Tag Archives: Bulgaria


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Street markets are a common sight throughout Europe. Many towns and cities grew from ancient beginnings at crossroads where merchants from exotic parts set up bazaars to buy, to sell, to swap news, to plot, to scheme. In short, to engage in all the activities man is capable of.

Several of these markets are historically significant, well documented in book and film, essential destinations for tourist and trader alike. There is much to explore, both in open air and covered street markets, while the careful observer will note that little has changed with respect to human behaviour. Sadly now in certain countries local markets are fast becoming targets for those whose twisted minds seek to sow horror and carnage.

As one travels further and further east across the Balkans, away from the sophisticated culture of urban areas and deeper into the simpler life of isolated rustic communities, the street market has much more in common with its ancient counterpart. The exchange of goods, especially fresh produce, is vital to the well-being of the community. It is not unusual, even today, to encounter people clad almost entirely in handmade garments, people who have never gone beyond their village of birth.

On to the fun! Friends have been regaling me with stories of their fantastic buys in recent months, and as it’s been some time since we visited a Volos street market, we decided to do so this past Friday. Small neighbourhood markets take place on most days, typically offering fish and fresh produce, while the Wednesday and Friday markets are the largest with regard to clothing and household goods.

They can be huge, occupying several blocks, so these markets are required to rotate their locations in order not to inconvenience residents and shopkeepers on a regular basis. There’s a roster determined by the municipality, but because the clothing markets are situated in an area of upper Volos, away from the town centre, it’s not strictly necessary to know exactly where they will be held – it soon becomes obvious as you drive along where the hustle and bustle is.

It’s also apparent that parking is a problem: the streets are narrow, the vehicles numerous, the obstacles many, the crowds large. Nothing for it but to get stuck in. Literally. You can see why we don’t often go. Hubby dropped me at an intersection and went off to sandwich the car somewhere; thank goodness for cell ‘phones which make it possible to locate each other in the throng.

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We often joke that you can clothe yourself from head to foot as you meander through the stalls, such is the variety of goods on sale, from shoes and socks, underpants and some rather improbable-looking bras, to sweaters, coats and headgear. You can eat too, if street food’s your thing – souvlaki, sausages, grilled corn on the cob, the ubiquitous sesame bread twists. The smells are tempting but I confess to a certain reluctance to sample them.

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You can take care of personal grooming; you can accessorize; you can clean, carpet, curtain and cushion your home; dress up your dining room; brighten your bedroom, and toss a few new tschotsches about while you’re at it. Depending on your taste of course.

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While you may occasionally see a soul selling some interesting item from the ancestral home, the bulk of the goods consists of cheap imports though lately it’s clear that stock has been obtained from defunct business enterprises. This is where the bargains are to be found, good quality clothing in particular – if you’re prepared to rummage through the piles stacked on the trestle tables. Designer pieces turn up – sometimes with the labels removed which I’m told is the practice when prestigious names clear their overstocks – to the delight of the savvy buyer.

Most of the vendors are Roma people, often referred to as gypsies – an offensive term. The Roma in Greece are settled in tightly knit communities, are citizens, and aren’t as a rule itinerant. Their native language remains intact, and certainly here in Greece the Roma are fully bilingual. (It’s worth noting that the Roma I recently encountered in Bulgaria speak a different Roma dialect, as well as Bulgarian.) 

The Roma and their history have been of interest to me since childhood, but I’m not going to elaborate on their culture now – I’ll drone on about it another time.

What all the vendors do have in common is their patter, pitched at ear-splitting volume. Roma women often sit atop the tables stacked with their wares, tossing garments at would-be shoppers:

” Come on, my love!” they bawl.

“Look at this beauty! Where will you find such a bargain! Don’t think for one moment you would pay this pitiful amount in the snooty store!”

Their helpers dart about, taking the money, retrieving the goods, cajoling the doubtful into a purchase.

“Girls! Girls! Would I lie to you? Would I? You think I’m selling things? Am I selling things? I’m not selling things, girls, I’m not selling! I’m giving it away!”

All good fun. I’ve never encountered rudeness, I must say, and find it absolutely fascinating, though I’m not made of stuff stern enough to spend a lot of time in the raucous atmosphere.

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Market’s end



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You’ll have gathered by now that I’m fascinated by architectural details. Our modern buildings – so many of them concrete and steel – do not generally feature the kind of decoration possible on a much smaller scale. That’s not to say that contemporary structures aren’t frequently stunning, combining form and function to spectacular effect. Think the Sydney Opera House, the Louvre extension, the Shard…the list is long and the debate endless, and in my experience greatly enhanced by a glass or two of vino.

But I digress. I want to share more of downtown Plovdiv’s many charming windows. How fortunate that we visited during winter, when the numerous large trees that provide welcome summer shade had tossed away their leaves, allowing one to see most of the windows clearly.

They’ve really captured my imagination. Who was looking out? And when? Who was looking in? And why? Bulgaria’s history is tumultuous. Like that of all the Balkans, peaceful periods, often accompanied by relative prosperity, were frequently fractured by uprisings, war, occupying forces. Dissent, distress and despair were looked upon by these windows, but they also provided a view of happier times, of freedom from fear, of rejoicing and dancing in the streets. Those looking out surely waved to those looking in, and when occasionally I caught the eye of someone at their window, we both waved, and we both smiled. Maybe they wondered about me.

Who were the craftsmen who created these details? Such skilled artisans must have been in demand. Were they resident in the area, or did they travel from workplace to workplace? Were they given free rein to embellish the structure as they wished, or did the homeowner have specific requirements? Was the work a source of pride and satisfaction to the craftsman, or was it regarded as merely a means to provide an income?

Enough of pondering. Many of these buildings are destined for demolition, that different kind of destruction inevitable in areas subject to renewal. Bulgaria’s moving ahead, but is somebody looking back and documenting these little gems?

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We recently spent a few days in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, driving up from the Pelion and crossing the border outside of Serres. We’ve travelled quite a bit through Balkan states, but this was our first visit to Bulgaria, nestled deep in the heart of the Balkans.

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It will take me time to process my impressions, to reconcile what I saw and heard with the very little I knew of the country’s history and its warm-hearted people. Of course, it can be argued that a few hours of driving through small towns en route, together with a somewhat hair-raising encounter with rush hour traffic in historic downtown Sofia, hardly qualifies one to make pronouncements, but first impressions do frequently find their mark, which in this instance make us eager to return for further exploration.

Bulgaria’s history is long, and long has its geographical position subjected it to invasion. Social turbulence, hideous conflict, unspeakable horrors have dominated the country since time immemorial; the Ottoman Occupation lasted here even longer than in Greece, and finally ended in the Independent Bulgaria of 1878.

Not for long, sadly, for immediately post World War Two Bulgaria was gripped, choked by Communism. The Soviet-era scars remain, both in the hideous concrete structures built to house the populace – visible memories of poverty, fear and repression – but also in the recollections of those who lived through it.

Plovdiv, the second largest city, is ancient. Its buildings are a fascinating mix of architecture; there’s a Roman city, there are mosques, temples and churches, museums, theatres, and dwellings of historic significance. The city was home through the ages to peoples of all ethnic groups, religions and cultures; it was a crossroads of commerce, a thoroughfare of tradesmen, a meeting point for many minds.

Bulgaria was admitted to the European Union in January, 2007. Plovdiv’s inner city is undergoing urban renewal – the inevitable signs of rapid development apparent in the many construction sites, with their scaffolding scarring the facades of graciously genteel buildings. Steel and glass modernity is juxtaposed with gems of bygone architecture, and in some cases is even imposed upon these older buildings in that the lower levels have been updated – plate glass windows and doors – whilst the upper levels remain untouched. So far.

The wealth of architectural detail and ornament still to be seen is quite stunning. Many are the photographs I took while ambling in a very small area, some of which I’ll share with you in the next few posts.

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The Pagasitic Gulf has a fairly good natured temperament, but as the saying goes, still waters run deep and in this case they do quite literally for the Gulf’s depth is about 100 meters in most parts. Though usually calm, the Pag can be moody, showing flashes of anger just when least expected, particularly after Poseidon decides to get his trident in a twist. Rather high and mighty is Poseidon, conscious of his position as one of the Twelve Gods; his realm is the sea and he’s a touchy character. Very. Poseidon is quick to take offense, and even quicker to vent his fury, striking his three pronged weapon to cause earthquake and tsunami, shipwreck and drowning. For my part I’ll take his raging seas any day rather than his earthquakes.

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Pagasitic Gulf from Google Earth

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The waters of the Pagasitic can boil up in no time, frequently subsiding just as swiftly, but when Poseidon’s tantrums are out of control, the sea might rage for days, depositing all manner of debris along the beaches and among the rocks. Plastic, that prince among pollutants in all its forms, nets, ropes, wood, medical waste bearing foreign labels and doubtless dumped at sea, bottles, branches, logs, shoes, clothing, toys, to name but a few. My dog Sophia, keen swimmer and beachcomber, supplemented the toys we constantly bought her, by retrieving various playthings and balls from the tangled messes hurled onto the shore.

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After one particularly fierce storm when Poseidon was completely out of control, I noticed a piece of green knitwear twisted tightly around some vegetation. Intrigued, I retrieved the mangled bundle and set about separating the knitting from the twigs and pine cones, burrs, thistles and bits of root gripping it. A very damaged, hand knitted sweater was finally freed. I was rather upset at first; it was difficult not to think that maybe a life had been lost. But then again, why should that have been the case? It could just as easily have been blown overboard, or accidentally dropped into the sea. Or been swept by a wave off the beach. Washed away in a heavy rainstorm. What about the person who’d lost it? Was it their only sweater? Sophia and I walked home, and I placed the matted little heap on a table to dry in the sun.

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The next day I picked off some of the seed pods stuck all over it. This sweater has been in the water a long time. It’s faded in parts, badly ripped, it’s brittle and disintegrating, but it has a story to tell and I’m trying to understand it. There’s a temptation to indulge in a flood of metaphor and sentiment with regard to it, with waffle about unraveling and dropped stitches, and being battered by life, about what it was and what it no longer is, but the fact remains that someone went to the trouble of making it, and somehow it got lost. The fact remains that it’s handknitted, and that one seldom sees handknitted clothing here any more. The street markets in Europe have seen to that.

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So where did it come from, this little sweater? And by whose hands was it made? The yarn is wool, it’s quite badly degraded, but it appears to have been handspun. This makes me think of Albania where I know women who spin beautiful yarns on drop spindles to knit for their families. The garment is knitted back and forth in pieces, which have been seamed together; the sleeves are set in; the neckband is crocheted. The yarn has been held double at all the cast on edges – a technique commonly used in Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Turkey and parts of the Middle East. A close examination reveals no damage to the cast on edges, which is interesting in that other areas of the sweater have been torn. The cast on stitches are fairly rigid, they have very little elasticity, which again brings Albania to mind.

The workmanship would win no prizes, but this is a utilitarian garment, made to serve a need. It is not the work of privilege, if I may phrase it so. The hands that drew upon age-old knowledge and techniques to make it, that did so with love and concern, created a garment that links all those of us who knit. Who knows how far it’s traveled?P1110973 [HDTV (1080)]A IMG_2241 [HDTV (720)]A