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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)

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: 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)

Glorious spring day

Veliko Tarnovo


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Today I went on a really nice walk down to the River Yantra and the museum church of St Peter & St Paul. It was my day off and was such a lovely spring day, I simply had to get out and about. As I stepped out of my flat I noticed that since only last Sunday the amount of blossom on the almond tree had noticeably increased. The scent of flowers and other plants filled the air as I walked down the road towards the Tsarevets plaza.

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On the plaza I noticed some Easter decorations; a giant basket filled with giant colourful eggs had been placed at the edge. After a quick photo I moved on down the road winding down the hill to the River Yantra. I saw lots more almond trees in blossom, some with martenitsas tied onto branches.

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When I reached the river I carried on past the Church of the Forty Martyrs, the main bridge and the wooden bridge to the Church of St Peter & St Paul. I came here back in December but the church was closed then. To my delight, I saw that today it was open.

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This church was originally built in the 13th century and was extended between the 16th and 18th centuries (and the roof tiles like quite recent too). It's a museum church now, not used for services. It had some very colourful remains of 14th, 16th and 17th century frescoes on its inner walls.

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On my wander around the small grounds, I noticed several bright red beetles with black spots - they weren't ladybirds though!

Posted by 3Traveller 05:46 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged bridges art museum bulgaria veliko_tarnovo orthodox_church river_yantra easter_celebrations 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)

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