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Teaspoons in Silistra

Any visitor to Bulgaria sitting at a pavement cafée and sipping an espresso or cup of herbal tea in the sunshine, may soon have their attentions diverted away from the passing pretty girls and intriguing Balkan architecture.

For some reason that I have not yet fathomed out, (though most probably connected to some long-completed and forgotten Five Year Plan), every cafée, restaurant or snack bar in the country seems to come equipped with a collection of teaspoons that are notable for having the name and crest of a town engraved on the handle. These spoons are most singularly pleasant and when I first chanced upon one, I wondered if they were not part of some set where every major town or administrative centre in the country is represented on the end of a tiny sugar-shovelling and beverage-stirring device.

Upon closer inspection however, I discovered that whilst fine these teaspoons might be, varied they were not, for instead of representing each different city in the land, all turned out to bear the name and arms of the town of Silistra and none other. Now Silistra, for those of you who know not is a small city on the Southern Bank of the Danube River, a stone’s throw away from the Romanian border. I had heard of her, and read in the guidebook that her population was around fifty thousand souls, but that was all that I knew. Now that is all well and good, but even in Bulgaria, fifty thousand is not a large size for a town, nor did this particular one seemed to be blessed with any momentous historical remains or other attractions of note. Its crest showed half a cog and a stylised ear of grain which hardly inspires one either. So the question that struck me is that why should the crest of Silistra, which by all accounts seemed to be a fairly nondescript, middling-sized provincial town, be displayed on teaspoons throughout the land? What had they to be proud of? What was there in Silistra? Nobody I met could answer my question, as nobody it seems, had ever bothered visiting the place.

Thus, this looked like a situation to remedy, and so filched teaspoon in hand, off I went, taking the half past three bus from Varna.

The town comes as a pleasant surprise. Arrive at either its bus station or its railway station, (they’re adjacent to one another), and you may be mistaken in thinking that you’ve perhaps fallen asleep en route and that the driver of your bus or train has taken a wrong turn and brought you by accident to Kosova or Bosnia instead of the Danube-side town that you asked for. The scene is one of truly Third World dereliction, with crumbling terminals, overgrown paving, burnt-out kiosks and abandoned vehicles. Now Bulgaria is a very scruffy country. That’s perhaps the main reason behind many people thinking that it is far worse off that is truly the case. Scruffy it is, but behind the broken tiles and unpainted walls is actually a country that functions surprisingly well.

But nowhere in Bulgaria have I seen dereliction equal to the district surrounding Silistra’s bus and train stations. Only in Albania in fact, have I witnessed dereliction of this scale in Europe. You realise that you’ve entered a town at best down on its luck and at worst, possibly a war zone.

First impressions however, as the proverb goes, are often misleading, and in Silistra it seems that one would do well to listen to the wisdom of ages. The town centre, a mere mile or so away from that bombed out and bedraggled transport hub, is in fact one of the most ordered and pleasant in the country. Fine architecture and strolling locals congregate around the central Svoboda (Freedom) Square with its proud statue of Binev, (whoever he might be, I’m guessing a partisan).

The town’s crowning glory however, is its Gradski (Town) Park. Unlike its bigger brother upstream, Ruse, Silistra does not turn its back on the river that gave it its life, and these fine municipal gardens, in my opinion some of the finest in the country, particularly since a recent renovation courtesy of the Beautiful Bulgaria Project, are a pleasure to walk around.

I never fail to find watching the Danube flowing towards the sea an immensely peaceful and relaxing experience, and here in the Gradski Park, Silistra is surely on of the finer places to do it. Surrounded by flowers, the ruins of the Roman city of Durostorum, some intriguing modernist sculptures, a Soviet T-34 tank parked on a plinth in memory of the city’s liberation by the Red Army back in 1944, shady trees, fishing gents and pretty girls, one sees why this small town feels proud enough to put its name and crest on teaspoons throughout the land.

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