"Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you what kind of people you have." Applying Benjamin Franklin's witticism to Bulgaria's most emblematic graveyard – the Central Sofia Cemetery – will make you stop and think. Instead of ending up in the welcoming country advertised by the Bulgarian State Agency for Tourism, have you landed in some frightening place better suited to a Bram Stoker novel?
On the face of it, there's nothing unusual about the graveyard, which Sofianites refer to simply as Orlandovtsi, after the surrounding neighbourhood. Opened in 1898, it quickly became the most fashionable place for Bulgarians to take their eternal rest and the headstones of late greats soon lined its shaded paths.
One notable resident is Prime Minister Stefan Stambolov, who democratised Bulgaria using undemocratic methods, which perhaps explains why he was assassinated in 1894. Since 1907, liberal Prime Minister Dimitar Petkov, another victim of political assassination, has kept him company nearby. The latter's two sons, Petko and Nikola, shared their father's unhappy fate. Petko was executed in the reprisals against Communists in 1924.
The Communists themselves killed Nikola, the leader of the left wing of the Bulgarian National Agrarian Union, or BZNS, in 1947 because of his desire to preserve a parliamentary democracy, an idea that didn't fit into Stalin's plans. The brothers are buried side by side.
When the Communists seized power, many of them promptly got drunk with it and forgot their proletarian roots. Most now rest in peace in Orlandovtsi's Alley 10, also known as the Aleyata na vlastta, or the Alley of Power. Dimitar Blagoev, who has the dubious distinction of being the founder of the Socialist movement in Bulgaria, was buried at its very head in 1924 – perhaps a quirk of fate?
The long row of graves belonging to Politburo members, distinguished partizani and other apparatchiks ends with the grave of Andrey Lukanov. A darling of the Kremlin, he was one of the conspirators who toppled dictator Todor Zhivkov on 10 November 1989.
Bulgarians will long remember him for his time as prime minister during 1990, a period infamous for empty shops and shortages of everything – from electricity to yoghurt – and for his murder in 1996, which remains unsolved to this day.
The most celebrated name to be found in the Alley of Power is Todor Zhivkov. Bulgaria's last Communist dictator died in 1998 and is buried next to his wife Mara Maleeva (d. 1971) and his daughter Lyudmila (d. 1981).
However, the first Communist dictator of Bulgaria, Georgi Dimitrov, is not buried in the Alley of Power – for religious reasons. In 1990 when his embalmed body was removed from the mausoleum in the centre of Sofia, where it had been on display since 1949 for "national adoration," it was buried in the Protestant section of Orlandovtsi. The cemetery has different sections for Protestants, Catholics, Armenians, Jews and Muslims.
In the first few years after the democratic transition, numerous graves of people who died in the prime of their lives cropped up in Orlandovtsi, a detail which is essential for every good graveyard. These recent additions are easy to spot. Underworld types killed in the gangland turf wars of the 1990s usually have towering tombstones made of black marble.
The life-size, engraved portraits give a precise, if not particularly artistic, idea of the deceased's life. All of them have been immortalised with symbols of social status: heavy gold chains, Nike trainers, Adidas warm-up suits, the keys to a Mercedes in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. At that time, cell phones were a luxury only for the rich, meaning gangsters. As the dates show, few of them made it past their 30th birthday.
If you think that Orlandovtsi is the Bulgarian version of Père Lachaise, however, you're mistaken. Tourists don't flock to Sofia's most "prestigious" cemetery, map in hand to hunt for celebrities' graves. Rather, most people come here to visit the graves of their relatives. Most often, they do so on zadushnitsi, the days set aside to pray for the souls of the dead. One of the most commonly observed such days is Chereshova zadushnitsa, or Cherry All Souls' Day, which falls on the Saturday before Whit Sunday.
The name is due to the fact that, besides the compulsory boiled wheat, bread and sweets, mourners also give out cherries to anyone passing by the grave. The other zadushnitsi are the Orthodox All Souls' Day before Lent, St Dimitar's Day on 26 October and Archangel's Day on 8 November. Bulgarians believe that on these days it is a sin not to visit the graves of departed loved ones to clear away the weeds and light a candle for the deceased.
Certain graves, nevertheless, attract admirers. Every year on 11 May dozens of people gather around the grave of writer Aleko Konstantinov, who was killed in 1897. Patriotic Bulgarians sometimes also liven up Alley 28 as they pay their respects to the graves of those who fought until the middle of the 20th Century to make Macedonia a part of Bulgaria.
You might imagine that there would be some who would come to Orlandovtsi every day to enjoy the greenery and quiet of this peaceful place, to eat lunch, read a book or meditate on the meaning of life, but you'd be wrong. The cemetery is quite unwelcoming. Every detail screams that the only legitimate reason to go there – if you're alive – is to visit the grave of a loved one. Read a book? You've got to be kidding!
The traffic on one of the busiest and dirtiest streets in Sofia runs along Orlandovtsi's ugly cement fence. Tin shacks housing undertakers and stonemasons offering tacky gravestones have taken over the narrow pavements. On All Souls' Day fly-by-night florists hawking wilting bouquets freshen up the landscape, but not much.
As you enter the cemetery itself, you may think you've stumbled into a panel-block suburb like Lyulin. The identical concrete columbaria crammed into every bit of free space are so small and ugly that you can't help but be horrified at the thought of your cremated remains spending what's left of eternity in such a box.
For thousands of Sofianites, however, that is the only way they can rest in peace in Orlandovtsi. The cemetery has long been short on space, so if you want to be buried in the ground, you need to either have a family plot here or put your loved ones through the additional unpleasantness of haggling with the management for one of the few remaining plots.
The cemetery's interior is more inviting. Among the lush bushes, trees and grass – this verdant setting comes courtesy of the management's neglect – stand gravestones from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Centuries. Dangers lurk among the romantic angels and the tilting obelisks, though, such as the stray dogs that rule the cemetery's more isolated regions.
Things get scarier after dark. Despite security provided by the municipal firm Egida, for years grave robbers have been stripping the headstones of any metal parts they can remove. As fate would have it, the most common victims of this indignity are those in the Alley of Power. Vandals even tried to swipe the bronze bust of Todor Zhivkov. The security guards noticed in time, however, and the dictator's family moved the sculpture to a safer place.
Unfortunately, Orlandovtsi is no exception. Go to any Bulgarian graveyard and you're sure to find vandalised headstones and brazen thieves who take the bouquets from young people's still-fresh graves and resell them afterwards. Cases of elderly women being robbed as they tend the graves of their loved ones are not uncommon.
Why do Bulgarians seem to show so little respect and concern for the memory of their dead? The atheist Communist government, which replaced religious burials and All Souls' Day rituals with sterile civil ceremonies, is one reason. A number of Bulgarian cities underwent re-planning processes, during which old cemeteries were turned into parks. Burgas was one of them.
Authorities exhumed the bones and moved them to a new site, with austere gravestones decorated in the Communist style, with five-pointed stars. Some cemeteries were completely erased from the face of the earth, like the Jewish cemetery in Silistra and the Muslim cemetery in Balchik. In Silistra a housing estate of the concrete pre-fab type was erected on the spot of the Jewish cemetery, and in Balchik the land was used as a lorry park.
Perhaps the problem cannot be blamed on Communism entirely, however. In 1882 Ivan Vazov wrote a book, Eulogy to the Forgotten, criticising the ease with which Bulgarians forget their countrymen who helped free them from Ottoman rule. In a poem about Georgi Rakovski, a revolutionary who died in 1867 in Bucharest, Vazov wrote: "Rakovski, you lie under weeds so thick, through which peeks a half-broken cross." Any cemetery in Bulgaria will testify to that.