A City for a Changing World: A Trip to Varna

Started by Jubal, November 28, 2023, 12:11:18 AM

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A City for a Changing World: A Trip to Varna

"This period shows," said the lady in the museum, "that it is possible to change."

It was perhaps the most excited I had heard any Bulgarian sound about anything in my brief time in the country, here in one of the most ancient settled landscapes of Europe, a city that was indeed both modern and countlessly old, with a shifting, endless agelessness that both belied and proved the uncounted years that mankind had lived here, between the high hills and mountains of Bulgaria and the wide shores of the Black Sea.

I was in Varna, on the edge of a changing world.

The shore of the Black Sea at Varna.
When I arrived in Varna and got my suitcase to my hotel, my first walk was down to the sea: the city sits beside a port at the mouth of Lake Varna, itself an estuary for several inland rivers. The centre of the urban area, to the north, is a mostly early to mid twentieth century set of town-houses, restaurants and hotels, a city well geared to tourists though not solely catering for them, with the Sea Gardens sitting between the town centre and the sand of the beaches. The gardens contain trees and walkways and benches but also shelter some eateries, museums, and monuments, with steps down to rows of beachside restaurants.

Varna is a city that has no single central monument, no great classic postcard views or enormous vistas. The trees of the Sea Garden are so thick that there are barely even clear views out to the sea. Its building style is reminiscent through British eyes of Brighton or Bournemouth: a genteel seaside city. There is something about it, though, that is hard to pin down: perhaps because it feels lacking in a singular centre or focus, it has the ability to shift what it is to different viewers and different times.

Part of that feeling of shapeshifting perhaps comes from the fact that Varna is a seaside city largely inhabited by a people whose relationship with the sea does not come entirely naturally. Indeed, until the later decades of the 19th century, the little sea-port was largely inhabited not by ethnic Bulgarians but by Greeks: in 1873, of Varna's 21,000 inhabitants, just 3,000 were ethnically Bulgarian. For much of the city's history, Greek was probably Varna's dominant language, with the Bulgarians preferring the country's rich soils to the poor pickings of Black Sea fishing. Both the first and second medieval Bulgarian kingdoms had ruled the city, nonetheless, a key port for the region, but those days were long centuries of Ottoman dominion ago by the time of the foundation of the new state of Bulgaria in the 1870s. The newly established (or, depending on your perspective, re-established) state began life as a Russian satellite, founded as a buffer protecting the route to Istanbul against the Turks - but statehood led to dramatic changes in Varna's existence. Bulgarians moving to the new country either out of choice or pushed out of Ottoman lands in the Balkan wars flocked to Varna, and the city as a result ballooned in size both as an industrial centre and seaside resort.

The Sea Gardens seem to reflect this ambivalence about the sea itself: the thick trees shield the city from the sea air, so thick that there are few places where one even gets a wide vista of the bay to look out to. They are a last imposing bastion of the land, such that Varna does not really show off its maritime nature but sits back away from it. The gardens are prowled by endless cats, large and small. They are not quite the scrawny scrapping ferals of a city like Tbilisi, or the wheedling, curled, restful fish-thieves of a more Mediterranean town, nor again the imperiously well-fed little lions of Venice's outer islands: they, perhaps sharing something with the place and people, felt quietly enigmatic, ever alongside humans but never either imposing on them or debasing themselves to them. As darkness fell, a flock of little brown red-breasted flycatchers moved down the sea edge of the trees, and I went and found food and rest, wondering what more this place had to say.

A path through the forests of Golden Sands.
My first major day's sightseeing involved some calamitous public transport interactions. Whilst Varna's public transport exists, is cheap, and can get one to places, exactly which places it will get one to are often entirely unclear from the available information. In general, tourists seem to be expected to use taxis and tours, perhaps good for the local tourist industry but very disappointing given the huge need to make these sorts of activities less carbon emitting.

I eventually made it to about an hour's walk from the start of my planned walk in Golden Sands, and bought possibly the worst sandwiches I have ever tasted for some lunch. The detour gave me a good amount of time to see Golden Sands itself, essentially a long strip of hotels and nothing else, castle-like resort blocks from which tourists could shuffle down to the beach and back. A single jay complained from a high tree, and an argumentative mob of starlings could be heard but not seen past yet another high hotel wall. It was not an auspicious start.

Then, though, there were the woods. The Golden Sands nature reserve runs from wet woodland on the low seaward side up into limestone-dotted dry forest as one winds up and inland, away from the coast. The hole-riddled limestone chunks sticking out beside the winding paths are often impressive in size, with a thick covering of sharp leaved butcher's-broom as the low cover on the forest floor, occasional robins flitting in and out of sight among the leaves. I was reminded again that it was migration season by the whistles of bee-eaters overhead, their bright colouration barely visible as they flocked in numbers larger than I had ever seen before, high in the sky above me. The woods also contain some natural springs which are good places to refill water – indeed, as I got closer to the Aladzha monastery, I saw some men with cars filling up numerous large water containers to get the most of the bounty, whether for its cleanliness or holiness I could not be sure.

The Aladzha monastery's name is from the Turkish occupation, meaning multicoloured – perhaps a reference to its now largely lost wall paintings. The small cave monastery is built at multiple levels into a sheer cliff-face, with myriad little icon pictures and coins tucked by visitors into the rockface despite the signs asking people to refrain from doing so. A few parts of the original painting can be seen though largely the modern monastery is more exposed, with its outer walls mostly gone, compared to its heyday. A short further walk can bring one to what are known as the monastery catacombs, another series of deeper rock-cut rooms with much poorer access, their original functions now unclear.

A king of the trees - a black woodpecker, in the woods near Golden Sands.
The monastery also boasts a very good little museum, which is worth visiting. The religious history of Varna is interesting: in the classical world a local Great God was a senior deity though rubbing shoulders with the Roman imperial cult, classical Greek deities, importations from Egypt like Osiris whose twin-crowned statue is recognisable among a case of local deities at the main archaeological museum. Nonetheless, one cannot but wonder whether the Great God's prominence locally was helpful in easing Varna's early conversions to monotheism. This was a part of the world that Christianised quite early, with the new faith sweeping across the region in the fourth and fifth centuries. One site I did not make it to at Djanavara near the city was a 5th-7th century basilica built far more in Syrian styles than those of other early Balkan churches, suggesting long distance influences on the area. In every era, this part of Bulgaria has mingled local and foreign religious influence: at least twice during my stay, I passed groups of orange-robed dancers in the city centre, likely some variety of Hare Krishna worship. Whether they knew it or not, the welcoming of distant faiths to this shore put them in a tradition stretching through the centuries.

On the way back through the woods to work my way back into town I saw a black woodpecker, the largest of Europe's woodpecker species at about the size of a crow, perched vertically on a tree and making no shortage of noise. There was also a further fountain, one created to mark 1300 years of Bulgarian statehood, counted from the first Bulgarian kingdom of the early medieval period. Proudly marked as the Song of Spouts fountain, it had five pipes: three were for the first and second Bulgarian kingdoms and for modern Bulgaria, and the other two for Byzantium and Turkey, the long periods of non-Bulgarian rule in the region.

I wondered what it said about the past that all five spouts were dry. The water instead was flooding from a burst pipe at the back over the path and pooling under a swing that hung from a nearby tree which I sat on for a while before making my way back downhill to the buses and ultimately to Varna once again. Perhaps history does not sing in such a canalised way as we would like, sometimes.

Some of the oldest gold-work known to mankind, part of the Varna treasure.
The next day I worked my way around a number of the city's museums and historical sites: the primary one of these is the large archaeological museum, but I also visited the modern Varna history museum (covering the period from independence to the 1930s), the medical history museum, the Roman baths, and the naval museum.

The archaeological museum covers much of the ancient and medieval history of Varna – if perhaps I'd have preferred more on the medieval section, this can in part be chalked down to my personal interest, though at the same time this was another point of noting the national narrative of the Byzantines and Turks being temporary embarrassments to be skipped. The real treasure of the museum, however, comes well before Byzantines or Bulgars had even been conceived of, for Varna's stone age necropolis is the site of some of the oldest gold-working finds anywhere in the world. This is one of the greatest treasures of the city, and no visitor should go without seeing it: the scale and quality of the artefacts combined with their sheer age is a deeply powerful sight. They lie alongside shell and bone work, amber and pottery, elaborate and high in quantity suggesting the high status of those buried in such a way. But it is the gold that is most impressive in its antiquity and quality. Staff-ends, tiny ox-shaped badges, and rings, loops and disks of gold shine from the museum's cases, looking much as they might have done six and a half thousand years earlier when someone laid them with their rulers, parents, lovers, in a stone tomb.

The sheer age of Varna is something almost unfathomable. It was not, of course, always Varna: its earliest names have long since passed from memory, and we shall never know what the early gold-workers called their home, nor indeed what people a thousand years later called it, with some periods of depopulation likely between the two as shifting waters and natural disasters caused breaks in the archaeological evidence. The Greeks gave it the first name we still know, Odessos, and it bore that name until the early medieval period when it fell out of Roman hands into those of the new Bulgarian kingdom: the Byzantine recapture of the city was not enough to restore the Greek name, even if the population of the city were still largely Greek speakers, so Varna it remained to the Byzantines, the Second Empire, to the Turks and to us. That which is old should never be seen as therefore an unchanging testament to the years: indeed, that which did not change is almost always lost to time. Truly old things are above all those who best change, and this town, ancient beyond measure, knows above all else that it will continue to shift, imperceptibly and inexorably, to fit the changing days.

Varna's Roman Baths - this was the section sadly closed while I was there.
One thing that has given this city its particular character is its location, so I also visited the naval history museum: Varna is a port city and still a primary base for Bulgaria's navy, with the country's naval academy and headquarters both in the city. At the south end of the Sea Gardens, a large pond in the shape of the Black Sea shows the relative elevations of its shores, the high Upper Caucasus dominating the east side and the lower hills of Bulgaria and Romania on the western shore. The naval museum is nearby, and whilst it has two rooms of a handful of pre-modern artefacts (it is a pity this is not given considerably more detail), the majority of the indoor rooms and outdoor exhibition focus on the twentieth century and the modern Bulgarian navy.

The Russians' influence in Varna is felt very differently to in most countries to its north or on the other side of the Black Sea: as Bulgaria was a buffer state for the Russian Empire and an ally rather than member of the USSR, Russia is not remembered as an occupier in the way it is in Armenia, Poland, or Czechia (and in Georgia or Ukraine, partial occupations are present politics not a matter of memory). Conversely, the Turkish and Byzantine periods remained somewhat quiet in the public displays of the city's history.

It was in the modern history museum, focused on the period between independence from the Ottomans and the Second World War, that the vignette that started this piece took place as the museum guide talked happily about Varna's capacity for change. "We Bulgarians do not like the sea," she also explained. "We are a practical people, and prefer the soil." She was nonetheless interested to note the development of twentieth century beach tourism – cleverly, a way to make money from the sea without having to actually use boats overmuch.

The museums were quite focused on the stories of individuals around Varna compared to equivalents I knew from other countries. Each was billed as part of a wider narrative of local and national pride, but not at all far beneath the surface were things less explicitly said about what it meant to be Bulgarian in the twentieth century. Many of the people lionised in museum tales had fought their hardest against the Bulgarian governments of their day, for example the communist, naval engineer and poet Vaptsarov being executed in Bulgaria's flirtation with the Axis to be eventually rehabilitated by the subsequent Communists. Bulgarian liberals who opposed joining the fascist powers and Bulgaria's participation in the Holocaust but then argued for democracy against the Communists had to wait until the last decade or two for the public rehabilitation of their efforts. Many of the people who shaped Varna, too, were not Bulgarian in origin: the local historical monuments owed much of their presentation to the Czech Skorpil brothers, and the city's sanitation was pioneered by Lithuanian doctor and political and cultural activist Jonas Basanavičius, who was a member of the city council for the very first years of the twentieth century.

Ottoman era inscriptions - an unmarked memory of a little-memorised past Varna
My penultimate stop was at the Roman baths – there are two sets of these, but only the northern one further into town was open. I have perhaps been a bit spoiled for Roman bath architecture from having seen so many sets across Europe, but Varna's is a good classic example and impressive in scale. The inclusion of the shops at the front of the bath-house area was particularly of interest, grounding the baths better in the world of everyday life: meanwhile in the ruins themselves, I walked room to room with occasional flowers growing from the old walls and black redstarts flitting into prominent vantage points in the late afternoon sun.

At the back of the Roman baths, well out the way of anywhere that most tourists would take the time to walk, lay a number of broken stones, pale grey where the Roman walls were flat reddish brick, upon which cats lounged across much more recent inscriptions. These were in a mix of Persian and Ottoman Turkish, likely put up after the Ottoman-Russian war of the 1820s as part of Sultan Murad II's rebuilding of parts of Varna heavily damaged in the fighting. Out of sight and out of mind, they lay without sign or translation. The shifting faces of a city are as much about the shifts in what it chooses to show and remember of its past as the changes of the day, and this little tucked-away connection to a Greek-inhabited, Ottoman-ruled Varna that stood as that empire's bulwark of the north was a window into a world often silent in the displays of the city's museums.

My last stop for the day was the medical museum, which is one of the few completely free museums in the city and worth visiting, tracing the history of medicine from the mix of ancient healing deities in the region (local and foreign alike) through to a mock-up of a nineteenth century pharmacy and the story of Hristina Hranova, Varna's redoubtable first midwife and Bulgaria's first woman lifeguard as well as a participant in the anti-Ottoman wars of independence – a woman for a time of great change, if ever there was one. I headed for the sea myself, to one of the beachside fish restaurants, and watched the dark waves lapping at the shores as I ate.

The tight-packed buildings of the fortress at Shumen.
I was fortunate to be able to go on a tour inland with a guide for the subsequent day – not something I would usually do, but a well worthwhile gift from family – and so the next day I found myself setting off early for Madara. The Madara Rider is one of the more impressive monuments of the region, a life sized rider trampling his prey and followed by his hound, carved high into the side of a cliff. Inscriptions, not really visible from the ground, are from the earliest Bulgarian kingdom, in the opening decades of the 8th century AD: they are in Greek, pre-dating the Cyrillic script invented in the 890s by nearly two centuries. The image of the horseman is prominent in ancient religious images and inscriptions from the region, and whilst the Madara rider's inscriptions are royal, they come from a time when Christianisation was still at a very early stage across the region. Here, inland from the shifting between-space of Varna, the Bulgarian imagery felt somehow stronger, the rider overlooking the wide valleys across which actual Bulgar horsemen might once have moved.

The few horses spotted on this trip were pulling horse-drawn carts, though these were a rarity in the very car-focused transportation across the region. Shumen, a small inland city, was the next stop on the list: of its seventy thousand people, the Turkish minority still accounts for ten thousand and the Romani for another two, and over a third of the wider province around it is Muslim: even away from the coasts, modern Bulgaria is a diverse space. We headed past church and mosque alike and up to its old fortress, sitting well above the main part of the town. There are a dense maze of exposed wall foundations in what must have once been a very tight-packed fortified centre: there was no central keep, and little paths, many of them barely more than a person wide, were left between a maze of buildings that included over ten churches. The fortress has sections of late Roman, Byzantine, and later Bulgarian construction, operating for around a thousand years through different medieval cultures with a commanding position overlooking the wide valley in front. Today the fortress is home to lizards, shrikes, and butterflies, with the low remaining stone a shadow of the bustle and din of tight-packed buildings that would once have dominated the hilltop.

Also above Shumen was an enormous monument built to commemorate the most commemorated thing in Bulgaria – that is, 1300 years of Bulgarian statehood. It is strongly reminiscent of the similarly aged Chronicle of Georgia monument in Tbilisi, and its huge, cubist figures loom as one walks through the enormous, blocky construction. As a whole, Bulgaria makes a lot of visual show of its patriotism, but I never heard much real enthusiasm for the concept in the voices of its people: it feels regarded as an inevitability, or a chore, a general sense of "yes, I have painted the children's playground in the colours of the flag: is the patriotism done now? Music and food will not make themselves." The flags fly, all the same, so large that it would be viable to sight-see with a car around the region simply by finding the largest un-visited flag on one's horizons and heading for it, since most of them seem to fly in places of historical note.

A short-toed eagle stretches its wings above Ovech fortress.
In a moment reminiscent of my childhood as the son of two keen birdwatchers, the next stop was entirely unplanned and involved stopping by a seemingly random farm field on the way, with a brief cry of a bird's name being all the warning available. Here, though, the cry was "eagles"! And so they were. The field was being ploughed, rough old tractors working their way across the wide fields: post-eastern bloc farming often has enormous fields compared to Austria or the UK, largely as a result of collectivisation merging different farms together. Behind the tractors, or sitting grumpily on the bare earth up the slope, or wheeling lazily overhead, there were around twenty lesser-spotted eagles, their majesty only slightly undercut by the agricultural surroundings and the fact that they had gathered in order to follow the agricultural machinery and eat worms. Even the food of kings comes from the same brown earth: but kings these were. There is something about the angular nature of an eagle's face that gives it a certain sharp regality, their dependence on the earth below their wings notwithstanding.

The last stop on the long day's trip was Ovech fortress, a castle on a high plateau overlooking the town of the same name. The sheer cliffs must have made it, in its day, almost impregnable: a few low walls are all that remain, the looped end of one indicating a church, with some slightly more reconstructed sections around the gates and low cuts into the rock where the exits would have been overlooked from both sides. Balkan wall lizards – a new species for me – scattered through the grass, as overhead yet more big birds, among them short-toed snake eagles, sailed down the winds. The inland hills are a dramatic sight, a land of steep drops and prey birds. Their high flags and heavy walls, their scale and power: all these may belie the complexity of their histories, pulled between faiths, occupiers, and new realities. Time caught up with some of these places, leaving for now bare low remnants of walls under an open sky: and I returned to Varna, perhaps older than all of them and escaping Chronos the pursuer still.

Dinner at Staria Chinar.
I spent the next day around town, and finished my book (Miroslav Penkov's East of the West, an excellent read for some tales of late twentieth century Bulgarian life, attitudes, and relations with the outside world). I subsequently went nosing through the local bookshops failing to find what I was after - specifically, I wanted to see if there were interesting Bulgarian or local books in English, but most bookshops only had a small current English selection, especially of science fiction and fantasy, and in some cases also a larger array of second hand options. No interesting little books of local folklore or anything came to light, sadly though I had an interesting chat to an older American lady who owned one of the local bookstores and had some more good ambles through the streets and gardens, getting my bearings better for the city centre as a whole.

Food in Varna definitely had both low points and highlights. The city is quite diverse in its available food, with decent sushi or rice bowls just as available as more traditional fare – though the latter is worth going to find. Banitsa, slightly bready pastries, are a key part of the cuisine, a little similar to a Turkish borek: a spinach and cheese banitsa from Iglika a small bakery on the main road down to the Sea Gardens' entrance, formed my lunch on more than one occasion. Another thing that Bulgaria in particular shares with Turkey, unlike much of the rest of the Balkans, is ayran, a cool and slightly salty yoghurt drink, which I had picked up a taste for at Turkish restaurants in Birmingham a few years earlier and which I was happy to return to for this adventure.

For dinners, my best in Varna were spent at Staria Chinar (Старият Чинар), a restaurant with a few outlets around the city though I went for the one on the corner between Preslav and Han Omurtag streets, a bit further from the heart of the city and therefore noticeably quieter than the city centre options. The beachside restaurants include some good fish options, though much of the sea cuisine is seasonal so for example shellfish weren't available when I was there – I had bluefish instead, which was very good. There are plenty of non-Bulgarian cuisine options too, as noted, though it's very worth trying some of the Bulgarian meat dishes and salads. Some desserts were interesting too, such as Bulgarian biscuit cake, which turned out to actually be rather more like Armenian layered cakes than anything especially biscuity but was very good.

My penultimate full day was spent on the last major excursion of the trip, to the nearby town of Beloslav. I went there from Varna by train: the rail services are rattling and outdated but reliable and somewhat harder to confuse than the buses. There are no electronic ticket machines, but the ticket office managed to understand what I wanted well enough. Varna station boasts one electronic departures board, whereas Beloslav's still pins times to a physical board on the wall.

The stone forest - the largest of these hollow columns were two or three times my own height.
I set off north through the little town, one stop inland from Varna itself along the shores of the estuary lakes. I noticed some local cultural quirks, such as the practice of putting up and for the medium term leaving up notices of deaths or funerals which I'd seen mentioned in Penkov's East of the West. It was not something I'd seen in Varna proper, but most households in Beloslav seemed to have one or two such notices, some of them quite a few years old. The town petered out to the north, and a sandy, scrubby hillside boasted the tall form of a short-toed eagle in a far off tree, and the heavy plod of a tortoise through low-growing young trees.

The walk north of Beloslav took a bit over an hour, and was more pleasant than I'd expected, largely through a mix of grassland, shrubs, and low tangled trees. A quarry changed the landscape, having limestone-blasted the surrounding trees until they were covered winter-white. There were small flowers by the path, occasional butterflies and lizards, and spotted flycatchers doing fast looping flights down from the bushes and trees. For the last ten minutes or so the walk was less good, along a busy road with a couple of slightly oddly dressed people getting out of cars, but there was enough verge not to feel unsafe and I did also pass another tortoise - and my destination was more than worth the walk.

Pobtie Kamanani, the Stone Forest of Varna, is a wonder of the natural world. There's really no other way to put it: huge stone columns, the largest of them at least triple my own height, and all naturally hollow, litter a wide sandy area about eight hundred by two hundred metres in size. One could at firest glance easily mistake them for the remains of some Grecian temple or Roman basilica, until the scattered nature of them comes into its natural focus.

Beside the simple beauty and natural history of the site, some people go to the Stone Forest for spiritual purposes, and I saw some people walking in circles around the pillars, and one slender lady even huddling by some of them, shawl pulled over herself and her wide-brimmed hat perhaps in some sort of communion or attempt to emulate the stone. Others go to try and find specific stones, and the tiny visitors' centre has a range of photos of rocks with names like "the large chair", "the mushroom", and "the heart" that one can try and find. The people at the desk, asking me whether I had come in a hire car or on a tour, were a little surprised to find that I had walked from Beloslav and cheerfully proclaimed that I was a 'real tourist' and handed me a very gratefully received bottle of water.

For myself, the stone forest was simply a delight to explore. I managed to take a couple of pictures of myself with some of the stones by setting up my little camera on a timer and then running into position, a particularly difficult ask with the 'large throne' stone which as its name implies can be sat upon – but doing so is a bit of a scramble for a man of my not entirely gargantuan stature, and doing so with the camera timer running meant effectively doing a sort of running jump and twist which at least paid off after a couple of attempts. The structures themselves were fascinating to see, and so was the local fauna and flora, with at least three different species of lizards skittering between patches of shade and a range of interesting low-growing plants that were happy enough in the sand. An especially strange looking cricket also sat on one of the rocks, an Acrida or conehead, observing me with oval eyes perched atop its high, narrowing face. I am not sure there is another such place in the world, and I do not think any trip to Varna would be complete without seeing it: I am more than glad than I did so.

Walking back along the road, I noticed considerably more rather oddly dressed people getting in and out of cars, and it was only when one of them cheerfully asked me if I wanted sex that I was really sure what was going on. Exactly why this particular area had emerged for this particular trade was not entirely clear, given it was a considerable distance from the nearest settlement, but perhaps that was the best way to avoid the unwanted attentions of the law locally. I politely declined and ambled back under a kestrel's outstretched wings, past hummingbird hawk-moths and vivid green lizards, and returned the same way back to Beloslav.

Ruddy shelduck on the Beloslav lakes.
Beloslav is cut in two by the canal that connects Lake Varna and Lake Beloslav, with a regular ferry running between the two throughout the day that takes both foot passengers and vehicles. Picking up some food at a small shop in north Beloslav, I crossed the river and turned east, heading immediately out of town towards the Beloslav Lakes. These smaller lakes, disconnected from the sea unlike the larger expanses of Lake Varna and Lake Beloslav proper, are a short hike from the town, and offer a wide area of beautiful wetland landscape and, as I had hoped, some more natural interest.

The lakes offer no cover for birdwatching, so a telescope – which I sadly didn't have – would be advisable, the birds tend to be skittish when one approaches. The surrounding land is flat, open, and grazed by cows: the grasses were covered with wagtails, a mixed flock of the yellow and white species, with warblers, shrikes, and buntings in the trees. On the water itself, flocks of ducks burst into flight and the great brown wings of a purple heron wheeled overhead. A snipe revealed itself only when I looked back at a photo of a little egret having got home, entirely unnoticed when I was actually out photographing the wildlife. A mixed roost of pygmy and common cormorants huddled in the trees, and most spectacularly, out on the water sailed some ruddy shelduck, with glorious chestnut backs and pale white heads.

The heads of a newer entrant to the area, the invasive South American coypu, bobbed above the water at times – large rodents that are probably rather bad news for local low-nesting birds and for the conservation of the water economy, though the birds were fairly relaxed at their presence and their mini-capybara appearance is somewhat endearing. Saying farewell to the water-fowl, and stumbling past a large bird of prey, probably a marsh harrier, that burst from the reeds, I headed back to Beloslav and the train rattled its way back to Varna. It had been a long day, and my feet undeniably felt the strain, but it was entirely worthwhile.

A panorama of the Beloslav lakes.

A green-lit section of the sea gardens, at night.
My last day in the city was spent first going to the natural history museum, nestled in the Sea Gardens. This was a small but well kept museum with some mixed English notes among the Bulgarian signage, though it varied room by room whether this was the case. Some were phrased more like the sayings of sages than biological notes: "The ways of life," one case opined, "determine the shapes of the beaks and of the legs." Whilst I understood what it meant, the idea that a different way of life would lead to a whole different body morphology felt somehow right: a chart of astrologically notable minerals was likewise an oddity for a science museum, though in this place with its kaleidoscope of shifting realities it felt less strange than it might have done elsewhere.

That afternoon I met another in the long line of outsiders, from Osiris worshippers in the Roman world to Syrian Christians building their basilica, to Basanavičius and his sewer systems, to be drawn to Varna between one reason and another. It is a feature across many parts of Europe that German medical or dental students, owing to the relatively few places available for study in Germany, will study those subjects abroad (the town of Krems, near where I live in Vienna, has fee-paying German medical students forming no small part of its economic and cultural base). Varna is not an exception to this rule, and so I spent the afternoon with a German medical student studying at the local university.

Seeing bits of the city through semi-local eyes makes a further difference. We met further out than I might have gone otherwise, in areas of somewhat more modern blocks. The residential parts of Varna are busy with cars and smaller shops and badly signed road crossings, and like the rest of the city could perhaps do with some public transport improvements. After a lunch of discussing life, travel and photography we headed in through the sea gardens to, eventually, the lighthouse and views of the estuary and the open Black Sea.

This trip, I reflected at the time, was my first time actually standing next to a sea that had been crucial to so much of the history I study and indeed, thereby, to my own life over the past decade and more. The Black Sea was known as the Euxine, to the ancient Greeks, the hospitable sea – a name thought to perhaps be an ironic flipping of Axine, the inhospitable, both a more apt name for its difficult, fish-poor shores. This in turn was possibly itself a Hellenisation of an Iranian-rooted word for a dark colour, so Black Sea may simply be a return to such a designation: the sea itself is both eternal and fickle, but our relationships with it as people give it an additional shape-shifting nature as we shape and reshape our understandings of its enigmatic waters. The route out to the lighthouse includes a commemorative plaque for the boats that carried Jewish refugees out of Varna in the middle of the last century: we may in many ways have mastered the world in ways the ancient sailors could not have imagined, but their Euxine has never stopped being a place known for difficult voyages.

The photographers' light slipped away to the west, falling red-skied behind the harbour. And so I went to Stavria Chinar one last time in the evening, and in the morning wound my feet along the paths around the Sea Gardens, between the land and the sea, the infinite pasts both remembered and unremembered and the infinite futures both imagined and unforeseen. I saw a middle-spotted woodpecker, its crown a livid flaming red among the trees, and I saw the sea, and the sky.

As I flew into that sky again a little time later, a few last glimpses could be taken of Varna below – and for all the endless chimerical change that the city behind me had seen, the waves and clouds and the flight of the birds probably did not look so very different to the ones that some ancient goldsmith had known, living between the wine-dark sea and the stone forest in a time far before pen had been set to paper to write the first histories of humankind. But on the shore, the world turns, and brings ever new travellers and faiths and to the shores of that chimerical place, which we now call Varna and perhaps, someday, will have another name entirely. Few places know the long waterways of never-ending change so well: and that was the Varna I found, an ancient coastal lizard changing its scales to shine again, or a bird that has seen ten thousand skies moulting and changing its feathers before another flight down the winds of the Euxine shores. When any words I can attach to it have passed beyond thought and memory, it will have slipped long since out of their grasp, and changed to something altogether else: and so this city, in its changing world, will live forever on.

The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...


Additional Photography

Places and Sites


City streets at night:

The Archaeological museum:

The Black Sea pond:

More of the Roman Baths:

Golden Sands and the Aladzha Monastery
Another shot of the Golden Sands woods:

The Aladzha monastery:

Inside the monastery:

The old catacombs:

The Bulgarian history fountain:

Madara, Shumen and Ovech
The Madara Rider:

More views of Shumen fortress:

Looking down to Shumen from the fortress:

The 1300 Years Bulgaria monument from afar, and some of the huge sculptures inside it:

Ovech Fortress gate, and the fortress area from the next plateau along:

Beloslav and the Stone Forest
The lime-blasted section near the Beloslav quarry:

More pictures of the Stone Forest:

The Beloslav ferry:

Beloslav Lakes:

Crossing the estuary/lakes from South to North Beloslav in the evening:


More of the Varna treasure:

Gods in the museum. Centre on the left is the Great God of Varna, on the furthest right Osiris can clearly be seen.

A horseman image of the kind common in Roman-era Thrace and Bulgaria:



A black redstart at the Roman Baths:

Golden Sands

A wall lizard in the Golden Sands forests:

A bee-eater on a wire above the woods:

A huge flock of bee-eaters much higher in the sky:

A shiny beetle at the Aladzha monastery:

Madara, Shumen and Ovech
A butterfly, possibly Queen of Spain Fritillary, near the monument at Shumen:

A lesser spotted eagle on a field:

A Syrian woodpecker on the way up to the plateau at Ovech:

Two short-toed eagles wheel over Ovech fortress:

A Balkan Wall Lizard (I think) on the plateau at Ovech:

North Beloslav & the Stone Forest
The tortoise of Beloslav:

A short-toed eagle:

A cirl bunting near the quarry:

A spotted flycatcher:

A small lizard, possibly common lizard or similar?

A wall lizard at the Stone Forest:

The cone-headed grasshopper at the Stone Forest:

A butterfly, probably a meadow brown:

A butterfly, possibly a copper of some kind:

A hummingbird hawk-moth, in a rare moment of not tootling around like a hummingbird:

A larger lizard, one of the lacerta species, I don't think it's viridis which I'm most familiar with but I'm not sure:

Beloslav Lakes

A red backed shrike:

A spotted flycatcher:

A warbler of some kind:

Ducks, not sure of species:

Two white storks flying overhead:

A white wagtail:

A purple heron:

An egret and a snipe - I didn't even see the snipe until checking the photo back afterwards!

Pygmy and common cormorants next to one another:

Coypu, with two Gadwall ducks on the left:

A finch, unsure of species:

The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...


Thanks for posting this. It hadn't occurred to me that Varna would have so much to offer; it's definitely moved up my list of intended destinations. The "stone forest" seems particularly striking.

Also, an admin note: I've added this thread to the travel writing index.


Second post now updated with a lot of additional photography in case people want to see a bit more of the places and wildlife :) I have a few more shots of Varna itself I might add later but I've got most of the main excursion days' places and wildlife in there now.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...


This was a very interesting read and I liked the focus on the wildlife! What were you taking your photos on? I thought of Colombia twice while reading this: Bogota's Museum of Gold also has very early gold crafts, and the Tatacoa Desert contains striking rock formations.


I've got two cameras and was usually carrying both on this trip: a big canon PowerShot which is what most of these are taken on, and then a little Panasonic lumix, I use the latter especially for macro work so things like the photo of the cone-headed grasshopper were done on it. It also has a more flexible screen so when I do timed photos of myself I use that one. The PowerShot has about twice as powerful a zoom though so that's fairly key for the medium distance bird pictures being any good.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...


I prioritised zoom when I bought my Panasonic DMC TZ70, but turns out it's not much good for macro shots. Could hardly focus on small things. How long was your trip in total? You appear to have seen a huge variety of wildlife in a relatively short time.


Five days - and yeah, most of the best wildlife was really packed into three of them, the day in the Golden Sands woods, the inland day where I had a guide who could point out the eagles, and the Beloslav day which was a very long hard day of walking but was just wildly good (pun partially intended). I think the thing with Beloslav was the range of terrain, I went from the mini-desert at the stone forest through a lot of scrub and rocky dry woods down to a proper wetland. Also, the Black Sea coast in winters and springs does tend to be exceptionally good for birds in general, it's a very focused route for migration.

And yes, I've definitely found that if I want both macro and zoom I end up needing two cameras.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...