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Bulgaria border town opens arms to one-time foe October 3, 2010

Posted by Yilan in Human rights abuses.
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IVAILOVGRAD, Bulgaria — When Tsvetan Pavlov was a schoolboy growing up in Ivailovgrad half a century ago, local children were told to let the police know if they ever saw a stranger in town.

The small Bulgarian town on the Greek border was isolated for decades under communist rule — and Greece was very much considered an enemy at the time, remembers Pavlov, now 67.

But now the town is banking on a newly opened border crossing to boost tourism and cultural links with its neighbour.

“This is one of the happiest days of my life!” Sia Nikolova, a young singer who works in Greece, told AFP as the checkpoint was inaugurated this week.

“We used to travel a hundred kilometres on a winding mountain road to get to Greece, which is just over the border,” she said.

Under communism, the region was severely guarded to prevent any flight to the West and non-residents needed a special permit to travel there. Heavily secured checkpoints were also set up along the road.

This week however, Greeks poured into Ivailovgrad to buy cheaper food and fuel following the opening of the new crossing, much to Pavlov’s astonishment.

Now Bulgaria’s government hopes the new link will attract tourists, drawn by the region’s heritage and unspoilt nature.

Archaeological sites dotting the area were virtually shut to the outside world during the Cold War.

“In order to get to the medieval fortress of Lyutitsa you had to cross a number of checkpoints and run the risk of being arrested at any moment,” said Irko Petrov, the director of the regional archaeology museum.

But the barbed wire fences that used to run along the border have long been dismantled, with only a few scattered bunkers and observation towers still seen here and there.

And the former army barracks in Ivailovgrad, once home to several thousand border patrol troops, have been partially turned into a hotel, in the hope of hosting potential tourists.

Ivailovgrad’s major tourist attraction — the sumptuous Roman villa Armira, dating back to the first century — is also banking on visitors from Greece.

The villa’s former owner, a Thracian dignitary, was buried with his horses and carriage across the border in the Greek town of Zoni.

Both sites were recently restored with money from the European programme for transborder cooperation, and Bulgarian President Georgy Parvanov called this week for wider cooperation to develop “cultural corridors” in the Balkans and boost tourism in the region.

“During the Cold War the frontier regions remained on the periphery of economic and cultural life,” he told AFP on the sidelines of the border opening ceremony, also attended by Greek President Karolos Papoulias.

“Nowadays they can become the sites of most intense cooperation,” he added.

For the archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov, the part of the Rhodope mountains where the border runs “is the richest zone in the Balkans” in terms of heritage.

He said there was huge potential for tourism, with many archaeological sites yet to be explored and opened to the public.

Up until 1988, the 300-kilometre (186-mile) border between Bulgaria and Greece could be crossed at only one checkpoint to the west, Kulata-Promahonas. But four new crossings have since been opened and three more are being built.

Travel between countries will become easier still when Bulgaria, a European Union member since 2007, joins the Schengen free-travel zone, which Sofia hopes to do in 2011.

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