A beach town is a beach town all over the world, at least in my humble opinion, and I have been to more than a few. The potent cocktail of surf, sand, and sun can’t help but relax you and coax out your inner kid. The Black Sea coast is no different on this score; consequently, we truly enjoyed our time in both Varna and Burgas.
July 17th -20th: Monday morning began with a walking tour of Varna and a visit to the Varna Archaelogical Museum, which is housed in an old girl’s high school. Just as an aside, the Bulgarians have done a good job of repurposing old buildings, especially old Soviet buildings, in order to save money and recycle, but it’s often not a perfect fit. This museum is a case in point, as there’s not enough room to display everything properly or control temperatures and use natural lighting. We also were not allowed to take any pictures inside. Nonetheless, we saw many exquisite artifacts, many from the Byzantine era, as well as more icons. There was a very cool map of the ancient world that showed Greek exploration and settlements along the Black Sea,
which I would have loved to photograph because it provoked an “Aha!” moment for me when I saw that Colchis (think Jason, the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece) was along the Black Sea coast in what is now Georgia, not on the Mediterranean Sea as I had always assumed. The Greeks had several settlements along this coastline, one we’ll visit in a few days called Nessebar (Mesembria in Greek), another UNESCO site as of 1983.
But back to Varna and its seaside charm, the primary one, being the 5 mile long Sea Garden separating the “golden sands” from the main drag. This is another bit of city planning the Bulgarians have done well, much better than Americans, at least on the east coast. Instead of row upon row of hotels hogging the coastline, there is this lovely pedestrian park, at least a quarter mile or more wide, where people can stroll, bike, picnic, and enjoy the fountains and flowers everywhere. Brilliant! There’s also a summer amphitheater where Chantay, Sheena, and I took in the ballet one night. I just love seeing green, public spaces being used as they’re intended.
We also toured Varna University with whom Fulbright is beginning to re-establish a working relationship after several years. Apparently, the academics had slipped significantly, and there has been a strong pro-Russian sentiment amongst the faculty in the past, but they are trying to change things. Our lecture on Bulgarian economics was okay; I think it would have been more informative had not the Provost been in attendance because you could tell that Prof. Alexander Shivarov was choosing his words carefully with his boss there.
Other highlights while in Varna were our trips to the Palace and Botanical Gardens of Balchik and Euxinograd. The former was officially called “The Quiet Nest Palace” and was built at the behest of Queen Marie of Romania in 1927 when Romania had control of this region. It’s rumored that she had a lover for whom she would wait by the sea in her beautiful gardens to catch sight of his sails – romantic story for a romantic spot. She had taste, Queen Marie; her rose gardens are stunning, and I’m not a big rose person, and the palace is more cozy than colossal. I like that. The latter, Euxinograd, was the palace of Tsar Ferdinand, which now serves as a retreat for government officials and the place to buy Rakia, according to Victor in Chicago. It’s a little bit of an arboretum and a mini-Versailles on the beach all rolled into one.
While Varna is to the north, Burgas is to the south near the Turkish border, and both Rada and Maria told us they prefer Burgas because it’s less commercialized and more family friendly, and I could see the truth of that when we arrived on Wednesday. After checking into the Aqua Hotel, we went into town to meet with the Deputy Mayor, a lovely woman and former high school psychology teacher whose name I did not get, unfortunately. She explained how schools are funded and run in her town, and it has many similarities to home. The municipalities are in charge of local pubic education. I asked her about parental support of the schools, and she admitted that they have a problem with parents expecting the schools and teachers to not only educate their kids but raise them as well. Sounds familiar. However, here they have had parents actually attack the teachers! The teaching profession in Bulgaria is not well respected or well paid; teachers make the equivalent of $400 a month is some cases! Consequently, it is hard to recruit the best applicants and harder still to keep them. Still, she does what she can to support her teachers, especially the young ones. Later that afternoon, we got to visit one of the high schools in town. The principal came off the beach to meet us and show us around, and we all appreciated this “above and beyond” act of cultural friendship. She had great energy, and you could tell she looks out for her students and her staff. This is one of the high schools Fulbright visits every year lookng for candidates for their program.
Wednesday evening, we had a viewing of the film Mission London, a Bulgarian Embassy in London farce, and then met with the author of the book upon which it’s based, Alek Popov. He and his wife joined us for dinner at The Brewery, along with the principal from the high school and three of her teachers. It was interesting to speak with the teachers; one in particular was very friendly, but she clearly had a negative bias about both refugee children and the Roma kids. This was the one sour note in an otherwise good day. I take that back. There was a second sour note: Holly witnessed some skin heads facing off with some Orthodox Jewish kids and ultimately the police, prompted by a football match between Burgas (?) and Israel. There is definitely an undercurrent here as evidenced by all the swastikas we’ve seen spray-painted on buildings in Sofia and Varna.
Thursday we drove to Nessebar for a tour of the ruins there. It’s a UNESCO site as I mentioned earlier, and one of its remarkable features is the tangible remains of the many civilizations that lived there through the ages, first the Thracians, then the Greeks, then Byzantine Christians, the Bulgarians, the Ottomans, and so on. It is beautiful!