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Sisters depart

Veliko Tarnovo


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A lie-in was followed by lunch at Taverna, a restaurant only round the corner from my flat. I suggested this place because I know it does good chicken kavarma (chicken and vegetable stew cooked and served in a clay pot) and tarator and the décor is atmospheric.

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After lunch we went to the Han Hadji Nikoli museum and art gallery. At the moment it has two temporary exhibitions on loan from the Numismatic Museum in Ruse; one containing mainly Scythian coins and one of archaeological items from Ancient Greece and Rome. Highlights were the Roman glass cornucopia, a decree (written at Serdica - Roman Sofia - on 10th June, 311 AD) from Emperor Licinius regarding the privileges of soldiers and veterans, a Ancient Greek pot and some objects made from beaten gold such as jewellery, shield centres and an axe. There was also an exhibition of modern icons and some other paintings by Bulgarian artists.

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The building was very pleasant to look round, too; I'd been to the restaurant before, but not around the rest of it. We climbed various sets of stairs and walked along pillared walkways which overlooked the courtyard, the tiled roofs of nearby buildings and (once we reached the third floor) another part of Veliko Tarnovo on a hill in the distance.

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We had hoped to have to time to visit the fruit & vegetable market and also walk down to the River Yantra, but unfortunately we didn't. We did however go into a supermarket so that Emma and Kate could look round and pick up one or two things for themselves, family members and friends. The sun was out again when we left, so on our way back to my flat, we stopped at one or two lookout points for photos.

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Soon after we got back we had some of my colleagues round for birthday cake and some tea or coffee. Emma and Kate packed their stuff and eventually they had to depart. I walked to the ETAP bus station to see them off on their journey back to Sofia. Ahead of them was a long overnight wait at Sofia Airport for their early-morning flight to London.

The next day they told me that although their flight had had to make an unscheduled stop at Budapest Airport because another passenger had a medical emergency, they'd got home OK

Posted by 3Traveller 13:19 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art museum sisters bulgaria veliko_tarnovo han_hadji_nikoli bulgarian_cuisine birthday_celebration Comments (0)

National Revival Day

Sofia


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The first place I went to contrasted greatly to the traditional Bulgarian Orthodox church interior and icons I'd seen the day before; the Monument to the Soviet Army, which was built in 1954. Unsurprisingly, it looked very uncared-for, with some graffiti about and some grass growing between many of the paving stones. I stood about for a while, picturing parades that may well have taken place there. Rather surreally, there was a sculpture of a giant spoon next to it.

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After that I walked back past the fruit & vegetable market, which was still setting up when I'd come past before.

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I had to get a photo of one of the stalls because for a while I couldn't work out what was on it. I'm still not entirely sure what they were but I think they could have been halves of extremely large hollowed-out squashes that had been lightly grilled on a little grillstand next to the main stall.

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Next to the market I bought a 'kashkavalka' from a typical Bulgarian bakery where the products are displayed in the glass window, you say what you want and the assistant passes it through a hatch. Kashkavalki are spiral rolls with melted kashkaval, a type of yellow cheese, on top. That kashkavalka was simply the best cheesy roll I've ever had.

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From the bakery I walked to Sveti Nedelya church to take some photos. As I stood by the side of the church, which is raised up some steps, a rather surreal incident happened where Charlie Chaplin tried to persuade me to come to his café...

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After this exchange I went inside the church for another look-around. It was quite crowded due to it being a public holiday (National Revival Day). There was a security guard inside. I sat down for a while on a seat at one side and watched a blessing of bread and wine ceremony unfold. First of all a priest and a man holding a large, lit candle walked anticlockwise around a small altar table with some bread and a bottle of wine on it. The priest was chanting and swinging incense as he went. While they were doing that, a small semicircle of people gathered in front of a central altar table, which itself was directly in front of a very dark, carved wooden table with icons on it. This table also had bread and wine on it and after the priest had finished with the first table, he processed around this one as well, chanting and swinging incense once more.

Just as that happened, a woman came up to me and the couple of other people sitting down and gave us each a chocolate biscuit. The others ate theirs straight away, so I did too - it turned out to have jam inside. As I finished eating, the priest chanted to the the semicircle from a Bible; he then placed it on the main table and chanted directly to it, with his back to the semicircle.

Throughout the whole thing, lots of people were wandering around, praying to icons and lighting candles as if there wasn't a ceremony taking place. I walked over to a carved wooden box I had seen before when I was with Mum; this time the metal statue of the saint lying inside the box had been dressed in purple shoes and a purple velvet robe with gold brocade. As I sat down again the priest was talking to the semicircle, which then broke up and departed.

After leaving the church I went on to the Royal Palace to visit the Ethnographical Museum and the National Gallery. On the way there, I finally managed to catch the Changing of the Guard outside the President's Building! It was a small ceremony, but involved colourful uniforms and lots of goose-stepping.

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Seeing as I was so close by, I diverted and went inside the Rotonda Church of St George, the little circular church with Roman remains that I mentioned in a previous email. Mum and I had visited, but didn't have time to go inside it properly.

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It had some murals on the walls and some of the brickwork showed; the bricks were very narrow and obviously very old, like the ones at the church of Sveta Sofia, where I'd been with Mum the day before.

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There were some tables set up in the middle with food and drink on them and various people standing around eating and drinking. I guessed it might be a special thing put on for National Revival Day, with any visitors allowed to partake, I decided not to join in. I bought a postcard and a fridge magnet and went outside for another quick look at the Roman remains instead. There was a little shrine to St George next to the outside wall.

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The Ethnographical Museum was interesting, just as I thought it would be. I didn't know that Bulgaria was a major silk producer in Ottoman times, after silkworms were introduced to Byzantium from China. It didn't say exactly why Bulgaria was such a centre of the silk industry, but maybe it was because to breed silkworms you need lots of mulberry trees for them to feed on, and Bulgaria had/ has exactly the right climate or soil to grow them. The industry continues in Bulgaria right up to the present day, but is much reduced these days.

There was also interesting information about and exhibits from the traditional building, tobacco, linen flax and cotton industries, embroidery, woodcarving and traditional soap made from pig fat and limestone.

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As well as Bulgarian exhibits, there was a room of Japanese prints and woodcuts and another room with traditional, colourful, spun cotton balls made for the Japanese New Year; this room had Venetian mirror on the walls and an inlaid wooden floor with five types of wood (a museum attendant told me) - it still looked like the interior of a palace. Apparently the last Queen of Bulgaria died in this room.

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Then there was a marble staircase down to a marble-floored corridor to rooms filled with photos and momentoes of Boris III, the last Tsar of Bulgaria, and his wife, who was Italian. The signs here were mostly in Bulgarian and Italian, unlike the ones in the rest of the museum, which were in Bulgarian and English.

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Next came the National Gallery, which wasn't quite as big as I was expecting. There was a photography exhibition by an American called Brian Dailey, mostly very colourful portraits but also a 'Morpheus' series of surrealist, dreamlike photos that I particularly liked.

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Upstairs was a big exhibition of works by the 20th-century Bulgarian artist Nikolay Nikov. It was filled with photos of the artist, watercolours, oil on canvas, cardboard and wood, linocuts, lithographs and ink on cardboard; quite a range of styles, but colourful and well worth seeing.

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There was also some Bulgarian, Italian and English information about Michelangelo, but no paintings, which I found slightly bizarre.

On the way back to my hostel I bought a massive slice of pizza for only 2.19 leva (89p) from one of the many pizza counters in Sofia. As I was eating it I came across a small marching protest on Boulevard Vitosha. I think it was by refugees or in solidarity with them. Lots of flag-waving and chanting, but no sense of danger at all.

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After they had passed by I took the opportunity to go inside the big H&M nearby, to look for work trousers, but didn't find any ones I liked. Then, seeing as I was on Boulevard Vitosha, I bought from my favourite cake shop 5 syrupy batter-like things that I had tried before....

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Last stop was a visit to the same bakery I'd been to in the morning, to buy 5 kashkavalki; two to have for dinner and three to save for breakfast and the journey the next morning. The woman gave me a free chocolate-filled roll and a glazed ring of bread with poppy seeds. Then straight back to the hostel, because I was knackered. I did have to go back out for a bottle of Coke Zero, but after that I just collapsed in bed, read my Kindle, had dinner in bed and then went to sleep early, because I had to get up very early the next morning.

Posted by 3Traveller 12:32 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art market museum hostel sofia bulgaria procession icons orthodox_church roman_remains bulgarian_cuisine boulevard_vitosha soviet_monument traditional_customs Comments (0)

Sofia: Thracian treasure troves & delectable cakes

Sofia


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We left VT on the 09.20 bus to Sofia. There was still quite a lot of snow around, despite the thaw of the last few days. The journey was uneventful, though at one point we did see a shepherd driving a small flock of sheep and goats along quite close to the side of the road. No 6-hour journey this time, thank goodness!

We arrived in Sofia at midday. We walked to our hotel; on our way down Boulevard Vitosha, we were drawn into a cake shop by the fantastic display in the window. Different types of baklava, khaifa, florentines, things that looked like truffles with various toppings, little meringues, syrupy things, fingers of what I think was fudge, biscuits, cupcakes and so on. We bought a florentine, a slice of chocolatey thing and two 'tolumbi', exactly like the syrupy things we'd got at the deli in VT but longer.

Once we had checked into Hotel Niky we rested for a bit before heading out again at 4pm.

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We went to the Archaeology Museum and it was wonderful. There was a prehistoric room, complete with teeth from mammoths and cave bears and some zoomorphic and anthromorphic pottery (which reminded me a bit of Ecuador) amongst other things; a room full of amazing finds from Thracian treasure troves, including several very finely beaten gold burial masks and one more solid looking one, a silver drinking horn, gold jewellery and gold and bronze helmets and breastplates; several icons, including a really beautiful one of St George & the dragon; a room of very early Medieval arms and armour and stone slabs with some of the earliest examples of Cyrillic inscriptions carved into them; and the ground floor, full of Ancient Greek and Roman votive stolae, pillars and statues.

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After that we decided to walk straight to the restaurant I had in mind, rather than go back to the hotel first. On the way there we walked through a Metro underpass where we saw some archaeological remains and a tiny ancient church. We also went into Sveta Nedelya Cathedral for a look round. It was very atmospheric and colourful inside, with painted walls, icons and lots of light. There were several small circular stands with sand inside to put candles in. To one side of the iconostasis at the front of the church, there was a finely carved, raised wooden box; I stepped up to see inside it and saw a shiny metal statue of a saint lying inside it, with a painted wooden icon covering the head. There were lots of flowers on and around the box. Several people came up and bowed to it. As I stood there a priest came out from a door next to the box and started speaking in a very low voice to a couple in front of him - I thought that maybe he was giving them confession.

Mum and I bought a beeswax candle each, lit them and put them in one of the candle stands. Then we left for the restaurant. For dinner we shared bread with a mixture of salt and paprika and an appetiser platter for a starter. For our main courses I had a 'drunken rabbit' and Mum had lamb stew; after that I had a baked apple and Mum had a decaf coffee. This restaurant was pretty touristy but there were Bulgarian groups there too. Its menu consisted of recipes taken from every monastery in Bulgaria and consisted of a great many funny English mistakes.

Back at the hotel we watched an episode of 'Who Do You Think You Are' before going to bed.

Posted by 3Traveller 10:14 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged snow hotel museum cathedral buses sofia bulgaria mum icons orthodox_church roman_remains bulgarian_cuisine boulevard_vitosha Comments (0)

Arbanasi: Absolutely fantastic experience!

Arbanasi and Veliko Tarnovo


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After work today I went on a trip to a little village called Arbanasi, near to Veliko Tarnovo. I'd been invited there for lunch by one of my colleagues and her partner. Arbanasi is famous for having lots of very old churches with beautiful frescoes. One of my students raved about it to me only a couple of days ago.

We had lunch at a really cosy restaurant; they plied me with food and who was I to refuse? First of all we had garlic flatbreads with balls of a more solid version of tzatziki; then everything else all arrived at once. In Bulgaria, like in Ecuador, they bring food out as soon as it's ready, not in any particular order. I had tarator (I have that as a starter at every restaurant I go to, if I see they have it); roasted red peppers coated in a very light batter and stuffed with vegetables and white cheese; chicken kavarma, which is chicken and vegetable stew cooked and served in a small-ish clay pot; and some sautéed potato chunks.

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After a bit of a break we moved outside to have a drink and some dessert, before walking round part of the village. We went into one of the most amazing and unusual churches I've ever seen; the Church of the Nativity of Christ. It is a very old church, at least five centuries old, a museum now rather than one used for worship. From the outside it almost doesn't look like a church at all, a deliberate ploy apparently because it was built when the Ottoman Turks ruled Bulgaria and only allowed the locals to practise their own religion if they were very discreet about it. From the outside it looks a lot like an old stone barn, with some modern concrete supports, but step inside and you are transported. The interior is one of the most fabulous things I've ever seen... and I say this knowing I have been lucky enough to have seen many amazing buildings around the world.

The building is split into five rooms (two of which we couldn't enter but could look into) with ceilings that are very low for a church. All of the walls, ceilings and wooden roof beams are completely covered in very colourful frescoes of religious imagery - religious scenes and Orthodox saints with gold leaf haloes. In some places there was painted some Middle Bulgarian text. Round the walls of two of the rooms there are what I think are choir stalls and in the main room a wooden bench runs round each side. In one of the rooms there is a magnificent handcarved iconostasis (a wall of icons and paintings). I took some photos of the church interior but they don't do it justice at all. The batteries died before I could try taking better ones and I didn't have any spare batteries on me.

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I loved the beauty of it all and the historic atmosphere, both of which I think were enhanced even further by obviously ancient, uneven, thick wooden doors and door frames. Outside the churchyard there were one or two streetsellers with stalls selling handpainted icons, some antiques and large pieces of handmade lace. Apparently Bulgaria is known for its lace.

There are many other historic churches with frescoes in Arbanasi, plus a beautiful house museum and at least three working historic monasteries. The village is at the top of one of the enscarpments you can see from VT, so there are some lovely views. It's so handily placed in regards to VT, I can tell I will go back many times before I leave Bulgaria next summer!

In the evening, back in VT, I went out for a snack and a drink or two with most of the other teachers. This has become a regular Saturday evening thing.

Posted by 3Traveller 12:53 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art museum bulgaria icons veliko_tarnovo church_of_the_nativity orthodox_church bulgarian_cuisine arbanasi Comments (2)

Further explorations of London

Ludgate Hill, St Paul's Cathedral, Museum of London, the Bank of England Museum and the South Bank


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After Dave departed for Manchester in the morning, I took a train into London. I had arranged to meet up with a friend there for dinner and before that I fancied visiting a couple of museums and having a nice wander round.

I got off the train at City Thameslink and walked up Ludgate Hill, past St Paul's Cathedral and then north to the Museum of London.

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What a treasure trove that place is! It tells the story of London, and pre-London, from prehistoric times right up until the 2012 Olympic Games. Special mention to the prehistoric auroch head and mammoth's foot, the Bronze Age and Medieval weapons, the Bronze Age Sunbury Hoard, the Romano-British artifacts, the copy of Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia, the view out of the window of a section of the Roman London City Wall, the displays on the Great Plague & the Great Fire of London, the display of items found in the Thames over the last 1100 years, the Pearly King suit from the late 19th century, and the testimonies of ordinary people from WWII.

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It was short walk to my next destination, the Bank of England Museum. Even for someone like me, who has never been interested in economics and finance, this was definitely worth a visit. I got to hold a 13 kg gold bar, watch a video tour of a bank vault full of gold bars, read about the lives of employees here since 1694, and look at such interesting things as the charter of the Bank of England from 1694,14th-century Chinese mulberry paper money, the earliest known Bank of England running cash note (the most direct forerunner of modern bank notes, this one dates from 1697) and a handwritten cheque from 1660.

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My friend R and I had decided to meet at a pizza restaurant on the South Bank. I walked there via The Gherkin (aka 30 St Mary Axe), the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, a little out of my way but of course well worth it!

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It was great to catch up with R over some pizza, panna cotta and a drink or two.

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Posted by 3Traveller 06:58 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged trains london united_kingdom museum cathedral river_thames st_paul's_cathedral Comments (0)

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