Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe

by Kapka Kassabova


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“Remarkable: a book about borders that makes the reader feel sumptuously free.” —Peter Pomerantsev

In this extraordinary work of narrative reportage, Kapka Kassabova returns to Bulgaria, from where she emigrated as a girl twenty-five years previously, to explore the border it shares with Turkey and Greece. When she was a child, the border zone was rumored to be an easier crossing point into the West than the Berlin Wall, and it swarmed with soldiers and spies. On holidays in the “Red Riviera” on the Black Sea, she remembers playing on the beach only miles from a bristling electrified fence whose barbs pointed inward toward the enemy: the citizens of the totalitarian regime.

Kassabova discovers a place that has been shaped by successive forces of history: the Soviet and Ottoman empires, and, older still, myth and legend. Her exquisite portraits of fire walkers, smugglers, treasure hunters, botanists, and border guards populate the book. There are also the ragged men and women who have walked across Turkey from Syria and Iraq. But there seem to be nonhuman forces at work here too: This densely forested landscape is rich with curative springs and Thracian tombs, and the tug of the ancient world, of circular time and animism, is never far off.

Border is a scintillating, immersive travel narrative that is also a shadow history of the Cold War, a sideways look at the migration crisis troubling Europe, and a deep, witchy descent into interior and exterior geographies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555977863
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 09/05/2017
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 330,117
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Kapka Kassabova is the author of three poetry collections, the novel Villa Pacifica, and the acclaimed memoirs Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria and Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story. She lives in Scotland.

Read an Excerpt




You too will run away, said the shepherd.

And if I stay?

If you stay ... I give you a month. Then see that oak tree?

That's where you'll hang yourself.

Georgi Markov, The Women of Warsaw

via pontica

On land, it was once a Roman route that connected the Danube with the Bosphorus. In the sky, it is still a migratory route for birds. Via Pontica takes its name from the Black Sea, once called Pontus Euxinus, the hospitable sea. Though before the Miletian Greeks colonised it, it was known as Pontus Axinus, the inhospitable sea, because it was treacherous to navigate and its edges were populated by pirates and barbarians (read nonGreeks). Ovid spent time in exile on the west coast of this sea, penning his Tristia and feeling sorry for himself among the Getae, a Thracian tribe of barbarians (read non-Romans):

Here on the freezing Euxinus shores I stay; Axinus his name, the wiser ancients say.

Poor Ovid, too dignified to enjoy himself. Since his time, barbarians and civilisations have come and gone, some have stayed, but one Pontic thing hasn't changed. If you come to the south-west beaches of the Black Sea where Bulgaria and Turkey share an invisible border in the water, where ships glide between the Bosphorus and Odessa, you can still see the sky eclipsed by fifty thousand storks heading to Africa on a single September day.

But it was still summer then.


Summer 1984, the southern beaches of Bulgaria. All the birds had arrived, and so had the holidaymakers: the ones who looked like us, and the exotic ones with their fair plumage, bright beach towels, and air of permissiveness. The only thing that darkened the hot sky was the scavenging gulls which attacked the little plastic trays of salty fried sprat that everybody crunched on.

I looked up from the sandy pages of my book written by the excitingly American writer Jack London whose character in Martin Eden drowns himself because becoming a successful writer was devoid of moral meaning in the capitalist world. My favourite book of his was The Call of the Wild, adventure gone wrong – but what adventure! I yearned for adventure of almost any kind. If you started swimming at this beach and kept going south, like my father, who would disappear in the sea for hours, past the shoals of giant jellyfish, past the camping ground and the beach famed for nudists and bohemian types, not tame families like us, you ended up in Turkey.

Although Turkey was on the same side of the Black Sea, it was on the other side of the border, and things that included the word border, granitza – even the sound of it was barbed, like the gra-gra of the seagulls – were best avoided, even I knew that. For example, to go abroad was to go 'beyond the border', which was like beyond the pale, a place from which there was no return. In fact, those who went abroad and didn't return were called non-returnees. They were condemned in absentia and their families made to suffer in their place. The only such person I knew was my piano teacher's husband, whom I'd never met – because he was beyond the pale. He was one of the hundreds of Bulgarian musicians who went abroad for concerts and became non-returnees. The price they paid was the risk of never seeing home again.

As it slowly dawned on you why the border was there (so that people like us couldn't leave), you developed a permanent border-like feeling inside you, like indigestion. I was ten years old that summer, old enough to be in the throes of passion. The object of my lust was an older blond boy on holiday with his parents. We had come from Sofia, they had come from Berlin, and for two weeks of delicious torment, we spied on each other from our beach towels, joined by the whiff of Nivea cream and prepubescent longing. But the lack of experience showed, and when I found myself in the ice-cream queue with him standing behind me, tall and golden like an Apollo, I forgot every word of Russian – our common language – I'd learnt at school. When his family left, I cried for a day. We were so clearly meant for each other.

What neither of us could know was that the beach was awake with spying eyes. They were to be found in their greatest concentration and glamour at the legendary International Youth Centre nearby where, for thirty years, the gilded youth of the Eastern bloc came to party and strut in beauty contests, Neptune fests, and music evenings on the beach. These were no ordinary beaches. This was the red Riviera, the shop window of the communist bloc, in the avuncular words of Khrushchev, who was confident that the 'Bulgarians' friendship for us is particularly ardent'. Here, East and West Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Hungarians, Poles, and Czechoslovaks came to play on the Golden Sands and Sunny Beach resorts that had sprung up in the 1960s and quickly become the biggest-grossing industry for the State. Because this was totalitarian tourism, and everything here belonged to the State, even the sand. We were staying in an illegally rented single room in a local's house – illegal because only State hotels could do legal business. Our sleepy seaside town was named Michurin after the Russian biologist who revolutionised crops. Michurin with its Mediterranean climate was the site of a kooky agronomical experiment, Soviet-style, in which scientists tried to grow eucalyptus and rubber trees, tea and mandarins. True, this fertile land was already producing walnuts and almonds, figs and vines, but the point was to prove that Mature Socialism could control everything, from the course of history to the behaviour of micro-organisms.

This was a place where every second barman was in the service of the Bulgarian State Security, while a specially trained 'operational group' of KGB, Czech and Stasi agents, disguised as holidaymakers, kept an eye on the hedonists. The East Germans were known among locals as 'the sandals', because it was in their sandals and beach clothes that they would sneak away from the beach at night, and into the dark forest of the gra-gra granitza, whose name was Strandja.

Those who didn't go for the forest went for the coast, in diving suits, with inflatable beach dinghies and mattresses, paddling south towards Turkey, which seemed so close, until they were swept out to sea. On the other side of the tideless Black Sea – with its 90 per cent anoxic water below the oxygenated top layer – was the Soviet Union.

I missed my German crush, unaware that my longing was replicated by other bodies on the beach in search of mates – for one-night stands, for trade, for exchange, for marriage. For a way to cross the border. Since its beginnings in the 1960s, the red Riviera had been a human market where the highest bid was not for love, but for freedom. And the highest price you could pay was your life. Many did.

It was a long walk from the beach to the Turkish border, and that walk passed through Strandja's forested hills that cast a midnight shadow over the sunny resorts. All that we knew about Strandja was that it was full of rivers, rhododendrons, and reptiles, and that its villages were home to a fire rite where people walked on embers. Confusingly, the practice of that rite was banned by the State – except in official places like the International Youth Centre, where the fire-walkers were State-approved, and so were the dancing bears on chains that they brought in to amuse the visitors; they were official bears. And in order to visit Strandja, you needed an official permit from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, called an otkrit list. In other words, you couldn't visit.

'Why can't we go to Strandja?' I asked when the German boy was gone and the ice cream had lost its taste.

'We have no business there,' my father said.

'The forest is full of soldiers,' my mother said.

There was a wall of electrified barbed wire, as long as the border. Those who entered the forest could read the warning sign meant for them in the two main languages of desperation:



But if you had walked far enough to read this sign, through days and nights in the reptilian forest, why would you turn back?

If innocence is the sense that the world is a safe and fair place, that summer I began to lose mine. Why couldn't we follow the German family to Berlin? Why couldn't we – or the German family for that matter – go to Turkey, just down the coast? Why did a German man have to fly over the border in a hot-air balloon, as the apocryphal story went, unless it was actually true (it was)? Because we were living in an open-air prison. A feeling of melancholy revolt began to germinate.

Six years later, 'the sandals' didn't have to come all this way to escape because the Berlin Wall fell. Our family crossed the border – though not that one, but some other imaginary border over the Pacific, on the way to a new life in New Zealand, a place defined by beaches of a different kind.

It was summer again when I arrived, thirty years later.

At Burgas airport, vineyards lined the landing strip and the air smelled of petrol and imminent sex. I had flown from Edinburgh with a holiday airline, the plane full of tattooed men and women loud with laughter and makeup. I stepped down onto Bulgarian soil in the company of damp, excited Russians, young Scandinavians pustular with hormones, pale-fleshed families from other northern latitudes. From this peppery port city, the consumer tourists of Europe were packed off like canned meat to the pulsing resorts of Golden Sands and Sunny Beach. My red Riviera had become a happy inferno of global capitalism.

I rented a car and drove past the multicoloured salt lakes of the Gulf of Burgas. The strangled calls of pelicans, cormorants and kingfishers, the smell of ripening figs, of dusty, lusting, Nivea cream summer, the cranes of the port, and the giant ships like motionless cities. Here began the dark hills of Strandja.

I took the quiet seaside road which I'd last seen thirty years ago from the back of the family Skoda. Before the road turned inland, I stopped in the last seaside town: sleepy Michurin of my childhood. But it had reverted to its old name of Tsarevo, and for a moment, I couldn't find it on the map because to me it is forever Michurin. The attempts to grow eucalyptus and rubber trees had long ended, and it was back to the native fig and vine, almond and walnut. Along the road into town, women and men in shorts sat on stools with handwritten signs: 'Rooms for rent'. In the days of the red Riviera, they could have been arrested as 'privateers'.

By the harbour, I ate a plate of fried sprat. Kids jumped in the water with cries and everything tasted like tears. But I was here for once-forbidden Strandja, not for the sea. I pulled myself together and drove on.

Strandja: you knew you'd entered it when traffic suddenly stopped and the forest engulfed you. The road became broken and muffled in jungle green, and the green was full of mossy lagoons and megalithic rock sanctuaries once used in Dionysian cults. The only traffic I saw was a Gypsy couple who squeezed past on a horse cart and smiled dazzlingly with gold teeth, as if all was well.

Four black horses without saddles ambled ahead and broke into a gallop when they heard the engine. They separated to let my car through and closed behind me like a silent film.

My destination was a border village inside a valley, where I planned to spend some time and explore the area. Thrown by the ambiguous road structure and bent road signs that pointed into the wilderness, I lost my way. When I stopped on the deserted road to open the car boot for a water bottle, I heard crackling twigs and went to investigate – always a bad idea. In the woods, I felt something approach me from all sides. Midge-like flies entered my nose and mouth and, running back to the car, I nearly trod on a knot of frisky adders. I drove on with clammy hands.

Naked vistas opened below the high road, like a slap that made you reel. Vertigos of velvet, a folded world, as if you had to take a plunge in order to emerge on the other side of an abyss.


The last mountain range of south-east Europe. Surface: 10,000 square kilometres. Age: three hundred million years. It begins at the Black Sea to the east and tapers out into the Thracian plains to the west. It was formed gradually by the colliding and parting of Eurasian plates whose last drastic result was the Bosphorus Strait. The river canyons of Strandja are shaped by the continuously sinking coast of the Black Sea. Though Strandja's highest peak is only 1,031 metres, you feel close to the stars here, too close. On the Turkish side they call the range Yildiz, the starry one.

Because Strandja missed the last ice age, its habitats preserve plants from the Tertiary age, providing a veritable open-air museum of relic species, including the original good old Rhododendron ponticum, planted in other parts of the world, but continuously in residence here since the Tertiary. Twenty-something species of reptiles breed in this ornithological, herpetic, and mammalian heaven where one thing is certain: although people are scarce, you're never alone in the forest.

Strandja still holds megalithic cult sites and other mysterious remnants of the ancient Thracians, who left unwritten traces of their existence. The few written traces they did leave were enigmatic, like this friendly stone inscription from the second century BC, in Greek: 'Stranger, you who come here, be well!' To the ancient Greeks, it was the Thracians who were the strangers – the 'new-comers, outermost of all', wrote Homer in the Iliad, if you can call newcomers tribes that were well established in these lands by 4000 BC. Though it wasn't until the middle of the second millennium BC that they became a cohesive ethnic population. Homer was the first to mention the Thracians, and wrote of their king Rhesus as his armies appeared alongside the Trojans in the Greek–Trojan War, with his snow-white horses 'in speed like the winds' and his chariots of gold and silver that 'beseemeth not that mortal men should wear but immortal gods'. We'll return to the gold.

Before the fourteenth century AD, when the Seljuk Turks rocked up, Strandja was dotted with a shifting Byzantine–Bulgar border, and somewhere in Strandja was Paroria, the monastery complex of the great hermit Gregory of Sinai. His influential quietist philosophy of Hesychasm pioneered a form of psychosomatic prayer akin to ecstatic meditation. But Paroria vanished without trace.

Traditionally the villagers of Strandja were Bulgarian- and Greek-speaking and lived from milling, logging, charcoal-making, and boat-building, but the mountain's two great riches were gold and livestock. In the Ottoman Empire (1300s–1900s), Strandja had special status: owned by the Sultan's family, it was almost exempt from taxes and there were no outside settlers. In fact, from antiquity until the Balkan Wars (1912–13), Strandja's population was very isolated. Today, the Bulgarian–Turkish border dissects the ranges. Counting those on both sides, only around eight thousand people live in Strandja.

About the gold. The Thracians, who were very fond of the stuff, mined it extensively in Strandja, and treasure hunters and archaeologists still dig up astonishing artefacts of pure gold. It was on these Pontic shores that in 4600 BC a body wearing humanity's first gold jewellery was placed in a necropolis (the Varna Necropolis). Ancient mines also reveal intense silver, copper, iron and marble extraction, especially following the Trojan War. Some say Strandja is a giant Swiss cheese of antique tunnels and sealed subterranean secrets.

Knowing these facts about Strandja felt like a good start – until I arrived in the Village in the Valley.


The Village in the Valley was the end of the road. You descended into it through a mixed forest that was the oldest protected reserve in the Balkans. The faces of deer appeared and disappeared in the green light, and woodpeckers tapped out messages in code.

I rented a two-storey house in the last lane, newly built by absentee owners. The two houses next door were abandoned, their gardens dense with wild fruit trees that shed golden pears into my courtyard. A tortoise crossed the lawn in the morning and recrossed it at dusk. The abandoned houses were three centuries old and woodclad, with a curious removable tile in the roof for letting light in, or perhaps for spying on the neighbours.

Until the 1990s, two thousand souls had lived here; now it was down to two hundred. The school stood empty with its broken windows, and so did the bakery, the general store, the military blocks. The meanders of the river flooded twice a year, along with the village, and until the twentieth century, the people had preserved a tradition from ancient Egypt: they harvested the fertile residue of the swollen river with woven-twig contraptions attached to the walnut trees that lined the banks. The walnut trees were still there, heavy with bitter green fruit.


Excerpted from "Border"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Kapka Kassabova.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Map xii

Preface xv

Border 1

Mountain of Madness, I 2

Part 1 Starry Strandja

Via pontica 7

Red Riviera 8

Strandja 14

The Village in the Valley 17

Agiasma 29

Everything Begins with a Spring 30

Cheshma 43

A Man of Leisure 44

415 49

Wire in the Heart 51

Klyon (1961-1990) 55

The Tomb of Bastet 57

Cold water 74

Pilgrims 75

Atonement 81

One Hundred and Twenty Sins 82

Sozialistischen persönlichkeit 87

Riding the Iron Curtain 88

Zmey 107

Ball of Fire 108

Part 2 Thracian Corridors

Thrace 121

The Friend with the Pigeons 124

Memleket 137

Girl Between Languages 138

Komshulak 152

To See a Dancing Priest 153

Rosa damascena 164

If You Are True 166

Corridors 175

Everybody Comes to Ali's 176

Via antica 181

Tales from the Bridge 183

Ghosts 190

A Kurdish Love Story 192

The spring of the white-legged maiden 202

The Chicken Shack 204

Part 3 Rhodope Passes

Rhodopaca, rhodopaeum, rhodopensis 219

The Village Where You Lived For Ever 222

The judgement 235

On the Road to Freedom 237

Tale of two kingdoms 252

Drama 255

Metaxas line 266

Mountain of Madness, II 269

Agonia 279

Hotel Above the World 281

Ursus arctos 287

Goddess of the Forest 288

Tobacco 298

The Woman Who Walked for a Week 299

Part 4 Starry Strandja

Lodos 309

To the River 312

Kaynarca 332

The Monk of Happiness 334

Eternal return 344

The Good Siren 346

Muhhabet 353

The Last Shepherd 355

Uroki 361

How to Lift a Spell 363

Acknowledgements and Sources 377

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