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31 January 2017

For the second year in a row I will have the privilege of visiting Bulgaria and Serbia with two ACE groups in fairly quick succession. Spring is a great time to come to this part of the world, even though one can always be surprised by some capricious weather – I remember some beautiful snow-capped mountains even in the very South of Bulgaria last year!

There are, of course, plenty of parallels between the two tours. It is not only the shared focus on monasteries – and Orthodox ones at that – involving the study of architectural types alongside styles and iconographies of wall paintings. The visitor must also come to grips with the infamous complexities of Balkan history in both countries, recognising that modern political frontiers are often irrelevant with reference to the monuments that we visit. Yet there are certainly enough highlights to guarantee that even seasoned visitors of monasteries – Eastern and Western, Christian and otherwise – will come away feeling that it is far from being just ‘more of the same’.

The Orthodox monasteries occupy a very special place in the life of Bulgaria and Serbia, particularly given these nations’ centuries of occupation by the Ottoman Turks. In both countries, the medieval sites remain unsurpassed in the quality of their art treasures. Serbian art-history is concentrated in the country’s monasteries to a degree that is perhaps unique in Europe: the wall-paintings of places like Manasija, Mileševa or the glorious Sopo─çani give an idea of the quality and character of monumental Byzantine painting that has long been lost in its country of origin. In Bulgaria, meanwhile, the monasteries have been seen as guardians of the local culture across five dark centuries of Ottoman oppression; while the more recent monuments of the 18th and 19th centuries tell a fascinating story of these nations finding themselves again in the face of foreign political, and also often cultural, domination.

On the Serbian tour, we ‘cross the border’ from Central Europe to the Balkans when we pass from Vojvodina, the Northern part, to Belgrade, and on into Central Serbia. In Bulgaria, we shall feel a sense of being on the very borders of Europe in the mosques of Plovdiv and the majority Turkish town of Shumen. With the loss of Byzantium to the Ottoman Empire and their own occupation by the Turks, these countries began to lead a rather marginal existence, not least in cultural terms. 



In more recent times, they belonged to another empire – a communist one – and this is of equal interest to the traveller in many respects. There are the obvious architectural monuments of the socialist period like the eccentric Hotel Vrbak in Novi Pazar and the Millennium of Bulgaria monument in Shumen, but there is also the surprising adoption of the country’s Christian heritage by the Bulgarian communist elite in the 1980s. In Serbia, one is amazed by the exquisite restoration work that was carried out in Yugoslav times; nowadays, the country sees a very vigorous religious revival, with many monasteries taken over by extremely committed but also friendly nuns. This is in stark contrast to Bulgaria, which is largely secular, and where Orthodoxy has become a form of folklore to many people: last year’s tour coincided with Orthodox Easter – I have never seen more cheerful Good Friday services!

Before the end of communism, both countries had a highly developed tourism industry. In Yugoslavia, however, this left Serbia largely unaffected, as tourism was concentrated on the Adriatic coast (in the summer) and in Alpine Slovenia (in the winter). Due to the relatively recent military conflict over Kosovo, Serbia has now become a truly exotic destination for foreign travellers. Danube cruises stop at Belgrade and, sometimes, Novi Sad. At the monasteries, however, we will be sharing the space mainly with groups of pilgrims and local school children. There is a sense of hospitality that has survived, particularly in restaurants that would be impossible to find in busier destinations. This hospitality is often expressed in the most unmanageable amounts of food that I have ever encountered on a tour! Bulgarians also like their food, together with a sense vernacular cosiness. The country exudes a sense of relaxed friendliness that has impressed the vast majority of visitors with whom I have undertaken the circuit of Bulgarian monasteries.

In both places, there is a sense of history and drama that underlies everything. The monasteries often formed a type of counter-culture to the cataclysms that have befallen both countries, even if much of the surviving architecture reflects that historical turbulence (particularly visible in the Raška area of Serbia). In Bulgaria, we shall come across layer upon layer of history beside the monasteries: Thracian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, and we shall certainly pay adequate attention to these aspects, above all to the unique Thracian tombs. 



In Serbia that sense of history is perhaps even more immediate. The first base for the tour is the spectacular Hotel Leopold I in Petrovaradin, opposite Novi Sad, located inside the mighty Baroque fortress that formed a crucial flashpoint in the wars between the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires in the 17th and 18th centuries. As an Austrian, I feel a sense of indignation at the fact that a prominent Belgrade street is named after Gavrilo Princip, assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie von Hohenberg, his wife and mother of four children; yet anybody will be moved by the view from the Kalemegdan fortress over the Danube and the place where the First World War started. This was a battlefield of crucial importance for Europe for centuries: it saw the brilliant victory by János Hunyadi over the Ottomans in 1456 (which is still commemorated by the noon bells of Christian churches today) and one of Prince Eugene of Savoy’s most daring military manoeuvres in 1717, which led to the Austrian takeover of the city (‘Prinz Eugen, der edle Ritter’). 

Momentous history is rather absent from Sofia, which exudes a less war-like atmosphere. The most striking building of the Bulgarian capital, the Alexander-Nevsky-Cathedral, is a powerful reference to the role played by the Russian empire in the country’s liberation in the late 19th century and to Bulgaria’s abiding Russophilia. Architecturally, the cathedral is of dubious value – rather eclectic and neither Bulgarian nor properly Russian – but it reminds us of the importance of Bulgaria as ‘Civiliser of the Slavs’: this is the birthplace of Slavonic literature and of the Cyrillic alphabet, named after the South Slavonic apostle of the 9th century. In fact, the beginning of Bulgaria’s independence was marked by the fight for the use of the Slavonic tongue in church services in the middle of the 19th century. In 1980, Pope John Paul II, himself a Slav, made Cyril and Methodius co-patron saints of Europe: upon closer inspection, Bulgaria’s role in European history is central rather than marginal.

Even those travellers who come to these countries with fairly high expectations find themselves surprised by the richness of the sites and the quality of the monuments. For me personally, it is always a pleasure to return and to meet people with whom I have, in some cases, worked for many years. Perhaps it is too much of a cliché to speak of ‘hidden treasures’, but in reality both these destinations offer a great deal more than their visitor numbers would suggest!

Alex Koller

ACE Tour Director