Friday, 28 May 2010

A whole new world

Written 28th May


Southern and central Bulgaria are really pretty. 

Meadows full of wild flowers, rolling green hills, dotted with little villages, leading up to the feet of snow capped mountains. 

Quite the rural idyll.  We have even seen a whole family sat in their cart pulled by a donkey across a field of poppies and, on every road bar the motorway, overtaken countless dour old men sat in carts full of hay, being pulled along the road by equally dour looking ponies.

Even better, petrol and coffee are affordable again!  Based on what we have seen so far, we have worked out that, at an average speed of 40mph, we can have two espressos each, every hour we are on the road and still spend less on the journey than in greece.  And we don't drink that much coffee!  Hurrah!  It does make travelling more relaxed.  As I have said, Greece was lovely, but there is a lot of it, especially in between the places you specifically want to go... 

And I am still excited to be here!  And we've done loads so if you haven't got a cup of tea already, now is a good time to get one...

...right are we sitting comfortably?  Then we'll begin.

Once you get through the queues to leave greece,

the border crossing at Promahomas is easy, especially if you already know, as we did, that you need to stop and buy a road tax vignette sticker thing - €5 per week - but even if you don't know, you will soon realise something is up as you get flagged down by a chorus of taxi drivers and window washing urchins if you drive past the kiosk (as we did).

We headed straight for the nearest town of Petrich, for cash and petrol, and found ourselves parked on a busy street corner in a puddle of unsecured wifi - a good start! - in seemingly yet another town where the thing to do if you've just got married is for you and all your family and mates to pile in your cars, which are pre-decorated  with balloons, and drive in massive convoys round and round town beeping your horn as loudly as possible until the police eventually come out and start moving you on. 

It is generally quite a spectacle, one which we have seen to varying degrees in south of France, Italy and Croatia already but nowhere with quite so many different weddings at the same time, with cars quite so bling, people quite so dressed up, or the bride, groom and bridesmaid hanging out the windows...  There was even a properly stretch mini in one party!

Petrol was easily found - and every petrol station has gas, even run down looking independent ones in the middle of nowhere - as was cash.  But we got a bit of a shock with available notes - imagine asking for £200 from the machine and getting it all in fivers... Yeah, wow.  If we hadn't been parked in such a busy street, I would have been throwing it around and playing grab-a-grand in the van or at the very least covering my bed and lying in it like they do in the movies... ;)

Anyway.  We also successfully negociated our first shop, the only unexpected result being asking for 6 eggs and getting them loose in a plastic bag... Not ideal for van dwellers whose fridges tend to be less stationary than those in your average house....

Once the last wedding party had finally honked its way round town - well, it was at least in a gap between wedding parties - we headed on out to our first proper destination, Melnik.

Tucked in amongst the sand mountains at the far southwest end of the Pirins, tiny Melnik is famous for its eponymous wine, which was apparently a favourite of Winston Churchill and which the locals claim is 'hang-over free'

We spent a happy morning - well even hangover free, there is such a time as 'too early' to start drinking wine! - 

hiking up through the wildflower meadows

and sand pyramids

- seen my first dung beetles in operation, fascinating to watch! -

to the Rozhen Monastery,

and then climbed high up above the town to the Mitko Manolev winery,

a cool cellar in an actual atmospheric cave, to try the stuff.

And it was very nice.  Very simple, almost 'unfinished' raspberry/blackcurrant taste with a slight sparkle to it - the spring water is naturally slightly bubbly - and a friendly man to dole it out, straight from the barrel, accompanied by traditional twiddly music.  What's not to like?

We tried white, pink, dry red and semi-dry red.  Couldn't decide which one we preferred and came away with a bottle of pink and a bottle of semi-dry red - again, tapped from the barrel and corked and labelled in front of us - and a warning that in this heat we should drink the red within ten days or the bottle might explode... Excellent, wine with added danger!  Not that it will last that long I'm sure... :)

Melnik, tick, back on the road - past this most unusual caravan of caravans - and heading north, this time to the Rila Monastery in the mountains of the same name.

We were nearly there when we goy distracted en route by a sign for Stob's pyramids.  No idea who Stob is (turned out to be a village) or why he might have pyramids in the vicinity.  But from the numbers of signs, they seemed quite keen for you to see them, so it seemed rude not to.

The rock formations we found were not exactly pyramids, and definitely no Meteora, but they were definitely pointy structures with the promised boulder 'hats' balancing precariously on top.

There are some legends which say that the rocks are the families of a couple who were processing to the village for the wedding ceremony in their fancy hatted finery, when her veil came off and the best man was overcome by the sight of her beauty, tried to kiss her and the families turned to stone in shame - as the panel put it, one way to get rid of the inlaws...

Another one says that the big rock is a bulgarian girl who loved a turkish boy and was banned from seeing him across the racial divide so threw herself over the edge and turned to stone.

We couldn't work out which bit of rock was supposed to be which, and other people's doomed wedding stories are a cheery read for the eve of  our third wedding anniversary - yes it is that long ago already! - but they were a nice walk, with some more danger thrown in for good measure - well you can't ignore a sign like that! -

and good views.  So worth the stop.

And so we got to the monastery, deep in the valley, just as the sun had disappeared behing the hills. 

The Rila Monastery is the most famous of all bulgarian monasteries and was one of the last bastions of the bulgarian language and alphabet during the 500 years of Ottoman rule.

Established in 927 by one of Bulgaria's first and most devout of monks, it was refurbished in 1469 and rebuilt after fire in 1833.  Today, it stands at the end of the forested road in a deep valley, appearing as a grim, austere fortress when you round the corner. 

Inside however, by complete contrast to the straight, grey lines and small windows of the forbidding exterior, the courtyard is a stack of brightly striped cordoba-esque arches

and a curvey, rounded pink church

with the most vividly coloured murals - painted by Zahari Zograf but I don't know when - we have seen so far.  And we have seen a lot of frescos and murals on this trip!

Sadly the light wasn't great but you get the idea. And no happy donuts at this late hour either - although this sort of thing is hardly conducive to a life of abstinence...

There are still monks there - we saw one, striding purposefully around the  upper archways talking directly to God on his mobile. well, who else would he be talking to??  He's a monk! - and you can apparently stay in some of the rooms if you fancy dabbling in the lifestyle or hiking the hills.  But its not for van dwellers, so onwards and outwards to find a quiet layby.

The next morning started well, with a lovely cup of anniversary tea in bed - obviously different from the tea we drink in bed every other morning - just not sure how - and I even got breakfast in bed made for me by my lovely husband... Well he poured some muesli into a bowl which I ate whilst sat of the sofa which, five minutes previously, had been my bed.  Who says romance is dead... ;)

And so into town, Plovdiv town, bulgaria's second city, to be precise.

It didn't start well.  Although we had a map in the lp, and we worked out the cyrillic for 'centre' fairly early on, we just couldn't find it.  So after two or three goes at turning round and trying again, we abandoned the van at the first landmark we did recognisethe river and set off on foot.

Where we quickly discovered the we had in fact driven under the tourist office twice, the town fathers, in their infinite wisdom, having put the two major arterial roads underneath great pirtions of thd city centre to make it generally nicer for everyone.  Which it is, if you know what's going on or you are on foot!

Although busy and modern with miles of urban sprawl now,  Plovdiv is an ancient city, known as Philippopolis by the Romans in 3AD with traces of Thracian settlements going back thousands of years before that.  With is almost intact roman amphitheatre, remains of a stadium and forum, and built aroubd seven hills, it apparently used to claim little brother status to Rome, until during the early communist era they blasted one of the hills to smithereens to get enough rock to repave the old town - they blew up a hill??  Surely it would have been simpler to buy rock from elsewhere??

Anyway a very pleasant couple of hours was spent wandering.  With the help of the tourist office map, as well as coffee, ice cream and banitsa (bulgarian white cheese pie), we found;

 The forum

 The mosaics

The corner of the old stadium, now buried under the main pedestrian street.

The Mosque

 The amphitheatre, still used.

 The cobbled streets of the old town

With the traditional kashta homes, which are now mostly museums of one sort or another (although we didn't go in any). 

It was all jolly lovely, although meltingly hot!

And best of all, an anniversary text from my mother saying my parents would buy us dinner - excellent!

We had already earmarked somewhere which sounded nice in the lp - 'Bendida - a simple wine shop-restaurant in way west Plovdiv.  The lovely english speaking family may sit with you as you eat their delicious 'home-style' food along with wine tastings of local rubin and mavraud wines'

Sounds good!

The directions were crap but we got their eventually and were contemplating the very closed looking, shop-like exterior, with no restaurant indications, when a smiley lady unlocked the door and welcomed us in.   We were apparently way early for dinner - so much so, she asked if we were americans! (it was about 6:30 which is v early for us too but we had run out of stuff to do in town and hadn't had much lunch) - but she ushered us down to the cool cellar restaurant, turning lights on as she went, and bustled about setting up a table for us.  

And I am so glad we persevered in finding the place and that she happened to be upstairs when we arrived - it seems there is a doorbell you can ring if you know about it, so now you know!

It seems that the main family business is the Rubin and Mavraud wine - both producing and selling - and the smiley lady has five sommelier qualifications as well as having travelled internationally to promote these varieties of bulgarian grape.  We got to try glasses of the two whilst we looked at the extensive, but reasonably priced menu and ended up with her suggestion of the Bendida Special - mixed meat with mushrooms, half of which she cooked in white wine sauce and half in cream cheese sauce, both of which were delicious!

And just as were were leaving, her son arrived, fresh back in bulgaria from his studies in germany and his couch surfing* travels around europe so we got to meet his lovely dog (an english basset hound, bought in germany and now living in bulgaria - the language of fussing is, it seems, international!) and chat.

All very yummy - thank you lovely parents! - and we have enough money left over for dinner another night too, hurrah!

So onwards and northwards again, this time to the Shipka pass between, Kazanlak and Gabrovo, on the way to Veliko Tarnovo.

The Shipka pass crosses the Stara Planina part of the Balkan mountains at a height of 1150m and was the site of a decisive battle in the Russian-Turkish war in 1877-78.

Bulgaria had been subject to Ottoman rule for nearly 500 years when the stirings of rebellion led to an unsuccessful uprising in 1970.  The Russians stepped in on Bulgaria's behalf and after peaceful  negociations for Bulgaria's independence failed, the russians declared war.

By all accounts, it was a bloody, hard fought battle, particularly on the heights of the Shipka pass in terrible, freezing conditions where the principle means of fighting seemed to be bayonets and chucking rocks.

But the russian and bulgarian armies eventually prevailed and pushed the Turks back until independence was eventually declared in 1878.

On the road up, you come first to the village of Shipka and the golden domes of the memorial church which glitter and wink at you above the trees and across the plains on your approach.

The church is a magnificent confection, built in the style of a traditional 18th century russian orthodox church, completed in 1902 as a memorial to the russian and bulgarian war heroes.

The high vaulted arches of the interior are covered with religious iconography, candles and the lingering smell of incense and the crypt holds the simple sarcophagi of some of those who gave their lives in the war, all of whom are listed on the plaques which line the walls both inside and out. 

It is quite a sight.

The hilltop is littered with further memorial markers, the most significant of which is the six-storey Freedom Monument on the top of the  Stoletov Peak.  Completed in 1934, it has a nice little museum about the battle, with various contemporary accounts and pictures, and fabulous views from the top.

Onwards again, along the ridge of the mountains, to Buzludzha the highest peak in the Central Stara Planina, at 1441 metres high, and the site of the Buzludzha Monument, aka 'the crazy UFO building'.

The monument commemorates the beginnings of the Bulgarian Socialist movement which was founded, initially in secret, in the area in 1891.

And it is just the craziest building.

Perched on top of the mountain, as if it has just landed from out of space, the tower is 60-odd metres high and the saucer shaped building is just immense. 

Apparently it was only completed in 1981- well a building with that much concrete just had to have 1970's origins - and was originally covered in copper (which has obviously now been stolen or otherwise removed!) but as this was during the decline of communism in the country, the building is now derelict.  The lp goes straight from 'Bulgaria embraced communism wholeheartedly (even proposing in 1973 to join the Soviet republics). to 'After making friends with the USA, and being accepted into NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007...' with nothing more than a subheading in between, so I, as yet, know nothing more about it.

There are a couple of places you can get in, if you're not afraid of the flies, and after passing through a dark, low ceilinged entrance hall,

with the remains of the original crimson décor clearly visible,

you climb the stairs to a massive arena like auditorium,

surrounded by glittering mosaics of inspiring motherland figures. 

The mosaics continue outside where you come to the huge circular gallery with its massive panoramic windows offering 360 degree views over the surrounding hills and valleys.

It is awesome. And we have no idea, how much it was ever used, being massive, yet fairly inaccessible.  And it is a real shame it has fallen into such a state as it would have been a fabulous piece of history had it been kept.

And so we are now in Veliko Tarnovo... 

And it is time for coffee.  For all of us!  Hadn't realised we had done quite so much in three and a half days!  I will continue this another time.

And I still have half an alphabet to learn - the other half conveniently matches the same half of the greek one that I managed to get my head round - so I just have the funny squiggly ones that correspond to sounds like 'ts' and zXXX' and all the different ones which look like 'b' s to go...  And then remeber those which look like roman characters but in fact aren't.  Which is how the word for 'RESTAURANT' sounds similar-ish but looks like this:  'PECTOPAHT' 

All good fun!

* Couch surfing = travelling round europe, staying for free in other people's houses.  There is a whole intetnet site where people who are looking for free accommodation can connect with people who have houses in interesting places and who are happy for people to come and visit them.  It was a fall back option for us if we got cabin fever from van dwelling - which just hasn't happened :)


  1. In the guided tour of Jules, you didn't mention why you allow several small bald men to travel on your dashboard - DSCF7362

    Oh, never mind - I'll get my coat.

  2. Mr P

    we are an equal opportunities little van which doesn't discriminate against the folically challenged... ;)

    x x