Thursday, April 03, 2008


My husband and children in front of St. Nikola church in Sapareva Banya.

A month ago, our family spent two days at Sapareva Banya, a town at the foot of the Rila mountain. This is a pleasant town I would recommend as a family resort. There is just a small detail - bring your own slippers. The owners of the small hotel where we resided required guests to leave their shoes and use slippers, as is traditionally done in villages and small towns. We obeyed because we had no slippers of our own and didn't want to buy, but the practice is bad. This is the way fungal infections are transmitted.

I had been in the town before in 1995, to express my support for the locals. They protested against the Skakavitsa project that would take the water supply of Sapareva Banya and divert it to the city of Sofia. The protests were eventually crushed by anti-terrorist police and the project was implemented. (These events are partly covered in my 2006 post Water regime, or how to create and perpetuate misery).

I wasn't presented at the actual clash - it happened in a week-day when I was at work. After it, at Saturday I bought some banitsa (Bulgarian cheese pasty) and took a bus. If you wonder how one could just go to a town and express support to strangers by offering them cheese pasty - I also wouldn't and couldn't do it now, people lose some inspiration and skills as they age.

Arriving at Sapareva Banya, I saw a barrier marking the site of the protests and several policemen guarding it. It was enough to look into their eyes to know that they had recently abused people with impunity, had liked it, were bored now and were looking for new targets. With a slight change in the uniform, they could excellently play the parts of Nazi concentration camp guards in Schindler's list. So I was careful not to trigger an attack. The previous day, these policemen or their colleagues had beaten a 60-year-old local woman in her own yard without any apparent reason.

They asked me where I was from and how I had arrived to the town - with public transportation or with my own car. I guess that, had I replied the latter, they would fine me for some made-up traffic violation. Then they defended the use of force against local residents, saying, "Laws are to be kept, aren't they?". I answered nothing; the statements was correct in itself, but used in a bad context (I used it more appropriately as a title of my Feb. 27 post).

After that, I left the barrier and talked with several local people I met in the street. One of them even invited me to her house. Naturally, they were sad and desperate after the defeat. Their houses were remarkably clean and well kept, but the people were so poorly dressed that my heart ached.

During our present visit (I am already talking about last month), the town looked so renovated that I couldn't recognize it. More importantly, the people seemed more cheerful and not so poor. I mentioned the 1995 events to the hotel owners and asked whether the Skakavitsa project was still working. They said that it was but part of the water was reserved for the town and it was enough to satisfy its needs.

When I visited the town in 1995, I naturally didn't behave like a tourist and had no interest in the local landmarks. Now, as we went sight-seeing, I was surprised to learn how many of them were there. During the Roman rule, the town was called Germanea and was quite important. There was born Belisarius, a 6th century "defence minister" of the Byzantine Empire. The beautiful little St. Nikola church (see image) in the center of the town is dated to the 12th or 13th century. We also made a ride to the Panichishte region of the Rila mountain, where crocuses were already sprouting between the pine trees.

Our second day in Sapareva Banya was March 3, the Bulgarian national holiday. It marks the date when a peace treaty mentioning the creation of a Bulgarian state was signed between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in 1878. I am not nationalistic enough to be driven to ecstasy on such occasions, and that particular March 3 wasn't very cheerful due to the death of 9 people in a burning train only days ago (briefly mentioned in my March 6 post). So the celebration was modest. On the central square, Bulgarian national revival songs were broadcasted and bypassers were stopping to listen to them, some were leaving flowers at a small memorial. For the first time, I heard Stambolov's song We want no wealth/ We want no money/ We want freedom/ And humane justice. I liked the celebration. It couldn't take place in Sofia; to begin with, there is nowhere to make it because Sofia, among many other attributes of a normal city, lacks a central pedestrian zone. In fact, it doesn't look like a city at all. It is rather some hybrid between stock market, industrial site, college campus and refugee camp.

Another, not so pleasant aspect of the Sapareva Banya reality were the trucks and other vehicles participating in the illegal construction of a ski lift in the Rila National Park. We saw them first-hand during our ride to Panichishte. Unfortunately, the Municipality of Sapareva Banya is an accomplice in this destruction of the mountain; Bulgarian readers can read the details in this open letter by conservationists to local residents. However, I wouldn't blame too much the local authorities and residents. In 1995, they were opposed against another nature-damaging project and what was the result? Riot police beating them, water taken away from them as a punitive measure and the project still implemented. Now, I don't believe their opposition would halt the unscrupulous greedy investors, so why waste energy and possibly put themselves in harm's way. If Rila can still be saved, it is not by the residents of Sapareva Banya and not even by those of Sofia, but by European opinion-makers and institutions (see my previous today's post).

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