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Bucharest

Bucharest


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Bucharest was incredibly hot and humid, almost at Guayaquil levels, but very interesting.

First of all I had fun exploring the old town, passing through University Square on the way.

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There was no free breakfast at the hostel, so I visited a bakery instead and ate the result (a small savoury pastry sprinkled with poppy seeds and filled with bacon and melted cheese) next to a small statue of Romulus and Remus being fed by the wolf.

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Then I came across the Old Princely Court, some remains of a palace used and extended by Vlad the Impaler, who as it happens was born in Sighisoara, my next destination after Bucharest.

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First of all I went underground into the brick cellars - it was interesting, with the bonus of being deliciously cool - and then I looked round the rest.

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This included the accompanying church - originally built in 1559, but much-restored since then. The Romanian Orthodox Church seems to differ from the Bulgarian in that the candle-stands are actually boxes and are outside in a separate area. I bought and lit a candle for Dad, and after I'd done so a woman came up to me, pressed two small packets of biscuits and two boiled sweets into my hands, said something in Romanian and walked away! She did the same with another woman, who hadn't lit any candles yet.

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The old town also contained the old and beautiful Stavropoleos Church. It was covered in frescoes on the inside and I had fun finding out the names of the saints in them via transliteration. It seems that Romanian used to use the Cyrillic alphabet.

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I also loved its pretty, peaceful little courtyard, where I stopped to sit down and have a cold drink.

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The old town was definitely well worth looking round.

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Last of all I visited the National History Museum, which was great. Special mention to the anthropomorphic pottery, the stuffed wild boar, the exquisite metalwork from 5th - 3rd century BC (helmets, cow head-shaped drinking horn, diadem of gold leaves and fish-shaped silver harness appliques) and the 14th - 16th century weapons.

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After a rest back at the hostel, during which I had two more savoury pastries for a late lunch, followed the Ashes cricket live updates for a while and caught Kate online for a bit, I headed back out. My destination was the cemetery where Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu are buried, but on the way I stopped for a bit outside the infamous Palace of the Parliament. It was built on the orders of Ceaușescu and is the second largest building in the world (the Pentagon is the largest). A large part of the original city centre was wiped out to accommodate it.

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I found the cemetery OK, but it took much longer than I expected to walk there, so by the time I arrived at was nearly 19.30; it was supposed to close at 20.00. After spending about twenty minutes unsuccessfully looking for their graves, I had to give up and walk all the way back again. Although I knew which row and number their graves were, the numbers of the rows didn't seem to follow any particular order, and lots of the rows didn't have any number at all. It was quite maze-like and to be honest looking for the right graves was a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack! I'm still glad I went though, because it was interesting to see what a Romanian cemetery is like. Nearly all of the gravestones were shaped like crosses and were made of very white stone; there were some small mausoleums as well. I noticed lots of inlaid circular photos or pictures of the dead, like on the stones in the courtyards of the monasteries I've seen in Bulgaria. Outside the cemetery entrance there were lots of flower and coffin sellers with their wares on display at the side of the pavement.

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Instead of going straight back to the hostel, I made a diversion to an area of town I hadn't been to before, in order to have dinner at a restaurant I'd been recommended. I regretted it before I even got there, because I was so knackered (it was quite a long diversion) and as soon as I got there and saw a different restaurant there, I regretted it even more. It looked a bit posh and I was in not the cleanest of clothes and was literally dripping with sweat. Normally I would have just gone in anyway, but I was practically on my last legs by now and decided on the spur of the moment just to go in the nearest supermarket instead. I bought a pasta salad and a custard-like chocolate pudding, plus drinks, and tottered home. I knew that if I sat down for dinner at the restaurant, I wouldn't be able to get up again!

Posted by 3Traveller 08:57 Archived in Romania Tagged art palace cemetery museum hostel romania dad bucharest orthodox_church romanian_cuisine extreme_weather Comments (0)

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)

Lovely way to finish our holiday

Veliko Tarnovo and Sofia


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Our bus to Sofia didn't leave until 15.00, so this morning and early afternoon was spent packing, editing photos, walking along Gurko Street in the sunshine to the ETAP bus station to buy our bus tickets in advance, eating ice cream from a stall in the main street and having lunch and browsing the shops on the craftsmen's street.

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We had lunch on the balcony at Stratilat Café (an old favourite of mine), so we could look at the view while we were eating.

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On our way back from the station we passed a gathering by one of the monuments off the main street. There were lots of bikes around, along with a giant inflatable Nescafé mug and someone talking over a loudspeaker. I found out the next day that there was a mountain biking festival going on; cyclists were biking through the hills next to VT, down the hill of Varusha (the old town), emerging at this monument junction and then continuing through the town. We didn't get to see any of the actual cycling though.

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Dave's flight was at 21.55, so on arrival at the central bus station in Sofia we took a taxi straight to the airport from there. I say 'straight' but we actually had a bit of time to kill, so we had some dinner at the main café first. Pizza and Bulgarian rice pudding went down a treat.

Once I'd seen Dave off, I took a taxi to 'Ploshtad Makedonia', where Hostel Mostel is. I was in the same dorm where I'd been last week.

Tomorrow morning I will have just enough time for breakfast before I get the 9 o'clock bus back to Veliko Tarnovo.

It's Dad's birthday today, so I've had him in mind all day. I'm so glad that Dave was with me for most of the day.

Posted by 3Traveller 15:45 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged airport dad dave sofia bulgaria veliko_tarnovo bulgarian_cuisine gurko_street 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)

Beautiful Arbanasi

Arbanasi and Veliko Tarnovo


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I went on a lovely trip to Arbanasi today, taking a taxi there and then walking back downhill through a partly wooded gorge to the River Yantra and Veliko Tarnovo. Arbanasi is 3km away from the centre of VT, on a hilltop visible from my bedroom and kitchen windows.

I revisited the Church of the Nativity first. It looked just as wonderful as the first time I saw it!

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After that I thought about going to the most famous house museum in Arbanasi, but then I remembered that I'll be coming back here at least three times before I leave Bulgaria, so I might as well save the house museum to experience for the first time with a visitor!

Instead of that I decided to get some lunch on a terrace which had the most amazing views over Veliko Tarnovo, Tsarevets Hill and the other hills and enscarpments stretching into the distance. Right on the horizon I could see the snowcapped peaks of the Central Balkans.

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Tarator and margherita pizza were followed by a visit to the monastery of St Nicholas.

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This was small; there was a church in the middle, with what seemed to be accommodation for nuns and priests in the rest of the grounds. When I walked into the courtyard next to the church, I saw two black-garbed nuns standing next to a table piled with flowering willow branches. It's the day before Bulgarian Orthodox Palm Sunday, so I assumed that they were doing something to them in preparation for the next day. On Palm Sunday people here take willow twigs or branches to church to be blessed; they then tie the willow to the main entrance to their houses.

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The interior of the church wasn't quite as beautiful as some (it didn't have any frescoes, for example), but it did have lots of framed icons leaned up against the walls. I bought and lit a candle for Dad from the stall inside.

There are lots of other things to see in Arbanasi, but I decided to leave those for today because I knew I'd be coming back. No point looking at everything in one visit! I walked back through a gorge. I had a stream on my left hand side and on my right was the main road, but above me so I couldn't actually see it for most of the time. Not all that many cars went along the road anyway, so there wasn't much traffic noise. I could mainly just hear birdsong and the sound of the stream. At one point I saw two old ladies next to a willow tree by the stream, cutting off twigs - for use the next day, I assumed.

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Not long after that I got a good view of the Patriarchate Tower of Tsarevets Fortress in the distance (my photo didn't turn out that well though).

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Eventually I saw tiled rooftops through the trees and realised I was about to come out into the Asenov quarter of Veliko Tarnovo, down by the River Yantra and round the back and to one side of Tsarevets Hill. I hadn't been this far round before. I walked out of the wood onto a cobbled street flanked by white- and pink-blossomed trees...

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...then along the riverside until I reached the wooden bridge. I could see little fish in the river.

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All in all, it was a lovely outing. I couldn't believe I'd left it so long since my last visit! I should have made a trip out there while it was snowing in the winter.

Posted by 3Traveller 06:37 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains bridges art monastery dad bulgaria icons veliko_tarnovo church_of_the_nativity fortifications orthodox_church tsarevets_fortress bulgarian_cuisine river_yantra arbanasi traditional_customs palm_sunday Comments (0)

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