Friday, 28 May 2010
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.
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.
- seen my first dung beetles in operation, fascinating to watch! -
a cool cellar in an actual atmospheric cave, to try the stuff.
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.
And so we got to the monastery, deep in the valley, just as the sun had disappeared behing the hills.
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!
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.
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!
The corner of the old stadium, now buried under the main pedestrian street.
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'
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!
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 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.
you climb the stairs to a massive arena like auditorium,
surrounded by glittering mosaics of inspiring motherland figures.
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 :)
With love for now from Becky, Will and Jules on Friday, May 28, 2010