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Arrival in Istanbul; the fulfilment of a dream...

Veliko Tarnovo and Istanbul


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The bus was only 5 minutes late from Veliko Tarnovo's Yug station.

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The driver didn't check our passports and tickets (so there was no need for us to have arrived half an hour early) but the 'road hostess' did, after walking up and down the aisle offering people splashes of lemon water. We just held out our hands and she poured it on.

The bus only had three or four people on it apart from us. Just before we started moving the old man in the seat behind us leaned over and started talking to us in Bulgarian. He asked where we were from, so I told him (also in Bulgarian). At that, he said something else but I simply couldn't understand what he said. Dave broke in at this point and said that the man had said 'Margaret Thatcher'!

The journey to the border took almost exactly four hours. We went by a highly scenic route with forested mountains on every side; the beauty was heightened even further by the sunset, which created silhouettes of the mountains and turned part of the sky pink. Although there were almost no clouds in the sky, for a while only two stars were visible; one of them was so incredibly bright we thought that it might actually be a planet. When the moon appeared, it seemed particularly large and yellow.

The border crossing took an hour and a half, much longer than it took between Bulgaria and Macedonia. It was physically much larger, with some duty-free shops in between the two countries' passport control that we stopped at for ten minutes, and there was much more traffic. There was also a baggage x-ray room to go through. This time I did get a passport stamp, although the writing and dates on it aren't clear!

On the resumption of our journey the road hostess made another round with the lemon water and then the TV, which had been showing a foreign talent show ever since Veliko Tarnovo, was turned off. It was now past 2 am and we could finally get some sleep.

I woke up to a very pink sky, pale and delicate very early morning light and... the city of Istanbul spread before me, with minarets silhouetted against the sky! I was bleary with fatigue, but still a great thrill of excitement ran through me. We were clearly on a hill, for I got a real sense of how large the city is.

It was 05.40 when I woke up. About twenty minutes later we got to the big otogar (bus station). This is about ten km from our hostel, so we had to get on the metro for a bit and then a tram for five stops. We passed mosque after mosque. On our walk from the Sultanahmet tram stop to our hostel we went through some gardens with the Hagia Sophia on our left and the Blue Mosque on our right. I almost couldn't believe we were there! The sun shone and although it was so early, it was already quite warm.

Although it was only about 07.30 when we got to the hostel and check-in wasn't until 12, they very kindly said that if we waited for half an hour, they could get our room ready for us by then.

We set the alarm for 12, but when it woke us up we fell back asleep as soon as I'd turned it off. Then I woke up again later due to the calls to prayer wailing from the mosques, but fell asleep as soon as they finished. We finally woke up for good at 15.20 - we clearly needed the sleep!

When we stepped outside, two women were sitting on a doorstep nearby, shelling peas. Someone was playing a flute inside. We passed them on our way back to the gardens we'd gone through earlier.

Our destination was the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Art, close to the Blue Mosque. We took some pictures of the mosque and of Hagia Sophia, the gardens and of the Hippodrome (where the Romans used to race horses, but is only really a long public square now, with one or two archaeological sections left) on the way.

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The museum was excellent - really well presented, and with exquisite examples of calligraphy, Medieval Turkish carpets, carvings, colourful glazed pottery and suchlike. It also gave a lot of information about and had artifacts from the Ottomans, Seljuks, Timiruds and other ruling dynasties of Turkey and Asia Minor. I remembered studying some of these in one of my first year History modules at Swansea.

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We stopped at the hostel for a short while to rest our feet and have a refreshing cold drink; then we headed round the corner to the seafront. Finally I was standing on the European side of Istanbul, gazing out at the Asian side across the Strait of Bosphorus! This was something I'd wanted to do for many years...

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We walked around for a while before going back to the hostel and then out for dinner. We shared bread and hummous; then Dave had a salad and the soup of the day, while I had sautéed chicken which turned out to come in chunks with a tasty tomato and onion sauce.

Posted by 3Traveller 09:32 Archived in Turkey Tagged mountains mosque turkey museum istanbul buses bosphorus dave bulgarian bulgaria hagia_sophia veliko_tarnovo roman_remains unesco_world_heritage_site turkish_cuisine Comments (2)

Relaxation before our night bus to Istanbul

Veliko Tarnovo


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We arrived back from Sofia at lunchtime, so since we didn't have to be at the bus station until 20.00 for our night bus to Istanbul, that meant we had a nice long break to relax and get our stuff together for our Turkish travels in the next two weeks.

The first couple of hours were spent having tea, coffee and some snacks on the terrace with F, R and her brother G, who had arrived back in VT yesterday. The sun was shining and it was just so idyllic, sitting there with grape-laden vines above us, and a spectacular view in front of us. Apparently the grapes will become fully ripe in August - just after I've gone! Oh well.

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Late afternoon, Dave and I decided to go out for a meal at Stratilat Café - the last proper meal we'd have until we arrived in Istanbul the next day. A salad for Dave and tarator and rice pudding for me. More lovely views - you get one at every turn in Veliko Tarnovo - from the balcony.

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After our meal we made sure we were well stocked with drinks and snacks for the long journey. I have some kashkavalki and other cheesy rolls for us, plus some fruit mentos and one or two other things. On our return, we rested again for a bit and then packed. Passports - check, electronic Turkey visa confirmation print-outs - check, cameras - check... So excited about Istanbul!

Posted by 3Traveller 10:04 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged buses dave bulgaria veliko_tarnovo bulgarian_cuisine Comments (0)

Last teaching day

Veliko Tarnovo


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Today was the last day of the language school's academic year, and so my last day of work. It has been slowly winding down for a while though - the young learner classes all finished at the end of May (when they finish their academic year) and the exam preparation classes have also already finished. I only actually had one class today; a small, absolutely lovely Elementary class which I've really enjoyed teaching. They were very kind when I was saying goodbye!

I forgot to mention it in previous blog entries, but speaking of kind goodbyes, I was taken to Stratilat Café for lunch last month by a one-to-one student as a thank you for helping her pass the CAE (Cambridge Advanced exam). After we'd finished eating she gave me a novel called 'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett, set in the 1960s and described as 'the other side of Gone with the Wind'... sounds like an interesting read! She said that she hoped I would remember her every time I read it. Of course I will - she was an absolute pleasure to teach!

Last Sunday 'R' and I had a leaving party which was supposed to be held on the terrace in the sunshine, but unfortunately for once the weather failed us and the rain forced it into my flat instead. We had a great time anyway! Lots of people came and we had loads of food - mozzarella & tomato salad with red pesto, homemade hummous, flatbreads which I cooked ultra-fresh so people could eat them straight from the pan, green salad, a ham selection, strings of preserved sausages, sirene (feta-like) cheese, snezhanka (a yoghurt & cucumber salad), bottled roasted red peppers, olives, salted & buttered popcorn... There was cake which someone made, too, but I didn't have any space left for any!

Last Thursday I paid a visit to VT's Archaeological Museum. I know it sounds a bit silly but I didn't realise it was there until only about a month ago! The entrance is quite hidden away and there is a distinct lack of signage and advertising of it, compared to other attractions here. I love visiting archaeology museums - wish I'd found out about this place a lot sooner. Anyway, although not quite at the same level as the archaeology museums in Varna and Sofia, it was definitely worth visiting. It had some prehistoric objects, finds from the nearby Roman town of Nicopolis ad Istrum (which I visited on 21st March; see my blog entry here), Tsarevets Fortress when they were reconstructing the Patriarchate Tower in the 1980s, some votive tablets and figures of gods and goddesses, some Roman toys made of clay and some other interesting artifacts.

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One or two other out-of-the-ordinary have happened within the last two or three weeks - small enough not to merit a separate blog post each, so I've saved them up to put in one together;

- A couple of weeks ago it was a very misty and cloudy day; so much so that little sun was getting through. Both windows in my kitchen/ living room area were open. All of a sudden a swallow flew inside one window, circled the room and flew out of the other! When I looked back out of the window I saw loads of them circling round. My flat is on a ridge with valleys on both sides, so I have a wonderful view. I'd never seen so many swallows in the air in one place before, let along so high up yet level with my eyeline.

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- A week or two before the swallows incident, I was sitting in my flat doing something or other when suddenly I heard a voice on a loudspeaker getting louder and louder and then fading away. I rushed to the window and looked down but I was just too late to see what was going on. Ten minutes later it came back again and I saw that it was a circus advertising ploy - a small truck with colourful billboards on the back. It was clearly going round the town in circles, raising awareness. The third time it came round I was ready with my camera and managed to get a picture.

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- Two Friday evenings ago there was a Sound & Light Show with the accompanying soundtrack available to all - not sure what the occasion was (usually the soundtrack, apart from the bells, is only for a group of paying customers). It was a lovely balmy evening with a clear crescent moon. It was wonderful to hear and watch the show again, though bittersweet for me because I knew it was probably the last time I would hear it.

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As I said, tomorrow I am off to my first post-work travel destination; Skopje, Macedonia! I will have to go via Sofia. This is my plan for the next month and a bit; all of this worked out by ourselves, as we are travelling independently rather than with any tour company.

Veliko Tarnovo - Sofia - Skopje (Macedonia) - Sofia & maybe Mount Vitosha (Dave joins me here) - Veliko Tarnovo - Istanbul (Turkey) - Cappadocia - Izmir - Selçuk - Ephesus - Selçuk - Izmir - Istanbul - Veliko Tarnovo (Bulgaria) - Sofia (Dave flies home) - Veliko Tarnovo - Bucharest (Romania) - Sighișoara - Budapest (Hungary) - Home (UK).

Now that I've finished writing this, time now to down the road with 'R' to meet up with the other teachers for a drink or two at The Bestseller. A cocktail I think, or some Kahlua on ice or Malibu & Diet Coke.

Posted by 3Traveller 06:20 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged parties birds museum bulgaria veliko_tarnovo english_teaching fortifications roman_remains tsarevets_fortress bulgarian_cuisine 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)

The Turkish Quarter, Veliko Tarnovo

Veliko Tarnovo


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The Turkish Quarter in Veliko Tarnovo lies at the foot of Sveta Gora Hill, next to the River Yantra. Cross the bridge and Tsarevets Fortress looms up in front and to the right of you. I had passed through the Turkish Quarter by car before, but never looked round it on foot, so I took advantage of no Saturday class this morning to do so.

My walk went in a big circle. Sveta Gora Hill is behind the Assen Monument (the sword monument), so in order to get there I walked along Gurko Street, up Hadji Dimitar Street and round the corner to the bridge to the monument. I wonder how many times now I've walked along Gurko Street since September? Hundreds, I reckon, bearing in mind it's on my way to and from work. I feel so lucky to have been able to do so - it is so picturesque and interesting; even during rain, when I have to dash from overhanging building to overhanging building, avoiding streams of water pouring from eaves and pipes above! All so different to the UK.

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The sun was shining and I was surrounded by beautiful flowers and green leaves. Once I reached the Assen Monument I walked behind it until I got to Sveta Gora Hill - to get to the Turkish Quarter I could just follow the road around the base of the hill, but I wanted to go right up and over the hill instead. Lots of steps up, and then one or two terraces. On one of the steps I nearly stepped on a slow worm by mistake (not a worm, or a snake, but actually just a lizard without legs). The first I've ever seen in the wild.

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More than one tarmac path led off from the terraces down to the right, but I continued upwards until I reached a small and very steep path down through some woods and shrubbery. I had clearly reached the top of the hill and started downwards, but I couldn't actually see where the path was going - I wasn't sure whether if I kept going I would hit the Turkish Quarter or would go past it without realising it.

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I decided to keep going anyway, just to see where I'd end up. It was a pleasant scramble downhill and I managed to keep my footing; the earth was very dry. Maybe if it had rained recently, the resulting mud would have made me slip! I came out onto a road which I soon worked out to be in the Turkish Quarter. At nearly every turn there was a fantastic view of Tsarevets Fortress on the other side of the river.

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I wandered around side streets of old stone houses, cobbled streets and flowers, before turning onto the main street and walking past the blue and white mosque. I had never got a proper look at it until now. The writing on the gate was in Bulgarian and Turkish. Carpets had been flung over stone walls round the back of people's houses nearby - to dry, I assumed.

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Eventually I crossed the river, still in blazing sunshine, and walked back up to my flat to complete the circle.

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A nice cold Diet Coke and a shower were definitely in order when I got in!

Posted by 3Traveller 08:40 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged lizards mosque bulgaria veliko_tarnovo fortifications tsarevets_fortress river_yantra assen_monument sveta_gora_park Comments (0)

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