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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)

Lovely relaxing Plovdiv

Plovdiv


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Once I'd got back to Plovdiv from Asenovgrad Fortress I checked my email at the hostel and took some photos of the common room, woodcarving and courtyard before going out again.

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I went back into the St Konstantin & Elena church briefly, because I noticed they'd opened the main entrance which had been closed the day before;

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From there I walked to Danov Hill and climbed up it to the Clock Tower.

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The Clock Tower doesn't actually have a visible clock face, but while I was there I heard a bell strike two. You can't climb up the tower, so I just sat in the sun on a nice smooth rock and gazed out over Plovdiv. I could hear lots of birdsong and it was all very peaceful and lovely. In the distance I could see Nebet Tepe, the hill with the fortress remains on it. I walked round the terrace for a bit before going back down.

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At the foot of the hill I walked into a restaurant recommended in my guidebook (thinking that I'd have a big, late lunch and then just have a snack for dinner) but then walked straight out again because it was so big yet so busy I could just tell it would take me ages to get seated, let alone get any food. Instead of that I ended up getting a takeaway box of white rice and Chinese chicken & vegetables from a 'China Panda' café close to the Dzumaya Mosque and the main pedestrian street. I ate it in the square. Once I'd finished eating I walked round the perimeter of the mosque again, but it was still closed. Such a shame - I really wanted to look inside.

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Instead, I went down into the Roman stadium remains (I'd looked at them from the street before, but not actually been down and got close up).

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Back at the hostel I chilled for the rest of the evening. Two German girls from Berlin moved into the 4-bed dorm, in Plovdiv only for one night on a stop between Sofia and Istanbul. I had a kashkavalka for dinner and read more of my 'Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent' Alexander Humboldt book.

Posted by 3Traveller 14:39 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mosque hostel bulgaria clock_tower plovdiv orthodox_church roman_remains bulgarian_cuisine Comments (0)

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)

Plovdiv: Start of the March holiday weekend

Plovdiv


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I'm typing this sitting in the wonderfully atmospheric common room at Hostel Old Plovdiv. The wooden ceiling is very high and has intricately carved leaves in the middle; this is a historic house, built in 1868 for a rich, local tobacco merchant. The whole hostel is filled with antiques, there are original Roman wall foundations in the breakfast room and right now I'm looking through the window at the trees, whitewashed wall and tiled roof in the courtyard. Church bells have just begun clanging nearby.

The hostel is within the historic Old Town;

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The journey here from Veliko Tarnovo took about four and a half hours, though that included a 20 minute stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere and half an hour at the bus station in the town of Stara Zagora. As soon as I'd arrived (at a different bus station I'd been expecting), found my hostel and checked in, I went for a walk around the Old Town. The sun was shining and my surroundings were so beautiful, I was filled with the joy of life.

The first place I went was only five minutes away; a hill called 'Nebet Tepe'. It has fortress ruins dating from Thracian and Roman times, the early Byzantine period and the Middle Ages. There isn't all that much left to see now, but still enough for a lovely wander round and some photos of the amazing views over the city. I really recommend this place for a visit. I could definitely see why a fortress was built here!

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After Nebet Tepe I walked round the corner to the Regional Ethnographical Museum. It's very picturesque, held within a very historic wooden building.

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There were hundreds of interesting exhibits - mummers' Carnival costumes; musical instruments such as clay and willow whistles, a harmonium, goatskin bagpipes, kavali (end-blown wooden flutes) and gadulki (long, bowed string instruments, possibly descended from the rebec); equipment used for winemaking, beekeeping, tobacco harvesting, rose oil and rosewater-making, weaving, embroidery, metalworking and other traditional crafts; traditional folk costumes of the region (many individual for a specific village); and many different black and white National Geographic photos from the 19th and first quarter of the 20th centuries.

A wander down to the main street followed the museum, mainly because I was starving (it was past three o'clock and I'd had no lunch yet). I tracked down a slice of pizza and saw part of a Roman stadium that was discovered beneath a shopping centre a few years ago.

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Next I went back to the hostel to put my feet up for a bit until it was time to return to Nebet Tepe to watch sunset - something I'd decided to do while I was there the first time. I settled myself by one of the fortress walls and stayed for about half an hour.

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At one point two women came up and one of them started throwing something out of a jar over the side of the wall; for a second, out of the corner of my eye, I thought she was throwing ashes, but then when I looked properly I saw it was purple or blue powder. She was talking and laughing with her friend as she did it.

After watching the sun go down I found a place to have dinner. The restaurant I went to was pricier than I was expecting, so I had to go for the cheaper options. I had a very tasty wild mushroom soup (broth-like, without any cream) as a starter and then some poached eggs in yoghurt and feta cheese sauce; the latter wasn't an option I'd seen anywhere before, especially in a dinner menu, but it tasted delicious and was more filling than it looked, too.

Church of Sts Konstantin and Elena, Old Town

Church of Sts Konstantin and Elena, Old Town

Posted by 3Traveller 02:40 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged museum hostel buses bulgaria plovdiv explorations roman_remains traditional_customs Comments (0)

Arrival in Veliko Tarnovo for Christmas

Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo


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Breakfast at Hostel Mostel was excellent, one of the best hostel breakfasts I've ever had; Bulgarian yoghurt, Bulgarian feta cheese ('cirene'), boiled eggs, olives, salad items, scrambled eggs, sliced apple, sliced kiwi fruit, waffles, jam, chocolate spread, cereal, milk, juice, tea and coffee. After filling ourselves up we had a game of pool on the free pool table, packed up our stuff and asked reception staff to order a taxi to the main bus station for us.

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The time was now about 9.45 am. As soon as we arrived I bought tickets to Veliko Tarnovo, though not as easily as I'd expected. The company I wanted to use, ETAP, had no spaces left on any bus until 2pm, so I checked another company option instead, seeing from their timetable that their next bus to VT was at 11.30 am. They professed to have no tickets whatsoever for any bus to VT, however, so I had to go back to the ETAP desk and buy the 2pm tickets after all.

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So a long wait was ahead of us. Oh well, we'd been in similar situations before on our various travels and knew there was absolutely no point getting stressed out or annoyed about it; a laid-back approach is by far the best to take. So we took ourselves, Dave's big case and my rucksack upstairs to the seating area, made ourselves as comfortable as we could and played a mammoth 10-round game of 10-card rummy, a process which took up nearly an hour. (Dave won.)

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At 12.30 we wandered over to a food counter and had a very leisurely lunch of pizza and (in my case) créme caramel. Then we went down to wait by the bus until the doors opened and we could get on.

The journey was uneventful, though we did see a beautiful sunset. It was completely dark when we arrived in VT. We stopped for a few photos on the way to my flat so we didn't get in until just past 6pm.

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Dave started unpacking and sampled one of the bottles of Bulgarian beer I'd bought for him a few days ago. We also went next door to buy some 1kg tubs of honey from my landlady.

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After about an hour we went out for dinner at Han Hadji Nikoli. We shared an antipasti plate, Dave had a Bulgarian pork grill and I had stuffed chicken breasts, with buttered broccoli as a side. Great quality, as always.

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It had been a long day, so we went straight back to the flat after dinner, finished unpacking and headed for bed.

Posted by 3Traveller 06:18 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged night christmas hostel buses dave sofia bulgaria veliko_tarnovo han_hadji_nikoli bulgarian_cuisine Comments (0)

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