Prior to the commencement of this trip, many people in Melbourne scorned my obsessive formulation of an exceedingly regimented itinerary. However, I have exhibited flexibility throughout the year and a prime example of this admirable trait was the sudden and radical decision to visit Bulgaria. As previously discussed, I was not encapsulated by Turkey to the degree anticipated and thus determined that the time allocated for travel in the country was excessive. I departed Turkey earlier than planned and opportunistically utilized the newly acquired time to visit neighbouring Bulgaria. The country presented itself as an exhilarating and exotic prospect, primarily because I completed absolutely no research about it (a unique situation). I caught an overnight train from Istanbul to the ancient Bulgarian capital of Veliko Tarnovo and was immediately thrilled with this unexpected journey. Bulgaria provided an intriguing glimpse into Eastern Europe without the crowds of mass tourists that plague cities like Prague. The country is carpeted in dense forests, boasts unique bucolic architecture and is laden with fascinating relics of the communist era. I also stayed in the historic town of Plovdiv and the modern capital city of Sofia during my six day Bulgarian odyssey.
Bulgaria is one of those peculiar countries that most readers probably know nothing about, so a brief synopsis is probably justified. Bulgaria is located in the Balkans and borders five countries and the Black Sea. Estimates suggest that Bulgaria probably possesses the third most archaeological sites in Europe, which I assume relates to its proximity to Greece and the Near East. After Antiquity, the Slavic Bulgarians migrated into the region and established medieval empires with considerable territory in Southeast Europe. They invented the Cyrillic alphabet and introduced it to the Russians. The Ottomans conquered the Bulgarian lands in the fifteenth century and Turkish influence culturally and architecturally shaped the region for four centuries. Bulgarian national consciousness developed in the nineteenth century and culminated in country’s liberation in the 1870s with the support of Russian forces. Consequently, the Russians are revered throughout the country in grandiose monuments; an abject difference to the Czech Republic where Russians are loathed. Bulgaria dabbled with monarchism until the conclusion of World War Two (they unwisely sided with the Germans twice) when the communists seized power. The country appears to have developed successfully since the fall of communism as the cities are cosmopolitan and liveable, although admittedly I didn’t visit the poorest regions. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is the constituent religion.
Veliko Tarnovo is a charming town situated at the heart of the Bulgarian lands. It served as the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire until the Ottoman conquest in 1396. The approach from the train station to the centre passes through pristine forest that drapes the surrounding mountainsides. Eventually I reached a river-valley and was besotted by the sight of Veliko Tarnovo stretching across the steep slopes on the other side. The cobblestone streets of the Old Town consist of quaint, humble buildings that feature a uniform stylization of white walls and exposed dark wooden framework. The imposing ancient ruins of the imperial fortress, the Tsaravets, occupy a highpoint on the edge of town. The crumbling walls offered magnificent views of the mountainous landscape and the two river valleys which Veliko Tarnovo is located between. Forest entirely surrounds Veliko Tarnovo and the greenery infiltrates the suburbs to create an idyllic urban environment. The hostel I stayed at was perhaps the best of my European trip, with extremely friendly staff, dinner included and a tranquil garden to enjoy the ambience of this provincial town. Veliko Tarnovo was a delightful retreat from the drawcard big cities of Europe and was pleasantly absent of package tourists.
The hostel unofficially operated a tour to the former Communist Party convention centre (two hours from Veliko Tarnovo), which intentionally looks like a UFO. The tour was conducted by an eccentric Kiwi in his beloved 1986 Landcruiser. Throughout the day, we passed many relics of the communist years, including abandoned rural factories, gargantuan chimneys and monolithic apartment blocks in every town. We visited the Etar Open-Air Ethnographic Museum en route, which was basically a fictional village exhibiting traditional Bulgarian rural buildings. The most intriguing aspects of Etar were the bakery’s scrumptious pastries and a vortex created by tumbling water. The Kiwi motoring-enthusiast drove along side roads (or almost undetectable paths created by himself) through the forests to the UFO which was an uncomfortable but nevertheless awesome journey. The convention centre, completed in 1981, is situated in remote wilderness and on the peak of a mountain where the Communist Party was secretly founded in the early twentieth century. The building’s futuristic exterior is intended to depict the advancement of the communist state and the formerly opulent interiors reflected its apparent wealth. The reason why the tour remains unofficial is because the land is now privately owned; so we were consequently required to trespass in order to visit the site. After the fall of communism, the complex was abandoned and looted and the Bulgarian government has stupidly failed to recognise the economic potential of transforming the UFO building into a tourist attraction; which would have inevitably occurred in a Western country. Its derelict condition made our experience all the more fascinating though. To enter the building, we crawled through a narrow crack in the wall and found ourselves in the dark lobby with glass, concrete and other pieces of rubble strewn everywhere (the surface was originally covered in expensive materials). We ascended to the main audience chamber, where the comrades would have endlessly plotted the downfall of imperial capitalism. The circular space featured rows of seating around the circumference and a designated position in the centre for the orator to speak from. The Russian-Australian in our group performed a rousing speech (in Russian), presumably with communist conations thrown in (not that I could understand, but I felt the energy). The walls were covered in damaged mosaics of famous communists, both Bulgarian and foreign, and allegorical depictions that denounced capitalism (such as the slaying of a dragon (representative of the West)). The ruinous state of this quite recently glorious space is perhaps demonstrative of the virtues (or lack thereof) of one-party communist rule. We then climbed the neighbouring tower in pitch-black darkness on steep service-stairs, though we had some torches to use. I am rather grateful that I lost my glasses after this precarious ascent (and descent, which was worse). We had fantastic views from the rooftop, though I did not summon the courage to mount the ledges as the others did. We returned to Veliko Tarnovo in the late evening, via a pleasant Bulgarian Orthodox monastery.
The small city of Plovdiv, which I had never heard of until two weeks ago (how unusual for Liam), was my next destination in Bulgaria. I stayed in another exceptional hostel, which was basically a large modern apartment with a terrace and exceptional views over the city. Plovdiv was originally inhabited by the Thracians and became an important Roman settlement. Consequently, Roman ruins are scattered throughout central Plovdiv; the most impressive of which are incredibly well-preserved amphitheatre and sections of a stadium that now exists below surface level. There is also a vestige from the Ottoman occupation, the beautiful brickwork mosque with an interior reminiscent of mosques in Istanbul. The main boulevard is a lively pedestrianized thoroughfare lined with colourful and ornate nineteenth century buildings. The hilly Old Town of Plovdiv is rather unusual because it has the appearance of a purely residential area (although most houses have tourist-orientated purposes now), instead of a centre of commerce and administration. Old Plovdiv is a declared architectural museum reserve and is composed of distinctive and colourful neo-Renaissance buildings that are quite unlike anything I have seen before. From the peak occupied by the ruins of a medieval fortress, modern Plovdiv and its communist-style monolithic block buildings can be viewed.
I stayed in the capital of Sofia for two nights at the conclusion of my Bulgarian sojourn. Someone at the hostel (yet another quality establishment) remarked to me that they thought Sofia was an eminently liveable city, so I adopted this consideration throughout my explorations. Despite the high mountains enclosing the metropolitan area, Sofia is actually very flat and quite spacious. The layout of the city follows a logical grid-like plan, the roads are wide and public spaces abound in the central area. Old-school trams trundle along the Sofian streets and pass Soviet avant-garde sculptures and capitalist boulevards of cosmopolitan cafes, shops and bars. Ornate nineteenth century buildings and communist-era apartment blocks are the generic structural typologies in Central Sofia; and most exhiit partial decay which adds to the aesthetical allure of the city. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the city’s most impressive attraction. The design resembles an Ottoman mosque more than a Catholic cathedral, because of the layers of domes that culminate with a central, golden dome. The Moorish-style Sofia Synagogue, the petite (and inventively named) Russian Church and the neoclassical and monumental Communist Party headquarters were other particularly intriguing sights.
Rila Monastery was the only “not-to-be-missed” site I was aware of before arriving in Bulgaria. Eastern Orthodox monasteries are apparently Bulgaria’s “thing”, as every town or area has a historic monastery for tourists to visit. The World Heritage-listed Rila Monastery is the largest in the country and is located within spectacular forested mountain scenery near Sofia. I visited the miniscule cave that the founding monk resided in for twelve years in the ninth century. Locals believe that if you pass through the cave and climb out at the other end, your soul will be purified. Since my soul was already pure, no purification process occurred when I completed the exercise. The monastery appears to be an inhospitable compound of grey stone, but it deceptively hides a glorious and colourful internal space. The complex consists of a vast courtyard surrounded by four-level structures with black and white paintwork. The primary attraction of Rila Monastery is the exquisite church that occupies the centre of the courtyard. The church’s arcades feature incredibly vivid murals of Christian depictions with Byzantine stylization. The internal space was lavishly decorated with golden metalwork, murals and dozens of lamps. The decorative motifs employed in Orthodox structures are quite different to Western Christian churches, with an emphasis on paintwork and mosaic and less sculpture.
Now that I have travelled through Bulgaria, I can understand why there are no Bulgarian restaurants (I know of) in Melbourne. The food is not deplorable and the locals certainly try their best, but Bulgarian cuisine is rather limited and hardly a justification to visit the region. However, one absolutely smashing dish is the refreshing cold yoghurt soup of tarator, with cucumber, dill and walnuts. Bulgarians are obsessed with salads and shopska salad is considered to be the national dish. It consists of tomato, cucumber, onion, pepper, one solitary olive and grated sheep’s cheese (similar to feta). Sach is a stew ubiquitously found on menus and is served in a wide-brimmed pan. I sampled a traditional version of sach which featured a typical combination of ingredients with chicken, pork, veal, mushrooms and vegetables. The dish was pleasant but not particularly flavoursome. Another common Bulgarian stew is kevarma, where the meat is cooked in mountains of onions and the mixture is topped with melted cheese and an egg. The delectable bread eaten with meals (I suspect it was called polinka…) was like a hybrid of Indian naan and Italian pizza base and is smothered with garlic butter.
With more than one million residents, Sofia is eligible for “Liam’s favourite cities in Europe list (from a tourist perspective)”. Its deflating to objectively assess Sofia, because I rather enjoyed my stay in the city and yet I know it should rank quite lowly. Actually, Sofia does not offer enough to beat any European city.
Although I thought Sofia seemed rather liveable.
I had a wonderful trip in Bulgaria and particularly revelled in the spontaneity of the adventure. Bulgaria provided considerably different experiences to Western Europe, primarily because the communist past remains so palpable. It was intriguing to visit a predominantly “white” country that is not yet developed or completely Westernized. I was astonished by the country’s pristine environment and Veliko Tarnovo became one of my highlights in Europe.
Unbelievably, I am up-to-date. This ridiculous blog, my equally ridiculous photo database and my utterly pointless journal are all up-to-date. I must savour this moment I have dreamt of for seven and a half months. I am now in Greece awaiting Shamba’s imminent arrival.
That’s all for now