Ethiopian Adventure Part 1 – Elephant Huts and Singing Wells

Background:

Why Ethiopia?  After 14 months of continuous, slow travel, spent mostly exploring cities, we were ready for a change of pace and a more raw or “authentic” experience, for lack of a better phrase. We had planned to visit Ethiopia originally just to see the hand-hewn rock churches of Lalibela.  But, with a tough spousal negotiation, we reached détente: three months in the land of her people, Italy, and for me, 12 days bouncing on backroads and possibly camping a night or two in a tribal village, and a cross country adventure through the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region which includes the Omo Valley. An exciting itinerary with Ephrem Girmachew of Southern Ethiopia Tours fit the bill and our budget.  I’m not sure who got the better deal, but somewhere along our journey we coined the phrase “shaken tourist syndrome” to reflect the road conditions we encountered for hours each day.  IMG_8498 The area in the northern part of the Greater Rift Valley, known today as the Omo Valley region of Ethiopia, has been at the crossroads of humankind for many millennia. In 1967 Dr. Leaky discovered fossil bone evidence, recently re-dated by scientists to be 195,000 years old, of early Homo sapiens near Kibish, Ethiopia, several miles west of the Omo River near where the borders of Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia meet.  The first migrations of early man out of Africa occurred 60,000 years ago as they followed the Omo River north through the Great Rift Valley to the Red Sea. At its narrowest point, where it meets the Gulf of Aden, they crossed to continue their migration through Arabia and eventually into Europe and Asia.  The region was once rich with African wildlife, and Arab towns along the northern East African coast of Somalia and Kenyan were sending hunting parties into the interior for elephant ivory, rhino horn and unfortunately slaves since around AD 1000.

It is thought that the Mursi and Suri tribes developed lip plates and scarification as a way to discourage Arab slavers from taking their women. The first European contact with the region is credited to Antonio Fernandes, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary, who was sent by Ethiopian Emperor Susenyos in 1613 to find an inland route, that avoided all Islamic territories, to Malindi, a Portuguese port at the time, on the Indian Ocean.  The next reported western explorers to the region were Antonio Cecchi in the 1870’s and Vittorio Bottego in 1897. Bottego was the first European to follow the Omo River all the way to Lake Turkana, at a time when Italy was trying to become a colonial power and expand its Italian Eritrea territory into Ethiopia.  By the early 1900’s teams of cultural anthropologists from various Europeans countries were viewing the area as the “last frontier” and beginning to study the “cultural crossroads” aspect of the tribes of the Omo Valley.

A harsh, vast territory, the semi-arid Omo Valley is home to 13 indigenous groups that are seminomadic pastoralist. These tribes also practice flood retreat cultivation along the banks of the Omo River, to produce crops mostly for subsistence or occasional trading in the local markets.  Very remote and undeveloped, the area resisted Ethiopian Orthodox influence from the north of the country for centuries.  It wasn’t until the 1990’s, when a fledgling tourist industry began to emerge, and violent cross-border conflicts with various nomadic tribes looking for better grazing or to rustle cattle, that the government began to exert influence over the area.  Some nomadic tribes along the border were encouraged to settle down and farm and fish along the Omo River for their livelihood. Government interest in the area was intensified again when the decision to build two dams on the Gibe River, a tributary of the Omo River, were built to supply hydroelectric power to Ethiopia.  Later, the massisve Gibe lll dam, completed in 2016, was built to supply irrigation water to foreign owned sugar cane and cotton plantations on lands that were seized by the Ethiopian government from the indigenous tribes of the Omo Valley. Consequently, as the natural cycle of the river flooding was stopped, the centuries old practice of flood retreat farming is failing as there is not enough rainfall in the area to support crops. This has increased tensions amongst tribes already competing for limited grazing and fertile farming lands due to climate change. IMG_6730Things change, but the proud peoples that live in the Omo Valley are trying to retain their way of life amidst external influences they can’t control, as tourists and construction crews course across their territory.  Tempers flare when trucks and buses carrying supplies and workers to the agricultural plantations strike and kill cattle.  Drivers are required to stop and immediately pay the herder for his loss, but many never do.  Consequently, the local tribe will block the road and demand payment until the issue is resolved.

The Beginning:

It was immediately apparent as we were landing that Ethiopia was different. Addis Ababa is a thriving city of almost 5 million people, with gleaming skyscrapers, a new sprawling economic development zone, and high-speed rail line connecting the city to Djibouti. With no suburban transitional zone, the city was an island surrounded by an ocean of farmland. IMG_8308A good night’s sleep at the Jupiter International Hotel Bole (they have the best front desk staff we’ve encountered) made an early start bearable. Meeting us punctually, an amiable Ephrem introduced us to Gee and his trusty Toyota Landcruiser.  We could tell from the beginning that they were friends and had worked together for years.  Even before leaving the city limits, we met our first of the ubiquitous cattle herds, donkey carts and tuk-tuks slowing our passage.

Our first day would be the longest with over eight hours of driving to Arba Minch, that included a stop at the archaeological site of Tiya Stelae. Here a large field of stelae were adorned with carvings of spears; the number of spear heads on a stone is thought to represent the number of enemy killed. Other stones that dotted the landscape contained symbols that were more difficult to interpret. Nothing is really known about the people that created these monuments and there are no other sites in the area to help archeologists explain their mystery.

Further along, we stopped at an explosion of color and activity that represents an Ethiopian local market, our first of many. Coming from our last stop in parched Zimbabwe, this landscape was unexpectantly and refreshingly green.  We passed farmers plowing theirs fields with oxen, the way it has been done for centuries.IMG_6410 The 2019 rainy season was good; unfortunately, this is often not the case. There was no water infrastructure in most of the small towns and villages we passed through, forcing folks to gather water from local streams and rivers.IMG_8299 It was a constant sight: women carrying yellow water jugs along the side of the road back to their homes, or if they could afford it, having it delivered by donkey cart.  The terrain varied tremendously, with full rivers on one side of a mountain range and dry on the other side. These conditions forced people to dig into the riverbed in search of water.

Closer to Arba Minch workers piled just-cut bananas onto trucks, from plantations that lined the road.IMG_8266Since Ethiopia is close to the equator, the daylight hours do not vary seasonally.  The sun rises quickly in the morning and seems to drop from the sky at the end of the day.  By the time we reached the Paradise Lodge  in Arba Minch darkness was falling.  It was a long walk to our room, and signs along the path warned of baboons and warthogs.  A mosquito netted bed welcomed us under a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling.  A dramatic dawn the next morning through clearing storm clouds revealed the hotel’s placement on a cliff edge above a lush, dense forest that was part of Národní Park Nechisar that surrounds the perpetually brown Abaya Lake and Chamo Lake off in the distance below. IMG_9584At breakfast we watched thick-billed ravens in aerial combat as they rode the thermals just off the restaurant’s terrace.  Nearby a staff member stood ready to chase away baboons if they got too close to the customers’ tables.

After breakfast we headed into the highlands northwest of Arba Minch to visit the Gamo tribe in the Dorze village.  The Dorze, Doko and Ochello are the three clans that comprise the Gamo people. Rising slowly to an elevation of 8200ft, we traveled through heavily forested slopes that opened to patches of verdant farmland, and occasionally passed small groups of children dancing to earn spending money from passing tourists.IMG_9440 As we entered the village, compounds ringed with woven rattan walls held back tall Enset plants, better known as false banana, also called the “tree against hunger.” This plant is an important staple that is drought resistant and can be harvested year-round. Starch from the plant is scraped from its fibers and fermented in the ground for three months or longer and used to make kocho, a type of flat bread. IMG_9478Fibers from the plant are used to make rope or coffee bean bags, and the leaves are fed to farm animals.  We arrived on market day, and an entire hillside about the size of three football fields was covered with activity. From a distance it looked like an animated impressionistic painting, with undulating dots of color dancing under a blue sky. IMG_8996Sellers of charcoal, sugarcane, vegetables, and a multitude of other goods all had their wares spread out on cloths covering the ground.  Men played foosball or ping-pong under the few shade trees that ringed the field.

The Dorze are known for the family structures they build, called elephant huts, and the fine weavings that they create from the cotton they grow.  Constructed of hardwood poles, bamboo, thatch and enset, the huts get their name from the symmetrical vents at the top create a silhouette that resembles an elephant’s head. These towering huts can last eighty years, and when the bottom of the main poles become termite-infested they are cut off and the hut is then lifted up and moved to a different spot in the family compound.IMG_9211Men of the Dorze tribe traditionally do the weaving, while the women are responsible for spinning the cotton that the family grows and uses.   The colorful textiles they create are highly prized all over the country.IMG_9504-2Back in Arba Minch we stopped at the Lemlem restaurant for a lunch of local lake fish before checking out the crocodiles on Chamo Lake.  The lightly fried fish were served whole, while the sides were scored into squares which we picked off with our fingers. It was delicious.  Another side of the restaurant served freshly butchered, grilled meat.

The road south of Arba Minch cut through farmland.  Stately fish eagles and traditional Ethiopian honeybee hives dotted some of the trees along the road.  The elongated beehives are made from hollowed out logs and wrapped with woven bamboo strips, and then suspended in the trees.

It’s a dangerous livelihood, fishing the muddy waters of Chamo Lake, as attested to by the size of the Nile crocodile that swam alongside our tour boat.  He was frightfully as large as our 18ft vessel.  Crocodile hunting hasn’t been allowed in the lake since 1973, so there are many big old crocs in its waters. Every year fishermen are killed while standing in the lake casting their nets.  Those who can afford to, buy boats to fish.  Full immersion baptisms are performed by some churches in Chamo and Abaya Lakes, and tragically, in 2018 a Protestant pastor was snatched by a crocodile and killed in front of his congregation during a baptismal celebration.

“Tomorrow we drive to Kenya,” Ephrem offered. Really? That wasn’t expected! “We will stop before we actually get to the border to see a Singing Well of the Borena tribe, and then head to Chew Bet, an extinct volcanic crater lake where the tribe takes black salt from its water.”IMG_8449“Sorry for the late pick-up, but the road was full of tuk-tuks carrying families to the university stadium up the street for a graduation ceremony,” Ephrem offered as he bundled us into the Land Cruiser and handed us large bottles of water. “It’s hot where we are going today.”

Crossing a small mountain range as we headed south from Arba Minch, we left the green landscape behind us and descended into a semi-arid savanna of acacia trees and thorn scrub that held ostrich and huge termite mounds. Soon we encountered our first herd of camels being prodded along by young herders. In Yebelo we stopped to pick-up a local Borena guide who accompanied us for the rest of the day.  Now speeding toward the border, we passed isolated huts and folks seemingly in the middle of nowhere walking to unseen destinations.  We abruptly u-turned when our guide spotted the dirt track we needed to follow to the tula, a centuries-old deep well that continues to be dug deeper into the ground as the water table drops.IMG_0474We trailed a young Borena girl herding a small group of cattle down a slowly inclined, dusty trench deeper into the earth. It was impossible to avoid cow patties as we steered clear of an exiting herd.  Thirty feet below the surface, the trench ended in a bowl shape with a water trough where cattle were drinking.  Rhythmic voices emerged from a shallow cave behind the trough.  Climbing worn stone steps, we came to a narrow landing above the trough, where below us men sang to set a pace to their work. (Click the preceding link to see the video.) They lifted heavy buckets of water over their heads to others above them who then dumped the water into the trough for the cattle to drink.  The acoustics of the cave increased the sound of their songs.

This was the wide, higher part of the well. At the back of the cave there was a hole, only as wide as a man with a bucket, that descended straight down another sixty feet into the earth where more tribesmen worked in unison to lift water up from the bottom of the shaft.  Every day for centuries, teams of men have worked in thirteen tulas spread across the Borena territory to keep the tribe’s cattle alive in a harsh land where there is very little surface water.IMG_0884Imagine one of the most inhospitable places on earth and you might envision the village of Soda, located on the rim of the mile wide El Sod crater.  Aside from raising cattle, goats and camels, some Borena tribesmen have given up their pastoral life to dive into the depths of the El Sod Crater Lake to collect salt, which is then dried and traded or sold across southern Ethiopia from Somalia to Sudan and down into Kenya. It takes the salt divers an hour to descend the narrow track to the lake surface, 1100 ft below the crater’s rim. After scraping 50lbs of wet salt from the lake bottom, they bag it and load it on donkeys for the 1.5 hour walk out of the crater, only to turn around and do it again as many times a day as they can. Black and white salt along with crystals are gathered in the lake. Crystal salt is the most valuable, and black salt, used for animals, is the least.

Each diver works for himself and it is a tragically difficult livelihood. Many of the divers suffering from loss of hearing and sense of smell, tooth decay, eczema and blindness from spending years in the highly concentrated, corrosive salt water.  No eye protection is worn and nose and ear plugs are rudimentarily, made from plastic bags stuffed with dirt. At the crater rim the salt is sold to middlemen who dry it in slatted wooden shacks before reselling it. Trucks have now replaced legendary camel caravans which once crisscrossed the savanna to remote villages.

After lunch and our first Ethiopian coffee ceremony, we headed to the Yabelo Wildlife Sanctuary, a 1600 square mile grassland preserve that is mostly home to Grevy’s and Burchell’s zebra.  Walking with our local scout, we were able to slowly approach a small herd of zebra.  Some of the females were heavy with calves soon to be born.IMG_1161A short drive away, our last stop of the day was a well-kept Borena village surrounded by an ochre landscape under a perfect blue sky.  Women do the heavy lifting in the villages, building the huts, tending children and crops, and spending a substantial amount of time foraging for firewood and gathering water from far off sources. While the men spend their days moving their cattle across different grazing lands.IMG_1234Women rule their homes and determine who can enter, even prohibiting spouses.  “If her husband comes back and finds another man’s spear stuck into the ground outside her house, he cannot go in,” our guide conveyed.

Away from the village as we headed back to Arba Minch we spotted both Grant’s and giraffe-necked Gerenuk gazelles.  The latter rises on its hind legs to feed on higher vegetation.

Old ways are changing as the Ethiopian government shows more interest in the south, and while Animism is still practiced, Christianity and Islam are making inroads into the region.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

 

 

 

Cape Town Part 4: Sea Point

One of the nice benefits of our slow travel philosophy is that we immerse ourselves more deeply into an area than if we were just passing through.  Our three months in Cape Town allowed us to explore the city fully and discover things that even our local friends were unaware of.IMG_8552After our last apartment in the “Mother City,” on Bree Street, we moved to the Sea Point neighborhood and as its name suggests, it hugs the coastline under Signal Hill and Lion’s Head Mountain.  Finding the ideal apartment for our last 30 days in Cape Town required a bit of detective work on our part though.  One of the draw backs of using Airbnb is that it does not provide the specific address of a property until you actually book it.  So, while the interior photos of a listing might be charming, its exact location could be anywhere within a five-block radius of a dot on the map, unless the host gives hints in the apartment description.IMG_1475 In Sea Point this could mean on the water or nowhere near it.  But with a little sleuthing regarding our final three choices, we were able to determine which one was right on the waterfront.  Our reconnaissance of the neighborhood paid off and we booked a sixth-floor one-bedroom apartment with a terrace, that had an ocean view for dramatic sunsets and inland views of the paragliders launching from Signal Hill. IMG_1596It was the perfect location across from the Sea Point promenade.  The lively Mojo Market, with numerous food stalls and live music seven nights a week, was just around the corner.  Here we enjoyed the best fresh oysters and mussels in sauce at The Mussel Monger & Oyster Bar while sipping South African wine or local craft beers as the nightly band played.IMG_2283It’s actually possible to walk along the promenade from the V&A Waterfront all the way to the Camps Bay Beach.  It’s a little over six miles in length, but it’s a popular stretch of sidewalk, which locals call the Prom.

It follows the coast past the iconic Cape Town Stadium, Green Point Lighthouse, multiple art installations and the Sea Point Pavilion Swimming Pools before passing the Clifton beaches and ending by the tidal pool in Camps Bay.

With surf crashing against the shore on one side and views of Signal Hill and Lion’s Head on the other it’s a dramatic and visually rewarding pathway that’s a destination for walkers, joggers, bicyclists and folks that just want to chill by the ocean.  There are numerous places to rest and grab some food along the way.  Timing our days to watch ships sailing into a setting sun or surfers catching the last waves of the day as the sun sank and set Camps Bay aglow were highlights of our time in Sea Point.IMG_0539Weather permitting, paragliders seemed to launch in rapid succession all day long from Signal Hill, first riding the thermals along the ridge towards Lion’s Head before turning back and gracefully spiraling down over the rooftops of Sea Point to land in a grassy park next to the promenade.IMG_2614We transitioned easily into our new neighborhood, finding three grocery stores and Bentley’s Bread, probably the best artisanal bakery in Cape Town, within easy walking distance on Main Road.  With Bentley’s, the key was to go early; otherwise we’d miss out on their sumptuous daily specials which would always sell out quickly.IMG_8657Cape Town artists will paint anywhere and the walls of the underground parking garage at the Pick ‘n Pay – Sea Point were the perfect canvases for some incredibly talented street muralists.  Sadly, we don’t think enough folks see these hidden works of art.

There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the abundance of stunning coastline around Cape Town.  And there’s definitely a shortage of scenic pullover spots, but we felt compelled to stop at each one we passed on day trips to Hout Bay, Chapman’s Peak, Simon’s Town and the Cape of Good Hope.  The views are just that awesome.  One of the best things about Cape Town is that there are so many interesting activities and places to go within an hour or two of the city.IMG_6562In Hout Bay, time flew by at the World of Birds Wildlife Sanctuary & Monkey Park where we spent a fantastic morning observing a wide variety of South African birds. If you are a bird photographer this is a wonderful place to hone your skills.

Afterwards we cruised cautiously along the breathtakingly twisting and beautiful Chapman’s Peak Drive, a toll road, before heading for dinner at one of the celebrated weekend markets on the other side of Hout Bay.IMG_6581Bay Harbour Market is a vibrant and lively mix of food stalls, shops, artists and musicians under the roof of what was once a fish factory, across from the harbor.

For the longest time the Cape of Good Hope was thought to be the African continent’s farthest point south.  That distinction belongs to Cape Agulhas, 136 miles to the east.  Feared by ancient sailors for the turbulent seas that surround it, the allure of this dramatic spit of cliff-faced peninsula jutting into the ocean still stands.  Entering the park, it’s a beautiful drive through a rolling fynbos landscape that hides a small number of elands, zebras, and ostriches, to the lighthouse that commands the cape’s point at 860 feet above sea level.

From the parking lot we took the Flying Dutchman, a funicular named after a 1680 shipwreck, to its upper station where a final set of steep stairs met us.  It took every ounce of our strength to plow through the roaring winds that ripped around us, but it was worthwhile for the views at the top. IMG_6839The wind was so strong it made it impossible to hold the camera steady.  We soaked in the views as long as we could before the buffeting winds forced our retreat.  Sitting outside at the snack bar we were astonished to witness a baboon snatch an ice-cream cone from a young boy and then gobble it up with great delight.IMG_6870We revisited the Simon’s Town area several times, because to see all the spots that interested us required more than one day.  The big draw to Simon’s Town was the Boulders Penguin Colony.  This is a restricted reserve where visitors must stay on the boardwalk in the viewing areas. Our timing was perfect as penguin chicks had recently hatched and could be seen at the nests snuggling against their parents for warmth.  The beach was full of activity, with different groups of penguins doing their best Charlie Chaplin struts into or out of the turquoise waters of the bay.

The boulders along the coastline here create beautiful seascapes and secluded coves where smaller colonies of penguins live.IMG_5875One morning in late July we opted to try a whale watching tour again, this time from the Simon’s Town waterfront, hoping to see some tail slapping or breaching action that was elusive in Hermanus earlier.  Alas, we only viewed one tail slap on this trip.  As much as the tour operators want you to believe July is a good month for viewing whales, based on our disappointing experiences we’d suggest waiting till later in August or September for more certainty when larger whale pods return to the waters of False Bay.  But it was a smooth day at sea, cruising along a dramatic coast and we did get to view a large colony of sea lions on some offshore rocks.

Most of the waterfront in town is devoted to Naval Base Simon’s Town which is the South African Navy’s largest base. The country’s frigate and submarine fleets sail from this port and it also serves as a training base for navy deep sea divers.  Surrounding the pier from which the tour boats depart are several restaurants, with outside dining that overlooks the water. At the end of the pier there is a commemorative statue to the South African Navy “Standby Diver,” a rescue diver that keeps watch over those in the water.

In the small plaza above the restaurants there is an interesting sculpture of a dog, Able Seaman Just Nuisance, a beloved Great Dane and the only canine “to be officially enlisted in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy” during WWII.  Sailors gave him the name Nuisance because he used to block the gangplanks to the ships.  Surprisingly, his grave on the mountain above Simon’s Town, at the old SAN Signal School, is marked on Google Maps.  The drive there offers some impressive views of the coast.

Several of the best seafood dinners we had in South Africa were at the Harbour House in Kalk Bay.  A couple we met at the Bastille Day Festival in Franschhoek gave us this tip and they were right on target with this recommendation.  Located dramatically on the edge of the ocean, great waves crashed against the rocks under the restaurant and the spray reached the windows of the dining room on the second floor.  The seafood was excellent with a myriad of complex flavoring that was truly delicious, and which encouraged us to return a second time later in the month.

Dozens of colorful fishing trawlers lined the piers of the working harbor, just outside the restaurant.  And dockside fish mongers had an eager audience of very large, well fed sea lions waiting for scraps to be thrown their way.

Itching to see more of the Western Cape, early one morning we embarked on the two-hour drive to Paternoster and the Cape Columbine Lighthouse.  But first we had to detour to Sunset Beach for an iconic view of the city.IMG_4437Once outside of Cape Town the R27 cut a desolate track through a rolling landscape of open fynbos with scarcely a tree to be seen.  Every so often the head of an antelope or ostrich could be seen emerging above the bushes on either side of the road.  The heather clad landscape eventually gave way to pastureland speckled with sheep and wheat fields.IMG_5533Paternoster is one of the Western Cape’s oldest fishing villages, dating from the early 1800s, and is said to have gotten its name from Portuguese sailors who evoked the Lord’s Prayer to save themselves from shipwreck off its coast.  The area was first explored when Vasco da Gama landed nearby in Helena Bay, in 1497.  By then the area had been inhabited by the indigenous Khoisan for thousands of years.  Hunter-gatherers, they harvested dune spinach, an local vegetable, from the beaches, and shellfish from the area waters, and they left behind middens that have been estimated to be 3,000-4,000 years old.  The harvesting of the ocean’s bounty continues, with fishermen still launching their small boats into the sea from the beach and returning with fish and lobsters.  As you pull into the village it’s not unusual to see fishermen selling their day’s catch from five- gallon buckets at the town’s intersections, where they hoist live lobsters aloft and yell “kry hier kreef!”, Afrikaans for “get some lobster here.”  Aside from the picturesque whitewashed and thatched roofed fisherman’s cottages along a white sand beach dotted with boulders, there’s not much to this sleepy fishing village, except for some reportedly excellent seafood restaurants that were unfortunately closed the winter day we visited.IMG_5494A short way out of town we followed a dirt road to the Cape Columbine Lighthouse.  Built in 1936, on an outcropping of boulders called Castle Rock, it’s one of the last manned lighthouses in South Africa.  “Seniors are free,” the lighthouse keeper, a senior himself, announced, as he pointed us to a set of stairs that eventually led to a very tall, steep wooden ladder.  The panoramic view from the top was brilliant and, as expected, breathtaking.  Getting down was a little more challenging than getting up.  It was a kind of “make it or break every bone in your body if you don’t” situation.  We’ve found in our travels around the world that folks in other countries can do all sorts of risky things, that in the states wouldn’t be allowed for safety concerns.  Overseas it’s all about being responsible for your own safety.  “See you at the bottom,” Donna said as she agilely maneuvered on to the ladder.  “One way or another,” I grimaced in response.  For me, with a fearful respect for height, it was all about that first step down.

There was a wonderful remote campground on the ocean’s edge at the end of the dirt track in Birthday Bay that’s popular with folks overlanding across Africa.  Signs of early spring were beginning to show with colorful wildflowers dotting the dunes.

We finished the day in Saldanha with a late lunch on the water at the Blue Bay Lodge and a walk around its gardens and a visit to the Hoedjieskop Museum, a small cultural museum with an interesting display of photographs and memorabilia from the surrounding coastal fishing communities explaining the area’s history.

The setting sun filled our rear-view mirror and cast a warm glow across the fynbos as we headed home to Cape Town.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

 

 

 

The Garden Route Part 1: Cape Town to Addo Elephant National Park

Between apartment rentals, we explored South Africa’s famous Garden Route which runs along the southern coast of the country. There’s actually no official route; basically it’s an area that starts at Heidelberg, four hours east of Cape Town, and follows the N2 into the Eastern Cape and ends around Stormsriver.  In between there’s roughly 200 miles of inland scenery and gorgeous coastline at the bottom of the continent.  It’s dotted with small towns and villages, and endless recreational possibilities to satisfy your interests. We mapped an elongated, seven-day road trip that started in L’Agulhas and would end with a safari on a private game reserve, followed by a visit to Addo Elephant National Park, before returning inland to Cape Town via Oudtshoorn and Montagu to satisfy our wanderlust.

The Cape of Good Hope, as some mistakenly believe, is not the farthest point south on the African continent.  That distinction goes to L’Agulhas, where a lighthouse and monument marks the collision of the cold South Atlantic and warm South Indian Oceans, creating some of the fiercest storms for sailors to navigate through.IMG_8646Here gale force winds that blow in from Antarctica and colliding warm and cold currents build ferocious waves that can tower to 100 feet high.  These seas have claimed over 140 ships since the Portuguese first sailed here in the 1500s.  Within sight of the lighthouse, the most recent wreck of a Japanese fishing trawler from 1982 lies on the beach rusting away.IMG_8709We stayed the night at the Agulhas Ocean House, a modern B&B across from the ocean run by Allan & Sheryl, a retired couple from Cape Town.  The hosts were warm and gracious and provided a wonderfully comfortable room with an ocean view and delicious breakfast the next morning.  It was a tremendous value in the off-season.  (We found this also to be true of the other hotels we booked for this trip as well.) IMG_8693The next morning we stopped at Struisbaai Harbor, to try to catch a look at the resident stingrays, the most famous of which is named Parrie . Our hosts told us it was easy to spot these monsters because they were not afraid of people and liked to hang around the shallows and snag snacks from the fishing boats. IMG_8737Afterwards we headed toward Wilderness (the town not the idea,) along a route that traversed barren farmlands and coastal pine forests before skirting the coast again at Mossel Bay. We arrived in time to watch the sunset from our balcony at Beach Villa Wilderness another contemporary inn with spacious, modern rooms set above a wide, flat sandy beach that stretched for about 5 miles. IMG_9141Our room was luxurious and larger than several of the apartments we had rented on our round-the-world journey so far. We were hoping the owners, Leane & Deon, would adopt us. On our sunrise walk the next morning we only sighted a few other folks enjoying the quiet of this vast stretch of pristine beach during the winter season. We noted the considerably warmer weather, a result of the Agulhas Current which swoops warm Indian Ocean currents along the bottom of South Africa and wonderfully moderates the temperature. IMG_9110 After breakfast we backtracked on N2 to the pullover above the Kaaimans River Railway Bridge.  For railroad enthusiasts this was a destination for many years to watch the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, the last continually operating steam train in Africa, cross the tidal estuary which slowed settlers’ advance along the rugged coast.  The line stopped operating in 2006 when landslides destroyed an extensive stretch of track. Today it’s an interesting photo-op. IMG_9168 Further up the gorge at Map of Africa View Point, raging waters over the eons have eroded a bend in the river to resemble the African continent when viewed from the overlook on the opposite side of the chasm.  The sky was empty mid-week, but across the road hundreds of paragliders launch from the grassy slope on the weekends to catch fantastic thermals and awesome views of the coast below.

SANParks Woodville Big Tree, off the fittingly named Seven Passes Road, was our next stop, to of course visit the appropriately cited Big Tree. A shaded trail led us deep into the Knysna forest to a more than 800-year-old yellow wood that towered 108ft into the canopy, with a 10ft diameter trunk and a 115ft wide crown.  Few of these majestic giants remain, having been over-harvested in the past for their valuable hardwood which was used for ship building, furniture making and construction. IMG_9215After spending hours rattling along dusty back roads we rejoiced to be on Route 2 again. A little while later we pulled over and enjoyed a late lunch and sunny afternoon on the outdoor deck of the Cruise Café, which overlooked Knysna Bay. IMG_9274We weren’t yet synched to the rhythm of life outside of Cape Town in the off-season and were surprised to find the restaurants and grocery stores in Plettenberg Bay closed when we arrived.  Fortunately, we had a wonderful room with an ocean and lagoon view terrace, right on Lookout Beach, at Milkwood Manor.  We were in luck, we had wine and snacks with us, so we had a picnic on the balcony, watching the high tide come in and lift small boats from their sandy berth while darkness fell. IMG_9295 The sun rose quickly the next morning from behind the Tsitsikamma Mountains, across the bay, filling our room with light.  We spent the early morning slowly sipping coffee and savoring the view.  Upon checkout we were delighted to find a sparkling clean car.  This was a wonderful service the hotel provided for guests, and an easy way for the gardener to earn some extra money.IMG_9322We kept to a strict schedule, and limited our stops for photos today, because we  needed to be at Schotia Safaris Private Game Reserve just outside of Port Elizabeth after lunch for an afternoon game drive.  We chose Schotia for their proximity to Addo Elephant National Park and its herd of 600+ elephants, which is second only to Kruger for elephant viewing.  Unlike the parks in east Africa where you can drive cross country in the pursuit of wildlife, the national parks in Africa restrict all tours to the roads.  But at the Schotia reserve, with a guide, we would have the opportunity for some overlanding to get closer to the animals, during morning, afternoon and evening game drives over the next three days. IMG_0250Three guides and three open-sided 4×4 Toyota safari trucks, each capable of seating 16 people, were waiting for their respective groups at the reserve’s headquarters.  Wonderfully, it was mid-week in the off-season, and we had Edward, our guide/naturalist, and truck all to ourselves, while the other two trucks left with groups of six each.  Schotia’s 4,000 acres of gently rolling hills, bush and forest shelter approximately 2,000 animals from 40 mammal species and its’s amazing how difficult it can be to find them. IMG_0123 But that was our goal as we rattled along the rutted paths to a high vantage point within the reserve, that provided distant views of the terrain surrounding us.  Scanning the vista with binoculars, Edward was searching for elephants, giraffes, antelopes and zebra.  “The animals are constantly on the move. We’re never really sure where they will be,” Edward offered. He seconded with, “There’s clouds of dust being kicked up over there. Can’t tell from here what they are, but let’s go investigate.” And our overlanding began, chasing a cloud of dust that turned out to be a small herd of white faced Blesbok, a stunning antelope species we weren’t familiar with.IMG_9525

A few minutes later the reserve’s massive bull elephant the “Boss” rambled up the track toward us and came within touching distance as we quietly sat in awe!  IMG_9473Sightings of impala, kudu, wildebeest, warthogs, cape buffalo, zebra, hippos and crocodiles rounded out the afternoon.

After snacks and a short rest at the reserve’s traditional lapa, a thatched roof structure supported on wooden poles, we headed out into the twilight for an evening game drive to spot some lions on the prowl.  IMG_1427

Hard to spot during the day, lions are even more difficult to find at dusk.  The three teams and guides spread out in different directions while staying in touch with their walkie-talkies to share information.  The radios were quiet for quite a while until a lioness was spotted hunting in some grasslands on the other side of the reserve.  The last blue of the twilight sky was almost gone when we joined the other groups watching the lioness eat her fresh kill in the semidarkness.  IMG_1274On the way back to the lapa we encountered the hippos we had seen earlier, now grazing far from their waterhole.  Large black masses, they were barely visible when out of the headlights.IMG_1234Glasses of wine and a large, warming fire greeted us when we returned to the lapa for dinner.  Inland the temperature fell quickly, and the warmth from the flames felt good.

We hadn’t realized when we planned this road trip, but tonight was the first anniversary of a year on the road.  No home, just two suitcases and each other – oh dear.

Dusty after a full day of game drives, we were sitting on the porch of a small cottage sipping wine in the middle of a private game reserve, in South Africa, reminiscing about our first nomadic year.

“It’s hell, I tell you!” My heart sank, but I quickly burst into laughter when I saw a wry smile across Donna’s face as she finished her complaint. “I only have three pairs of shoes with me.”

IMG_1265Darkness covered the countryside early in June, the beginning of South Africa’s winter season.  Our guide had just lit the oil lamps a few minutes earlier, handed us a walkie-talkie and said, “Use this to call the owner if there’s an emergency, you’re the only folks here tonight.’’ The owner lived somewhere on the other side of this vast reserve. There were no other lights around except for the moon.  The bush has a life of its own and sounds totally different in the darkness.IMG_9793We didn’t plan on being the only folks at the game reserve during the middle of the week, but that’s one of the benefits of off-season travel.  Following spring-like conditions around the globe, we’ve been able to avoid hot, humid weather and the crowds, while managing to have some wonderful experiences along the way.  Tomorrow, Edward would guide us through Addo Elephant National Park.IMG_0358The eastern cape was once home to tremendous herds of elephant which were hunted by the Xhosa and the Khoe (Khoi) tribes for sustenance, and much like the American Plains Indians and buffalo it did not end well.  As colonization spread across the region in the 1700 and 1800s the tribes succumbed to smallpox and were pushed into different regions, and the elephants were slaughtered to near extinction for their ivory and to protect farming interests in the region. With the killing of 1400 elephants in 1919, public opinion slowly turned.  Only eleven elephants remained when Addo Park was established in 1931 with 5600 acres. IMG_0901 The park was enclosed with an elephant proof fence in 1954, to protect the surrounding citrus farms from their rampages, when the size of the herd had rebounded to 22 elephants.  Today the park is the third largest in South Africa and encompasses 1,700,000 acres.  Home to over 600 elephants now, the reserve has expanded its mission to protect a growing number of mammal species within its borders.IMG_0993We could have done a self-drive tour through Addo, but we thoroughly enjoyed Edward’s knowledge of wildlife and the region.  It was a good decision.  Sitting up high in an SUV provided better visibility into the bush, where in our small rental car we wouldn’t have been able to see much.  And his timing was perfect in getting us to a waterhole just as a very large herd with calves was creating a trail of dust as it emerged from the surrounding dry bush.IMG_0936We witnessed elephants smiling as they drank.  It was a tremendous experience.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

Cape Town Part 1: Vibrant, Complex & Beautiful

After spending a month in Bulgaria, we headed to South Africa at the end of May, to continue our pursuit of budget-friendly and interesting places with moderate weather to avoid the heat and humidity of a European summer.  The seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, so we stayed for three months to take advantage of their mid 60sF (16C) winter weather, which is extremely mild in comparison to the winters of the northeast United States.  So temperate in fact that most homes and apartments are not built with central heat, relying instead on small, portable electric heaters.  Mostly, folks just layered up, and on those gale force, windy days we were amused to see people in fur-trimmed hooded parkas, more suitable for the Alaskan wilderness, than walking around Cape Town. IMG_3489This would be Donna’s fourth trip to Cape Town and my first. Back in 1993 she visited friends she had made while attending Princeton Seminary, and a year later in 1994 she volunteered to be an International Observer for the first free and fair democratic elections in South Africa.  In 2016 she returned to a city humming with positive energy and a growing economy.  Unfortunately, this situation did not continue, and by 2019 the governance and economy of South Africa and its neighboring countries had stalled.  The city was still beautiful and growing as a tourist destination, an amazing coffee culture had been born, but shuttered construction projects and an increasing homeless population were evident, and across many different socioeconomic groups, people were feeling disenfranchised. A multi-year drought exasperated many infrastructure problems that were being neglected.  Fortunately, exceptional winter rains broke the severe drought and replenished the city’s nearly depleted reservoirs.IMG_4658We immersed ourselves quickly into the neighborhood  around our first apartment on Buitenkant Street, just a few blocks away from the District Six Museum, steam punk themed Truth Coffee and the Jason Bakery.  One block over we followed Harrington Street, past some great street art, to Bootleggers for more coffee and the best peri-per chicken livers in CPT.

A little further along, Nude Foods sold everything by weight and encouraged us to reuse our bags and refill our olive oil and balsamic vinegar bottles.  Around the corner Charly’s Bakery, an institution in CPT with an interesting creation story, would make our sweet tooth ache.  We had a memorable evening beginning with dinner at Dias Tavern, a Portuguese restaurant, followed by a performance of Kinky Boots at the Fugard Theatre across the street. IMG_7384On the edge of the City Bowl and Zonnebloem districts, formerly District Six, our high-rise apartment building had a rooftop gym with fantastic views of the city, a 24hr doorman, gated parking and balconies with beautiful views of Table and Lion’s Head mountains.  But the area immediately around us was in transition, without enough residential housing to call it a neighborhood.

After work everyone vanished and the streets were nearly deserted.  The multistory construction project adjacent to our balcony was abandoned.  While this offered privacy it had an unsettling, post-apocalyptic vibe that deterred our enjoyment of an otherwise sunny space.  First world whining, we know, but we felt the Airbnb host was deceptive for several reasons regarding the apartment and surrounding area.  Around the corner folks were sleeping rough on the street.  We made a habit of carrying our loose change in our coat pockets to easily give it to the unofficial “car guards” and panhandlers. We had a nice room to enjoy nightly, and plenty to eat. How could we just pass them by?   We walked all over the city, even at night, and never felt unsafe during our time in Cape Town, but using common sense is in order.  During the weeks that we didn’t have a rental car we utilized Uber, which was very affordable, to cover greater distances around town.

We liked to joke that “you know you’re a local when you sign-up for the supermarket discount card.”  Part of our weekly ritual was walking up Buitenkant Street towards Oranjezicht, an upscale neighborhood, with many fine examples of Cape Dutch architecture, to The Gardens, a multi-story shopping and residential complex with Pick-n-Pay and Woolworths grocery stores.  On Prince Street the Hurling Swaaipomp Pump House still stands.  Slaves pumped spring water for the surrounding homes here until the mid-1800s.

The cost of groceries and dining out in Cape Town was extremely favorable.  Grocery items generally cost half of what they would typically cost in the states. A dinner for two with wine, dessert and coffee would run less than $40.00.  Seafood was abundant, as you would expect in a coastal city, and inexpensive as well.  We took full advantage of this, enjoying grilled octopus, sword fish, mussels and the best oysters on multiple occassions. Sautéed ostrich filets were a tasty meal we prepared for ourselves.  Disappointingly, wild game was only available at restaurants. The Western Cape Winelands, around Stellenbosch, just outside Cape Town, covers a vast area and produces some exceptional vintages that are budget friendly.  Winery tours of the area are a must and with over 200 vineyards the possibilities are endless.IMG_4663We had to find a dentist also, as just before our flight into Cape Town one of my crowns broke.  Fortunately, South Africa is recognized for good medical and dental care and is slowly becoming a medical tourism destination.  I found Dr. Ramjee on Google Maps, checked his reviews and made an appointment at his office which was within walking distance of our apartment.  With his jovial and comforting manner, I instantly felt at ease.  Though only a one dental chair office he had a state-of-the-art digital x-ray machine, a dental assistant and a receptionist.  Besides the broken crown, I needed a root canal as well – what fun!  My experiences with Dr. Ramjee were excellent and I raved so much about him Donna decided to use his services when the need arose for an emergency root canal and crown also.  Unexpected expenses that in the states would be costly, even with insurance, were much more affordable and payable out of pocket here.  The savings were tremendous.

Avoiding the past is difficult in Cape Town, with remnants of slavery’s legacy scattered about the city, even on the way to the dentist’s office.  Just across from his door a concrete medallion marks the spot of the Old Slave Tree, where slaves were sold until their emancipation was declared in 1834.  Around the corner the second oldest building in Cape Town – the Slave Lodge, a euphemism for a small pox-plagued, prison like structure for 500 slaves, still stands.  It was built in 1679 to house the slaves owned by the Dutch East India Company that worked in the Company’s Garden, a farm.  Today its mission as a museum is to explore the history “Slaves at the Cape: Oppression, Life and Legacy.”

IMG_8198You just can’t walk enough miles along the coast or up and down Loin’s Head to keep the calories off in this foodie-oriented city. The Saturday- and Sunday-only food markets didn’t help, but they are a treasured tradition, throughout the region, that brings family, friends and tourists together to enjoy live music and good food.

Our favorite in Cape Town was the Oranjezicht City Farm Market down by the V&A waterfront.  There’s also The Neighbourgoods Market, located at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock.  The Bay Harbour Market in Hout Bay, Blue Bird Garage Food and Goods Market in Muizenberg, the Elgin Railway Market in Grabouw and the Root 44 Market in Stellenbosch. All were enjoyable destinations beyond the city.IMG_6238On the lower end of Buitenkant Street, the Castle of Good Hope, a 17th century pentagon-shaped stone bastion fortress, stands surrounded by city streets, its cannons now pointing toward skyscrapers instead of enemy ships.  It was originally built on the water’s edge of Table Bay by the Dutch to protect the harbor from the British.  After a massive waterfront reclamation project in the 1930s and 1940s reshaped Cape Town’s waterfront, the castle now stands far inland.

It houses a military and ceramic museum along with the William Fehr Collection.  This is a controversial exhibit today because the collection only depicts colonial history with no representation of the indigenous KhoiSan people who were the true first inhabitants of the western cape long before the Portuguese stepped ashore, followed later by the Dutch and British. It’s been 25 years since the first genuinely representative government of South Africa has been elected and only four statues of early indigenous leaders who fought colonization, and were imprisoned in the fortress, stand outside.  Yet the lopsided narrative of this collection has not been addressed and many wonder why.IMG_4534In early June the castle hosted the 2019 Cape Town Coffee Festival which celebrated all things caffeinated with growers from across the continent, barista workshops and pop-up coffee stands.  If you ever wanted to see thousands of folks ricocheting off the walls from too much free coffee, this was the place to be.

One of our favorites was a Senegalese coffee prepared by Khadim, a pleasant and engaging expat.  It’s a strong sweet coffee, served with a long dramatic pour.  We enjoyed it so much that we visited his shop, Khadim’s Coffee, repeatedly. So good was the java and food prepared by Khadim that his shop became our de facto rendezvous point for meeting friends in the city.IMG_6322The coffee festival coincided with the Red Bull Cape Town Circuit where their F1 Aston Martin Red Bull racing car roared down Darling Street at over 150mph, passing the spot where Nelson Mandela addressed the nation upon his release from Robben Island, and turning the stretch in front of city hall, lined with bleachers, into a high-speed drag strip.  At the intersections, souped-up street cars burned rubber and spun donuts while the Red Bull Air Force performed aerial acrobatics over the city.  It was a raucous day that we could hear from our apartment.

Closer to the city center the District Six Museum tells the story of an atrocity, an afront to dignity that should never be forgotten.  In 1867 the sixth district in Cape Town was formed as a neighborhood of immigrants, merchants, artisans, laborers and freed African and Asian slaves.  It was close to the port and provided the muscle Cape Town needed to grow.  It was home to ten percent of Cape Town’s population and thrived as a community for decades until 1966 when the apartheid government, seeing prime real estate under Table Mountain, declared it a whites only area.  The district’s 60,000 residents were forcibly relocated with superficial notice into segregated townships 15 miles away, or further, from central Cape Town. IMG_5735Families and neighbors were intentionally sent to different communities to break the spirit of the people.  The apartheid government was so vile it “regarded the district as both physically and morally tainted by miscegenation, wholly unfit for rehabilitation” and flattened every building except for Churches.  Even the original streets were destroyed, and new roadways were created so folks couldn’t find their homes, now vacant lots, that they legally owned.  Much of the area still remains abandoned. The District Six Museum commemorates this tragedy and the lasting heartbreak of this cruelty.

The Company’s Garden was only a few blocks away.  Originally a farm that supplied passing ships with food, it now is a wonderful urban park in the city center with old growth specimen trees, gardens, and café. Adjacent to the entrance of the park, Desmond Tutu used to preach from the pulpit of St. George’s Cathedral, an Anglican Church.  And across the street a section of the Berlin Wall stands in remembrance of the struggles people are willing to make for freedom around the world.

At the far end of the gardens two museums grace the grounds and are perfect for a rainy-day exploration.  The Iziko South African Museum is a natural history and science museum with a planetarium.  It has wonderful collection of early aboriginal tools and rock paintings along with a large compendium of pre-historic fossil remains.  There is something for everyone here and we found it to be fascinating.   Outside, various street performers entertained visitors to the park.

Across the way the South African National Gallery has an eclectic collection of contemporary and tribal art from South Africa and the rest of the continent.  The art scene is thriving in Cape Town with many galleries providing exhibit space to young, talented artists.  The museum’s collection reflects this vibrant art scene.IMG_3471Despite our apartment’s faults, we enjoyed our time on Buitenkant Street.  Watching the brilliant sunrises and the flat clouds – the tablecloth of Table Mountain – cover the summit and then spill down the side like a waterfall. The street life below spanned the gamut from groups of tutu-clad race walkers one day to noisily protesting sex workers or Fridays for Future demonstrators the next.

It would be superficial of us not to address the painful past of this relatively young democracy; apartheid and race are still underlying issues.  Despite this, Cape Town, South Africa, was a wonderful experience: at once contemporary and traditional; challenging, progressive, and hope-filled, it captivated us for three months.

Stay tuned for more as we work our way across the southern tip of the continent.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

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

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

 

Obidos: A Walled Village and Drive-Through Chapels

IMG_4743We had spent a wonderful day cruising from Aveiro to Nazare, but now twilight was fast turning to darkness as we drove along an extremely narrow lane at the base of the formidable fortress wall that encircled Obidos.  We had arrived at our hotel Casa das Senhoras Rainhas according to our GPS, but we hadn’t.  We were on the outside of the walls, wondering like ancient invaders how to get in.IMG_4603Admittingly Donna is the more accomplished linguist of the two of us.  I according to my loved one have been known to torture a language.  So, she eagerly sought advice from the only person we had passed.  From a short distance away, I watched the conversation unfold with the gentleman flailing his arms every which way for what seemed an inordinate amount of time. IMG_4760 Smiling, Donna returned to the car.  “About the only thing I got from that was we should continue following the lane until the next hole in the wall. He was very insistent about that.” “Did he know the hotel?” I asked.  “Never heard of it, but I think he was intoxicated! My luck,” she laughed.  The lane narrowed even more as we drove forward.  Finally, there was an ancient portal, the size of a single door, through the wall that led to a short set of steps.  Abandoning our car for few minutes we climbed the stairs to an inner lane in search of our hotel.  After we finally found the place, the receptionist explained to continue driving along the wall until you reach an old city gate, enter there and follow the inner lane back to us and park anywhere you can.  OK, piece of cake now, we thought. IMG_4822Inhabited since the 4th century BC by the Lusitanos, then the Romans and Visigoths, the city wasn’t fortified until the 8th century by the Moors.  Bent entrances, with a quick turn and an additional, heavy inner gate were used in many Arab fortifications.  In peacetime they were easy to navigate with pack animals, and during sieges provided a killing zone for the defenders of the city.  Remember, these bent gates were built long before cars were envisioned.  Obidos had two of them and tonight we had to navigate through one.  Porta do Vale ou Senhora da Graça was a drive through chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Grace.  In 1727 the old gate was renovated into an oratory chapel with sacristy, altarpiece, gallery, choir, and chancel by a local magistrate to commemorate his daughter’s death.   You actually transit through the nave to reach the interior street.  The gate was narrow, and it required a sharp k-turn just to line the car up to approach it correctly.  Donna was driving and I hopped out to judge just how much room we had around the car.  Driving up a slight slope on flagstones worn smooth from centuries of travelers, the tires spun with no traction as the car got halfway through the gate.  Backing-up and then gunning the car forward through the gate Donna only had the length of our Fiat 500 to turn sharply right and exit the inner gate.  It was do-able but nerve-wracking.

A few minutes later our bags were in our lovely room.  As in Aveiro “Parking Available” on the hotel website translated to driver be wary, or creativity needed to park.  We thought we had the perfect spot right in front of the hotel, but the receptionist insisted we were pinching the road too much and would be sorry.  Reversing down a narrow, dimly lit lane is never a good idea, so we thought a quick trip around the block was a better idea. I waved as Donna roared away into the darkness, gone.  Minutes passed, finally headlights gleamed off the flagstones.  “That was fun!” she grinned as she pulled the mirrors in and parked one side of the car as close to a building as possible, one block shy of our hotel. IMG_4847With only two main lanes that ran the length of village, interconnected by a labyrinth of stairs and smaller alleys, Obidos was the perfect size, only slightly larger than Marvao, to explore for two days and relax before driving back to the airport in Lisbon for our flight to Sofia, Bulgaria. IMG_5245The next morning, enjoying deserted lanes lined with flowering wisteria, calla lilies, and other interesting details we weaved our way to the Castelo de Óbidos  to enjoy views of the village and surrounding landscape from its strategic position.  This once formidable, medieval castle was transformed into Portugal’s first upscale, tourist pousada in 1953 and has been attracting discerning travelers ever since.  Whitewashed homes with brightly painted doors and window trim held up the ubiquitous red tiled roofs that appeared to fill the village below us. Mostly gentrified now, there are still a spackling of ancient dwellings waiting for TLC that give Obidos a wonderful character.

After scampering about on the ramparts for a while we headed back into the village.  The wonderful aroma of fresh baked bread drifted from Capinha d’Óbidos, as we walked along Rua Direita, and drew us right into a small storefront where the baker was grating lemon zest into a bowl of dough. She kneaded it and then put it aside to rise.  Behind her another baker slid fresh loaves of bread from a wood-fired brick oven to cool.  The breads and coffees here were divine!

Continuing along we explored the few shops that were open this early in March and encountered one of the best street performers we’ve seen so far.  A woman posing as a statue in silver makeup, sitting atop a stone wall, daintily holding a silver umbrella as a sunshade, looked like a perfectly cast statue placed in an ideal setting.  Her performance was sublime. IMG_4928We eventually made our way through the main gate of the walled city.  Porta da Vila de Óbidos is another bent entrance that did double duty as a chapel to Nossa Senhora da Piedade, the Virgin Mary, patron of the village.  Be sure to look up as you walk through, as Azulejos tiles from the 1700’s line the interior balcony.IMG_5419Across the street we walked below remnants of a three-kilometer-long aqueduct built in the 16th century to supply water to the fortress. IMG_5427Dinner that night was a simple meal of bread, cheese and local sausages cooked uniquely on a ceramic hibachi, fueled with grappa, placed on our table at Bar Ibn Errik Rex.  As flames danced from our mini grill, the waiter would return to our table occasionally and turn the sausages to ensure their perfection.  It was an entertaining evening.  A few good Portuguese beers helped.img_5313.jpgWith our GPS App still set to avoid toll roads, we drove through the Porta da Vila de Óbidos and headed towards Lisbon, less than two hours away if we didn’t stop.  But, if you’ve been following our blog you’ll know that’s nearly impossible, there is always a quick glimpse of something that calls for a detour.IMG_5449Torres Vedras with its aptly named citadel caught our eye.  With a historical time-line similar to Obidos, the hilltop in the old historic district was continually fortified against waves of early invaders.  Knowing a good piece of real estate when they saw it, the castle was seized during the Christian reconquest in 1148 and used by a succession of Portuguese Kings until it was heavily damaged in the catastrophic 1755 earthquake that hit central Portugal and Lisbon.  Built just after the reconquest, Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo stands just below the castle walls.  The church’s bell cast in the 16th century continues to ring today.

On a ridge above the city several ancient windmills sat amidst a new residential neighborhood.  It was an interesting vantage point from which to witness the new suburban sprawl radiating from the old historic district into the surrounding countryside.img_5564.jpgAlong the Sizandro River on the outskirts of town, an impressive two-kilometer stretch of a 16th century aqueduct with double arches still stands.  Driving under the aqueduct we followed the river south along the R374.  The high-density new developments around Torres Vedras quickly gave way to a landscape of vineyards and pastures.  Finding a restaurant for a late lunch, though, didn’t seem promising along this rural stretch of road, dotted with the occasional roadside café with a farm tractor parked out front, until we caught a quick peripheral glimpse of a larger establishment, across a small bridge, down a side lane.  It would take another mile before we could find a suitable place to perform a U-turn.  With nothing else around for miles Churrasqueira do Oeste is definitely a destination restaurant.  This rustic, family run restaurant with its friendly staff served a wonderful variety of fresh seafood and meat dishes at amazingly affordable prices.  (Having a restaurant do both well is not uncommon here, considering the close proximity of the ocean.) Mixed grilled seafood and grilled meats along with a good local wine, dessert and of course café sated our appetites.  It seemed fitting that we unexpectantly lucked upon this great find far off the beaten path on our last day.  Portugal was a fantastic country to explore.  We will miss it but hope to return in the future to breath its air and enjoy its wine again.

Till next time, Craig & Donna