The visit to Sofia
Milatai Ellinika!! (Great, you speak Greek!!)
Prosexai, ti theli o xenos?? (Be careful, what does that stranger want??)
I had just walked past a Couple who were speaking Greek. I couldn’t resist the temptation. I had to ask if they were Greeks from Bulgaria. After startling the woman (I’m sure she was the dialing the number for the local Police as I approached her) the man told me as abruptly as he possibly could that they were from Athens and not from BULGARIA!!
I had been in Sofia for a few hours and already I was anxious to find the Greeks who lived in Bulgaria. There are over 35 000 Greek speakers who live in the country. This number includes the Greek communists who fled Greece around the time of the civil war in the late 1940’s, Vlachs – a nomadic tribe found in the Balkans who speak medieval Greek, and then there are the descendents of Byzantine and medieval Greece. Before coming over to Bulgaria, I had left messages with Greek associations of Sofia and a Greek restaurant, but no one was responding. So the next best option was to travel around Bulgaria and simply meet the Greeks, wherever they may be.
Earlier that day I had been conversing in Greek with a friend when a teenager came up to me and spoke in Greek. I thought I had found a Greek for an interview, but before I could say, “is the feta better in Bulgaria or Greece?” the youngster was asking for money. I asked him where he was from and he told us that he was a Greek national from Alexandroupolis in Thraki, rather than from Bulgaria. Apparently he just wanted to go home.
That evening, I decided to try Bulgarian fast food. As we began discussing the menu in Greek, the girl behind the counter spoke to me in Greek. “Yippee,” I thought I had found a Greek-Bulgarian. That proved to be a false alarm, she told us she had worked in Greece and had learnt to speak Greek. In fact the whole shop could speak Greek. As I stepped outside the shop, a car drove past playing Greek music. Was that a sign, were the Greeks of Bulgaria simply going to drive by whilst we I them chase?
For the uninitiated, Bulgaria is one of the newest members of the European Union. Sofia, which was known to the ancient Greeks as Serdicca, is the capital of this former communist country. Whilst we weren’t overwhelmed by the aesthetics of the City, it has an amazing array of churches. The most important from a Greek’s perspective and another reason why we came for a visit are the Byzantine churches of Saint Sofia and Saint George.
If you enjoy the tranquility and spirituality of sitting in old churches, there are few that
can compete with Saint George. This small church was built by the Greeks about 1600
years ago when Bulgaria was under Byzantine rule and is the oldest church in Sofia. The
murals on the interior are from the Tenth Century AD. If you ever visit this city, make sure you light a candle at the church.
Another impressive church is Saint Sofia. This is a rather large church and was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian during the Sixth Century AD. It is estimated that there were dozens more Byzantine churches built in Sofia by the Greeks; however few have survived the number of foreign occupations and the passing centuries. Nonetheless, the Bulgarians have built a number of impressive modern churches that take in the traditional Byzantine style. The majestic Alexander Nevski mosque which is located near the daily collector’s markets and the Saint Nikolai Church are worth a visit.
In the space of 4 hours, I visited the Byzantine churches and a number of other Byzantine, Roman, Thracian and Bulgarian sites that the city has to offer. However, as a Greek sweltering in the summer heat and thirsty for the elusive Greek-Bulgarians, I came across something that cooled me down. A billboard advertising FRAPPE.
Frappe has made huge inroads in Bulgaria, and you can order a nice cool Frappe at most cafes and bars in the country. As I looked around the square that contained the Frappe advertisement, I noticed something else that was peculiar. It was the Bank of Piraeus. In fact all the major Greek banks have branches in Bulgaria. Over the next few days, it appeared that wherever we went, there was an advertisement for Piraeus Bank. Now if only there was an advertisement for where I could find the elusive Greek-Bulgarians.
Where to find the Greek-Bulgarians
At the Sofia international airport I met a lady who spoke fluent Greek, and just as I asked the question, “are you a Greek-Bulgarian,” she told me that she was a senior executive for a Greek company in Bulgaria and had been living in the country for many years. In fact, Greek companies have been very active in the economic life of Bulgaria.
Being a Sunday, it was decided that I visit a Greek sounding restaurant near the Greek Embassy. After 2 hours of walking around in an effort to locate the restaurant, which included a friendly warning by a local Police Officer not to take photos of the nearby Embassy, I found the place closed. And to think I thought Greek restaurants never closed!!
From Sofia, I thought it best to get out of town and being Greek it was best to find a Hellenic sounding Hotel. And I found it – I found the Atlantis Hotel. With great roof top views of the city and excellent staff, it is worth a visit. It was at the Atlantis Hotel that I came across a local girl whose mother was born in Greece. It was great to finally meet a Greek-Bulgarian.
After a pleasant stay, I flew to Varna on the Black Sea coast. Varna was chosen ahead of inland Plovdiv so I could be near the beach (hey it was summer). Its worth noting that Plovdiv has an estimated population of approximately 700 Greeks and is the second biggest city in Bulgaria. It was founded by Philip II of Macedonia as Philippopolis and was a well known Greek city during ancient and Byzantine times.
Mavri Thalassa (Black Sea)
Flying to Varna should be easy, but nothing is ever easy in Bulgaria when it comes to transport. There’s nothing like planes flying close to the mountain peaks or taxi drivers who believe it’s their duty to increase the tourist levy by more than a few dollars. During our visit to Bulgaria we met so many friendly people, however this was countered to an extent by the rudeness of airline staff on each occasion that we visited an airport and of course the questionable (and hilarious) tactics of taxi drivers to make that extra buck.
Varna was founded as Odessa and is typical of the ancient Greek colonies on the Black Sea. They were built as outposts for trade and as places for the growing population of ancient Greece to migrate. The Black Sea therefore is a special place for all Hellenes and it was with a deep sense of nostalgia that we made our way to the deck chairs and café bars on the sand. It may not be crystal clear, but the Black Sea was rather nice. You could imagine the ancient and medieval Greek ships trading throughout the Mavri Thalassa.
At the hotel which was located just outside Varna I heard the familiar sounds of Greek and soon discovered more Hellenes from the homeland. Earlier that day, I sat at Varna Airport for a quick lunch and at the nearby tables I also heard the familiar sounds of Greek being spoken. And with my stock question at the ready, I asked if they were indeed Greek-Bulgarians. The answer was a polite no, but as I made friends with the people from Crete, they told us that they were there on business. This was the same situation that we encountered later that day with the Greeks at the hotel.
After a few days of relaxation, frappe, Bulgarians speaking broken Greek and enjoying the delicious and inexpensive food of Varna (75 cents for a rich crepe, yummee), I hired a car and set our course for Nesebur, which is 90 km from Varna on the Black Sea coast and near the city of Burgas, a former Byzantine stronghold.
Along the way I became lost and drove for 40 minutes in the wrong direction. After finally making it back to Varna to re-commence our journey I pulled up at the traffic lights with the intention of asking the 2 men in the car next to us if they knew what road to take for Nesebur. The men looked at each and said, “Then katalaveno ti lenai” in Greek which translated into English means we do not understand what you are saying. I thought to myself, “Excellent I found more Greek-Bulgarians.” We all got out of our cars, which is not a good idea on a busy highway, and began talking in Greek. It turns out the men were not Greek-Bulgarian. They were travelling from Greece to the Ukraine, with the older gentlemen being an Athenian and the younger man being a Greek from the Ukraine city of Marioupolis, which is home to thousands of Greeks and about 20 Hellenic villages.
Nesebur is a world heritage listed town and arguably the best place in Bulgaria. It is a tourist haven and has a rich blend of architecture from medieval Bulgaria as well as the Byzantine influences. This includes the ancient Greek and Byzantine walls surrounding the town and numerous churches. The ruins of the city that are known as Messembria that date back to the Thracians and ancient Greeks are now lying below sea level, however the Archeological Museum of Nesebur houses a number of finds from these periods, as well as Byzantine artifacts and icons. This was one of the major towns of the Byzantine Empire.
There are an abundance of Greek churches in Nesebur and the real highlights are Saint Stefan (Twelfth Century), Saint John the Baptist (Tenth Century), Saint John Aliturgetos (could be Eleventh Century), and the Pantokrator Church (Ninth Century). Despite the church of Saint John Aliturgetos having being ruined by an earthquake, you can feel the character and atmosphere of the area (this can be argued with the all the churches) and it has a great view of the sea.
As I made my way through the picturesque lanes of the town, I came across a sign. This time rather than an advertisement for a Greek business, it read: “Boulgaro – Elliniko Silligo Messimvria.”
I frantically asked around for any information on the “Bulgaria – Greek Committee of Messembria,” and found a young man whose grandmother was Greek. He told me that the people involved with the Committee organised regular Greek folk dancing and other cultural activities. However, as had become the theme of this trip, the people involved were not in town for the summer. From what I could understand, they are Hellenes who are descendants of the Byzantine Greeks.
Throughout the article I have alluded to the ancient Greeks and the Thracians. The latter people inhabited Bulgaria, as well some areas of the modern Greek state of Thrace, thousands of years ago. The ancient Greeks who built towns in what is now Hellenic Thrace as well as colonizing the Black Sea coast and the interior through Philip II and his successors had an enormous impact on the Thracian towns, with the dominant Greek culture and language having a strong influence on the Thracians who returned the favour with their arts and music (just think of the great Orpheus). Thracians were eventually absorbed by the Greeks and the medieval Bulgarians.
Greek contribution to the history of Bulgaria
There are dozens of towns and cities in Bulgaria whose place names were originally Greek. Places such as Sozopol (Appollonia) are a case in point and have been changed over the centuries. Another interesting fact that highlights the Greek contribution to the history of Bulgaria is the role played by the saints and brothers Cyril and Methodius. Born in Thessaloniki, Cyril and Methodius are held in high esteem across Bulgaria as the people who invented the Cyrillic alphabet and who spread the Orthodox gospel across the Balkans in the late 800’s.
After a wonderful time on the Black Sea coast, I headed back to Sofia for the flight to Greece. At the airport, I could have sworn I heard a group of people speaking Greek. On closer inspection I could see the group carrying instruments. I could not restrain myself. I asked the people if they spoke Greek. They sure did and they were in an orchestra from Cyprus. It turns out that they had been on tour in Bulgaria and were now returning home.
As there was still time before the flight to Athens, I sat at the coffee shop. The barista said with a proud voice, “Milao Ellinika, would you like a FRAPPE!!”