A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about traditional customs

Back to Sofia - Dave arrives for Christmas

Sofia


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Dave arrived today at Sofia Airport, but not until 23.50 so I had quite a few hours to myself in Sofia before then. My bus journey from Veliko Tarnovo was uneventful and I arrived at Hostel Mostel mid-afternoon.

On my walk from the bus station to the hostel I suddenly heard lots of very loud twittering and chirping on my right hand side; I turned round and saw a bushy tree the same height as me, filled with sparrows! I stepped up right next to them and none of them flinched or flew away. It reminded me of when Mum visited in October and said that the sparrows reminded her of how common they used to be in London forty or fifty years ago.

It looked like a really good place - before I was taken to my room I had time to send a quick email on one of the free computers and take note of the free pool table! The private rooms were in a separate building three minutes away from the main hostel; the room was excellent and I
liked the common room and kitchen.

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Shortly afterwards I went out to do some shopping. I admired the clearest view of the mountains yet, walked to the fruit & vegetable market to look for brussel sprouts (unsuccessfully - I've heard they they only appear on sale in Bulgaria for a couple of days per year), visited one or two shops and when my legs got tired I sat down in Sveta Nedelya Cathedral for a bit. There was a service going on; a group of people were standing in the middle, flanked by six poinsettia arrangements. Choral music filled the cathedral, but I couldn't see any choir anywhere so I assumed that was through a sound system. I bought and lit a beeswax candle for Dad.

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On my walk around Sofia I noticed several streetsellers selling branches of fir tree, branches from another type of tree (which I think it traditionally brought inside the house at Christmas in Bulgaria) and other branches which had ribbons, stringed popcorn, (I think) sheep's wool, and other decorations attached. I think this last type of branch are traditionally carried by children as they go carol singing from house to house from midnight on Christmas morning onwards.

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I got a free dinner at eight o'clock - pasta with tomato sauce and salad. As I was eating, I couldn't help but overhear the conversation two guys sitting near me were having. I listened, puzzled, because it sounded similar to Spanish but also different. I was just pondering whether to ask them where they were from, when another girl walked up to them and asked 'de dondé eres?' (Where are you from? in Spanish). They replied 'Chile!'. I nearly laughed - when I was in Ecuador, every time I asked the students which Spanish accents they liked the most and least, they always said that they found Chileans very difficult to understand. Now I can see why! It sounded very different to Ecuadorian Spanish.

I took the bus to the airport terminal late at night, at quarter past eleven. Somehow I ended up getting a free journey, because although I checked with the driver if it was going to the airport or not he never asked me for the fare (like the girl at the hostel reception said he would) and there were no conductors or machines to give money to. On the way there I saw other people get on and then get off again later without having paid anyone anything, but the driver never said anything, so I just got off at the terminal and hoped for the best.

It was amazing to see Dave again, as you can imagine. Thankfully the OK-Supertrans taxi service desk was still open, so we took one of their taxis to the hostel.

Posted by 3Traveller 05:15 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains market airport spanish cathedral christmas hostel buses dad sofia bulgaria mum orthodox_church traditional_customs 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)

Wrecclesham and Farnham: Trip down memory lane

Wrecclesham and Farnham


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Today was a trip down memory lane for Mum and a lovely experience for me because I got to share it with her.

First of all we visited my Grandad and his wife J for a cup of tea/ coffee and a chat. They are moving house very soon, away from the old family home Mum stayed in during school and university holidays throughout the Seventies, so I also walked round the place with Mum taking photos of anything she wanted me to.

After leaving the house, Mum and I went round the corner to Wrecclesham Pottery (which recently changed its name to Farnham Pottery, despite not being in Farnham) to look round.

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The gate was open, so we walked round the small grounds, but couldn't enter the actual buildings. It's a working pottery, founded in 1873. We admired many of the outdoors features -drainpipes made from pottery, dating from the turn of the 20th century; the massive brick kiln; the well; the very old outside clock; the owl looking out from one of the pottery archways; and last but not least, the 'A Harris & Son, Pottery Works, 1873' written above the main door. Mum told me that she used to walk past it on dog walks with her Nana in the mid-Sixties and think to herself that one day, in the unimaginable future, the writing would be 100 years old. I remember something similar when I was at the same age, when time seems to stretch endlessly into the future; I remember once in 1992, in my last year of infants' school, someone mentioning something that was going to happen in 1995; I couldn't stop mentally shaking my head in wonder at how incredibly far in the future that was.

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For lunch we went round the corner to the Royal Oak pub. Mum had a baguette with salad and I had the best jacket potato I've ever had; goat's cheese, caramelised onions, parsley and extra butter.

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The last thing we did before moving on to Farnham was go for a walk, following one of the dog-walking routes Mum would go on nearly every day in her school holidays in the Seventies and late Sixties. We walked for nearly an hour through nearby countryside. At one point we looked into a field that used to be filled with hop plants which were picked every summer by people from London's East End, but is now choked with nettles, brambles and horse chestnut saplings. We also scrambled up a slope in a wood and followed the path there until it grew so small we would have had to start crawling to have gone any further.

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Eventually we returned to the car and drove on to nearby Farnham. Once we'd got there we looked round the town centre for a couple of hours. The first place we visited was the Bush Hotel, where Mum and Dad had their wedding reception back in 1980. I'd never been there before and Mum hadn't been for a very long time. We had a look round and Mum had a cup of tea in the main lounge. We noticed some very old-looking, rather faded murals of human figures (possibly mythological or from ancient history) on the walls, set between wooden beams. There was no information about them anywhere, but they were still interesting to look at.

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We also browsed in a couple of charity shops, window-shopped in the lovely cobbled Lion and Lamb Courtyard (saying hello to three furry model bears in the process), attempted to buy some fruit from a greengrocer but arrived two minutes too late, admired all the Georgian buildings and, on the way back to the car, walked past a house-end that looked quite comical. The wooden beams were sunk so deep into the whitewashed wall, it looked like the wall was full of yeast and had puffed out like risen bread dough.

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From there we carried on down the road to Nana and her partner R's new bungalow, a place I hadn't been to yet because I was still in Ecuador when they moved. I got a good look round the place and we had a lovely dinner together. Special mention to Nana's signature pineapple upside-down pudding!

Posted by 3Traveller 04:08 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged united_kingdom hotel mum british_countryside wrecclesham wrecclesham_pottery farnham traditional_customs british_cuisine Comments (0)

Flamstead Scarecrow Festival

Flamstead


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Today Dave and I went to the annual Flamstead Scarecrow Festival with Emma and Mark.

I've only been there once or twice before, when they first started holding this festival just over a decade ago. They had clearly expanded the whole thing since then; there was a similar amount of scarecrows, but now there was also a group of stalls, live music outside one or two of the pubs, cream teas in the church hall and Morris dancers outside it.

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The best scarecrow, in my opinion, was the Elmer the Elephant with a round furry blue monster on his back. Apparently Elmer is 25 this year! I also really liked the row of Pac-Man scarecrows, the Brownies scarecrows and the Toad of Toad Hall scarecrow in his (real) motor car. Dave also liked the Darth Vader scarecrow.

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As well as walking the streets looking at creative scarecrows, we looked round the stalls, had a slice of cake at the church hall and watched the Morris dancers perform.

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Emma and I went into the church of St Leonard and were given a short tour by a friend of Emma's. He showed us the medieval wall paintings (the finest or oldest in Hertfordshire after those in St Albans cathedral, apparently) and the 16th century graffiti carved into two of the pillars.

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Posted by 3Traveller 11:38 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged art united_kingdom sisters scarecrows flamstead traditional_customs Comments (0)

Oxford: Lardy cake, witch in a bottle, shark & more

Cumnor and Oxford


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Breakfast at the Bear & Ragged Staff was excellent (I had Eggs Benedict for the first time) and afterwards we admired a small display of objects that had been found under the floorboards of the pub in 1988. There was an empty Player's Navy Cut cigarette packet, an empty Martins Gold Leaf cigarette packet, several marbles (including clay ones), an old handpainted King of Spades playing card, an ink bottle, a key, some buttons and one or two other things.

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After this we checked out and drove into Oxford. The first thing we did was browse in and buy lots of books from the Oxfam Bookshop on St Giles.

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Then we went on to the Covered Market, home of the famous Oxfordshire lardy cake, venison sausages and much much more. Mum bought some special pies at a butcher/ piemaker's and both of us bought two lardy cakes at a bakery stand. Oxfordshire lardy cake is one of the most delicious sweet things I've ever tasted, especially when heated.

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A quick look at the High Street followed. First of all we went into Payne & Son, the silversmith where Dad got Mum her engagement ring.

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While Mum was still in there, I walked down the road a little bit to have a quick look at Queen's College, where Dad went. Unfortunately the place was closed to tourists, but through the open main door I did get a view of part of the quadrangle.

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Mum then went off to sort the car out before the parking ticket ran out and I paid a visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum. To get there I passed through part of the Natural History Museum. From left to right: the museum, the jaw of a sperm whale, a dinosaur skeleton, a stuffed flamingo and the Oxford Dodo.

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I'd recommend both of these to anyone, but especially Pitt Rivers. It's one of the best anthropology museums in the world and is an absolute treasure trove. Totally fascinating. I wandered round for ages looking at a variety of exhibits, including amulets, charms and other objects used for divination in Africa, Asia and the Americas...

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...a small silver bottle said to have a witch inside...

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...unusual musical instruments from around the world, including a shell used as a trumpet for fog warnings at sea in Cornwall in the 19th century, nose flutes from the Pacific, and an Indian fiddle in the shape of a peacock...

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...weapons, shields, armour, masks, shrunken heads, Native American clothing and 'moss figures' from Russia (carved wooden figures covered in moss, who were used to worship a god who guarded the forest).

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The armour included some from Kiribati made from coconut fibre with a helmet made from a porcupine fish;

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Eventually Mum picked me up and we drove back to St Albans the quick way. On our way out of Oxford we passed by the famous model of a shark a man has sticking out of his rooftop. A very surreal sight anywhere, the fact that it's in an otherwise perfectly normal house in the suburbs makes it even more so.

Posted by 3Traveller 10:16 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged art united_kingdom hotel market museum oxford mum traditional_customs british_cuisine Comments (0)

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