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New Europe

Day Thirty-three: Sofia

Orthodox icons 
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This is Orthodox country and icons abound in the streets near the Alexander Nevski Church in Sofia.
Michael Palin - New EuropeMore modern workmanship can be found at the flea-market outside the exuberant explosion of domes and towers that is the Alexander Nevski church, which was built as a memorial to the 200,000 Russians who died fighting the Turks in the cause of pan-Slavism in the 1870s. Here, amongst stalls full of Nazi and Soviet memorabilia, I find whole regiments of Russian dolls painted to suit all tastes. Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and George Bush stand shoulder to shoulder with the Queen, Tony Blair and Stalin. It was a toss-up, but in the end I did my patriotic duty and bought the Queen.

Sofia is not a spectacular city. The Bulgarians don't seem to do excess. Many of the city centre streets are narrow and tree-lined, more like those of a laid-back provincial capital. Few official cars race through, there is little triumphalism, and men in suits and ties are rare enough to be noticeable. The clothes look neither downtrodden nor particularly chic, the shops are up-to-date but lack flair, the people content but not demonstrative.

Which is why I'm rather looking forward to meeting a man described in my Rough Guide as 'Bulgaria's most controversial gender-bending phenomenon'.

Azis is portrayed by some as the devil incarnate, by others as a very naughty boy but when we meet, in the modest, slightly shabby suite of rooms that passes for his office, I find myself shaking hands with a plump young man with peroxide blond hair and the shrewd smile of a wary attention-seeker. His skin is dark and a swirl of tattoos runs across his neck and shoulders and down beneath a black
T-shirt. Not quite a choirboy, but very different from the huge posters of him on the wall in crutch-hugging glitter and full make-up. He's a delight to talk to, not just because he's nice and droll but because he so clearly relishes being different. He's Gypsy, one of an estimated 380,000 in a country of seven and a half million people, and he's gay, with plans to marry a man later in the year and adopt children 'from all over the world'.

None of which should endear him to the Bulgarian people, who seem quite old-fashioned in these matters. What makes it all work is the success of the chalga (Romany) music he performs so powerfully and the attraction of the flashy, loud, nouveau-riche lifestyle that goes with it. And he does love his mother.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-three: Sofia
  • Country/sea: Bulgaria
  • Place: Sofia
  • Book page no: 82

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