Making connections: Bulgaria

Today let’s revisit Bulgaria.

Last April we went on an extended city break to Sofia. Despite being an eastern Europe fan of many years standing I was embarrassingly ignorant of Bulgaria, the only country the other side of the Iron Curtain I hadn’t visited before.

This seems to be a recurrent problem. Kapka Kassabova (much more below) calls Bulgaria “a country without a face” in the western mind, the shortest chapter in the book beginning with “an edifying sentence about its unjust obscurity”. Helpfully, her poem The travel guide to the country of your birth helps visitors get up to speed.

Rather more prosaically, Bulgaria:

  • borders Romania and the Danube (a 472km stretch of the river forming the southern border of the old principality of Wallachia, dividing Mitteleuropa from the Balkans) to the north, the Black Sea (194km of beach) to the east, Greece and Turkey to the south, Serbia and Macedonia to the west
  • is shaped like “an animal hide spread out, with the head end looking to Europe and the rear end sitting at the Black Sea” (Kapka again)
  • was part of Ancient Thrace, which also spanned parts of modern Greece and Turkey; famous sons include Orpheus and Spartacus
  • had its own golden age from the late ninth to the late tenth centuries, when its territory included today’s Romania, Macedonia, parts of Serbia and Albania, half of Greece, and European Turkey down to Gallipoli and Constantinople; Tsar Simeon’s mission in life was to be crowned as a Byzantine-Bulgarian emperor
  • was occupied by the Ottomans for nearly 500 years after two catastrophic defeats (in 1018 and 1396)
  • was on the losing side in both world wars, sustaining the highest per capita casualty rate in 1914-18, then saving most of its Jewish population from deportation in 1944
  • received Russian assistance in the 1878 War of Liberation, leading later to a special relationship with the Soviet Union and a possibly apocryphal tale about an application to become the 16th republic of the USSR; planes from Sofia landed in the domestic terminal in Sheremetovo
  • in a case of bad timing, joined the European Union in 2007; EU membership, like democracy, was previously fetishised but is now mainly associated with economic decline
  • is the birthplace of the Cyrllic alphabet, called after Cyril, one half of monkish brothers Cyril and Methodius, and celebrated on World Cyrillic Alphabet Day
  • claims yogurt and produces 10% of the world’s rose oil

The Danube, Ruse and Elias Canetti

How do you starting making some connections to a country and a culture? Prior to our Hapsburg capitals trip I was able to dive head-first into my bookshelves, and this time I found more about Bulgaria than I had initially anticipated.

Most Danube related books tail off before they reach Bulgaria, the notable exceptions being Nick Thorpe’s jurney upstream and Nick Hunt reworking Patrick Leigh Fermor (Seven days of thunderstorms | East and south | Summer metropolis).

In a chapter in his 1986 Danube entitled ‘Doubtful cartography’ Claudio Magris reaches the Serbian border at Kladovo wondering where he is, with “geography getting vaguer and vaguer”, and maps marking places that don’t exist and not marking those which do – on that note Kladovo seems to share a border with Romania rather than Bulgaria. Only two bridges cross Bulgaria’s Danube border – the New Europe Bridge, a road and rail bridge between the cities of Vidin and Calafat, opened in 2013, while the 1954 doubledecker Danube Bridge, previously known as the Friendship Bridge, links the cities of Ruse and Giurgiu (see this 2003 blog post). At 2224 metres it was for a while the second longest bridge in Europe. Dwarfed now by The Bridge (the Øresund Link, 7845 metres, 2000) for starters, it retains the title of longest steel bridge in Europe. For completists, there is also a ferry which takes 10 minutes to cross the Danube from Silistra, the Roman Empire’s easternmost town in Europe, to Calarasi.

Jockeying for position with Czernowitz at the top of my places to visit list is now Ruse, the birthplace of Elias Canetti (on 25 July 1905), which Magris calls a “tiny reproduction of Vienna, with yellow ochre merchants houses and buildings laden with caryatids, the familiar atmosphere of hard working Mitteleuropa…the reassuring uniformity of the Danubian style”. The Romans built a fortress there in AD 70 to stand guard over the Danube, and while the town declined under the Byzantines and the Bulgarians it was restored and modernised by a Turkish governer, becoming the first station on the first railway line in the entire Ottoman empire in 1866, linking the Danube with the Black Sea at Varna. At independence Ruse was the largest and most prosperous city in Bulgaria, with the first bank in the country, known as Little Bucharest.

Canetti moved to Manchester in 1911, then in 1912 to Vienna and subsequently to Zurich, but the first 30 pages of The tongue set free (1997), his first volume of autobiography, are a paean to Ruse, then known as Ruschuk:

People of the most varied backgrounds lived there, on any one day you could hear seven or eight languages. Aside from the Bulgarians, who often came from the countryside, there were many Turks, who lived in their own neighbourhood, and next to it was the neighbourhood of the Sephardim, the Spanish Jews – our neighbourhood. There were Greeks, Albanians, Armenians, Gypsies. From the opposite side of the Danube came Rumanians…there were also Russians here and there.

Anything I susequently experienced had already happened in Ruschuk. There, the rest of the world was known as “Europe”, and if someone sailed up the Danube to Vienna [a four day journey], people said he was going to Europe. Europe began where the Turkish Empire had once ended.

Canetti’s parents were both schooled in Vienna, and the young Elias spent three summer vacations in parts of the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy: Carlsbad (now in the Czech Republic), Lake Worther (Austria) and Kronstadt (Siebenbürgen; now Brasov, Romania).  His parents conversed with each other in German, while the family vernacular was Ladino. Seven or eight languages were spoken in Ruse: “everyone understood something of each language. Only the little girls, who came from villages, spoke just Bulgarian and were therefore considered stupid.”

At the time of Magris’ visit Canetti’s house was divided into small apartments in a sort of crumbling limbo. Today it has been restored by the International Elias Canetti Society, who have produced the documentary film Ear Ohrenzeuge, “a unique walk through Elias Canetti’s childhood combined with selected excerpts (in Bulgarian and German) from his autobiographical books”.

Canetti calls Bulgaria the most unknown of the countries of the East, concluding thus:

Anyone who has seen…the spruce orderliness of Sofia and compares these with what obtains in cities or countries held up as paragons of civilisation is included to use the term ‘Balkan’ as a compliment, as others tend to employ the word ‘Scandinavian’.

Bulgaria after 1989

Eva Hoffman’s Exit into history (1993) echoes the feeling of unfamiliarity where we came in: Bulgaria is “beyond my preconceptions and prejudices…a few exotic echoes reverberate…the real site of Shakespeare’s Illyria, and also of ancient Thrace, the country of Orpheus; it’s the crossroads of Byzantine and Ottoman and Slav influences and of old trade routes…a country beyond the periphery; a remote place…self-contained and tucked away from the contemporary main drag”. Bulgarians make up for this with the “great, vertical density of their past…the cultural ‘sense of self’ which has accumulated over centuries…a sense of their own, independent sufficiency”, with the inferiority complex found in some other eastern European countries absent.

Bulgaria has an uneasy relationship with its neighbours due to the Balkan Wars and a number of territorial handovers more often than not involving Macedonia. (Magris on The Macedonian question: for a long time Bulgaria claimed Macedonia, both politically and ethnically. The question can be summed up in the story of the many named Mr Omeric/Omerov/Omerski – his original name, Omer, was Turkish). Relations with Yugoslavia were sour during the Soviet period, while her relationship with Romania “traditionally consisted of peering over the Danube to make sure the other is doing worse”.

It’s easy to lump ‘eastern Europe’ into one, but it was largely a Cold War construct. The Balkans, the space between Vienna and Istanbul, often viewed as provincial and peripheral, has a post-Ottoman legacy in common, almost post-colonial. All rather different from ‘central’ Europe, with whom the Balkan countries share a post-Soviet culture, although their histories of transition are different.

All of which brings us to emigre/expat/international Kapka Kassabova (@Kapka_Kassabova), born and brought up in Sofia in the 1970s and 1980s, who left Bulgaria in 1992 for New Zealand, moving to Edinburgh in 2005. Her Street without a name: childhood and other misadventures in Bulgaria (2008; Amazonreview), a memoir cum travelogue, bookended our trip to Sofia. A two parter in two genres, and none the worse for it, the book combines “the irreverence of an expat and the curiosity of a visitor”.

Kapka has also written some thought provoking poetry, including the haunting line for rootless people everywhere:

Let me be a tourist in the city of my life.

Filling in more gaps is journalist Dimiter Kenarov, whose From Black to Black looks at the Danube from a rather different perspective. See too his piece on Georgi Markov, more known in English for the umbrella incident than his writing, and interview on East-Central Europe Past and Present, well worth the time of the prospective visitor to Bulgaria. 2018 update: on Julia Kristeva.

Interesting times

In a 2010 survey, Bulgaria came out as the unhappiest country in the world relative to income per capita. I’ll take this with the same grain of salt as Denmark’s constant chart-busting performances – you really don’t get an impression of boundless Danish joy on a day to day basis, and the Bulgarians seemed chirpy enough in the spring sunshine. In other eye popping statistics, 40% of Bulgarians smoke, and they have a flat income tax rate of 10%. The 2015 World Happiness Report, released just before we left for Sofia, showed Bulgaria in 134th place out of the 158 countries surveyed, way below any other EU country as well as the Palestinian Territories (108) and Myanmar (129).

Georgi Gospodinov‘s novel The physics of sorrow (AsymptoteNew Yorker | Three Percent | 2018 interview) came out in the UK last year, translated by Angela Rodel. Echoing the happiness surveys (and perhaps Ivan Vasov, who in Under the yoke (1889) wrote that “oppression has the privilege of making people happy…when the political arena is closed, society seeks consolation in the immediate good things of life)”, this feels like a good point to conclude my pre-trip research:

Gospodinov’s tuga [sorrow] is “a longing for something that hasn’t happened…a sudden realization that life is slipping away and that certain things will never happen to you, for a whole list of reasons—personal, geographical, political.

self portrait by Petar Dochev (1934-2005)

self portrait by Petar Dochev (1934-2005)



The bridges of Copenhagen

Updates: what’s the collective noun for bridges? Scroll to the foot of this post for details of bridges big and small that have opened since I wrote this post… is offering a tour of Christianshavn’s seven bridges, let’s just say most are Danish scale…

A thorough rewrite is called for before the next new bridge, the very Danish Lille Langebro (more | more2 | more3), opens alongside BLOX. Situated where the original Langebro crossed the harbour (more), this is another of Realdania’s ‘gifts to the city’, or rather to its cyclists and pedestrians. You will be able to “exchange the car-filled HC Andersens Boulevard for Vester Voldgade, which buzzes with life rather than the noise of cars”, says city functionary Morten Kabell.

Due to open in autumn 2018, I couldn’t spot any signs of life when I checked out BLOX, and it turns out that there is a serious delay (Politiken) – parts of the bridge were damaged beyond repair when being loaded onto a barge in Rotterdam. It will take at least a year to remake the parts, meaning it may well open in autumn 2019 (more); and yes, it’s back (MagKBH), ETA: some time in the autumn.

Meanwhile, in a different approach to Kulturtårnet på Knippelsbro (FB), a project group has put forward a proposal for Langebro Museum (FB & MagKBH; on the Islands Brygge side).

More bridges: the bridges of NewcastleBridge in London7 iconic English bridgesBridges as identity (Eventbrite)…

Easter, which kicked off yesterday hereabouts, heralds the start of Denmark’s bank holiday season. There’s a total of seven public holidays between now and 5 June, a good opportunity for some more challenging outings with the beags.

Copenhagen has surprisingly few bridges, with only two, Knippelsbro and Langebro (light project), carrying motor traffic across the main stretch of water in the city centre, joined in 2006 by Bryggebroen for pedestrians and cyclists.

In December two new bridgelets opened after the usual delays, joining up some of the dots between Christianshavn and the islets (holme) created for naval or industrial purposes on Holmen itself. The half moon shaped pasty of Christianshavn, with its crenellated edges, was created from reclaimed land from the early 17th century onwards. Previously occupied by the army and navy, it was opened to public use as late as 1991.

We tend to visit Christianshavn on bank holidays, when the only people about are tourists, so it’s maybe a little unfair to criticise it for lack of buzz, however the area does have a sleepy frozen in time feel, perhaps due in part to the fact that the area was – and still is – characterised by inaccessible corners. But it’s a nice place for a wander with some well preserved warehouses and other industrial architecture, and if you stand in the right place on the vold (rampart) you can catch a half decent city vista.

The two new bridges, funded by AP Møller Fonden with the council coughing up extra due to the lengthy delays, have separate lanes for peds and bikes (one each way). Designed by French studio Dietmar Feichtinger Architectes neither is exactly a feast for the eye, but Tranggravsbroen is a pleasing amuse bouche, a three legged construction connecting Grønlandske Handels Plads, Trangravsvej and Islands Plads. Canal tour boats and smaller motor boats can pass under, and two of the legs can be raised for taller boats, as long as you put in your request four hours in advance.


the three legs of Tranggravsbroen

The Proviantbroen bridgelet, presumably part of the deal to make a route from Christianshavn to the Opera without any form of deviation, sits parallel to Danneskiold-Samsøes Allé – previously you had to take a (not huge) detour.

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Proviantbroen – if you squint you can see the road behind in black

Oh, the beagler i byen attracted a lot of attention and behaved pretty well, all things considered.

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flags and a small beagle outside Nordatlantens Brygge

Sources: Politiken, Magasinet KBH, You want more? Politiken (again) comes up with the interesting factoid that the original plan for a bridge from the Royal Theatre to the Opera was vetoed by Mærsk McKinney Møller, more history from, plus a piece on Islands Brygge and Bryggebroen.

New-ish bridges not covered above:

  • Cykelslangen (pic) – opened June 2014, and now with no peds! signs; a mini ped equivalent opened March 2016); ‘iconic’
  • Cirkelbroen (pic) – another of those mysterious ‘gifts‘ to the city, photogenically situation across the water from the Black Diamond, a trophy bridge spanning the rather shorter mouth of Christianshavns Kanal in an anonymous location somewhere between Islands Brygge and Knippelsbro as another piece of the jigsaw creating an unbroken route around the old harbour area; focused as much on show as function, its role is as much one of public space as bridge, with passers-by encouraged to slow down or take a break (albeit without any form of seating; rather than a conventional bridge it’s a shiplike construction with five masts, a reference to the ships which previously lay at anchor at the warehouses on the wharf, costing DK 80 million and taking three and a half years to build, due to two of the contractors going bankrupt and objections from a local resident; it is expected that around 5000 people will use the bridge every day, although how many for transit purposes and how many for recreational purposes is not known; opened in August 2015; see Magasinet KBH | Morten Birk JørgensenPolitiken
  • Inderhavnsbroen – opened on 7 July 2016 after over three years of delays, creating a direct connection between Nyhavn and Christianshavn, but sheesh, it’s ugly and in the wrong place
  • Albert Nobels Bro (again) – opened for soft traffic in December 2018, connecting Teglholmen and Enghave Brygge at Frederiksholmsløbet; to open for motor traffic when the metro opens in 2024 (?)

Other planned bridges:

  • connection between Nokken and Amager Fælled
  • for eager cyclists, a ‘super’ route through Christiania, facing extensive delays due to protests from the locals

Bratislava: little big city

Update, New Year’s Day 2018: the Gdn does Bratislava

Where were you for Hogmanay? We were in Bratislava, watching the fireworks from our room behind the A on the first floor of the 1930s Carlton Hotel. The balcony was carpeted with snow and it was a chilly minus 2 Celsius, but nothing daunted the Slovaks circled the ice rink below to the strains of the hits of the 1980s. With around 10 minutes to go everyone set off for the banks of the Danube for a better vantage point.

I had few preconceptions about Bratislava, so it came as a wonderful surprise to make its acquaintance. Landing in Vienna we took the first Slovak Lines bus out of there, with the fare pretty much the same as the S Bahn into the big city. There was a certain step back in time feel about the coach, compounded by the bus station – the Bratislava area may be the second most prosperous region in central Europe but investment isn’t going into their transport hubs.

bus station, Bratislava

Welcome to Slovakia!

The only capital bordering two independent countries, a short hop from Vienna but psychologically rather more, the first sight you get of Bratislava is the cute whitewashed castle, followed by glimpses of the SNP bridge as the bus drives through Petržalka, a 1970s suburb on the ‘other’ bank of the Danube. Its tourist mojo seems to be working fine, with the neatly renovated 18th century old town pretty much clogged over New Year. But there is definitely more to Bratislava than that.

Prior to 1919 the city was known as Prešporok in Slovak, but rather more familiarly as Pressburg in German and Pozsony in Hungarian. Until the 1920 Treaty of Trianon it was part of the kingdom of Hungary, serving as capital from 1536-1784, as coronation city until 1830 and as the seat of its diet until 1848, but with a definite German flavour throughout. From the 13th to the 19th century German speakers were the dominant group, with Hungarians reaching a par at around 40% apiece during the 19th century; Slovaks trailed in at 15% in a 1910 census. In 1919 the city became Bratislava, a name attributed to a misinterpretation of the name of a nearby medieval settlement and previously used only by Slovak patriots.

The old town houses a number of oversized Baroque edifices which have outgrown their role, such as the Primate’s Palace with the Hall of Mirrors where Napoleon signed the Peace of Pressburg after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, dissolving the Holy Roman Empire in the process. Famous visitors include Mozart, who famously played to Maria Theresa in the Pálffyho palác aged 6 in 1762, and less expectedly Hans Christian Andersen, who visited in 1841. When asked to write something about the city he said that there was no need to, as it was already a fairytale.

We liked:

  • the castle – resembles an upturned bedside table; burned down in 1811 and left to crumble for over a century, passing through in 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor noted the “harlot’s nest” on the Schlossburg (sic)
  • St Elisabeth’s Church (1911) – the ‘blue church’; built in Hungarian Secessionist style by Ödön Lechner
  • Slavín War Memorial (1960) – a good walk uphill and flyover
  • SNP Bridge (1973) – parts of the Jewish old town were bulldozed to make way for this unique feat of engineering with a flying saucer shaped restaurant and observation deck on top
  • Slovak Radio Building (1983) – 80m high reversed pyramid, providing a contrast to the Slovak National Bank across the street

Less successful perhaps are the kitschy sculptures resembling living statues scattered through the town centre. Some recent public art has created controversy for other reasons, with the statues of Svätopluk I (of Moravia) outside the castle and of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s first president, in front of the Slovak National Museum illustrating the dilemmas faced by a new nation. (Update: Balkanist on public art as a means of promoting tourism.)

Lots of redevelopment plus a large population of expats working for international companies creates a lively international atmosphere and an interest in the city’s cultural heritage. Guided tours on offer include Jewish Bratislava from Bratislava Sightseeing (who also do segways, although probably not in the snow) and Communist tours from Be Free ToursVisit Bratislava and Authentic Slovakia, who also offer an Iron Curtain bike tour, as do Bratislava Sightseeing. EuroVelo’s Iron Curtain Trail runs along the Danube marking the border between Austria and Slovakia, with remains of bunkers still visible. Bratislava is also on EuroVelo’s Atlantic-Black Sea rivers route, which includes the Danube Bike Path, the most popular holiday cycle route in Europe. Crossing the SNP Bridge all were well signposted, with separate lanes for peds and bikes.

There are notionally five bridges across the Danube, although one is out of commission for the foreseaable. As you can see from this timelapse the amount of traffic would make a Gehlite suck their teeth, but justifies Bratislava’s slogan of Little big city. (Here’s a more touristy virtual tour.) Walking over the SNP Bridge to Petržalka we were diverted onto a Soviet era flyover, which further diverted us once we had crossed the river and made locating the Apollo Bridge back a bit tricky. They do love a flyover in old ‘eastern’ Europe.

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On the main road from Vienna, the river bank houses some scenic old inns such as the offputtingly named Restaurant Leberfinger. Bratislava did boast a reasonable range of vegetarian options, if on the heavy side – see Zylinder’s menu, and we found a splendid spot based around the revolutionary concept of allowing vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters all to eat together…

Petržalka, formerly a grey suburb, is now practically a town in its own right, with a population of nearly 120,000. The tower blocks have been renovated and given a coat of paint, while investment is pouring into the creation of new areas such as Digital Park Einsteinova and a shiny shopping mall. Not everyone can – or wants – to live in an 18th century old town. Here everything is on hand and there is a growing sense of community – everyone knows their neighbours. There may be lots of traffic, but there are also wide pavements and bike lanes, and green spaces making the most of the river. These 1960s urbanists may just have known what they were doing.

Updates: see Words without Borders’ feature on contemporary women’s writing from Slovakia and Wish I were here, an expat blogger currently living in Bratislava, plus my Flickr album.

The Venice syndrome

Venice, tourist attraction or functioning city?

Having only spent two days or so in Venice we obviously didn’t get a chance to get a real feel for the place. As a map fan and public transport nerd I was happy to note that the island of Venice really is the shape of a fish, reached from the mainland via the Ponte della Libertà, a 3.6km bridge built in 1933. The only other bridge over the lagoon is the Austrian railway bridge built in 1846.

Other than the Fish of the other islands in the lagoon we only managed a trip to the Lido at sunset via vaporetto. I’m rather fascinated by the Lido, a seven mile long sandbar completely unlike its Tooting Bec descendent. Not just a summer resort, this Lido has a population of 20,000. As well as the scenic route down the Canal Grande there are car ferries from Tronchetto and quicker vaps along the Giudecca and Canneregio Canals.


the main square in Mestre

We stayed on the mainland, a 30 minute bus ride to the Piazzale Roma. If it weren’t the antipasto for Venice proper Mestre would be worth a visit for its own sake – we stayed by the clock tower, and spent our first evening joining the Italians in a pre-pizza passeggiata. Much is made of Jan Gehl’s comment that Danes became Italians once Strøget was pedestrianised, but I’m not really buying it, although with artificial islands and cruise ships also dominating, Copenhagen is in with a shout as Venice of the north.

Geoff Dyer in Jeff in Venice, death in Varanesi:

Every day, for hundreds of years, Venice had woken up and put on this guise of being a real place even though everyone knew it existed only for tourists.

With Tronchetto the last of the islands to be created (in the 1960s as a car park), there are very few modern traces in Venice proper. Let’s explore two.

The Ponte della Costituzione, the fourth bridge over the Canal Grande creating a direct link between the Piazzale Roma and Venezia Santa Lucia railway station, opened in 2008 to widespread protest. While it would look at home in Copenhagen, here its minimalist style sits awkwardly. Furthermore, its rise and fall is fairly steep, with irregularly spaced steps and slippery-when-wet see through panels causing further visual disorientation. The addition of a cable car to improve accessibility has barely helped matters.

The station, one of the few modernist buildings in Venice, is undergoing a renovation programme which began in 2009 and doesn’t look like ending any time soon.

Moving on, the most jaw dropping sight in Venice may well be that of cruise ships looming over the horizon at regular intervals as they sail from the port up the Guidecca Canal to appear round the point at Accademia, then breaking free to round the Lido and head back into the Adriatic. While in Copenhagen you can pretty much avoid the 315 cruise ship calls, here there’s no escape, although the ships can look quite picturesque as they sail into the sunset.

See you in Trieste!

Note: The Venice Syndrome is a 2012 documentary – see the trailer.