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Bulgaria

The Stone Forest (Pobiti Kamani)

The Stone Forest (Pobiti Kamani)


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This morning we went on an excursion to a wonderful set of geological formations about 18km from Varna; Pobiti Kamani, the Stone Forest. My sister Kate visited it a week ago and went into ecstasies about it, so we simply had to go too. It was just as fantastic as I expected!

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Despite what its name indicates, Pobiti Kamani is not actually a petrified forest. It consists of groups of light grey, rugged stone columns rising out of the sand, some several metres tall, some a bit shorter. Most are hollow; some have fallen over and broken into smaller sections, so you can see all the way through them.

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There have been differing theories over the years about how the columns came to be; one is that they are sand and limestone concretions, left standing after the softer sedimentary rock around them gradually weathered away over a period of millennia. The most recent (and most scientifically backed) one is that they are the result of a 'bubbling reef', methane gas seeps in ancient seas about 50 million years ago in the Lower Eocene period.

There were only about two other couples there, so we mostly had the site to ourselves. We spent ages wandering around, taking in the stone columns, white sand, hillocks, sunshine, birdsong, blossoming trees and general sense of peace and calm. I was so, so glad we came here. I couldn't help but think that if this was in the UK, it would be packed!

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The peace and calm was marvellous, but Dave still managed to have a minor but ironic accident. In the main part of the site there is a stone circle which is supposed to bring people luck; Dave went in and then the moment he stepped out of it again, he stepped on something sharp - in bare feet! He had taken his shoes off to enter the circle. Quite minor luckily, with no blood. He was able to carry on walking after a couple of minutes.

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On our way out we passed a small cave and then bought postcards and fridge magnets from the little shop at the entrance.

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The man there had sold us the tickets at the start, and now he kindly ordered a taxi for us - my Bulgarian is not great face to face, so I didn't want to risk it on the phone!

Posted by 3Traveller 01:12 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged coast dave bulgaria black_sea natural_wonder Comments (0)

Blast from the past!

Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo and Varna


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Most of today was taken up with travel.

As ever, breakfast at Hostel Mostel was excellent. We had just enough time to take full advantage of the all-you-can-eat buffet before we had to get the taxi to the bus station for our bus at 9 am.

The journey to Veliko Tarnovo was uneventful. We arrived at 12.20 and since our bus to Varna wasn't until 4 o'clock, we had a decent amount of time to relax at my flat. We packed rucksacks, showered, rested and nipped out to buy some drinks and snacks for our next leg of the journey.

Veliko Tarnovo is almost in the exact centre between Sofia and Varna, so our journey to Varna was also about three and a half hours. The first half of the journey was very picturesque, full of streams, rivers and forested hills and mountains; the second half was pleasant but much flatter, full of arable farmland.

We arrived at the central bus station after dark and spurned the taxis, seeing as we were within walking distance of Yo-Ho Hostel. On the way there we stopped at a petrol station to get another drink - and what should I find in the drinks cabinet but some bottles of Fiji Water! Bottled in Viti Levu, Fiji. I recognised it straight away from mine and Dave's Fiji visit in 2009. Of all the places to come across it again...

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Finding the hostel took slightly longer than we expected, but we managed it in the end. At check-in the lovely staff at reception recommended a particular restaurant to us for dinner, but by the time we'd got to our room and had sat down for a bit, we were too knackered to bother going out. We just finished our snacks from the journey instead.

Posted by 3Traveller 23:57 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains coast hostel buses dave sofia varna veliko_tarnovo black_sea Comments (0)

Dave arrives - the Black Sea beckons!

Sofia


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Dave was due to arrive late this evening - he's going to be with me for the coming week. Through a combination of school holiday, national public holidays, my usual days off and two days of booked holiday, including yesterday and Thursday I have a total of 11 days off. A perfect time to make a trip to the Black Sea coast!

He didn't arrive until past 9 pm, so I had the whole day in Sofia with Kate first. While we walked around town going to various different places, Andrew wanted to go to the Military Museum, which is quite a way out of town, so he set off to walk there.

Kate and I went out twice, actually. The first time, I escorted her to the Archaeological Museum, wandering past the 4th century Rotunda Church of St George on our way. We admired the outside and the ancient ruins of the Roman city of Serdica that are next to it, but decided to come back later in the day to explore properly. Kate then went inside the Archaeological Museum, particularly keen to see the room of Thracian gold Mum, Emma and I had all recommended to her. Unfortunately for her, that exhibition had been taken down, but she enjoyed the other exhibitions.

While she was inside, I admired the tulips outside and then walked to the central bus station to buy mine and Dave's tickets to Veliko Tarnovo tomorrow. It's a public holiday weekend, so I didn't want to risk the chance of leaving it until tomorrow and then the tickets selling out before I get there. After buying the tickets successfully I walked back to the hostel, where I met back up with Kate. She wrote a couple of postcards before we set off again on our next excursion.

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Our first stop (other than to grab slices of pizza for lunch) was the post office, where she got stamps for the postcards she'd just written. Our next port of call was the Rotunda. It is the oldest building in Sofia and looks incredible, the ancient red bricks, the unusual shape and the Roman ruins behind it contrasting greatly with the much more modern hotel and President's building that surround it. I visited this last October with Mum, but Kate hadn't been before.

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We decided to go inside, and were glad that we did because we caught the end of a service in what were extremely atmospheric surroundings. The priest and congregation were facing away from us, with the priest in a central position facing a table and the congregation standing on two sides, in a semi-circle with an small aisle down the middle. The priest was chanting something that sounded like plainsong. At first we wondered what he was doing, because the table had every-day foods and other objects on it, but then I noticed that he seemed to be splashing holy water over the items so I think he must have been blessing it all. Soon after that the service ended, the table was moved to the side and the congregation came up and started picking up items that we presumed were theirs. People had been going in and out of the church while we were watching from the door, by the way, so we don't think we were intruding at all.

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We then carried on to the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, popping into a Russian Orthodox church on our way just to see what it was like. We also looked round the icon and handicraft / antiques market in front of the cathedral.

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The cathedral is the one of the biggest Orthodox cathedrals in the world and contains a small case of Alexander Nevsky's relics.

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As with the relic at the church we visited on our first day in Sofia, Kate regretted looking at it! After that I took Kate to the crypt, which has been turned into a gallery holding the largest collection of Orthodox icons in Europe. I'd been there before so I waited outside while Kate paid to go in.

When she emerged we walked to the Sveta Sofia Church nearby, which gave the city of Sofia its name back in the 14th century and is the second-oldest church in Sofia after the Rotunda. As we walked round to the front entrance we passed the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the eternal flame. I went to this church back in October with Mum too, and had told Kate all about the wonderful interior and the extensive Roman ruins in the crypt, so she was particularly interested to visit. She wasn't disappointed! The church and its predecessor churches were built on top of the necropolis of the Roman city of Serdica, and restoration work on the remains have opened up a walkway under the church, so you can wander round and see intact Roman tombs (some with frescoes) and early Christian mosaics. The main part of the church is interesting, too, because unlike all the other Bulgarian Orthodox churches we've been in it doesn't have any frescoes in it at all, just thin bricks with areas of white plaster. Apparently it did have frescoes originally, but they were destroyed when the church became a mosque in Ottoman times and when the building was converted back into a church again new frescoes weren't created.

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We had a quiet evening in once we'd got back. Andrew had arrived back safely from the Military Museum earlier. I checked back in (I was in a dorm last night but was moving into a private room with Dave tonight). We had our free dinner at the hostel and then after a while after that, I took a bus to the airport to pick Dave up! A taxi back to the hostel and I took Dave to our double room - which turned out to be exactly the same one we had when we were here at Christmas. At Hostel Mostel the private rooms are in separate buildings from the rest of the hostel.

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Posted by 3Traveller 14:40 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art market airport museum cathedral hostel buses sisters dave sofia bulgaria icons explorations orthodox_church roman_remains Comments (0)

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery and Sofia


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Rila Monastery is worth every superlative I can muster!

The journey there was a smooth one through the mountains south of Sofia. We went in a minibus organised by our hostel; a group of young Japanese guys were with us. We had eaten a large breakfast, and on the journey we shared a very large sweet bun, so we didn't need any more food until we'd got back to Sofia.

Originally we were going to be visiting a special cave which lies beyond the monastery first, but just as we got to the monastery a problem with the minibus arose, so our driver told us to get out here and look round the monastery first instead. We had two hours, so by the time we had to meet back up, hopefully the problem would be sorted and we would continue to the cave.

The monastery itself forms a square of monks' living quarters with a massive courtyard; in the courtyard lies a small church, a medieval tower and some trees, and beyond the square there are a few smaller buildings, formerly the monastery farm I think but now a couple of restaurants and gift shops. The monastery is four stories high at least; cream coloured walls with lots of characterful wooden staircases leading upwards. It is still a working monastery today, so we weren't allowed to climb them due to the monks' living quarters being up there.

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Picturesque and impressive though these living quarters were, the main attraction was definitely the church. The outside walls and the undersides of the verandah that ran around three sides were absolutely covered in very brightly coloured and detailed religious scenes. It was utterly gobsmacking!

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The inside was lovely too, covered in murals and icons without an inch of undecorated wall. It was gloomier here, with the main light coming from a few candelabras and the many candles lit in front of the most richly decorated end. I bought and lit a candle of my own, for Dad.

After wandering around the grounds and church happily for quite some time, (and, with Kate and Andrew, having a drink of water from a stone fountain using a silver ladle chained to the side), I went up the medieval tower.

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Dating from 1335, Hrelyo's Tower is the oldest preserved building in the monastery. It was used as the monastery's fortress. In 1844 a belfry was attached to it; this holds the bells, clock and the monastery shop. The views from the top (there are five floors) through the windows were wonderful. I especially liked the one of the roof and dome of part of the living quarters, with snowcapped mountains in the distance behind. On the top floor there was a small out-of-use chapel with some medieval frescoes, but it was closed off to visitors. The door was of glass through so I could still see some of them.

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I bought a postcard and a fridge magnet from the shop and then wandered around happily with Kate and Andrew some more. We looked for the history museum and the ethnographic museum but only found the history one - when there was only about 15 - 20 minutes left before we had to return to our meeting place. We all went in anyway and still managed to have a good look round. It contained such interesting things as old school textbooks from the monastery school that used to be here, a Viennese printing press the monastery acquired in the 1860s, prints made using it, coins, weapons, jewellery and religious gifts from pilgrims and bishops from Russia, Greece and other Eastern Orthodox countries; Bibles, icons, weavings, embroidery, carved wooden crosses, silver plate, etchings and a giant candle (at least two metres high and a foot or two in diameter!) There were also written decrees from the Ottoman Turkish sultans, granting the monastery rights.

This was all on the ground floor - up the stairs there were was more silver plate and crosses, priests' and bishops' vestments, etc., but we had to rush past these because we were now due back at the minibus. The problem had been sorted - great. It took us further on, further up the mountain, to the special cave.

To get to the cave we hiked through the forest up the side of quite a steep gorge, so you can imagine how spectacular the scenery was! After about 10 minutes we came across a look out point, with an information board giving a list of the wildlife that lives in the area; this included wild boar, deer, and at least two different sorts of marten. We didn't see any though.

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About 5 minutes later, we reached our destination. There was a tiny church with a path on one side leading to a shrine and the entrance to the cave.

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The cave itself was very small and dark; you had to climb steps to get into it and it was probably only a few metres long. Within the gloom a small area was set up with a couple of small icons and some lit candles.

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The floor continued rising quite steeply inside, until you reached a few wooden steps followed by a stack of boulders, creating a tunnel you had to climb up through in order to pop out of the top! Only the most stick-thin person would be able to get through the hole without a bit of a squeeze. The girl at our hostel reception had told us that traditionally, people did this to bring themselves good luck; climbing through the hole 'cleansed' them of their sins. There was a large rock next to the hole we had emerged from, so naturally we all climbed up there to take photos.

On the way back down we stopped at the tiny church and went inside. It was a working church, not a museum; it was very atmospheric and colourful inside. We all sat in the wooden seats around the sides of the main room for a bit to rest.

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It was around 5 pm when we got back to the hostel in Sofia. We relaxed for a couple of hours and then decided to go out to a Bulgarian Chinese restaurant for dinner. I had good expectations because the one Chinese restaurant I'd been to in Bulgaria before, in Veliko Tarnovo, was excellent. However, the food at this place didn't quite reach the same standard. It wasn't terrible, but wasn't amazing either. One of our noodle dishes was quite stodgy and the sauce was a little glutinous. We also ordered a duck dish thinking we were going to get Peking duck with pancakes, but it turned out to be battered chunks of duck in the style of KFC. It was still nice though - better than the noodles.

Posted by 3Traveller 13:18 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains art museum monastery dad sofia bulgaria icons orthodox_church unesco_world_heritage_site cave_system rila_monastery Comments (0)

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Boyana Church

Sofia


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We arrived in Sofia early in the morning after a seamless journey. We'd been planning to visit a village called Koprivshtitsa once we'd checked into the hostel, but had to abandon that plan after we couldn't find anywhere to buy the bus tickets. We found the smaller bus station next to the central one, but I couldn't find any booth that listed Koprivshtitsa as a destination.

Instead of that we thought it would be great to go up Mount Vitosha, a the snow-capped mountain next to Sofia, but had that plan squelched as well because the hostel staff told us the cable-cars are currently down for maintenance. Instead we swung into plan C - just to explore the city instead and see some sights before Kate and Andrew's last couple of days in Bulgaria. It was another hot, sunny day so perfect for wandering around.

Our first intended destination was the Monument to the Soviet Army, which I recommended and Andrew particularly wanted to see, but on our way there we were irresistibly drawn into a shop on Boulevard Vitosha selling an amazing array of little cakes, biscuity-like things, baklava etc. Kate bought a couple of tulumbi on my recommendation; I'd had these before but Kate and Andrew hadn't. Tulumbi are basically tubes of fried batter soaked in syrup, somewhat similar to churros but thicker and with a softer, almost juicy centre. Delicious!

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Our food adventures then continued because we carried on to the fruit and veg market and discovered an ice cream stand with piles of whipped-up, tasty-looking ice cream in flavours we'd mostly not come across before. I got chocolate, Kate melon and Andrew frozen strawberry yoghurt.

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Straight after the market we came to a square with Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church on one side. We hung around in the square to finish our ice creams (and saw a wonderful Samoyed dog and a man on a skateboard pushing himself along with a big stick...) before going inside the church.

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The building is interesting because it was originally built as a mosque by the Ottomans, back in 1528, before being abandoned in 1878 at the Liberation of Bulgaria and used as a military warehouse and prison. It wasn't converted into a Christian church until the early 20th century. Inside seemed pretty typically decorated for a Bulgarian Orthodox church, with frescoes all over the place, icons of Christ and saints, etc. Members of the public were paying their respects to the icons. On our way out we noticed that one of the cases had a relic in it, which made Kate and Andrew feel a little queasy: a preserved finger!

After going on to visit the Soviet monument we returned to the hostel for a while to rest for a bit.

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Our destination for the afternoon was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Boyana Church.

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It is mainly a World Heritage Site because it has outstanding frescoes from 1259. We were shown in and observed by a frankly rather bossy lady, and were only allowed to stay inside for 10 minutes for preservation reasons, which was fair enough because humidity from people's breath etc. can damage wall paintings. I understood why she observed us so closely, because it would be a tragedy if any visitors damaged the frescoes either thoughtlessly or deliberately, but it was still a bit offputting! It was nevertheless a great experience, with the interior being truly breathtaking both artistically and historically. We were all really glad we'd come. We enjoyed the small park surrounding the church before hunting around for a taxi to take us back to the cathedral near the hostel.

We popped into the cathedral briefly as Andrew hadn't been in it before, then walked back to the hostel, picking up pizza slices on the way for a very late lunch.

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We had a quiet evening, with dinner at the hostel that was provided as part of our room cost - spaghetti with tomato sauce - and then an early night to catch up on sleep.

Posted by 3Traveller 11:55 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art market cathedral hostel buses sisters sofia bulgaria icons explorations orthodox_church unesco_world_heritage_site bulgarian_cuisine boulevard_vitosha soviet_monument Comments (0)

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