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Sozopol: Gem on the Black Sea coast

Sozopol


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Day trip to the historic town of Sozopol today.

For our free breakfast we had to walk down the road for 30 seconds to Hotel Fors, which is in partnership with our guesthouse. We took our pick from the buffet of cucumber, salami, scrambled eggs, frankfurter pieces, boiled eggs, mini croissants, cheese slices, slices of cake, jam, fruit juice and hot drinks; then we headed straight off to the south bus station. I had been told that all buses to coastal destinations leave from here. It was only five minutes' walk. Once we got there, however, a large construction site was where the station should have been. Ah. I suddenly realised why the bus had taken us to a different bus station yesterday. Just to confirm my suspicion, in Bulgarian I asked the lady at the nearby ferry service hut where we should get the bus to Sozopol. "Avtogara Zapad" she said. That's the west bus station. Suspicions confirmed!

A short taxi ride later we arrived at the west bus station. The driver asked us if we wanted to pay him 30 leva to take us to Sozopol - no thank you was the answer, as I happened to know that a bus ticket there only costs 4.50! At the station, first of all the lady at the ticket desk helpfully said we had to pay the driver, not her; then the kindly lady at the snack kiosk gave me a short impromptu lesson on the exact pronunciation of the Bulgarian word for a specific type of flattened chocolate doughnut! We finally boarded the bus ten minutes before it set off.

We arrived in Sozopol thirty to forty minutes later and immediately began walking around. It was a beautiful day. We saw fascinating old wooden buildings, of a type neither Dave or I had seen before, and lots of old stone buildings with terracotta tiled roofs. We passed at least two street stalls selling fig jam, but neither of us bought any.

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After a lovely wander around the cobbled streets, we came across a place I had heard about and was keen to visit; the church of Sveta Bogoroditsa. Like all churches built during the Ottoman period, it was wasn't allowed to be higher than a mosque, so it was built partly below ground level; when we entered the purple flower-filled courtyard we had to go down some steps to reach the entrance.

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It was small but wonderful inside. Nearly everything was wooden! Even the pillars were made of wood; I could still see the marks of the plane. The ceiling was wooden and the iconostasis and pulpit were made of fantastically carved, darker wood. I loved the contrast between the darkness of the wood and the vivid colours of the icons. I bought and lit a candle before leaving. Unfortunately there was no chance of taking any photos of the interior because the woman at the candle/ icon card stall inside the church would have seen me.

From there we walked on to Sveti Georgi church; today is the Bulgarian St George's Day, a big deal in Bulgaria, so I thought there might be something special going on there in celebration. It was lunchtime, however, and I noticed a sign saying that it didn't re-open until 2pm, so we went off to search out some lunch instead.

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Lunch was at an Italian restaurant. The pizza was simple but absolutely fantastic - mine was definitely one of the best I've ever had. We also shared a tasty tuna salad and some garlic bread.

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By the time we finished lunch it was past two o'clock, so after buying postcards, we headed back to Sveti Georgi. This church was built in the 19th century, so although there was a lovely picture of St George & the Dragon over the entrance, the interior looked newer than that of Sveta Bogoroditsa, and wasn't quite as atmospheric. I didn't notice any signs of celebrations apart from some tulips which had been placed in front of a big icon of St George. The other icons didn't have them.

Next to the church of Sveti Georgi were the remains of another church. Not much left now though apart from a few arches and wall foundations.

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The beach was our next destination. It was very pleasant, with a great view of the Old Town of Sozopol on the headland on our left. Like in Varna, the sea was very clear but also very cold! Dave swam but I just paddled. I went beachcombing but didn't see much apart from purple and white mussel shells.

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From the beach we wandered back to the Old Town, where we were due to catch the 17.30 bus back to Burgas. We had a little bit of time to kill until then, so we walked over to a shop with an ice cream cabinet outside the front with jars of fig jam on top. Dave almost bought a jar but then backed out. An ice cream kept me going until the bus arrived.

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Posted by 3Traveller 04:43 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art coast beach buses dave bulgarian bulgaria icons sozopol black_sea orthodox_church Comments (0)

Roman baths and the Varna Gold Treasure

Varna and Burgas


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Our bus to Burgas didn't leave until 15.00, so we had all morning and early afternoon to explore Varna further. Our destinations were the Roman thermae (public baths) and the Archaeological Museum.

After breakfast we checked out and put our rucksacks in the hostel's luggage storage before heading out to the thermae.

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These ruins are expansive and well preserved; enough of the walls survive for the layout of the different rooms to be seen clearly - the changing rooms, frigidarium (cold pool), tepidarium (warm pool), caldarium (hot pool)...

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...an amazing hypocaust and the toilet area (down a level and in a cloistered area).

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Our experience was heightened even more by the sunshine, lush greenery and flowering bushes. We were also the only people there the entire time!

From there we walked on to the Archaeology Museum, via some lunch and a lovely small park containing fountains, a flower market and lots of purple-blossomed trees.

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The museum was very interesting and we had enough time to look round all of it at a leisurely pace. We saw the famous Varna gold treasure (possibly the oldest worked gold in the world), very early Christian crosses, Thracian and Roman artifacts and statues, a large mosaic from the Episcopal Temple of Odessos (Roman Varna), the skeleton of a Copper Age 10/12-year-old child, some wonderful vividly coloured icons (some very old) and weapons and pottery from the Stone, Copper and Bronze Ages.

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Back at Yo-Ho Hostel their printer wasn't working, so instead of printing out a street map of the route from the bus station to our guesthouse in Burgas, I drew it on a piece of paper. We took a taxi from there to the private bus station, where we got straight onto a minibus to Burgas. The woman at the ticket desk had told me we had to pay the driver, not her, so we did so before we got on. 14 leva each for a two-and-a-half-hour journey - not bad!

We saw some incredibly green, lush, hilly scenery in the first half of the journey, with occasional views of the sea. Every now and then we passed through a small village with leafy vines growing on frames over the pavements and in people's front gardens. Once we had passed the unlovely town of Sunny Beach, the landscape flattened out into fields.

On arrival in Burgas we had some problems getting to the guesthouse. They'd said that they were only five minutes' walk from the bus station, but we couldn't find them anywhere - and the roads didn't tally at all with the ones on my drawn map. One of them had the same or very similar name. We wandered around for a while before giving up and getting a taxi. It was only once I'd got my hands on a free Burgas city map from the guesthouse reception that I realised what the problem had been - we'd arrived at a different bus station to the one on my map. My guidebook had said that all arrivals from and departures to coastal destinations are at the south bus station, but we'd arrived at the west one, quite a way out from the city centre! Oh well - we'd got there in the end and were settled into our guesthouse, which was a very clean, modern one, like a hotel.

We had dinner at a pizza restaurant round the corner; I had tarator and we shared a pizza and some mozzarella balls. Fireworks went off as we waited for our food to arrive, but we couldn't see them, only hear the bangs!

Posted by 3Traveller 03:40 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged coast market museum hostel buses dave burgas varna black_sea roman_remains bulgarian_cuisine 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: 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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