We’re stoked to present you ‘FORAGE’ a video filmed by Jim Craven documenting his travels between Sofia, Bulgaria and Bucharest, Romania with Heroin Skateboards‘ trio Tom Day, Craig Scott ‘Questions’, Joe O’Donnell and Mersey Grit’s very own Jasper Dawson-Clough. As well as filming this beast Jim Craven provided more visual goodness in the form of a photo article with Jono Coote conducting an interview with him. Oh and to top it off NOTE Shop’s Tom Day filmed some beautiful 16mm footage to go with it. Sterling work all round fellas! Also happy birthday to both Jim Craven and Joe O’Donnell today! Have a belter! X
By Jono Coote
The hills and valleys of Southeastern Europe are steeped in myth; seemingly endless expanses of forest leave fleeting impressions of a deep, unknowably alien green, pocked with nooks and crannies almost untouched by the hand of man. Such a place is a fertile breeding ground for the imagination to stretch itself, and Bulgaria and Romania’s oral traditions are accordingly rich.
One of Bulgaria’s best known legends is that of Krali Marko, a figure possessed of great strength who helped God to shape the earth. Marko’s pride in his own strength became overbearing, at which point the angry deity stripped him of his powers; but not before he became indelibly associated with mountains, hills, boulders and indents in rock. Geographical features in the area are often described locally in relation to this demigod, marked either by their creation by him or as the scene of a memorable story associated with his legend.
In 2018, Jim Craven and Tom Day were working in NOTE Skateshop where discussions of a spot glimpsed in a couple of UK videos (NDK in Sofia, Bulgaria) saw some online research and astute train scheduling coalesce into a plan for a skate trip encompassing both Sofia and Bucharest, the capital of neighbouring Romania. Joined by Craig Questions, Joe O’Donnell and Jasper Clough, the trip took in an array of architecture ranging from communist marble to crumbling street transitions to lovingly shaped DIY spots. It’s fruits can be seen via the clip and bevy of photos accompanying this article.
Jim is currently living in Copenhagen, but with such strong visuals we decided it was essential to hit him up via email to discuss creative DIY spaces, the Bulgarian and Romanian skate scenes, architecture and homemade grappa amongst other things.
According to folk tradition Marko never died, but lives on in a hidden cave deep in the Balkan wilds. Perhaps, were he to reemerge blinking into the modern world, he’d appreciate the efforts of the DIY builders whose work can be seen in these photos; after all, the act of DIY spot building is the area of our own international culture with the most ingrained sense of myth; the indents of Krali Marko, transposed onto a world of wood and urethane. The builders of Burnside, Mechelen and Leeside are spoken of in the same revered tones as this mythical grafter was by the Bulgarian villagers of yore.
Perhaps, one day, the same hushed voices will be used to discuss Craig Questions and his urban dildo explorations.
First things first, how did this trip come about and what decided you on heading to the capitals of Romania and Bulgaria for a skate mission?
The whole thing was born out of wanting to visit one spot! The NDK building in Sofia, Bulgaria – It’s got those long steps with the bank running along the sides, and then a water fountain with loads banks inside and all around it. You might know it from Shier’s part in Lost and Found, or Howard Cooke’s heelflip transfer in Live from Antarctica. Tom really wanted to go and so did I, so we basically built up the whole plan for the trip around that spot.
We booked an apartment about two blocks away and were hoping to spend a lot of time there, but to our horror we ended up going about two weeks after the entire building had been renovated for some sort of UN or EU meeting. The banks had been rebuilt and were totally unskated at the time, and the fountains were filled with water 24/7. There were armed guards telling us in no uncertain terms to fuck off from the ‘top’ area of the spot, so that was a bit of a letdown though we did end up filming one clip there.
I can’t remember exactly how we ended up planning the Bucharest part of the trip, but I remember working in NOTE with Tom looking up intercity train routes from Sofia. We saw that you can get to Bucharest in about eight hours on a really beautiful train route for a very reasonable price, it just seemed like a no brainer to do that.
And how did Craig Questions, Joe O’Donnell and Jasper Clough end up in the mix? Was enjoying spots just as rugged as you and Tom seem to like them a prerequisite? Because that’s a top crust-handling line up…
It all happened quite organically really. I can’t remember exactly how the crew formed but yeah, having an interest in shit and crusty spots was definitely a must for this one haha.
And apart from the NDK Building, how did you go about finding spots?
Google Maps! Obviously a lot of the stuff we found was total shit in real life, but we ended up finding some really good and often unskated spots just by dropping the little yellow guy on a random street and walking around. Tom, Joe and myself all got pretty into it, so we crowdsourced that one. We also ended up meeting super friendly skaters in both cities, but I’d like to say thank you to Veliko Balabanov and Razvan Popescu in particular for their hospitality and helping us out with spots.
I was going to ask, how were the skate scenes in the two cities? I guess skate tourism isn’t an incredibly regular occurrence in either place – were a bunch of Brits riding around on wooden planks greeted with confusion?
The scenes were really interesting actually. Sofia seemed to have a bigger and more established scene from what we saw, probably down to having a spot like NDK to link up at. There was also an indoor skatepark on the 5th floor of an old factory, which was quite a novel experience and seemed to be community led – that was rad to see.
We didn’t get too much attention for being British, at least not until Craig managed to get his hands on a dildo. We were getting some funny looks after that.
I mean, if anyone can be relied upon to up your visibility levels…
So what’s the story behind that spot in a factory? An abandoned factory to build in is the UK dream I guess, is it a permission build? And how did you catch wind of the DIY spot where Jasper does a frontside air and a fakie ollie over a channel? That one looks incredible as well!
It’s a pretty legit operation – the old factory is in the outskirts of the city, but it seems like it has been taken over by artists and small businesses and it had a really good vibe. Whilst we were there we ended up getting used as free labour for a few minutes, lugging beer crates up the stairs to an art show of some kind that was happening on the same floor as the skatepark.
I’m pretty sure we learned about both spots through Veliko, who is a sick photographer from Sofia. He just introduced himself to us at NDK one evening whilst we were drinking beers, and basically became our tour guide for the rest of our time in Sofia. I think he had quite a lot to do with the building of both spots too.
On the subject of DIY, an old housemate once gave me a ‘gift’ of homemade Romanian grappa, it came in a two litre water bottle and tasted like lighter fluid. I quickly gifted it on after I realised the headache I could feel after the first glass was brain cells dying en masse.
[Note; Macedonian tradition claims that Krali Marko drank “eagle’s water”, thereby rendering him immortal until his power was struck from him. Maybe it was in fact the sensation of eternal life being gifted, and I shouldn’t have abandoned it so quickly.]
Did you experience any local non-regulation tipples over there?
Sadly not I’m afraid! Sounds like we dodged a bullet there. We kept it pretty mellow on the booze front on this trip, apart from the train ride between the two cities – that was a pretty heavy journey. We had to change trains at the border between Bulgaria and Romania a few hours into the trip, but still had a little Bulgarian currency left. Joe and I nipped to the shop to spend our last few quid on beers to share and came back with about as much as we could physically carry!
From what little I’ve experienced, the Eastern European train drinking experience is second to none!
In either city, did you see much in the way of security and police when you were skating street spots? And on the subject of street hassle, I know Guy wanted to ask about any trouble with stray dogs in either country?
Yeah we were getting kicked out a lot, especially in Bucharest. Not just by security or the police but random people on the street too. In one instance it was justified though – when we were taken to a spot by a local, Razvan. Only when we started getting shouted at by a lady in her 70s did we realise the manual pad he had brought us to was connected to a tall pillar, a memorial to those who died in the Revolution that overthrew the communist dictatorship in the late 80’s. It was pretty beaten up and covered in graffiti and we were completely oblivious to the political sensitivity of what we were skating. Once the lady realised that we were British she became even more vocal.
This led to a heated inter-generational street argument that we were all pretty uncomfortable with, Razvan essentially saying that the pillar’s meaning was irrelevant and that it was simply a manual pad, whist the lady argued that in her opinion we were trashing and disrespecting her personal and still very real anguish, as well as the memory of those who died in the Revolution. Passers-by were getting involved. It was all incredibly awkward, and I put my backpack on and waited down the street for it all to end. We were very much out of our depth in that situation – having almost no knowledge of the Romanian Revolution or the dictatorship that came before it.
I can see why that wouldn’t go down too well! I guess a perfect example of how our viewpoint of street skateboarding as a positive interaction with your physical environment has its limits, especially when the cultural relevance of said environment is related to such emotion-provoking events within living memory.
Interestingly, a lot of Bucharest’s architecture is a direct result of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s megalomania finding an outlet in the extensive systemization of Romania. Sofia, on the other hand, retained many more of its traditional buildings during Soviet occupation. Was this noticeable in the architecture you skated in both cities, monument faux pas not withstanding?
It’s definitely a very noticeable contrast between the cities – Bucharest is very spread out with wide boulevards and grand parks whilst Sofia is a lot more compact, with much more of an ‘old town’ feel. But to be honest, when it came to the actual skating, we still found ourselves in familiarly bleak locations that made our location on earth irrelevant – alleyways, supermarket car parks and shit skateparks. I don’t think there’s a city on earth without those.
Would you ever consider doing a Land/Island style trip around the two countries, exploring the rural locations between cities?
I’d bloody love to. I have actually found a lot of crazy rural spots in Romania, especially in Transylvania. Hopefully one day I can make that happen.
Lastly, and following on from that, you’re now living in Copenhagen, one of the biggest skate destinations in the world right now; are you working on any upcoming video projects?
Yeah Copenhagen is amazing, I’m really enjoying it here. I’m not working on much right now, I’m still trying to find my feet here in the city and enjoying just going skating lots without a huge backpack for once. I’ve been focusing a lot on still photography recently, so hopefully some of that might find its way into the magazine at some point! I’ve been out skating a lot with these guys from Scotland, Freddie Lusk, Adam Paris and Paul Gilmartin. They have a rad little crew out here so I’ve been tagging along as much as possible and shooting. In terms of video projects COVID threw some cold water over a few of those, but I’m really eager to get started on something here. I just need a bit of time to figure out what and who with!