Saturday, May 21, 2016

Easter weekend in Bulgaria

Romania follows the orthodox Christian Calendar, which means that Easter his year was combined with the May Day bank holiday making it one BIG holiday weekend. This, we though was the perfect opportunity to visit neighbouring Bulgaria , which thus far, has been suffering from neglect on our parts when it comes to visits.
This time we'd decided to combine two historical (cue groans from both children) towns- Veliko Turnovo and Plovdiv.  Bulgaria is a lovely country with over 1/3 of the land still having green cover  If you look past the the communist remnants of rusty pipes and multi-hued matchbox residences in Ruse (the border town on the other side of Georghiu), you come across a vast countyside with hardly a human or house in sight.
The Tsaravets fortress
Veliko Turnovo, apart from the interesting bit like forts and churches also seems to have quite and active graffiti community, which seems to add to the character of the town.
See that tiled house in the top right corner? Keep that in mind. We'll come back to it later.

I don't know if this is a conscious effort by the Local Council or just a general rebellion after years of conforming to regulation, but I like it. 
We could see that Bulgarians shared the orthodox Easter with the Romanians and signs that the city was celebrating were everywhere. 
From shop windows to giant egg baskets. 
Child 1 and Child 2, and their reactions to my clicking.
Dinner was at the city centre at a lovely restaurant named Ego. Well, technically, Veliko Turnovo has no town centre, but, close enough, geographically. Ego, interestingly has great taste in piped music (Tina Turner) and oven baked pizzas that are made right in front of you, 
The Portion sizes are pretty huge and they have a fairly decent vegetarian selection. Also, if you happen to go in, try and get a table at the far end, which boasts of an impressive panorama. 
That's not the view. That's just the restaurant interiors. :)
The castle and fort lit up at night looked beautiful, although we miss the light and sound show (it doesn't run every night, and when we asked around, the locals seemed pretty sketchy on the schedule)

The town is all either uphill or downhill. They simply didn't seem to do flats back when it was built. Our hotel was more uphill than downhill (or felt like it). 
Our hotel had an interesting choice of wine bottles. 
The next morning we set out to find our walking tour. Our guide was a lovely lady who gave us a quick rundown on the history of Bulgaria before we set off. There were descriptions of the city, and there were workmen working on authentic pewters (the baa-lamb was heard audibly snorting at the suggestion that we should own one of those)

Veliko Turnovo seems to have embraced the creations of a self-taught Bulgarian architect during the renaissance - Kolyu Ficheto. His structures were visible everywhere, and although I didn't find them particularly impressive - one of them being that tiled building on the top right of the graffiti steps picture, his story seems to be and interesting one. Particularly that of the 'Monkey house' as that slated edifice is called (local lore has it that the merchant who built it named it for his wife).
and here's the 'figure' that gave it its particular name
I leave it upto you to decided what exactly that figure looks like. Ficheto has several other structures to his name, but to me the most impressive was a church he's built that was designed to be earthquake resistant. And when an earthquake did hit the city in 1913, his is the one church that did survive! 
We also loved the 'skywalk' that was designed by students of architecture visiting the town in 2014.

The skywalk opened up to a fantastic view of the square in a neighbouring hill. That's the aristocrats hill and is currently closed to the public. (It was due to be opened in 2016, but the locals peg it at a more realistic 2018)
We  were headed to Plovdiv after lunch and it was only on our way back that we were able to visit the Tsravets fortress and the church at the very top. But for the sake of continuity, I'm going to mention it now, rather than later. 
The fortress was burned down by the marauding Ottomans in the 14th Century and the church was rebuilt in 1981. And since it was built in the communist era, it sin't exactly... the usual church. 

From the Altar to the murals to the windows, it is interesting the say the least. And quite unlike any church I've been to. 
The altar

Carvings on the dorrs

Personally, I really thought it was beautiful. It may not inspire feeling of peace or spirituality, but the murals depict this history of Bulgaria and are definitely eye-catching. 
The kids loved the restored Baldwin's tower and gleefully reenacted beheadings, complete with rubber axe, fake blood and soldiers' helmets. Also, it provided a lovely view of the city and the Yantra river. 
...and so we move on to the lovely city of Plovdiv. 
We arrived into Plovdiv in the afternoon. You see, our hotel was in a part of the city called 'Old Plovdiv' with entries not really sign posted or easy to find. After a bit of asking around (by us)  and mad gesticulating(by the locals), we did finally find our Hostel - the 'Guest House at Old Plovdiv' 

it was nothing like and hostel we've been to - starting with the personalised 'Welcome' boards. 
Yup. That's us. 
And the lovely, refreshing 'welcome drink' in the back garden as our concierge explained the sights and sounds of Plovdiv(the kids LOVED that. Okay, we might have loved it a tad bit too). Not to mention our room which was one of the prettiest I've ever seen. 

Sure, it's a bit unconventional not to have toilets and bathrooms in our rooms, but considering we were going to be out looking at Plovdiv for most of the day, I think we could work with that. Besides, our fellow guests were all really such a nice and friendly bunch. Despite the kids making general pets of themselves. 
We set out to walk the longest pedestrian street in Europe. It's a lovely street with signs of Easter here as well. 

Giant eggs
Roman theatre
Something else that's common with Romania - strings of Martisor

We passed through the Roman stadium that was still being excavated. Its interesting how they discovered it in the 60s when the Army corps decided to dig up the existing street to expand a stadium. The idea of preserving the old and the new in layers is brilliant and adds to the wonderful character of the city.

Dinner was a relaxed al fresco affair under a tree along the pedestrian pathway.  The streets were quite lively until pretty late into the night and we may have even witnessed a street party (We didn't go close enough to investigate the validity of our suspicions)

Day 2, after breakfast at the hostel - the Dining room shared an exterior wall with the remains of the Roman fortress. I was thrilled to bits at the setting, although the kids didn't see why I was mooning over a couple of giant boulders. 
Our guide for the day was a cheerful lady who was happy to help us explore Plovdiv despite it being Easter Sunday - pretty much the biggest religious festival for the Bulgarians.(Yup. Easter trumps Christmas here.) One of our first stops was at the top of one of the original seven hills that surrounded Plovdiv - there are only four in existence now. Pretty special views, and sunsets are rumoured to be particularly special. 
The Ethnographic Museum: Interesting if you're a history buff. or if you'd like a brief history of Bulgaria. 
This house originally belonged to one of the richest merchants in the city. 
and a whole host of interesting places.

These murals were spotted even in Veliko Tarnovo. Don't know quite what to make of them
One of Pickwick's favourites was the statue of Milo - an old town legend who was simply known for the Plovdivian attitute of 'Ay-lac' (spelling it as I heard it pronounced. Don't quite know the correct spelling in Cyrillic. Legend says that if you whisper in his ear, your wishes come true. And if you rub his knee, you'd find your true love.I cannot verify either claim, but Milo's knees were polished clean.

I loved the Bohemian part of town which had its own love story and the most interesting Graffiti.

But graffiti away from the Kapana was pretty interesting too. (you can probably tell by this point that I do love street art)

We ended up for lunch near the only mosque to exist in the city since the Ottomans. Bulgaria in general and Plovdiv in particular seem to have an abundance of Roses. The heady scent is quite something else. We learnt from our guide that Roses and rose products are Bulgaria's largest exports. 

I did get in a couple of sketches while the baa-lamb took the 'Aylac' life a bit too literally. It's not much, but it was a start.
The adjacent house...
...and the one opposite
The evening was spent less on sightseeing and more on enjoying the people of the city. There's something to be said about a a life where there's enough time to stop and smell the roses and greet neighbours and strangers alike with a cheery wave.  There's definitely something to be said about a town that creates statues of townsfolk not for deeds of greatness, but for way of life they represent. Or for being a person who questioned authority with humour. I leave you with a clipping of the townsfolk celebrating - one of my favourite memories from the trip.