Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Cinderella story

I know it isn’t chivalrous to kiss and tell, but what the heck, I’ve got a column to write. . .

They don’t really spoil you with food on Aeroflot so as the plane from Moscow touched down at Sofia airport, I asked the Tom Selleck look alike in the cab to take me to the Sheraton (for some strange reason, my travel agent had booked me into the most expensive hotel in town in the middle of a ‘Europe on a shoestring’ kinda trip. But after Aeroflot, I wasn’t complaining). The suburbs of Sofia looked rather depressing. Clusters of cardboard box houses, peeling plaster and mile high rubbish heaps spoke eloquently of a nation that hadn’t yet come to terms with life in the free market lane. So here I was… in Bulgaria, the poorest destination on my itinerary – a nation that had once joined hands with Hitler (hoping to annexe Macedonia in the bargain) and yet had the courage to refuse to hand over all Bulgarian Jews to him; a nation that is proud of its unique heritage, and yet had offered to become a part of the Soviet Union. The cars were old, dirty and dimpled, and yet the people on the streets were impeccably dressed, in clothes that would’ve done prêt lines of Milan and Paris proud. If Bulgaria sounds like an enigma, well, that’s what it is…

‘Happy Bar and Grill!’ With a name like that you really can’t blame the waitress when she asks “Sir... you prefer ‘spooning(!!) or f…..(!!!...forget it, can’t even write the word)”, and even as I begin to wonder what ‘bar and grill’ might mean in Bulgarian, she spreads out the menu and the cutlery. This was my first evening in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, a country that very few Indians would go to of their own volition. Sitting at that table in what was perhaps the most cheerful ‘bar and grill’ in all of Europe, I was glad I’d made the trip. I was told that Bulgaria was like a poor cousin to Russia but this place was nothing like a poor cousin to anybody. Let’s begin with Happy Bar and Grill where happy patrons are happily ‘spooning’ on tables full of Balkan delights while waitresses in bright red uniforms exude good cheer. But that isn’t the first thing I notice about them because it takes a while to get over the fact that these are perhaps the most dazzlingly beautiful women I’ll ever see in uniform! Then, once the waitress has left with the order, I notice the other people in the restaurant, and realise that each one of them is as gorgeous as the other. It was the kind of beauty that soothes rather than the kind that inflames with passion… you know, more George Clooney than Brad Pitt, more Paz Vega than Angelina Jolie. And I kid you not, everybody around looked as good as that. Bulgaria, over the centuries, has been a crucible for Turkish and Slavic bloodlines and it sure has made for a heady cocktail. I mean, even the beggar I gave some money to looked like a toothless, compressed Sean Connery of sorts.

Sofia has many attractions, and most of them, like the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, have the touch of a Russian hand-me-down. But the Sofia worth seeing isn’t in its churches, museums and the rather dull and loud excuses for opera that Sofians seem so proud of but on its streets where the subtle whiff of a Channel No. 5 mixes inextricably, and rather agreeably, with the wafting aroma of freshly smoked chestnuts and mozzarella cheese; in its rather small, but well stocked stores which sell, amongst other things, the chic-est of clothes and accessories at bargain prices that would put the rest of Europe to shame and in the joi de vivre that this ‘new nation’ exudes.

One of my greatest memories of Sofia was being taken to the beautiful Vitosha mountains, past farmhouses, Audis and donkey carts, by a man called Todorov, who looked more like a kindly university professor than a chauffeur. He asked me where I was from, and then rolled down the window as we sped down the mountain and started singing… “tarambu, tarambu, (something… something) awara hoon…. Awara hoon”… and so we went, a 60 year old Bulgarian and a 30 year old Indian, united in their memory of Raj Kapoor… it was snowing, but I don’t know why I felt a warm glow in the cold mountain air…

I was in love with Sofia, still am, and while it might not look all that nifty from the air, as soon as you touch down, this quaint and warm city will touch you right back.

There, I’m glad I told you…

The slip stream

Some history!

Few countries have known greater political upheaval than Bulgaria. When the indigenous settlers of South Eastern Europe – the Thracians – were joined by the Central Asian Bulgars from across the Danube, and the Indo-European Slavs, there regrouped the earliest recognised state of Bulgaria in 680 AD. Under Tsar Simeon I, during the period between late ninth century and early tenth century AD, this First Bulgarian Kingdom heralded its Golden Age of conquests and culture. In the 11 th century, Bulgaria went under to the Byzantines, who in turn were ousted in an anti-establishment revolt in 1185, and there commenced the period of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. The dominance of Orthodox Christianity for over 500 years was somewhat hit with the invasion of the Islamic Ottoman Turks in the late 14th century, to which can be traced the 13% Muslim population in the current Bulgarian demographics.

With crucial Russian aid, Bulgaria rid of the Turks, and had ever since toed the communist line until 1990, when the country elected to power its first democratic government, albeit nominally (the winning party – Bulgarian Socialist Party). Part of EU since January 2007, it’ll be difficult to find a country more historically and ethnically multifarious than Bulgaria in the Union.


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