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Hiking through the hills; Preobrazhenski Monastery

Preobrazhenski Monastery and Veliko Tarnovo


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Today was another beautiful, sunny day, so I decided to take full advantage of it with a visit to Preobrazhenski Monastery. It lies a few kilometres away, on one of the hills near to Veliko Tarnovo. 'R' and her friend 'T' planned to walk both there and back, but my back has been bad recently so I decided to go there by taxi and then join them for the hike back.

They had only been there for a few minutes when I rolled up in the taxi. What a beautiful monastery, and in such a wonderful setting! The views of the surrounding hills are dramatic. Inside the monastery grounds there was the church itself, with recently-restored frescoes on the inner and outer walls; a beautiful new stone bell tower that replaced one that had been destroyed by falling rocks; brick and stucco accommodation quarters with wooden stairs and balconies; and a courtyard with trees, one or two benches and a little stone building with a wooden deck and tables.

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I could also see one or two large boulders which had fallen from the cliff behind - these were the prime cause of the damage to the former bell tower. T told us a story about how the monastery church was saved once many years ago, when a large boulder, which was heading straight for it, miraculously split in two just before it got there.

The interior of the church was typically very atmospheric. I paid 3 leva to go in, but it was 100% worth it. The fresco restoration had clearly not quite finished yet, because when I looked up at the ceiling I could see the sharp contrast between where the clean, bright colours ended and the dirty ones began. I wonder how many years of candle smoke had caused this amount of dirt to build up. I know the frescoes were finished in 1851; maybe they had never been cleaned until now?

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I lit a candle for Dad, before leaving the church and climbing the bell tower. I admired it once again as I did so; they had rebuilt it very sensitively, so it fitted in beautifully with the surroundings. No ugly concrete! I was wowed by the views from the top.

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Once we had all looked round, T led me and R round the corner and down a pathway to a tiny little church and overgrown cemetery.

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This is where lots of monks and the benefactors of the building of the monastery were/ are buried. The church is no longer in use, but the door to the crypt was open, so we went in. T said that when she came here a few months ago, it was filled with bones from where skeletons in the cemetery had been dug up! Unfortunately I can't remember why she said this had happened. Maybe, because it is so small, the graveyard is getting too overcrowded. We saw wooden boxes piled up on the floor and on one wall a shelf of human skulls with black writing on them. On closer inspection, we saw dates and years - 1889, 1893... we assumed these were details taken from the gravestones.

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From there we retraced our steps to the monastery and struck out down the road. I was interested to see what appeared to be lots of white and sky-blue boxes in a small field; there seemed to be lots of bees around, and then suddenly it clicked - they were beehives! I have no doubt that these are owned by the monastery.

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After a few minutes we left the tarmac road and climbed a woodland path up the slope of the hill directly on our right. The walk through the wood was pleasant; as we got higher and higher and could see through the trees, we started getting an even better view if the scenery than we'd had at the monastery. Eventually we came out onto a track right near the top of the hill. We walked parallel to the length of the valley for a while; I felt like I was on top of the world! It was such a fantastic experience.

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It was hot work, and we stopped on several occasions for a drink of water. Eventually we reached an exceptionally lush meadow with a gradient of at least 45 degrees; by the time we got to the top I was knackered. We had been hiking for at least an hour, if not nearly an hour and a half.

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At the top of the meadow we reached the base of the top of the hill - the barrier between us and the top of Veliko Tarnovo - but we didn't need to climb it because a short path led round the base. At the foot of the hill we came across a large pipe gushing ice-cold, crystal clear water into a stream; 'T' said it was safe to drink, so I filled my water bottle and took a long swig. How welcome that was!

Round the corner from there and we joined a tarmac road. This turned out to be the upper edge of the town. I bought an ice cream and some Diet Coke from a small supermarket to keep myself going on our walk down the hill to the town centre. As we came down the hill, through the historic Varusha quarter, the view was amazing; Veliko Tarnovo spread before us, and I could see the hills and enscarpments beyond. I felt so lucky to be there.

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Posted by 3Traveller 10:16 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art monastery dad bulgaria veliko_tarnovo orthodox_church preobrazhenski_monastery Comments (0)

Further Plovdiv explorations

Plovdiv and Shipka


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Well, we certainly fitted a lot into this morning and the first half of the afternoon!

The very first thing I did after breakfast was walk to an internet café to print off Mum's boarding pass for her. Reception at our hostel didn't have a printer, but they told me how to get to a place where there was one. Something I've noticed in Bulgaria is that internet cafés are much rarer than they are in Ecuador - this was the first time I'd been to one in Bulgaria. It was mega-simple though - walked in, didn't even need to log on to one of the for-public-use computers as the girl in charge set up hers quickly for me instead; three minutes, cost about 20 stotinki (8p)! On my way back I stopped at a fruit & vegetable market and bought Mum a bag of cherries.

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First stop together was the Ethnographic Museum; I'd been there before, in March, but Mum hadn't. Our favourite exhibits were; the traditional musical instruments and mummers' costumes, the large wooden attar of roses container which had been steeped in the stuff for so long in the past that it still smelled wonderfully of roses, and the huge, fluffy (sheepskin?), colourful rugs on one wall. Mum also particularly liked the embroidery as well.

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From there we headed down the road to Hadji Aleko's House, via a souvenir shop where the owner's wife weaved mats and wall hangings on looms at the back of the shop (she wasn't actually in action when we went, but there were half-made things on them and the owner told us his wife made them).

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Hadji Aleko's House is a National Revival building now used as an art gallery. Downstairs was filled with contemporary paintings for sale, whilst upstairs had a permanent exhibition. My favourite contemporary painting was of a colourful Firebird. Lots of original antique furniture as well, especially upstairs.

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Once we had looked round the gallery we were feeling quite hungry, so I took Mum to a restaurant I knew of at the foot of Danov Hill. Back in March I tried to have lunch there but was thwarted by the public holiday crowds, so I was keen to return! My tarator and potato balls were delicious; the dish of cooked red pepper slices surprised me by being cold, but were nice all the same.

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Our last proper stop before returning to the hostel was done on an impulse at a small mosaic museum which I think was connected to a Roman forum excavation nearby. The mosaics were impressive and we also liked the well-lit and colourful collection of amulets and scent bottles made of Roman glass. It was just the thing to round off our Plovdiv visit!

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After picking up my stuff from our hostel and saying goodbye, I took a taxi to the north bus station. The bus journey back to Veliko Tarnovo was uneventful, though we did stop for ten minutes at Shipka. The golden domes of the Russian Church gleamed over the rooftops. Right in the middle of the parking area was a cherry tree absolutely dripping with ripe fruit; I enjoyed several ultra-fresh, sweet and juicy cherries before it was time to get back on the bus.

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Mum had a couple of hours to go in Plovdiv before her lift to the airport; apparently she went for another walk and saw a Bulgarian bagpiper performing outside a shop. This is something I really want to see before I leave Bulgaria.

Posted by 3Traveller 06:57 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains art market museum buses traditions bulgaria mum plovdiv roman_remains house_museum bulgarian_cuisine traditional_customs shipka_pass Comments (0)

The Valley of the Roses

Kazanluk, the Valley of the Roses and Plovdiv


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From Shipka we descended into the Valley of the Roses. Right now we are in the middle of the rose season, which is a big deal here; Bulgaria makes about 60% of the world's rose oil, plus smaller amounts of other rose products like rosewater, soap, hand cream, liqueur and things like that.

Now when you hear or see the name 'The Valley of the Roses' you may get an image in your head of a valley completely filled from one side to the other with field after field stuffed with red, pink or white roses. Wonderful scents hanging languorously in the air. Roses as far as the eye can see (until the mountains appear in the horizon)! The reality is not quite like that, however. Now Mum and I were under no false illusions - we knew it wasn't going to be like the idealised image it's easy to come up with - and so we still really liked what we saw. There was a lot of farmland, both arable and for livestock, but we did pass the occasional field of pink roses; a novelty to people from the UK, where there are some rose gardens, but not open fields like the ones we saw here.

We stopped in the outskirts of Kazanluk at the impressively named Research Institute of Roses, Aromatic & Medicinal Plants, which contains the small but interesting Museum of the Rose.

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Before we went inside, we looked round part of the grounds and admired some almost perfect-looking deep red roses clearly at the peak of health.

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Inside the museum, bowls of rose petals were placed around the museum - a great touch, I thought. The scent was amazing. We saw lots of old equipment for the distillation and storage of rose oil (attar of roses), fascimiles of black and white photos of rose pickers in action, and some documents relating to the attar of roses trade. No wonder real rose oil is expensive; apparently, to get 1 kg of rose oil you need 3000 - 3500 kg of petals from the pink Kazanluk rose, or 5000 kg from the white rose! The petals are picked in the morning, from 4 am until about 10 am; apparently petals picked in the afternoon lose up to 50% of their oil content.

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Mum and I both bought ourselves a bottle of rose liqueur from the tiny shop attached to the museum. Then we crossed the road and walked into a rose field. The roses were not very close together (the majority must have been picked already) but there were still a decent amount there and we both enjoyed looking round.

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From the rose field we headed into the town centre to visit the famous Thracian tomb. This we were unable to do; it was locked up and apparently only archaeologists and other official people are allowed in. We did however visit the full-scale replica round the corner. This is absolutely tiny, but the frescoes are fantastically well done. You would never guess that they are replicas if you didn't know otherwise.

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It was another hour and a half before we arrived in Plovdiv; both Mum and I dozed off on the way. The hostel we stayed at (Hiker's Hostel) wasn't as good as Guesthouse Old Plovdiv, but the owner was friendly and the place served our needs. After a rest, we went for a walk. Neither of us was particularly hungry for some reason, so instead of dinner we visited a Turkish coffeeshop attached to Dzhumaya Mosque. Mum had a decaf coffee and I had a normal Turkish coffee; to go with our drinks, Mum had baklava while I had sutlac (Turkish rice pudding).

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Posted by 3Traveller 14:16 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art mosque museum hostel roses mum plovdiv explorations kazanluk valley_of_the_roses turkish_cuisine Comments (0)

Into the mountains: Shipka Pass

Shipka and Shipka Pass


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Today we went back to Plovdiv to spend the night there before Mum's flight back to London tomorrow evening. Thursday is my normal weekday day off and I've booked tomorrow off as a day of holiday. To get to Plovdiv today, instead of going by bus I had arranged something special; a taxi to take us all the way there and drop us directly at our hostel. I arranged for the taxi man to take us through the mountains and stop at the Shipka Pass and the village of Shipka nearby before descending into the Valley of the Roses and the town of Kazanlak, where we hoped to get a sight of some rose fields and visit a UNESCO-listed Thracian tomb. This blog entry will detail our first two stops, at Shipka Pass and Shipka itself.

Set within the Central Balkan mountains, the Shipka Pass is very historically significant in Bulgaria as a battlefield during the War of Independence between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire in 1877 - 78. We stopped at a car park/ layby at the pass and I climbed up the peak next to it, which has a memorial at the top. This involved firstly 200 or 300 steps up a forested slope, then about 50 metres' walk to another set of 200 steps, which lead up to the memorial itself. Mum went up some of the first set and I continued up them all.

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It was exhausting, but definitely worth it; the views were stunning. I could see for miles and miles in every direction. When I reached the memorial there was a large group of schoolchildren on a school trip; their teacher got me to take a group photo of them all.

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Once I had returned, we continued 13 km down the road to the village of Shipka. Our destination was the Shipka Memorial Church, or to give it its full official name, the Memorial Temple of the Birth of Christ. It's also known informally as the Shipka Russian Church, as it was built in the 17th-century Muscovite style and is dedicated not only to the Bulgarians who died in the fight for independence but also to the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers who died alongside them against the Ottomans.

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The white and red outer decoration and the gleaming golden domes are a sight to behold; the interior decoration is also very impressive. Every inch of the pillars and arches, plus most of the walls as well, is part of a fresco. They looked different to normal frescoes in Bulgarian orthodox churches, too; in fact they looked like they had been inspired by the Arts & Crafts Movement. The church was finished in 1902, which is within the correct time period...

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Before we left the church we descended into the crypt, where we saw the gravestones of some of those who had perished in battle.

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When we went back outside the church we noticed hundreds of red beetles congregated in certain areas.

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Posted by 3Traveller 13:17 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains art bulgaria mum explorations orthodox_church shipka_pass Comments (0)

Balabanov House, the Roman stadium and more

Plovdiv


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At lunchtime we were due to catch the bus to Veliko Tarnovo, but we managed to fit quite a lot into the morning.

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The first place we went was another gorgeous National Revival house (the Old Town is full of them).

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In the courtyard we admired the roses - right now we are in the middle of the rose season in Bulgaria.

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From there we walked down the road to the Roman stadium remains, popping into one or two antique shops on the way (one of these shops had lots of amazing old painted wooden chests - we both coveted them, but potential transportation difficulties put us off buying any).

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The stadium lies in front of Dzhumaya Mosque, in the middle of the main shopping street. The seating in the stadium is made of the same gleaming white marble as those in the Roman amphitheatre.

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Our next destination was the intriguingly-named 'Singing Fountains' within Tsar Simeon's Gardens. I visited this park back in March, but it was still a bit wintry-looking then, plus I didn't go as far as the fountains. This time all the trees were fully in leaf and the flowers had bloomed. The fountains turned out to look quite impressive, set within a massive pool which I was desperate to swim in. The sun was very hot and the water looked so inviting! No evidence of singing though...

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After staying there a while we suddenly realised what the time was. Quick march back to Guesthouse Old Plovdiv! On the way back we saw part of a procession celebrating the Day of Culture & Literacy. This public holiday celebrates the Cyrillic alphabet in particular.

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We took a taxi to the North bus station, where I bought our tickets to Veliko Tarnovo. We had a bit of time to kill then, so we took turns to go next door to Lidl while the other person stayed to look after the bags.

Posted by 3Traveller 09:47 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art mosque museum hostel roses bulgaria mum procession plovdiv roman_remains house_museum Comments (0)

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