Museum of Socialist Art to open in Bulgaria

Socialist art, BulgariaA Museum of Socialist Art is opening next month in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. The museum exhibits statues of Lenin, paintings of Bulgarian Communist Party leaders, and other artwork from Soviet times.

The former Eastern Bloc country is the last such nation to open a museum to its totalitarian past. The socialist government fell in 1989 and Bulgaria had its first free elections the following year.

Not all vestiges of the past are sitting in museums. Many of Bulgaria’s current ruling elite were members of the old regime, and the last-minute name change from “Museum of Totalitarian Art” to “Museum of Socialist Art” is making some Bulgarians question just what the purpose of the museum is.

I worked in Bulgaria as an archaeologist in 1994, and the country was full of Soviet art. With the economy bottoming out, grannies set up stalls in the streets to sell old medals, uniforms, and busts of Marx for next to nothing. If only I had bought more than a few mementos, I could make a bundle on eBay! Most people were glad the old regime was gone, but the dire state of the economy had many people questioning the value of a free market system. I haven’t been back in more than a decade. Can anybody out there tell me how the majority of Bulgarians feel about the transition more than a decade on?

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. This Soviet stamp from 1969 commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Socialist Revolution in Bulgaria. The text says, “The friendship between the Soviet and the Bulgarian people- indestructible for eternity.”]

China’s “red tourism” commemorates 90th anniversary of Communism

red tourismCome up with a wacky tourism concept, and they will come. For the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding on July first, enterprising operators throughout China are creating a new crop of cultural and commemorative “red” tours.

On the idyllic island province of Hainan, visitors young and old alike travel to rural Qionghai, to visit Pan Xianying. At approximately 95 (Hainan isn’t so great at archiving old birth records), Pan is one of three remaining members of a famed, all-female Chinese Communist army unit. As such, she’s a living attraction on a “red” tour of Hainan, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

Pan was about 15 when she joined the unit in 1931; the battalion was formed by a Hainanese Communist to promote gender equality. The unit was disbanded after several years, when Nationalist forces drove local Communists underground. In 1949, the women gained national attention after Chairman Mao overtook China. The battalion is now the subject of several films and a song.

Enterprising authorities in Qionhai are now offering tours of the unit’s former training ground and meeting spots, and offering hikes, during which one can experience the thrill of following a difficult route once used by Red Army soldiers. Adding a further note of authenticity: guides wear era-appropriate green hats adorned with red stars (also available as souvenirs), and hikers willing to cough up an extra 100 yuan can even slog in full soldier regalia. The hikes are said to foster “army-style camaraderie.” Does that mean dysentery is included?

Not surprisingly, there has been official encouragement behind revolutionary tours, although red tourism isn’t new. Mao’s home city of Shaoshan in Hunan province, as well as the Communist base of Yan’an in Shaanxi province attract tourists, and authorities in places like Chongqing encourage the learning of “red songs” printed in local newspapers or on websites.

Chen Doushu, head of the agency organizing the Hainan tours, says red tourism reflects a desire by many to look back fondly on the past, after more than 30 years of focus on the future during China’s rapid recent modernization. “Chinese people cannot forget their history, and the best way to do that is to go and remember it, to study it. That’s where red tourism comes from.”

Apparently, absence does make the heart grow fonder.

[Photo credit: Flickr user xiaming]

Candid look inside North Korea


In this video, Steve Gong goes into a North Korea hair salon and gets his hair cut “Pyongyang style.” Like the city it is named for, Pyongyang style is a largely unchanged fashion. This metropolis on the banks of the Taedong river appears much as it did when the U.S.S.R. was its principal ally many years ago. The ghost of communist Russia hovers over Pyongyang like a specter, and in this light, North Korea is the little brother that never grew up. The stunted growth of communist ambition creates a haunting aesthetic. Massive plazas, ornate subway stations, and dear leaders born out of mountains all speak to the idiosyncrasy of North Korea and its stubbornly unique ideology.

The video provides a long glimpse inside the hermit kingdom. Unlike the Vice Guide to North Korea (my personal favorite North Korean Doc), Steve Gong provides candid HD shots void of commentary. It is like being a voyeur in the most reclusive nation on the planet. If you watch closely, you will even catch a glimpse of the hideous Ryugyong Hotel.

Weekending: Sofia


Since moving to Istanbul, I’ve gotten the chance to travel to a lot of interesting destinations, from Beirut to Bosnia, that are much easier and cheaper to access from Turkey than America. For my first long (more than a weekend) trip, I went to Bulgaria for a week over US Labor Day and Turkish bayram (end of Ramadan holidays). Over the week, I traveled from the capital city Sofia to medieval hill town Veliko Tarnovo to Black Sea coastal Varna, and will explore the different flavors of each region in future posts.

The place: Sofia, Bulgaria
Travel writer (and Bulgaria fan) Robert Reid notes in his Lonely Planet Bulgaria guide that visitors to Sofia should not expect the “new Prague.” While Sofia may never compare to the Czech Republic capital in terms of the sheer number of historic buildings and monuments, you may discover a taste of Old Europe with the modern nightlife and budget prices that made Prague so popular in the past two decades. After the fall of Communism 21 years ago, Bulgaria developed steadily enough to join the European Union in 2007 (albeit as its poorest country), and hopes to join the Schengen visa zone next year. It’s now being touted as a destination for adventure and budget travelers with a small but growing amount of foreign visitors discovering its many pleasures.

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  • One of the major pluses for Sofia (and even more so in more rural parts of Bulgaria) is the price tag. Dinner for two can be had with a nice bottle of local wine for less than $20. High-end hotels that would cost hundreds of dollars in other European cities rarely top 100 Euros and many comfortable options can be found around 50 to 60 Euros (a Rick Steves tour group was staying at my hotel, the lovely but reasonable Arena di Serdica). Many of Sofia’s best sights are free, including the landmark Aleksander Nevski church (check out this link for photos of the beautiful interior, as cameras aren’t allowed inside and the postcard selection is lacking) and the daily markets are great to browse – try Aleksander Nevski Plaza for antiques of questionable province, Zhenski Pazar for Chernobyl-sized produce, and Slaveykov Square for books in various languages. Bulgarian beers and wine are generally 2-4 leva (under $3) and a generously-poured cocktail is only a few leva more.
  • Along with cheap drinks comes a fun, creative nightlife scene. While sipping wine in the candlelit converted barn bar Hambara, I wondered why New York doesn’t have cool spaces like that (answer: probably breaking a lot of building codes). Apartment (just down the road from Hambera on Neofit Rilski) is another well-known spot for travelers, expats, and locals, set in an old house with different rooms for different vibes. If you’re looking for something a bit more glam, Planet Bar de Luxe is delightfully over-the-top with purple tutu-clad waitresses and a gift-shop in the bathroom (and I thought Sarajevo had the best bar bathroom). Soviet-era dormitories have been converted into a hotbed of nightclubs and bars. Creativity isn’t just limited to the nighttime – great collections of art are housed in the National Gallery and the well-curated Sofia City Gallery, along with interesting graffiti and small galleries around town.

Downgrades

  • Sofia’s vices and nightlife may not be for everyone. After five months in a country where alcohol is heavily taxed, low-priced and tasty wine is a big thrill for me, but not everyone has “cheap alcohol” on their vacation must-have list. Vegetarians may soon grow bored with pizzas (practically one of Bulgaria’s national foods, eaten with ketchup and mayo by locals – try at your own risk) and salads in Bulgaria include meat and cheese almost as a rule. Like in much of Eastern Europe, smoking is legal in most public places and quite widespread; a recent ban was overturned and replaced with a law barring underage from bars.
  • While the city center is easy to explore with plenty to do, it is small and once you leave the center, the abundance of Communist-era architecture may be less than charming. You can choose to embrace it and marvel at the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-a-time Soviet monuments like the poorly-covered up Monument to the Bulgarian State or the huge National Palace of Culture (NDK) eyesore. If you’ve had enough urban adventure, Mount Vitosha towers over the city with outdoor activities year round.

Getting there

Small but serviceable Sofia Airport is served by flights all over Europe, including low-cost carriers Wizz Air and easyJet. Bulgaria also has excellent bus connections throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe, with a clean and convenient bus station not far from the city center. Read on below for other destination ideas in Bulgaria.

Make it a week

There are multiple day and side trip opportunities near Sofia including Rila Monastery, one of Bulgaria’s best and most famous monasteries; the tiny wine town Melnik; and ancient Plovdiv. You can also hop a bus to venture into the Central Balkans or out to the Black Sea for beach time, as I did. Stay tuned for more on Bulgaria travel.

Read my previous Weekending trips from Istanbul here.

Weekending: Prague


While I’m living in Istanbul, I try to take advantage of all the amazing destinations a few hours’ flight away and travel there as often as possible. I like to focus on destinations that are harder to access from the US for just a few days (such as Turkey’s beach town Bodrum) and places best explored while I’m still relatively young and unencumbered (to wit: Beirut). Traveling as an expat takes on a different flavor as well, seeking culture and cuisine not found in my new city.

The place: Prague, Czech Republic

I really had no intention of going to Prague. Not that it doesn’t interest me, I’ve heard it is enchanting and a must-see city, but this particular weekend we were all set to go to Kosovo, one of the world’s youngest countries (by self-declared independence as well as population). A series of minor events caused us to miss our flight by minutes, but as we were already at the airport and ready to travel, we asked to be re-booked on the next international flight somewhere, which turned out to be Prague. We arrived in the Czech Republic with no reservations, research, or plans and through the magic of social media (and the Prague Airport’s free wifi), I was greatly assisted and reassured by the great advice and insight from travel writers and friends Evan Rail, Alexander Basek, and Gadling’s own David Farley. Turns out it’s not an overrated country and I can now say, “Oh, I’ve been to Prague.”

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  • Two words: pork and beer. Ask any meat-eating expat in a Muslim country what they miss most about home and they will invariably say pork. While it’s available in Turkey, it’s scarce and pricey. Alcohol is easier to come by, but anything imported will cost you and while Turkey’s national Efes satisfies, it tastes like watered down Bud Light after drinking Czech beer. Arriving in a city thronged with sausage carts and beer halls was like visiting Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The beer isn’t just tasty and cheap, it’s available anywhere, pretty much anytime. For tips on the best pubs to drink at, trust anything by Evan Rail – Tony Bourdain did earlier this year. My last night in Prague was spent at the lovely Meduza Cafe, a near-perfect spot to have a coffee or glass of wine, write in your journal, and revel in Bohemia.
  • The city’s beauty is well-known, and one of the greatest pleasures is just strolling the streets and bridges and soaking up the atmosphere. It’s interesting to contrast the romantic castle and ornate Old Town Square architecture with some of the old Soviet buildings, like the modern art Veletzni Palace museum, and the wacky sculptures of David Cerny. Small but worthwhile attractions include the Museum of Communism (if only for the darkly funny posters such as “Like their sisters in the West, they would’ve burnt their bras – if there were any in the shops”) and the Museum of Decorative Arts, featuring a fascinating collection of costumes, design, and knick-knacks – as well as a great view of the always-crowded Jewish Cemetery from the bathrooms (a tip from Evan, thanks!).

Downgrades

  • Even after seeing Paris, London, and New York, Prague is the most touristed city I’ve been to yet. Long after being discovered as a “budget” European destination (it’s still cheap by Europe standards, but not quite the bargain it was in the ’90s), the streets are packed with package tourists from all over the world, backpackers, and worst of all – pub-crawling college students. True story: one night a shirtless American kid walked in a mini-market, talking on his cell phone about how drunk he was and how he tried to hook up with some other girls in his hostel. He hung up and told his friends he was talking to his MOM. By day in the areas around Old Town Square and Prague Castle, you’d be hard pressed to hear anyone speak Czech and it’s difficult to find a spot not mobbed with tourists, which all takes a bit away from the city’s authenticity.
  • Not quite a downgrade but perhaps due to the aforementioned tourists, service at restaurants can be brusque and some less scrupulous taxi drivers have been known to take passengers for a ride. If possible, let your hotel book taxis to ensure you get a fair price and find out what approximate prices are around town. Other than a few waiters having a bad day, I’d hardly condemn the Czech people as being anything other than friendly and helpful. The bigger deterrent is the disrespectful, entitled, and obnoxious tourists.

Getting there

Delta flies direct from New York to Prague Airport, and British and American Airlines fly via London Heathrow. Budget carriers bmiBaby, German Wings, easyJet, and WizzAir service Prague from Europe. It’s an easy and cheap bus and metro ride into the city center from the airport.

Make it a week

Prague is surrounded by beautiful countryside (remember the sunflower fields in Everything is Illuminated? Filmed outside Prague) and the city is well connected to towns and cities around the Czech Republic. Spend a few days in the capital and then get out and explore Bohemia.