Monday, January 02, 2006

Christmas in Bulgaria - 2005

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 “decontaminated” 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 didn’t 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 Tunisia’s 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 didn’t 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 Museum’s 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 Bulgaria’s 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 didn’t 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 deal.

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 1½ 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 “Birth of the Virgin Mary”. 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 walkway’s 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 monks’ cells, 4 chapels, an abbot’s 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 I’ve seen in many buses and taxis in both Serbia and Tunisia.

That evening we had a great meal at a Lebanese restaurant. We weren’t 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 Olja’s 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 Monastery’s 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 Bulgarian’s efforts to save the country’s 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 wasn’t 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 “The Merchant of Venice”. 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 “Maid in Manhattan” on the two TV’s. 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 didn’t 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 cane.

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 atmosphere!

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 wasn’t 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.

You may find photos of my trip and a PDF file at:

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