Wednesday, August 18, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #11: On the Danube

I entered Bulgaria through the back door, at the remote border crossing east of Zajecar, Serbia. My entry bogged down at bit, particularly at the last station on the Bulgarian side of things. Maybe I got off on the wrong foot, as I had apparently interrupted the young lady's cellphone conversation. Repeated instructions to me in Bulgarian, in a louder and louder voice of her part, did not move the process along any. Reinforcements were brought in. Apparently, I had to pay a "road tax," which I was perfectly willing to do, but they would accept payment only in Bulgarian leva (a country I had not yet entered) or in euros (which currency I had not used since Greece.) They scoffed at the idea of being paid in Serbian denars--the only money I had on me. We seemed to be at an impasse until I remembered that I had 3 five-dollar bills stuck back in my wallet. I gave her two of those and good-naturedly shrugged in a "this is all I've got" manner. She looked at the bills and then left her booth to go back to the main building. She returned with another worker who spoke a little English. Apparently she was resigned to taking the U.S. money, but then saw that the two bills I gave her were different (one being the "new" five-dollar bill.) I explained to them that the denominations had recently been changed and that it wasn't counterfeit. By this time, I think she was ready to get rid of me. She pushed some change (in leva) at me and motioned me on. There are two lessons to be learned from this. First, a repeated shrug in the face of incomprehensible instructions/questions eventually gets you moved-on (this worked at another border crossing as well.) And second, always keep some euros (not dollars) in reserve, no matter if the country uses them or not.

I was not at all put off by this, as Bulgaria is one of my favorite countries. And a government employee on the Bulgarian-Serbian border can hardly be expected to know English. The guard who did speak a little of my language asked if I had ever been there before, and was surprised to learn that this was actually my third trip to Bulgaria. Like I say, I like the place.

One is immediately struck by the change on the Bulgarian side of the border. The roads are pot-holed, the villages are markedly poorer, and one sees an abundance of horse-drawn carts on the road--things not really seen in Serbia. Forty-five years of harsh Communism did a number on Bulgaria. The central planners destroyed traditional villages and moved their residents to new communities adjacent to the collectivized farms. I remember reading that at the height of Communism in Bulgaria that there were only 900 farms in the entire country. I vividly remember the grown-up and deserted farms from my visits in 2003 and 2004. At that time, Bulgarians were once more tilling small individual plots out of the failed collectivized farms.

This was my first impression on returning to Bulgaria. The first buildings I passed were the ruins of one of these farms. And the new towns built nearby are generally dead or dying. Of course, no churches were built in the Communist towns, so there is today no core to these villages. I did see one of the larger towns where a smart new Orthodox church had been constructed, but this was not the norm. In short, there is nothing to hold residents in these post-World War II settlements, and the people move into the cities. I do not mean to paint too bleak a picture, because the landscape itself is very beautiful indeed--just empty of people. And this seems to be much more of a factor in northern Bulgaria, where the terrain was more adaptable to large-scale farming, than in the south. From my observations, it seems many more traditional villages survive in the south of the country.

My destination was Vidin, in the far northwestern corner of Bulgaria, along the banks of the Danube. I found the city to my liking. In fact, places like this are the very reason I travel the way I do. Parts of the old city remain, with traces of the medieval fortress still standing. Vidin also retains quite a bit of early 20th-century neo-classical architecture, much like one finds in central Sofia. Added to that are far too many of the grandiose, overblown Communist municipal buildings and apartments, complete with accompanying weed-choked and trash-strewn plazas, parks and fountains, and wide boulevards with few cars. And finally, there are the monuments to modernity, built in the exuberance of the early post-Communist years, many now themselves falling into well-deserved ruin. You might say Vidin can be a bit scruffy, but it is the kind of place I like. You never know what you are going to find on the next street over--it could be most anything.

I booked a room at the Hotel Rovno, a modern high rise, apparently the best place to stay in the city--not that there was much competition. Room and breakfast ran about 35 dollars a night. The hotel is constructed so that every room has a view of the Danube. By the time it reaches Bulgaria, the Danube is an impressive river, as wider or wider than the lower Mississippi. From my 6th-floor balcony, I had a nice view of the barge traffic up and down the river, with Romania beckoning in the distance. I was tired and planned to turn in early, so I asked the front desk about the best place to eat close by. They recommended a sports bar just down Tsar Aleksandar II Boulevard. I found the joint easily, just past the abandoned casino. I enjoyed my pasta and Zagorka, while watching a bit of the World Cup. Zagorka is one of the two main Bulgarian beers (and the only one whose name I can remember.) I had apparently forgotten just how high octane it is, for once back in the hotel, I had to stop and sit in the lobby for a moment--to try and remember which floor I was on.

The next morning I set out for Romania. As I said in the first post, my scaling-back on my itinerary ended up being at Romania's expense. And this is unfortunate, for the country has much to offer. I had originally planned to angle northwesterly through Serbia, crossing into Romania east of Belgrade, and then driving on to Timisoara in the southwestern corner of the country. From there, I had hoped to drive easterly in the lower Carpathians for a couple of days before heading south into Bulgaria. As things turned out, Romania ended up being just a day trip for me.

The one place I particularly wanted to visit was Curtea de Arges, which I thought to be just barely within my reach from Vidin. The Orthodox cathedral there is an architectural gem, and also contains the tomb of King Ferdinand of Romania, as well as that of Queen Marie--the real ruler of the country. For some reason, Balkan royalty has always interested me. Serbia and Montenegro produced homegrown monarchies, but the Great Powers selected a Danish prince for Greece, and German nobility for Romania and Bulgaria. If it had not been for World War II and the brutal imposition of Soviet Communism, all three countries might well be constitutional monarchies today. (This is even true in volatile Greece, where the monarchy had trouble hitting its stride. The 1967 coup which deposed King Constantine II was partially driven by simmering animosity against him for his staunch anti-Communist stance during their civil war. The irony here is that he was probably the most exemplary representative of the monarchical principle in modern times.) Michael, the last king of Romania, now lives in the country. Likewise for Simeon II, the last king of Bulgaria, who even served a term as Prime Minister. Constantine II is now being allowed back into Greece and is building a home in the Peloponnese. Perhaps he will no longer have to slip in secret to the Patmos monastery as before. Many of their confiscated properties have now been returned, except of course, in Greece. But there is no groundswell of support for a return to monarchy, however, with polls never rising about 25% for that option.

But back to Marie: she was a queen straight out of Hollywood central casting--classically beautiful, flamboyant, with a instinct for the grand gesture, and often seen in flowing gowns as if she were the romantic lead in a Rudolph Valentino movie. The granddaughter of both Queen Victoria and Tsar Alexander II, Marie found herself married off at age 17 to Ferdinand, the colorless crown prince of Romania. The couple was famously unhappy together, and neither was particularly faithful to the other. Of her 6 children, only 3 are unquestionably Ferdinand's. But no matter, the romantic nature of Romania suited her to a tee, and provided Marie with all the stage she desired. During the First World War, she convinced her husband to join the Allied forces. At the time, this was not a foregone conclusion, as Ferdinand was a Hohenzollern, and Marie herself was a first cousin to the Kaiser. But she was also a first cousin to George V, and Nicholas II and Alexandra. And, with a capital city billed as the "Paris of the East," there could be no other course. The war went disastrously bad for the Romanians, and they suffered greatly as the German forces overran much of the country. In all the diplomatic jockeying at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Romanian interests began to lose ground. Queen Marie arrived in Paris to try and salvage the situation. She was charming, persistent and persuasive. Romania came out of the Conference 60% larger than before, and their current borders owe much to Marie's intervention. To the Orthodox reader, Marie of Romania will be known primarily as the mother of Princess Ileana, later Mother Alexandra of the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA.

To reach Curtes de Arges would require an early departure from Vidin and a quick crossing of the Danube--neither of which came to pass. I needed to get some Bulgarian leva first, and walked to a couple of modern banks down the boulevard. Neither would accept my U.S. dollars in exchange for leva. I could step out to the sidewalk, however, get some euros from the ATM, and they would exchange those. I am afraid the days of the high and mighty dollar are over. And so, I was a little late in leaving Vidin. I hoped it would not take long to cross the new bridge over the Danube. Apparently I had misunderstood about the new bridge--there is one under construction, but it is far from finished. The only crossing is by ferry. I certainly enjoyed this adventure, but the time involved at the borders on each side, waiting for the ferry and then the crossing itself, made my arrival in Romania much later than anticipated. Not knowing how late in the day the ferries operated, I decided to pass on Curtes de Arges, and just take Romania as it came--come what may.

Calafat is the Romanian port town opposite of Vidin. As far as border towns go, this one was actually pretty nice. Calafat was laid out in broad blocks, with impressive churches and an attractive and relatively bustling city centre. I found an exchange booth, and traded a few U.S. dollars for leis. The town soon gave way to the gently rolling prairies of Wallachia.
This is not the Romania of tourist brochures. Flat and agricultural Wallachia is little visited by visitors, most of whom flock to a few sites in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. And my experience was confined to the stretch of road between Calafat and the industrial city of Craiova. So, my observations are made with these limitations in mind. My first thought was how this region compared with Bulgaria, just across the river.This part of Wallachia is poor, to be sure, but noticeably less so than comparable Bulgarian villages. The fields are planted in grain as far as can be seen. Farmers sell their fruits and vegetables along the highway. Horse-drawn carts are seen here and there, but large tractors in the fields as well. I saw no ruins of collectivized farms. The villages one passes through predate the Communist era. While many of the homes are in need of repair, they display a distinctive Romanian style, a proud and defiant testimony against over 40 years of central planning. And above all, each of the villages had a center, a core--the parish church. In short, in this brief glimpse of Romania, I came away with the distinct impression that Communism inflicted less damage here than on their neighbor to the south.

I decided I would turn around at the bustling city of Craiova. A Greek restaurant and a hot bowl of moussaka put things right. On the route back to Calafat, I pulled off at a beautiful monastery, and was reminded of the distinctive nature of Romanian Orthodox architecture. I walked around the grounds and the cemetery, but saw none of the monastics. But that is fine, I do not expect these institutions to operate as tourist attractions. At Calafat, a queue had formed at the ferry dock, and so I had to wait a time or two before I could wedge my hatchback onto the ferry between all the semi-trailers.

Back in Vidin, I strolled down to the city centre. This is a great town for walking, with parks and broad public spaces. Late in the day, nearing dusk, I found few people out. The city seemed half-empty. I walked down to the impressive neo-classical Orthodox Cathedral, which occupies an entire leafy block. The double doors were locked tight, with a Bulgarian flag flying on either side. Somehow that image stayed with me. Perhaps I was just a little late, but the church should have been open, with candles flickering. And the flags of no nation need adorn any Orthodox church. Vidin's ugliest building is located on the east side of the church square, a sparkling new structure in burnt orange and plate glass--the "MallVidin." Lord have mercy. In a couple of years, the Danube River bridge will be completed, which should breathe new life into Vidin. In this future hoped-for prosperity, my hope is that what is worth saving in Vidin is preserved.


Milton T. Burton said...

Central planning---what a delusion. The human race simply won't work the way any single person or small groups of people want it to work.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and is pretty much what I've found in several visits to Bulgaria. Friendly people, but with huge economic problems which membership of the EU does not seem to have made any better.

Anonymous said...

I was born and grew up in Vidin in the 50's and 60's. it was beautiful quiet town with pleasant and respectful people.
Streets were washed every night, the park was beautifully maintained and we had happy childhood.
It hurts me to see what has happened to my town. I don't even have a desire to visit after being away for almost 50 years. Too bad.
Bulent Aliev