what used to be the American Embassy. He was actually assistant-guiding a group of Americans on 9/11/2001. They were in a small town close to the end of their tour when they found out about the events of the day. Naturally, some people wanted to go home right away, but they couldn't, of course. Soon, a group of three Bulgarian policemen showed up (two uniforms and one plain-clothes) and said that whether it was wanted or not, they would be accompanying the group for the remainder of the tour in the hope that everyone would feel safe. When they returned to Sofia, nearly everyone had to get help to get home from the Embassy. When they arrived, they found the sidewalk in front just covered with mounds of flowers put there by Sofians to honor America. The tour group was blown away that these people who were thousands and thousands of miles away from the U.S. would come to the embassy to show their respect. Today, the U.S. Embassy is in a fortress-like compound in a suburb.)

Our walk was finished after the mosque, but Stefan walked a few of us over to the former mineral baths, where there are still fountains pouring out mineral water. We watched while people came and went, filling their empty water, soda, and liquor bottles with mineral water. I put my hand under one of the spouts: it was very warm and smelled of sulfur. Diana filled up her water bottle and took a big swig and immediately grimaced. It's supposed to be good for you, but it doesn't taste very nice!

A group of us went for lunch at a place called Be Happy. It's a chain, but Stefan said it was pretty good and reasonably priced. I had the "Tortilla Philadelphia." I've no idea what made it Philadelphian, but it was tasty enough. In fact, several things on the menu were titled Philadelphia. We suspect a cream cheese conspiracy.

I rested up for a bit in my room, and then we met in one of the hotel's conference rooms at 6:00 to meet and ask questions of a Mr. Krazanstanchev (or it could be Mr. Krazan Stanchev, I'm not sure; I'm also guessing on the spelling). Mr. K was a university professor, a former politician, an economist, a member of a think tank, and currently works as an adviser to several countries and international companies (AEC, for example, is one of his clients). He had just returned from Greece. He's pretty much wicked smart and knows everything there is to know about the Balkan region and former Soviet countries, but also all of Europe.

He talked about the Bulgarian economy: it's doing great, despite hyper-inflation in the mid-90s that rose to 1500% per month; organized crime: it was sponsored by the Communist government and it's here to stay (but it's not much of a problem because it only affects less than 1% of the GDP); NATO: he thinks it's weak because it no longer has a clear enemy, and no one can fight ISIS; and the Eurozone: he believes Bulgaria will be on the euro in the next few years but thinks it's a bad idea because the Bulgarian economy is managed much better than the Eurozone.

We also learned that Bulgaria's biggest employers are in IT, software, and electronics, and that the mining sector (mainly gold) is the next biggest employer. Bulgaria also mines coal, but their greatest sources of energy are nuclear, wind, and hydroelectric. Someone asked Mr. K what he thinks of Vladimir Putin. He thought for a few seconds and then said, "Putin is a stupid guy." And then he went on to call him a Muppet. He gives Putin another five years, after which he'll be replaced by another Muppet.

Peggy asked what he thinks of the U.S. election circus that starts nearly two years before any vote will take place, and specifically gave the example of Donald Trump. Mr. K grinned and said, "Oh, it's funny! Frank Zappa said that politics are part of the entertainment sector." Otherwise, Bulgarians are far more concerned with election news from neighbors like the Ukraine.

This talk lasted till 8:00, by which time I was tired and hungry but not hungry enough to want to spend a bunch of time over dinner. So at Lora's recommendation I walked a couple of blocks away to a practically empty restaurant called Krivoto, where I had a shopska salad. It was really good and light and it really hit the spot.

Tomorrow we go to the Rila Monastery, where we will stay the night. I've no idea what the wi-fi situation will be in a mountain monastery, but I'm suspecting it won't be good.

Skinny lion update: still skinny

Skinny lion update: still skinny


King Samuel

King Samuel


Changing the guard

Changing the guard


Armed kickline

Armed kickline


Look how cute they are ...

Look how cute they are ...


Communist Party HQ

Communist Party HQ


Sofia Synagogue

Sofia Synagogue


The chandelier

The chandelier


Stefan talks about Sephardic vs. Ashkenazi

Stefan talks about Sephardic vs. Ashkenazi


Inside the mosque

Inside the mosque


Tiles inside the mosque

Tiles inside the mosque


Long-distance shot of the mosque

Long-distance shot of the mosque


Mineral water fountains

Mineral water fountains

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in Bulgaria

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