A Travellerspoint blog

Bulgaria

Sightseeing in Bulgaria Continues

Old Churches & Ancient Cities

sunny 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!

AG in Front of Boyana Church

AG in Front of Boyana Church

What You are Not Allowed To Wear

What You are Not Allowed To Wear

Impossible to Get a Photo without People. We are all in each other's way.

Impossible to Get a Photo without People. We are all in each other's way.

Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery

A Storm Brews Above Rila Monastery

A Storm Brews Above Rila Monastery

Orthodox Christian Roof Mural @ Sila Monastery

Orthodox Christian Roof Mural @ Sila Monastery

Through the Layers & Across the Centuries

Through the Layers & Across the Centuries

Roman Stadium in Plovdiv, Underneath Main Shopping Street

Roman Stadium in Plovdiv, Underneath Main Shopping Street

Dani our Guide in Plovdiv

Dani our Guide in Plovdiv

Dzhumaya Mosque, Plovdiv

Dzhumaya Mosque, Plovdiv

Work is Still in Progress in Plovdiv Old Town

Work is Still in Progress in Plovdiv Old Town

Renovated Doorway in Plovdiv

Renovated Doorway in Plovdiv

And a DoorvBefore Renovation

And a DoorvBefore Renovation

Ottoman House, Old Town Plovdiv

Ottoman House, Old Town Plovdiv

Ottoman Houses in PLOVDIV

Ottoman Houses in PLOVDIV

Roman Theatre in Plovdiv

Roman Theatre in Plovdiv

Ruins of the Forum (1-5th C )

Ruins of the Forum (1-5th C )

Sunset over Plovdiv

Sunset over Plovdiv

Posted by sagbucks 22:00 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

Free Sofia Walking Tour

And this is only the beginning

sunny 28 °C

Day 8 Wednesday June 1 2017
Sofia, Bulgaria - Rest Day / 0 km

  • We actually need 2 days to work out how to use the various features of our hotel room.

There are design flaws: the lighting system is only operable from one side of the bed - SG has to stay in the dark, whatever she wants to do ( light controls are AG's side ). In the bathroom, towels must remain scattered on the floor because there are insufficient hooks. Towel rail? How old fashioned.

  • Breakfast has a roof top view. The chefs are keen to introduce us to local Bulgarian food.
  • Yes, you've guessed - it's hot & sunny.
  • Today is titled 'Rest Day' but of course it isn't. Rest Days are usually packed with activity, but importantly for AG there is no driving.
  • June 1st is Children's Day - the younger generation are having a day's holiday and so must the people who look after them. It's party in the park time. Apparently museums & art galleries offered reduce prices today - for everyone.
  • We head to the Court of justice to meet up with the guide of Free Walk Sofia @ 11 a.m. We arrive around 10.45 and already there is quite a crowd. In fact at this time of year there are 3 guides available. The first large group leaves around 10.50. To avoid the disadvantages of large numbers we hang back for a later departure. Don't bother. There are numerous latecomers and all groups are of a similar size.
  • Our guide Stanislav is an actor by trade, so he is currently either impoverished or out of work or both. But it means he can tell interesting stories. And this is the beauty of the 2hr free city walks - you are introduced to the basics and then given the options to explore deeper. Our group is predominantly young and mixed nationalities. It's an interesting collection of people.
  • We learn many seemingly unconnected facts that help build the picture of Sofia today. We see several old & historically significant churches, some of which were converted into mosques when Bulgaria was assimilated into the Ottoman Empire (14-19C ). Bulgaria was finally freed from Ottoman control in the aftermath of the Russian / Turkish war which forced the re-drawing of the Balkan map.
  • Sofia is blessed with the source of about 40 different mineral waters. Sadly although the Romans & Bulgarians used to love to bathe in them, no public bath houses remain functional in the city. Our tour does take us to the Old Mineral Bath House but it has recently been converted into a History Museum & no bathing facilities remain.
  • After World War 2 Bulgaria became a Communist state for nearly 45 years, closely allied with the Soviet Union during the Cold War period. In the centre of Sofia there is much architectural evidence of Communist Neo Classical style which is surprisingly grand and attractive. Lenin's statue has long since been removed and been replaced with one of the legendary Saint of Sofia.
  • In amidst these massive Communist era buildings, surrounded, some might say hidden, stands the diminutive St George Rotunda Church. Built in early 4 Century it is the oldest place of Christian worship in Sophia. A daily service is still held according to the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is worth looking inside too to appreciate the interior of the roof - the paintings you see are original from the 6 th Century.
  • Our guide explains that Sofia lacks an 'old part' in the same way as in Zagreb or Belgrade for example. The city has been built in layers - on top of each other rather than outwards from an older core. This is why so many ruins of previous eras have been excavated in relatively recent times as new infrastructure is being built. See for example the ruins of Roman Baths in front of the Banya Bashi Mosque which was itself built in 1576.
  • There were once 70 mosques in Sofia but today the Banya Bashi Mosque is the only one still in use. About 12% of Bulgarians are Muslims but they mostly live in SE Bulgaria nearer to Turkey. This city mosque was designed by one of the greatest Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan, who also built the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The similarities, albeit on a smaller scale are obvious to even the tourist's eye.
  • As we walk towards the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral we pass through a park area adjacent to the National Theatre. It is crowded with children enjoying their special holiday. The trees are heavy with blossom of one sort or another. SG recognises the fluffy yellow mimosa flowers . Ahhh, this explains the surprisingly beautiful aromatic smells in the evenings in both Belgrade & Sofia. It has been a mystery until now. During the day there is no fragrance.
  • Also under a certain type of tree are lots of red & white cords hanging from branches. Stanislav explains that the cords & ribbons are called martenitsi which symbolise health & happiness. The tradition on Baba Marta Day, March 1st, is to exchange with your nearest and dearest a martenitsi. You must keep your collection until you either see the first Stork of the season or the first plum tree in blossom. You should then tie a martenitsi onto a plum tree.
  • The plum tree is also known as the Rakhia tree, from that lethal Balkan brew that is fermented from plums.
  • En route to the cathedral which dominates the skyline in downtown Sofia, we pass by the small Russian Orthodox Church of St Nikolas, built in honour of the Russian Expulsion of the Ottomans in 1878. The multiple tiny golden domes, exterior mosaic decoration and the double bar cross are all - well, Russian in design.
  • Pretty much opposite the cathedral is the much older, smaller & humbler St Sophia Basilica with its famous underground museum. Down there are remains of tombs & earlier churches built on this same site, one on top of the other. The first church was built in 4 th century after the Edict of Tolerance was issued by Emperor Constantine. Thereafter religion was tolerated within and by the Roman Empire. There followed a massive scale of conversion to Christianity in the region. When the Ottomans arrived in Sofia they first used the Basilica as a warehouse before later changing it into a mosque.
  • The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is worth seeing by day & by night when it is beautifully illuminated. It was built between 1904-16 and is said to represent Bulgarian & Byzantinian architectural influences. It was formerly the largest cathedral in the Balkans, until the Serbians went and spoilt things by building an even bigger one in Belgrade.
  • It will be obvious that our visits to churches & other places of worship have started here in Sofia.

And since we are heading to the cradles of Christianity, Armenia & Georgia, we will no doubt have many more on our agenda.

  • After a bite to eat at Moma's just off the main shopping street, Vitosha Boulevard we head back to our hotel for a couple hours of catch up with life and stuff back in the UK. And another swim for SG before an early supper up in the Roof Bar of Sense Hotel.
  • Tomorrow we are on the road again with sightseeing en route and at our end destination - so a busy day ahead.

Rotunda St George

Rotunda St George

Banya Bashi Mosque

Banya Bashi Mosque

Roman Ruins Adjacent to Banya Bashi Mosque

Roman Ruins Adjacent to Banya Bashi Mosque

Well Would You Want to Wear a Hat with an Eagle Feather? Soldier Guarding Government Buildings

Well Would You Want to Wear a Hat with an Eagle Feather? Soldier Guarding Government Buildings

Children's Day in Bulgaria - Adidas Get Involved Too

Children's Day in Bulgaria - Adidas Get Involved Too

Take Note Mr Juncker!

Take Note Mr Juncker!

Old Newspaper Kiosk in Park

Old Newspaper Kiosk in Park

Mimosa Blossom in Full & Aromatic Bloom

Mimosa Blossom in Full & Aromatic Bloom

Martenitsi Hanging in a Plum Tree

Martenitsi Hanging in a Plum Tree

Chess Being Played in the Park - Love the Sun Hats

Chess Being Played in the Park - Love the Sun Hats

St Nikolas Russian Orthodox Church

St Nikolas Russian Orthodox Church

Alexander Nevski Cathedral

Alexander Nevski Cathedral

Moma Restaurant Serves Reasonable Bulgarian Food

Moma Restaurant Serves Reasonable Bulgarian Food

Posted by sagbucks 12:18 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

Driving to Sofia & Outer Europe

sunny 28 °C

Day 7 Wednesday, May 31 2017
Belgrade to Sofia / 394 km

  • Fine, sunny and 28 C at 10 a.m. It's becoming hotter by the day. We're getting ever closer to Turkey.
  • Despite initial reservations about Boutique Hotel Townhouse 27 ( shabby street, graffiti on the walls etc ) we actually leave able to recommend it. The staff are friendly & helpful, we have a reasonable night's sleep, there's a small coffee machine in our room and breakfast is good.
  • In fact we are mellowing towards Belgrade. We have not had sufficient opportunity to explore all the old town - the parts with grand government buildings nor its various museums & art galleries. You should stay a bit longer, especially if you come in a few years time when building work in the Old City is complete.
  • As we leave the city, there is heavy traffic heading in. Belgrade may not yet have the class of its Croatian neighbour but it does have size. It is by far the biggest city in Serbia with a population of 1.65 million and has long enjoyed capital city status.
  • We are not sure if May 31 is a significant day in the Serbian calendar but still within the old part of town, police are controlling the traffic and overriding the traffic light system. With the usual chaos that human intervention creates. Maybe some important politician (s) is expected to arrive imminently. We are glad to escape before the possible closure of the road system.
  • it's another motorway day to Sofia the capital of Bulgaria and of course a border to cross. The last one in Europe on our outward journey to Georgia. Thereafter border days will assume greater significance with the possibility of delays.
  • It's wonderful that by luck our mother tongue is the number one universally spoken language in the world. Despite what Monsieur Juncker may think or hope. Serbian is difficult to read, let alone understand. The Serbians we speak to all have an interest and ability to converse with us in English.
  • The motorway SE towards the city of Nis is good, the service restrooms clean & free. Road tolls are payable in euros and you even get change back in euros - notes & coins. It's good this eurozone system!
  • SG uses the 250 km stretch of motorway to read up on the collapse & disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990's. It is complex, but recent European history. It is embarrassing that we know or remember so little: the ethnic fighting in Croatia between Serbs & Croats, the bombing of the UNESCO World Heritage city of Dubrovnic, Slobodan Milosivc, Lord Carrington, the utter failure of the European Community to negotiate a diplomatic solution, the Siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian War and finally the intervention of UN troops to bring to an end hostilities in former Yugoslavia. SG requires all of 250 km, and more, to understand the regional tensions of this part of the world.
  • At around 250 km the motorway route to Bulgaria ends. The rest is normal single carriage road. But it is evident that new infrastructure is being built and that there will eventually be a fast road connecting the capital cities of Serbia & Bulgaria.
  • We fill up with diesel just before the Bulgarian border and pay nearly 10000 Serbian didgeridoos. Exchange rate?!
  • The Serbian / Bulgarian border means crossing into a new time zone. We are now 2 hours ahead BST, 3 hours ahead of GMT. For the first time in Europe we must also show vehicle documentation. A sensible control, don't you think?
  • We have to buy a vignette for use on the Bulgarian road system. There aren't many motorways. This vignette business - I am sure you are getting the gist of the story by now. And a good idea why SG believes that we should be doing something similar in the UK.
  • With the aid of SatNav and a decisive navigator we successfully find our way to the Sense Hotel in Sofia. It is superbly located, just a few minutes walk from the iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral . It also claims to be a 'design hotel'. And it is. Having lived so long in a charming 1920's house with normal fixtures & fittings, we struggle to even function the lifts. Everything requires technical intuition to function. It's a challenge for both of us - one that we have no option but to embrace!
  • We must separate from the truck. The chassis is too tall to park in the hotel underground carpark. AG has to drive it a short distance away to park.
  • The hotel has a fitness centre & swimming pool. The pool is a design feature in itself. It is essentially a 15 m stainless steel tank. SG prioritises and goes for a swim. It is sheer bliss to stretch out and do some exercise.
  • We decide to eat in this evening. We have been on the road now for 7 consecutive days and are very tired.
  • Sofia represents the first rest stop of our trip. We are spending 2 nights here. This also means a washing day. We never do hotel laundry. The beautifully designed modern bathrooms of the Sense Hotel do not lend themselves well to drying wet clothes. Hooks, door frames, shower screens are all lacking. Fortunately SG has brought a laundry kit with washing line and pegs and can improvise. Goodness knows what the cleaning staff will think when they come to clean!
  • After an average fish supper but a glass of fine Bulgarian Chardonnay ( we always drink local ) we head up to the hotel Roofbar for city views at dusk. A highly recommendable venue.

Bulgarian / Serbian Border Control

Bulgarian / Serbian Border Control

The Magnificent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The Magnificent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Posted by sagbucks 13:27 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 3 of 3) Page [1]