The Chess Players of City Garden, Bulgaria

I like to walk. Whenever I book accommodation in a new place I try to find a central spot from which I can explore on foot. You get to know a place better when you walk around it, and I like the feeling of becoming familiar with my new little neighbourhood of streets, alleys and parks.

City Garden was only a short distance from my apartment in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, and I found myself walking through it many times whilst en route to here and there. It is a pretty park, with tall, mature trees spreading dappled shade over lawns and colourful flower beds. Towards the southern end, a long, rectangular fountain stands near the spreading forecourt of the imposing National Theatre, whose facade of Corinthian columns and gilded pediment overlooks the park. Adjacent to the Theatre is the National Art Gallery, whose sculptures spill out onto the lawns of City Garden. The roofs of grand, pastel-coloured wedding cake buildings look eye to eye with the park’s tall trees. A random network of paths, lined with timber benches, criss-cross the Garden. Whenever I passed through, City Garden was buzzing with people making the most of the cool patch of green within the city’s extensive paved and built environment.

The first time I walked through the park, I noticed a group of mainly older people standing in a small circle on one of the paths. They were all looking down intently, and I feared that one of their number had collapsed, or suffered a fall. I moved a little closer, and realised that the spectators were not looking at a casualty, but rather at a game of chess. The combatants, also oldies, were seated opposite one another on a bench, and concentrating hard on the field of battle. When a move was decided upon the player acted without hesitation, then tapped the clock that sat beside the chessboard. The spectators, whilst remaining quiet, would shuffle on the spot, or move their heads slightly, then resume their statuesque poses. I looked further up the path and saw another group, and then another. There were younger chess players too, pitting their skills against the veterans.

Making my way through City Garden on another occasion, I noticed an empty bench upon which sat a chessboard, all set up and ready for a game. The board looked as though it had a plastic waterproof covering. I wondered if a chess club brought in the boards each day, or perhaps the council provided the sets?

One day, whilst returning from one of Sofia’s museums, I headed once again through the now familiar City Garden. In the ‘chess quarter’, I saw a gentleman sitting patiently beside a set chessboard, his hands clasped in is lap. His expression was soft and welcoming, and as I neared, another man arrived on an old-style, single-speed bicycle. The two greeted one another, and after standing his bike up behind the bench the rider took his place on the opposite side of the chessboard. On the next bench sat another chess set and another gentleman, quietly waiting for an opponent to appear and accept the open challenge. Noticing I had slowed my pace, he looked up at me hopefully. I smiled and passed by, saving him an easy and unsatisfying win, and me an uneasy and equally unsatisfying humiliation.

For the chess players of City Garden, the afternoon may be spent playing against an old friend and adversary. Or maybe a newcomer will arrive, bringing with them novel strategies and tactics. For a stranger in town it’s a chance to meet and spend time with locals who share a common interest. For those walking home after work, an opportunity to unwind and take the mind off the stresses of the day. For the older demographic, which is disproportionally affected by loneliness and isolation, it is a chance for camaraderie, connection, and keeping the mind sharp.

I enjoyed walking around the city during the week I stayed in Sofia. I like the feeling you get when you realise ‘I know where I am’, and you can put the phone away in your back pocket and find your way home unassisted. And if I hadn’t got out on the hoof, I wouldn’t have discovered the chess players of city garden.

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