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New Europe

Day Thirty-two: Godech

Michael Palin - New EuropeStefan Kitov, known to all as 'Kita', works in the film business in Sofia, and is a great fan of Monty Python, but an even bigger fan of rakiya, the powerful local brandy which has seen Bulgarians through many troubled times. He is most concerned that I should not pass through his country without tasting the real thing, as made by his father.

So it is that I find myself, an hour's drive from the capital, passing through deserted swathes of agricultural land on my way to the small town of Godech.

Kita confirms that Bulgarians are not only moving off the land but their birth-rate is falling too. With a national population the same size as London this is not good news, but Bulgaria has never had a lot to celebrate. One of the many tribes emanating from Central Asia, the Bulgars were first noted by the Emperor Constantine as 'a race of new and vulgar people' from the north Balkans. Even when they did get their act together, as they did under King Samoil in the tenth century, they were quickly slapped down by the army-blinding Byzantine Emperor Vasilius (later immortalised for bloodthirsty schoolboys as Basil the Bulgar Slayer).

Following the fall of Constantinople, Byzantine occupation gave way to Turkish, and another 400 years passed until, in the Treaty of San Stefano of 1878, Bulgaria became independent again.

A series of self-inflicted blows followed, and after ending up on the losing side in two world wars Bulgaria survived, like Hungary, as a classic example of a small country that had been much bigger.

Unlike Tito's Yugoslavia, which did comfortably well by playing off East against West, Bulgaria threw in its lot firmly with Stalin and the Soviets. In the 1980s it alienated its substantial Turkish minority with an extreme policy which required them all to change their names into Bulgarian.

Only recently, with accession to NATO in 2004, did the course of history begin to turn to their advantage and the possibility of EU membership in 2007 would seal
a triumphant turnaround.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-two: Godech
  • Country/sea: Bulgaria
  • Place: Godech
  • Book page no: 78

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