“... From here the eye finds no bounds.
The Universe before me yields freely.
The soul proudly breathes. By these mountains
The mind strives forward to the big and the bright… “
~ Ivan Vazov
Mount Kom greets us with fog, a northwestern wind and the echo of Vazov’s poetry. There is something unexplainable on this peak. It’s neither the highest, nor the hardest to climb; it is not the most western nor does it have the best view. And yet in itself, it combines dignity and softness, specific for the Balkans. This is where the most beautiful road to the sea begins.
For a moment, the wind changes direction and cuts through the fog, as we become speechless spectators of the diversity of this piece of land. To the east and to the west we see the backbone of the Haemus mountain, like a slumbering zmey (dragon-like being); to the north, the mountain crouches down and goes out of sight in the Danube; to the south, the Nishava river breaks its way between the rocks; humans walked upon the same watery way, establishing the longest stretching village in Bulgaria - Gintsi.
The school in Gintsi greets us with a lock on its door. Actually, in the beginning we were not sure if this is it - there are no signs that this even used to be a school. The internet also has no information, and the people here don’t remember its name. But yes, this is the building. We find a tight squeeze in and we are able to take a few pictures.
What is its story? Who’ve eyes looked at this mountain? Why is it so bereft? We ask ourselves thousands of questions and try to find the answers to what is left. As teachers, this picture is quite hard to look at. Of course, we ask ourselves the purpose of our actions. Will it also follow the same end - a bunch of words strewn on the floor of some forgotten building.
We push away the portraits of an era gone by and somewhere between the old school books and vodka “Killer” tags, we find the small footprint of a person - in 1975 Snezhana Todorova Petrova, a schoolgirl in the 8th grade, number 13, had tagged her algebra notebook with some beautiful cursive writing.
On exit we notice a small sign, hidden in the left corner - People's Primary school “Cyril & Methodius” - we feel a sense of discovery. The long shadows of the windows remind us that it’s November and that it’s time to go. We’ll be back here in a mere month when the houses are heavy with snow and they will hopefully open their windows for us.
The four of us managed to steal one last weekend, before the end of 2020. Escaping Sofia, the December landscape of the fields outside the city calms us with their wet brown tones. The road north winds between open fields and thick forest. While we switch places with other cars as we overtake them, we all of sudden enter the village of Gintsi.
On the left, there is parking lot, a mayor’s office, and on the other side of the river are strewn many houses above one another. On the right we see a small blue metal shed, with a porch deck made of cement and a silhouette sitting down, with whom we talk. “My name is Stanul Alexandrov Ignatov, but they call me Stancho. I’ve been a bus driver for 27 years.” Stanul smiles genuinely when he learns of our profession. We are teachers and we want to tell the modern story of his village. His frantic eyes spot the air around us, as he patiently hears our questions. The noise of the road is numbed by sweet memories..
“There were camps in Petrohan for kids. But the villages here became desolate. Everyone looks to escape, to have some kind of living that is. There are very few left here and even now there is one who just died, so I’m going to their funeral to light a candle.”
When we ask of the school he points north: “There used to be a huge school there, by the roadside, but I’ve studied in that one up there, near the church, the old one. There were two schools in Gintsi. The one up there used to be the one I went to. But there are no kids, no young people. Two families came here, but their children study in Sofia. They have to travel from here. One of the mothers is very smart and capable, she knows nine languages.”
“There used to be small shops, workhouses, crafts, a living with potatoes and animals, but now that’s all gone. Now there are about 80 people, according to voting registration. There used to be 1600 people. But everything closed down, after the changes [the fall of the communist regime]. There used to be a great bakery on the main street and everyone passing from Vidin and Montana to Sofia would stop to buy some great warm handmade bread here. Everyone still travels through here, but they don’t stop anymore.”
“As a kid, I used to study in the old school there, three kilometers up the road. I’d climb it in winter, winters were harsh back then.”
Stanul introduces us to more and more of the landscapes one could see way back when upon one of the hills surrounding the village. Winter views of children going to school in heavy snow, as tall as themselves. Warm pictures of many families going on the summer road toward Sofia, but staying on this wide parking lot, content with their hot bread. The slow change of the years and his growing up, to come here now and stand before us, as he remembers the past.
Before we say goodbye, he tells us of two former school teachers - Tsvetanka and Zlatka. “They can tell you more. Many teachers came through here. We used to be many students - just my class in first grade was 43 kids, and the ones born in 49, they were 47. It’s good that you’re teachers. As long as there are kids to teach...”
A friend of Stanul’s walks near us. They share a couple of words about their childhood. They talk about Vanyo, who has just died. At that time, the snowfall picks up. I and Stanul cross the road and say our goodbyes. He tells us that his wife had died as well and he seeks solace up here in the mountain.
We say goodbye and head to the old school. A few minutes later we park in a narrow field, where the road forks and we walk a few more minutes, to find the church and the ruins of the old school next to it. On the left is the church with its small yard, and on the right are the moss-covered heavy rock walls of the modest school building. Two classes would study here. We start to wonder how lunchbreaks looked like in the minds of the people who would have a hard time remembering it. That warm, wet mayday, when the south wind warmed you, as you were chewing on your breakfast on the steps of this now fallen school.
We go about searching for our colleagues Tsvetanka Mihaylova and Zlatka Kamenova. It’s hard searching for people in desolate places. In the distance, we see a silhouette of a man and we make our way to him. Excited by our interest in his fellow neighbor Tsvetanka, he quickly takes us to her house. We almost create a celebration with our presence and Tsvetanka apologizes that she doesn’t look her best for visitors. Her young and smiling face starts telling us about the old school near the church, where all the kids from different areas of the village would gather. “We traveled long in the heavy snow and we would reach school wet and cold, so the teachers kept us near the wooden stoves to warm up.” The village starts to grow as the children become more and more and the old school becomes too tight to hold them all, which necessitates the building of the new one, whose skeleton we are able to record on our cameras.
“The school wasn’t only for learning. We had a cinema there, we did plays, we grew together”. The population started to fall as we entered the 80’s and the school closed down after 1989. “Now there isn’t a single child. But 80 people in the whole village. The other night I couldn’t fall asleep and so I counted them one by one in my mind.” I guess the teachers check attendance outside of work hours and in their sleep too. She offers to show us pictures of the school collective - one that she has left, which makes her priceless. She smiles at the photo and asks us if we can find her. It’s not that hard - her charm and smile haven’t changed in so many years.
We find Zdravka Kamenova in her yard - her grandson is coming this afternoon and she is spinning around putting some finishing touches and getting ready. A small kitten follows her, but she is too distracted with the visit. She can’t give us any attention now, as she has too much work. “I can’t right now, you picked the only day when I’m busy.” It is what it is, in these places - a real celebration when grandchildren come back.
The mountain is a magical place. Up there in the highest places, there is a harmony between the desolate white landscape and the feeling of weightlessness and danger. Taking up the road to Mount Todorini Kukli, we follow a thin trail and slowly make our way. There is something weird about stepping in snow - like you are the first and last person who dared to step here; a discoverer and pioneer in walking. The mountain of course knows that is not the case, but willingly leaves you to live out your dreams, as long as you are cautious. White as milk fog hugs us from all sides and the black barks of the trees create a sense of distress because of the contrast. We understand that during the whole trek, we will be playing hide and seek.
On the road we meet two other tourists - we are happy to learn that they have come here before and know the way up to the peak. The sense of commonality in the mountain is always an important psychological moment - often it has made us feel relief. The top is hard to walk on, because of the wind and fog, but nature knows best and shows us only brief interludes of picturesque views, enough for us to continue. Just before the peak, we start to fall waist-deep into the snow. We can see it from time to time and we begin to think that it might be too hard to reach now, as it’s passing noon. We could become stranded since we don’t really know the way back well. At that moment we say to ourselves “not at any cost” and head back down, paying homage to mother nature. Our new friends offer us some typical Bulgarian drinks to warm up, so now we feel closer. The way back down continues easier - in laughter, stories, and promises of future treks. How easily people bond up here, when sharing the dangers.
We agree that this mountain is perfect for Green summer schools. The former ones Stanul told us about spring up in our minds - children's laughter and energetic steps towards Kom and Todorini kukli. Now there may not be children and teachers here, but the mountain will always be keeping those memories. As teachers and mountaineers, we promise that very soon it will be again home to our adventures and we will be bringing students. For the mountain itself, it will be a day of rejoice.
Text: Elena Tatarova and Marin-Assen Kodzhaivanov
Photography: Yanko Morunov, Elena Tatarova and Katerina Stoyanova
Translation: Marin-Assen Kodzhaivanov
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