Out of the blue, Valentin called me one day to invite me on a tour of his homeland, with him. Unlikely, I told him, much as I would like to go. Bad tax year, times were tough, blah, blah, blah. I nearly made one of the worst decisions of my life that day. Later that evening, I realized that this was the opportunity of a life-time, and I called Valentin back and jumped in. What followed was, in fact, the trip of a life-time.
Let's face it, not too many of us grew up with a burning desire to someday tour Bulgaria. I certainly didn't. As one friend responded when I told him where I was going, "I hope you like the color grey."Those of us who were raised on this side of the Iron Curtain certainly had considerable negative bias about life on the other side. In fact, getting to know Valentin was my first in-depth experience with someone raised in the Communist system. The trip would have been entirely worth the time and expense if only to see first-hand a country emerging from years of oppression, and flowering into happier times, and sharing the experience with a guide like Val who knows both worlds so well. Oh, but it was so much more than that.
Many of us involved in metalsmithing were drawn to our passion, in part, by a love of history. This trip took us to see, first-hand, what many believe to be the best metalwork in human history (I am certain they are the best yet found). The treasures of the Thracian empire, created in appx 400-1000 B.C., are exquisite. To see these pieces up close in the museums of Sofia was, for me, the highlight of a trip with so many highlights it was hard to keep them all straight. Mere words simply cannot do justice to the magnificence of these treasures.
Following Sofia, we traveled out into the countryside. We visited Val's painting teacher, a famous Bulgarian painter and wonderful man. Seeing Val interacting with one of his mentors was priceless. As well, we visited the town where Val spent years of his young life, and many summers. We spent several days touring the fantastic Ethnographic museum at Etara, a recreated town of the middle-ages, with working master craftsmen using old-world techniques to create treasures. Needless to say, the coppersmith and silversmith (old friend of Val's, of course) found an appreciative audience in our group! We toured the town of Veliko-Turnovo, and visited the ancient seat of Bulgarian government at the hilltop fortress. Then it was on to Assenovgrad via Plovdiv, where we had a delightful evening with many of Valentin's fellow business and craftsmen in the town where he lived and worked before coming to America in 1990. The language barrier was breached with the wonderful local food and drink. As an aside, the food everywhere was quite good, with the fresh cucumber and tomato salads topping my list of favorites. The local drink was a delicious plum brandy called Rakia, and the local red wines are excellent and reasonably priced.
From Assenovgrad, it was up into the Rhodope mountains for two nights at Chepelare, home to several ski areas in the winter. The scenery we viewed in the mountains was stupendous, the rival of any I've seen in the world. Our last night was spent back in Assenovgrad, celebrating the most unique Fourth of July party in my life, and then back the next day to be dropped at the Sofia airport for the trip home. Valentin and Sharon had organized and executed a perfect trip. The company they assembled was delightful, companionable, and compatible. The travel, thanks to our driver Raddy and his very comfortable bus, was safe and efficient. The hotels ranged from quaint and comfortable, to swanky and comfortable. The food was superb, with well chosen restaurants along the way. The museums and sights were fantastic. Best of all, sharing with Valentin his homeland, of which he is rightly proud, was wonderful beyond measure. Meeting his friends, and viewing another culture through the eyes and experiences of a native made this a trip I will never forget. Would I go back? In a heartbeat.
Thank you Sharon, for all your hard work. Valentin, thanks for dragging me along, and not taking my first, half-hearted "no" for an answer. I love you, buddy.