DAY 144: REFLECTIONS ON EASTERN EUROPE


A quiet day of reflection in Plovdiv 

After a restful night’s sleep we spent today doing as little as possible and relaxing. We intentionally kept a low profile and gave ourselves a day off as there’s a good chance we won’t be getting much sleep tonight on our overnight bus to Istanbul (our overnight bus leaves at 10:00pm and is scheduled to arrive in Istanbul at 6:00am tomorrow). Today was our last day in Eastern Europe* which we’re actually quite sad about. It’s been a pretty cool few weeks, from our first day in Bratislava (Slovakia), to our time in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania and now Bulgaria. We were a little daunted at the prospect of travelling through parts of this region, but overall it’s been great – so much better than we expected. The whole region is so much more “civilised” than we expected (shows how ignorant we were!), and the language barrier was far less of an issue than we expected (i.e. heaps of people speak English and the local languages are not that hard to comes to grips with). We have experienced so many great moments in Eastern Europe that we wanted to dedicate today’s blog to our favourite highlights….

*We’ve lumped the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria into the “Eastern Europe” category more as a geographical categorisation than anything: they’re all East of the Europe we were most familiar with. We understand that these nations are, in fact, unique and quite different from each other and we certainly don’t mean to offend or upset anyone by calling them Eastern European countries. We had also psychologically put these 6 countries into one category as they were all equally unknown to us and coming here represented something of an adventure for us.


Reflecting on a great few weeks in Eastern Europe…

 

 

THE CASTLES

This region has its fair share of great castles – from the immense edifices in Krakow, Prague and Budapest; to the ruins of Rasnov Fortress in Romania, Tsarevetsi Fortress in Bulgaria and Brezalauspurc Castle in Slovakia. We love a good castle and Eastern Europe has definitely satisfied our craving for historical fortifications. The castles in this region are far older than those we saw in Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, representing the very best in Gothic architecture. With every citadel and palace we explored we also learnt a bit more about the history of the region and gained an even greater appreciation of what makes Eastern Europe so unique. The past few weeks have been fantatsic for a couple of castle lovers like us!

 

THE CHURCHES

Neither of us are religious, but we appreciate how pivotal religion is to many cultures, and therefore how important churches are in many communities. Churches are built to facilitate contemplation, introspection and meditation/prayer, and even for ignostics like us, churches can be incredibly beautiful, serene places. Throughout Eastern Europe we have seen and experienced some wonderful churches: from the steepled wooden churches of the Maramures region in Romania, to the beautiful blue Church of St Elisabeth in Bratislava, Kutna Hora’s macabre Church of Bones and the amazing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. Gothic cathedrals abound in Eastern Europe too – with their dark ambience, pointy steeples and gargoyles, Gothic churches have a captivating feeling about them that we just love. Best Gothic churches from Eastern Europe would have to be St Vitus Cathedral and Church of Our Lady before Týn in Prague, Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, St Stephen’s Basilica in Pest, and Matthias Church in Buda.

 

THE FOOD

We love food – especially good food. For this reason alone, Eastern Europe has a special place in our hearts. The food here has been SPECTACULAR and sooooooo cheap. It’s a miracle we haven’t packed on an extra 10kgs a piece over the past few weeks! Our fondest food memories include:

  • Trdelník in Czechia – think giant, hot, sugary, cinnamon scrolls that you can wear like a delicious bracelet. Mmmmmm….
  • Dumplings in all their various forms – from the small potato-and-flour knodels (they’re a bit like Italian gnocchi or German spätzle), to giant bread dumplings that are more like culinary canon balls than a dumpling! These are an absolute staple here; I think Eastern Europe would grind to a halt should dumplings disappear off the menu!
  • Goulash in Hungary. It’s such a cliché, yes, but Hungarian goulash is awesome! Juicy, tender meat stewed in paprika-rich gravy, served with the obligatory dumplings – does “comfort food” get any better than this?!
  • Papanasi are traditional Romanian sweets. They’re like giant, deep fried doughnuts; gauranteed to bump your blood sugar levels and cholesterol up over night, but absolutely worth it.
  • Dimitri’s grandmother’s mixed lamb stew in Bulgaria. The woman is a genius.Nothing more needs to be said.
  • Shashlik (i.e. grilled meat on a sword) from Bulgaria. Salads from Bulgaria. Soft white cheeses in Bulgaria. Thick, creamy, fresh yoghurt in Bulgaria. Really, Bulgarian food in general was a highlight!

 

THE TRANSPORT

Getting around in Eastern Europe is an adventure all by itself. The roads are not that great, especially in rural Hungary and Romania, and most of the time people drive like they’re race car drivers. Some of our scariest moments on Eastern European roads have involved overtaking at 160km/hour with millimetres to spare; dodging donkeys, cows, horses and various other farm animals at break neck speeds; and choosing which side of the road to drive on arbitrarily. In contrast to the endemic speeding on the roads, the trains in this part of the world have been SOOOOOOO SLOW. The only thing slower than a Hungarian train, we decided, was a Romanian horse and cart. We expected to see horses and carts around, but the sheer number of them is amazing – they seriously out-number cars in rural Romania! We’ve seen 4-way intersections “clogged up” with horse and cart traffic, each giving way to their right like “real” cars. Awesome!

 

VILLAGE LIFE

If you like rustic, you’ll love Eastern Europe – especially Romania. Most of Romania is like one giant farm stay waiting to happen. The smells were a bit pungent at times, but the people so friendly and down-to-Earth that it was worth the olefactory assault. If you want to step back in time and experience a rural getaway, definitely look at Eastern Europe.

 

CAFE CULTURE

In contrast to the rustic rural side of life, we also loved the vibrant, funky cafe culture – especially in Budapest, Brasov, Krakow, Plovdiv and Prague. The coffee was good, the people-watching entertaining (who knew tracksuits could be so fashionable?!), and the vibe very cool. Eastern Europe sure knows how to do cafe culture well – much to our caffienated satisfaction.

 

STREET SIGHTS

The streets of Eastern Europe are unique: the cobbles, the mix of old and new architecture, the ubiquitous graffiti, and the slightly “rough around the edges” finishes. There’s nothing sanitised or pretentious here! On the darker side, the streets are also home to a legion of stray dogs (especially in Romania), stray cats (especially Bulgaria) and beggers. We realise that poverty and beggers are (unfortunately) common in cities around the world, and we generally subscribe to a philosophy of supporting charities that help people help themselves, rather than just giving money to beggers. In Bulgaria, however, this principle was sorely challenged as we saw lots of pensioners on the streets, struggling to survive and trying to supplement their meagre pensions by begging. Only it wasn’t quite begging; too proud to simply ask for money for nothing, these hardy souls find ways to provide a service or goods to sell for a few stotinki (i.e. Bulgarian cents). For example, in Sofia we saw an old lady with a set of bathroom scales beside her and a sign that (presumably) said something like “weigh yourself for 50 stotinki” (about 25 Aussie cents). And in Plovdiv there was the elderly gentlemen who had picked the last few wild flowers of the season and was selling possies for 50 stotinki. The simply dignity inherent in these acts was so incredibly touching.

 

NATURAL WONDERS

Some of our best memories of Eastern Europe will be the “wild” ones – from the unique rock formations of Teplice National Park, to the high mountain scenery around Bansko and the Tatra Mountains, there are some seriously spectacular views to be had in this part of the world. Being here in autumn has made it all the more stunning, as leaves turn yellow, orange and red and whole mountain-sides look like they’re on fire. For pure, unbridled wilderness, however, Romania once again wins the prize. The hills and mountains of Romania were just awesome (full of bears and wolves, mind you, but awesome)!

 

So to all the wonderful people we crossed paths with whilst in this part of the world: THANK YOU! Thank you for your patience as we butchered your beautiful languages; thank you for your glorious food and wonderful hospitality! To all the guides and museum curators we grilled: thank you for sharing so much of your passion for your home countries with us – through your eyes we learned to look at Eastern Europe in a different way. There’s no doubt this part of the world still has its issues, but there is a vitality and an energy here that’s thrilling – and the natural beauty of the place is captivating. It’s been a blast!

DAY 143: RUINED IN PLOVDIV


Plovdiv: What a gem!

We got totally ruined in Plovdiv today. Not the kind of “ruined” that involves anything getting spoilt or broken, nor the kind of “ruined” that required copious amounts of alcohol. We got this kind of ruined…

 

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Ruined in Plovidiv, Bulgaria.

 

 

Plovdiv is the second-largest city in Bulgaria (population around 350,000) and one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the world. There have been people living along the banks of the Maritsa River for more than 6,000 years, which makes Plovdiv older than Athens and Constantinople. The sense of history is everywhere here, with ancient ruins dotted throughout the city and a museum around every corner. In juxtaposition to this the city had a relatively young population made up mainly of artists, academics and students (the city boasts a number of universities), with heaps of cool cafes and bars everywhere. It’s a great city and we’re really excited about being here for our last couple of days in Bulgaria.

 

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The beautiful, historical city of Plovdiv.

 

 

Plovdiv has a complex history, with many civlisations leaving their marks on the city and its landscape.  The oldest ruins in town date from around 500BC, when the Thracians lived here and had a fortress atop Mt Nebet Tepe – one of Plovdiv’s many hills. The Thracians called their town Eumolpias; in 340BC it was renamed Philippopolis when the Greeks invaded this area, and then Trimontium by the Romans when they took control of Thracia in 46AD. 


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The ruins of the Thracian fortress atop Mt Nebet Tepe.

 

 

The Romans made Plovdiv the capital of Thracia and made it into a vibrant, thriving city with numerous public buildings, temples, baths and theatres. The city had an amphitheatre, an aquaduct and a stadium, remnants of which are still visible today. 

 

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The Roman amphitheatre of Plovdiv was built in the beginning of the 2nd century during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan. It is divided into two parts with 14 rows each divided with a horizontal lane. The theatre could accommodate up to 7,000 people and is still used for concerts and performances today.

 

 

Trimontium (i.e. Plovidv) was at an important crossroad during the Roman era: the Via Diagonalis (the most important Roman military road in the Balkans) passed through the city. In later years the city was also one of the stops along the famous Orient Express train route.

 

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There are Roman ruins littered all over Plovdiv. It makes exploring the city’s alleys and squares fascinating.

 

 

In the Middle Ages, it retained its strategic regional importance, changing hands between the Byzantine and Bulgarian Empires. It then came under Ottoman rule in the 14th century and was renamed Filibe. It wasn’t until Bulgaria was liberated from the Turks in 1878 that Plovdiv got its current name and began to develop into the lovely city it is today. 

 

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The original town walls and one of the old city gates of Plovdiv from the Middle Ages.

 

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The charming old town of Plovdiv.

 

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History, culture, cafes, restaurants… what more could we ask for??

 

 

During the years of the Bulgarian Renaissance (1878-1918), Plovdiv’s old town grew and many new churches, public buildings and townhouses were built. A number of these buildings have been restored today, making the old town a beautiful place to go wandering – as we discovered this afternoon.

 

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The houses typical of the Bulgarian Renaissance have an over-hanging second floor and decorated window frames. They’re just lovely!

 

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The 19th century Church of Saint Mary.

 

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The cobbled streets and autumn colours of Plovdiv.

  

 

For dinner tonight we found a great traditional Bulgarian restaurant where the waiter recommended we try their new “mixed lamb special”. Now, in a country that frequently has brains, kidneys, liver, tongue, tripe and other unmentionables on the menu, ordering a “mixed lamb special” may sound fool-hardy. But hey, we’re adventorous right?! So we went ahead and ordered it…. and it was AMAZING! The “mixed lamb special” turned out to be a sizzling stew of oh-so-tender lamb, eggplants, capsicum, tomatoes, potatoes and carrots in a thick, spicy gravy that was just divine. It smelt delicious and tasted even better. When we complemented him on his recommendation, our waiter, Dmitri, proudly informed us that the stew was a secret recipe of his grandmother’s. All we can say is: WOW – Dmitri’s grandmother’s mixed lamb special was seriously awesome. Second best lamb meal of the whole trip so far, hands down (for BEST lamb meal of the trip, refer to our Iceland entries). We’re just sad we only have one more day in Bulgaria… 

 

“Ohhhhh yeah…..” Shane contemplates the awesomeness of Dmitri’s grandmother’s “mixed lamb surprise”.

 

DAY 142: TREKKING IN BANSKO


Hiking up mountains in beautiful Bansko!

We spent today hiking through Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains. It was pretty chilly up there at 2,380m, but the views were spectacular.

 

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Hiking through Pirin National Park, Bulgaria.

 

 

Moving ever Southwards we left Gorno Draglishte and our Bulgarians babas behind this morning, travelling by bus to Bansko. Bansko is an alpine town in South-Western Bulgaria just 1 hour from Gorno Draglishte but with a completely different feel to it. Located at the foot of the Pirin Mountains, this is a holiday town, In winter the town is packed with skiers from all over Europe, all here to enjoy the cheap snow time (ski lift passes here are about 55 Bulgarian Lev, or $40AUD, per day). The rest of the year it’s a hikers paradise, with lots of trails criss-crossing the mountains.

 

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The very cool alpine town of Bansko, Bulgaria.

 

 

The town of Bansko itself is a typical alpine village: laid back, relaxed and very chique. The main square is full of trendy cafes and bars, and there are quite a few restaurants and hotels in town – just our kind of town! We’re staying in a great little guesthouse for the night, just 200m from the centre of town and with a great view of the mountains from our balcony.

 

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Casa Zdrave – our digs for the evening.

  

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Awesome mountain views from our balcony.

 

 

Being mid-October it was a bit chilly up in the mountain, but as this is our last chance to do some serious trekking for a while, we put our thermals on and decided to give it a go anyway. We chose to hike up Mt Retizhe and then catch the chairlift back down. The hike itself was really more of a clamber than a hike with the path not particularly well marked and snow, mud, rocks and bushes making it even harder to figure out which way we were supposed to be going.

 

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Hiking Bulgarian style is a bit more like clambering we decided.

 

 

Luckily we didn’t get lost and made it to our desired end point (the chair lift station and restaurant) in one piece. The best surprise was cresting the last incline and seeing the very top of Mt Retizhe reflected in the crystal clear waters of Lake Bezboshko.

 

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The crystal clear waters of Lake Bezboshko.

 

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We walked around the lake just to see the reflections mirrored on its surface.

 

 

Lake Bezboshko was still frozen around the edges after last night’s sub-zero temperatures, but the day was warm enough that it was melting quickly. We walked around the lake and then up a little higher to enjoy views across the whole mountain range. It was fantastic – quiet, peaceful and totally awesome. Bulgaria sure knws how to do “Epic Scenery” well.

 

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Bulgaria’s take on “Epic Scenery”. Not bad, not bad at all.

 

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Enjoying views across the mountains and valleys of Pirin National Park.

 

 

After a warming cup of hot chocolate at the mountain-top restaurant we caught the rickety old chairlift back down the mountain, admiring the views all the way down. What a great way to spend our Sunday!

  

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Admiring the views from the chairlift.

 

Following our adventorous day up in the mountains we were famished and happily joined some of fellow Intrepid group members at a local restaurant renown for its good food and great atmosphere. The food did, in fact, turn out to be amazing with lots grilled meats and delicious salads on the menu. Shane and I went all out and ordered a giant chicken shashlik to share. For those who don’t speak Bulgarian, turns out shashlik means “meat on a sword“. It was AWESOME! 

*Note: The food in Bulgaria generally is fantastic. It’s all so fresh, and the salads are sooooo good. Everything comes with home made yoghurt and/or white cheeses (think fetta, cottage cheese, ricotta), often made from sheep’s milk. And the meat is either grilled over a charcoal fire or stewed in an array of almost-Turkish/almost-Persian spices that leave you begging for more. Yum, yum, yum!


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Grilled meat on a sword – what more could you want in life?!



As we were finishing our meal a trio of local musicians walked in and started serenading us. When they found out we were from Australia they even sang us a special song about Australia (I have a feeling they sing the same song for every foreigner but just replace one word in the song with the country name of choice; since I don’t speak Bulgarian however I cannot confirm this suspicion)! There was, of course, the mandatory tip to come after the song, but it was totally worth paying the guys just to see the pain on Shane’s face when they started banging out the goat herding tunes!

 

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“Errrrr…, what is that terrible noise I hear coming from behind me??” 

 

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“Wow, this is really bad. Please make them go away.”

 

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“Oh God, make them STOP!”

 

 

We had a great night and are now happily tucked away in bed, ready for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we’re off to Plovidv, one of this nation’s most important historical centres and our last stop in Bulgaria. лека нощ (i.e. leka nosht or good night) until then!

 

DAY 141: MAD BULGARIAN BABAS


Our wildest Saturday night in Bulgaria yet…

We spent our Saturday in Gorno Draglishte, a small rural township in outback Bulgaria. Not the kind of place you would expect outrageous weekend revelries, or at least so we thought, until we met Baba Yana and Baba Vela…

 

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Gorno Draglishte’s wild Baba’s.

 

 

We left the serenity of the Rila Monastery behind this morning, bound for the village of Gorno Draglishte. This small farming community of just 800 souls sits in the Rozlog Valley, between the Rila Mountains and the Piring Mountains. These two impressive mountain ranges run East to West across Bulgaria, effectively cutting the country in half. Both mountain ranges boast peaks around 3,000m and are dotted with ski resorts. It’s not quite ski season yet, but there is definitely snow up above 2,500m. We had great views of the mountains the whole way along during our 3 hour drive today.

 

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Enjoying awesome views of the snow-capped Pirin Mountains.

 

 

We arrived in Gorno Draglishte after lunch and had the afternoon to ourselves to explore the village (didn’t take long – there are only 4 roads in town!), and to go hiking through the surrounding hills. We were lucky enough to have a glorious day weather-wise and it was great to stretch our legs and go clambering through the grass and over the hills. We just had to dodge the odd horse, cow, sheep, goat and/or donkey (and their malodorous deposits)!

 

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Welcome to Gorno Draglishte, Bulgaria!

  

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Views back down the valley to the village of Gorno Draglishte.

 

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We went clambering over the hills around the village, dodging cows and horses, sheep and goats.

 

 

On one of the hill-tops we found a tiny chapel to admire. The church faced out over the valley below and had views all the way to the Pirin Mountains. A great place to sit and admire God’s handiwork for sure…

 

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We found this tiny chapel at the top of one of the hills.

 

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With vistas across the horizon, this would be a nice place to contemplate God’s work.

 

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Gorno Draglishte sits in the Rozlog Valley, between Bulgaria’s 2 big mountain ranges (Rila and Pirin).

 

 

After our ramble through the hills we retreated back to the guesthouse we’re staying in with the rest of our little tour group and enjoyed a late afternoon cup of fresh elderflower tea together. Dinner was served not long after by our generous hosts and included an incredible mixed vegetable stew and a pumpkin flan, all made from the freshly picked produce out of Dashenka’s (our hostess) garden. It was so tasty and good, in a simple down-to-Earth kind of way.

 

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Simple, down-to-Earth living – Bulgarian style.

 

 

Replete, warm and happy, we thought the day was wrapping up at this point. How wrong were we! Because it was at this stage that Baba Yana and Baba Vela came in. These 2 Bulgarian great-grandmothers, in their 70s, had heard we were in town and had come to entertain us. They sang a couple of traditional Bulgarian songs for us, which was great. But then the evening took a serious turn for the naff when a bottle of home-made raika came out. This Bulgarian version of schnapps is quite lethal. A couple of generous shots of that and we were defenceless against what Baba Yana and Baba Vela had in store for us next: they brought out a whole range of traditional Bulgarian costumes and dressed us all up like a bunch of goat herders. 

 

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Nothing to see here – move along. It’s just a silly bunch of Bulgarian goat herders.

 

 

Another shot of raika each and we were then dancing the Bulgarian polka, twirling around the room like professional goat herders. The best bit was when they found out that none of the men’s costumes fitted Shane and decided to dress him up as a large lady instead. That, ladies and gentlemen, is when I watched my husband turn into a bearded Bulgarian Baba…

 

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You’ll note that this particular Bulgarian baba has a bit of a facial hair problem…

 

 

Baba Yana and Baba Vela had us in stitches, telling us Bulgarian jokes (translated by our tour leader) and stories about their life in Gorno Draglishte. We, in turn, shared some good Aussie humour and even sang “Waltzing Matilda” for them. Friends since childhood, these 2 lovely ladies were hilarious. They certainly made our night and gave us all a memory we will treasure forever. 

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A night to remember – Bulgarian style!

 

DAY 140: INSPIRED BY THE RILA MONASTERY


An oasis of serentity in the Bulgarian highlands

High in the Rila Mountains, hidden by the dense Bulgarian forest, there is a 1,000 year old monastery. Rila Monastery is the largest and oldest Eastern Orthodox religious community in the Balkans; it holds a special place in the hearts of many Bulgarians as this was one of the few isolated places where Bulgarian culture and traditions were kept hidden and alive during the 480 years of Ottoman rule. 

 

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Rila Monastery is hidden high up in the Rila Mountains of Bulgaria and is one of the monasteries responsible for preserving Bulgarian culture and traditions during the 480 years of Turkish occupation.

 

 

We went to visit Rila today with our tour group and had a wonderful afternoon wandering through its halls and admiring the monastery’s unique striped buildings. The monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was founded in the 10th century and is named after the hermit Ivan of Rila. St Ivan (he was beatified during his lifetime) actually lived in a cave not far from the monastery; the monastery itself was built by students who came to the mountains to learn from Ivan. So revered was he in this part of the world that St Ivan of Rila is the patron saint of Bulgaria. 

 

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St Ivan of Rila never live din the monastery itself, but chose instead to spend his years in a cave somewhere up in those hills.

 

 

The monastery itself is built as a large square, with 4 floors of residential rooms all facing inwards. The monastery was built to house up to 400 people but today there are only 9 monks living there permamantly. The rooms are rented out to tourists now and make a great retreat if you were looking for somewhere quiet to get away from it all for a few days. 

 

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This huge monastery used to house 400 monks; now there are just 9.

 

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The monastery makes for a lovely retreat if you want to get away from it all for a few days.

 

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Most of the rooms are rented out to tourists now, for a very small fee. The facilities are pretty basic, but the location is incredible.

 

 

In the centre of the courtyard sits the monastery’s crowing glory: the church. It is an aboslutely stunning cathedral, beautifully decorated in frescos. The interior and, unusually, the exterior of the main church are covered in detailed depictions of the trials a soul must go through after death. The frecos show the gruesome fates that await one’s soul should you be judged as evil, as well as the wonders that await those who live a good life.

 

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The main church is decorated in a style borrowed from the Ottomans, who in turn borrowed it from Egypt.

 

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The colourful frescos decorating the main church at Rila Monastery show the fate of one’s soul in Heaven and Hell.

 

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The frescos were beautiful – so colourful and unique.

 

 

Alongside the main church sits the Tower of Hrelyu, the oldest standing part of the monastery. The tower was originally built to provide views over the surrounding valley and provide early warning of any impending attacks (the monestery was attacked by the Ottomans multiple times and sacked numerous times; it was always rebuilt however). 

 

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The Tower of Hrelyu is the oldest standing part of the monastery.

 

 

In one corner of the complex there is a small museum. The museum’s main draw card is Rafail’s Cross, a wooden cross made from a whole piece of wood measuring about 80cmx40cm covered in tiny carvings. It was created by a monk named Rafail who worked for 12 years and used magnifying lenses to create an astonishing array of 100 religious scenes and 650 miniature figures. Unfortunately we couldn’t take photos in the museum so you’ll have to believe us when we say it was very cool.

 

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The monastery’s museum houses a number of ancient religious relics, including Rafail’s Cross.

 

 

We abolsutely loved Rila, it is such a beautiful place, set high in the Rila Mountains against a backdrop of dense forest and snow-capped peaks. There is an air of serenity about it that affected us both – places like the Rila Monastery are truly inspiring.

 

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Inspired by Rila.

 

 

DAY 139: SIGHTSEEING IN SOFIA


Lovin’ the capital of Bulgaria!

After our grim first impressions of Bucharest, capital of Romania, we were a little scared of what Bulgaria’s capital Sofia may have to offer… The great news is: Sofia is stellar!  

 

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Cityscape shots from Sofia, capital of Bulgaria.

  

  

We arrived in Sofia around lunchtime after a 3 hour bus trip on a public coach that brought us here from Veliko Tărnovo. After the lumpy, bumpy roads of Romania, this bus journey was heavenly! The roads here seem to be more tarmac than potholes (what a wonderful novelty!), and there were 2 lanes of highway the whole way. The bus driver played loud Bulgarian pop music at us the whole way, which was fantastic – like a 3 hour Eurovision* immersion experience (minus the costumes and dancing). Unfortunately the day was a bit drizzly, but even through the clouds we could appreciate how stunning the scenery was. 

*No sarcasm there – we actually watch Eurovision religiously and LOVE it. The costumes, the galmour, the wind machines… it’s so BAD, it’s good!


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Three hours on a bus through the Bulgarian countryside.

 

 

Bulgaria is very mountainous, with the Rila and Pirin mountain ranges running East to West and essentially dividing the country in half. We crossed over a few of the Rila Mountains foothills today and into the Sofia Valley, where Bulgaria’s capital sits. The mountains we passed were all densely forested and beautifully coloured in yellow, orange, red and brown.

 

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Bulgaria’s forests are home to a large population of bears, wolves, European lynxes and other wildlife. Awesome!

 

 

Sofia is built along the banks of the Vladayska River, nestled against the foot of Mt Vitosha. It was originally a Thracian settlement called Serdica and grew significantly under Roman rule as the city sits at the intersection of 3 mountain passes that link the Adriatic Sea and Central Europe with the Black and Aegean Seas. The city therefore became a key stop along ancient trading routes. The Romans and then the Byzantians left their mark of the city with Roman ruins and ancient Orthodox Christian churches peppered throughout modern Sofia.

 

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Shane with St George’s Church, one of Sofia’s oldest churches. Built in the 4th century AD this tiny church sits amongst some of the city’s oldest Roman ruins.

 

 

Despite its key location Sofia remained a relatively small settlement until 1879, when it was declared the capital of Bulgaria. The city expanded significantly in the years of the Bulgarian Renaissance, but was then severely damaged during WWI and WWII (attracted by promises of territorial expansion, Bulgaria sided with Germany both times and suffered the consequences). The Neo-Classical, Baroque and Rococo buildings were rebuilt however and the heart of modern Sofia is a beautiful mix of the late 19th century architecture, ancient Roman ruins, medieval Bulgarian townhouses and Byzantine churches. This blend creates an eclectic and colourful cityscape that we just loved. 

 

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The Sveta Nedelya Cathedral was built in the 19th century in the Byzantine style.

 

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The National Theatre of Bulgaria  was built in the 19th century in the Baroque style.

 

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One of central Sofia’s lovingly restored 19th century Neo-Classical buildings. This one is a hotel today.

 

 

Our favourite sight in the city was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. this huge Orthodox Christian church is one of the iconic symbols of Bulgaria. It occupies an area of 3,000 square metres and can hold 10,000 people. It was built in the late 19th century and named after Alexander Nevsky, the Russian prince who helped liberate Bulgaria from Turkish rule. The cathedral was built in honour to the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. With its gold-plated domes and immense, fresco-lined interior, this is by far one of our favourite churches of all time.

 

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the iconic symbols of Bulgaria.

 

 

As beautiful as Sofia is, it’s still a big city (population 1.3 million) though, so the traffic is a little mad and there were a few dodgy characters here and there that we saw scoping us out as potential targets. We’re told that the city is considered to be generally pretty safe however, with pickpocketing being the main concern. Unfortunately that’s pretty standard in most European cities these days, with Helsinki (Finland) and Reykjavik (Iceland) being the only towns where we haven’t felt any need to exercise extra precautions. Sadly even here in Bulgaria the main issues with petty crime seem to be with the Roma people (i.e. Gypsies) who hang around the public transport hubs and touristy areas. This was a huge issue in Romania* and since Bulgaria is just across the Danube, it makes sense that some of those issues would spill across the border. Not that this should stop anyone from visiting this part of the world – it’s still a bit rough around the edges, but absolutely charming in its own way. And Sofia is simply stunning!

*It was interesting chatting to a few Romanians when we were there and hearing how passionately they hate the Gypsies. They resent whole heartedly that foriegners think of the Roma people as Romanians and associate Gypsies with Romania. We met so many hard working, simple Romanians who slave away on their farms or work 2-3 jobs in the city to feed their families and help improve their lot in life. The Romanians we met were, on the whole, lovely. They’re loud, passionate, vociferous, but fundamentally good people. Most of them would happily invite you into their homes for a glass of their lethal, home-made horlinca and want nothing more than a chat in return. The lesson we learnt there is that Romanian is not the same as Roma. Even here in Bulgaria we’ve already encountered a similar anti-Roma sentiment. Not that we want to sound like racists, obviously there are good and bad eggs in every bunch and not every pickpocket or criminal on the street here is a Gypsy. It is interesting however that the Romanians and Bulgarians want us, as visitors to their country, not to prejudge THEM based on what we’ve heard or seen or experienced of the Roma people.


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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – one of our favourite churches ever!

 

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“I’d be lion if I said I didn’t want to jump up on this guy’s back…” says Shane. (FYI: Shane is great at bad puns.)

 

 

Unfortunately we’re only here in Sofia 1 night as tomorrow we’re off to explore the Rila Monastery, one of Bulgaria’s oldest mountain monasteries. We’ll tell you all about it tomorrow night!

 

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This leg of the trip is rushing past too fast! We’ve only got 6 more nights left in Eastern Europe…

 

DAY 138: VELIKO TARNOVO – BULGARIA’S GREAT CITY OF KINGS


Exploring the ancient capital of Bulgaria

Добре дошли в България! That is: dobre doshli v Bŭlgariya! Or if you don’t speak Bulgarian: Welcome to Bulgaria! Due to our late night arrival in Bulgaria yesterday we hadn’t really had the chance to see much of Veliko Tărnovo, our current home away from home, until today. After a full day’s explorations however we can say with confidence: we love this place!

 

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Veliko Tărnovo, our current home away from home.

 

 

Veliko Tărnovo was once ancient Bulgaria’s capital city and its name translates to “Great City of Kings”. Today it’s a thriving town of 70,000 and one of Bulgaria’s premier university towns with a booming tourism industry. Visitors from around the world come here to see the ruins of Tsarevetsi Fortress and explore some of Bulgaria’s complex history. Due to its strategic importance, Veliko Tărnovo has often been a target for invaders and the focal point of conflicts in the Balkan region; therefore in many ways the history of Veliko Tărnovo is the history of Bulgaria.


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Bulgaris’ “Great City of KIngs” is built across 3 hills with the city’s main defensive fortress on Mt Tsarevetsi, the highest of these 3 hills.

 

 

We had a walking tour of the town organised for us as part of the Intrepid trip we’re doing and it was great. Our tour guide, Christian, is a local university student who’s currently doing his Masters in IT, whilst working full time and doing tours on the side. It was really interesting getting his perspective on Bulgarian history – both ancient and modern. We learnt, for example, that modern Bulgarians are a mix of ancient Thracians*, Romans and Slavs. These 3 peoples all settled in what is now Bulgaria, and then, in the 7th century, the Bulgar tribes (after whom Bulgaria is named) came across the steppes from Asia and conquered this area. It was under the horse-riding, Asiatic Bulgars that the First Empire of Bulgaria was founded in 681AD. As Christian was talking about this aspect of Bulgaria’s history he seemed so fiercely proud of this mixed heritage; certainly it seems Bulgaria, being at the cross-roads of Eastern Europe and Asia, has been a melting pot for centuries. 

*The Thracians lived here around the same time the Dacians lived in Romania and the Celts lived in Northern Europe. They were a tribal people with a reputation as fierce warriors. When the Romans conquered Thracia some of the warriors ended up as gladiators, with Spartacus being the most famous of them all.


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The town of Veliko Tărnovo stretches across the hillside with a monument to Bulgaria’s kings from the Second Great Bulgarian Empire behind me.

 

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Heading up towards Tsarevetsi Fortress, the town’s ancient defensive fortification.

 

 

The First Bulgarian Empire dominated the Balkans* during the 7th to 11th centuries and functioned as a cultural hub for Slavic peoples during the Middle Ages. During this time Veliko Tărnovo was the most important city in the nation, with Tsarevetsi Fortress as its central defensive fortification. Then, in 1018, the Byzantine Empire crept North and Bulgaria was conquered. Thus ended the First Bulgarian Empire. There’s nothing left of this ancient empire here in Veliko Tărnovo, but standing atop Tsarevetsi Hill this afternoon we could almost imagine how wild this part of the world must have been, when wolves and bears out-numbered people in the forested hills and superstitions reigned supreme.

*We really didn’t know much about Bulgaria until today (and we still don’t know a lot!), but something that has taken us both by surprise is just how Slavic Bulgaria is. They may use the Cyrillic alphabet, but Bulgarian is so much like Czech, Slovak and Polish that we’ve been able to pull out some of the vocab we learnt for Central Europe and apply it here. This is SO a Slavic, Balkan country!


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The hills around Veliko Tărnovo are densely forested and full of wildlife – the locals have stories of waking up on spring mornings to find bears in town looking for food!

 

  

Liberty came some 200 years later when the second Bulgarian Empire emerged as Constantinople was crumbling. Bulgaria was by then an Orthodox Christian state and the strong economic and religious influence of Veliko Tărnovo in the Balkan region led it to be known as the “3rd Rome” (i.e. Rome = 1st Rome, Constantinople = 2nd Rome). During this time Veliko Tărnovo was by all accounts a wealthy and cosmopolitan city, with a great palace on Tsarevetsi Hill and many great houses lining its steep slopes, all the way down to the Yantra River. Unfortunately factional divisions between the feudal landlords caused the Second Bulgarian Empire to split into three kingdoms that fought each other. According to Christian, our guide, it was this in-fighting that left Bulgaria vulnerable to Ottoman conquest. The Second Bulgarian Empire collapsed in 1396 and Bulgaria came under Ottoman rule for nearly five centuries. This Turkish influence is still very evident here – in the music (which has a definite Arab sound to it), in the food and in people’s features too.

 

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The beautiful terraced hillside town of Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria.

 

 

The Ottomans conquered all Bulgarian lands south of the Danube River. They eliminated the nobility enserfed the peasantry and caused most of the educated clergy to flee to other countries. Under the Ottoman system, Christians were considered an inferior class of people. Bulgarians, as Christians, were subjected to heavy taxes and their culture was suppressed. Here in Veliko Tărnovo the great fortress on the hill was left to go to ruins and much of the city disintegrated. Little of the medieval architecture survived, though there are ruins everywhere. 

 

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The impressive ruins of Tsarevetsi Fortress.

 

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Just exploring the fortress ruins…

 

 

Five centuries is a long time and it is understandable that during this time most of the local population gradually lost its distinct national consciousness. However, the clergy remaining in some isolated monasteries kept it alive, and that helped it to survive as in some rural, remote areas. It wasn’t until 1878 that Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule with Russian assistance. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 created the Third Bulgarian State, which still exists today. Christian, our guide, described the late 1800s and early 1900s as “Bulgaria’s Renaissance” as this is when Bulgaria was finally free of its Turkish yoke and able to start modernising. It was during these years that the capital of Bulgaria was moved to Sofia and Veliko Tărnovo lost its status as the premier city. Still, mush of the city was rebuilt then and the town’s unique architecture today dates back to the late 19th century.

 

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The cathedral on top of Mt Tsarevetsi was built in the 19th century, during Bulgaria’s Renaissance.

 

 

Unfortunately Bulgaria’s Renaissance didn’t last long with numerous Balkan Wars, WWI, WWII and then 45 years of Communist rule stifling national development again. Modern Bulgaria emerged from under Communism in 1991 and is apparently still struggling to define itself as a modern, democratic, European nation. We can see evidence already of how poor Bulgaria really is, especially compared to most of Europe. Still, people here seem so proud and the streets are clean and things are relatively well maintained. It’s like people may not have much, but what they have they really care about. These are, of course, just our first impressions. We’re here a bout a week so it will be interesting to see how we find the rest of the country and whether our opinions change. So far though, Bulgaria is very cool! 

 

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The verdict so far: Bulgaria is awesome!