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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)

Basarbovo Rock Monastery

Basarbovo Rock Monastery


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After Ivanovo, Basarbovo Monastery also proved to be a very interesting and picturesque destination. This monastery grounds were quite small, with a white cliff on the left hand side and a narrow road next to a river on the right. Hewn into the white cliff were four or five little chapels; one of them had colourful frescoes painted onto the outside wall.

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We climbed the stone steps up the cliff into the main one. It was quite richly decorated, with some icons (including a marvellous one of St George & the Dragon) and a carved wooden iconostasis. We met two women from Kazakhstan - the first people from that country I've knowingly met.

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Outside the entrance to this chapel was a space, also hewn out of the cliff face, containing benches around the sides and some candle stands. On the other side of this space there was a tiny office selling little religious icons, fridge magnets, candles, etc.

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The other chapels, which we accessed by going outside the 'hallway' space, descending some of the cliff face steps and then going up again but to the right hand side, were more plain and were even smaller, but were still atmospheric. Each one of them had little icon cards leaning against a window, with small coins scattered in front of them on the stone windowsill. Two of the little chapels also had angels carved deeply into a wall.

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Once we'd returned to ground level, we wandered round the grounds. These were small, but very green and lovely. The outside of the church looked like it had been restored very recently and there was building work going on inside, so we couldn't enter. Behind the church there were steps up onto the outer wall, so we climbed up and walked along it and round to some more hollows in the cliff. These hollows had some wooden planks laid down on the ground; some had lots of chalk dust on them.

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As we explored, we heard the sound of bells once more - we looked down to see three black and white cows with cowbells, walking along the road with a cowherd.

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Before we returned to Veliko Tarnovo, we had one more destination to come... the town of Ruse, which lies on the River Danube.

Posted by 3Traveller 13:03 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art monastery sisters bulgaria icons explorations orthodox_church 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)

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)

Boxing Day

Veliko Tarnovo and Sofia Airport


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We spent most of the day in Veliko Tarnovo, lying in, eating Christmas dinner leftovers for lunch and doing some shopping. I bought myself a lovely real leather handbag and a beautiful, colourful handpainted icon of St George & the Dragon. The latter was something I'd been thinking of buying for myself ever since I arrived in Bulgaria (St George is popular here, so his image often appears in icons). The shop was small, but still managed to have two sections; both were filled with antiques, but the smaller one also had lots of icons on the walls. While I looked at the icons, Dave inspected the antiques and bought a fancy wooden box - he originally looked at another box but it turned out to belong to the owner and was the only one not to actually be on sale!

We took the 5pm bus to Sofia without any problems. I'd bought our tickets in the morning, just in case the buses got booked up (I've never done this in Bulgaria until now, but I didn't want to risk the chance of missing our flight due to not being able to get a bus to Sofia at all). After I'd done that, we both sampled some hot chocolate from the Italian hot drink vending machine in the street in front of the ETAP bus station. These machines are spread out throughout Veliko Tarnovo; the drinks names are in Bulgarian but the instructions are in Italian. The hot chocolate was only 50 stotinki (20p) each and was quite small, but delicious.

At Sofia bus station I hoped the OK-Supertrans taxi desk would be open, but although it was only 8.30pm, it was closed. The opening hours listed there and in my guidebook claimed that it remained open until 10pm. I was hesitant to catch a taxi from outside the station without having gone through the taxi desk, because the only time I'd done that before I'd got royally ripped off, but now it looked like we had no choice. To guard against being ripped off I got Dave to take a photo of their listed rates. Maybe the driver we ended up with had seen us do this (or maybe he was just nice and honest), because as it turned out we didn't get ripped off at all.

It was snowing in Sofia. Inside Sofia Airport it was lovely and warm though and for the first few hours of our wait we were almost the only people in the whole terminal apart from two security staff. Our flight wasn't until 5.30am. We took turns to wander around (Dave went outside and took some pictures of the snow), we played another long game of 10-card rummy and I read part of a biography of Captain Cook on my Kindle. Dave tried to sleep but failed because lying across the seats was too uncomfortable.

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Posted by 3Traveller 09:23 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged snow airport christmas buses dave sofia bulgaria icons veliko_tarnovo Comments (0)

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