Here’s a mighty big contradiction. The Insider’s Guide that I bought in Sofia, a noticeably forthright publication, observed, “Bulgarians can overwhelm with hospitality.” But then I noted last week that the Middle East refugees trying to get to Germany headed for Greece’s border with Macedonia, not Bulgaria. Why? I cruised the internet and found Deutsche Welle, an international German broadcaster. One report mentioned an Arabic language refugee handbook that stated, “Bulgaria ranks first among countries asylum seekers should avoid. Refugees say xenophobia and Islamophobia are widespread and that they try to skirt around the country.” Oh. Bulgarian hospitality is selective. Most refugees in the many photos I’ve seen are young men. Bulgaria’s youth unemployment rate is 18%+. Could it be that Bulgarians are less hospitable if they think males will stay and compete for jobs? When Ruth and I were in Bulgaria, we were treated with hospitality. But we weren’t Islamic refugees and we clearly weren’t staying.
Will Ruth and I go back to Bulgaria? Probably not. Lonely Planet noted, “Across Bulgaria you’ll find churches and monasteries full of vibrant icons….” This is the country’s great lure. We were stunned by iconic art in places like Rila Monastery and in Sofia’s Aleksander Nevski’s crypt. However, Sofia is still a somewhat drab city of similar Communist high-rises and attractions that shout, “One visit is enough!”
One of the more memorable was the National History Museum near one of Bulgaria’s greatest treasures, the medieval Boyana Church. In the foothills of Vitosha Mountain, the National History Museum, like Sofia’s high-rises, reminded me of of Bulgaria’s Communist Era because it was on the grounds of the former home of its last Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov. The structure looked communistic but was decorated rather lavishly with elegant crystal light fixtures like the one above. Tall windows afforded mountain views. NHM’s main hall, I learned, was once used by the Communist government as an official reception room.
The museum’s most compelling artifacts contained gold. Ancient Bulgarians were the first people to process gold, and their skills were on vivid display in this museum. Bulgaria was home to the most ancient neolithic culture in Europe and is the oldest country in Europe with its original name. Necropoli have been discovered, especially around the city of Varna, that contained lots of gold objects–buttons, bowls, plates, jewelry. Carbon dating shows that some found objects are from the 5th millennium BCE, but many of the jewelry pieces in this museum appeared very contemporary. Ruth showed me a necklace in a case that looked just like one she recently purchased. I stared at unbelievably sophisticated belts and copper axes that looked just like modern ones. Bronze arrowheads showed careful craftsmanship. Silver bowls had sculpted human faces in their bottoms.
The rest of the museum was eclectic. I wandered through rooms displaying folk costumes, Bulgarian movie posters, a strange rifle with 2 barrels, sewing machines, vintage military uniforms, etc, but only the memories of the ancient jewelry lingered on. Being a teacher, Ruth’s favorite display was, not the old-but-new-looking jewelry, but the explanation about the 9th century origin of the current Bulgarian alphabet. I know because she borrowed my pen to take notes.