Bulgaria: UFO’s, Rustic Villages, and a Dragon’s Tail

Discussing our plans at breakfast, our host suggested we stop at the Alba Grups Rose Plantation, a rose oil distillery near Kazanluk.  “It’s interesting and it’s on your way to that monstrosity on the mountain,” he said, referring to the Buzludzha Monument, the abandoned Soviet era conference center built to celebrate the achievements of communism.  It was too early for roses to be in bloom, but we had visited the Alba Grups store in Sofia and the idea of everything roses was tempting, so we added it to our itinerary.  At the end of the day we would spend the night in the historic village of Tryavna.IMG_1128Heading north on Routes 64 and 6 we drove past fallow farmlands waiting for their Spring tilling, and forgotten industrial sites as we worked our way north towards Stara Planina, the Balkans Mountain range that runs east to west for 348 miles and divides Bulgarian into northern and southern regions.

Soon the 7,795 ft summit of snowcapped Botev Peak was visible behind the quiet villages we passed.  The region seemed to be sparsely populated.  On an isolated backroad we stopped across from a rusted Mig jet set high on a plinth in front of what appeared to be an abandoned military site.  I was only able to take one photo before a lone guard emerged from a derelict watch post and waved us away.  Further on there were many larger than life sculptures championing the communal worker.

The area around Kazanluk, south of the Balkan Mountains, is considered Bulgaria’s rose valley and Rosa Damascena, chosen for the quality of oil and high yield, have been planted in Bulgaria for oil distillation since the 1400’s, when the Ottomans introduced the plant to the region from Syria.  Today Bulgaria is the largest producer of rose oils in the world.IMG_1157Turning down the long driveway of the Alba plantation, we spotted the silhouette of what looked like the Statue of Liberty.  This is great we thought, new entrepreneurs celebrating a free market economy, that was long denied them under communism.  But first impressions can be deceiving; more detail was revealed the closer we got.  We were dismayed to see that it was indeed Lady Liberty with a dragon tail, standing atop a sphere of the world covered with chains and pierced by arrows.  We asked one of the guides the significance of this and he offered that it was the owner’s interpretation of the negative influences of Western/American culture on the rest of the world.  Ironically, the young restaurant staff was loudly playing a soundtrack of American music from the 90’s. We smiled.  World vision aside, they make wonderful products that are very reasonably priced. IMG_1232On a wintry, cloudy afternoon the silhouette of Buzludzha Monument loomed like an inter-stellar space craft wrecked on an inhospitable planet, as threatening clouds built behind it.  Its deteriorating hulk was majestic in its isolation on the 4700 ft mountain ridge. We’ve known about Buzludzha Monument for years, having seen it mentioned in various media as a fascinating abandoned place, but never thought we would get to see it up close.

In 1891 a group of radicals met on the peak of Buzludzha Mountain, where the monument now stands, and formed the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers Party.  In 1971 the Bulgarian Communist Party wanted to pat itself on the back and celebrate the success of communism.  Others who drank the Kool-Aid hoped it would be a “monument of the people.” Not wanting to put a financial strain on the country’s budget, Bulgarians were encouraged to “willingly donate” money and labor to the project. Georgi Stoilov, a young partisan in WWII, who received his degree from the Moscow Architectural Institute, was chosen to design a timeless memorial.  He cites the Roman Pantheon, 1950’s science fiction movies and the works of western architects Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe as inspiration for Buzludzha.  It was completed in 1981 after seven years of construction by crews working around the clock in shifts, from May to September every year to avoid the sub-zero temperatures and    fierce winter winds of the mountaintop. Inside the sphere, glass and stone mosaics lining the walls celebrated the communal worker and communist party leaders.  The communist red stars in the 230-foot-tall tower were reported to be the largest in the world at 39 feet across and were visible from the Romanian border in the north and the border with Greece in the south.IMG_1219At the opening ceremony in 1981, tribute was paid to those who had gathered there ninety years earlier. “Let the work of sacred and pure love that was started by those before us never fall into disrepair.”  Buzludzha was a huge success and a point of national pride for eight years, hosting communist party congresses and educational events.  Schools and businesses booked tours for their students and employees.  Foreign delegations were paraded through to witness socialism’s success.  But then in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and communism collapsed like a fighter jet breaking through the sound barrier.  The monument to socialism was suddenly ironic, irrelevant and abandoned.  In 1999 the security guards protecting it were removed and the building was left open to the public and it was looted. Anything of value quickly disappeared, and the rest was left to vandals and frustrated citizens who were known to take their anger out on the building with sledgehammers or spray paint.  The red stars in the tower were shattered by gun shots.  Soon the glass skylights broke and water damage from rain and the winter elements hastened its structural decline, and the building was eventually shut tight to protect folks from injury.  The day we visited there was a lone security guard, suffering as he made his rounds in the bitter wind, protecting this crumbling modern ruin from a handful of visitors.

The Balkan Mountains, naturally dividing the country into northern and southern regions, have been pivotal throughout Bulgaria’s history.  Not far from Buzludzha during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) a combined Russian/Bulgarian force seized control of Shipka Pass from the Ottomans.  This victory was a significant milestone towards liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule and monuments attesting to that triumph now mark the battlefield.IMG_1385As we continued our journey north through the mountains on Route E85, the picturesque Etar Ethnographic Outdoor Museum and Sokolski Monastery called for brief detours.  Set along the banks of the Yantra River, the ethnographic museum recreated a working mountain village from the mid-1800s with water-powered workshops and colorful timber and stone homes in the Bulgarian Revival style of the time.IMG_1567 Woodcarvers, weavers and other craftspeople dressed in period outfits helped further to transport us to a simpler era at the beginning of the Bulgarian industrial revolution.  We visited on a quiet day, but the museum has an extensive twelve-month calendar of events with many festivals listed that would have been nice to observe. IMG_1457Traveling along an isolated background road we worked our way towards Sokolski Monastery, known for its cliffside chapel overlooking the northern slope of the Balkan Mountain range.  We weren’t disappointed; the church is stunning with its colorful exterior frescoes contrasting with the natural environment surrounding it.IMG_1405 Built in 1833, the monastery has played an important role in Bulgarian history.  During the April Uprising of 1876 eight freedom fighters took sanctuary there.  Later captured by the Ottoman army, they were thrown to their deaths from the cliff behind the chapel.  The short-lived April Rebellion was brutally repressed, but a year later Russia would help the Bulgarian rebels defeat the Turks at Shipka Pass and begin the march towards freedom.  In the courtyard of the monastery an octagon-shaped water fountain was built with eight spouts to commemorate those fallen heroes.  Legend states the fountain has never run dry and its cool water holds healing powers. IMG_1437We made it to Tryavna just in time to have dinner at the restaurant next to our hotel. Enjoying a hot meal after a long chilly day, we were entertained by the waitress trying to keep a determined stray cat from entering the restaurant every time the front door was opened.IMG_1744Generations of skilled woodworkers have lived in the Tryavna River Valley, turning trees harvested from the deciduous forests on the slopes of the Balkan Mountains into furniture and ornate wood carvings.

Abundant sheep farms provided wool to the water-powered textile mills along the banks of the river at the beginning of the industrial age.  While other villages in rural Bulgaria have suffered a population exodus, Tryavna has embraced tourism, providing employment for the town.  As one of Bulgaria’s prettiest villages, it is a picturesque escape from city life, with shops, museums and outdoor recreational opportunities nearby. History is literally underfoot in the area, since part of a trail leading to the mountain village of Bozhentsi follows the remnants of an old Roman road.IMG_1522Crossing the footbridge over the Tryavna River at the clock-tower, the pleasant whiff of wood smoke came to us on a chilly Spring morning.  Large woodpiles are essential in this region and we saw plenty of homes with the winter’s firewood neatly stacked, as we wandered around the village, with its parks filled with sculpture and tulips in bloom.

People have inhabited Tryavna since millennia past, but the first record of it dates to the 12th century when Saint Archangel Michael Church was built by in the village by Bulgarian Tzar Asen in tribute to his victory over Byzantine Emperor Isaac II at Tryavna pass. At the battle of Tryavna Pass, Bulgarian troops ambushed and routed the Byzantines, capturing Imperial treasure that included the golden helmet of the Byzantine Emperors, the crown and the Imperial Cross which was the most valuable possession of the Byzantine rulers – containing a piece of the Holy Cross.IMG_1710Over the centuries Saint Archangel Michael Church has been reconstructed several times. Its most recent incarnation dates from 1853 when the tall wooden belfry was added. Inside, the interior is richly ornamented with elaborate 19th century woodcarvings and iconography created by members of the Vitan family, famous throughout Bulgaria for generations of skilled artisans.  The carved bishop’s throne is an exquisite masterpiece.IMG_1712The safest way to order your cup of java in parts of Bulgaria is to ask for a traditional coffee, not wanting to offend anyone by calling it Turkish.  The fact is Greek, Albanian, Bosnian, Persian, Turkish andthe same, plus or minus cardamom or a local spice.  But here in Tryavna at the Renaissance Café the coffee was brewed on a very traditional sand stove.  A shallow pan filled with sand was heated over an open flame, and a long handled, brass cezve was filled with coffee and water, then partially buried in the hot sand to brew.  With diligent attendance our coffee was brought to a frothy boil three times before being moved to the top of the sand where it stayed warm while the grounds settled.  The ritual of the event definitely enhanced our enjoyment of the brew.IMG_1656We only just scratched the surface of this lovely country.  There’s so much to see here, especially in its vast countryside.  Hopefully one day we’ll get a chance to return.

Till next time, Craig & DonnaUF

Bulgaria: Plovdiv – Minarets and Roman Ruins

The fertile, rolling hills between Sofia and Plovdiv have been traversed by migrating populations and numerous invading armies over the millennia. Today the A1 highway whisks an ever-increasing number of tourists between these historic cities, only two hours apart.  We were heading to Plovdiv, voted a 2019 European Capital of Culture, at the suggestion of one of our Instagram followers to “go see more of Bulgaria.”  It is the oldest city in Europe, having been continuously inhabited since 6000 BCE, three-thousand years older than Athens.  Two nights in Plovdiv then a drive over Stara Planina, the Balkan Mountains range that runs east to west for 348 miles and divides Bulgarian into northern and southern regions, to the beautiful village of Tryavna.IMG_0331Just outside Old Town Plovdiv, Roots Hotel and Wine Bar was ideally located to explore the heights of the historic district and the newer, yet still old, city built below it.  Our host Mitko, an expat who returned from Canada, was an enthusiastic promoter of all things Bulgarian, especially its undiscovered wines.  Under his tutelage we enjoyed some excellent wines.  “We have a wine making tradition in Bulgaria that goes back thousands of years, but because of our recent history no-one knows of it. All the wine was sent to Russia to balance our trade deficit with them. Folks in Sofia only drink Italian wine, thinking it’s better. But ages ago even the Roman Emperors preferred wine from Bulgaria.”

Remnants of Plovdiv’s glorious past are clearly visible in the magnificent ruins of the Ancient Theater of Philippopolis which sits high on the slope of Nebet Tepe and overlooks the newer part of the city below.  Built in the first century, this Roman Amphitheatre could hold 6,000 people.  Today it is still used to host concerts and other cultural events.

Strolling uphill to the summit of Nebet Tepe, we saw fine examples of Bulgarian Revival Architecture lining both sides of the cobbled lanes.  Sometimes the upper floors of the homes jutted out so far, they almost kissed the dwellings across the street.

Just shy of the summit, the Regional Ethnographic Museum and Saints Konstantin and Elena Church offered windows into a past way of life.IMG_0676

The ruins on the summit date to the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian in the 6th century CE, but traces of earlier civilizations have also been found that date back to 6000 BCE.  The site offered a great panoramic view of Plovdiv.  Returning from the summit we were able to enjoy a late lunch outside, on the terrace, at Rahat Tepe, and sample some traditional Bulgarian dishes and cold drafts as reward for our steep hike on a warm Spring day. IMG_0543At just over a mile long the pedestrian mall in the center of Plovdiv is the longest in Europe, running from the Stefan Stambolov Square along Knyaz Alexander I, and Rayko Daskalov Street before ending at the footbridge lined with shopping stalls that crosses the Maritza River.

History erupted along its length, and at times, it felt as if we were traveling back through antiquity.  At the south end of the mall near the Garden of Tsar Simeon park the ruins of a Roman Forum and Odeon from the second century CE can be observed.  Discovered in 1988, its been determined that this central shopping and administrative area of ancient Plovdiv covered a vast twenty acres.IMG_0749 But the jewel of the mall area was the curved ruins of the Ancient Stadium of Philipopolis, with its fourteen tier seating area, unearthed in 1923. Situated below street level and surrounded by modern buildings at Dzhumaya Square, the ruins provided a dramatic juxtaposition of the ancient and contemporary, where you can actually see the layering of history and how the city was built over earlier civilizations.  From this excavated section, archeologists have determined that the stadium was a huge 790 feet long and 165 feet wide and could seat nearly 30,000 spectators.IMG_0758Across the square the Dzhumaya Mosque is the main Friday Mosque for Muslims in Plovdiv.  Constructed in 1421, it replaced an earlier mosque built in 1363 on the foundations of a Bulgarian Church destroyed during the Ottoman conquest.  It is one of the oldest and largest Muslim religious buildings in the Balkans. At the café in front of it we enjoyed some sweet Turkish tea and pastries in the warm afternoon sun.

Veering off Rayko Daskalov Street we wandered through the Kapana Creative District.  The area had fallen on hard times and was almost demolished to become a modern trade zone before local architects and historians lobbied to protect its Bulgarian Revival architecture.  Now it’s a destination “go to place.”  The whole neighborhood has been pedestrianized with cafes, hip shops, artist galleries, wine bars, craft beer brewers and small restaurants now filling once vacant storefronts.

The distinctive twisted minaret of the Imaret Mosque towered above the treelined streets on the north side of the Kapana  District as we wandered back to the pedestrian mall and the Maritza River. The unplastered, red brick building and minaret were constructed in 1444 during the Ottoman reign.  Many fine gravestones with Islamic inscriptions were scattered around the yard which once served as a Muslim cemetery.

Under the peaked arches of the mosque’s portico hundreds of chairs were stacked high, waiting to be used for a future event.  The mosque took its name Imaret from the Turkish word used for soup kitchens. For four hundred years, every day hot meals and bread were handed out there for the poor people, regardless of their faith.

The pedestrian only shopping bridge over the Maritsa River will take you to the Karshiaka district, a newer neighborhood on the northern bank of the river.  The bridge itself was disappointing, being a totally enclosed, elevated tunnel with no views of the river, but the bike path along the riverfront offered a nice shady stroll along the water’s edge.

Heading back to our hotel we took our host’s advice and stopped to sample wines at his friend’s shop called Vino Culture.  It’s an intimate gastropub and wine bar with a knowledgeable staff dedicated to promoting small Bulgarian wineries from different regions of the country.  Since we like red wine, Boris, our viniculture expert for the evening, suggested we try a wine made with the Mavrud grape.  It’s an ancient grape that has been cultivated in Bulgaria thousands of years.  Late ripening with a thick and almost black colored skin, the grape produces a strong, full of character wine that is a deep ruby shade.  We loved it.

Tomorrow we look for a UFO.  Really – that’s not the wine talking.

Till later, Craig & Donna

Bulgaria: Living in Sofia

When we departed the states nine months prior, Bulgaria was not part of our travel plans, not even a bleep on our radar. But what a wonderful spontaneous decision it turned out to be.  IMG_2496From Portugal we were to go to England for three months of pet sitting in various locales to save some funds for our push into Africa later in the year.  But just short of heading to the U.K. our first pet sit canceled!  Even though the dollar exchange rate against the pound was the best in decades, it wasn’t favorable enough for an extended stay.  So, we needed a plan B immediately.  It was just the beginning of Spring and we had been spoiled by the pleasant weather in Portugal, so that eliminated going North.  After a couple of quick online searches for weather conditions in various cities and inexpensive flights out of Lisbon, bang – we chose Sofia!IMG_2015 The city was a magnificent surprise with its cosmopolitan vibe and café scene along pedestrian only Vitosha Boulevard.  And hundreds of thousands of yellow tulips, planted in the city parks, were blossoming!IMG_2106Sunny days meant coffee on our balcony and a direct line of sight into the baklava bakery on the corner, across the street. The calories accrued from the sweet creations purchased from that den of temptation were only kept in check by long walks throughout the city.  IMG_8013.jpgExploring the neighborhoods surrounding our apartment, we quickly found delightful, small restaurants like Colibri Kitchen, Edgy Veggy, and Made in Home, which offered new interpretations of Bulgarian classics, while Moma Bulgarian served authentic dinners.  Several gourmet food shops, like Bread and Cheese for Friends and Sun Moon Store, specializing in Bulgarian made products, were also nearby as was a butcher’s shop and innumerable bakeries, each with different offerings.  (But for the whole week before Orthodox Easter all they baked was Kozunak, an incredibly delicious, rich and fragrant type of Stollen.)

At the Chili Hills Farm Store we found a line of Balkan Hot Sauces created from fifty different types of chili peppers collected from around the world, but locally grown in the Vitosha Mountains. Farther afield we’d walk across town to Sofia’s Central Market Hall for prepared foods to take-away or to the Lidl supermarket for basics.  Sofia as it turned out was a foodie’s haven!

In the mornings we would arbitrarily wander about the city, continuing our tradition of “walk a bit then café – walk a little more….” or pick a destination in a far-off area, determined to immerse ourselves into Sofia’s life and explore every quadrant of the city.  These walks revealed off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods, reminiscent of Paris or London, full of architectural gems built during the Bulgarian Renaissance.

Bulgarian culture re-asserted itself and blossomed during this short-lived renaissance which coincided with the country’s sixty-seven-years of freedom between the end of Ottoman occupation in 1878 and the beginning of communist rule in 1945.

Many other neighborhoods reflected the brutal designs of communist block housing which were brightened only by some colorful street art.  Knowledge of the city’s layout often led to frustrating experiences with taxi drivers who were intent on building their fares by taking us on roundabout routes. IMG_2334Weekends were especially rewarding when it was more likely we’d come across a street market or dance class in a park.

Intense chess matches were played out on park benches and always drew an audience of curious onlookers. Pensioners playing cards was also a daily ritual in the parks.

Most afternoons we headed over to Vitosha Boulevard to sit at a café and people-watch, or walked along the rows of fountains, surrounded by yellow tulips, in front of the National Palace of Culture, with a still snowcapped Vitosha Mountain rising behind it.

IMG_1991The cost of living in Bulgaria was very favorable with most items in the bakeries costing just one dollar and a nice dinner for two with wine, dessert and coffee costing under $40.00.  A visit to a local dentist, recommended by our Airbnb host, to have a cavity filled cost $20.00.  The x-ray needed cost $5.00 from a different facility around the corner. IMG_4282[36950]-2Our lovely, large one-bedroom apartment with living room, dining table and small balcony, just two blocks away from the popular pedestrian mall, cost less than $800.00 for the month.  (We found it amusing that the two-burner electric cook top was kept in a drawer in the kitchen, but we made it work for us.)  A 90¢ USD subway fare got us to the airport for our $10.00 per day car rental, with unlimited miles, for our road trips.  There were some oddities though.

Cut flowers were extremely expensive, so much so, that they we sold by the individual stem.  In many grocery stores butter was so highly priced it had those plastic anti-theft tags attached to it.

We enjoyed our time in Sofia and found it to be a very interesting and diverse city, full of history. And it was a great low budget destination that kept us fully engaged for a month.  Bulgaria should be on everyone’s radar as a place to head for a fascinating experience.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Bulgarian: Back Roads, Monasteries and Junkyards

We hadn’t done much research on Bulgaria before we arrived, so we asked one of our Bulgarian Instagram followers for tips.  “The monasteries and small villages are a must; the countryside is beautiful,” and our first Bulgarian road trip was born.  Our three-day excursion would take us first to Rila Monastery, then further south near the border with Greece to visit several rustic villages in the mountains and other points of interest along the way. IMG_9484After you crouch to enter through a low door and then look up in this intimate space, the WOW element of Boyana Church Museum can’t be emphasized enough!  It was such a mesmerizing experience we wished we could have stayed longer. But, a maximum of eight people at a time are permitted to enter the church and stay for only ten minutes.

This small, unassuming medieval church, built in the 900s, preserves large fragments of the most amazing Christian frescoes from the 11th, 12th, 14th, and 16th centuries. The murals from 1259 are the most famous and are recognized for their skilled, realistic portrayal of the saints’ faces.  Though still within the city limits of Sofia, it’s located in an area far from the city center on the lower slope of Vitosha Mountain.  Fortunately, we arrived early before the bus tours of the day started.IMG_9625Our main destination was Rila Monastery, still seventy-one miles away.  We made good time on the A3, which had recently undergone improvements, before exiting onto Rt 1005 for a drive through pastoral countryside, shadowed by the snowcapped Musala Peak (9,596 ft) in the Rila mountain range.

Following the Rilska river, through a steep, heavily-treed gorge, Rt. 107 wove past blossoming fruit orchards, abandoned campsites, roadside shrines and rockslides the rest of the way to the monastery.

Rila was the first Orthodox monastery built in Bulgaria in the tenth century, by students of beloved St. Ivan of Rila who lived in solitude for twenty years, in a cave not far away. IMG_8586 This is the only monastery to survive during the centuries of Ottoman domination over Bulgaria, when it was rebuilt in defiance of the Turks.  The Bulgarian people have great affection for this monastery, as a symbol of their religion and culture during those turbulent centuries.IMG_8559-2The distinctive architectural style of the monastery, with its arched black and white portico filled with religious murals offset against red brick domes, dates to the 1830’s when it was rebuilt again after a fire destroyed the entire complex except for the stone bell tower.  It is considered to be the finest example of Bulgarian National Revival architecture.IMG_8539

It was a cold afternoon in the mountains, and we were happy to find a restaurant with a roaring fire in its fireplace to help warm our chilled bones before we started the drive back.IMG_8926Thirteen miles from the monastery, on a side street in the town of Rila, we spotted a church with three small cupolas, that called for a quick stop.  The church “St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Mirikliyski” was a surprising find with its cracked bell tower and muraled covered entrance porch, complete with woodpile.IMG_8851 The painter of these hell fire and brimstone murals might have gotten his inspiration from the tortured works of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.  Unfortunately, the church was closed and we haven’t been able to find any other information about this off-the beaten-path treasure.

With the Rila mountains in our rearview mirror, we set off again for Blagoevgrad, where we would spend the night.  Twilight was beginning to descend when we caught a glimpse of the Unofficial Junk Museum as we sped past.  It had cars piled high on its roof. “Let’s stop.” “It’s getting late.” “Just for a few quick photos.” Faster than a quick genuflect, the car was parked and we were inside.IMG_8967 The Unofficial Junk Museum is a vast, rusty and dusty collection of whatever the owner deemed representative of Bulgarian culture under communism. Radios, tv’s, typewriters, farming equipment, cars, motorcycles, household items and busts of Stalin are stacked everywhere.  It’s fascinating!  And of all the places to buy a bottle of homemade Rakia from – we did not go blind.

The Diva Hotel, for $22.00 a night was a tremendous bargain and very comfortable.  Always a good sign, its restaurant was lively with local families.IMG_9062In the morning we followed Rt. 1 south for a while as it hugged the Struma River, which would eventually reach the Aegean Sea, before we turned off and headed in to the Pirin Mountains.

Our destination the village of Melnik, known for its long history of winemaking.  We hadn’t expected the Bulgarian countryside to be as beautiful as it was, and it just kept getting better the farther south we went.  As we passed through a landscape of verdant rolling hills alive with sheep and cattle, distant snowcapped mountains occasionally broke the horizon.  Vineyards soon dominated the terrain.IMG_9144Melnik is situated in a wide gorge under striking sandstone rock formations, called hoodoos, that tower hundreds of feet high, created from millennia of erosion.  Locals refer to these geological phenomena as Melnik Earth Pyramids.  The village has been renown for making strong wine since 1346 from a regional red grape varietal, Shiroka Melnishka, and wine cellars still line its main street. IMG_9221 Once a thriving village with one thousand residents, today it is now home to fewer than three hundred.  The village was a delight to explore with its cobbled streets meandering between the whitewashed stone and timber homes built in the Bulgarian Revival style. Ninety-six of the village’s houses are historically protected.  Any new construction in town adhered to that aesthetic. IMG_9237From the ruins of Bolyarska kŭshta, high on a hill above the Church of St. Anthony, we spotted the dome of what looked like a hammam, a Turkish bath, nestled between the traditional homes below, and went to explore. IMG_9321 With the help of a kind woman, who somehow knew what we were looking for, we found the ruins of a small Roman era spa in a small side alley.  Its dome was fully intact and the substructure of its once heated floor remained.  There is also a single arched old roman bridge, near the parking lot, that you can still walk across. Before continuing to Kovachevitsa, we relaxed at one of the sunny cafes in the center of the village.IMG_9504Kovachevitsa, an isolated, rustic stone village in the Rhodope mountains, was only 52 miles away near the border with Greece. However, it took us the bulk of the afternoon to reach because “someone stops every hundred yards to take a photo.”  And stop we did as we were awed by the beauty of the border region as we drove through the mountains.  So close were we to the border that our phones binged with a “Welcome to Greece” message from our cell phone carrier.IMG_9544At one point we stopped to photograph a complete section of an iron truss bridge, just rusting away on the side of the road, only to have our car suddenly surrounded by a flock of bah-ing sheep.

It was slow going into Kovachevitsa as the guard rails along the sinuous route disappeared and the road deteriorated.  Night fell as we followed our GPS to the intersection of three dirt tracks in the village. Where to now? Not a soul was around, but smoke was rising from several chimneys. IMG_9769So, we knocked on the ancient door of the closest building only to be greeted by loud barking.  Retreating back to the car we pondered what to do when a voice behind us said “hello.” That was the only word of English our host spoke until he said “goodbye” two days later.  The barking dog turned out to be a gentle giant, who welcomed us to the inn. In fact, all the dogs of the village were St. Bernard-size, and they must all have been related, because they closely resembled one another. Fortunately, they were good-natured.

On our way into the village we had passed many homes with exceedingly large wood piles. We understood their importance as the heat from the crackling fire allowed us to take off our multiple outer layers and sit comfortably in the stone cellar of our inn, the Basoteva House, a renovated stone home, with huge wooden beams built in 1861.  In the past, this lower level served as the barn area for farm animals; now it’s the kitchen, bar, and dining area.  Rakia was offered and accepted. Cheers! IMG_9765Bulgarians fleeing religious persecution and the forced conversion policies of the Ottoman Empire sought refuge in the rugged Rhodope mountains and established Kovachevitsa in 1656.  Agriculture and stockbreeding in the area thrived during the 1800s and the homes still standing in the village date from that time.  The tall stone homes of Kovachevitsa are stunning and unique in an organic way.

The three- and four-story homes are built from locally quarried stone using no mortar.  Even, layered flat stones are used for the roofs.  The natural construction materials blended the village almost seamlessly into the mountainous surrounding environment.  With alleys so narrow and the homes so close together, it’s said you can walk the entire length of the village along the rooftops.IMG_9851At breakfast the next morning Google Translate nicely bridged our communications barrier with the innkeeper’s wife.  Loading the Cyrillic keyboard into the app for our hostess to use, Donna’s phone was passed back and forth repeatedly during a lively conversation about family, each other’s lives, the village and our travels.  Our hosts’ children live with their grandparents in one of the larger towns off the mountain as there isn’t a school in the village anymore.  IMG_9966Most of the young families have moved away to find work, leaving only 28 year-round residents looking after the village till the tourist season starts.   Strolling under blossoming elderberry trees, we had the narrow lanes to ourselves as we worked our way towards St. Nikolas Church.

Built in 1847, the interior of this Bulgarian Orthodox country church was beautiful with its ornate altar, detailed columns and painted ceiling. It too had a large woodpile to feed the woodstove in the sanctuary. IMG_9879On the way back to our inn we stopped to admire the woolen creations knitted by a lone street vendor with a toothless smile who was bundled under layers of clothing to ward off the mountain chill.  Her prospects for a profitable day seemed slim as the street was nearly deserted.  When we expressed interest in only one pair of socks, she assertively pantomimed that we needed more.  Looking up from readying our payment we could only smile and chuckle when we found she had filled our bag with two extra pairs of socks. They were well made and a bargain, so we caved to her sales pressure. I’m wearing a pair now as I write this, and my toes are happy we she insisted. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we were her only sale of the day.

The next morning our hostess with smiles and hugs gifted us a jar of homemade elderberry jam to enjoy back in Sofia.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

Bulgaria: Beautiful and Mysterious

The lyrics to the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR “played through my mind as the wing of our plane dipped to reveal an early Spring landscape blanketing the countryside, with fresh shades of vibrant greens, as we were about to land in Sofia.  The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989 and Bulgaria, a Soviet satellite country, ousted their communist party at the same time. But I’m a child of the cold war and Eastern Europe seemed as exotic and as full of mystery as the lost kingdom of Tibet, and the Beatles’ tune stuck.IMG_5115-2In the airport, at the tourist information kiosk, multiple large screen tv’s played flashy videos promoting Bulgaria’s culture, tourism, and natural beauty.  We asked the woman staffing the desk for a map of Sofia and directions on how to transfer into the city.  “Follow the line,” she snapped. Not fully understanding I asked again. “Follow the line!” she barked firmly a second time. She scowled in the direction of the arrows painted on the floor and turned away. Her previous career, I’m speculating, was a prison guard in the now closed gulags.  She was obviously better suited commanding prisoners to “assume the position” than to being the first friendly face welcoming visitors to her country.  I’m sure she was hiding handcuffs and would have used them if I asked another question.  But that’s how it was, one day you’re communist and the next day you’re taking customer service courses and trying to embrace a free market economy.  And for some the promise of a better life hasn’t been realized.  Later, one of our hosts would express, “some folks prefer the old way, they’re still communists.” “Come and keep your comrade warm,” another refrain from the Beatles song, didn’t ring true.  We weren’t feeling the love just yet.  Aside from that rocky start, we had very enjoyable time in Bulgaria. IMG_0200The line led to a modern subway station adjacent to the airport terminal and for 1.60 BGN, about 90¢ USD, we rode theM2 line past sad remnants of soviet era block housing, before it descended deeply underground, for a twenty minute ride to the National Palace of Culture station.  IMG_1974We emerged onto the pedestrian only Vitosha Boulevard filled with folks enjoying a warm Spring day and an incredible vista of Vitosha Mountain towering over the city.  Inviting outdoor cafes lined the street and we quickly chose which one we’d return to after meeting our Airbnb host.  We stayed on Knyaz Boris just two blocks parallel to Vitosha Boulevard and as majestic as the pedestrian mall was, the side streets, though tree lined and harboring small shops and restaurants, were slightly dismaying with wanton graffiti tags on every apartment building door and utility box.  There was a lack of pride in ownership. IMG_5982 The idea that’s it’s not my responsibility is a leftover from the communist era, when the government owned and was responsible for everything.  The front door to our building was no different, but our third-floor walkup apartment was an oasis with a sun-drenched living room and tiny balcony that we would call home for a month.  And to our delight, but to our waistlines’ detriment, there was a baklava bakery across the street! img_428236950-2.jpgLong at the crossroads of expanding empires, Bulgaria has had a contentious past with Thracian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and communist influences.  The First Bulgarian Empire, 681-1018, has been deemed the Golden Age of Bulgarian Culture, with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in 865 and the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet.  Independent for only short periods of time during the medieval age, the National Revival period between 1762-1878 brought Bulgaria to finally throw off the yoke of Ottoman domination that had lasted from 1396.  Sadly, there were only six decades of self-government before the proud people of Bulgaria became a satellite regime of communist Russia at the end of WWII and fell behind the Iron Curtain.IMG_2015Today Sofia is transforming itself into one of the most beautiful, cosmopolitan cites in Europe with its pedestrian malls, extensive park system and tram lines that weave throughout the city.  But the past is always present and just around the corner in Sofia.  Walking north along Vitosha past the end of the pedestrian mall there is a three block stretch that displays a vast stretch of that history on the way to the Central Market Hall, where we were headed to stock our pantry.  We got sidetracked.IMG_5796Seven millennia ago, put down the first foundations of what we now call Sofia. The construction of Sofia’s modern subway system in the 1990’s revealed multiple layers of antiquity and many of the amazing artifacts unearthed are displayed, in museum cases, on the subway platforms in the Serdika station and National Archeology Museum nearby.

This is ground zero for history in Sofia as so many interesting sites are nearby.  Some larger stone columns and decorative capitals discovered have been placed in the Doctors’ Garden near Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski.IMG_6334A tram passed by quietly as we approached St Nedelya Church, surrounded by trees in a small plaza.  The 19th century structure in front of us replaced a wooden structure that dated to the 10th century.  The inside of the domed church is spectacular with religious murals covering every surface. IMG_5757 Tragically in a 1925 bombing, the Bulgarian Communist Party attempted to kill the King of Bulgaria and other members of the government who were attending a funeral at this church – one hundred-fifty people died, and the cathedral’s dome was razed.  Excavations behind the church in 2015 uncovered early ruins and a treasure of 3,000 Roman silver coins from the 2nd century AD. IMG_2811

The Church of St. Petka stands in the center of Sofia adjacent to the Serdika Metro Station.  Built during Ottoman rule in the 14th century, its entrance was placed below ground level, so that the church’s total height did not exceed that of a cavalry soldier on horseback.  This was an odd condition the Ottomans had imposed on the construction of churches at the time.   From the entrance of the church you can see the archeological excavation of an old Roman road and the buildings that lined it, complete with mosaic floors and plumbing.IMG_5930 It ends just short of Banya Bashi, an Ottoman mosque built in the 16th century.  The towering statue of St. Sofia is also visible just beyond the subway station.  Ancient walls found during the renovation of the Central Market Hall can also be seen in the lower level of that building.IMG_5763Nearby the oldest building in Sofia, the Church of Saint George, built by the Romans in the 4th century, has early Christian frescoes which were painted over by the Ottomans when it was used as a mosque, but they were rediscovered in the 1900s and restored.   It stands surrounded by modern buildings in a courtyard behind the President of the Republic of Bulgaria building, within earshot of the Changing of the Guard.

Across town, our journey back through history continued at St. Sophia Church.  During the reign of Emperor Justinian, when Bulgaria was part of the Byzantine Empire, the cathedral we see today was built atop the ruins of a smaller 4th century church that was centered in an ancient necropolis. Many of Sofia’s elite found their final resting place in the church’s crypt.  Early Christian frescoes gracing the interior were destroyed and minarets were added when the Ottomans converted it to a mosque in the 16th century.  The minarets and some walls collapsed during the 1858 earthquake and the mosque was abandoned due to the extensive damage, left to be used as a warehouse until the early 1900s when restoration began.  Today its cavernous interior, revealing its amazing brick construction and catacombs with ancient mosaic floors and tombs can be toured.  In the park in front of the cathedral The Sveta Sofia Underground Museum Necropolis has a fascinating display of discoveries from the area surrounding the church.

More recently the Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski, standing adjacent to St. Sofia, was designed in 1884 to commemorate all the brave Bulgarian and Russian soldiers that died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and freed Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. However, the building was delayed repeatedly due to regional conflicts and not finished until 1924.  Its magnificent interior features gilded domes, chandeliers from Munich, Brazilian onyx, Indian alabaster, Italian marble and walls covered with beautiful iconography. It is the most important orthodox church in Bulgaria. IMG_1957 IMG_7803In the crypt of the cathedral a small, state of the art museum showcases the development of Bulgarian orthodox iconography over the centuries. img_7836.jpgNearby, the five gilded spires of the Russian Church, officially known as the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker, can be seen from the steps of Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski.  Built in 1914 on the site of a mosque that was torn down after the liberation of Bulgaria, it served has the official church for the Russian Embassy and the Russian community in Sofia.  The religious murals that cover the interior of the church were created by Vasily Perminov’s team of talented icon painters, who were also responsible for the iconography in Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski.  Darkened by decades of candle smoke, the fresco paintings in the dome were restored in 2014.

In an outlying area, far from the city center, the Museum of Socialist Art displays forty-five years (1944-1989) of socialist themed art from the former People’s Republic of Bulgaria, a not too distant communist past that has been collected from every town across the country.  Most impressive is the statue park with monumental sculptures of Lenin, Stalin, Che Guevara, along with statues of farm workers and industrial laborers celebrating the communal.  At the time of its inauguration Georgi Lozanov, a noted Bulgarian educator, said, “Bulgaria must have a museum of communism that will tell new generations the story of a period that should never again become reality.”

Closer in town, the National Museum of Military History displays an array of deadly modern weaponry, jets, tanks and missile launchers that are slowly rusting away. Also included is a noble little Trabant 601 automobile, the Soviet equivalent to the Volkswagen Beetle, the significance of which we’re not sure.IMG_1866In 2001 an early Christian mausoleum was unearthed near the American Embassy and it’s fantastic that things are still being discovered in 2019.

It seems you can’t build or conduct any street repairs in Sofia without uncovering an ancient layer of history.

Till next time, Craig & Donna