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Nowhere stranger than Strandja

In her Bulgarian childhood, Strandja was tantalisingly out of bounds. Thirty years on, Kapka Kassabova returns to penetrate its mystery

Kapka Kassabova | January/February 2014

It's summer 1984 in the pretty Black Sea town of Michurin, named after a Soviet biologist. I’m ten years old and in the throes of my first crush—a blond boy on holiday with his parents. He has come from Berlin, I've come from Sofia, and for two weeks we spy on each other from our beach towels, united by the whiff of Nivea cream and pre-pubescent longing. When he leaves, I cry for a day. 

What neither of us could know was that the beaches of southern Bulgaria were bristling with spying eyes and restless bodies less innocent than ours. They were to be found, in their greatest concentration, at the legendary International Youth Centre where, for 30 years, the elite of Eastern Bloc youth came to party and strut in beach beauty contests. Every other barman was in the service of the Bulgarian State Security, while an "operational group" of Stasi agents kept an eye on the hedonists. The reason for this set-up was of course the general insanity of the cold war whose nearest physical manifestation could be found inland, in a place called Strandja. 

Strandja was 1,000 square kilometres of forested hills which cast a shadow over these golden sands. All I knew about Strandja was that it was full of rivers, rhododendrons and reptiles, and that it was home to a strange rite called nestinarstvo or fire-walking. In order to visit, you needed a special permit known as otkrit list from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Can’t we go? I asked my parents. No, they said, nestinarstvo is prohibited, we’d never get an otkrit list, and anyway the forest is full of snakes and soldiers. 

And a long wall of barbed wire. My parents had never seen it, and neither had those young East Germans, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Czechs and Poles who would slip away from the beach parties and embark on a gruelling mountain trek to the border with just the clothes on their backs. You see, they’d heard that the Bulgarian border with NATO-member Turkey was easier to cross than the Berlin Wall. 

Although this part of the Strandja range, which extends south into Turkey, had been part of Bulgaria since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, it was like a foreign country within the known country. Hidden away in its corner, muffled by forest and secrecy during the cold war, Strandja has always been a world apart. And what many didn’t know was that the barbed wire, erected in the 1960s and dubbed klyon by the soldiers forced to live behind it, was electrified with the latest Soviet technology, that the actual border was not for miles after, and that soldiers were under orders to shoot. "Внимание, гранична зона!", "ACHTUNG GRENZZONE!" read the warning signs in the two main languages of desperation. But for those who had come this far, there was no turning back.

Thirty years later, I'm back in pretty Michurin which is now known as Tsarevo. The salty fried sprat I eat by the harbour tastes like tears and I wash it down with bitter Kamenitza beer. Anyone can visit Strandja now. Buses run between Istanbul and the port city of Burgas, the fire fests have been rekindled and villages once strangulated by the barbed wire are breathing again. Today Strandja is a National Park, luring eco-buffs who come for the animals and plants, the ornithological tours, and the spiritual pilgrimage trails. There is even a lively rhododendron festival in May, and Strandja is the last stretch of an EU-proposed (but seemingly stalled) cycling route called the Iron Curtain Trail. 

I know this because I've visited parts of Strandja in the last few years, pulled in by the dark hills and secretive villages, drawn even by the empty, pot-holed roads. I'm a fairly rational being, but then so was the late Thracologist Alexander Fol who believed that Strandja was one of those rare places where time is non-linear and induces a sort of "eternal return". My hands shake with worry and excitement on the wheel of the rented car as I turn inland from the coast. 

The first thing to disappear are the road signs, followed by the edges of the road itself, gobbled by a psychedelic forest. A lone stallion walks in front of the car, and when I make a pee-stop behind a roadside drinking fountain, I nearly step on a knot of snakes. I scream and dozens of tiny flies enter my mouth. I don't see another car for 40 minutes, and when I do, it’s a van labelled "Border Police". Above my head is the migratory Via Pontica where thousands of storks have just passed, darkening the sky. Under my feet is a land that straddles Asia and Europe, the Mediterranean and Black Sea, and that has been mined for ore since before the Thracians, who left behind stone shrines and human rites that still live on, in some form. 

In Strandja, things and people disappear, but nothing ever goes away. A shadow of conspiracy still hangs over the top-secret 1981 Strandja expedition led by the eccentric daughter of the Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. She was using a coded map to search for the tomb of the Egyptian cat-headed goddess Bastet and the secret of life itself, no less. The excavation took place inside a hill of ancient quarries called Golyamo Gradishte, and ended with the deaths of nearly everyone involved, from ordinary soldiers to Zhivkova herself. Some believe she was murdered by the KGB to stop her unearthing occult knowledge and muddying the waters of Mature Socialism; others think the deaths were unleashed by ancient forces. Every July mediums and astrologers gather at Golyamo Gradishte behind the recently opened klyon—yes, the barbed-wire gates were only unlocked to the public in early 2013; until then you needed a guide with a key—and the consensus is that the ancient energy here is too powerful to tamper with. 

I'm no medium, but when I visit with a young guide in a Soviet-model UAZ vehicle, I immediately get an unsettling sensation, a kind of heavy energy that enters my system like dread. There might well be ancient forces hanging about, but some of this eeriness also comes from the physical iron curtain that lacerates the forest. The spiky top of the klyon points inwards, to the enemy within. I step into a circular Thracian shrine under the oak trees, and recall a story, one of hundreds of human stories of life under communism recalled by Georgi Markov (the man murdered in London with a poisoned umbrella) in "The Truth That Killed". In it, an old Strandja shepherd greets a city visitor: "See that oak? If you stay on, this is where you’ll hang yourself."

The curse of Strandja is also its enchantment. The young guide with the UAZ is too young to remember the truth that killed, but he has chosen to stay because "there is something in this forest that keeps me here." I know a surprising number of people whose obsession with Strandja verges on a medical condition. "Every time I leave, I feel ill for weeks," says a friend of mine. "If I don’t visit for more than two months, I get sick," an engineer from Sofia told me. "Strandja is a mountain that either doesn't let you in or doesn't let you out," said a visiting medium, shortly before she fled the region. There is a preservationist couple who moved here because Strandja’s oaks have healing powers. Call them tree-huggers if you like, but I too felt unnaturally happy after visiting a 500-year-old oak. Expats and foreigners have started buying houses here for reasons they can't explain. "So," smirked a retired athlete who spends every summer here, "you've caught the Strandja bug too." I laughed too soon.

Today, my destination is the remote village of Kosti for the summer festival of Saints Constantin and Elena. After a descent down a road riddled with craters, I arrive in a petrified fairy-tale village muffled by hills. Vapours rise from the river-valley. "They keep promising about the roads," says Vesco, the forty-something bar owner, "For 20 years governments have promised to fix the roads but our lives are passing..."

He is one of the few men in Kosti not employed by the border police or the Forestry, and his wife is one of the few women under 70. We smoke at the wooden tables in the square. Handsome old houses sit empty, a monument to the double calamity of communism and the so-called transition of post-communism. The first chased locals away by killing the thriving agricultural economy and replacing it with state factories; the second kept them away because it was too late to fix things. From a population of 2,000 people before 1945, Kosti is down to 200—and it's still the most populous village in Strandja. 

"It's what’s happened to all of Strandja," says Victor (not his real name) who has served in the border police all his life, "Bachelors and old women. Fate." He smiles philosophically. 

As if to illustrate this, three unmarried men in white (read unstained) shirts carry icons out of the stately church, as old women in black hover behind with candles. I join the small procession of locals and visitors up the hill to the chapel built on top of a curative spring. A bagpiper strikes up a minor-key tune and a drummer comes in with a primal beat. Without warning, my blood jumps with a peculiar border blues. 

Go over the hills and you’re in Turkey. Just like the refugees of the 1913 "exchange of populations" in the wake of the Balkan wars which forced the resident Greek speakers of Kosti south into Greece, and the Bulgarian speakers of Asia Minor into the just-vacated houses here. The departing Greeks took their anastenaria to the villages of Thessaloniki, and the incoming Bulgarians kept the nestinarski fires burning. Each side still visits the other whenever they can afford it. And what caused the Balkan wars? The 1878 Congress of Berlin, where politicians like Disraeli, who never set foot in the Balkans and couldn't hold a map the right way up, breezily drew the post-Ottoman borders of the Balkan states. Victor is right: this border has been people's fate for a century.

But enough history. I see a Mercedes with an Austrian plate pull over in the square and a confused couple emerge, asking if this is Turkey. Victor grins. "Their sat-nav has picked the shortest way."

The border crossing is in Malko Turnovo, 50 kilometres away, but the Austrians briefly abandon their journey to join our car convoy. Along an old road and deep in the forest is Golyamata Ayazma, the Great Spring. This clearing is affectionately nicknamed Rodinata, the Homeland, by local Bulgarians and returning Greeks; even the welcoming sign is in both languages. I've never been here before, but I understand what the forest is whispering—that all shall pass because all has already passed. I watch the chosen carriers of each village wash the icons of Saints Constantin and Elena in the river and dress them again in their lace coverings to be displayed on startlingly pagan Wicker Man wooden platforms, one for each Strandja village.

"Theophany," says Maria Dimieva, an ethnographer who has returned to her native Strandja after decades in Sofia. "It means that icons are treated as living beings, mediators between the human and the divine. Just as fire is worshipped as a terrestrial projection of the Sun-God."

Some speculate that the source of anastenaria-nestinarstvo is Thracian Orphism with its heightened psychic states and its double cult of the Earth-Goddess and her son and lover the Sun-God—who are seen as the prototypes for Saints Constantin and Elena. But there are no written accounts from before the 19th century, since fire-worship and the attendant gift of prophecy are hidden knowledge passed from one initiate to another, and rarely in the same family. 

But this feels like a family. We are dancing the long human snake called horo (I fake the steps), while open fires prop up cauldrons of the tasty lamb soup kurban, a sacrificial offering that accompanies all gatherings here. I'm glad I didn't see it, but ceremonial blood-letting is as central to these essentially orgiastic rites as the wine-drinking of Dionysian rites; here it's home-made plum or apricot brandy, rakia, which feels like fire in my belly. Surely I've entered a rip in the fabric of history and popped out in a better place. But where are the fire-walkers? 

"They won’t go on the fire unless they want it," a bulky forestry worker in tracksuit bottoms says, as he refills my water glass with rakia. "They have to want it. Cheers." 

Traditionally fire-walking is a woman's art: the old nestinarki were struck by a sudden force that would drive them to the fire. But a century of misogynistic church persecution (work of the devil) followed by a Communist clampdown (opium of the masses) has eroded female continuity, and the new generation of nestinari are two intense young men in embroidered shirts. They’re called Dinko and Georgi, and on the night of St Elijah, I see them do it.

It's August now and we're back in the village of Kosti. A woodfire has been burning all afternoon in the permanent circle that brands the square. This is one of Strandja’s five nestinarski villages; the largest fire fest happens up the road in Bulgari-Urgari, where it has become such a tourist attraction that fire amateurs are regularly taken away in an ambulance.

Which brings us to the obvious question. Dinko and Georgi are walking barefoot on a bed of red embers ten centimetres deep, moving to the special nestinarska music of drum and bagpipe, their faces blissed-out. The crowd around the red circle holds its breath under the star-spattered sky, which reminds me that on the Turkish side of the border (from where a century ago the grandparents of everybody here arrived), Strandja is called Yildiz, or Starry Mountain. The air is electric with excitement and I feel as if I can fly over the hills like one of the dragon-women of local legend, who appear as comets and turn up in the village to dance with their beloved, before things come to a sticky end. I'm two metres from the fire and practically combusting. How come they don't get burnt?

Maria nods. "That's what everyone wants to know. Fire is purifying and perhaps only those who know suffering can enter it. Like Dinko."

Dinko Mikhailov, who is 22 and a folk prodigy with a repertoire of over 2,000 songs, has an otherworldly spark in his eye and a difficult childhood behind him. How does he feel when he goes into the fire? 

"The same as when I sing. Wonderful. I hear the music and I need to go on the fire. I tried it without music once and burnt myself."

Georgi is just as vague. He looks exhausted after his fire ordeal. "I feel a consuming desire. Then the fire takes everything I have. I sleep for 20 hours."

"Strandjani are believers, not Christians. Their relationship with fire reflects that," says the mayor, Anton Angelov, whose grandmother and great-aunt had a special way with fire. They were from a time before the Communist clampdown when, come May, women would be possessed by a kind of passion, abandon children and fieldwork, and go into the burning embers. The last great nestinarka, Kera, was once barred from the fire by her husband because her ecstatic fire communion and the unmistakably sexual moaning that accompanied it embarrassed him. Kera took ill and misfortune struck the family. A balance had been disturbed. 

"But don't look at fire in isolation," Maria says. "Look at the whole series of rituals." It's Sunday morning and we're watching a spectacle that always follows the fire fest: wrestling. The obligatory drummer and bagpiper circle the ring with a more upbeat tune. If they stop, the wrestling stops. "The Greeks wrestled competitively, the Thracians wrestled ritualistically. Look at these guys." Believe me, I am; you don't see this many sixpacks every day. "There are cash prizes, but they are really wrestling for honour."

Now that I've glimpsed what the real Strandja is about, I go dumb with rage when Maria and I visit the village of Slivarovo and its abandoned military outpost behind the barbed wire. My car nearly expires on the rough dirt road. We find gorgeous abandoned houses and orchards weeping with fruit. A few returnees are doing up their parents' old homes, rigging up street lights, making plum brandy, bringing a human touch to no-man's-land. The barbed wire dishonoured these lush villages. Not even relatives could visit, except with a special permit, and Slivarovo's people had a stark choice: leave or live behind an iron curtain. They mostly left. The young soldiers stationed behind the klyon were no better off: starved of contact except with army dogs and fellow soldiers, some ran for the border and were gunned down by their comrades. Others took their own lives before they were forced to take someone else's. Most survived, but were marked for ever. 

Maria's father had land which was severed by the klyon. Now he doesn't want it back. "As if he grew to hate the land," Maria says. "They arrested the forest itself." And hidden inside the forest are the unmarked graves and the memories. Like those of Ivan (not his real name), the old man who was a loyal border guard, so loyal that—locals told me—he executed two young ethnic Turks and had them buried on the spot. This was in the 1980s, during the mass persecution and expulsion of Bulgaria's ethnic Turks which, in an unconscious Orwellian twist, Zhivkov's toadish regime called "The Great Vacation". 

Border executions of fugitives of all ages and nationalities were often carried out without leaving any trace, to avoid future questions—and form-filling. Loyal guards like Ivan were rewarded with extra leave, just as locals who dobbed in fugitives were rewarded with a Soviet watch. Soon after, Ivan's own son was blown up in an army "accident" that was not investigated, because they never were. When I visit the khaki-clad Ivan in his house, he invites me to sit by the tomato plants and without even asking what I want, says: "I had a son." His one remaining eye begins to cry and doesn't stop. I came here wanting to judge him, but I end up crying with him. Where there is no truth and reconciliation, there are endless tears. 

I'm also told of the soldier who found a young Pole caught on a barbed-wire ball camouflaged as brambles—one of the forest decoys used here. Another was a false "second" klyon, to confuse those who'd already crossed into thinking they were going round in circles—I saw it for myself; it works. Watching the guy ripping himself to shreds, the soldier lost his nerve and emptied his AKA into the Pole. It bothers me that I don't know the name of either the soldier, who was 19 and went insane, or the Pole who was a similar age and lies in an unmarked grave somewhere around here. 

"I remember every single face," says Victor, who is no sentimentalist. "They are still before me. So many of them. The two East Germans we arrested one night…Their clothes were ripped and we surrounded them, 30 of us with dogs and projector lights. They were so dignified. One of them carried a photo of his girlfriend. He was going straight to jail. My heart went out to them. But what can you do...Fate."

Between 1961 and 1989, at least 4,500 people attempted to cross Bulgaria's border with Turkey and Greece, of whom—according to "Tod in Bulgarien", by the German political scientist Stefan Appelius—3% were successful, 2% were executed, and the rest were arrested. This remains one of the last secret crimes of the cold war, one in which the Soviet regimes colluded; worse, their democratic successors are not terribly interested in the truth that killed along the border. Move on 25 years, and there are only two films exploring this important story: a German TV documentary, "Die Vergessenen" ("The Forgotten Ones", 2011), and a Bulgarian feature film, "Granitza" ("Border", 1994). Distribution of the film was opposed by still-powerful former generals. 

The traffic is now the other way. Every day, fugitives from Syria, Palestine and north Africa are found in the forest. Children, pregnant women, men with grenade wounds. Sometimes they just walk along the main road. "How do you recognise them?" I ask a young border guard. By their desperate look, comes the answer. These days, Strandja's border guards don't shoot at people. They are a friendly and civil lot, and treat their wretched charges with the kindness once—no, still—denied by inhumane regimes.

"Fate," Victor sighs. Then he looks at me. "But Kapka, nothing changes the fact that this forest is magical. It heals. Take the trail to the Saint Marina spring, listen to the birds, wash your face, and I tell you…" I see a tear in his eye. On my last night, I lie and listen to the crickets and the howling jackals in the hills. I've been here long enough to adopt a tortoise in the garden and see hornets eat the grapes. And to ask the question: where does Europe begin and end, and why does it matter so much to us Europeans, when other things matter more? Things like community, memory, the natural world, the life of the spirit—in short, what Strandja was always about. It's what people here are painstakingly trying to restore in the shadow of the barbed wire. I don't know what it is—border magnetism, forest intoxication, the faces of people who know too much, or the pulse of drum and bagpipe—but one thing is certain. My worry that Strandja wouldn't let me in has given way to a more ambiguous worry: that it won’t let me out.

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