When I was gorging on beignets in New Orleans, I casually saw the poster of an exhibition of Bulgarian Gold, supposed to be the oldest in the world. As a proud owner of my great grandma’s gold earrings, I was curious about ‘oldest in the world’ claim. But it was the last day of my holiday and we had to go back.
But Varna’s, Bulgaria, gold stayed at the corner of my brain until I watched Bram Stoker’s
Dracula and the city was mentioned. And a day later, a friend asked me if I could accompany her to a movie location recce (they would pay half the fare) to… Varna! The heavens had plotted to get me there, would I say ‘no’? I pumped up my credentials by telling her that I can read the Cyrillic alphabet.
Any other time, I would have asked her to plot a stay at Sofia, the capital. But a gift horse is a lovely four-legged creature. So we landed in Varna on a beautiful September afternoon at the bus station, after three flights and dodgy airline food, visas having checked again and again.
Next time someone tells you, the hotel is just around the corner, especially if they are local, remember that you are travelling with luggage (which magically becomes heavier after many flights and a bus ride and not trust directions completely. So you haul your roll on luggage to the hotel and check in, your head aching from the noise your luggage has made. It was made worse because my friend decided she wanted Indian food. I was too tired to protest and went to heaven when we ate Bhajiyas (she had Cobra lager!), naan and achaar. Who’d have thunk…
Varna is stunning to behold. The sea garden is like that of what you have seen in old Hindi movies, beds of flowers colour coordinated with sarees that the heroine would wear, singing love songs.
We clicked thousands of pictures there, with the guide telling us we should have come during the tulip season. But I was dying to get to the Necropolis where the gold was. I persuaded my friend to imagine a lover’s tiff in the museum grounds and happily sneaked in.
The graves accidentally found during a construction of apartments did not always have skeletons but had gold bangles and coins and jewellery of all kinds. The gold is dated at least 5,000 years BC, the Chalcolithic period. They also had the oddest clay masks that represented the person in the afterlife.
One grinning clay mask (more like a pot with a face, really) was alarming enough to give anyone nightmares. The grin was caused by a crack in the clay and reminded me of Heath Ledger, but my friend wasn’t impressed. We were there to recce locations for a romance, not a scary film.
But then we discovered that the graves contained gold penis sheaths. No. Not making this up. We looked at the said jewellery, looked at each other, then burst out laughing. To make things worse, there were school-kids on a museum trip (who had been shushed about this) began to giggle, and the exasperated teachers had us thrown out of the museum. Teachers! They are the same all over the world!
Varna has the most beautiful beaches and a reputation of being the centre of some shady mafia universe, made worse by movies like the
Mechanic: Resurrection where the big bad villain is supposed to be from Varna. No such luck. We did not find anyone remotely resembling baddies.
Things have cleaned up, we are told. Now the place is perfect for shooting Bollywood romance movies. We visited beach after beach and ate so many fruits, custard and ice cream based dessert along with local wines that I do not recall anything else of the day, except that the buildings in the city remind you of the city’s Communist and Royal past.
A trip to the ancient monastery at Aladzha (carved on limestone mountains) was a little creepy but little did we know it was giving us hints to what was going to be the most amazing sight.
The next day we set out to see what Pobiti Kamani was all about. A forest of stones! Not sculptures of elves and fairies made by artists in Finland. These are natural formations, created by wind and water down the ages. Hollow limestone towers that stand tall.
We walked around slack-jawed. At first, I thought they looked like pillars of some forgotten palace, but the guide offered a geological theory of the stones being stalagmites. But they’re in caves, aren’t they? Disbelieving, we walked about until we came across a weird formation called Center-South.
There were not too many tourists there that day. After a few minutes of enthusiastically posing by the rocks at the heritage site, we allowed the atmosphere to permeate our being. These stones had to be ancient. You are overwhelmed by a sense of time that hollowed out these rocks.
Nature is stunning. I wished I could have experienced this stone forest in all seasons. Alas, the sky was blue as blue can be and the stray clouds were avoiding being in our photos. We came away with the silence in my head permeating everywhere.
My trip to Varna was short, but I have come away with memories that still give me goosebumps about time being something living and breathing. I know I will go back and experience Bulgaria properly, taking time to see Sofia, Plovdiv and Burgas… But for now, Varna’s gold and its stone forest are a wonderful way to remember this ancient town.
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic and teaches advertising, films and communication.