Old Churches & Ancient Cities
02.06.2017 - 02.06.2017 28 °C
Day 9 Friday June 2 2017
Sofia to Plovdiv / 434 KM
- Today we are heading to Bulgaria's second city, Plovdiv, which is nicknamed the city of 7 hills. It's Thracian name was Philippolis, but the Persians, Romans, Goths, Huns, Crusaders, Slav- Vikings and of course the Ottomans, have all been here too! We are particularly interested in seeing the fine civic remains of the Thracian / Roman eras - the aqueduct, stadium & theatre.
- But first we are doing some more sightseeing - Boyana church and the famous complex of Riliski Monastery. Actually a detour of about half a day so SG may be pushing her luck.
- AG has been irritating SG with his sniffles. At first he thought it was hayfever and dust irritation. But no, he has a heavy summer cold. Barely a week into the trip, he's already ill. We both hope for a speedy recovery!
- As usual, when we have en route stops to make, we input the relevant coordinates. We are also referencing the paper map version of Bulgaria.
- It's just a short drive to the leafy and no doubt expensive Vitosha suburbs which straddle the lower slopes of the Vitosha mountains that dominate SW Sofia. This is a ski area in winter.
- It is barely 10 a.m and the coaches are already arriving at the Boyana Church ( built 10 th C ) . A pretty little place nestling in woods. Simple from the outside, it is famous for the frescoes adorning its interior that date from mid 13 Century. They are said to be the most complete example of medieval art in the Balkans, characterised by artistic individuality and psychological insight into lifestyle & culture of that era.
- We will never know. We do not have the time to wait. Entry is a significant 10 euros per person, but you are allocated a time of entry. The coach loads arriving now have reserved their time slot in advance. We will be back of the line, as Obama so famously said last year.
- In any case in Armenia & Georgia we will have numerous opportunities to see very early Christian artwork.
- We move on. We are soon stopped by a police car. AG has to show his driving licence and switch his lights on. ( Its law in Bulgaria to drive at all times illuminated )
- Within 5 minutes, on a different road we are stopped again by a roadside check point. They are pulling over cars and trucks randomly. The police again want to AG's driving licence and enquire about our destination & reasons for travel. We are relieved that the checkpoint is not simply a good way to charge fines ( bribery ) for some minor infringement. We are wrong to doubt the Bulgarian law enforcement system. When was the last you were randomly checked in the UK?
- Our next way point is Rila Monastery some 100 km South of Sofia and a significant detour for us on our journey to Plovdiv which actually lies SE of the capital city.
- We are not alone. The coach park is full. We feel conspicuous in our shorts & skirt. Most people are wearing long trousers despite the heat. We have been warned that we must cover up when visiting ancient churches and monasteries in Georgia & Armenia but we had not realised that there was a dress code here in Bulgaria too.
- We are amazed at the number of Chinese & Japanese visitors to this part of Europe. Good for them, straying beyond the obvious path that leads to Rome, Paris & London.
- The crowds mean that capturing that perfect photo without the 'unknown tourist' is more or less impossible or requires careful editing later. We all get in each other's way.
- Once off the new motorway from Sofia, we take a minor road that leads some 20 km through countryside via the town of Rila to the monastery. It has recently been upgraded courtesy of EU subsidies. It no doubt allows for easier & quicker coach travel for tourists in a rush.
- We are in rural Bulgaria - horse & cart country, manual labour in the fields, roadside stalls selling honey, dogs exercising themselves, and backyards shaded by grapevines. We wonder what % of the young people of such towns & villages now work abroad. The tell tale signs of half finished houses indicates building work that endures only as long as the latest money remittance.
- Rila Monastery was founded in the 10 th Century by the followers of a hermit known as St Ivan of Rila who lived between 876-947 AD. It was built up in the mountains at an altitude of 1147m which makes summer temperatures more bearable. St Iven himself never inhabited the monastery, preferring a cave with no material possessions.
- The oldest buildings that remain today date from the early 14 th Century and 60 monks continue to live here.
- During the long years of foreign rule, Rila Monastery also served as a depository of Bulgarian cultural & language artefacts. It therefore has great spiritual, cultural and patriotic significance to Bulgarians & is on the list for school outings.
- Unesco, that organisation that travels the world to some of the most obscure places to declare them World Heritage Sites - well they've been here too. It helps with tourism immensely, even if the status is somewhat overrated.
- Since we are dressed inappropriately by Eastern Orthodox Christian Standards we only peep inside the main church. It suffices for us - the walls and ceilings are covered with religious paintings. It is dark & oppressive and not particularly spiritually uplifting - at least not to us.
- We leave ahead of all the coaches. It is lunchtime and the day's outing no doubt includes lunch at one of the nearby Bulgarian restaurants. We continue on to Plovdiv. We want to arrive in good time for the Free Plovdiv Walk scheduled for 6 p.m.
- The meeting place for the walk is just around the corner from our hotel called 8.5 Town Guest House. Not sure how they hit on this name, but the building next door is number 17. Opposite is Hemingway Restaurant, a Trip Advisor recommendation and where for convenience we will eat this evening.
- Dani is our Bulgarian guide and we suspect he is new to the profession. We are a bit underwhelmed, his pace of both talking and walking is slow. We stick with him for just over 2 hours but leave the group early to retrace our own steps.
- Within this time we see some of the ruins of the antique city. They are indeed subterranean and only a small proportion have been excavated and put on public display. There are stories amongst the group of being invited into the basements of older houses where they have their own private stash of ancient history. Buildings have simply been built on top of ancient treasures.
- There are plans or rather dreams to excavate much more of the stadium, which sits under the main shopping street, constructed back in the 1960's. The vision is for the walkway to be made of glass so that the ruins are visible. Dani suggests this is unlikely to happen because it would be too expensive. The cost of excavation and dismantling of buildings was in any case the reason that much of ancient Plovdiv remains hidden.
- The stadium originally measured 50 m x 250 m. It was used for chariot & horse racing & racing and when filled with water for mock sea warfare. Opposite the excavated section of the stadium is the distinctive Dzhumaya Mosque which was built in 15th century. It replaced an earlier version that had been constructed in 1363-4 on the same site and which at the time was the first functioning mosque in Bulgaria.
- We also glimpse behind high gates the public theatre built during Plovdiv's Thracian era in the 1st Century AD. It has 28 concentric rows of marble seats, can accommodate 6000 spectators and today is still used for summer concerts and drama productions. How incredible to see a live performance here.
- Last but not least, immediately opposite our hotel is the excavation of part of the former Forum which was actively used between 1-5 th centuries and which covered an area of 2.5 acres. Sadly over the centuries and well before preservation projects, it provided an ideal source of building material.
- We terminate our walk with young Dani up on Nebet Hill, one of Plovdiv's main hills, part of the old town and a great place to admire old Ottoman houses. We could be in Turkey....
- Knackered & hungry we descend the cobbled streets. With good old maps me app ( no we're not on commission ) we are sat at our table in the Hemingway restaurant by 8.30. By now AG has also developed man flu. It is hours since we have had sustenance. We have often wondered why no one ever shows an interest in joining one of our crazy road adventures. Days like today would surely deter most people!