Autumn in Sofia is hauntingly beautiful.
Vitosha Mountain had the melancholic beauty of a former battlefield. Heavy fog drifted through the damp forest and across the cobblestone mountain road like gun smoke blowing across a suddenly quieted killing field. Glistening dark red and yellow leaves lay dashed across the road, casualties of the rain storm that had just swept through. It was quiet except for the cooing of a breeze fluttering through the forest and the distant gushing of a stream.
A couple thousand feet below Vitosha Mountain lies Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital and largest city. Bulgaria is the eastern-most country in the Balkans, a region of Europe located in the southeast corner of the continent. The region’s name is derived from the Balkan Mountains that stretch from Bulgaria to Serbia. The Balkans, for anyone casually acquainted with late twentieth century history, is a place haunted by the lingering nightmares of the Soviet Union’s tyrannical machine, the horrific post-Yugoslavia wars, and the Bosnian genocide. For a young American, the Balkans seemed a terrifying, almost mythological place, borne from the darkest pits of a lurid imagination. Even the name has a harsh, Tolkienesque sound.
Bulgaria, however, is relatively lucky compared to its neighbors. Politically, it is a somewhat stable parliamentary democracy, but economically it is one of the poorest countries in the European Union. Widespread economic hardship led to massive protests earlier this year, which led to the dissolution of the government and new elections. Still, peace and independence are recent developments in Bulgaria, which, throughout its history, found itself serving as a stepping stone for the Byzantine, Ottoman and Soviet empires.
Bulgaria has luckily not seen any major violence since World War II (unfortunately for Bulgarians, they fought on the wrong side). With independence what were previously marks of domination and empire are now proud symbols of an exceptionally diverse cultural heritage. Bulgaria’s food, architecture, and art, best seen and tasted in Sofia, are expressions of the country’s deep history.
But Bulgaria’s true national treasure is its nature, particularly in the mountains surrounding Sofia during autumn. None of man’s monstrosities have managed to mar the Balkan Mountains. Still, having witnessed humanity’s darkest chapters, one cannot help but feel the cool grip of tragedy in the misty fog. The Balkan Mountains are reminders that humans have the tendency to want to kill each other in the most magnificent nature. They remind us that nightmares can be beautiful.
Article written by Joshua Alvarez.