Bulgaria - I predict this place is going to be a big hit
A museum about the blind visionary Baba Vanga is opening up Bulgaria's south west to tourists. Robert Nurden reports
Sunday 17 August 2008
A pair of bright green carpet slippers lies abandoned in the hearth. In the dimly lit room you can make out a Russian samovar, a Vietnamese mask, a saucer of soil from Jerusalem and an elegant Viennese chandelier.
The artefacts make for a strange collection, but there again you wouldn't expect the owner of this house to show off their plasma-screen telly. Baba Vanga is one of Bulgaria's most treasured possessions, a blind visionary who held communists, kings and capitalists in thrall with her predictions.
Her request – she died aged 85 in 1996 – that her gifts should be left to the state and that her Petrich home, situated in the south-west of the country, be turned into a museum came to fruition this summer. Thousands from all over the world have already made the pilgrimage, not put off by the fact that Bulgaria is now the bad boy of the EU after being rapped over the knuckles for corruption.
The story goes that when Baba Vanga was young, a tornado lifted her out of a field as she was tending sheep. When she returned to earth, the sand had blinded her but she had been given paranormal powers. This latter-day Nostradamus is said to have correctly foretold the date of both her own and Stalin's deaths, the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk, Chernobyl and 9/11.
People queued outside her house for weeks, waiting to talk to her. Among her visitors was Neshka Robeva, trainer of the golden girls of Bulgarian gymnastics through the 1980s. Ironically, given the Communist Party's contempt for all things superstitious, she was one of President Zhivkov's most trusted advisers.
Tzvetia, our guide, couldn't wait to show us Rupite, the main source, she said, of Vanga's mystical powers and now her burial place. Encased in the crater of the defunct Kozhuh volcano, it was where she performed her last readings. Her New Age followers have turned it into a peaceful sanctuary to the memory of Bulgaria's remarkable state-sponsored prophetess.
This multi-ethnic region has long been a pit of intrigue. Petrich itself has an unfortunate reputation for being a hangout for hired killers, illicit traders and traffickers of all sorts. But the curtain is being yanked back to reveal all sorts of other surprises. Thracian treasure is regularly unearthed from burial mounds. It's just a question of whether the archaeologists or the looters get there first. Sometimes, they're one and the same people.
Sneakily, the country for years kept its best red wines for home consumption. They are a revelation, silencing those sniggers about undrinkable plonk. Two of them have a peculiar provenance. From 1948 to 1989 a narrow stretch of land between capitalist Greece and socialist Bulgaria was patrolled by gruesome border guards. Otherwise devoid of human beings, the area became an environmental wilderness for migrating birds where vines were planted in sandy soil under a scorching sun.
Here the indigenous Melnik grape flourished. It produced a rich red that was one of Winston Churchill's favourite tipples. In the Second World War he had crates of it shipped to Whitehall. The main winery in the district, Damianitza, has cleverly marketed the historical link with its "Churchill's Wine". In 1998 it gave its finest wine the name No Man's Land, a cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend, reflecting its unusual terroir.
Tzvetia parked the car and we looked out over the neat vineyards and beyond them south to the looming Vrondu mountain in Greece and west to Belasitsa and Macedonia. The land lay still and white hot. Beside us stood a rusting watchtower, as if plucked from a Cold War movie. Communist graffiti had been scratched in the metal and a door swung in a rare breath of wind. "As recently as 2001 on this same spot I was challenged by Bulgarian soldiers with Kalashnikovs," said Tzvetia. "Instead of guarding the border they'd been told to protect the grapes. I guess that's some kind of improvement."
Melnik, beloved of oenophiles, was a must. Tucked into a narrow gorge, its picturesque houses restored to their 19th-century glory, it is surrounded by tortured sandstone crags. We entered a cool, dark cave and the temperature plummeted from 40C to 10C. We tasted early Melniks straight from the barrel.
In Sandanski we stopped to look at a forlorn statue of Spartacus, the slave liberator who hails from these parts. "It's sad. We've forgotten all about him," said Tzvetia. "One day we may remember him again."
More recently, Yane Sandanski himself was a freedom fighter who led the struggle for Macedonian independence. Then, in this land of unacknowledged heroes, on the way home we encountered another superstar staring at us from a billboard. Bulgarian footballer Dimitar Berbatov, whose home town is nearby, was advertising some bank or other. I don't suppose even Baba Vanga could have predicted that.
How to get there
EasyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick to Sofia from £78 return. WizzAir (00 48 22 351 9499; wizzair.com) flies from Luton to Sofia from £46 return.
The Baba Vanga Museum, 10 Vanga Street, Petrich, is open Wednesday-Monday, 9am-6pm, entrance 2 leva (70p), 50 stotinki (20p) for students, under-sevens and over-60s.
Damianitza Winery, 2813 Damianitza, Sandanski District (00 359 746 30090; damianitza.bg) organises wine tours.
For more on the area, contact Zig Zag Holidays (00 359 2 980 5102; zigzagbg.com).
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