In our Best Western hotel in Sofia, Bulgaria, they advertised a ‘Sky Bar’. Customers at the otherwise ‘average’ hostelry were urged to visit this penthouse drinking lounge that offered beautiful views across the city. On arrival at the Sky Bar, myself and my crew, Alex Fouracre and Stuart Wareing, found ourselves to be the only customers. The Sky Bar was a symphony of plush white leatherette and chrome, there were indeed panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows showing the glittering lights and possibly more salubrious parts of town than our own in the distance. In the middle of the room was what looked like a white piano converted into a cocktail bar, in fact it was an electric keyboard embedded into what looked like a Hollywood baby grand. A microphone and PA system awaited a Sinatra and a Grace Kelly who never came. We arrived on a Wednesday so maybe understandably the Sky Bar was quiet. We left on a Sunday; on the Saturday night before, we were again the only customers.
Taking a taxi into the city centre, our driver spoke proudly of his country in broken English, all the while gesturing to landmarks as he went – the socialist realist sculptures in the Borisova park, now a favourite with skateboarders, the Eagle bridge, the beautiful Russian church (sadly covered in scaffolding else we would have got a shot of it) and then the turning for the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the university, and the modern, slightly, kitsch statue of St Sofia. The writer, Miroslav Penkov, with whom we are making a film with his mentor Michael Ondaatje tells us that the city of Sofia is named after a tiny orthodox church and not Sofia herself – Sofia actually means ‘Holy Wisdom’. Miroslav knows the labyrinthine history of his country so thoroughly and tells it so engagingly that it makes me think that he should front a series for Bulgarian telly….or even UK telly for that matter. It was Bulgaria that invented Cyrillic script; the country has had at least two empires, survived Ottoman rule and several Balkan wars. Bulgaria became part of the German Axis in World War Two but declined to send its Jewish population to the concentration camps. They finally succumbed (if that is the right word) to Soviet communism in 1946 (apologies for the précis of a very complicated history). One landmark our driver didn’t point out was a billboard for Marks & Spencer, as sure a sign as any of the death of the Soviet era.
The next day we filmed in the Alexander Nevsky cathedral with Michael and Miro. Michael was fascinated by the characters depicted in numerous paintings and frescos, Miro giving him a running commentary on their contributions to Bulgaria’s huge, entwined religious and political history. Even the avuncular Bishop came out to greet us and thankfully asked for the lights to be put on so that we could bring the ASA down on the Canon C300. We filmed an interview with Miro at his parents’ apartment. Mr and Mrs Penkov are both doctors who started their careers in the soviet system; they treated us to a lovely tea of Baklava and other Bulgarian sweets.
On the last day of the shoot we visited the Rila Monastery, about an hour and half outside of Sofia, with its wonderful, complicated frescos showing Orthodox Christian scenes and depictions of hell that might well have made you think twice about sinning before the age of mass media. On the way back we stopped at a country cemetery, not just because I am fascinated by graveyards (see previous blogs) but to get some shots to go with a piece Miro read us from one of his brilliant short stories. The graves in Bulgaria are still post-communism secular, many have cans of beer and Rakia, offerings from friends and relatives missing their drinking companions.
As we left Sofia’s brand new, Tracey Island-like airport, I find myself thinking that apart from Marks & Spencer’s, how wonderfully different Bulgaria is from the UK and only three hours away.