The Land That Made Orpheus Smile; Sarah Lucas Explores Rural Bulgaria, a Country Rich with Mythology, Folklore - and Bagpipes

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), March 21, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Land That Made Orpheus Smile; Sarah Lucas Explores Rural Bulgaria, a Country Rich with Mythology, Folklore - and Bagpipes


Byline: Sarah Lucas

LOVERS of Greek mythology may know where Orpheus went - his head was torn off and thrown into the River Hebros - but not where he came from: Bulgaria. The mythical musical hero, whose skill with the lyre calmed savage beasts and made trees dance, was born in the heart of the Rhodope Mountains, which stretch all the way to Greece. Orpheus lost his wife, Eurydice, to the underworld for ever when, emerging into the sunlight, he turned to smile at her. These days, there are new myths about Bulgaria - that it is home to Alexei Sayle lookalikes, women with aubergine hair, cheap ski resorts and sandy Black Sea beaches. But there is much more to it than that.

An increase in visitors and predictions that it will become the 'Florida of the Balkans' hide a surprising and relatively unexplored hinterland. As the country struggles to find its own identity after centuries of Turkish rule and a dreary period of communist stagnation, one thing has remained - a strong folklore and folk-music tradition.

They say myth is a country's mind at rest. In Shiroka Luka, a village in the central Rhodopes, it's part of everyday life. In homes and restaurants you'll hear the haunting sound of Rhodopean open-throat singing, accompanied by complex rhythms and tunes played out on the gaida (bagpipes) and kaval (flute). They're taught at the National School of Folklore Arts, where a frieze showing Orpheus, his lyre and a group of gaida-playing horsemen covers the outer wall.

I went to the Rhodopes with my friend, the writer Tony Scotland, who - on a previous visit to Bulgaria - became aware of a different kind of hell. Among some of Europe's loveliest ranges, pine forests and cobbled villages, are the orphanages. Though less well-publicised than their Romanian counterparts, many were equally bad.

Tony set up his Bulgarian Orphans Fund, buying goods locally and delivering them to those most in need. Before Bulgaria joined the EU, its government came under pressure from the European Commission to stamp out corruption and close the orphanages. But what happened to Bulgaria's least wanted children? Amid rumours of brothers and sisters being separated, children sold to the West, beatings and fraud, Tony wanted to see for himself.

Which is how we came to be driving across a foggy Plain of Thrace in a white van, laden with sofas, footballs and boots. The driver dropped us, and the sofas, in Haskovo. The orphanage was a crumbling, curtainless block in a town run by organised crime. But it could have been worse. And, outside Haskovo, it was. The village of Slavyanovo gave run-down a bad name. When their orphanage was closed, two teenage boys were left to fend for themselves. One was taken in by a farmer, the other was found living alone in a shed with no roof in temperatures of 3C (37F).

We followed our consignment of boots to the well-run orphanage at Shiroka Luka by bus. On the way we stopped at Pamporovo, where we were met by Maria Sharkova, a bright young lawyer, and her husband Stefan. He drove, she translated. I just had to remember not to nod or shake my head - as here a nod means 'no' and a shake 'yes'. Shiroka Luka lies in the narrow valley of the Shirokolushka River. It is a fairytale village where the people probably have goblin accents. There are so many crooked houses and twisted streets, it could have been drawn by Arthur Rackham.

I was shown humpbacked Roman bridges, statues of local heroes and the Assumption church by Mrs Bochukova, headmistress of the orphanage school. The pearl of the Rhodopes, she calls it. 'We try to live like our grandfathers, without complaining. …

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