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Highlights of Skopje

Skopje


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The maze-like big bazaar

Stall after stall of fruit, vegetables, other foods, clothes, household goods and electronics... I passed stalls piled high with hen and duck eggs, cabinets filled with loose frozen chicken legs and fish, stalls with huge mounds of loose rice and beans; the scent of spices filled my nose. I kept walking and walking and at every turn there was something interesting to see! No tourist trinket type stalls at all - it was clearly a place for locals rather than tourists. I would have loved to have taken loads of photos, but although not unfriendly, the stallholders looked at me quite strangely whenever I stopped walking for more than a second or two, so I only took one or two and didn't have time to stop and see if they came out OK. I didn't buy anything as I will be in the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul with Dave soon, where I'm sure I'll be able to get anything I could have got here.

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Wandering the old town

The streets were filled with goldsmiths, silversmiths and wedding dress shops, with the occasional kebab counter, antiques shop or other shop thrown in.

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For example, there was one shop that only sold honey, and a tiny one which only sold syrupy batter sweets made in-store by the owner. I bought myself something a lot like the Bulgarian tolumbi, but longer and in a different shape.

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At one point I was just passing a mosque when the muezzins' calls started booming out over loudspeaker from mosques all over the city. One or two minutes after it began, men started streaming past me from all directions. None of them were in traditional Islamic dress, but they all took their shoes off and gathered to one side. I sat down in the shade on a handily placed bench at a discreet distance and watched as the calls continued and the men knelt down and prayed.

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The church of Sveti Spas was in the old town, too. It has the most magnificent iconostasis; the sheer amount of detail the carvings had was simply spectacular, with each section carved from a single piece of wood. I was given a free tour of it; I was shown the figures from the Bible who the artist carved in 19th century Macedonian traditional wedding outfits, and the executioner of St John the Baptist who was portrayed as an Ottoman Turk.

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The shiny new Archaeology Museum of Macedonia, which contains exhibits which were formerly held within the Museum of Macedonia. World class!

Macedonian denari

Banknotes come in 1000, 500, 100, 50 and 10 denari denominations and coins come in 1, 2, 5, 10 and 50. The MKD has become among my favourite currencies to date, because the banknotes are very colourful and instead of having portraits of famous people, they have pictures of icons and artifacts, birds and flowers. The coins also have pictures of native animals, plus a stylised sun (like on the Macedonian flag).

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Kale Fortress

This provided some panoramic views over Skopje and was nice to walk around, though part of it was fenced off.

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I also visited Macedonia Square, which was very impressive...

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...plus the Museum of Macedonia, which was less so. For a national museum the lighting wasn't very good, plus the exhibition of 20th century history wasn't very imaginatively displayed and the signage was poor. In the ethnographical section the lighting was also very poor in places, but had some interesting traditional musical instruments, painted Easter eggs, facsimiles of old photos of traditional buildings (my favourite was the one that looked like it was all made of wicker) and traditional fishing equipment.

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I also had time to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was small but held a lot of sobering information about the fate of the Balkan Jews in WWII, plus more general information about their history until then and their traditional lifstyles. I was particularly interested to read about Ladino, or Judean-Spanish, a language which developed from the Sephardic origins in Spain and has not completely died out yet.

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Something I think Skopje could improve on is the state of their river - the water itself looks OK enough, cleaner than the Thames at any rate, but they haven't really done anything to the banks. The concrete is filled with weeds growing through the cracks. It looks quite incongruous actually, because there are so many obviously shiny new statues and monuments everywhere, plus new walkways further back from the banks.

Pictures from my walk back to the hostel at dusk;

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Miscellaneous pictures of Skopje;

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Posted by 3Traveller 08:19 Archived in Macedonia Tagged bridges mosque market museum skopje macedonia fortifications orthodox_church traditional_customs 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)

Into the mountains: Shipka Pass

Shipka and Shipka Pass


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Today we went back to Plovdiv to spend the night there before Mum's flight back to London tomorrow evening. Thursday is my normal weekday day off and I've booked tomorrow off as a day of holiday. To get to Plovdiv today, instead of going by bus I had arranged something special; a taxi to take us all the way there and drop us directly at our hostel. I arranged for the taxi man to take us through the mountains and stop at the Shipka Pass and the village of Shipka nearby before descending into the Valley of the Roses and the town of Kazanlak, where we hoped to get a sight of some rose fields and visit a UNESCO-listed Thracian tomb. This blog entry will detail our first two stops, at Shipka Pass and Shipka itself.

Set within the Central Balkan mountains, the Shipka Pass is very historically significant in Bulgaria as a battlefield during the War of Independence between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire in 1877 - 78. We stopped at a car park/ layby at the pass and I climbed up the peak next to it, which has a memorial at the top. This involved firstly 200 or 300 steps up a forested slope, then about 50 metres' walk to another set of 200 steps, which lead up to the memorial itself. Mum went up some of the first set and I continued up them all.

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It was exhausting, but definitely worth it; the views were stunning. I could see for miles and miles in every direction. When I reached the memorial there was a large group of schoolchildren on a school trip; their teacher got me to take a group photo of them all.

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Once I had returned, we continued 13 km down the road to the village of Shipka. Our destination was the Shipka Memorial Church, or to give it its full official name, the Memorial Temple of the Birth of Christ. It's also known informally as the Shipka Russian Church, as it was built in the 17th-century Muscovite style and is dedicated not only to the Bulgarians who died in the fight for independence but also to the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers who died alongside them against the Ottomans.

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The white and red outer decoration and the gleaming golden domes are a sight to behold; the interior decoration is also very impressive. Every inch of the pillars and arches, plus most of the walls as well, is part of a fresco. They looked different to normal frescoes in Bulgarian orthodox churches, too; in fact they looked like they had been inspired by the Arts & Crafts Movement. The church was finished in 1902, which is within the correct time period...

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Before we left the church we descended into the crypt, where we saw the gravestones of some of those who had perished in battle.

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When we went back outside the church we noticed hundreds of red beetles congregated in certain areas.

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Posted by 3Traveller 13:17 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains art bulgaria mum explorations orthodox_church shipka_pass Comments (0)

Frescoes, baklava and more strawberries

Arbanasi and Veliko Tarnovo


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Going to Arbanasi today was a priority for Mum, as she was really keen to see it and we hadn't managed to go there when she visited me last October. We arrived at about 9 o'clock because the weather forecast had predicted sunshine in the morning but then a thunderstorm later on.

First of all, seeing as the sun was out but might not be later, we went to the magnificent viewing point where I had taken previous visitors.

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Then we went into the Church of the Nativity (stopping at an outdoors gym on the way - we tried out one or two of the machines!). Mum absolutely loved it, just like I thought she would. It's just so colourful and atmospheric inside! It started off with just us there, but then a party of young American men came in with a guide. This turned out to be quite beneficial to us, because we could overhear all the interesting information the guide had to offer the group. She showed them (and us) the painting of the Wheel of Life with its days, seasons, signs of the Zodiac, man at different life stages and the angels pulling on ropes to turn the wheel; the bad tradesmen in hell, suffering punishments related to their crimes; the shepherds in appropriate period dress (including one sitting in the Turkish manner, playing a pipe); the unicorn amongst the animals being named by Adam; the remaining original frescoes from the 15th century and the second layer of ones from 1681; the dragons on top of the iconostasis; and more. We also overheard her say that figures of the Ancient Greek philosophers were painted on the wall or ceiling of one of the rooms, but we couldn't spot them when we went to look.

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From there we went on to Konstantsalievata's House, the house museum I'd taken previous visitors to. I described this is a previous blog entry so I won't write more about it here, except for that Mum particularly admired all the heavy carved wooden chests and the wonderful carved wooden ceilings.

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After that we were both quite hungry but it wasn't lunchtime yet, so we had a coffee/ hot chocolate and some baklava at a café instead. We both loved the baklava; it was different to any we'd had before, being in a large slice like a slice of tart or pie. It was very syrupy and delicious; quite often (especially in the UK) baklava is very stiff and solid and stodgy, but this wasn't.

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Our next destination was the Church of St Atanas; I hadn't been before and didn't know anything about it, but I thought it would be interesting to check it out. Well, unfortunately it was closed when we arrived! We did however see a huge quantity of red and black beetles on the steps.

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By the time we'd wandered over there and back again it had started drizzling. We decided to have lunch slightly early; however Arbanashki Han, the place where I took people for lunch before, had a big party arriving soon, so we decided just to go back to the same place we'd had baklava. I had pepper burek (stuffed peppers with batter or breadcrumbs on the outside) and tarator and Mum had breadcrumbed chicken bites with a salad garnish.

The rain was tailing off by the time we left the café and headed to another place I'd been to with previous visitors; the monastery of Sveta Bogoroditsa. We both bought and lit candles there and wandered around both rooms, admiring the icons, frescoes and flowers. This time, instead of tulips, daffodils or carnations, they had roses and sweet williams in vases along one side. Two or three lambs munched on leaves outside.

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Our walk back to VT went well - we took the same route as I had taken with Kate and Andrew. The vegetation had overgrown even more than when they were here two weeks ago, but it was only a problem in that since it had only just stopped raining and Mum was wearing flipflops, she kept sliding on the grass in them! The sun came out relatively soon into the walk, however, plus the path became less overgrown, so the problem didn't last. It was a lovely walk and Mum enjoyed it too.

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Once back at the flat it was between 4 and 5pm - we'd left at about 8.50 in the morning! We put our feet up for a couple of hours before going out for dinner at Hadji Nikoli. I took her here when she was here last October and she had requested a return visit. Since the temperature was so mild, this time we sat in the courtyard. No pianist this time unfortunately, but the food was just as good. Mum had grilled tiger prawns and vegetables and I had tarator (of course!) and cannelloni.

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We both had coffees (I had Turkish) but didn't have any pudding there because we knew we had strawberries waiting for us back at the flat. More strawberries with rosehip syrup - a perfect way to round off the day.

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Posted by 3Traveller 13:26 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged museum monastery roses bulgaria mum icons veliko_tarnovo church_of_the_nativity orthodox_church house_museum bulgarian_cuisine river_yantra arbanasi Comments (0)

Tryavna revisit

Tryavna


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Tryavna is famous for its woodcarving and icon-painting traditions and also for its National Revival buildings. There is a difference between the buildings in Tryavna and the ones in Plovdiv, Arbanasi, parts of Veliko Tarnovo and elsewhere, however; the roofs are tiled with slate rather than terra cotta. Not slate tiles as we know it, either, but big, hefty, uneven slabs of it.

The first place we went to was the Church of Archangel Michael, deliciously cool inside and a feast for our eyes as well. As you might expect in a centre for woodcarving, the iconostasis and pulpit were wonderfully carved. The dark wood contrasted well with the colourful icons.

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The church is on the corner of the main square; a very distinctive clock tower stands on another side of it. I remembered this from last time. We asked if people can climb up it, but unfortunately it's closed off to visitors at the moment.

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Instead of that, we popped into a sweetshop next door - Tryavna has many of these, selling things such as Bulgarian delight, sheets of sesame snap and colourful curly lollies which look like rock.

After making some purchases (I got some sesame snap) we moved next door to the Old School Museum. We went under a stone archway and emerged into a small but wonderfully atmospheric courtyard. The school was built in 1839 and is similar to a house, with only one room actually a classroom. On the ground floor were craftsmen's workshops and on the first floor were the classroom, canteen and rooms for teachers, guardians and pupils from mountain villages. The school was the first secular one in Tryavna.

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The ground floor rooms weren't part of the museum and were closed, but upstairs I looked at an exhibition of colourful paintings and wooden sculptures of people done in the primitive style by the contemporary Bulgarian artists Nikola and Dimitar Kazakov, the old classroom, an exhibition of timepieces imported by 19th century Tryavna families (it included an 'reverse handed' clock - one where the numbers went anti-clockwise) and an exhibition of 19th century school textbooks and student reports.

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The latter exhibition didn't have any English text accompanying them, unfortunately, but it was still interesting to look at. One of these reports was actually from a school in Bucharest and was written in both Romanian and Latin - I liked comparing the two and seeing how similar the languages are.

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The classroom was interesting too because it was set up how it was in the 19th century. The front row was for infants and had little sand boxes for them to outline words and letters in; the second row had slates and was where the infants moved to after a year of sitting at the front. The third and fourth rows had inkpots; students only moved there once they were trusted to be able to write with pen and paper. An old-fashioned version of the Cyrillic alphabet was on the wall.

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After the school museum we walked on to the same café I'd had hot sand coffee at with F in January. It was too hot for coffee this time, so a cold drink was in order.

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From there we walked on to the 'Fountain of Love', something I'd seen back in January but hadn't known the background. It's very small, but has a beautiful carving of a woman; apparently whoever drinks from it will have a happy and long-lasting marriage. Both 'S' and I drank from it!

The fountain was opposite Daskalov House, the beautiful house museum with the carved suns in the roof that I had been to back in January. I had a sit down and admired the sculpture outside while the others went in.

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Another drink at a another café followed, before we left Tryavna and went on to Bozhentsi, a small village about five km away as the crow flies but actually about 20 km to drive due to the roundabout route you have to take through the hills.

Some general photos of Tryavna:

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Posted by 3Traveller 05:11 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged bridges art museum traditions bulgaria icons clock_tower orthodox_church house_museum tryavna traditional_customs Comments (0)

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