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Plovdiv: Baba Marta, Roman amphitheatre and icons

Plovdiv


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I woke up in the middle of the night to an absolutely stiflingly hot dorm room. I walked over to the portable heater which was on full blast and after fiddling fruitlessly with controls I couldn't see properly in the dark, ended up just pulling the plug out of the socket in the wall. The other three people were fast asleep so I hoped they wouldn't mind.

I didn't get back to sleep for another couple of hours and when I did, I woke up again at 7.30 and then for good at 9.30.

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Breakfast was decent and quite quick and then I was out of the door for an exciting day of exploration! The first place I went to was an icon gallery round the corner from my hostel; not as big as the gallery in the crypt of Aleksander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia, it was nonetheless very good.

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From there I moved on to the Roman amphitheatre. It was discovered by accident in 1972 after it was uncovered by a landslide; it's since been restored and is a pretty impressive sight, especially when the white marble seats gleam in the sun. It was built in Philippopolis (the Roman city where Plovdiv is now) between 114-117 AD during the reign of Emperor Trajan, could seat 6000 spectators and was used for gladiator fights and poetry and music competitions as well as theatrical performances. It was also used as the seat of the Thracian Provincial Assembly.

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It was 5 leva to get in. As I wandered round I heard bells clanging and the voice of a cantor singing and chanting from a church nearby. I sat on a seat and looked down at the very low, wooden stage below - it is used for plays and musical performances nowadays. For a minute I imagined myself at a Roman performance...

After I left the amphitheatre I passed by the church of Sveti Dimitar and on an impulse, went in. Before I actually entered the church, though, a man claiming to connected to the church showed me the English language information about the church at the entrance and took me behind the church to see a memorial to someone. Then he gave me a begging letter written in English and Bulgarian - apparently he used to be a skilled builder but had a bad accident and couldn't work any more or pay hospital bills. He showed me some major scars on one hand and arm; I thought that even if he was exaggerating or making up his story, he probably needed money more than I did anyway, so I gave him a 5 leva note and went inside.

I bought and lit a candle before I looked round. The church had a white marble iconostasis - the only marble iconostasis in the world, apparently; the marble was quarried from the nearby Rhodope mountains. I was disappointed to find out that the old icons had been replaced in 2007 (I prefer the older ones).

After that I carried on down the road a little bit until I reached the Church of the Mother of God (also known as the Assumption Cathedral). This was more atmospheric and colourful than the church of St Dimitar. Included in the painted, wooden iconostasis was a big icon of the Virgin & Child framed with two rows of apples, one row green and the other red. By a pillar there was another big icon of the same subject; this one was framed with white flowers and had red and green apples only at the top.

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The last thing I did before heading back to the hostel was walk on to the Dzhumaya Mosque. It was closed, scuppering my intention to go inside, so I walked round the surrounding area instead. It was next to the remains of a Roman stadium I'd seen briefly the day before. Set up in the street were lots of stalls selling red and white martenitsas. These are traditionally exchanged by Bulgarians on 1st March, which is called Baba Marta Day; the mythical figure of Baba Marta ('Granny March') brings with her the end of the cold of winter and the beginning of spring. You can read more about martenitsas here.

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Back at the hostel I had a lovely video chat with family, arranged a trip to Bachkovo Monastery & Asenovgrad Fortress for the next day and had a kashkavalka for lunch. When I went out again I went into the Church of St Konstantin & Elena - the oldest church in Plovdiv. The iconostasis was even more magnificent than the one in the Assumption cathedral.

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I went back online at the hostel at 5 in order to follow the 6 Nations match between England and Ireland (England lost, unfortunately). For dinner I ate out at the restaurant attached to the Philippopolis Museum & Art Gallery; I had grilled halloumi and mushrooms for my main and creme brulee for pudding - at least it claimed it was creme brulee, but had syrup on the top instead of crystallized sugar. Still delicious though!

Posted by 3Traveller 03:30 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art mosque cathedral hostel bulgaria icons plovdiv explorations orthodox_church roman_remains baba_marta traditional_customs Comments (0)

Sisters depart

Veliko Tarnovo


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A lie-in was followed by lunch at Taverna, a restaurant only round the corner from my flat. I suggested this place because I know it does good chicken kavarma (chicken and vegetable stew cooked and served in a clay pot) and tarator and the décor is atmospheric.

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After lunch we went to the Han Hadji Nikoli museum and art gallery. At the moment it has two temporary exhibitions on loan from the Numismatic Museum in Ruse; one containing mainly Scythian coins and one of archaeological items from Ancient Greece and Rome. Highlights were the Roman glass cornucopia, a decree (written at Serdica - Roman Sofia - on 10th June, 311 AD) from Emperor Licinius regarding the privileges of soldiers and veterans, a Ancient Greek pot and some objects made from beaten gold such as jewellery, shield centres and an axe. There was also an exhibition of modern icons and some other paintings by Bulgarian artists.

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The building was very pleasant to look round, too; I'd been to the restaurant before, but not around the rest of it. We climbed various sets of stairs and walked along pillared walkways which overlooked the courtyard, the tiled roofs of nearby buildings and (once we reached the third floor) another part of Veliko Tarnovo on a hill in the distance.

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We had hoped to have to time to visit the fruit & vegetable market and also walk down to the River Yantra, but unfortunately we didn't. We did however go into a supermarket so that Emma and Kate could look round and pick up one or two things for themselves, family members and friends. The sun was out again when we left, so on our way back to my flat, we stopped at one or two lookout points for photos.

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Soon after we got back we had some of my colleagues round for birthday cake and some tea or coffee. Emma and Kate packed their stuff and eventually they had to depart. I walked to the ETAP bus station to see them off on their journey back to Sofia. Ahead of them was a long overnight wait at Sofia Airport for their early-morning flight to London.

The next day they told me that although their flight had had to make an unscheduled stop at Budapest Airport because another passenger had a medical emergency, they'd got home OK

Posted by 3Traveller 13:19 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art museum sisters bulgaria veliko_tarnovo han_hadji_nikoli bulgarian_cuisine birthday_celebration Comments (0)

Back in England

Sofia Airport, London Luton Airport and St Albans


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The rest of our wait at Sofia Airport went quite quickly. In the Departures lounge there was a temporary display of beautiful photographs of Bulgaria for us to look at, duty-free to browse (if not buy from) and a café to consume toasted baguettes at.

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Having been up all night, we were incredibly tired and drowsy by now. Almost as soon as I sat down on the plane I fell into that disconcerting, dreamlike state between sleep and wakefulness. I remember opening my eyes and looking out of the window, wondering hazily what the noise was outside; it turned out we were still stationary and an ice-and-snow-melting process was going on. I swear I saw hot air being puffed out around the bottom of the plane. Then I drifted off again, away into the distance, time seeming to stand still and move forward simultaneously. After what seemed like hours, I looked up dazedly at the night sky and thought 'we're in the air'...only to see when I looked down out of the window that we were moving, but on the ground. Only half an hour had gone by. Then the next time I was conscious, we were actually in the air. The take off had completely passed me by.

At some point over the European mainland there were no clouds at all and we were flying quite low. It was just at the point where the darkness was pretty much total but one part of the horizon was just starting to turn blue - the very earliest stage of sunrise. We flew low enough over a city for me to get a good view of the layout of the city all lit up by streetlights - I'd never had such a good aerial view of a city at night from a plane before.

It was raining when we arrived at Luton... welcome to Blighty!

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We quickly made our way to Luton Airport Parkway rail station via the shuttle bus and got on the next train to St Albans.

Posted by 3Traveller 10:17 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art trains united_kingdom airport dave sofia bulgaria Comments (0)

Monument to the Assen Dynasty

Veliko Tarnovo


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Today I went on a walk to a place I see every day on my way to and from work; the Monument to the Assen Dynasty, which is on a hill surrounded on three sides by the River Yantra.

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On the walk over the bridge to get there I noticed something one of my students had told me about the week before; padlocks locked to the bridge railings. On each padlock was engraved or scratched two people's initials. Apparently, couples come here with an engraved/ scratched padlock, lock it to the railings and then throw the key into the river below. This symbolises the strength and longevity of their relationship. I got the impression from my student that this is quite a new tradition, and I don't know how seriously it's done, but I still think it's interesting.

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Once I reached the monument I admired it for a bit, took in the amazing views of Veliko Tarnovo on this side of the hill and took some photos. I couldn't see my flat because that looks over another part of the river from the other side of the hill. The Assen Monument consists of an upright sword, flanked by four Bulgarian Tsars on horseback. From 1185 to 1241, these Tsars helped the Bulgarian State reach its political, cultural and economic height, with Tarnevgrad (as VT was formerly known) as its capital.

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Behind the monument there was an art gallery, but to my surprise (considering it was a Saturday and a nice sunny day to boot, so quite a few people were around), it was dark inside and locked up. A notice said to ring the bell for entry, and that it was open today, but I chickened out of doing so. I thought it would feel really awkward having someone open up the whole thing just for me, even if maybe other visitors would come in after me. I will definitely go inside the place before I leave Bulgaria, however.

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So instead of going inside the gallery, I continued walking, taking more photos as I went.

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Soon I came across a fork in the road, with an extremely long set of steps up a hill in the middle. I climbed all the steps to the top of the hill, which is part of Sveta Gora Park. I climbed higher and higher until I could see all of VT and the hills surrounding it; I couldn't get many photos, however, because from the viewing point there were lots of trees and shrubbery in the way on each side (which were too steep and slippery to attempt scrambling down). It was great to get that sense of height though!

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After I had climbed back down all the steps and walked back past the art gallery and monument and across the bridge, I went on to the little Christmas market round the corner from Mother Bulgaria Square. To be honest, it didn't seem to sell anything that you wouldn't see in a Christmas market in the UK, and I didn't buy anything. Then I went back to the flat to rest and have some late lunch. I wanted to preserve my energy for the school Christmas party that evening!

Posted by 3Traveller 03:17 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged bridges art market bulgaria veliko_tarnovo river_yantra mother_bulgaria_square assen_monument sveta_gora_park Comments (0)

National Revival Day

Sofia


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The first place I went to contrasted greatly to the traditional Bulgarian Orthodox church interior and icons I'd seen the day before; the Monument to the Soviet Army, which was built in 1954. Unsurprisingly, it looked very uncared-for, with some graffiti about and some grass growing between many of the paving stones. I stood about for a while, picturing parades that may well have taken place there. Rather surreally, there was a sculpture of a giant spoon next to it.

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After that I walked back past the fruit & vegetable market, which was still setting up when I'd come past before.

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I had to get a photo of one of the stalls because for a while I couldn't work out what was on it. I'm still not entirely sure what they were but I think they could have been halves of extremely large hollowed-out squashes that had been lightly grilled on a little grillstand next to the main stall.

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Next to the market I bought a 'kashkavalka' from a typical Bulgarian bakery where the products are displayed in the glass window, you say what you want and the assistant passes it through a hatch. Kashkavalki are spiral rolls with melted kashkaval, a type of yellow cheese, on top. That kashkavalka was simply the best cheesy roll I've ever had.

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From the bakery I walked to Sveti Nedelya church to take some photos. As I stood by the side of the church, which is raised up some steps, a rather surreal incident happened where Charlie Chaplin tried to persuade me to come to his café...

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After this exchange I went inside the church for another look-around. It was quite crowded due to it being a public holiday (National Revival Day). There was a security guard inside. I sat down for a while on a seat at one side and watched a blessing of bread and wine ceremony unfold. First of all a priest and a man holding a large, lit candle walked anticlockwise around a small altar table with some bread and a bottle of wine on it. The priest was chanting and swinging incense as he went. While they were doing that, a small semicircle of people gathered in front of a central altar table, which itself was directly in front of a very dark, carved wooden table with icons on it. This table also had bread and wine on it and after the priest had finished with the first table, he processed around this one as well, chanting and swinging incense once more.

Just as that happened, a woman came up to me and the couple of other people sitting down and gave us each a chocolate biscuit. The others ate theirs straight away, so I did too - it turned out to have jam inside. As I finished eating, the priest chanted to the the semicircle from a Bible; he then placed it on the main table and chanted directly to it, with his back to the semicircle.

Throughout the whole thing, lots of people were wandering around, praying to icons and lighting candles as if there wasn't a ceremony taking place. I walked over to a carved wooden box I had seen before when I was with Mum; this time the metal statue of the saint lying inside the box had been dressed in purple shoes and a purple velvet robe with gold brocade. As I sat down again the priest was talking to the semicircle, which then broke up and departed.

After leaving the church I went on to the Royal Palace to visit the Ethnographical Museum and the National Gallery. On the way there, I finally managed to catch the Changing of the Guard outside the President's Building! It was a small ceremony, but involved colourful uniforms and lots of goose-stepping.

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Seeing as I was so close by, I diverted and went inside the Rotonda Church of St George, the little circular church with Roman remains that I mentioned in a previous email. Mum and I had visited, but didn't have time to go inside it properly.

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It had some murals on the walls and some of the brickwork showed; the bricks were very narrow and obviously very old, like the ones at the church of Sveta Sofia, where I'd been with Mum the day before.

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There were some tables set up in the middle with food and drink on them and various people standing around eating and drinking. I guessed it might be a special thing put on for National Revival Day, with any visitors allowed to partake, I decided not to join in. I bought a postcard and a fridge magnet and went outside for another quick look at the Roman remains instead. There was a little shrine to St George next to the outside wall.

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The Ethnographical Museum was interesting, just as I thought it would be. I didn't know that Bulgaria was a major silk producer in Ottoman times, after silkworms were introduced to Byzantium from China. It didn't say exactly why Bulgaria was such a centre of the silk industry, but maybe it was because to breed silkworms you need lots of mulberry trees for them to feed on, and Bulgaria had/ has exactly the right climate or soil to grow them. The industry continues in Bulgaria right up to the present day, but is much reduced these days.

There was also interesting information about and exhibits from the traditional building, tobacco, linen flax and cotton industries, embroidery, woodcarving and traditional soap made from pig fat and limestone.

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As well as Bulgarian exhibits, there was a room of Japanese prints and woodcuts and another room with traditional, colourful, spun cotton balls made for the Japanese New Year; this room had Venetian mirror on the walls and an inlaid wooden floor with five types of wood (a museum attendant told me) - it still looked like the interior of a palace. Apparently the last Queen of Bulgaria died in this room.

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Then there was a marble staircase down to a marble-floored corridor to rooms filled with photos and momentoes of Boris III, the last Tsar of Bulgaria, and his wife, who was Italian. The signs here were mostly in Bulgarian and Italian, unlike the ones in the rest of the museum, which were in Bulgarian and English.

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Next came the National Gallery, which wasn't quite as big as I was expecting. There was a photography exhibition by an American called Brian Dailey, mostly very colourful portraits but also a 'Morpheus' series of surrealist, dreamlike photos that I particularly liked.

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Upstairs was a big exhibition of works by the 20th-century Bulgarian artist Nikolay Nikov. It was filled with photos of the artist, watercolours, oil on canvas, cardboard and wood, linocuts, lithographs and ink on cardboard; quite a range of styles, but colourful and well worth seeing.

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There was also some Bulgarian, Italian and English information about Michelangelo, but no paintings, which I found slightly bizarre.

On the way back to my hostel I bought a massive slice of pizza for only 2.19 leva (89p) from one of the many pizza counters in Sofia. As I was eating it I came across a small marching protest on Boulevard Vitosha. I think it was by refugees or in solidarity with them. Lots of flag-waving and chanting, but no sense of danger at all.

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After they had passed by I took the opportunity to go inside the big H&M nearby, to look for work trousers, but didn't find any ones I liked. Then, seeing as I was on Boulevard Vitosha, I bought from my favourite cake shop 5 syrupy batter-like things that I had tried before....

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Last stop was a visit to the same bakery I'd been to in the morning, to buy 5 kashkavalki; two to have for dinner and three to save for breakfast and the journey the next morning. The woman gave me a free chocolate-filled roll and a glazed ring of bread with poppy seeds. Then straight back to the hostel, because I was knackered. I did have to go back out for a bottle of Coke Zero, but after that I just collapsed in bed, read my Kindle, had dinner in bed and then went to sleep early, because I had to get up very early the next morning.

Posted by 3Traveller 12:32 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art market museum hostel sofia bulgaria procession icons orthodox_church roman_remains bulgarian_cuisine boulevard_vitosha soviet_monument traditional_customs Comments (0)

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