Sometimes freedom offers rough ride at first

March 27, 2012 12:44 pm

After passing through the locks on the Danube our next stop was in Vidin, Bulgaria (population 47,000) on International United Nations Public Service Day.

This observance, started in 2003, aims to celebrate the value and virtue of service to the community. (Although this was an important celebration for the citizens we didn’t observe any activity honoring the occasion.)

Our destination for the day was not Vidin, however, but the town of Belogradchik 34 miles away.

As we traveled the hour and a half in our motor coach along a narrow road through an economically depressed area we saw a large abandoned Russian chemical production plant which sent shivers down my spine. However, later on fields of sunflowers, barley, corn and canola warmed my spirit.

We passed a stork nest and it was extremely important to our guide that we see it properly with the storks in it. Since the nest was empty it was promised that on the return trip we would have better luck. I have since learned that there is much more of an attachment to the stork in Bulgaria than it would first appear.

It seems that the electric company has installed 500 safety platforms for the storks on power poles and the Bulgarian railways, while experiencing great financial problems, have been involved with rehabilitating stork nesting places, spending as much as $1,300 for each nest. There are 4,956 breeding pairs of storks in Bulgaria.

They fly from Africa to Bulgaria each spring, a distance of more than 300 miles, and return in the fall. The birds mate for life and each pair comes back to the same nest every year where the female lays from two to five eggs. 

Whether on private or public land the nests are protected state property.

When we arrived in Belogradchik we found a town (population 5,334) of white buildings with red-tiled roofs surrounded by the massive red rocks on one side and rolling hills on the other. As we looked further we saw that the town exuded poverty. The buildings, primitive and in disrepair, were left over from Communist times.

Average wages were 400 Euros ($524) a month. There was an interesting posting of papers with pictures and written information on light poles, trees, and walls which we learned were tributes/notices of those from the town who had died.

Amidst all of this was a five-story modern hotel/spa which was a favorite destination for vacationing Bulgarians. We were taken into the hotel for refreshments of tea and a sweet and a salty pastry. There are at least five other smaller hotels in the area.

The great draw for the area are the red rocks on which the Belogradchik Fortress was built as a maze of rock columns and pillars and last used in 1885. The rocks have created a multitude of fantastic figures resembling silhouettes of people, towers, ships, mushrooms, palaces, and animals.

Upon entering the lower walls Dale chose to climb to the top of the fortress. I was not so brave that day as it was very hot (more than 90 degrees), there were many steps cut into the rock at a steep incline and no handholds, and the climb took about two hours.

I waited at the bottom in a charming cabin that was part of a grouping of other charming buildings inside the lower walls and visited with some of my fellow travelers.

Later I found that the “charming buildings” were only part of an old movie set. A disturbing thing was that there had been handrails on the steps but the movie people took them down and they were never replaced because of the expense.

This was an area of the very rich visitors and the very poor locals. Our guide told of the school children who upon arriving at first grade had no schoolbooks.

When approached, the Minister of Education saw no problem. His solution was to “Let them take notes while the teacher is talking.” The theory seems to be to let the people live a very basic life. For when they become better educated and more affluent they are harder to govern.

The schools are sufficient but anything above eighth grade is focused on vocational training.

It appears there is a larger number of older people than young, because perhaps the young are moving away to find a better life.

The ones who have stayed are trying to better their situation and are working to reconstruct buildings that had been damaged or destroyed during the numerous wars, but employment is hard to find, taxes are high, and healthcare is no longer free. It is another case where many of the people are not sure whether they prefer their new found freedom to the old ways of Communism.

Be thankful to be! Celebrate freedom! Enjoy!


Ginny Mammen is a La Grande resident. Reach the author at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it