I’m revisiting Bulgaria as I came here once skiing a very long time ago and my photos haven't survived. I was going to travel on my own, but I saw this very cheap trip advertised - Landscapes and Traditions of Bulgaria. So here I am, with nine others. on a circular tour of western Bulgaria.
Sophia, the Capital of Bulgaria
My hotel in Sofia is in the shopping precinct - very handy. The room is about as spartan as it gets - bare cotton sheets and a window you have to stand on a stool to look out of. And just to compound my grievances - others have a kettle. Still, I’m only here for one night. Things can only get better?
Out to explore Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, framed by Vitosha Mountain. It’s a whistle-stop tour, umbrellas at the ready and s there's a torrential downpour. Guide Ani marches ahead at pace, pauses for explanations and then is off again. Photos are taken on the fly.
Most of the sights of Sophia are historical remains, reflecting the city’s history. Sophia has Thracian heritage (associated with the poet Orpheus), but the area was named after the Celtic Serdi tribe, and became Serdica when it was a Roman city. It is replete with Roman remains, some only excavated a year ago. Sophia has been destroyed and rebuilt four times, but the city retains its sixth century Byzantine form. Two key Byzantine buildings remain - St Sophia’s Church on the highest point of city dates from the sixth century. The round Church of St. George is one of oldest churches in the world, dating from when Constantine and his mother Helen adopted Christianity in the 4th century. It was originally part of another imposing public building, perhaps baths or an imperial reception hall. It has five layers of frescoes.
There are few relics of the Ottoman empire and only one remaining mosque, the Banya Bashi. Most of them were destroyed by the Soviets. The Mosque of the Baths was designed by warriors conscripted from the villages by the Turks and designed to rival the mosques of Sinan. In the Central Square, close to the Banya Bashi Mosque are the thermal springs that give it its name. There’s a yellow and red Ottoman style building that housed the baths and was utilised during Soviet times. It since been restored as a museum.
Post Liberation Sophia
Much is made in Bulgaria of the Russian Liberation from the Ottomans in 1878 and monuments abound. The most famous are the Russian Church and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is extremely grand. The domes are covered in real gold and have recently been redone. There are copious amounts of marble and onyx and the walls are adorned with hosts of icons painted by the foremost artists, mainly on canvas. One especially popular with visitors is deemed to be miraculous. There are three naves, the patriarch's throne and the king’s throne, which is naturally much grander. The frescoes are murky due to candle smoke but there are no funds for restorations of these at the moment.
Alexander Nevsky is a Russian Saint from the 11th century a warrior, chosen to commemorate the travails of King Alexander in removing the Ottomans. A lady in her late 80s climbs 220 steps daily to ring the bells of the cathedral. She's has been performing this ritual for 30 years and is on You-tube.
Although Serdica was an important Roman city Sophia did not become capital of Bulgaria until this period. Opposite the historic covered Central Market Hall (closed) is the synagogue, a 1905 copy of the one that was destroyed in Vienna.
There are plenty of relics of the Soviet occupation. The main draw is the oddly Baroque and newly renovated Central Soviet Square with its Parliament, Presidency, ministries, Sheraton Hotel (only for Soviet dignitaries), underpasses and Louvre like glass domes. The buildings to one side shelter the St George Rotunda.
What else do I remember from my Route March? The National Theatre and a very noisy rock festival in the park behind the central Square - the police have even closed the road.
Christmas Eve in Sophia
Last time I was in the second oldest city in Europe it was Christmas Eve. It was charming. It was snowing and there are small decorated stalls set up around the main square and gilt onion domes of the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. The locals were buying cards, baubles and Christmas trees, hoisting the latter onto their shoulders to carry home. Pleasingly atmospheric and delightfully uncommercial.
Today we’re off on our clockwise tour of Bulgaria. Our driver is called Angel. East and slightly north, through the oak and beech covered Balkans Mountains. Hayricks, cheese shops and stalls stacked with wooden implements. The vendors sit sour faced on their stools. It’s not encouraging.
First stop is the Troyan monastery, with its chalet style monks cells. It’s home to a miraculous three handed Madonna icon, a copy of an eighth century icon left here by a monk in the 14th century. His horse kept tripping as a signal that he should leave it behind. So the story goes. The additional hand commemorates St John of Damascus who wrote in defence of icons during the Islamic influence, when such representation was discouraged. Emperor Leo was not impressed. He forged documents implicating John in insurrection and the Caliph of Damascus decreed that his hand should be cut off. The deed was done, but John prayed, the hand was healed and in remembrance an additional silver hand was stuck to icons. This eventually became a third 'proper' hand on all copies.
The monastery only dates from the sixteenth century so I’m totally confused as to how the dates for the icon work and I can't find any information that clarifies things. But the building is delightful with its profusion of trailing red flowers over the timber balconies and the minuscule church. This is heavy with incense, replete with suspended candelabras glistening gold and every inch of wall covered in paintings. Visitors line up to touch the icon and at the altar the priest is conducting a baptism.
Veliko Tarnovo, Old Capital of Bulgaria
Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of Bulgaria during its first empire when Asperuh became the first ruler of Bulgaria in 681. There’s a sprawling Tsaravets fortress topped by a Russian church. It’s all been heavily restored by the Soviets. They used mortar in the walls and decorated the inside of the church with dramatically disturbing monochrome murals depicting the history of Bulgaria. There’s a castle with great views across the modern city. The excavations stretch across to the adjacent hill. It was some capital. One of the towers in the lengthy walls was used as a prison for Baldwin of Flanders, who got permission to cross Bulgaria on his way to the crusades but then formed his own empire in North Greece and ungratefully attacked Bulgaria. He was captured and restrained for the rest of his life.
Arbanasi, just up the road was the chosen home for aristocracy of Greek heritage who built houses here in the seventeenth century under Ottoman rule. It was a lawless time and the uncultured Turks were not inclined to protect Christians from bands of robbers. The restored house museum of Konstantsalieva is heavily defended with thick walls, stout wooden doors and steep staircases. There’s even a panic style store room for food. Apparently brigands still got in and murdered the householder when she had been left on her own by her husband.
The rooms contain exhibits demonstrating what life was like in those times-apart from weird and terrifying. The kitchen has three ovens - one for making yogurt.
The hotel is over the road from the restored house museum. It’s got wooden chalet style rooms and a swimming pool. But all that glitters is not gold. The bedside lights don’t have any sockets to plug into.
Food and Drink of Bulgaria
Food in Bulgaria has a strong Greek and Turkish influence. It consists of a great deal of fresh bread rolls, flatbreads, salads like shopska (tomato and cucumber with cheese grated on top), bean soups, marinated meat, chips and fried cheese. Most of the meat is chicken. Pork features occasionally. Lamb is unusual - maybe in the spring - and beef doesn’t generally feature. Cattle is only reared for dairy products. The Bulgarians claim to have invented yogurt and that turns up with the salad, or as dessert at most meals. Other desserts are very sweet, pancakes with syrup and nuts or baklava like pastries.
Last time I was here, my hotel stuck to a bland (on good days) ‘international’ menu. On Christmas Day we were served something unappetisingly dry and very dark brown. I inquired what it was. ‘Turkey, of course,’ replied the waiter smiling.
The local firewater is rakia, often made from plums. There’s vodka also of course, due to the Soviet heritage. Whatever my first day’s eating doesn’t agree with me and I spend most of the night in the bathroom. I’m tempted to spend the day by the swimming pool, but I’m also terrified of missing out, so I sneak a pillow out to the bus and commandeer the back seat.
Rusenski Lom Nature Park
Today, another fortress Cherven, contemporary with the Tsaravets fort of yesterday. But this one is not restored. It's a puff of a hike climbing two hundred or so steps for an up close view of the ruins (mainly just one tower some walls and several ruined churches) along the magnificent gorge in the Rusenski Lom Nature Park.
Then two rock monasteries. Up more steep paths in the park, with more gorgeous views. The frescoes depicting Jesus’ life in the UNESCO protected rock churches of Ivanovo date from the fourteenth century and are semi restored. The monasteries were occupied by a hermit monk order who focussed on silence and the spirituality of light - Hesychasm. Another monastery, Basarbovo, closer to the city of Ruse, was founded by a shepherd, Dimitar Basarbovo and he was buried there. But when they tried to transfer his relics to Russia via Romania many people were cured of the plague en route and so they kept his bones in Bucharest instead.
Bulgaria’s third city of Ruse for lunch, in a rooftop restaurant with views over the Danube. Then a very quick wander round the main Svoboda (Liberty) Square and adjacent buildings of note. There’s the Baroque Profitability Building - as the name suggests it was intended to make some money. Then the Palace of Justice, Opera House and in the centre the Monument of Liberty, celebrating the Liberation from the Ottomans. Up the road the impressive gold domed Pantheon of National Heroes, an ossuary, with the bones of 453 war heroes from the uprising against the Ottomans.
The jury is out as to whether I would have had a better day by the swimming pool.
South west through the Central Balkans National Park and beech forests climbing sluggishly over a long pass. We stop for a view across to a monument to the Russian liberation, thus arousing the ire of (maybe) 500 dogs barking in unison. The other side of the pass we stop to admire the Russian Church at Shipka, also a monument to the battle that took place here. It has a very ornate carved spire and the usual gold onion domes. The Bulgarian crosses have Islamic crescents underneath the Russian double crossed I.
Bulgaria's Valley of Roses
Through the Thracian Valley of the Kings (or roses), liberally scattered with tombs. The Thracians enjoyed wine and fighting each other. The tombs contained objects that are deemed to be useful in the afterlife. Wine, armour, even horses. According to Herodotus they also buried the favourite wife with the warrior. The ancient kingdom of Thrace spread across southern Bulgaria into Greece and the European finger of Turkey which is today known as Thrace.
In the centre of Kazenluk is a UNESCO recognised Thracian tomb accidentally discovered in 1944. But no one is allowed in that as exposure has damaged the frescoes. So there’s an exact copy just up the Funerary Hill with a dome and painted murals of chariots and music that you can pay to visit instead.
At Kazanluk there's also there's the Museum of Roses. Here we learn that they in the main grow the damascene pink roses here, which are best for oil. The petals must be picked before dawn, when there is the largest proportion of oil in the petals before they open.. Distillation vats on display. 3000 kg petals produce one kg of rose oil. Rose was first water brought to Europe during the Crusades, but rose oil devloped here as major export in in the nineteenth century.
There’s even a stop off at a Bulgarian country house at Tyzha with a dramatic mountain setting - Mount Bothev. We get a tour of the garden: vines, corn, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, other fruit and a very friendly dog. We are fed filo cheese pastries rakia aryan ( salt yogurt) figs and pears.
Plovdiv, the Second City of Bulgaria
Then to Plovdiv, the second city of Bulgaria and an ancient Roman town, with narrow cobbled streets and medieval and eighteenth/nineteenth century houses. There’s a tower dating back to the third century AD, in the walls of ancient Philippopolis, as it was called (after Phillip of Macedon who founded the city). Under the Romans it became the capital of Thrace named Trimontium, as it was built on three hills. Marcus Aurelius built the wall round the city.
The old walled town is a gathering of pastel coloured jettied buildings stooping precariously to leave the prescribed street width – enough room for two donkeys to pass. The city has expanded like Rome to cover seven syenite hills. One disappeared, as they quarried all the stone, but the other six all propose great view points.
As you drop down from the old town into the new, passing the very well preserved ( with some help) first century roman theatre and there’s a beautifully multi domed mosque. The modern city intertwines with the old nicely. A Roman stadium semi revealed and accessed by plate glass staircases beneath the main shopping street. At the other end of this elegant promenade are the two sections of the plate glass enclosed Roman forum. The avenues are lined with pavement cafes and fountains.
I clamber up Danov Hill on the edge of the main shopping street in the new town, for views in all directions. There are so many different routes to the top I’m giddy trying them all out. The Balkan Mountains to the north, the Rhodope Mountains and the ski resorts to the south; two more hills, one of which has Soviet martyr monuments. The old city on its three crags and the modern sprawl below. There’s a clock tower on top that chimes and an ugly satellite tower.
My room in Plovdiv is noisy next to a seat on a park, so Angel is a real angel and swaps with me. He also takes me and Ani out to dinner. Though conversation doesn’t exactly flow. He doesn’t speak English.
South to the Rhodope Mountains through the city of Asenovgrad famous for its wedding dresses then stopping at a Byzantine Fortress restored by king Asen in the early fourteenth century and ultimately destroyed by the Turks. There’s not much of the Fortress left but there are gorgeous views of the mountains and down to the church built there after a very slippery climb up marble steps.
Beautifully framed by the mountains, another UNESCO monastery, Bachkovo, the second most important in the country. Originally founded in 1083, most of the current buildings date from the sixteenth to nineteenth century. Three churches and again in a an almost Buddhist style, wooden balconied terraces on the first floor for the monks cells. Incongruously, there are also satellite dishes.
One small St Nicholas Church has grotesque Doomsday frescoes of torture and richly clad (recognisable nobles it seems), being punished in hell, as they had refused to give the artist Zahari Zograf the money he had requested for a school for artists. There is the usual miraculous icon, the Virgin Mary Eleusa from the fourteenth century. It was hidden in a cave, but rediscovered as it emitted light in the forest. People thought it was a fire. They rescued the painting, but on three nights consecutively it returned itself to the cave. The monks eventually negotiated with the icon, who agreed to live in the monastery with them provided she was returned to the cave once a year. This is done in an annual procession.
The icon is hung prominently close to the doorway (according to her wishes) in one of the other two main churches, the Virgin Mary cathedral dedicated to the ‘Falling Asleep Mother Mary’. She is depicted on what I assume is her death bed. The decoration in here is extraordinary. It’s a cornucopia of icons, candelabra, frescoes and gilt. It’s so complex it ought to look completely overdone, but somehow it results in an incredibly spiritual experience. At least it does until someone begins a loud conversation, or a mobile phone trills out.
The mountain road up to the monastery is lined with stalls – refreshments, pottery, wooden utensils plenty of chopping boards and statues, amongst which garden gnomes are prominent.
Skiing in Bulgaria
The road now leads through larch and pine clad slopes and along snaking passes, to the ski resort of Pamporovo. Tall aparthotels and triangular prisms that are modern chalets. Last time I was in Bulgaria I was skiing at Borovets. It was cheap and I wanted to visit Bulgaria. A double whammy. As I’ve discovered before, cheap can be problematic. The slopes were hard packed snow and icy, not the most well-tended I’ve ever attempted to plummet down. And we were also a little dubious about the lift system. The story going round reported that ski lifts were built new in Switzerland. Then they were sold second hand to France and Italy. When they reached the end of their useful life there they were sent to Bulgaria. Ani says that the opposite is now true. Her friends go abroad, as it's cheaper to ski in the Alps than in Bulgaria.
The Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria
The scenery is stunning, as the way winds on through stone built hamlets. We have lunch in a Rhodopian speciality restaurant in the village of Sharoko Loko, a virtual open air museum of timber and stone houses, churches and cute bridges. We are fed potato pancakes - patatniks - made with cheese and coriander.
Almost to the Greek border, through immense gorges, and uphill to the Devils Throat Cavern. There’s a great deal of climbing on wet steps with rusting rails that would absolutely not be allowed in England. Below us a gorge, with supposedly the largets underground waterfall in Europe. though I'm struggling to glimpse it. There's a small waterfall once we emerge.
The best surprise of the day is our hotel outside the village of Trigrad, still further up the mountain from the cave. Here the slopes are swathed in spruce, there are a whole herd of horses in the pasture and I have somehow ended up with a suite and balcony that overlooks the whole wonderful panorama. I’m celebrating with an extremely large gin and tonic. It helps to mitigate the bag pipe playing at dinner. The bag pipes are huge, made out of goatskin.
First thing in the morning it’s pretty chilly. Another cave, Yagodinska, up yet another pretty curving and nausea inducing climb. This cave has a three levels, with one concrete path of just over a kilometre open to tourists. There are a few flights of rusty stairs up and down bringing it back to almost the same height. It has railings most of the way and isn’t too skiddy. And here there are mineral infused speleothems (my new word for the day): stalactites, stalagmites, stalagnates (columns where both meet) and cave pearls (layers of calcium carbonate round grains of other materials in strange nest like clusters).
Thankfully, there is little in the way of gaudy lighting, though the custom has not been entirely eradicated.. The highlight is the New Year Cave where local speleologists gather to spend the festivities. There’s even a Christmas tree that stays carefully preserved with all its decorations. Alongside, is a platform for celebrating weddings. But no photos are allowed that’s why there aren’t any here !
The scenery just gets better and better as we navigate the pine clad slopes to Dospat for a stunning view of the artificial lake and Turkish style pot stew lunches with potato, cheese and a little beef, (no pork for the local Muslim population of course).
Now west, almost to the Serbian border and there’s a dramatic change of scenery. It’s still spectacular, but in the Pirin Mountains now, there are high sheer stone peaks, the valleys are flatter and the trees are deciduous again. And there are vines. Melnik is a wine making village (officially the smallest town in Bulgaria). It's impossibly picturesque. And extraordinary in that it is surrounded by 150 metre sandstone pillars or pyramids.
The hotel rooms in Bulgaria have been 'interesting'. Most very basic, foam mattresses, cotton sheets. Wi-Fi of various levels of acceptability. Sockets parting company with the wall. The room in Melnik is pretty with pine furniture and am iron bedframe. But this one still follows the pattern of light bulbs that don’t work. Half of the dozen bulbs here are dead. And that includes the main light in the bathroom. Perhaps it’s a Bulgarian tradition
We started our trip in the rain in Sophia and we've finished in the rain. At least that means there are no other visitors here at Rila, Bulgaria's' most famous monastery. St John , the most prominent Bulgarian saint, established a monastery here further up the mountain but it was repeatedly destroyed and the site was moved in fourteenth century. The only part of that monastery which survives is a defence tower. The rest was destroyed by fire. The remaining UNESCO monastery is the best example of revivalist (post Ottoman) architecture in the country (I'm told).
There are more frescoes by Zohari Zograf depicting scenes from the Bible. The interior is even richer than those we have already inspected. It’s bigger and wooden, much darker and there are a plethora of gold stands, candelabra and vivid paintings surrounded in gold filigree. But for me, although beautifu,l it does not have the same allure as the Bachkovo Monastery. The monks cells here are on terraces, with pretty painted stone arches and balustrades.
This is probably the earliest and freshest I ’ve ever eaten lunch real time. Trout from the fish farms that lie alongside the mountain streams beneath us in a Rila restaurant. We have to be at the airport at 12.20 for the return journey home. The plane is delayed, of course.
Read more about Bulgaria here.