The morning proved that Nessebar is not deserted, but when I checked in to the St. Stefan Hotel, and walked around in the deepening dusk in the drizzle there was nobody on the streets and just the ghostly vox humana of the seagulls doing impressions of cats, to remind you of life amid the ruins of churches, castle walls, and souvenir antique shops covered in plastic sheets that won’t open until the summer, or at least until a sunny day.
I thought, the action must be all on the mainland. Not feeling up to a 200 meter causeway walk in the drizzle, when I’d already located the post office and some possible post card stores and in any case, ruins to see on Thursday, I went to sleep instead. All work and no play — OK, enough of that.
Although Nessebar is closed up tight, it will be opening for business soon. A walk through the town (I’ve been on every street three times, I’d say) revealed that every storefront is being polished up, roads and sidewalks smoothed and repaired, the sound of saws and screw guns on all sides, all being prepared for the summer season. But March 29, there is nothing. The post office opens at 8, if you already have leva. The one or two early adopter souvenir shops open between 10:30 and 11:00. I saw in midafternoon, a few open cafes. Other than that, just a few bewildered tourists surrounded by busy bricoleur locals.
I had to cross on the causeway to find an open bank.
I went to the museum and was fortunate to find one guide who would take me to one church. He said, that the season opened in April, when tourists came from Israel to gamble at the casinos. He didn’t know why.
The Church of St. Stefan — really a basilica, the guide assured me, because it had only aisles flanking the nave before the iconostasis and no cruciform elements — was built in the 10th century and decorated most recently in the 16th. Seven years ago, the murals were restored, but only those that were more than 50% legible. The guide (I never caught his name) was disdainful of the restoration at Ohrid, in which whole churches were being built sort of with the idea of what one there might have looked like before all the stones were removed to make fortresses and garden paths. It’s an approach. I got the impression he could have talked for hours about every element of every mural; but as he had left the gate unlocked, other tourists came in to look, and we never got too deeply into the hagiography. He did mention that the Annunciation was always the first mural you saw when you stepped into an Orthodox church, and in Bulgaria particularly, the image of Doubting Thomas touching the wound was popular. The Last Judgment was out in the narthex; it was reachable by the parishioners and Hell had mostly worn off, except for one badly drawn eagle and a sheep. Apparently the local custom was that animals also are judged. Heaven was left alone; serried ranks already bored with salvation. Nobody wanted to touch them for good luck.
Back inside, the mural painters had put their best work into Ignatius Theophoros devoured by lions, and the Massacre of the Innocents. It’s hard to read the labels. They are in some kind of Old Church Slavonic.
The guide had lots of opinions on everything. He said that Sofia was the worst part of Bulgaria. He said that Macedonia was also part of Bulgaria, but had been stolen by the Serbs. He said it wasn’t even mentioned as a country — isn’t that a Greek argument? Everybody wants a piece of Macedonia. If statues are any indication, it’s been long enough now that there is a distinct Macedonian identity.
Despite the absence of tourists, the prices on souvenirs are all set up for the big spenders. I only bought post cards from the museum, where they were half a lev. The bank gave me 1.55 leva to the dollar.
Dinner was at a restaurant, “Flagman”, recommended by the hotel desk lady for its particular specialty of being open. It was OK. Good, even. The most unusual thing was the Revox tape recorder on the bar, next to a Jameson Whiskey display bottle. The guy said it worked and maybe I could see it tomorrow.
But, on the morrow I drove back to Sofia, for a Saturday Night flight to Berlin.
On that drive, I made one stop, to see one of the better preserved Bulgarian dolmens, near Hlyabovo. It is given various names by different bloggers. It’s quite handsome, with three rooms, one of which evidently had a skeleton when it was unearthed. I didn’t go inside. You have to be very small and you can see everything (i.e. nothing) through the windows anyway.
Bulgaria has two fabulous freeways, one Sofia-Burgas and one Sofia-Istanbul. They meet past the town of Plovdiv. From Plovdiv to Sofia they are like a normal somewhat frayed freeway, with businesses and rest stops and stuff, but the freeways east of Plovdiv are brand new and have absolutely nothing on them, even exits. I was getting pretty nervous at around a quarter tank, and drove rather out of my way to Chirpan to fill up. Nobody there spoke English. Chirpan is pretty clearly the Real Bulgaria.