Across the Danube from Romania is the fascinating country of Bulgaria, the only country in Europe that has never changed its name over the centuries. We docked in Ruse, a very large city, and drove immediately to the beautiful village of Arbanassi, where all the streets seem to go up, no matter which way you’re walking. Two black goats tethered under a tree across from a big al fresco restaurant reminded us that people here live close to the land.
Bulgaria endured five centuries of Turkish occupation during the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, and evidence of that period of oppression is still found everywhere. For example, our first stop was the magnificent 16th-century Church of the Nativity in the heart of Arbanassi, which looks like a simple barn from the outside. The Turks decreed that the Orthodox Christians of Bulgaria could practice their religion, but that their churches could be no taller than the tallest Turkish soldier on his horse, with his sword raised. Being rather ingenious people, the Bulgarians frequently dug out deep chambers just inside the doorways of the churches, so that they would be able to build high-ceilinged sanctuaries. The church we visited, however, was all on ground level, but every inch of the interior was decorated with frescoes depicting scenes from the Bible and portraits of saints. The pictures glowed in the dim light, touches of gold leaf picking out the haloes and the jewelry of the figures. The artists who created these spectacular works were superbly talented, especially in their ability to depict their subjects realistically.
As a special treat, a four-person choir of professional singers, dressed in historic Orthodox Christian robes, performed several ancient polyphonic songs in the main sanctuary. The acoustics gave the sound an unearthly beauty and power, and everyone later agreed that it had been a transforming experience.
Arbanassi also boasts the fascinating 15th-century Konstan Calieva House, now a museum showing the daily life of a wealthy merchant family of the period. The home was protected by iron bars on the windows and a massive oak door on iron hinges, in case of an attack by bandits. Rich Oriental carpets covered a wooden platform that ran the length of the main room under barred windows, where the family entertained guests with Turkish coffee poured from small brass pitchers. The bedroom, furnished with another carpet-covered platform, boasted a stucco-faced stove that heated the entire house through vents near the ceiling, a very modern touch in a medieval house.
In a spectacular setting above the Yantra River, only a few miles from Arbanassi, is the beautiful village of Veliko Turnovo, the medieval capital of Bulgaria. Houses cling to the steep cliffs on one side of the river, while the other bank is protected by the stone walls of a massive fortress. In the village itself, we were finally able to satisfy our shopping urges — down a winding cobblestone street were dozens of small shops and artisans’ studios, where we could watch the craftsmen at work. In one, a master coppersmith made bowls and platters and tall pitchers; in another, a young woman wove colorful shawls; in a third, a wood carver fashioned small wooden toys in fanciful shapes. We found a small wine shop staffed by a charming young woman, who recommended a particular Bulgarian wine (which we later discovered, to our pleasant surprise when we opened it in our cabin, was excellent). In a tiny jewelry shop, I bought a handmade silver pendant, decorated with gold and colored enamel, on a steel chain. The artist herself wrapped my purchase and gave me a little card describing her technique.
The next day, we visited the small — and, we were told, the poorest — town in Bulgaria, our last stop in that country during the cruise. Vidin has a beautiful riverside park that runs along the Danube from the center of town to the medieval fortress of Baba Vida, which I
think means “Grandmother of Life.” We walked into the town and noticed that the cobblestone streets were in serious need of repair and many of the buildings could have done with a little loving attention, but the cafes were busy and the local population looked healthy and well dressed. We had been told that there was an impressive synagogue, built in the 1880’s and destroyed by five several years ago, that was well worth seeing, so we set out in search of it. A tourist information center sign over a doorway produced a young man of limited English but good will, who pointed down the street and indicated it would be on the left. We walked and walked, growing hotter and more tired by the minute, and finally decided that if we hadn’t seen the synagogue by the time we reached a sign where the street curved, we would go back to the boat.
Just as we got to our turn-back point, a gap in the trees opened up, and there it was: a spectacularly beautiful building, now just a shell with a roof, but unmistakably a 19th-century synagogue in a once-prosperous Jewish community. The windows still displayed their decorative metal tracery, and the interior was supported by metal columns that had withstood the fire. The fence around the building had a gate, which was standing open, so we went inside. A group of young people was already there, walking around the upper level and looking with interest at the remains of what must have been the finest building in town. Gerry said there must be no Jews left in Vidin; even a small Jewish population would never have left their synagogue in such disrepair for so long. It was very impressive, nonetheless, and a sad reminder of the effects of World War II in eastern Europe.
Speaking of the Jews in this part of the world, we learned a very interesting story about Bulgaria. In the early years of the war, Hitler sent a dispatch to Czar Boris III, the king of Bulgaria, demanding a certain number of Bulgarian troops for the war effort. Boris reluctantly agreed, with the proviso that he would send no troops to fight the Russians, since Russia had liberated Bulgaria from the Turks after 500 years of occupation. Then Hitler sent an order directing that all the Jews of Bulgaria be loaded onto trains and shipped to the camps in the north. After a sequence of “lost” orders and miscommunication, the Czar and one of the leading Bulgarian politicians arrived at a solution: the infrastructure of the country was in need of repair, so many of the more prominent Jews were sent to work on road and bridge projects. Boris reported to Hitler that he couldn’t spare any of his Jewish workers, and Hitler backed down. More important, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian Church proclaimed that any Bulgarian who assisted the Nazis in the deportation of the Jews would be excommunicated. As a result, Bulgaria’s 48,000 Jews were saved from the Holocaust. Only Denmark, with its 8,000 Jews, can claim to have done the same.
For more photos, click here.
For more photos of Vidin and the synagogue, click here.