Monday, 29 July 2013

A pause for thought in Lovech

Having explored the monuments and other sights of Sofia, and having been surprised by the omnipresent street art and graffiti in the Bulgarian capital (all while being fairly clueless about the anti-government protests rumbling on during our brief stay), on Friday morning it was time to begin a gently paced journey to the villa which we've rented on the Black Sea coast.

Why take a holiday in Bulgaria of all places?
The broad Central and Eastern Europe region (take that to mean the former communist states of Europe) has been close to my heart for almost twenty years now. So I was keen to find time not only to laze around a swimming pool but also to explore a bit of Bulgaria, one the CEE countries that I'd not previously managed to visit.

My interest in the region began quite by chance when I was presented with a wholly unexpected employment opportunity that took me to a Polish city of which I had never heard prior to accepting a job there in September 1993. I expected to stay in Poland for just one year. But the people were hospitable, I made wonderful friends (some of whom I still see occasionally all these years later) and it was genuinely fascinating to get to know another country better than it is possible to do on a short holiday or business trip. So that one-year stay ended up being a four-year stay.

Since returning to the UK from my stint in Poland, I have sometimes managed to find ways of making a living from my interest in the CEE region. Simply put, my time in Poland, as well as equipping me with some understanding of opportunities presented by the ways in which the region's economies were developing, had imbued me with an ability to be perceived as somehow more than averagely simpatico when speaking with people from that part of Europe. In a couple of different jobs, I would often find I was in a race with one or more competitor based, like me, in London and seeking to take advantage of the same CEE region opportunity I was working on. In every case, I appeared to find it a bit easier to open the right doors. I remain convinced that the key factor at play was the feel for life in the region which I had gained from living right at its heart. This is not meant to imply that I believe the region to be culturally homogeneous. Far from it, in fact. Rather, while the peoples of these countries do have some shared memories of living with communist systems, I have found the differences between them as interesting as the things they have in common. 

How the west sees the east?
I recoil a bit, then, whenever I hear anyone from western Europe or North America generalising about "East Europeans" - especially when the generalisations are by way of making some uncomplimentary point. I am thinking here about certain observations which can be made when some British people discuss recent immigration to the UK. But that is by no means the worst of it. For example, I have occasionally overheard British or American men referring to the young women of either some particular CEE country or of the region as a whole, sketching a crude characterisation of disadvantaged and therefore easily exploitable objects for the lust of anyone shopping for sex. For anybody who thinks in those terms and especially for anyone capable of seeing something funny in this kind of idea, I would recommend a viewing of Lilya 4-ever, a harrowing film directed by Lukas Moodyson which examines the issues of human trafficking and sexual slavery, as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl from an unnamed former Soviet republic. If this movie failed to disabuse our imagined viewer of his squalid ideas, I would draw a very unfavourable inference about his capacity for human decency. What, then, of anyone who found Moodyson's film in any way titillating? Well, I don't want to meet that person.

I have no idea to what extent the notion of the exploitable East European is a widely held view in western Europe or how many people think it acceptable to try to take advantage of it. But I know that this idea is not only about a cheap leg-over on a stag weekend or the supposed availability of young brides for middle-aged men from more affluent parts of the world. As I write this, I am reminded of a particularly unpleasant remark that was once made in my presence in the kitchen of a large, comfortable house in London to which my wife and I were invited for lunch. Our hostess that day was the person who made the remark I am thinking about now. Before having children she had pursued a fairly lucrative career in financial services. Her partner continues to work in that field. In common with many of London's richer residents, she uses the services of full-time helpers whose role involves performing many of the more menial and demanding tasks that most parents do for themselves when bringing up kids. She was comparing the merits of employing British versus East European women in this context. "I always prefer to have an East European girl," our hostess opined. "They're cheaper, more grateful for the job and easier to get rid of if things don't work out."

I am not interested in disputing the truth of this comment. Sadly, it's almost certainly factually accurate. But I was struck by the lack of feeling for a fellow human being that seemed to be exemplified by our hostess's words. Not only was she unashamedly open about seeing people primarily as a commodities, but she had also constructed a hierarchy of exploitability, with the degrees to which we can take advantage of another person's neediness arranged along an east-to-west cline.

Going off the beaten track
In the years that followed my return from Kraków, my work-related travels have taken me not only back to Poland (numerous times) but also to Russia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Romania. As well as making these various trips, I am certain I have met at least one person from each of the other countries of the region, as well as from all of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. While all of this was going on, I started to pick out further CEE countries as holiday destinations. So as well as coming over here to Bulgaria, I've also enjoyed breaks in Croatia and Montenegro. Every time, I've managed to see a bit more than the area immediately around my sun lounger. I know many people love to do nothing more than sunbathe, swim and take some refreshments on board and I don't mean to imply here that those kinds of holidays are in any way inferior to the ones I enjoy. Different people like different things, that's all. But I would get terribly restless were I to go no further than the beach or pool. I simply always get the urge to see a few old buildings, walk a few back streets, drive on a few back roads and attempt to get a feel for something beyond the usual tourist experience. It's extremely fortunate that my other half feels the same way about holidays.

The plan here, then, was to spend a couple of days getting to know the capital city and then to drive across the country, making an overnight stop along the way. Those previous trips to Montenegro and to Croatia's northernmost and southernmost regions have taught us that driving conditions can be a bit unpredictable. In the same country, it's possible to find both areas in which the roads are wide, well-kept and adequately signposted and areas in which the way ahead is narrow, bumpy and hard to navigate. With this in mind, we opted not to set ourselves an ambitious task on the first day of getting used to driving in Bulgaria. So, selecting a place to stay mainly on the basis of being rather less than halfway between Sofia and our eventual destination, we ended up booking a hotel in Lovech. Of this small city, we knew almost nothing. The sum total of my knowledge of Lovech was the existence of its football team, whose exploits in European competitions were something of which I was vaguely aware.

Lovech, the guidebooks tell us, has a long and eventful history behind it. Inhabited by Thracians around six thousand years ago, the town has since seen the arrival of Roman soldiers, the twelfth century signing of an important treaty between the Byzantine and Bulgarian empires and the fifteenth century occupation of Ottoman Turks. The most prominent figure in the Bulgaria's later struggle against Ottoman rule was Vasil Levski. Lovech was the centre of operations for the resistance movement led by Levski in the nineteen century. During that time, it seems, the town was among the wealthiest and busiest centres of trade in Bulgaria. But the impression we gained during our very short stay in Lovech was of somewhere whose prominence and prosperity seems to be on the wane.

That said, one fairly major employer does provide what I imagine to be, in the local context at least, reasonably well-paid jobs. The town is home to a vehicle assembly plant operated by Litex, a partner of the Chinese auto manufacturer Great Wall Motors. If, like me, you're a football fan and had heard of Lovech's professional team, you will recall that the word "Litex" forms part of its name. The club, founded in 1921 and originally known as Hisarya, has changed names many times during its history, adopting its present incarnation in 1996 when Litex supremo Grisha Ganchev took it over. Although now active in auto assembly, Ganchev's company started life in fuel importing and trading. On our travels this week, we have already filled the car once at a Litex petrol station. In Lovech, the Litex brand is pretty prominent. A mural depicting the vehicles to whose manufacture it contributes was one of the first things we saw on entering the town.

Lovech: strangely familiar
As we pressed on into the town centre, I felt an odd sense of familiarity. Because while Lovech is surrounded by a very different landscape and is laid out somewhat differently, I was immediately reminded of Kielce, the Polish city in which I found myself almost twenty years ago. I only spent ten months living there, going on to spend the majority of my time in Poland living in the rather livelier Kraków. But when in Kraków I had reasons to revisit Kielce on numerous occasions. So at one point I could claim to know the city fairly well. That said, my last trip there must have been some time in 1996, so I expect it has changed a great deal and I am aware that I am comparing the Lovech of today with the Kielce of about seventeen years ago. Maybe that says something about the lower base from which the Bulgarian post-communist economy has developed versus the Polish experience. But whatever the reasons, and however shaky a proper comparison might prove, the visible similarities were striking for me - a down-at-heel, sleepy town centre lacking the familiar retail brands that we know across the somewhat homogenised western European commercial landscape; a pretty extreme state of dilapidation of the infrastructure, as evidenced by terribly pitted road surfaces and run down public buildings; a ring of cramped and dilapidated public housing just outside the central business district.

In Sofia we had seen graffiti remarkable not only for its quantity but for the size, complexity and colour of many of the pieces. Work of that nature was generally not in evidence in Lovech, but the walls were smeared very liberally with marks that suggested that some of the town's younger people may exist in a state of nihilistic boredom: as well as countless simple graffiti tags, we saw white power symbols, swastikas, crudely drawn genitalia and references to football hooliganism. 

Don't take these remarks about the look and feel of Lovech to be by way of condemnation. My experience of living in Kielce started to teach me that wonderful people with interesting lives can be found in the visually unprepossessing and less well-known towns and cities of Central and Eastern Europe. If you ever visit Poland as a tourist, I'll wager that Kraków will be on your itinerary and that Kielce (or other middle-sized Polish cities like it) will not. But I had a good time in both and I suspect that the younger, more adventurous version of myself would have found a way of enjoying life in Lovech had I ended up working there instead of in Kielce.

Another similarity between the Lovech of today and the Kielce of my memories was the evidence, in both places, of decades of communist-era town planning. In addition to the preponderance of public housing blocks, parts of the town centre reminded me of parts of downtown Kielce. I think anyone who has visited a number of CEE countries and has had the opportunity to look around beyond the castles and cathedrals of their capital cities will have started to build a mental map of what public spaces looked like behind the Iron Curtain. In this respect, I found that Lovech largely conformed with the personal schema for a CEE town that I began to develop when wandering around the centre of Kielce twenty years ago.

That said, one difference did stand out. In Lovech today, kiosks selling magazines, cigarettes, confectionery and so on seem to be thin on the ground. In the 1990s, in every Polish town I visited, both large and small, such kiosks were in plentiful supply. In Kielce I learned some important basic vocabulary by shouting through the tiny grille of one particular kiosk, trying to make myself heard above the noise of trucks and buses and above the howling of the wind blowing in from the Świętokrzyskie mountains. On Monday mornings, I would buy a copy of Gazeta Wyborcza at that kiosk and scan the small print of the sports pages for QPR's score from the weekend. Living abroad in the pre-internet and pre-mobile phone age, folks. News from home was a scarce and precious commodity.

Later, travelling to other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, I could see that the humble kiosk remained a staple feature of the retail scene all over the region. But perhaps even in a place as sleepy-looking as Lovech, where the independent shopkeeper does not yet seem to have been blasted out of the water by well-capitalised chain stores from Germany or France, the kiosk has had its day. The Wikipedia entry for the town refers to a steady flight from Lovech to a more favourable job market in Sofia. Maybe the conditions have just become too tough for many of the hard-working independent retail pioneers who built nice little businesses when Bulgaria began its transition away from a centrally planned economic system. Hence the abandoned, sad-looking husks of kiosks we saw dotted about the place.

If you do find yourself in Lovech... 
Should anyone responsible for the development of tourism in Lovech read this article, I guess I won't be thanked for my description of the town. So I should restate the fact that what's presented here is only drawn from a very brief visit. Those passing through but with more time to spare would doubtless find something of interest in the various museums dedicated to preserving and presenting the town's rich history, not least the period during which Levski was at large in the area. A large and appealing park with a zoological garden can  also, apparently, be found close to the town.

If, then, your travels do ever take you to Lovech, we can, without hesitation, recommend a truly excellent place to stay. The Family Hotel Varosha 2003 is real little gem. With just eleven comfortable, clean, rustically furnished rooms overlooking the River Osam, this is one of the most delightful places I've ever stayed. Everyone working there was incredibly welcoming. We splurged on a suite of two bedrooms, a kitchenette and a bathroom (with very fancy jacuzzi!) for just €70 (in advance, via a hotel booking website). Both bedrooms were air conditioned (the Bulgarian summer is stifling) and we had a neat little balcony overlooking the courtyard restaurant where you take breakfast. Do also have dinner there. The cooking was excellent and the place seems to be extremely popular with locals as well as with the handful of foreign guests staying in the hotel.

Finally, Lovech is reached by driving through very striking countryside - heavily wooded mountain ridges interspersed with welcoming-looking valleys. But do be warned: the roads leading to the town are, in places, in VERY poor condition. It's a bumpy ride and I wouldn't fancy it in bad weather.

For me, though, Lovech offered not only a gem of a family-owned hotel in which to break our journey across the country, but also pause for thought about the varying paces of change across the states formerly behind the Iron Curtain.

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