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[teacherartexchange] Winter in Bulgaria


From: Melissa Enderle (melissa_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Fri Dec 30 2005 - 06:37:37 PST

Dear all,

Below is my latest travelogue. During the first part of our winter break,
Olja (Serbian teacher and I) went by bus to Bulgaria. It was one of the few
places she could go without a visa. More importantly though, I have heard
that it is quite beautiful. Traveling in winter was indeed a bit more
difficult and less predictable, partly because of the weather and due to the
low tourist season demand. However, seeing mountains in winter with their
snow-covered pine trees is a beautiful sight.

I will be placing a PDF version of the travelogue (complete with lots of
photos) online to enjoy as well. You will find it on the Bulgaria section of

Christmas in Bulgaria was celebrated last week, just like in the US. The
Serbians, who are Serbian Orthodox, celebrate it on January 7. Between that
and getting ready for New Year's, the streets leading to downtown are crazy
and jammed, as are many of the shops.



Bulgaria ­ Christmas 2005
Border crossing
After keeping each other awake by watching movies and snacking, we boarded
the bus at 00:45 AM. Transferring in Nis, we arrived at the border at 7 am.
There it was announced that we all had to pay two euros to be
³decontaminated² from the bird flu. Not thinking I had 2 euros, I went into
the duty free shop along with many others from the bus to buy something and
get euros back. Most of the items didnıt appeal to me ­ liquor and
cigarettes mostly, but I found an inexpensive local brand of Pringles. We
were waiting over an hour at the border, and still no one gave us
decontamination instructions. After the money was collected, the only
inspectors that came on were looking for passengers carrying more than the
allowed allotment of cigarettes. Finally at 8:30 we left and arrived in
Sofia about an hour later.
After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we walked to the central part
of Sofia. Some street signs existed, but we mainly followed the path of the
tram, the increasing number of shops, as well as pedestrians. The slushy
sidewalks alternated with icy or snow-covered ones. One of our first stop
was the Sveta Nedelya Church. The interior of this church (built between
1856 and 1863) was quite ornate. Murals of Biblical events, church saints,
and of course those that helped finance the building covered the walls, some
nearly life-size. In the center cupola, the gazing face of Jesus in typical
Byzantine style loomed over all. In one corner an individual, bowing
slightly with a special cloth over his/her head, went to Confession before
the priest. Near them, a decorated Christmas tree illuminated the dark area.
A short distance away was the Church of St. George. This small brick
structure, originally built by the Romans as a rotunda in the 2nd or 3rd
century BC, seemed ready to be engulfed and swallowed by the massive modern
hotels and buildings surrounding it. Inside, we were not allowed to take
photos. Signs prohibiting cell phones and skimpy clothing were also posted.
Very old frescoes, the oldest dating back to the 10th century covered
portions of the walls and ceiling, in various states of condition. In many
areas, the brick of the building was exposed. Outside the medieval church
were some ancient ruins, but because of the snow, it was nothing much to
see. I then appreciated Tunisiaıs mild climate, making it possible to see
its Roman, Byzantine and Punic ruins year-round, unfettered by snow.
Meandering along, we went inside the former Royal Palace, now housing the
National Art Gallery and Ethnographic Museum. All furniture from its royal
period had been removed, but the ornate fireplaces and parquet floors still
hinted of its regal past. Although I didnıt recognize the names of the local
artists, it was quite apparent that they were influenced by many of the
Western art movements. I was surprised at how chilly the building was. In
the Ethnographic Museum side, the featured exhibit consisted of the masks
and costumes worn in villages during certain festivities. Much of the
signage in both museums was in multiple languages including English,
something I always appreciate. After a brief stop in the Ethnographic
Museumıs gift shop, we to a nearby trendy café for a late lunch.
Our next stop was the Church of Alexander Nevski. This enormous church, with
its golden domes and green roof, could be seen from quite a distance. It was
created between 1892 and 1912 as a memorial to the 200,000 Russian soldiers
who died fighting for Bulgariaıs independence from Ottoman rule (1877-78).
Inside the regal structure are masterpieces of icons, frescoes, murals, and
huge chandeliers. The marble floor was laid out in a striking black and
white geometric pattern. Italian marble of various colors graced the
columns and portions of the walls. Intricately carved alabaster formed the
pulpit and other areas of the five-isle church. Although the structure was
very dark and spacious, the beautiful murals still made their presence
shown. Unfortunately, like most of the other churches we visited in
Bulgaria, photography was prohibited.
We then took a quick peek inside the nearby St. Nikolai Russian Church. With
its high onion-shaped central dome surrounded by four smaller domes and
Russian crosses, the small church definitely had the feeling of a Russian
structure. The gold domes and majolica tiles gleamed in the afternoon
sunlight. I expected the inside to be equally as beautiful, but was
surprised to see how small and spartan the inside really was.
Having seen many things that day, we decided to slow up the pace just a bit
and find some travel information for the Rila Monastery, our intended
destination for the next day. We felt that the 90 euro price quoted by the
hotel for transportation, entrance fee, and lunch seemed quite steep, so we
wanted to check out some other prices. After visiting several travel
agencies, we still didnıt have any information. Many travel agencies were
focused on travel outside of Bulgaria (such as Greece and Istanbul). Finally
we found one kind woman who gave us local bus information ­ a much better
That evening we did a bit more of window shopping, commenting on the number
of people out on the streets and small stands of Christmas decorations for
sale. Hungry, we went to a cozy restaurant and had mixed grill, sharing the
large portion between the two of us.
Rila Monastery
The next morning we took a taxi (4 lv) to the bus station. There we paid 6
lv ($3.50) for the bus to the town of Rila, located 117 km to the south of
Sofia. We were eager to visit the UNESCO world heritage site. The bus
windows were so dirty, I knew that trying to take photos of the beautiful
snow-covered landscape was pointless. I hoped that the monastery would have
good views. Upon arriving in the town of Rila, we were pleasantly surprised
to see that the local bus that was going up to the monastery in a few
minutes. Olja (my traveling partner) inquired about the bus times to Sofia.
The bus driver told us that he would be going to Sofia in 11Ž2 hours ­ the
only bus back to the capital. Although I would have preferred spending more
time at the monastery, I knew that we would have to go by the bus schedule.
The stone arched entrance to the monastery had paintings above it ­ a signal
of things to come. Straight ahead was the main cloister church, the ³Birth
of the Virgin Mary². The arches of the walkway around the front and one side
were painted in black and white stripes ­ reminiscent of the Moorish
influence I saw on some mosques in Tunisia. Every inch of the walkwayıs
arched ceiling and front wall of the church was covered in
brilliantly-colored decorative murals. The inside was just as splendid, with
five large domes, three altar niches and two side chapels. The acoustically
perfect interior was decorated by craftsmen from all over the country,
embellishing the church with marble sculptures, wood carvings, and
iconography. Many of the murals (completed in 1846) were painted by the
Samokov and Bansko artistic schools. In addition to the saints, church
donors were also included in the beautiful paintings. The church also
includes a number of valuable icons painted in the 14th-19th centuries. I
was looking for the famous Cross of Rafail, which I had read about. The
cross, made from a whole piece of wood (81 cm x 43 cm) was created by a monk
using fine, sharp chisels. Thankfully, I later found the cross in the
adjoining museum. According to some researchers, the double-sided cross
contains 200 tiny figures, while others put that number at 600. It was quite
incredible to see the scenes from the Bible depicted and unique, expressive
figures depicted in this wooden marvel that took 12 years to complete. Such
a labor of love!
Knowing that our time was limited, I went through the rest of the museum a
bit faster than I would have liked, but taking the time to marvel at the
beautiful religious treasures there. I then took a short walk around the
residential part of the cloister, a closed irregular quadrangle, started in
1816. Four floors high, it consists of no less than 300 monksı cells, 4
chapels, an abbotıs room, a kitchen, a library, and guestroom for donors.
The white structure with its red and black trimming surrounded the church
with a sense of security and peace. Behind it were the large pine trees and
distant snow-covered mountain peaks, partly obscured by light flurries.
Next to the church was an impressive stone defense tower, the only remaining
structure from the complex built in 1334. Unfortunately the 6-storey
building was closed, so I had to enjoy it from the outside. The door to the
tower is 5 m above the ground and there used to be a mobile ladder that was
withdrawn in an attack. On one side of the stone structure was a wooden
clock and bell tower, with the mechanical workings of the clock revealed
through glass. Like the rest of the monastery, it was richly decorated with
painted designs. At the bottom level was a souvenir stand, selling
iconographic items and Bulgarian crafts.
Knowing that we had to be on time for the only bus to Sofia, we made sure we
were in front of the bus several minutes before its prompt departure. Many
others got on the bus as well. The young bus driver greeted people as they
got on the bus, freely conversing with kids and the elderly alike. In the
front interior of his old, slightly dilapidated bus hung several stuffed
animals including Big Bird and Eeyore. Also visible were some wallet-sized
cards of saints, something Iıve seen in many buses and taxis in both Serbia
and Tunisia.
That evening we had a great meal at a Lebanese restaurant. We werenıt quite
sure why the restaurant was rather empty, because the food was excellent and
the prices were moderate. To walk off our large meal, we went for a brisk
walk before retiring to our hotel room for the night.
With a dual recommendation by the kind travel agent and Oljaıs sister, we
decided to spend the next day in Boyana, a suburb around 9 km from Sofia.
Reading about the long steep hill between our two destinations of the church
and the National Museum, we decided to start our journey at the top - the
Boyana Church. Also on the UNESCO World Heritage list, the structure dates
back to the 10th, 11th, 13th, and 19th centuries. Dates of the frescoes also
vary, with the earliest dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. The
entrance to the church was through a very low wooden door, designed so
people would automatically bow as they entered the structure. It was riddled
with holes, which the museum docent explaining that they were bullet holes
from the Turks. The initial room was very spartan, with a few copies of
frescoes and other artifacts. Both Olja and I wondered how this could be the
church whose frescoes were claimed to be among the oldest and most
interesting examples of Eastern European medieval art. As the docent
unlocked the next door, we then realized that this was where the true art
lay. This middle second section dated back to the 13th century. In some
areas multiple layers of frescoes were visible. Thankfully, similarities
between Bulgarian and Serbian enabled Olja to find out more about the
church. The life of St. Nicholas (Nikola) was depicted over much of the
walls. On one side were portraits of Nedelya and Barbara, the first
deaconesses. We then peeked into the third section, a small one-apse
cross-vaulted church dating back to the late 10th and early 11th century.
Scaffolding covered much of the area, as the frescoes here were being
cleaned and restored.
We then made the rather long walk to the National Museum, located on a
sprawling grounds with a beautiful mountain view. The museum structure was
an imposing Communist style, with some wood ornamentation softening some of
its severity. Once again cameras were not allowed. The large museum
contained originals and reproductions of artifacts dating back to Roman, and
Greek times. It also housed a fabulous collection of Thracian gold treasures
from 1000 to 100 BC. Items were nicely displayed and presented, accompanied
by explanations in several languages. There were also many pieces from
churches around the country, including the beautiful wooden door from the
Rila Monasteryıs original church. In the large main room, large windows gave
plenty of natural light and enabled us to see the spectacular snowy
mountain. The wooden ceiling was beautifully carved. Another room contained
a collection of items (personal and royal) from King Ferdinand I. The WWII
photos and memorabilia were quite interesting, illustrating once again the
extent of the war. One plaque commemorated the Bulgarianıs efforts to save
the countryıs Jews.
Hungry, we decided to head back to Sofia, taking a local tram. After a quick
meal at the trendy café, we began to walk around town. People were spotted
carrying Christmas trees, either whole, sections, or branches. Our shopping
destination was Tradicia, a store with traditional and newer crafts made by
disadvantaged artists. A store volunteer explained that many of the artists
are disabled, others come from remote villages, and a few non-disabled
artists have their proceeds go to the disabled. I found several gifts and
was happy to support this worthy cause. Moving onward, we came across the
Cultural Center, bustling with a bazaar. For supper, we found a restaurant,
filled with locals. Warmed by the cream of mushroom and fresh garlic bread,
we now were ready for more walking.
The next morning we took the 10:00 bus to Plovdiv. The double-decker bus was
filled with people going to Plovdiv, the second largest town in Bulgaria.
Located 130 km east of Sofia, Plovdiv is filled with architectural and
historical importance. Remnants of Thracian, Greek, and Roman civilizations
could be found ­ however, much of it was buried by the snow. For lunch I had
sirene po trakiski, a tasty traditional local dish consisting of white
cheese (Thracian style), butter, tomatoes, peppers, eggs, lukanka, and
mushrooms. Refueled, we headed over to the older part of the city, admiring
the Bulgarian National Revival architecture from the 18th and 19th century.
With the light fading, we headed back to the walking street near our hotel.
Every store window contained Christmas decorations, adding a festivity in
the air. A young man played the traditional bagpipe, filling the air with
its rich, quaint sound. Ready for something warm, we headed over to the
patisserie shop next to the mosque. Although the cake was tasty, it wasnıt
what Olja had thought she had asked for (the names were very similar). The
next evening we would return, enjoying the garish torta, made from eggs,
walnuts, and cocoa.
After breakfast at our hotel, we once again headed up the walking street. At
the first shop we entered, we each bought several ceramic pieces with the
traditional Bulgarian brown and light marbled glazes. Not wanting to carry
them around all day, we headed back to the hotel to place them in our room.
Once again lighter, we headed towards the Revivalist section of the Old
Town. Within a short time, we ran into a teaching couple from our school and
their two children, who were touring the town before they headed towards
their destination of Istanbul. We would meet them two more times that
morning. As it was Christmas Eve day, all the museums and Revivalist homes
open to the public were closed. I was especially disappointed when I saw
that the Ethnographic Museum was closed, as its architecture was
particularly striking. We would simply have to enjoy the buildings from the
outside. Streets were very narrow and typically paved with cobblestone.
Façades were painted in bright colors including yellow, coral, and bright
blue. Even the grey-colored ones were very beautiful. Homes from the
National Revival period typically contained yoke-shaped bay windows, slender
pediments, decorative elements (painted and carved), and carved ceilings.
Most were two-storey, while others had a third level. The lower levels of
some buildings contained souvenir shops. Here we observed a group of Greeks
haggling over the prices. While many of the buildings were marvelously
preserved or restored, others had fallen into a sad state of disrepair. We
also visited a few churches in the area. The interior of one was quite
dilapidated, in need of major restoration.
Amidst the Old Town was the ancient Roman Theatre, built in the 2nd century
AD. At one time it seated 7,000. It has since been restored partially
reconstructed, used for staging opera and theatre festivals, concerts, and
municipal celebrations. The front stage still had sections of two levels
still present, including some marble statues.
That afternoon we walked through the pedestrian streets and explored other
areas. An older gentleman played and sang traditional tunes with his
accordion. Stores began closing up for the family-oriented Christmas Eve
celebrations. In a local flyer, Olja read about a nearby movie theatre that
was showing ³The Merchant of Venice². Upon arrival at the theatre, we were
disappointed to find the box office and movie doors taped shut. Although we
were early, it was clear that there would be no movie showing in this very
dark, deserted spot. A brief inquiry from a man at the adjoining café
confirmed our suspicions ­ there would be no more showings that evening.
With the city pretty much closed down for the evening, we headed back to our
hotel room, watching TV and eating munchies we purchased on our brisk walk
back. Not quite what we had wanted, but it would have to suffice.
Veliko Turnovo
The next morning we caught the 8:30 bus to Veliko Turnovo for 12 lv ($7).
Although only slightly farther in distance than between Sofia and Plovdiv,
we knew that the roads going through some mountainous areas would take a
longer time. A train was also available, but we were advised that the bus
system was much faster, safer, and more reliable. Thankfully, the roads were
clear and free of snowdrifts. Following a brief layover at a roadside café,
the bus headed onwards to Veliko Turnover, playing the video ³Maid in
Manhattan² on the two TVıs. The snow level began to visibly decrease.
After dropping our luggage at the hotel, we reserved our bus tickets to
Sofia for the next day. We were dismayed to see that the bus left at 6am,
but knew it was our only option to arrive in Sofia in time to catch the bus
to Belgrade. The town had a prominent information center (something missing
from Sofia and Plovdiv), but it was closed for Christmas Day. We stopped at
a nearby restaurant for a late lunch. I had a moussaka type meal consisting
of potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, pork, and cheese. The large portion was
served in a traditional terracotta bowl.
With full stomachs, we then walked towards our main destination ­ the
Tsarevets Fortress. Signs (the best we found so far) helped point out the
path to this and other items of interest. This hill was originally settled
by the Thracians and then by the Romans, and later the Byzantines who built
the first significant fortress in the 5th through 7th centuries AD. Further
rebuilding and refortification was done by the Slavs and Bulgars between the
8th and 10th centuries, and again by the Byzantines in the early 12th
century. Remains of over 400 houses and 18 churches have so far been
uncovered, as have numerous monasteries, dwellings, shops, gates, and
towers. A church dominated the top of the hill, easily seen along with a
fortress and fortified walls, even from a distance. At the first gate, we
paid the 4lv admission fee. Taking the stone bridge over the river, we
walked through the second gate where we were met by a man with his animated
medieval figures. The figures, gave the history of the fortress in the
French language; as we left the fortress, the English track was being
played. For a small fee children could have their photos taken wearing
knight costumes. We headed up the many steps to the church. Colored ceramic
pieces accented the stone structure. Inside, all remnants of its original
purpose had been stripped, with more modern murals of largely grey and red
colors. We then headed over to the fortress structure with the large
Bulgarian flag. Along the way we passed by remains of lots of small
buildings, typically with only a meter or so of walls standing. Slushy snow
and some ice covered the area, obscuring the view. A few columns, marble
sections, and plaques with Roman writing were seen. Comparing with what I
had seen in Tunisia, I was less than impressed. Some of the areas had signs,
but they were written in the Cyrillic languages of Bulgarian and Russian,
along with German. Olja presumed that these signs were older, dating back to
Communist times.
We now headed back to the main town, passing through the older section. Some
buildings dated back to the Bulgarian Revivalist period, but we didnıt find
it as visually appealing as that in Plovdiv. Many were in need of a great
deal of repair. As it was Christmas Day, all museums were closed. As we
walked along the cobblestone streets, melted snow water poured from rooftop
spouts, almost necessitating an umbrella in certain places. Below, a car
dealership was housed in an old stone arched structure; above was a large
church. An old man walked up a steep cobblestone street, using an ax like a
 Now in the modern section, we were surprised at how many people were out
and how many stores were open. As the light was fading, some stores were now
closing. We began to look for a café, but were shocked to find so few along
the busy, main streets. The few we found were either closed or filled with
cigarette smoke. We settled for the one right next to our hotel, where we
were served a cappuccino in a flimsy plastic disposable cup. So much for
Back to Belgrade
The next morning we received a wakeup call at 5:07 am. We checked out of the
2-star hotel (I think we were the only guests that night) and were
instructed to go to the adjoining café for breakfast (the hotel restaurant
was closed). It wasnıt the breakfast spread to which we had grown
accustomed, but it was better than nothing. We boarded the bus right outside
of the café and arrived in Sofia several hours later. In the Sofia bus
station, a Santa Claus went around greeting kids and pulling out a hard
candy from his plastic bag sack. I joked to Olja that he should come and
visit her, which he later did. After a lengthy wait, we then boarded the bus
to Belgrade, transferring in Nis. A holdup in a series of mountain tunnels
caused us to be late, but the bus driver asked the bus in Nis to wait, as
there were several English-speaking people on board. Sometimes being a
foreigner has its advantages! As we neared Belgrade, it began to rain. The
snow was all gone. Finally around 11pm we arrived in Belgrade. Our bus
journey to Bulgaria had now drawn to a closure.

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