VAGABOND FEATURES

THE VELCHOVA ZAVERA HIKE

Еvery April, since 2020, hundreds of young Bulgarians gather in Veliko Tarnovo and embark on a meaningful journey, retracing the steps of a daring rebellion that took place in the town and its surroundings, in 1835. The Velchova Zavera Hike is not just a physical trek but a symbol of remembering the past and celebrating the spirit of freedom.

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LES FRANÇAIS EN BULGARIE

Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it. This is why today in Sofia you will spot an odd French name here and there: the Léandre le Gay Street in the centre, schools named Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo, a metro station is known as Frédéric Joliot-Curie. On noticing this, you may be reminded of the words of the late Bulgarian President, Zhelyu Zhelev, who infamously stated that Bulgarians were... Francophones.

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BULGARIA'S NEW 'PATRIOTISM'

In the summer of 2023, one of the news items that preoccupied Bulgarians for weeks on end was a... banner.

The national banner, to be more precise. After a much advertised donation campaign, organised by an NGO and supported by the president, an 111-metre-tall flagpole was erected in a meadow high in the Rhodope mountains. From it, a national banner 40 by 25 metres was unfurled.

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WHAT WAS THE SEPTEMBER UPRISING?

Raised hands, bodies frozen in a pathos of tragic defiance: Bulgaria, especially its northwest, is littered with monuments to an event that was once glorified but is now mostly forgotten. It took place 100 years ago, yet researchers disagree on how to label it. Some call it an uprising, a word that evokes the gravity of organised and targeted efforts to achieve a clearly set goal. For others, it was an ill-fated rebellion of a handful of peasants foolish enough to believe the sweet talking of a political power outside of Bulgaria, Moscow's Communist International.

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WHO WAS RENÉ CHARRON?

Not all people who make a big difference in history, or attempt to make one, are ahead of great governments or armies. Sometimes, humble clerks are capable of changing the lives of thousands, or millions, just by doing their job and showing compassion to the suffering of ordinary people.

A century ago, a Jewish Frenchman did just that for Bulgaria – twice.

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200 VAGABONDS

When the first issue of Vagabond hit the newsstands, in September 2006, the world and Bulgaria were so different that today it seems as though they were in another geological era. Two economic crises, a pandemic and a war in Europe were still in the future. Bulgaria's Boyko Borisov was just a rising star, not a cunning politician who would rule the country for over a decade. Social media was yet to be born. Targeted advertising was in its infancy. Print media prospered.

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LAPSE OF TIME

Sofia, with its numerous parks, is not short of monuments and statues referring to the country's rich history. In the Borisova Garden park for example, busts of freedom fighters, politicians and artists practically line up the alleys. On some of those, like the 19th century revolutionaries and national heroes Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev, people still lay flowers.

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WHY DOES 'SORRY' SEEM TO BE THE HARDEST WORD?

About 30 Bulgarians of various occupations, political opinion and public standing went to the city of Kavala in northern Greece, in March, to take part in a simple yet moving ceremony to mark the demolition of the Jewish community of northern Greece, which was effected by the Kingdom of Bulgaria when it annexed Aegean Thrace, in 1943. They included Alec Oscar, the chairman of the Shalom Organisation of Bulgarian Jews; Martin Zaimov, a political activist and former deputy chairman of the Bulgarian National Bank; Krasen Stanchev, an economist; and Manol Peykov, an activist and publisher.

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BULGARIA'S LAST MONARCH

On 3 October 1918, Bulgarians felt anxious. The country had just emerged from three wars it had fought for "national unification" – meaning, in plain language, incorporating Macedonia and Aegean Thrace into the Bulgarian kingdom. It lost them all, one way or another. Thousands of men had been killed, significant chunks of land were forfeited, and an influx of refugees overwhelmed the larger cities. More was to come, as the treaties ending the Great War were yet to be signed.

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RUSSIA BRINGS ON... VANGA

The future does not look bright according to Vanga, the notorious blind clairvoyant who died in 1996 but is still being a darling of tabloids internationally, especially in Russia. In 2022, virtual reality will take over, famine will ravage India and earthquakes, tsunamis and floods will hit Asia and Australia. Water shortages in megapolises will incur political upheaval while a virus released by the melting Siberian permafrost will start a new pandemic. Aliens will arrive on an asteroid.

What about the war in Ukraine?

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FINDING ANTIP KOEV OBUSHTAROV

In early 2021 veteran Kazanlak-based photographer Alexander Ivanov went to the Shipka community culture house called Svetlina, founded in 1861, to inspect "some negatives" that had been gathering the dust in cardboard boxes. The boxes were donated to the culture house in 1995. Previously, they had been stashed at the Chirpanliev House in Shipka in the course of 26 years.

What Alexander Ivanov discovered in those boxes changed his life – and the story of what little there is to 20th century Bulgarian photography.

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MONUMENTAL WOES

One of the attractions of the Bulgarian capital, the 1950s monument to the Red Army, may fascinate visitors wanting to take in a remnant of the Cold War, but many locals consider it contentious. Recently Traycho Traykov, who was an economy minister for Boyko Borisov and is now mayor of the Sofia borough of Sredets, voiced his determination to have the monument "disassembled" and some of its many effigies of Russian soldiers and welcoming Bulgarians placed in a museum.

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PREFAB SOCIETY

With the mountains for a backdrop and amid large green spaces, uniform apartment blocks line up like Legos. Along the dual carriageway, 7km from the centre of Sofia, the underground comes above ground: Mladost Station.

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WHO WAS HRISTO BOTEV?

Every 2 June, at exactly noon, the civil defence systems all over Bulgaria are switched on. The sirens wail for a minute. A minute when many people stop whatever they are doing and stand still.

The sirens are the noisiest part of the commemorative events for the death of Hristo Botev (1848-1876), arguably the greatest poet Bulgaria ever produced. He died, along with many of his fellow revolutionaries, in a battle with the Ottoman forces, while trying to start an uprising in Bulgaria's northwest.

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DAY OF ST GEORGE BULGARIAN STYLE

Bulgarians celebrate St George's Day, or Gergyovden, with enormous enthusiasm, both officially and in private. A bank holiday dedicated to valour, the Bulgarian аrmy and shepherds, 6 May is when some priests bless military banners while others in churches and monasteries consecrate lambs to be slaughtered and eaten communally. The army stages a parade in central Sofia and Bulgarian families gather to feast on lamb and celebrate the name-day of the ubiquitous Georgis and Gerganas among their ranks, all named after St George.

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HOW TO ENJOY RAKIYA

The easiest way for a foreigner to raise a Bulgarian brow concerns a sacrosanct pillar of national identity: rakiya, the spirit that Bulgarians drink at weddings, funerals, for lunch, at protracted dinners; because they are sad or joyful, and sometimes because they do not have anything better to do. Inexperienced foreigners tend to make three types of faux pas when they try rakiya for the first time. Some declare after a sip that they would rather have a glass of wine.

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SOFIA'S PARTY HOUSE

"Where is the parliament?" A couple of months ago anyone asking this question in Sofia would have been pointed to a butter-yellow neoclassical building at one end of the Yellow Brick Road. Imaginatively, it resembles the Paris Opera House and has the Belgian national motto, "Unity Makes Strength," above its main façade, looking onto the statue of a 19th century Russian tsar on horseback. This was the place where Bulgarian MPs used to gather to do whatever they were supposed to do.

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