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Postcard from Bulgaria – oligarchs, patriarchs and medieval miracles

December 16, 2022

If Basil Fawlty had been reincarnated as a Bulgarian oligarch, he would have created the Hotel Marinela. We’ve just finished a five-day trip to Sofia, during which this extraordinary hotel was a major source of amusement.

My wife and I arrived at the hotel by accident, after the place we’d originally booked turned out not to be suitable for a number of reasons. British Airways Holidays, bless them, re-booked us into the Marinela and absorbed the cost of upgrading us from a three-star to a five-star establishment.

And what an establishment. The vast lobby is probably the most garishly over-designed indoor space I’ve ever encountered. More spectacular than any bling-soaked hotel we’ve stayed at in the Far East or the Middle East. Tasteless enough to give Donald Trump a spontaneous wardrobe malfunction.

It seems that the Marinela was built late in the communist era. It was subsequently refurbished a couple of times, most recently by a Japanese designer. He must have been on acid. The whole optical effect is so dazzling that if I suffered from epilepsy, I would have fitted immediately upon entering the place.

What made it even more bonkers was the Christmas décor, clashing hideously with the eastern ambience. Thus a massive effigy of two polar bears – straight from Fox’s Glacier Mints – overshadowed a row of gloomy terracotta army replicas that guarded the outside of a bar called The Gentleman’s Room.

Another bear sat at the front entrance next to a no-guns sign on the door, a sentiment that his cousins in Svalbard would surely endorse.

The bear gazed sadly out at rows of luxury cars – a Maybach, a Rolls Royce SUV and a host of high-end Range Rovers and Mercedes saloons. The cars were guarded by chauffeurs looking like crosses between Russia’s General Surovikin and Alexei Sayle’s black marketeer in Gorky Park. Their demeanour as they waited to ferry their owners back and forth would suggest that firearms are more than essential fashion accessories.

Down in the basement, the interminable walk to the swimming pool takes you through a corridor adorned with Japanese samurai in full ceremonial armour. A little closer to the designer’s roots, perhaps, than the terracotta warriors in the lobby. But who cares? The overall impression of the Marinela’s public spaces is of a psyop masquerading as interior design.

A more conventional feature is the Japanese garden that sits in the middle of the hotel complex. Complete with ponds, exotic ducks, peacocks and geese, it also includes two life-sized fibre-glass sumo wrestlers, one white and one red, facing off against each other. A few metres away sits Mickey Mouse and an unidentifiable companion. When last I looked, Mickey had fallen off his pedestal and was lying forlornly in front of the wrestlers.

So where, you might ask, does Basil Fawlty come in to all this? While none of the hotel staff approached Basil’s gloriously flamboyant approach to hospitality, of which his Byzantine namesake Basil the Bulgar-Slayer would have been proud, the vast majority of them seemed to subscribe to the Fawlty philosophy that the guest is an encumbrance without whom the place would function far more efficiently. Not a smile to be seen, every interaction strictly functional. We encountered the same sullen attitude elsewhere in the city among museum attendants and church officials.

Is this a cultural thing – a hangover from the communist era? Could it be that service workers have inherited a sense that since they’re the equals of their guests, insincere expressions of civility and friendliness are meaningless and unnecessary folderol? Products of decadent Westerners, who don’t really want their customers to have a nice day, but are actually only in it for the tips? Or is the owner just a grumpy old git whose attitude has infected his employees? I don’t know. What I do know is that most of the ordinary Bulgarians we encountered were warm and friendly. The only exception was those who are paid to interact with the public.

Here’s a good example. When I asked why the door to the garden had suddenly been closed after being open for two days, I was told that it made the bar area cold. Why then had it been open before, when it was cooler outside than now, I asked? I got a shrug of the shoulders. When I pressed further, I got the ultimate argument-stopper: because the owner wants it. Only one answer to that, especially if the owner comes complete with one of those musclebound bodyguards, all buzz-cuts, widow’s peaks and simian gait who stood guard over the Maybach: I don’t like cricket – I love it. (If you remember 10CC’s Dreadlock Holiday, you’ll get the reference. Otherwise, sorry.)

As for the customers, there seemed to be a constant flow of glamorous young women sporting collagen pouts, knee-length boots and a Dubai-grade range of designer accoutrements, drifting in and out of the hotel and making their way to the 19th floor at the top of the hotel. What went on there I never discovered, but it seemed a popular rendezvous also favoured by lithe young men who looked like Premier League footballers, and older guys with the same don’t-mess-with-me gait as the minders of the Maybach. All rather sinister, the more so because of the presence of similar gentlemen in black suits and ties patrolling the lobby, whose purpose seemed to be to provide some form of security – to whom I know not. It all felt like a scene from a Bond movie.

Once we got out and about, Sofia took on a different complexion. On our first trip downtown to see the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky and the ancient Roman basilica of Saint Sophia, we got talking to Maria (not her real name), who came to our rescue as we were trying to negotiate with a church attendant who closely resembled Rosa Kleb, James Bond’s would-be assassin in From Russia With Love. Maria’s a lawyer who has worked in London and Brussels. She took us to places we otherwise wouldn’t have known about, such as the remains of the city’s Roman colosseum, and the offices of Dr Ruja Ignatova, also known as the Missing Cryptoqueen, a fraudster who managed to make a fortune out of cryptocurrency and disappeared without a trace a couple of years ago.

Our new friend, who was a delightful companion, also regaled us about the iniquities of the communist system, and the corruption that still remains. She’s in Sofia trying to obtain restitution of the land confiscated from her great-grandfather after the communists took power. She’s getting there, but it’s a long and frustrating process. When I mentioned the glittering clientele at the Marinela and compared their apparent wealth with the national average monthly wage – a pitiful 3,000 Bulgarian levs (equivalent to £1,500) – she gave me a knowing look that needed no explanation.

Over the next few days, on Maria’s advice, we took in other delights of the city – not least the National Museum of Archaeology, which has a magnificent collection of Thracian armour. Then there was medieval church at Boyana, which boasts the finest 13th century frescos I’ve ever seen – superior to anything to be found of a similar age in France or Italy.

Boyana Church, Sofia (pic

Other highlights included the German Christmas market and Egur Egur, a splendid Armenian restaurant that Maria had never visited because of its previous use as a Soviet cultural centre. Before we met her at the restaurant, we stumbled into a sung liturgy at the Russian Orthodox church nearby. The music, as always at Orthodox ceremonies, was beautiful, yet as we watched the priest anointing the faithful, I couldn’t help thinking of Patriarch Kiril back in Moscow blessing Putin’s war on Ukraine.

The day before we left, we took a trip to Plovdiv, which is a couple of hours away by bus. In the centre of the city lies the remains of Philippopolis, which was named after Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father.

Plovdiv North Forum and Odeon

Within a large pedestrian area full of elegant Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture, archaeology nuts like us could see Greco-Roman structures such as the forum, the theatre, a section of a white-marble stadium and the mosaic floors of a large early Christian Basilica.

Plovdiv Roman Stadium

Plovdiv is a reminder that Bulgaria is no Eastern European backwater. Istanbul is a mere five hours away by bus. You can be in northern Greece in two hours. Our flight from London took just two-and-a-half hours. Yet thanks to its geography the country seems torn between two gravitational forces: its cultural affinity with its fellow-Slavic neighbours and a desire to be an upstanding member of a European Union that demands solidarity against Russia’s territorial ambitions.

Maria pointed out that, as in Russia, the communist elite in Bulgaria didn’t disappear. They adapted, finding ways to enrich themselves by keeping alive the old networks of power and influence. Some, like her, deeply resent the political and social legacy of the Soviet era, but particularly what she believes is the end product: widespread corruption. Others are more ambivalent, including, I imagine, the owners of the impressive cars parked outside the Marinela Hotel.

But who am I to comment, coming from a country that is rapidly slithering down the corruption index after twelve years of an oligarch-cuddling government whose incompetence has led to epic enrichment at the expense of the taxpayer, not least in the matter of PPE procurement?

That said, on the evidence of a few days in a couple of its cities, Bulgaria is a fascinating country, well worthy of further exploration, preferably in the summer. In our short time there, Sofia showed us that my country doesn’t have a monopoly on climatic variation. When we arrived, the temperature was in the early teens centigrade. The night before we left, we were given a foretaste of what awaited us back in the UK: heavy snow.

I’ve wanted to see Bulgaria ever since reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, (my review of the book is here) in which he described his walk across the country in the 1930s during his epic trek on foot at the age of eighteen from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. I was far from disappointed, even though the country he witnessed has surely long gone.

I suspect that with his powers of description he would have done a far better job than I ever could of describing the many joys of the country we visited, not least the memorable Marinela and its unforgettable denizens.

We shall come again.

  1. Roddy Bourke permalink

    Hilarious, Steve

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