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Entries about traditional customs

An American encounter in Belgrade

Belgrade


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I arrived safely at my hostel in Belgrade after a seamless three-hour bus journey from Užice. After settling my stuff in and saying hello to the friendly owner and his wonderful massive Italian mastiff (cane corso), I headed out into the sunshine, keen to explore.

My first wanderings took me down some lovely leafy streets, some pedestrianised and some not, and through the even leafier Student Park, which lies next to buildings belonging to the University of Belgrade.

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Then I looked round the Ethnographic Museum next door. They had a wide range of traditional costumes on display - there was some incredible workmanship on show, especially in the embroidery and silver jewellery.

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There were some traditional musical instruments which I found especially interesting; special mention to the bagpipes and what looked like a kind of mandolin with a carved neck.

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The museum seemed smallish at first, but once I'd been round the first big room I went upstairs and found that there were several other rooms leading off it. There were displays about wedding customs, the feast of St George, rural occupations such as rakija (fruit brandy) distilling, tobacco-growing, cattle-herding and river fishing, and urban and rural house interior dioramas set up to look how they would have done in the 19th century.

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Special mention also to a display about slava, which is a family ritual and feast celebrating the day of the patron saint of the family. So important was, and is, slava that in 2014 it was inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. One of the house interior dioramas was set up to look like a rural home of the early 20th century set up for their celebration of the slava.

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From the Ethnographic Museum it was a short walk to Republic Square, where I hoped to visit the National Museum. A lot of building work was going on, so much of the square was blocked off, but the museum was still open. It was great all round, with a particularly fine Prehistoric and Celtic collection. Highlights for me were some sculptures found at Lepenski Vir, a major archaeological site of the Mesolithic Iron Gates culture of this part of the Balkans. They are carved from large red sandstone cobbles and are a combination of the realistic and the figurative, very expressionistic in style, representing humans with fishlike features.

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Other highlights in this section were the Celtic Horseman (3rd-4th c. BC; one of the few Celtic statues ever found), the votive Dupljaja Chariot (a Bronze Age masterpiece sculpted from amber), and some other amber objects, this time found at the site of a prehistoric princely tomb in Novi Pazar. The latter included some unique triangular plates, engraved with mythological scenes, which were worn as elaborate head or chest ornaments.

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The sun was still shining as I left the National Museum, rested a little and discovered a group of people gathering for a free walking tour. I don't normally go on walking tours, because I prefer looking round places independently, but on this occasion I though "Why not..." and joined them. How glad I am that I did! I would never have met Barbara otherwise...

Barbara was a lovely American lady from South Carolina who got talking with me as we waited for the guide to arrive. "Are you from New Zealand, or just been there?" was her first question, as she spotted my 'Sweet As' t-shirt... Only been there, I answered. Back in 2009. The t-shirt was a gift though! We hit it off straight away, talking about our various travels around the world (amongst other things). Our conversation continued as the tour began and we walked around Stari Grad (the Old Town), including Belgrade Fortress and the park surrounding it.

The tour was a good one. Unfortunately I've forgotten the name of our guide now, but she was very nice, enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and had a couple of surprises up her sleeve for us! Within the Old Town we stopped at the statue of Đura Jakšić, a Serbian poet, dramatist and painter, for a shot of rakija, and a few streets away from there she gave us a micro-introduction to the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet.

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Within the lush green park surrounding the fortress she handed round some colour print-outs of some Yugoslavian 5 billion dinar notes for us to keep if we wanted to.

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Belgrade Fortress was very impressive, as were the views from it! We didn't have as long to look round as if we'd gone independently, of course, and we didn't actually go inside any of the buildings, but the grounds were still very pleasant to walk round.

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We walked a loop round the fortress boundary, so we had some wonderful views of the city, the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, and some terraces below where we stood.

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The colourful spire of Holy Archangel Michael Orthodox Church stood out as we made our way round.

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The tour finished once we had finished our loop. Barbara and I were both pretty knackered by then, plus it was late afternoon by now, so we agreed to make our way back to the centre and have dinner together, stopping at Barbara's hotel first so she could get something. We passed by a statue of Gavrilo Princip on our way.

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At dinner I noticed again the similarity of Serbian cuisine to Bulgarian (the Ottoman influence across the Balkans). I had some cheesy stuffed peppers, kebabs (long grilled mince fingers on sticks) and chips, with sour cream as a side and some rakija to go with it - the glass of the latter arrived on ice.

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Barbara and I parted ways after dinner. I'm absolutely kicking myself for not getting her details! Barbara, if you happen to see this and remember our afternoon/evening, and would like to get back in touch, send me a message! I had a fantastic time in your company and it would be great to meet up again at some point!

Back at my hostel, I tried and failed to check in to my flight online using Dave's iPhone - frustrating, as I knew that if I had to check in and get my boarding pass at the airport instead, I'd have to pay a fee. Unfortunately, this is what I was forced to do in the end, as there weren't any computers or printer at the hostel, and it was too late in the day for any internet café to be open. My flight was at 10:15 the following morning, so I was going to be up too early in the morning for that too.

The flight itself was fine, though I didn't get a window seat!

Posted by 3Traveller 18:36 Archived in Serbia Tagged museum hostel serbia belgrade explorations fortifications orthodox_church river_danube traditional_customs serbian_cuisine Comments (3)

Stunning view of Budapest

Budapest


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Today there were two main destinations; the Ethnography Museum and St Stephen's Basilica.

On my walk across the Parliament square to the museum I admired the fountain and caught a small changing of the guard ceremony. I wished I could paddle in the fountain - it was a very hot day.

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The museum had a magnificently decorated interior which was lovely to look at and although the place wasn't quite as big as I was expecting, it had some interesting displays; my favourites were the traditional musical instruments (which included ocarinas, a double flute, bagpipes and a rough-looking folk violoncello that was beaten with a wooden stick), traditional toys and old photos of children playing with them, different costumes worn by mummers at Christmas, New Year, Epiphany and at Carnival, a collection of objects associated with the traditional fairs and a collection of more everyday items such as a bear trap, a bird-catching cage and some wicker and wooden beehives.

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After leaving the museum I had a sandwich for lunch in Parliament Square and then went to St Stephen's Basilica via the Danube. Although I didn't need to cross the river to get to the Basilica, I couldn't resist some photos from the bridge anyway... The views are so beautiful. I got an unexpected bonus on the bridge, as well - I discovered a vent in each side wall that blew out cool air from below! Given the heat and humidity, this was incredibly welcome. I couldn't believe that other people weren't already there. Due to the angle, the cool air wasn't noticeable unless you stood next to the wall and leaned forward a bit, so maybe that was why.

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The streets surrounding the Basilica are very grand and impressive.

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St Stephen's Basilica is named after the first king of Hungary and is the most important church in the country. It is stunning both on the outside and the inside and views from the top of the dome are fantastic. I enjoyed looking at all the decoration and architecture of the interior and lit a candle before moving into a another room - a chapel containing 'The Holy Right', the mummified right hand of St Stephen. It was housed in a very fancy silver and gold, cathedral-shaped container, but was very difficult to see properly.

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After that I took the lift up to the top of the dome. The 360 degree panoramic view of the city was amazing.

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I rested in my dorm for a couple of hours before going out for dinner at an Azerbaijani, Russian and Hungarian restaurant with a Russian girl from my dorm. Azerbaijani soup and stew went down a treat. Following this we went for a walk down the road to get a drink. First we went into a convenience store - I was under the impression we were buying drinks to take back to the hostel with us, but when she saw that I had a bottle of Coke Light instead of something alcoholic, she looked disappointed and said that she had wanted us to drink alcohol together and that since I was only getting a Coke, she wasn't going to get anything at all. Okayyyyy... If they'd had something I liked then I would have got alcohol, but all they had was beer, which I hate.

She was desperate to go to a club, but I didn't feel like it because I was knackered and in any case wasn't dressed up for it. We decided to go to have a drink or two together at a bar instead, so I took her to a place I'd passed on my way back from the basilica earlier. I ordered a cocktail and then asked what she was having... she said that she wasn't going to have anything! I thought she wanted to a drink together...?! Oh well - I didn't say anything about that, I just enjoyed my wonderful cocktail. It was genuinely one of the best pina coladas I've ever had!

We headed back after that as the Russian girl said she didn't fancy staying out any more and I was always going back to the hostel after my drink anyway.

Posted by 3Traveller 00:15 Archived in Hungary Tagged bridges budapest basilica museum hungary cocktails changing_of_the_guard unesco_world_heritage_site river_danube traditional_customs Comments (0)

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)

Fireflies, fireworks & 'Detski Romski' festival

Veliko Tarnovo


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Not long ago I got back from a lovely walk round town. My first destination was a park not far from Mother Bulgaria Square, but on the way I stopped at the wooden-shuttered bakery on the craftsmen's street for a kashkavalka for lunch.

The reason why I wanted to go to this park was because I knew the 'Detski Romski' festival was going on. 'Detski Romski' means 'Roma Children'. Yesterday lunchtime, before work, I'd nipped out to the deli to get some lunch, heard music playing from the park and gone to investigate; I saw there were carnival stalls and lots of groups of children in traditional dress spread around. The fountains were in full flow, the flowerbeds were in bloom and the sun was shining. The last time I'd been in this park was in February or March, when the flowerbeds were being dug up and the fountains weren't in use yet.There was a small stage set up with people standing in a ring around it; the groups of children took turns in doing dances. Every now and then, one boy and one girl sang a song together over loudspeaker. I kicked myself for not having my camera with me, but then noticed the banner which said the festival was between 5 -7th June, so I decided to come back today.

Unfortunately when I arrived there today, at one o'clock, the dancing had just stopped and everyone was packing up. Such a shame! I kicked myself for not arriving earlier. I still took some photos of the park, though, because it was so lovely.

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From the park I moved on to the fruit & veg market. To my surprise, although they still had loads and loads of cherries, the amount of strawberries on sale had halved since two weeks ago. Maybe this is just one type of strawberry, and other types will come into season later in the month. I asked one woman for 100g of strawberries, but she refused to sell me them (maybe because people were just starting to pack up and she wanted to sell them in kgs or 500g only). She was needlessly abrupt about it, though, so I went to a different stall and bought 500g from the woman there (I figured that nobody would probably sell me 100g). There was a noticeable increase in tomatoes and I also saw a very small amount of raspberries - maybe these are just beginning to come into season.

Yesterday evening I went out for dinner with R, Belgian S and a friend of hers. I took them to Taverna, the first restaurant I ate at in Bulgaria, because although it's only round the corner from us, for some reason R hadn't made it there yet. They do lovely chicken kavarma here, plus some of the best tarator in town, so I had both, plus some potato wedges. After we'd finished eating R had to dash, but the rest of us walked along Gurko Street. We saw some fireflies - I've seen these around this part of Gurko Street for a few weeks now. They are so captivating to watch.

On Friday evening, R and I were sitting in F's living room having a hot drink and a chat with her when suddenly we heard the unmistakeable sound of firework bangs. We looked out of the windows behind us but only saw flickers of light. They were clearly going off by the sword monument, on the other side of the hill. Just then the loudest fireworks bang I'd ever heard happened and we all rushed downstairs to have a look! F went onto the terrace, but R and I ran down the steps onto the street and sprinted along it, looking for a good viewing point. We saw a few absolutely fantastic ones, but by the time we reached the first proper terrace, they'd stopped. As far as we were aware there was no special occasion that day, but later that evening we found out a beer festival had been the cause!

On Thursday morning I went to Sarafkina House, the Gurko Street house museum.

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I was very much looking forward to seeing it, especially the displays of all the types of traditional bread, dyed eggs and Martenitsas I'd heard about, and I wasn't disappointed. So interesting!

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I loved the old photos of musicians, traditional trades and general life of VT, too, plus the historic building itself, though I only got to see two of the five floors - the one level with Gurko Street and the one above. I loved the view from the windows as well.

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Posted by 3Traveller 07:01 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged market museum bulgaria veliko_tarnovo house_museum bulgarian_cuisine gurko_street traditional_customs Comments (0)

Further Plovdiv explorations

Plovdiv and Shipka


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Well, we certainly fitted a lot into this morning and the first half of the afternoon!

The very first thing I did after breakfast was walk to an internet café to print off Mum's boarding pass for her. Reception at our hostel didn't have a printer, but they told me how to get to a place where there was one. Something I've noticed in Bulgaria is that internet cafés are much rarer than they are in Ecuador - this was the first time I'd been to one in Bulgaria. It was mega-simple though - walked in, didn't even need to log on to one of the for-public-use computers as the girl in charge set up hers quickly for me instead; three minutes, cost about 20 stotinki (8p)! On my way back I stopped at a fruit & vegetable market and bought Mum a bag of cherries.

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First stop together was the Ethnographic Museum; I'd been there before, in March, but Mum hadn't. Our favourite exhibits were; the traditional musical instruments and mummers' costumes, the large wooden attar of roses container which had been steeped in the stuff for so long in the past that it still smelled wonderfully of roses, and the huge, fluffy (sheepskin?), colourful rugs on one wall. Mum also particularly liked the embroidery as well.

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From there we headed down the road to Hadji Aleko's House, via a souvenir shop where the owner's wife weaved mats and wall hangings on looms at the back of the shop (she wasn't actually in action when we went, but there were half-made things on them and the owner told us his wife made them).

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Hadji Aleko's House is a National Revival building now used as an art gallery. Downstairs was filled with contemporary paintings for sale, whilst upstairs had a permanent exhibition. My favourite contemporary painting was of a colourful Firebird. Lots of original antique furniture as well, especially upstairs.

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Once we had looked round the gallery we were feeling quite hungry, so I took Mum to a restaurant I knew of at the foot of Danov Hill. Back in March I tried to have lunch there but was thwarted by the public holiday crowds, so I was keen to return! My tarator and potato balls were delicious; the dish of cooked red pepper slices surprised me by being cold, but were nice all the same.

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Our last proper stop before returning to the hostel was done on an impulse at a small mosaic museum which I think was connected to a Roman forum excavation nearby. The mosaics were impressive and we also liked the well-lit and colourful collection of amulets and scent bottles made of Roman glass. It was just the thing to round off our Plovdiv visit!

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After picking up my stuff from our hostel and saying goodbye, I took a taxi to the north bus station. The bus journey back to Veliko Tarnovo was uneventful, though we did stop for ten minutes at Shipka. The golden domes of the Russian Church gleamed over the rooftops. Right in the middle of the parking area was a cherry tree absolutely dripping with ripe fruit; I enjoyed several ultra-fresh, sweet and juicy cherries before it was time to get back on the bus.

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Mum had a couple of hours to go in Plovdiv before her lift to the airport; apparently she went for another walk and saw a Bulgarian bagpiper performing outside a shop. This is something I really want to see before I leave Bulgaria.

Posted by 3Traveller 06:57 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains art market museum buses traditions bulgaria mum plovdiv roman_remains house_museum bulgarian_cuisine traditional_customs shipka_pass Comments (0)

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