Tucked away in the mountains at 1150m above sea level is the magnificent Rila monastery, Bulgaria's top tourist attraction and a member of the Unesco National Heritage List.
Some sights do not match expectations created the guide books, but even those normally underwhelmed by monasteries cannot fail to be moved by Rila. Founded in the 10th century by followers of hermit monk Ivan Rilski, the church was worked on by some of the best artists of the time. In contrast to most churches built under Ottoman rule, the exterior is brightly decorated with exquisite mosaics of religious scenes.
Few tourists, however, bother to climb the mountain path by the monastery to visit the grave of one of Bulgaria's most beloved foreigners. For here, in a shaded ravine and in a unique honour for a foreigner, rests Irish-born journalist James Bourchier (1850-1920).
Bourchier worked for The Times as its Balkan correspondent and lived in Sofia from 1892 to 1915. In an appreciation of his life, appended to Lady Grogan's 1922 biography of Bourchier, Ivan Gueshov, prime minister of Bulgaria from 1911 to 1913, wrote that Bulgarians had no better friend.
"Faithful unto death, a great friend in prosperity and still greater in adversity, Bourchier is idolised in Bulgaria," Gueshov wrote.
Bourchier undoubtedly deserved the accolades and the annual pilgrimage to his grave every May undertaken by the Irish embassy. A staunch supporter of Bulgarian nationalism, he wrote many sympathetic articles in the British press.
Deeply involved in diplomacy ahead of the First Balkan War, Bourchier had strong words for the Bucharest peace treaty of 1913 that cost Bulgaria territory. He also sided with Bulgaria during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919-1920, after World War 1. The terms of the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine were harsh on Bulgaria because it was required to cede Southern Dobrudja to Romania, along with further territories to neighbours.
Bourchier's love of Bulgaria – his opposition to the Ottoman Empire and his consistent support for Bulgaria's territorial integrity – could be seen as mirroring Ireland's quest for independence, hence Bourchier's empathy with Bulgaria's cause.
Fortitude and patience
In last week's The Sofia Echo we recounted actor Kenneth Griffith's friendship with Ekaterina Dimitrova, the Bulgarian academic whom he first met in India.
Griffith, best known in the acting world as medical orderly Arthur Witty in The Wild Geese, was extremely kind to Ekaterina. He allowed her to stay at his home in Islington, christened Michael Collins house, as a nod to his Republican sympathies. When Ekaterina left and moved into her own flat Griffith was a frequent visitor. He particularly enjoyed sharing the traditional Christmas Eve meal with Ekaterina and her family.
Griffith's friendship with Ekaterina led him to visit Bulgaria and develop an interest in Bulgaria's history. So much so that Ekaterina persuaded Griffith to appear in a one-off play – British for life – Bulgarian for ever, about James Bourchier's love for Bulgaria. Most of the play, staged at the Bulgarian embassy in March 2001 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Bourchier's birth and the 80th anniversary of his death, has been recorded for posterity.
In the play, written by Ekaterina but based on Lady Grogan's biography of Bourchier, Kenneth Griffith, then 79, played Bourchier as an old man. He also played British prime minister Herbert Asquith and various cabinet ministers.
The production opens with news of the fall of Adrianople as reported by Bourchier to The Times on March 27 1913. The play documents Bourchier's support for Bulgaria's cause in the aftermath of the Bucharest peace treaty of 1913 that cost Bulgaria territory.
Although rather frail by then, Griffith delivered his lines with force and conviction, especially when outlining Bulgaria's territorial claims. "We all have a duty to posterity. It is impossible to extinguish the sentiments of a nation, provided that nation has confidence in itself. Fortitude and patience are the characteristics of the Bulgarian race. Be brave therefore and be patient."
Goddess of justice
Bourchier, rather like Griffith – whose support for unpopular causes was well documented – believed that a foreign correspondent owed readers his opinion rather than his objectivity.
"A correspondent's whole value to a newspaper lies in telling the truth as he knows it; special qualifications, long experience and intimate knowledge of a subject become worthless, if he has to 'write up' a certain view. Almost anyone could do that," said Bourchier.
Readers may remember Griffith's promise never to "stoop so low as to be objective" in his documentaries. (Perhaps the modern equivalent would be Robert Fisk who maintains that special correspondents should forsake impartiality for the truth as they see it.) It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that Griffith found a comrade in arms in Bourchier.
Griffith, as Bourchier, laments that Bulgaria's cause has been undermined in the aftermath of the Treaty of Bucharest in 1913. "Unhappily these efforts have not been successful – it may be that neither you nor I may live to witness the day of justice...Astra, the goddess of justice is said to have flown up to heaven but she sometimes comes down again...Remember, too, that all things are possible in the Balkans."
In a rousing finale Griffith (as Bourchier) urges hope for the future. "My last words to you are – never despair and may heaven support your cause". The play also relates how Bourchier, walking by Rila monastery in 1903, tells his companion that he wants to be buried there. He got his wish 17 years later.
'A hard time'
Griffith's friendship with Ekaterina continued after the play in 2001. She last saw him in London in 2005, the year before his death.
Kenneth Griffith died on June 25 2006, aged 84. Obituaries dwelt on his anti-establishment documentaries rather than his acting career. Probably he would have appreciated that. The Guardian described Griffith as a "radical film-maker whose splenetic manner undermined his effectiveness." The Independent's obituary took a similar line. "He had a genuine flair for friendship and could be charming in the company of those whom he respected, but cultivated his reputation as a member of the 'Awkward Squad' most assiduously. He would plough his own furrow whatever the cost - and sometimes it cost him dear".
Griffith always maintained that his behaviour in life was governed by the idea that he should have few regrets when the time came for death. "When I think deeply about this," he said in 2000, "I end up feeling that my life has not been in vain. I've done something that I believe is right, even though in trying so hard I have encountered some very rough weather."
In one of their last conversations, Ekaterina rued the fact that many of Griffith's causes might not, in the end, triumph, at least during his lifetime. "Yes, but we can still give them (the other side) a hard time," replied Griffith.
Both he and Bourchier were rebels to the end.