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The Danube Bridge linking Bulgaria and Romania - photos by Bennett Toharay

Ruse, Bulgaria: An Elegant "Mini-Vienna"


By Bennett Toharay

Small, round, crimson-yellow plums, zillions of them, both heavily laden on trees, and rotting on the ground below, littered the countryside (while elsewhere people starve).

Why doesn't anyone gather them and make jam, and rakiya, or plum brandy, the national obsession? Or simply eat them? Bulgaria could easily repay its debts with these.

Aside from the plums, and patches of woods and red-tiled roofs of farmhouses that dotted the mostly flat and hilly fields of sunflower, the train ride from Gorna Oryahovitsa to the Danube River in north Bulgaria was an anticlimax, following the scenic route through the Stara Planina mountain range that ran the breadth of the country.

At the confluence of the Danube and Rusenski Lom rivers lay the port city of Ruse, my final destination. I was heading there from Istanbul on business: My school's procedure for the legalizing the status of foreign employees consisted of sending them over the border to renew their tourist visas.

The Twilight Zone

But then I realized we hadn't left Turkey at all -- or must have slipped back somehow. As our train approached the Ruse station, a squat, domed building, identical to the mosques ubiquitous throughout Turkey, partially obscured by some trees, came into view. I must have waited on the wrong platform.

Liberty Square

Then as we drew nearer the trees shifted aside, but instead of a crescent moon and star perched on top, I saw a cross. It was an Orthodox Christian church. 

Its style must have resulted from Turkish influence, I reasoned, as the Ottoman Empire ruled much of the Balkans for centuries. Or upon overthrowing it, the Bulgarians must have converted a mosque into a church.

Destination: the Center

We reached the station, and as passengers filed out the carriage, I noticed a man standing on the platform, peering in, evidently waiting for a relative or friend.

"Hello, sir! I hope you had a pleasant journey." he said to me, the only conspicuously foreign person on board, as I stepped out. "Let me assist you. I can bring you to an inexpensive hotel."

Hearing proper English for first time in days, I should have been ecstatic. But that line sounded vaguely familiar. Ah, yes, from Varna, on a previous trip, when our bus arrived at 11:30 am.

To my repeated inquires about the fare, the taxi driver replied, "No problem, it's cheap. Don't worry" The five-minute drive to a four-star hotel set me back $20. So beware.

Residents stroll through downtown Ruse.

I walked back to the church but it looked deserted. The front entrance had fresh flowers around it, but the gate was locked, with only a barking dog to greet me. Built at the turn of the last century, the Saint Petka Church was actually patterned in the style of the Byzantines. They had developed this form of architecture, best exemplified by the Hagia Sophia Cathedral (now a museum) in Constantinople (now Istanbul), built by Emperor Justinian in the 530s.

After the Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453, the great architect Sinan used it as a model for his Suleymaniye Mosque, which set the pattern for mosques throughout their domain.

The walk to the center took me though a curious mixture of grey, monolithic apartment blocks and newer low rises, old mansions and quaint cottages with tidy little gardens. Plus McShops providing everything from Ecuadorian bananas to GSM services.

Then the main plaza unexpectedly revealed itself. Suddenly I felt as though I were in Vienna, even though I had never been there before. With immaculate gardens of red tulips and violets, pine trees and working fountains, surrounded by sprightly, refurbished neoclassical and neobaroque municipal and cultural buildings, Ploshtad Svoboda, or Liberty Square, seemed to have been plucked from a Hapsburg realm and transplanted in its entirety right in the heart of the Balkans.

The Happy Bar and Grill

Encounter with Natives

My feet groaning from the 1.5 mile (2.5-km) trudge, I sat on one of the park benches. On the next bench, a group of retirees recounted the good ol' days, as other residents strolled about.
 
What? Now I'm hearing Austrian as well! An elderly gentleman sitting nearby was trying to get through to me in rudimentary German, the mother-tongue of all non-Bulgarians. This must part of a swindle. But what danger could a diminutive, old man possibly pose? Or maybe he acted as a decoy for the real culprits ready to pounce me. Reading my blank look, he switched to even more rudimentary English. 

It seemed that he had worked in Germany in a furniture factory for many years. Now happily divorced and retired, with his only daughter in Belgium, he has taken to honing his linguistic skills with complete strangers. Having dispensed my own biography, I popped the question: "Where can I find cheap accommodation?"    

The author's friend Milena, shows a dress she made.

Thereupon he got up and went over to the next bench and began enquiring the people. Not receiving a satisfactory reply, he moved on to two mothers pushing their strollers. Next he went to a cafe, the Happy Bar and Grill asking the patrons, one by one. As I approached he beckoned me over to a couple drinking cappuccino. In their late 30's, Plamen and Milena, with her psychedelic make-up, had the look and air of artists, designers or poets.

"We do social work with troubled youths," she said, puffing out a breath of cigarette smoke. I hoped my age wouldn't disqualify me. 

Some Highlights

To quench my hunger, I ordered moussaka (minced meat and potato hash) and sarmi or green peppers stuffed, in this case with cheese, though more typically with rice. Bulgarian cuisine resembles that of Greece and Turkey.

Finishing up, we strolled over to The Monument to Freedom, a huge column built in 1908 by an Italian sculptor and flanked by bronze cannons and lions, and topped by a statue of a beautiful woman clutching a cross ...no, a sword. It commemorates those who fought for Bulgaria's liberation from 1867 to 1877.

We then made our way to the Church of Sveta Troitsa, or Trinity Church, its discrete copulas giving it a somewhat Russian appearance. Built in 1632, it had to follow the Ottoman edict of churches and cathedrals not exceeding the height of mosques, hence its low stature and modest exterior (the steeple was added after independence). The designers got around this by creating a sizeable, subterranean nave, and adorned it with icons, murals and an imposing iconostasis.

Svetsa Troiska (Holy Trinity) Church

Taking her car, an old Lada (although half the cars here seem to be German), we drove to the river garden along the Danube front. From here we could see several barges, and a small ship resembling a shrunken Carnival Cruiser docked at a small pier.

Ruse's elegance doesn't seem as farfetched once you look at an atlas and note that Bratislava, Budapest and Vienna all lie upstream along this very river, historically one of Europe's main waterways. Despite the searing temperature, no one swam its opaque waters.

Just a few hundred meters away, on the opposite side, the people spoke an entirely different language, Romanian. Oddly enough, unlike Californians and Mexicans, people in the Balkans, with the exception of suitcase traders, view their next-door neighbors as worlds apart.

"I've known people who've visited Italy, France, even Australia, but never crossed the bridge to Romania," Milena said.

Quick History

In the vicinity, Roman emperor Vespasian built Sexaginta Prista, or the Port of the Sixty Ships, one of a series of military strongholds throughout Bulgaria. Later Justinian reinforced the city, but that ultimately proved insufficient since it was eventually destroyed by barbarians. The lead role then passed to Cherven, further south. Ruse remained sidelined, until the 14th century when the Ottomans re-obliterated it.

We walked over to the nearby Museum of Urban Life and viewed the fine collection of antiques, old furniture and costumes. It once served as the residence of the Prussian mistress of the Turkish district governor, Mithap Pasha.

Urban Renewal, Turkish Style

A broadminded individual and visionary, Mithap Pasha had toured Paris, London, Brussels and Vienna in 1858. Bedazzled by European civilization, he later introduced reforms and encouraged industry, commerce, and the construction of fancy buildings. He would overcome local resistance to his facelift schemes by setting ablaze old structures that stood in the way. The process continued following independence, led by architects, craftsmen and financiers from Austria, Italy, Switzerland and Bulgaria itself.

A part of their legacy is the Catholic Church of St. Paul, also near the riverbank. Inspired by Polish soldiers who fought in the Liberation War of 1890, it was completed in 1892, and features crystal chandeliers, stained glass from Budapest, and a grand, 700-pipe organ made in Germany.

As the day drew to a close, Milena brought me to the Paradise Hotel, near her home. I failed to recognize it as such until I entered the apartment building that housed it. Indeed many small businesses in residential areas are improvised apartments.

Valentin has plied the Danube between Vilkovo, Ukraine, to Ulm, Germany, for many years.

Ruse, along with the rest of Bulgaria offers plenty of history, natural wonders and hidden surprises. Not far from Ruse are the Roussenski Lom Natural Park, St. Dimitar Basarbovski Rock Monastery, Ivanovo Rock Churches, and The Medieval town of Cherven.

For more information contact:
Mariya Marinova or Boris Botsev
Rousse Tourist Information Centre
61 Alexandrovska St.; 7000, Rousse, Bulgaria.
Tel/Fax: +359 82 824704
e-mail: tic@tic.rousse.bg

For Bulgaria in general, see the Bulgarian Tourism Office website
email: info@bulgariatravel.org
tel: + 359 2 987 9778.

Besides the Paradise Hotel (Druzhba 3, bl. 10, tel: 359 82 622 220, hanskorekt@mail.bg.) the city contains numerous hotels in the 3-star range. For more accommodation options, find unique Bulgaria hotels and interesting tours in Bulgaria.

Ruse is readily accessible by train and bus from Varna, Sofia, Bucharest and Istanbul, though long distance river transport is not currently on offer.

 

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