Tag Archives: Bulgaria

Postcard from . . . Bulgaria

Illustration by Matthew Cook

Illustration by Matthew Cook

In a cramped office at Bulgaria’s Rila Monastery, a black-robed monk is swiping my passport. Set in a wooded valley 70 miles south of the capital Sofia, Rila is the country’s largest and oldest Orthodox Christian monastery, and a source of intense pride for Bulgarians. Travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor stayed here in 1934 and found a place of “clattering hooves and constant arrivals and departures . . . like that of a castle in the Middle Ages.”

by Tom Allan

First published in the Financial Times

Today the clatter of hooves has been replaced by the rumbling tyres of tour buses and the monastery’s humbug-striped pillars and copper domes are one of Bulgaria’s major tourist attractions. One thing hasn’t changed: the monks still offer accommodation — there are 38 rooms available to pilgrims and non-believers alike. Stay the night and you can explore once the day trippers have departed.

The monastery was founded in the 10th century by the followers of St Ivan of Rila, a hermit who lived in a nearby mountain cave. Its library holds an important collection of medieval manuscripts and there are exceptional wood carvings, including the Cross of Rafail, which took 12 years of surgical chiselling to make, by which time its creator had lost his sight.

The surroundings are special too. The forested slopes that encircle the quadrangle are now a nature reserve with a network of hiking trails. After checking in to my room (basic but comfortable and en suite), I clump out over the cobbles and head for the summit of Dodov Vrah, a 2,597-metre peak that towers over the valley. The path ascends through a beech forest alive with cuckoos and drumming woodpeckers, eventually reaching an open landscape of tussocks, wild violets and creeping juniper bushes. This is halfway; I continue up past the tumbledown remains of shepherds’ huts to reach the snow drifts on the ridge.

From the summit I look north to the crags around the Seven Rila Lakes, then peer down to spot the red-tiled roof of the monastery, 1,500 metres below. The knee-jarring descent leaves me avoiding stairs for a week, but the river in the valley bottom provides a welcome ice bath for my feet.

No food is provided for guests, so I head to a nearby restaurant for a delicious meal of grilled local trout. A sign informs overnight visitors to return before the gates are locked at 8pm, so I gulp down my wine and rush back before curfew. With characteristic Bulgarian punctuality, the doors eventually swing shut at 9pm. Electric lights clunk on around the cloisters and the looming mountains turn a shade darker. Without the clamour of visitors’ voices, other sounds are amplified: the tinkle of the fountains, the screaming of the swifts wheeling around the courtyard, the gargled miaow of one of the monastery cats.

Church bells wake me early the next morning. I step out on to the creaking wooden veranda; overnight rain has drenched the cobbles and mist clings to the forested mountainsides. Apart from a group of doves purring and sipping from a puddle, the quadrangle is still. Inside the church, the monks have begun the morning service. They stand facing the ornate gold-plated iconostasis, a screen inlaid with icons that separates the main nave from the sanctuary, the holiest part of the church. Every so often, a robed figure appears through a door in the screen, vigorously distributing incense from a hanging censer.

After the service I speak to a monk in the reservations office, Hierodeacon Nektarii. In a soft, musical voice he tells me how he came to the monastery as a novice 10 years ago. There are just eight monks at Rila now, he says — in the 19th century there were 200. When the monastery became a national museum in 1961, the remaining monks were all moved out. “People asked: what kind of monastery has no monks? And a few years later a few of us were allowed to return.”

The gargantuan cooking utensils and 1,000-loaf bread oven displayed in the museum date from Rila’s 19th-century heyday. “On feast days the monastery attracted thousands of pilgrims,” Nektarii explains, “and we would feed them all”. Today’s operations are comparatively modest and Nektarii bakes the communion bread himself — still in a traditional ornamental mould “but we use a modern oven now”.

I pack my bags as the quadrangle begins to bustle with tourists again. As I head out past the tour groups and souvenir stands, I think about Nektarii’s description of the 19th-century monastery — a place of feasts, thronging with pilgrims — and of Leigh Fermor’s description of the carnival buzz of Rila. I feel a pang for the loss of that world but I won’t quickly forget the peace of Rila at dawn.

Details: Twin rooms at Rila Monastery cost from 50 levs (£22) and can be booked in person at the reservations office in the monastery or by phone (+359 07054 2208). For more general tourism information, see bulgariatravel.org

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Ignore the xenophobic hysteria and welcome our EU neighbours

Villagers in Clinceni, Romania cover a field with what they claim is the world's biggest ever flag

Villagers in Clinceni, Romania cover a field with what they claim is the world’s biggest ever flag

Britain is in the Orwellian middle not of a Two-Minute Hate, but a Two-Year Hate.

By Boyd Tonkin.

First published in the Independent, 27 December 2013.

This may surprise alarmed observers in Sofia and Bucharest – or even in Westminster. But one of the best-loved British books of 2013 takes the form of a fervent and heartfelt tribute to the peoples of Bulgaria and Romania. War hero, writer and traveller Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011 before he could publish the third volume of memoirs about his “Great Trudge” though Europe in the mid-1930s. The Broken Road, which appeared posthumously in the autumn, takes the young literary vagabond from the “Iron Gates” on the Danube across both countries to the Black Sea coast.

Everywhere he walks, Leigh Fermor relishes the landscapes and the languages. He admires the culture and the customs. Above all, he comes to love the people of the Balkan peaks and plains: always hospitable and welcoming, forever willing even in the poorest backwater to greet this penniless young Englishman with unstinting generosity, feed him, shelter him and send him on his way with blessings – and with lunch.

Now, what would happen to a late-teenage Bulgarian or Romanian, without lodging, employment or any ready cash, who started to walk, say, from Dover to Glasgow in the spring of 2014? On the evidence of British public life just now, the result would not be a glorious trek across a land of smiles, fondly remembered from a ripe old age.

The Economist magazine has already issued its number-crunched fiat in their favour. Still, this column may count as an early squeak in the almost inaudible chorus of welcome for visitors or migrants to the UK from Bulgaria and Romania. More than a few of us belong to the open-hearted country of Paddy Leigh Fermor rather than the tight little island of Godfrey Bloom. If you wish to, fellow EU citizens, I hope that you will come. Should you choose, quite legitimately, to seek work here, then I hope that you prosper for as long as you stay. And most of all, I hope against hope that our morally bankrupt political class and ruthlessly cynical media will one day start to address the underlying reasons for home-grown fears: the living-standards crisis, deep-seated job insecurity, yawning chasms in wealth and opportunity, the greed and arrogance of a pampered “super-class”, and a chronic lack of decent homes for non-millionaires. Instead, they have set out on yet another sordid scapegoat hunt. Patrick Leigh Fermor Patrick Leigh Fermor

The grievances are genuine. But the actual culprits have got clean away. A useful watchword for 2014 might run: lay the blame where it belongs. August Bebel, a wise German social democrat at the turn of the 20th century, popularised the idea that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools”. A century on, the quarry may have changed, but not the toxic rhetoric, nor the squalid logic of victimisation. As all the 28 million people in the so-called “A2” accession countries of the EU must understand, this lather of dread has been whipped into a perfect storm by the confluence of cannily inflammatory media and the blind funk of a shaky governing party. As a result, if you’re looking for fraudulent crystal-ball predictions, outrageously deceitful hucksterism and a brisk trade in ideological scrap and junk, there’s no need to visit some mythical gypsy encampment. You can find all that and more via any visit to Westminster, TV studios and newsrooms – plus a detour, of course, to the Ukip HQ.

Crashing rollers of anti-immigrant vitriol break day after day, loud as an end-of-year storm surge, and just as implacable. Anyone who resists this tide – who says without any niggling proviso that all legal incomers from European Union member states, as from -everywhere else, presumptively deserve trust, goodwill, courtesy and fair dealing – may feel just now like the enemy within. The tone of paranoia, suspicion and targeted hatred has made British political discourse through

2013 resemble propaganda-fuelled dictatorships such as – well, let’s start with Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania and Todor Zhivkov’s Bulgaria. As regards the citizens of those states, Britain is in the Orwellian middle not of a Two-Minute Hate, but a Two-Year Hate.

Plenty of the worried who fear this as-yet-phantom army of immigrants will have spent Christmas paying lip service at least to the festival’s religious roots. Presumably – and this, I’m afraid, is a rhetorical device shamelessly nicked from the works of Charles Dickens – their edition of the Bible fails to include the exhortation from Deuteronomy that insists “Love ye therefore the stranger, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt”, the lines from Matthew’s gospel that run “For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in”, still less the advice of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”. A few weeks ago, Nigel Farage commented: “We need a much more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage.” To which one might reply: precisely.

Sentimental? Impractical? Airy-fairy? No more so that than the speculative pseudo-statistics that bedevil this “debate”. As to the likely numbers involved, absolute confusion reigns. An even-handed House of Commons briefing paper recently noted that the Foreign Office’s own inquiry into probable figures (commissioned from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research) had concluded that “it is not possible to predict the scale of future migration from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK numerically”. The Commons paper, by the way, also shows why the often-quoted Migration Watch prediction of circa 50,000 net arrivals per annum from Bulgaria and Romania is skewed. The numbers rest on an untested forward projection from events after the 2004 EU entry of Poland and its neighbours (the so-called “A8” countries) on to a wholly different set of circumstances.

Among the factors that suggest “low levels of migration”, the Commons researchers cite the obvious fact that “all remaining transitional controls will expire in all EU countries at the same time”. Among factors that may pull the numbers upwards are “high unemployment rates … in those EU countries that have so far been the preferred destinations for A2 nationals”, mainly Italy and Spain. In short, we don’t yet know. Maybe the invading wave will be crested by some of the estimated 14,000 doctors and 50,000 nurses who have left Romania since it joined the EU in 2007. If so, then our steam-driven pundits should on principle refuse treatment when their apoplectic xenophobia lands them in A&E.

Even if the feared influx of low-skill job-seekers does occur, and does put pressure on underfunded services in certain areas, then public figures still have a choice to make. Some of the windier press invective that craven politicians have done nothing to deflate – especially against Roma people – pretty much amounts to incitement to racial violence.

Whoever wins the dismal numbers game in 2014, a failure to condemn that sort of hate speech opens the door to further barbarism in political life.

We have been here, many times, before. Back in 1517, Londoners rioted on “Evil May Day” against foreign workers. According to legend, the mob was calmed by the then under-sheriff of London, Sir Thomas More. About 75 years later, the event was dramatised in a multi-authored play about the life of More – the kind of stage “biopic” common in the Elizabethan theatre. In the second act, when he faces down the racist rioters of London, the play’s language suddenly leaps into life. More’s great speech makes the case against anti-immigrant agitation with a moral force that still sings out today.

“Grant them removed,” says More about the detested foreigners. “Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,/ Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,/ Plodding to the ports and costs for transportation.” “What had you got?” he asks the mob. “I’ll tell you. You had taught/ How insolence and strong hand should prevail.” In other words, mob rule – of the kind that, these days, tries to smash international treaties and tear up EU agreements. And what if the lawless migrant-bashers had to move abroad themselves, “to anywhere that not adheres to England”? In exile, “Would you be pleased/ To find a nation of such barbarous temper,/ That, breaking out in hideous violence,/ Would not afford you an abode on earth?” Just put yourselves in the foreigner’s shoes, More counsels: “What would you think/ To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;/ And this your mountainish inhumanity.”

There used to be almost as much heated argument around the authorship of this passage (in a script known as “Hand D”) as about the imminent levels of migration from “A2” states. Now, a kind of scholarly consensus prevails. That scene was most probably written by William Shakespeare. Across the political mountains of inhumanity, let’s hope that the latest torrent, or quite possibly, trickle of “strangers” can locate and enjoy Shakespeare’s country.

Culture aside, a well-sourced report released this week by the Centre for Economic and Business Research argues that Britain will over the coming years overtake Germany as the strongest economy in Europe. And which ace do we hold up our sleeve as the Old Continent grows even older, less productive and more state-dependent? Why, “positive demographics with continuing immigration”. On which note, we should wish even the frostiest of Europhobes Chestita Nova Godina and Un An Nou Fericit!

Patrick Leigh Fermor: his final journey

Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron on PLF walkColin Thubron introduces an exclusive extract from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘The Broken Road’, the concluding part of his account of his teenage walk across Europe.

By Colin Thubron with Patrick Leigh Fermor

First published in the Telegraph 1 September 2013.

Patrick Leigh Fermor never quite completed the long-awaited third volume of his youthful journey across Europe. He was 18 when he set out to walk from Holland to Turkey in 1933, but the first two magnificent books recording this epic – A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water were published only in 1977 and 1986 respectively. The second ended with the implacable words “To be Concluded”, and for years expectations ran high that a final book would follow, carrying its hero from the Iron Gates, on the Romanian-Bulgarian border, to Constantinople.

But for Paddy (as friends and fans called him) a long ice age set in: a writer’s block that dogged him for the rest of his life. On completion of the second volume he was already in his seventies, and the pressure of expectation, the demands of his highly wrought style and his own perfectionism were overwhelming.

Yet ironically a near-complete draft of the third volume – written in pen on stiff sheets of paper – had been lying for years on a shelf in his study, in three black ring binders, all but forgotten. It had been composed following a request from Holiday magazine in 1962 that he record his whole trek in a 5,000-word essay. Paddy abandoned this essay when it reached the Iron Gates, but then launched into a full-scale retrieval of his trek’s last stretch: a work he eventually gave the stopgap title of A Youthful Journey. Then this, in turn, was abandoned, with the realisation that he must start all over again, and describe his walk from its beginning.

The initial two volumes were written virtually from memory: a prodigious feat of recall coupled with a rich imagination. His first diary of the journey was stolen in a Munich youth hostel in 1934. His later diaries went missing during the Second World War. But a final one, covering the last stretch of his trek, was preserved by his first great love, the Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzène, who hurled it into her suitcase in the few minutes allowed her by communist officials when she was ejected from her estate in 1949.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at the Rila monastery, Bulgaria, autumn 1934

Patrick Leigh Fermor at the Rila monastery, Bulgaria, autumn 1934

Yet this diary, recovered from Balasha in Romania during a clandestine visit by Paddy in 1965, did nothing to cure his writer’s block.

Perhaps its callow text conflicted with the more mature writing of A Youthful Journey; or perhaps the factual discrepancies in the two versions troubled him. Only in 2008, when already in his nineties, did he seriously begin, painfully and intermittently, to revise the Great Trudge, as he called it. But by now he was suffering from tunnel vision, and his stamina was failing. He died in 2011 at the age of 96, still working on the narrative in a fragile hand.

So it fell to two of his three literary executors, his biographer Artemis Cooper and myself, to prepare the text for publication.

A Youthful Journey was largely written between 1963 and 1964, in prolix bursts of enthusiasm, and its grammar, punctuation and even its style were far from what Paddy considered finished. In our revision we laboured to preserve his inimitable style, while clarifying and refining the text in a process as close as we could get to his exacting practice. There is not a sentence that is not his.

But The Broken Road is our own title. It acknowledges not only that Paddy never, in the end, continued his written journey to Constantinople – it stops 50 miles short of the Turkish frontier – but also that this is not the exuberantly polished volume that he would have most desired. Yet it includes passages perhaps as fine as any he wrote. Its editing was aided by our sense of Paddy’s previous work, of course, by our knowledge of the man himself, and by his few hints and tentative suggestions. And here his journey must rest.

Map accompanying The Broken Road

Map accompanying The Broken Road

Extracts from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘The Broken Road’

“The party went with a bhang”

The lights of Tirnovo were beginning to twinkle in every window, the sun had set, and the prospect of my St Jerome-like hermitage loomed rather bleakly, especially compared to the gleaming interior of the grocer’s: the barrels of anchovies, the hanging flitches, the lamplight refracting a battery of bottles, the dried figs impaled on skewers of bamboo, the kegs and crates and jars and the pyramids of wares from Germany and Austria, the scarlet bacon slicer with its flashing disc of blade, the huge cheeses and the cubistic mounds of halva. It glowed like Aladdin’s cave.

But the shop was empty. A boy of about my own age who had been sitting reading a book on the doorstep got up and followed me in. Where was I from? Whither bound?

Cheerful alacrity and a friendly glance accompanied these questions. We were soon perched on the edge of barrels, clinking slivo glasses and exchanging autobiographies. Gatcho was the grocer’s son, and he was looking after the shop while his father was at some ex-officers’ anniversary celebration, a reunion of old comrades from the Balkan wars.

This particular season, once more, seemed to be crowded with holidays and parties and religious feasts, which kept us up late and beset the mornings with headaches. Gatcho demonstrated a way of finding out if the next day was going to be a feast day, by a method about as reliable as predicting a stranger’s arrival by tea leaves. He found my sheepskin kalpack among the heaped-up chattels on my bed. He pounced on it with glee, crying, “Let’s see whether tomorrow is a prazdnik” – a feast – then lifted it above his head and flung it on the floor, which it struck with a dull thud. His brows knitted with vexation. He repeated it several times. If the hat hit the boards fair and square, he explained, it would give a loud report like the explosion of a paper bag. “There we are,” he said. “All’s well. Prazdnik tomorrow.” And so it was.

In the small hours of one of these celebrations, we found ourselves with half a dozen of the blades of Tirnovo in a hut on the outskirts of the town, smoking hashish. The dried and powdered leaves were packed into the tube of a cigarette paper from which deft fingers had laboriously prodded the tobacco. Lit, and then solemnly passed from hand to hand until the clouds of smoke enveloped us with a sweetish vegetable reek, it brought on a faint dizziness and a gregarious onslaught of helpless laughter.

Bulgaria, it appeared, was one of the richest natural hashish gardens in the world. Cannabis indica thrives in embarrassing abundance. Its cultivation, which is scarcely necessary, and its smoking, my companions explained between puffs, were strictly forbidden: “Mnogo zabraneno. Ha! Ha! Ha!” But the ban seemed about as effective as legislation against cow parsley or nettles. I longed for the opportunity to say “the party went with a bhang!” The lack of opportunity to say so, however, didn’t stop me saying it, and dissolving in transports of hilarity at my own wit.

“A soul in hell”

The following days were raining off and on the whole time, soaking the lowlands and an ever-thickening crop of villages. I stuck to the main road, watching occasional cars pass, and, more temptingly, buses, with PYCCE plastered across the front – Russe, the Bulgarian name for [the city of] Rustchuk. On one of these drizzly stretches, I fell in with a fellow wayfarer heading north like me, a young barber from Pazardjik called Ivancho, threadbare and urban and with a face like a hare’s. Where was I from? Anglitchanin? Tchudesno! – “Wonderful!” This revelation was followed by a burst of talk that needed no answer. It was uttered at such speed that I could scarcely understand a word – at the same time eager, confidential and ear­piercing, and without the faintest trace of punctuation, accompanied by many gestures and with a fixed smile and those hare’s eyes projecting and rolling, as though loose in their sockets.

It continued for mile after mile till my head began to swim and ache. I tried to detach myself and draw on inner resources, merely muttering Da or Nè when a pause occurred. But these were not always the right answers and my companion would begin again, catching me by the elbow and prodding me with his forefinger with redoubled urgency and a crablike veer of his fast and tripping gait that always edged me across the road and nearly into the field, till I darted round the other side and into the middle again, only to be seized once more and harangued off the road on the other side with the same smiling urgency and with eyes peering mesmerically so that it seemed impossible to deflect them. Sometimes he was walking backwards in front, almost dancing along the road in reverse, the unstaunchable flow gushing unbroken from his smiling and gabbling lips. Once I turned round in a circle and he danced briskly round in a wider circle still talking faster and faster.

I tried to counter-attack by resolutely bawling Stormy Weather, but it was too slow. He dived in between the bars, so I shifted to The Lincolnshire Poacher, Lillibulero, On a Friday Morn When we Set Sail, and Maurice Chevalier’s Valentine, over and over again. My head was splitting and I sighed for the tomb and the silence of eternity. People had often teased me for gasbag tendencies, especially when a bit drunk. If only they could see this retribution!

There was only one hope. Ivancho belonged to some kind of pan-Bulgarian barbers’ guild – he had showed me a dog-eared card with a snapshot glued to it – and in two nearby villages that we had passed before I realised how it worked, he had entered a barber’s shop, displayed his card and emerged with a handful of leva. In the next village we came to, I took discreetly to my heels and ran full tilt along the road. Looking back, I saw him emerge, catch sight of my diminishing figure, and set off in pursuit. But I had a good start and the distance widened. I pounded on like a stag with a lightening heart and finally, when the road stretched bare behind me, slowed down, free at last. But a few minutes later a northward-bound car slowed down and Ivancho, with a forefinger wagging in playful admonition, leapt from the running-board.

There was nothing for it. All the evening, and all through dinner, the torment continued till at last I lurched to bed, but not to sleep for any time. Fortunately, though, owing to lack of room, different roofs were sheltering us. After a few nightmare-ridden hours, I got up in the dark, paid, and slipped out before breakfast, and away. But I had not gone a furlong before a waiting shadow detached itself from a tree. A cheerful voice, refreshed by sleep, wished me good morning, and a friendly hand fluttered to my shoulder. Day broke slowly.

Stunned and battered, I saw my chance early in the afternoon. We were sheltering from the rain, drinking Russian tea an inch deep in sugar in the kretchma of a large village. A battered bus was drawn up outside, and the driver-­conductor was drinking with some cronies at another table. I left the table with the excuse of the lavatory, and, outside, made a pleading gesture towards the conductor through the glass top of a door. He joined me, and I haltingly explained my case. He had heard and seen the social amenities rattling about my table; perhaps he could tell from my eyes that he was talking to a soul in hell.

Back in the main room I made the treacherous suggestion to Ivancho that we should take the bus to Rustchuk and get out of the rain: I would pay for the journey. Would he please buy the tickets, I said, handing over the money, as my Bulgarian was so bad? He assented eagerly and volubly. There was a hitch at the bus door: he insisted I should get in first. We struggled and the driver shouted impatiently. I managed to shove him in and the driver pulled the lever that slammed the door, and moved off. I could see Ivancho gesticulating and shouting but all in vain. He shot me a harrowing glance from his hare-eyes, I waved, and the rain swallowed them up. In a few minutes, I took a side-path through a field of damp sunflowers. Taking no chances, I followed a wide loop far from the dangers of the main road. The guilt implanted by Ivancho’s reproachful glance almost managed to mar the ensuing feelings of relief and liberation, but not quite. Not even the bitter wind from the east, as steady as an express train, could do that.

The Broken Road book cover

The Broken Road book cover

The book is available to pre-order from Amazon, just click here The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

£1 a week – (not so) Sunny Beach

Last Saturday I was listening to From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4. One of the packages was from Croatia and concerned the tug of war between environmentalists and business people about controlling and ‘improving’ yet another stretch of the Danube. It reminded me so much of the Persenbeug Prediction in A Time of Gifts. The forecast of the taming of the Danube which now appears to be entering its final round on the Croat-Serbian border.

In his latest dispatch from his epic walk to Istanbul entitled Summer Metropolis, Nick Hunt encounters more uncontrolled development and taming of nature along the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria and reflects on how many of us perhaps fail to find the happiness and fun that we seek in our modern world ….

I wandered inadvertently into an all-inclusive resort. Everyone apart from me was wearing coloured plastic wristbands to demonstrate their allegiance to a particular package deal, like some form of indentured servitude. The broiled bodies on the beach didn’t look particularly happy – in fact most of them had the frowns and down-turned mouths of deep dissatisfaction, as if they didn’t quite know why they’d come here or what they were meant to be doing.

His latest article is very good (Nick’s writing seems to be improving with every piece) and shows just how much things have changed since Paddy walked along that same Bulgarian coastline, encountering Greek fishermen in 1934.

Read Summer Metropolis here.

Final volume from Patrick Leigh Fermor

The latest snippet about Vol 3 from The Bookseller.

John Murray is to publish a posthumous book by travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died in June [Edit – the article says July – good research!!].

by Benedicte Page

First published in The Bookseller, 16 December 2011

The book will complete the story of the journey Leigh Fermor made on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople at the age of 18, as told in his previous works A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. The currently untitled volume will be published in September 2013.

Artemis Cooper, whose biography of Leigh Fermor will be published in September 2012, said: “By the end of the second volume, he was about to cross the Danube from Romania and plunge into Bulgaria; and his devoted readership have been stuck midstream, as it were, for over 20 years. A painstaking perfectionist, Leigh Fermor never did finish the final volume though he was working on it up to his death in June 2011.”

Based on the original diary he kept at the time and an early draft of the book written in the 1960s, this book takes up the story, and carries the reader to Constantinople and beyond.

John Murray m.d. Roland Philipps said: “I was told of the existence of a manuscript on the day that Sir Patrick died in June of this year, and read it shortly afterwards. It is a treat to be back, immersed once again in this great pre-War walk across Europe and wonderful for his many admirers that this book will be published.”

The publisher describes Leigh Fermor as “one of the outstanding prose stylists of modern time”.

The Eagle Has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe

Alexander Billinis is an American with Greek parents and he is a very keen fan of Paddy’s writing. He has travelled and worked all over the Balkans and now lives with his family in Serbia, writing about the region, in particular the trials and tribulations of the Greeks. This review offers a very positive assessment of Alex’s latest book which is available from Amazon and all good booksellers

First published in Cape Cod Today.

Author Alexander Billinis’s subtitle to his book is, “Journeys through Byzantine Europe,” which he modestly describes as a “travelogue.”  Billinis, an international banker, traveler, and writer-journalist, has essentially written a romance with the Balkans. His love of the diverse Balkan peoples and of their history is evident with every paragraph.

The “Eagle” of his title is the two-headed Byzantine eagle, reflecting an empire, with Constantinople as its capital, that  looked eastward to Asia Minor and westward to the Balkans and Europe. The Byzantine Empire was the most advanced in the world, spreading knowledge and culture and prosperity until 1453, when Constantinople was ravaged by the Ottoman Turks and the whole empire thrown into its own dark ages for 500 cruel years.

It was not until the early 20th Century that the last of these lands, including Northern Greece, where my own parents were born, was freed from Ottoman rule. This left what are now the Balkan states 500 years behind the progress of the rest of Europe. Billinis’s travels take him and his wife through Greece and Bulgaria, Romania, Thrace, the region of Macedonia, to Serbia, the northern region of which fell under the Austro-Hungarian Empire rather than the Ottoman. Billinis’s father is from Hydra, an island near Athens, and his wife from northern Serbia. Their combined knowledge and impressions of the region give the book its unique flavor.

The book is liberally sprinkled with photographs reflecting the rich, different architectures of the various cultures that live in and have passed through the region. I’ve occasionally referred to the Balkans as “the dark region” of Europe because that area has been so eclipsed by Ottoman oppression that very little is known about its history and its own Christian empires compared with the rest of Europe. Billinis’s book sheds light on the darkness and brings the area and its people to life.

The book even addresses the Pontian Greeks of Russia and Greek-speaking enclaves that still exist in Italy.

For me, the book has been a Balkan primer and an enchanting read. It is essential reading if you want to round out your European history with 150 concise, but full, pages about Europe’s least known region written by one who has actually traveled its paths and tipped a glass of tsipouro with its people.

Greeks in Hungary: A history in two acts

I thought this would be of general interest. I don’t recall Paddy encountering any Greeks in Hungary but he did come across Greek fishermen from the Greek diaspora when walking along the Bulgarian Black Sea coast in late 1934. That encounter was related in Words of Mercury and includes the Mystery of the Black Sea Cave.

by Alexander Billinnis

First published in The Hellenic Voice, 22 June 2011.

The Greek presence in Hungary is one of the oldest in Greece’s modern diaspora. It is, further, one of the most interesting, because as a tragic accident of war and politics, it received a new lease on life, a second chapter of sorts. The Greeks’ odyssey in Hungary is a tale of two diasporas and the efforts of current Greeks to unite the two acts into a common play.

Act I: The First Diaspora

After swallowing up the Balkans, the Turks shattered the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohacs, and the Turks controlled most of Hungary, and up to the gates of Vienna in Austria, for more than 150 years. On the heels of the Turks’ second, failed siege of Vienna in 1683, the Austrians, at the head of a multinational European force, began the taskof evicting the Turks from Central Europe. When the guns fell silent, in 1717, the Austrians and Hungarians needed to rebuild their realm devastated by war, and many Ottoman Christians, primarilySerbs but also Greeks and Vlachs, responded eagerly.

Greek merchants quickly established themselves in major Hungarian cities, such as Buda, Pest, Szentendre, Miskolc and Tokaj. They were heavilyinvolved in the overland trade with the Ottoman Empire, but they also worked as agriculturalists and vintners. There is some evidence that winemakers from Macedonia first cultivated Hungary’s prized Tokaj wine. The Greek merchants were heavily involved in the coffee trade, and some of the oldest Budapest coffeehouses have Greek origins. As an avid coffee drinker, this makes me particularly proud.

The Greeks’ natural appetite for commerce, their large commercial network in the Ottoman Empire and their growing colonies throughout the Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian Empire) brought a great deal of wealth to the small but financially and politically powerful community. The Greek community supported schools, charitable institutions and of course church organizations. Initially the Greek students studied at the Serbian school, but by 1785 they established their own, which operated continuously until 1900. The Greeks and Vlachs established a church community separate from other Orthodox nationalities (though still subject to the Serbian Patriarchate), and their cathedral, built in 1809, continues (as the Hungarian Orthodox Church) to serve a largely Hungarian Orthodox community, often Balkan in origin. Other Greek Orthodox churches grace several Hungarian cities, including Tokaj, Eger and Miskolc.

The Greeks’ very success fostered an increasing assimilation. Greeks left the merchant class, became naturalized Hungarians, and in some cases nobility. Events in Hungary followed a similar pattern to those in Vienna and other key Austrian commercial centers. Lacking the critical mass of population that the Serbs had in southern Hungary (which later became the Serbian province of Vojvodina, where my family and I currently live), the Greeks became Hungarians, though some did keep the Orthodox religion of their ancestors, and vestiges of their culture.

Act II: The Second Diaspora

Just as the First Greek Hungarian diaspora faded into assimilation and history, events in Greece stirred up another wave of Greeks into Hungary. Many of these immigrants came from the same mountains as the first diaspora, but they were not merchants, but refugees – guerillas, villagers and intellectuals of the communist movement in the Greek Civil War. Many were children, many came involuntarily. Their connections with Greece were severed by the hard frontiers of the Cold War, but they did not forget Greece or their traditions.

In the “Greek” village of Beloiannisz (Beloyiannis), which I visited, or in small communities in Budapest, Miskolc, Pecs and Kesckemet, the Greeks kept their language and culture alive. In the communist period the Church played little role as a guardian of faith and identity, in contrast with the first Greek diaspora in Hungary, or Greek diasporas in the Americas or Australia. In the post-communist era, the role of the Church has reemerged.

Other virtues we associate with the diaspora, hard work and study, also marked this post Civil War diaspora. Greeks excelled in academia and professions well out of proportion to the small size of their community. All of the Greeks I met, including the second generation born in Hungary, spoke Greek with a precise fluency.

A fair percentage of the Greek Hungarian community repatriated to Greece, particularly in the 1980s, but the community by that time was quite well established in Hungary. The Hungarian government recognized Greeks as a distinct minority and cofunded cultural and educational activities. This support enables a diverse educational and cultural agenda, including an elementary school, weekly cultural performances and a growing literature about the community. When I arrived at the cultural center, I was welcomed as a fellow diaspora Greek, and loaded down with books on the community.

Closure

I spent an hour talking to Professor Nikosz Fokasz (Nikos Fokas), an eminent Hungarian sociologist and one of the Greek community’s leading intellectuals. Son of a Paris-educated Cephalonian architect and a mother from a village in Evritania, Professor Fokas is an urbane academic at home in university circles throughout Europe and North America. He considers thispostwar Diaspora to be the keepers and the descendents of the first diaspora. After all, both generally descended from the same Macedonian and Epirote mountains, a “diaspora of the Mountains,” as he calls it. Many Hungarians are now rediscovering their Greek roots, with the active help of this newer Greek diaspora.

Professor Fokas noted, with a particular pride, that Baron Simon Sina, a Greek Hungarian, financed Budapest’s most iconic Danube bridge, Lanc Hid (Chain Bridge), as well as a large part of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, another signature Budapest building. Honoring him, Greek Hungarians have been instrumental in establishing the “Sina Award,” bestowed upon a member of the Hungarian business community for outstanding support of the arts and sciences. Fostering awareness of Hungary’s Greek and Orthodox elements in its history has been a key contribution of this new diaspora, and in so doing, it has honored, and in some cases, literally resurrected, the first diaspora.

As always when I travel among diaspora Greeks, I felt a common bond with the Greek Hungarians in spite of our very different histories. There was that love of Greece, somehow less jaded, than that of Greeks in Greece. There is also a very clear consciousness among Greeks in Hungary that the history of Hellenism and Orthodoxy is a long one in their country, and that custody of this tradition is an important role, which they assume with pride. It is a pertinent lesson for our community in America.

Alexander Billinis is a Greek American writer living in Serbia. He previously worked in international banking in the US, Britain and Greece. His book, “The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe,” will be released later this year. 

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