In the mountains where Macedonia and Greece meet Bulgaria, an oasis of cosmopolitanism thrives amid villages where donkeys still block traffic.
I had spent no more than five minutes in the provincial college town of Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, and already I’d heard conversations in as many languages. I chatted in Spanish with a Ladino-speaking local — a relative rarity nowadays, as few young Sephardim speak the tongue, and most Bulgarian Jews left for Israel after World War II.
English surrounded me in a variety of accents, along with Russian, Polish, Greek and other less-obvious languages. I soon found out why: Amid these Alpine forests and snow-capped Pirin Mountains is the American University in Bulgaria, which — like its sister outposts around the world, and not unlike Chabad houses — is a far-flung refuge of the familiar, and even occasionally the Jewish.
As Zelda frolicked in a park just off the central ploshtad (square), I noticed a monument engraved with a Star of David, a Christian cross and a Muslim crescent. “Memorial to Freedom,” it read in Bulgarian, and Oggi helped me (loosely) translate the rest: “Why should we be always divided, when the one God is above us?”
What followed was a poem about human coexistence by Krastyo Khadjivanov, a mid-20th-century Bulgarian who died young and wrote, during the continent’s most turbulent years, from a place of romantic idealism. Khadjivanov’s words — and the message in those coexisting symbols — resonate more than ever in this polyglot college town, and stand as a gently ecumenical counterweight to the crosses sprouting on European hillsides.
More than three dozen countries, and myriad faith traditions, are represented by students and professors at the American University’s second-largest outpost in Europe. Scholars hail from Russia and Poland, Kazakhstan and Serbia, Azerbaijan and Greece; many take their excellent English to the U.S. for summer tourism jobs.
Nevertheless, I was skeptical when Oggi suggested a weekend in Blagoevgrad; I’d always regarded the region as remote (which it is) and somewhat pokey. But after months of European travel, I had to admit it was refreshing to feel temporarily less foreign, for a change.
And pokey, Blagoevgrad is not. An ambitious cultural program takes place from fall to spring at the Drama Theater “Nikola Vaptsarov,” an imposing postwar edifice on the central square. The theater, which hosts a renowned annual festival, is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019; its first century launched the careers of many a European actor, director and musical artist.
Opera is also surprisingly serious business in this small city. Or perhaps it’s not surprising, given the prominence of Bulgarian classical artists worldwide; the soprano Sonya Yoncheva, a star of the Metropolitan, hails from a town not far away. In any case, I am nearly always impressed by the caliber of musicians in this part of the world, and the Blagoevgrad Opera is as likely a place as any to discover the Met’s next star.
I knew all this, but my resistance to a Blagoevgrad getaway was partly aesthetic: Most Bulgarian cities were crumbling socialist eyesores well into the early 2000s. The blight of those sooty blocs, and the Iron Curtain gloom they conjured, was all the more jarring amid the region’s surpassing natural beauty.
But in one of Eastern Europe’s more felicitous trends, these blocs are being repainted in decidedly optimistic hues of peach, yellow and pistachio. Today, a pink cityscape reminds you that Blagoevgrad is in sunny Southern Europe, just like Rome and Athens.
Like those classical cities, Blagoevgrad was built on the foundations of empires, as unearthed ruins and random columns reminded us. We stayed at a hotel built on a onetime Roman bath, where the salty, sulfurous tap water supposedly has healing qualities. Our party of four families enjoyed the subterranean spa, where the same mineral water filled a lap pool. The children also raced around a shady park just outside, playing happily into dusk in a car-free zone.
I’d never let Zelda run out of eyeshot with her cousins in New York or Philadelphia — all of them have ages in the single digits — but amid the theater crowds and packs of earnest young scholars, it felt natural. They jumped in a bouncy house, motored around the square on electric horses, and chased each other around Khadjivanov’s memorial garden.
At a moment when America’s place in the world feels tenuous, it was an oddly reassuring sight in this American-accented city, thousands of miles from home.