Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Pernik is on the east edge of Sofia and, as befits an old coal-mining and industrial area, a sad eyesore – particularly on a cloudy and rainswept day with its grey rows of jerrybuilt flats an insult to the beauty of the surrounding rolling hills. A few kilometres on, a clutch of peeling high flats announced Radomir. But it was the more charming town of Kyustendil which was my destination – reached through a twisting 20 kilometres ascent and descent of dense wooded hills. In the puddles and rain, the town was less charming than I had remembered from my last visit in 2008 – and was showing evidence of the sort of decline (derelict shops) which can afflict border towns these days. Kyustendil is about 30 kms from both Macedonia and Serbia – and several busloads of umbrella-protected tourists from Macedonia were wandering around the desolate town centre. The old minaret looks set to fall any day – although an old hammam has been spruced up and the water from its well is still gratefully taken in bottles by the residents nearby. Apart from Monday’s workshop (on EU funded territorial cooperation projects), the main reason for my overnight stay is the chance to visit the Vladimir Dmitrov art gallery – whcih is housed in the ugliest concrete bunker I have ever seen. Dmitrov (The Master) is one of Bulgaria’s most famous painters – indeed the name of the gallery’s website actually incorporates the master into it. I’m not actually a fan of a lot of his stuff particulary not one of his trademarks – a face in front of a lot of crudely painted and brightly coloured flowers – but it was good to visit this collection and see a wider range of his paintings. I was taken with some of his earlier, smaller paintings – sunrises and sunsets; his mother; his father – and some multiple face silhouettes. And his Peasant with a hoe (above) which is in the Sofia City Gallery is very graceful.
It was good to meet up again with Belin, one of the trainers, at dinner – who’s deeply involved in the master plan for the stretch of the Danube in this part of the world. He made an interesting observation about the different attitude of the Bulgarians and Romanians to the river. For the Bulgarians, it’s their link with Europe - more psychological than logistical perhaps whereas the Romanians, apparently, have tended to turn their back on it. It’s part of the poor flatlands for them – although with the easing of border controls with Greece in 2007, he sees signs of change in that attitude. I'm reminded of an early 1990s film showing a 1930s military base in that part of the world with the lovely Kristin Scott Thomas speaking Romanian (An unforgettable summer - thanks to UTube in 8 parts - this is part 3)
The great pleasure at the workshop was to meet an official from Pernik – making a major presentation about how they had made succesful bids for EC projects – who was really enthusiastic about her work and the impact which visits to projects in Denmark and Northern Ireland had made on her. Sadly such belief in change and determination is rare in this part of the world. The 2 projects with which Pernik are involved are good examples of EC programmes – Innohubs which links towns on the edge of country capitals in a network to explore and develop good practice for places which have that particular combination of challeges and opportunities. Retina is a network after my own heart – revitalisation of traditional industrial areas (in south-east europe) – since I was one of the founder members in the early 1980s of RETI which brought old industrial European Regions together in a network of good practice and lobbying.
Another interesting chat with Belin whether there is any hope of reviving the derelict villages which are such a striking feature of Bulgaria – in all parts. True (and unlike Romania) Brits, Russians and Dutch people have moved in large numbers into some of these villages – particularly around Veliko Trnovo and the Black Sea (and even on the edges of the Danube) – but the Brits certainly are older people. And it is the young who are needed. He wondered whether the new contractual and work from home patterns which the internet now allows were part of the solution; to which I added my usual input about the increased need for frugality and self-sufficiency also supplying another perspective. We both seem to agree that it is about reframing the issue. The old solution was about location marketing and inward investment. Time to develop self-sufficient strategies!