Oh, it’s cold now in Istanbul. Days like diamonds: brilliant sunshine, icy in the shadows. The sun fools you into wearing a lighter coat, and then it sets. Such a fantasy, Istanbul, amid seas and waterways. But its magnificent trees, butchered for years now by misguided municipal pruning, look in winter like spindly desiccated fingers sprouting from wizened fists. All I can think about is how it feels to get off the train in Plovdiv and look up, up, up into the exquisite embroidery of those natural trees against the sky.
I found Plovdiv quite by accident. I just needed to go someplace in Bulgaria by train, because the bus had become impossible.
GRIM CROSSING Bulgarian/Turkish border, Winter 2007, 3AM. Turkish side. Dark and cold. Dogs and uniforms under guard towers. Leaping light from huge bonfires at the edge of a crowded parking lot piled with our opened suitcases. The ground glittered: sugar, slashed from people’s packages, littered with dark islands of flung spices. At the bonfires, yelling uniformed men hurled bottle after bottle of confiscated booze and watched them explode. People were crying. My seat-mate had lost all her sugar and spices, bought cheap in Bulgaria for her restaurant in Istanbul. Laughing, shouting customs agents had ripped them out of her luggage. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. We all kept our heads down, praying to be allowed to repack our belongings and get back on the bus to Istanbul.
Long ago before the laws changed, it was possible to live for years in Turkey on a tourist visa. One simply left the country for one day every three months. The bus was cheapest.
The border crossing could go into six hours at that time, what with all the queues and checkpoints. A friend had asked me to buy her four bottles of Johnny Walker and two cartons of cigarettes, advertised on the Internet as legal. Trudging along the row of duty-free border stores, my seat-mate and I saw 4-packs of whiskey, labelled “4 for the price of 3.” I bought the smokes, but the bus driver told us that the Turks were confiscating alcohol over one bottle per passenger, so I bought only two and asked my seat-mate to carry the other one. We got back on the bus and crossed to Turkey, where we ran into that Inferno-like parking-lot luggage check. We were allowed to keep our one bottle each, but one of my cartons of cigarettes was confiscated by our friend the bus driver. Back on the bus, the air turned thick as the entire bus illegally smoked my swiped carton.
We were eventually told that sixty Turkish customs agents had been arrested for corruption, and their cohorts were taking it out on the rest of us. When I got back, sick from smoke and sleep deprivation, I gave my friend her two bottles and one carton. She said, “What? Why, I would never have put up with that, I know my rights. I’m an American.”
After that, I quit the bus for the train. You can lie down on the train.
MARILYN MONROE IN PLOVDIV
Spelled “Merilyn” to avoid the long arm of MGM, this cigarette campaign was all the rage a few years ago. I also bought Ray Ben sunglasses. Drawing in a cafe, it thrilled my Los Angeles soul to see it snow and snow. I was less thrilled later, when I realized my boots were too slick to go anywhere.
Compared to the bus, the night train border crossing was a picnic. Still it had left me groggy. I got off the train, that first time, and staggered up out of the underpass to see trees. Huge thunderhead trees. I cried out loud at the sight, there in the street. In Bulgaria, the parks are lush and the trees gloriously crowned. I loved Plovdiv so much that I went there thirteen times, every three months for three years, until I got my Turkish Residence visa. I’d take the overnight train to Plovdiv, walk around all day, and catch the midnight train back to Istanbul.
In my favorite cafe, trees grow up through the roof, and there’s ham for breakfast. Every trip, I’d draw myself awake. I saw the same people winter and summer, but this fellow, I saw only once.
Sure, you can get pork in Istanbul. After all, Istanbul is an international, eclectic, tolerant city. But their hearts just aren’t into serving pig. One friend told me “they say the air stinks of pork in Plovdiv.” I hadn’t noticed, I was eating pork ribs, juice running down my chin. Someone needs to do a T-shirt: I GOT PORKED IN PLOVDIV.
PAGEANT OF NAMES
Reading Plovdiv’s history, I see a regal figure enduring a continual costume change, its integrity as eternal as its ancient walls. Little old Plovdiv, Bulgaria, is the oldest continuously occupied city in Europe. It’s so old it fell to Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon, who gave it one of its ancient names: Philippopolis.
Some sources say it’s 6000 years old, some say 8,000. A city on a plain, at the Maritza River, with seven rocky tower-like hills. Nobody knows the name of the original Neolithic settlement. The Thracians called the city Eumolpias, after the son of Poseidon, and then Pulpedeva. Later, under Roman rule, it was a major crossroads and cultural center, called Trimontium, after the three largest hills.
Plovdiv’s Roman ruins are plentiful and immaculate, like this well-preserved stadium under a shopping center. The most famous is the Roman theater, still open for business, clinging to a rocky cliffside.
In the Middle Ages the city was Byzantine, once again called Philippopolis, as the residents sang songs of Alexander’s heroics 1300 years before. After the Byzantines, Slavs called it Peldin, Plepdiv, Ploudin. Ottomans seized the city in the fourteenth century, re-naming it Filibe, from “Philip.”
Here’s a Byzantine arch attached to a Roman wall, and below it, the layout for a drawing of the gate. It was just too darned cold, so I finished in August.
Next to it, a tall gabled house boasts an enormous door. I banged on it one icy day and met Krasi, who was ensconced with colleagues in a toasty back room of what turned out to be a museum: The House of Dimitar Georgiadi. I gratefully accepted tea and a spot on the couch. “Oh, you live in Istanbul,” they said, “Here’s a book by your countryman.” They handed me a book written by an American in the 1800s. A sentence leaped out: …there were still traces of chemises on the small skeletons scattered through the rocks and trees… It was an account of the conflict leading to the Battle of Philippopolis, which expelled the Ottomans in 1898. The city has been “Plovdiv” ever since.
Upstairs in the museum are glass cases with all manner of things. I gathered that the people who wore this clothing, shot these guns, were fighting Ottoman forces. Krasi and her colleagues welcomed me many times and I was able to get this drawing of all-felt guerrilla clothing and weapons. I imagine the fierce young men in the mountains, nothing to do but decorate those guns and fire them.
THE ICE PALACE
In 1892 Lucien Chevallaz, the moustached gent on the statue above, created Tsar Simeon’s Garden: a large rambling park full of giant trees, floored in winter with thick snow. The drawing above was done before snowfall, but on the trip when I got stuck in the cafe, this was how it looked.
Walking was so slippery I couldn’t risk it. I had no Bulgarian, my phone didn’t work there, and I had only enough money for the day. So I stayed inside. Not much of a view in there. I was miserable because all I wanted was to see Old Town in the snow.
But from all those one-day trips, Krasi and I had become friends. She sent me these pictures she took on that day, and permission to share them with you. Thank you, Krasimira Marinova! Here she is in summer.
This is how Old Town looks in snow. Fairyland!
It’s full of these multistoried gabled wooden houses, centuries old and lovingly maintained, many of them built in Ottoman times by Turkish merchants.
I’d never seen woodwork like this, combining long curving planes and sharp angles.
The Old Town covers the biggest of Plovdiv’s rocky hills, stone streets lined with ancient walls, huge trees and these storybook houses.
DARK CRYSTAL CHURCHES
There are Christian churches all over Plovdiv, preserved behind the Iron Curtain, now flourishing. These old churches are dark and beautiful with the glint of gold and crystal, Orthodox Christian churches with icons that help me to imagine how the Byzantine churches were here in Istanbul, before they became mosques.
I wander through them in pleasant melancholy, lighting candles to my mother and aunts, to departed friends and lovers. I wasn’t raised with such traditions but find them comforting and appropriate.
There are mosques in Plovdiv, pagan temples, and synagogues, although most of the Jews departed for the new state of Israel. They were able to because 20th-century Plovdiv saved its Jews: in 1943 Cyril, Archbishop of Plovdiv and future Bulgarian Patriarch, intervened to prevent 1500 deportations to the camps.
Decades after the god-proscribing Soviet rule, the tone of Bulgaria is Christian. Saints decorate money and civic buildings. On a recent side trip to Sofia, I found a spectacular subway saint, and a tomb worth sharing.
GOODNIGHT SWEET PRINCE
Attracted to its chartreuse roof I drew this before I went inside. And in there, I found the tomb of the original Handsome Prince, beloved Prince Alexander Battenberg, 1857-1893, First Prince of the new country of Bulgaria.
The Prince fell in love with Viktoria, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, but the other side of the family blocked the marriage. The disappointed princess, doomed to a short marriage and one miscarriage with another prince, eventually married a gigolo and died destitute and alone. Just look at her expression: she knows he’s a rotter, but she’s determined to wrest some semblance of happiness from life.
Prince Battenberg fared better but not for long. After his forced abdication he married Johanna Loisinger, an opera singer everybody liked, and retired to private life. They had two children before he died. As the Countess Hartenau, patroness of the arts in Vienna, she outlived him by fifty years, dying in 1951.
The Battenbergs were a large and influential family. Because of anti-German sentiment, the British branch of the family changed their name to Mountbatten. Yes, Lord Mountbatten who helped India get ready for independence and who was blown up on his yacht by IRA terrorists. Lord Mountbatten carried on the family popularity: his murder brought down the wrath of the entire world on the Irish Republican Army.
As to Prince Alexander, his only failing seems to have been a lack of ruthlessness. “Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest–” or at least the memory of two great loves.
At the other end of the spectrum, a thousand years before Prince Alexander, Khan Krum the Horrible reigned over the Bulgars. No shortage of ruthlessness here! You remember him, don’t you? That 9th-century ruler who declared war on the Byzantines. He kept at it until Emperor Nicophorus had to suit up and gallop off to Bulgaria ahead of the Byzantine Army. Krum surrendered, but not until after he’d driven Nicophorus crazy. Berserk with rage, Nicophorus kept slaughtering, forcing Krum to summon allies to defeat him. The Bulgar forces found Nicophorus dead on a dung-heap after the battle. Krum beheaded him and had his skull made into a silver-lined beerstein, with which he drank his own health until the end of his days. Medieval artists did their best, but I always picture Krum as looking like something out of Frazetta. He certainly inspires art like this:
VIRTUAL JUSTICE Eleven PM always found me exhausted on the train platform. Plovdiv’s train station is 19th-century grandeur that went through the Iron Curtain. In winter it’s grim and cold. Nobody speaks English, the bathroom is permanently broken, and the train to Istanbul is always late.
February 2010: In the tiny ticket office, four clerks huddled around a space heater. None of them wanted to tell me anything. Above them, grimy walls went up forever into peeling paint covered with frost and cobwebs. It was the back of the back of beyond, a Central European Kafka Gulag nightmare. Then I noticed they were riveted to a beat-up old computer, and on it was a DVD. They were not cold, they were not even there. In this grim technological desert, they were watching Avatar. State of the art, and you couldn’t get it online or in stores, it was still in US theaters but not yet in Bulgaria. It was the scene where the collective is trying to bring someone back from the dead. On Facebook, I had read endless griping from LA friends about Avatar. It was quite the fashion back home to hate this movie. But out here in the all-too-real world, Cameron’s archetypes and tableaux of war and oppression spoke to sympathetic ears; that blue tribal communion was gorgeous, a dream of freedom, beauty, triumph over hideous uncontrollable forces. I was glad to see this harbinger from my old hometown, and equally glad to be free of those LA attitudes. The longer I’m gone from the place I was born, the more I feel like myself. In this alien land full of strangers, where I can’t even speak the language, I feel at home.
All drawings Plein Air © Trici Venola. All photos copyrighted as noted. All drawings done with drafting pens in sketchbook format: 7 inches by 20 inches closed. Thanks for reading. We love your comments.