The mystery of The Black Sea Cave

It seems that summer is the time that Paddy’s fans stir themselves to try and find locations associated with his travels. We have had my recent ‘On the Same Steps’ article about the Hofbrauhaus; excerpts from the New York Times frugal traveller following part of the ATOG route; the OPRIG GAGINONANUS challenge; and now the submission of Jean-Marc Mitterer from Switzerland who has been trying to solve the conundrum of the true location of The Black Sea Cave, in the context of the challenge of understanding more about Paddy’s route on his last leg in Bulgaria in 1934.

Jean-Marc wrote to me a while back and we have exchanged a few emails since on this subject. He has read the story very closely (which is found in Words of Mercury but was originally published in Holiday Magazine in May 1965) and has been in contact with academics and others in Bulgaria to see if any more is known to try and narrow down the possible sites.

I hope as ever that someone out there somewhere will be able to comment and add to our shared knowledge about the gaps in Paddy’s life and stories. Here is what Jean-Marc has to say ….

“As you wrote, many readers of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books imagine travelling back on the route he followed. If the first part of the trip is pretty well documented, this might turn to be a bit more challenging for the third part – Vidin, Sofia, Vitosha, Plovdiv, Veliko Turnovo, Ruse, Southern Romania, Varna, Burgas, ending in Istanbul on New Year’s Day 1935. The publication of the third volume will probably give more details but one point might remain some kind of a mystery: the cave on the Black sea where PLF spent a night in December 1934.

This striking moment of PLF’s trip is described in Words of Mercury.” (Ed: I have added some background here)

Paddy had got lost on the coast and had plunged into either sea water or a pond near the coast. It was December and he was wet through and immediately felt the cold. He was exhausted and both his bootlaces had broken. I guess he was at a real low point, far away from civilisation; wet, cold, hungry and lost. Thoughts must have passed through his mind about how he would survive the night.

“… Breathless and exhausted, I lay on a ledge until spurred on by the cold. At last, lowering my half-shod foot on to what I thought was the surface of a pool, I felt the solidity of sand and the grate of pebbles. Another pace confirmed it; I was on the shore of an inlet. Round the buttress of a cliff a little way up the beach, a faint rectangle of light, surrounded by scattered chinks, leaked astonishingly into the darkness. I crossed the pebbles and I pulled open an improvised door, uttering a last dobar vecher into the measureless cavern beyond. A dozen firelit faces looked up in surprise and consternation from their cross-legged supper, as though a sea monster or a drowned man’s ghost had come in.”

Jean-Marc continues ….

“Its location is very vague: between Varna and Burgas.

PLF tried to retrace it after the war from memory in the area around  Nesebar, but without success.

Early in 2010 Bulgarian speleologists and geography societies were asked about the existence of this place. The answers were disappointing and came with the regularity of clichés. There are well known cave areas between Kavarna and Shabla (north of Varna) and Sozopol and Tsarevo (south of Burgas). But no one knew of anything in-between.

This absence of cave is not only a mismatch with the broad location mentioned in Words of Mercury, but also with the actual situation. The north of Varna can be excluded as between 1913 and the Second World War the area up to Balchik was in Romania and not Bulgaria. The south of Burgas can also be excluded as, apparently, Paddy traveled (sadly) the last bit of his journey by train. [Ed: Is this the case?]

So this place must be between Balchik and Burgas.

Here are the actual elements we know from the article:

1. No human presence seen during his day walk except a lone Tatar fisherman.

2. A cave not very deep but big enough to have hosted more than a dozen (12) people, with room enough to perform wild dances, and to house a fishing boat, equipment, and a flock of 50 goats and up to six dogs.

3. The use of masonry elements [Ed: I believe these to have been rocks or dry stone walling. Paddy said they were interspersed with “branches, planks and flattened petrol tins stamped with Sokony-Vacuum in Cyrillic characters” – I do wonder how Paddy recalled this with his self-admitted “clumsy rudiments of” Bulgarian, his stressed physical and mental state, and the absence of his notebook]

4. The presence of a mixed Greek and Bulgarian population [either in the vicinity] or not too far away.

5. The presence of stalactites (which is a very challenging element; according to one speleologist interviewed the rocks on the coast are not suitable for these geological formations).

6. The proximity to the shoreline – remember PLF saw the light from the cave while walking along the coast. [Ed: my reading indicates that the cave was very near the shore, perhaps no more than 20-50 metres as the later descriptions indicate this and one has to ask how far the fisherman would have wished or been able to carry their boat which was seen in the cave. If any of you have carried wooden boats you will know they are very heavy; porting any great distance is unlikely.]

7. A fisherman with only one hand [with a star tattooed on the back of it.]

According to these elements, the place apparently most suitable must have been between Biala and Sveti Vlas. The area is rocky, little inhabited and the presence of a Greek population is confirmed in old maps. (for an interesting selection of maps visit this site of which perhaps the most relevant is this map)

Considering that such a place, even if it should have been destroyed since then [Ed: can you destroy a cave easily?], should have left some memories. In June 2009 locals in this region – Biala, Obzor, Bania, Emine, Elenite – were asked about the cave. Though elder people remembered many old stories (the visits of King Boris, shipwrecks before the first world war, purchasing fish at the fishermen’s settlements on the coast, etc…) nothing concerning a cave used by people or the memory of a handless fisherman (who could have lived on for a couple of decades after the visit of PLF) could be found.

This is not very encouraging… However, everyone remembered the presence of Greek people in this region and there are still a few elderly Greek people alive.

Tcheren Nos cave view

One cave was mentioned by local people, located on the Tcheren Nos. (between Biala and Shkorpilovtsi). This place is actually big arch (about 50- 80 m long), the deepest part being 15-20m above ground. There is a pond in front of it, with a little river reaching the sea. Currently it is difficult to access the place in the wood, there is no path from the shore, which is about 300- 400 m away, I was there in May 2009 and there were no stalactites or visible masonry, though the presence of black surfaces seems to indicate the presence of soot and human uses (from when ?). Considering the distance to the beach and the situation of the cave, it is difficult to imagine that this could have been the cave Paddy described. [Ed: I agree it is probably too far from the sea as per my earlier comments. However, there is always the chance that some form of change in sea level or silting up of the shoreline has increased the distance of the cave from the beach. Paddy does describe sand and shingle on the floor of the cave. From Jean-Marc’s photographs it does not appear that this exists.]

At this stage, these informal investigations reached a dead-end… Many hypothesis could be built (maybe Paddy’s memory confused some elements – like the presence of the stalactites or the dimensions of the cave) but further research would be useful.

The location of this cave is a fascinating enigma that even PLF seems not to have been able to clarify. I hope that this question will also interest you.

Maybe you would consider that this issue could be raised on your website, with the hope that people having access to the 1935 notes taken by PLF (though if this data existed, I guess they would have been used by PLF during his second visit) or having a specific knowledge about the Bulgarian coast could help. I don’t think Paddy’s work has been translated in the Balkans [Ed; He is certainly known in Romania] and his work appears to be unknown in Bulgaria.

[Ed: Towards the end of his account Paddy again confirms that the cave was near the sea “A few yards off, beyond the twelve adjacent snores, I could hear the gasp of the Black Sea.” What is also useful is an indication of the direction the cave was facing as he could see “three quarters of Orion blazed in an icy slanting lozenge.” Where does Orion lie in the late December sky when in the Balkans?]

For Marion Worsley, after OPRIG GAGINONANUS, and for you all, this is a slightly more difficult challenge; to find the cave on the Black Sea where Paddy was simultaneously saved and experienced one of his wilder, most impromptu experiences.

Perhaps the defining episode of this blog will be the re-discovery this cave?

The challenge is now out there. Truly, finding this cave will place the person that discovers it in the Patrick Leigh Fermor Pantheon. It may be a fool’s errand. Paddy may have at the same time exaggerated and been confused after the passage of time. What is not in doubt is that he spent a night in a Black Sea cave with a polyglot group of Greek fisherman and Bulgarian fisherman. What needs to be done is to find that cave. Jean-Marc has set us upon our course. Will we reach our destination?

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5 thoughts on “The mystery of The Black Sea Cave

  1. ELR

    The article was not published in the May 1965 issue of Holiday…I bought a vintage (at considerable expense) one on the strength of this article…thanks for nothing! Fact check before you publish, please!

    Reply
    1. proverbs6to10 Post author

      Perhaps you should have done your own research instead of blaming others. I make no claims as to any accuracy; caveat emptor.

      Reply
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