Friday, 28 July 2017

Bulgaria in 5 days: Shumen, South of Nowhere

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
Patriotic ruins, a Coca Cola-branded mosque, a “stud factory” and a capsule, containing a message for future generations: these are only part of modern Shumen’s surprising charms.
If there were three places in Bulgaria where one would never consider spending a week of vacation, those would probably be Pernik, Karnobat and Shumen. The last one, however, does not deserve its wretched reputation.

Even though the architectural megalomania of the 1980s has ruined a large part of the old centre, having raised a number of grotesque constructions that are now unfortunately visible from all parts of the city and its surroundings, Shumen is unexpectedly pleasant, fun and diverse. The series of ancient Bulgarian ruins, the country’s oldest mosque, the horse-breeding farm inherited from the Ottoman Empire, Battenberg’s residence and its calm provincial rhythm make Shumen a place where one can spend a few days filled with daily discoveries.

The Town: Between Sherif Halil Pasha and Pencho Kubadinski

The first shock comes immediately after getting off the main road between Sofia and Varna. Among the lanes of the three-kilometre long road to Shumen, there are not a few, not dozens, but hundreds of flags lined up. Their stately flapping in the wind creates a funny, old fashioned tension that one would expect to culminate in an elaborate military parade. Instead, the town, a bit disappointingly, starts with an industrial zone.

Shumen is an authentic provincial town. Its pedestrian street, where shops, banks and cafés alternate, passes underneath two rows of tall trees; it is lined with benches, sculptures and water fountains. Pedestrians are buying bagel-like snacks, the newspaper vendors are yawning and the colourful crowd sits on the sidewalk tables as if it never left them.

On one end of the main street stands the Russian monument and the centre of the old town is at the other. In order to create the square in front, wide as a desert, at least a few dozen of the Austo-Hungarian style houses with which all of Shumen was built up had to be demolished. In their place, there now stand three buildings of a remarkable ugliness: an unfinished concrete tower, the erstwhile state-owned hotel (creatively names Shumen) and a marble-covered residential block, bearing a sign which says Club Orgasm.

If one tries very hard, one can forget about his peripheral vision from time to time. This brings a few moments’ relief, during which the monstrous silhouette of the monument of the Founders of the Bulgarian State does not dominate, much like a storm-bearing cloud, the otherwise sweet peacefulness of the town.

Raised on a high hill in the centre, it is one of the most megalomaniac creations of the former socialist rule. Its supposed weight is about 1.5 billion tons and its curious dimensions make German tourists take taxis from the Black Sea coast, in order to come and see it. Two winters ago, a horse hoof broke off the tip of the monument: various sources claim that it weighted between two and five tons. It did not kill anybody only because there were no visitors during the February cold.

Going along with the 1980s megalomania, there is a capsule containing a message to future generations buried in the monument’s foundations. According to the tour guides, who seem to remember startling details, the message was laid into the ground by the top figure of the erstwhile Bulgarian Communist Party, Pencho Kubadinki himself.

After crossing the town’s central square, one starts descending towards another one of Shumen’s landmarks with dramatic tension in the fundament – the Tombul Mosque. Even though it has been undergoing restoration for years (and there are Coca Cola stickers visible on its windows!), it is the oldest and perhaps the most beautiful mosque in Bulgaria. It was built in the eighteenth century by Sherif Halil Pasha. The locals, with historical patriotism, like to complain that its foundations were laid with the white stone blocks from the two ancient Bulgarian towns nearby – Pliska and Preslav.

Dreamy Archaeologists and Mafia Baroque

Pliska and Preslav are the two classic places to visit near Shumen. Their ruins are not as impressive as those of Efes, Aphrodisias or the Parthenon, but they are comparable to the holy city of Phillip of Macedonia, Dion. To Bulgaria’s history, they are just as important.

Pliska is the first capital of the first Bulgarian state, which was founded at the end of the seventh century. The best way to see it is from a helicopter, but that is a service nobody has thought to offer yet.

Archaeologists have made impressive graphic reconstructions of the ruined city, the foundations of which can be mostly seen now. Their work has brought about more inspiration than the restorers can handle. It seems they were so impressed with the recreations, based largely on guesswork, that they have begun to complete, quite eccentrically, the Big Basilica along Pliska’s walls. As a result, at the moment it not as reminiscent of an archaeological finding as it is of mutrobaroque - the style favoured among certain circles of nouveau riche, organised crime mobsters, known as mutri (literally ‘mugs’) in Bulgaria. It dominates many a new houses, built in kitchified classical Greek and Roman styles.

Preslav, the erstwhile literary school and the second Bulgarian capital (from 893AD) has been spared: there, the ruins are ruins and walking among them is like walking in nature. It is good to visit it relatively early in the day, as the surrounding hills block the sun long before sunset.

And some more horses

The Shumen region is dominated by horses in endless ways: starting from the sculptures of horses in mid-flight, part of the monument over the town, through the two medieval capitals, founded by the Bulgarian horse-breeders and the accompanying rock relief of the Madara Horseman and ending up with a "horse factory", Kabiyuk.

This "factory" was inherited from the Ottoman Empire, envied by Western Europe for its magnificent stallions for centuries on end. Story has it that its founder, Midhat Pasha chose the place, 13 kilometres northeast of Shumen, by applying a technique popular at the time, known as “meat hanging.” It consisted of the hanging of pieces of veal on trees and the subsequent, almost laboratory monitoring of which piece rots the least. This was then used as a testament of the absence of flies, making the place appropriate for horse breeding.

Thus, Kabiyuk was founded in 1864, in order to raise horses for the needs of the Ottoman army on the Balkans. When it retreated from Bulgaria at the end of the nineteenth century, the Turkish army took away every single one of its stallions and the newly-established state found the stable empty. It started to recreate it anew, renaming it to the sinister-sounding ‘horse factory’.

One of the few Bulgarian race horse breeds, known as the East Bulgarian, was selected and raised there. And even though business was never run completely in a market-based way, the farm survived as a remarkable place for walks and horseback-riding until today. Besides that, it hosts what is probably the only Museum of the Horse on the Balkans and offers a view into more recent history: the residence in which Prince Battenberg signed the Unification decree in 1885 is on the park’s grounds.

To put it shortly – there is a surprise around every turn of the carriage and all that – in Shumen. Nowhere, and just to the south of it. When you think about it, Pernik – the Bulgarian epitome of the post-industrial Apocalypse – will be quite an interesting place when the Balkans discover the term 'industrial archaeology'.




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