Gallery

Orthodox Christmas in Bulgaria

These photos were taken in the Russian Church of St Nicholas and the Bulgarian Church of St Sophia, both in central Sofia, with the permission of their respective priests.

Izgrev Revisited

Today I revisited Izgrev, meaning ‘Sunrise’ in Bulgarian, the old artists’ and writers’ quarter of Sofia, where I lived when I first arrived in Bulgaria seventeen years ago. It’s obvious my wife, a poet, is the one who found me the flat. I used to enjoy living in this quarter, it was quiet, relatively small, there were one or two embassies, a disused railway track and, on the other side of the track, a very cold swimming pool. You could even catch a bus to go to Vitosha, the mountain that overlooks Sofia from the south (in those days I didn’t drive, that would come later). I lived in a flat on the eighth floor of a high-rise, perhaps twenty floors in all, six apartments per floor. I remember people being friendly and cultured. There was a family whose daughter was a professional pianist and she used to practise at dizzying pace in the afternoons. There was a lovely old couple that lived upstairs, but unfortunately their son (perhaps to forge an identity of his own) used to be up and about at night, and his bedroom was on top of mine. This is one of the reasons I left the apartment after little more than a year. The other was a drunk who lived downstairs and who would get inebriated on vodka on a Friday night, come home, put his music on loud and throw up in the toilet (I was still able to make this out over the loud music). It wasn’t a bed of roses, but I was experiencing my first taste of Eastern Europe, a culture shock for someone who had lived in England and Spain before that, but one that has served me well. The flat was comfortable and cosy, and the icing on the cake was a house martins’ nest just outside my bedroom window. I used to watch the adults flying at exactly the height of my apartment over breakfast. Unadulterated joy. I also did a lot of work there, and translated my first and only Catalan novel, In the Last Blue by Carme Riera, winner of the Spanish National Book Award, about the persecution of Jews on the island of Mallorca in the seventeenth century.

I grew up in a village in Surrey and one of my first memories is visiting the local woods. To my good fortune, it turns out Izgrev has a wood and I used to immerse myself in this wood, going for walks every day, leaving behind the slightly grey high-rise blocks (and the car alarms) and seemingly entering another world. The forest took me in. I think it understood I had recently left my familiar surroundings, so it took me under its wing, so to speak. It accepted me. I spent many hours circumambulating the forest, walking around its furthest extent, then diving into the interior, criss-crossing the wood, until I reached the very centre, where there stood a tall sequoia tree. Some days were better than others, but I grew to love this wood, and I think this wood loved me. There was one particular gentleman, a fellow walker, who used to be there as much as me. He would walk around with his head in the air, looking upwards, his gaze distracted, as if he had entered another dimension. I’m not even sure if he noticed me. Or perhaps it was just the thick glasses that gave him this otherworldly look, as if he had climbed further up the ladder of divine ascent. I wondered what he could see, what it was I wasn’t seeing. The world can seem so two-dimensional from transport (a car or a train), even three-dimensional when we are in it, but it is difficult to reach further in, to enter the code, to strain our eyes. We must wait for the vision to come to us.

The sequoia tree at the heart of Izgrev Forest.

I took solace in this forest. I remember a Romanian-Nigerian couple coming to stay for a night, and I religiously took them on my daily outing, a swift walk around the forest’s outer border. We couldn’t walk next to each other, the path wasn’t wide enough, and it was getting dark, so we walked in single file, with me leading the way. Goodness knows what they made of this quasi-nocturnal outing, but they never said anything and smiled all the way.

Today I went back to the forest, the path that leads away from the high-rise buildings, up into the woods. A short ascent, and then you are on the level. I started by following the main path all around the forest, busy roads limiting its extent on every side where there are not buildings. Then I cut in along a path I knew in order to get back where I had started. It seemed to take much less time than I had anticipated. Perhaps twenty minutes in all. And I had been expecting a single circuit of the forest to be enough. I was a little disappointed. Had the forest become smaller in my absence? No, it seemed the same. Was it because it was winter, and I could see through the trees, which therefore gave the impression the forest had shrunk? Or is it that, in order to package our memories, we make the places we have been to smaller? They expand when we are there, when we live in a place on a daily basis, but when we leave, they contract in order not to occupy too much memory on the hard disk of our minds. It felt like revisiting an old girlfriend. You wondered what all the fuss had been about. The world – what am I saying, the universe – you had shared now seemed small and provincial. Your life lay elsewhere. In the intervening period, I had got married, had a child, learned to drive, been through a wealth of experiences. And that little pocket I had explored so much now seemed just that – a little pocket.

Sometimes I wonder if the world is all flat. When we visit a place, we blow it up, like a balloon, and it expands in order to contain our life, our loves and experiences, and when we leave, it deflates again, like a balloon after a party.

I didn’t go there to revisit my past. I went because it’s New Year’s Day and I wanted to give Simi, our dog, a run-around. We were a bit late to go all the way to the mountain, Vitosha, so I took him there instead. He was happy, charging ahead, choosing a path when there was a fork in the expectation that I would go the same way and then charging back when I chose another (which I invariably did), his nose close to the ground. I wondered what it seemed like to him. After all, he’s only about half a foot tall (a foot, if I include his tail). The trees must seem enormous. They must multiply him about sixty times. Did he realize when I was retracing my steps, taking a path for the second time or in the opposite direction? Or was it all new to him, virgin territory to explore? (Does virgin territory even exist for dogs, can’t they always smell who’s been there before?)

Izgrev Forest.

We reached the end of our walk, Simi didn’t seem too unhappy to leave. He’s very accommodating. We passed the Korean restaurant on the ground floor of a house (so that was still working – why hadn’t I ever gone there to eat?), went past my old block with its bench out the front, seemingly inviting neighbourly conversation, past the supermarket where I did my first shopping (did Bulgarians even eat the same food as we did?), and back to the car. We hopped in, I did a three-point turn and drove back the way we had come, past the Russian Embassy compound and the garden dedicated to Peter Deunov. I left behind this remnant of my past and returned to the world I am in.

Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com

Thassos: Monastery of St Michael

There is a very famous Monastery of St Michael on the island of Thassos in Greece, to which there is a reference in a document of 1287. A monk, Luke, built a church where there was a sacred spring. When the Ottomans wished to defile the spring, it dried up, only to reappear in a cave down by the sea, a walk we did today. You head down a path marked by metal poles topped by red-painted bottles to a pebble beach. This part is fairly steep. Then you clamber over rocks by the sea, through narrow passes, rock archways and over a wooden bridge, always being directed by red arrows painted on the rocks and crosses in more difficult places. To your right, the green Aegean and Mt Athos in the distance, the only spectators a pair of goats and some slender birds. After an hour and a quarter, having climbed Golgotha and gone past Scylla and Charybdis, you reach your destination, a trickling spring and in a cave you can only enter by wriggling like a worm a quiet pool of water, where we prayed for those we know under the Archangel’s watchful and merciful gaze. To humble oneself before God, wriggling like a worm, is not only appropriate, it is strangely uplifting. Orthodoxy is smell and on the way back we kept getting wafts of fragrant candle wax. A blessed experience.

View of the Aegean from below the Monastery, with Athos in the distance.
The path with metal poles topped by red-painted bottles.
The pebble beach where the path meets the sea.
Steps built going down to the beach (thank God for the workers!).
A goat watches our progress.
A rock archway you must pass through.
A wooden bridge over a gap in the rocks.
Golgotha, a climb up the rocks.
Scylla and Charybdis (every time we passed this way, I made the sign of the Cross, and we always made it across without being touched by the waves).
The approach to the sacred spring.
Water trickling down beneath the cave.
The entrance to the cave.

This article was also published on the website Orthodox Christianity.