Helen meets a President on her Bulgarian holidays:
It’s not everyday that one meets a President of a country whilst on holiday and it’s certainly not something that you plan for in your travel itinerary. So if by some fluky alignment of the planets, an extraordinary encounter like this happens, it adds to that special highlight of your holiday and what a star entry for your travel journal.
Yes, I was fortunate to have had such an encounter with the President of Bulgaria on our Sofia stopover. We were in Sofia for our second visit and this time, fortuitously, it was St. Sofia Day (September 17). On this day, the city, together with the rest of the eastern Orthodox world, pays tribute to the Holy martyr Sofia and her three daughters Faith, Hope and Love. Sofia however did not take its name from this holy martyr, but bears the name of its ancient church Saint Sofia – a symbol of the Divine Wisdom.
By fluke we found ourselves in the middle of a celebration
We would like to say that smart planning got us to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on this morning, but actually we had no prior knowledge of what was happening around town on this religious day. We were concentrating on photographing the different sides and facets of this beautiful Cathedral when in a moment’s break in focus, we noticed that groups of defence personnel, police and crowds of people had started gathering in the area. An official event was about to take place, but we couldn’t get anyone to tell us what it was in English.
A temporary altar had been set up next to St. Sofia Church and the alter icon was a picture of St. Sofia and her three daughters. On the opposite side of this wide boulevard there was a large stand set up, which looked like it was meant for the media and photographers. A large gathering of Orthodox priests were standing by the altar in magnificent red, blue and white silk robes, all with rich gold embroidery. It was an extremely hot day, but we were thankful for the blue skies. Next to the priests, rows of men and women in suit were standing in line. From their mixed nationalities, one assumed that they must be from the diplomatic missions.
The President arrives
We thought we had missed all the good viewing spots, but fortunately a bit further up from the media stand, we found a spot under a shady tree. We felt quite triumphant as this position turned out to be much better than the media stand! From where we were we had a frontal view of the altar.
More people were gathering along the street and everyone seemed pretty patient in spite of the long wait. Eventually, a black limousine pulled up in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral square. A very distinguished looking man got out of the car and walked towards the altar. The local lady next to me was beaming in smiles and she proudly told me that it was their President, Georgi Parvanov, accompanied by the city’s Mayor Boyko Borissov. Thank you dear lady for putting this ceremony into a more meaningful context for me. Cameras clicked away while all the military personnel and police stood to attention.
The President did his ceremonial duties, greeting the senior priests, inspecting the guards and then greeting the diplomats. After the national anthem, a liturgy was conducted by the Deputy Patriarch (we think).
When the official ceremony was over, the troops marched off and the boys in uniform looked really smart. The crowds then pushed past the barriers and made their way across the road to St. Sofia Church where the President had headed. Our initial thoughts and reaction were that this was a gross breach of security, but the police didn’t appear concerned and so we followed suit.
Plucking up courage, I asked for his autograph
The President did a ‘meet and greet’ in front of the church and as he was leaving a tall teenage boy asked for something to be written in his notebook, I think. The President wrote a long message in this boy’s book and it was touching that he took time to write a lengthy message. When he was finished, a lady next to me handed her notebook for an autograph which the President kindly obliged. Not speaking the language, but gauging from his friendliness, I plucked up courage and asked for an autograph as well, mumbling something like ‘Hi, I’m from Australia’. He looked up, surprised at a foreign voice, but nevertheless signed my notebook and I also scored a quick handshake. So this was the day that I had my presidential brush with fame.
It really made my day in Sofia! It’s not everyday that one gets to meet a president of a country whilst on holiday. The greatest disappointment was that Tony was nowhere to be seen. He was sensibly staying away from the ‘men in black’ who were no doubt the security agents. With his professional camera gear, he looked more than just a tourist and didn’t want to risk any issues with these agents and therefore missed the photo opportunity.
The story gets better
As the President was leaving and the crowd dispersing, I said to this senior looking military guy that his President is great, “he’s so friendly”. This guy turned out to be the Chief of Military Protocol. Tony recognized him, through his lenses, giving instructions during the official proceedings. We were indeed blessed by St. Sofia on this day. Our newly found Colonel friend was a fantastic guy and the story gets better! More in next post….
To see our St. Sofia Day Ceremony Album click here.