Monthly Archives: July 2016

Turkey, So Close So Far

In the winter of 2001-2002, friends suggested we take an excursion to Istanbul for the New Year’s holiday. We booked a four-day trip and set off by bus from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. It was a very long bus ride that took us southeast through Svilingrad to reach the Kapitan Andreevo village, the last stop on the Bulgarian side. Perhaps it is more pleasant now, but border crossings seem designed to be quite the opposite however modern the facilities may be. This one is said to be the busiest in Europe. However long and unpleasant the bus ride was, we enjoyed Istanbul tremendously and vowed to return for a longer stay there and exploration of other parts of Turkey. We haven’t yet made it back.

Last week, though, we went to Малко Търново (Malko Turnovo) for an afternoon. We had first gone to Царевец (Tzarevetz). Leaving Tzarevetz, we were uncertain about the best way to go and asked a man crossing the street. He asked “Do you want to take the good road or the bad road?” “The good road,” answered my husband, not quite suppressing his bemusement. The man explained that the bad road took you through the Strandja forest and a few, sporadically placed, tiny villages. This was the straighter road, but full of holes. The good road—“първа класа!” (first class!)— was reached by driving north to Приморско (Primorsko) and making a semi-circle to avoid part of the Strandja and all of the presumably third-class road. The explanation was detailed and various points were reinforced to ensure that we understood. My husband thanked the man very much for the copious information and then set out on the bad road. He found the drive through the formerly forbidden (during Communist rule) Strandja irresistible. The road was indeed bad, the potholes forcing very slow and careful driving, and we saw no other cars. But the reward was the Strandja Nature Park, beautiful, dense, and quiet. Periodically we passed large signs describing the plants, animals, and birds found in the vicinity as well as the camping, biking, and hiking possibilities and trails.

After perhaps an hour, we saw street signs pointing the way. Turn one direction to reach Malko Turnovo, turn the other to reach Istanbul. My son asked if we could go to Istanbul and we said but for leaving our passports in Sinemoretz we might easily go—and that we certainly would go with him one day. Border crossing delays aside, the drive would be less than four hours. No reason not to go, we thought.

But on this day, our destination was Malko Turnovo. As the name implies—“malko” meaning “small”—this is not a large town. Yet its Historical Museum and Petrov’s Field, the latter commemorating an unsuccessful Macedonian rebellion, are included in Bulgaria’s list of 100 national tourist sites. We arrived too late for the Historical Museum, but not too late to stroll around the central part of the town. Malko Turnovo is remote and can’t be said to be thriving, but the ladies at the tourist office were full of information and nicely printed brochures describing both the town and the region’s attractions. There was even a brochure listing guesthouses for overnight stays. We took the “good road” towards Primorsko on our way back to Villa Victoria, the small family hotel where we were staying in Синеморец (Sinemoretz).

En route, we passed field after field of vineyards. Logically, my husband thought, where there are grapes there is ракия (rakia, the classic Bulgarian grape—or any fruit really—brandy). Driving through Ново Паничарево (New Panicharevo), he stopped to ask a man where he could buy some real Strandja rakia. He gave a name, pointed a finger, mentioned a house a bit further on. A bit further on, my husband stopped and called to a man standing beside his house. The man looked hesitant at the request, remained impassive as my husband explained, took a look at my son and me in the back seat, went to discuss the issue with his family seated in the yard by the house. The authorities don’t approve of alcohol being sold privately.When he came back, still impassive, he nodded assent and asked how much rakia my husband wanted to buy. We waited. A woman came out with a liter and a half plastic bottle filled with rakia. Ten leva exchanged hands.

Now the man returned. In a friendly tone, he advised my husband not to put the bottle in the front seat and then asked if we liked fish. Yes, we said, yes we do. He began to tell us of an excellent place to eat fish, very fresh, just past the bridge leading out of Malko Turnovo on the road towards Turkey. “Oh,” we said, “we are just returning from Malko Turnovo. Perhaps next time.” He warmly waved us on.

On Wednesday, July 13, we decided to go to Резово (Rezovo), the most southeastern point of Europe. There the natural border of the Rezovo River forms the line that separates Bulgaria from Turkey. We snapped photos of the two flags, the river, the sea that laps at the edges of both countries. We saw two white vans pull up on the Turkish side and enough soldiers coming out of them that we could think only of circus clown cars disgorging more passengers than seems possible. “Why are there soldiers there?” my son asked. “Perhaps they are on a field trip,” I answered casually. I had no reason to believe anything else and perhaps they really were on a field trip of some kind. They seemed so informal as they walked around a bit and maybe they too simply wanted to see a spot with two flags and take a few photos.

We took a stroll through the town, ate a few джанки (janki, small wild plums), sighted storks, and made our way through flat, dry fields to the rocky cliffs that led to the sea. Rezovo was a quiet place, a calm, peaceful place. We waved at Turkey before making the short drive back to Sinemoretz.

Two days later, a military coup was attempted in Turkey. Bulgaria closed its borders and sent soldiers to the checkpoints.

Tzarevo / Царево

It rained in the evening in Sinemoretz. It rained in the night. It was still raining in the morning, a persistent downfall that precluded any thought of going to the beach. So we went to Tzarevo.

We hadn’t been there before. We hadn’t, to be frank, even heard of this small Black Sea coast town only a 25-minute drive from Sinemoretz. But number 86 on the 100 places to visit on the Опознай България (Know Bulgaria) site is the Tzarevo Municipal Museum of History so we went to Tzarevo.

For more than 700 years, the town was known as Vasiliko or Vasilikos (βασιλιάς), Greek for king. In 1913, after the Balkan Wars, the town became Bulgarian. By the mid-1930s, it was renamed Царево (Tzarevo, “of the king”). That seemed a direct affront to the Communist regime after the war. As was their wont, Bulgarian Communist leaders changed the name to honor a Soviet hero. Tzarevo became Michurin. Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin had some genetic theories that were suspect even in his own time, but Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin were supporters and that was what counted.

Tzarevo Bulgaria EuropeNot surprisingly, the town took only two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall to change the name back to Tzarevo. To reinforce the message of its allegiance, the municipality wrote it in stone. At the end of the walkway in the city park leading to the sea, there is a large mosaic clearly detailing Tzarevo’s connection to Bulgaria and to Europe.

 

Some of the Black Sea towns have long been resorts, first for the Bulgarian nomenklatura and tourists from the Soviet Union and the East Bloc and then for the average Bulgarian and anyone else who cared to travel a bit farther east than Spain’s Costa del Sol. Златни Пясъци (Golden Sands) and Слънчев Бряг (Sunny Beach) are perhaps the most well-known, crowded with tourists searching for night life and cheap drinks. Other Black Sea towns have now developed into domestic and foreign tourist meccas, with the requisite lines of vendors selling Chinese-made Black Sea souvenirs and haunch-to-paunch sunbathers under rows of beach umbrellas. We have Bulgarian friends who now avoid their own beaches in favor of Greek package holiday deals in Halkadiki.

We chose Sinemoretz because there are no large hotels; lots of the семейни хотели (family hotels with very few rooms and personable hosts) we prefer; fabulous баничарници where the баници (banitza), кифли (kifla), софиянки (sofianka), and other delicious breakfast pastries are made on the premises and sold to you while still hot; and gorgeous landscapes of sea, river, beach, rock, meadow, forest, and cliff are all amazingly within steps of each other. We stayed nine days and enjoyed every one of them—the unexpected day trip to Tzarevo was a bonus.

Just before we reached our destination, the rain stopped and not long after the sun shone. The first thing we came upon was a sculpture with two figures visible from our vantage point. “Okay,” said my husband, “ here we have the usual partisan and worker. Where is the female collective farmer with her bountiful harvest?” Fortunately, the former Michurin government did not disappoint. The heroic female collective farmer joined her men on the third side of the sculpture. Nearby was a wall using sgraffito to display symbols of rural life, both in agriculture and in the wild. You can see sgraffito on walls in many towns and cities throughout Bulgaria.

Tzarevo has tourists, but not so many that they overwhelm the local residents. The municipality seems to have managed to have enough services to attract visitors without losing its soul. The city park is large, reached by a long pedestrian-only main street, and has two walkways that end in a view of the sea and steps that lead down to beautiful, white rocks that are flat enough to take an easy stroll up to the water. The park is full of people and includes the largest and most modern playground I’ve yet seen in Bulgaria. Appreciative children, parents, and grandparents were making the most of it as we passed.

When we tore ourselves away from strolling Tzarevo, we found the Municipal Museum of History. It is a three-floor building with the first floor devoted to regional archeological finds, particularly a Thracian treasure trove of coins dating back to 182 BCE and hundreds of extraordinary finely-wrought gold and silver jewelry ornaments found in an intact grave of a wealthy woman living in the late Hellenistic period. The third floor contained an exhibition of contemporary artists’ works on paper. The second was dark when we visited.

museum

It was rain that prompted our unplanned visit to Tzarevo, but the town deserves to be an intentional destination. It’s a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon.

Mountains and Rivers / Планини и Реки

Река Искър (Iskur River) starts in the Rila Mountain range and runs a long path north, widening and deepening until it ends in the Danube. In the beginning, you can cross the Iskur easily by using the large granite rocks as stepping stones and those same stones make the Iskur gurgle and run white, spin and curl as the river winds through the mountain forests. We encountered the Iskur River as we moved on from the Rila Monastery and the Rila River. Bulgaria is full of mountains and waters of all kinds—glacial lakes, hot springs, fresh water rivers, the Black Sea. We first went to Сапарева Баня (Sapareva Banya). We wanted to try out the famous hot mineral waters—at 103 degrees Celsius at the source the hottest in Europe—and found the Аква Клуб Котвата where three pools (including one for small children) contain warm mineral water, one Jacuzzi contains hot mineral water, and one Jacuzzi contains extremely hot mineral water. For those feeling the need to shock the system, there is a small, deep cold water pool right next to the hot Jacuzzi. It is not easy to leave Aqua Club Kotvata and only the beginning of a rain shower ended our three hours of immersion. Children, of course, care only that they can play nearly endlessly without their lips turning blue. The facilities are excellent and there are ample lounge chairs. You can even pay a small fee, though we chose only to stare in wonder, to plunge your feet in a basin in which small fish “massage” them for ten minutes. These garra rufa, it turns out, are also known as “doctor fish” and are sold specifically for this purpose.

The mountain village of Овчарци (Ovchartzi) is a less than ten-minute drive from Saparevna Banya. There you find the Goritza Eco-Trail. It’s a short pleasant hike to one of Ovchartzi’s seven beautiful waterfalls. The rivers Горица (Goritza) and Фудиня (Fudinya) run along the two sides of the village. Aside from the natural beauty, the Goritza also serves as a traditional “laundry” specifically for washing wool carpets and kilims. With a bit of piping and fencing, a portion of the water’s stream is diverted to roil in a circular stone area that naturally cleans without soap. The clean carpets and kilims are then hung in a special drying shed just across the path. Handwritten on a small sign is the telephone number to call when you want access to either the “laundry” or the drying shed.

Just on the edge of a break in the mountain range is the village of Белчин (Belchin). In 2013, the remains of an ancient fortress, Цари Мали Град (Tsari Mali Grad) were opened to the public. Now an Eco-Trail leads to an entire historical and cultural complex made up of the preserved Byzantine remains, museum of artifacts, ample and detailed signage documenting the history in both Bulgarian and English, modern sculptures. The second you step out of your car, the man in charge of taking your nominal parking payment comes to you bursting with information, pride, and excitement about all the complex has to offer. The sun-dappled Eco-Trail through a beech forest. The length of time to walk the path depending on if you are elderly, middle-aged, or a small child. The eight-minute “funicular” lift should you not wish to walk. The playground for children. The wood and rope bridge. The beautiful views. He was effusive as he repeated the information for all comers; such enthusiasm here is so rare that we felt rewarded before we even set off on the trail.

Цари Мали Град3

Early on in the life of the Iskur River, there is a small branching where the river briefly becomes two, Бели Искър (White Iskur) and Черни Искър (Black Iskur). We decided to spend a couple of days in the village of Beli Iskur. We stayed at Eagle Rock, a condominium complex at the highest point in the village, though less than a five-minute walk to the small main street. The complex is immaculate, with a lovely lawn and garden area, fitness center, ping pong table, a library of English-language books, and an attentive staff. The view of the mountains is spectacular.

Бели Искър1The village of Beli Iskur is quiet, and in early summer mornings and late afternoons you can see the herders bringing their goat herds and their cows back down from the mountain pastures. There are infinite walks in theБели Искър2 meadows and mountains above the village. One afternoon, we followed a domineering rooster leading his handful of hens and, strangely, a larger group of turkeys into a meadow from where we made our own way up past wildflowers, then hazelnut trees with their nuts still green, and finally dense brush and trees as the path disappeared and the trek became steeper.

We had planned only to see Rila Monastery when we set out from Sofia. The rest we left to chance. I had vaguely heard of Sapareva Banya, once there we were directed to the Goritza Waterfall, my husband saw Tsari Mali Grad in a book given to him as a gift, we had a friend who recently bought a place in Beli Iskur. So much of satisfying travel is serendipity, allowing extra time for discoveries, planning for unplanned time. It was good to wander a bit in Rila’s mountains and rivers before embarking upon our planned time in Синеморец (Sinemoretz) on the Black Sea.

 

 

 

Rila Monastery /Рилски Манастир

I visited the Rila Monastery the first time in September 1987. I was in Bulgaria to meet my future in-laws and they took me to what is certainly the most famous of monasteries in a country full of them and what is likely the most famous site in the entire country. We walked around within the monastery walls, admired the colors of the frescoes against the backdrop of the surrounding Rila Mountain. On a grassy spot just outside the monastery, we spread a blanket and lunched on the луканка (lukanka, hard salami), кашкавал (kashkaval, a cheddar-like cheese), tomatoes, and a hot loaf just baked in the monastery’s ovens.

Hotel ValdisThe second time I visited Rila Monastery was July 1, 2016. We stayed at the Valdis hotel and restaurant. It’s not so much a hotel as a collection of modern bungalows set in a garden on the Rila River. Each has a small terrace looking onto the river and the mountain. We had river trout, potatoes with dill, and salad for dinner, French toast and steamed milk for breakfast. Across the way from Valdis is a fountain with water that flows down the Rila Mountain; we filled our water bottles there before setting off for the monastery above.

 

Rila’s significance to Bulgaria and world culture, its church and iconography, its spiritual meaning for pilgrims, and the sheer physical beauty of its mountain location have all been amply described and photographed. But on this second visit, I noticed not the lushly painted icons, but the geometric almost Bauhaus style of decoration found everywhere outside the church itself. Reds and whites and blacks, geometric shapes, contrasts of metal, wood, stone, and brick.

All of this is beautifully contrasted with the pots of blooming flowers grown by the monks and the mountain forest rising all around their retreat.

I only wish the still-operating monastery ovens had been selling that delicious bread. That and the tiny post office remind you that however ancient the site, people still live and work here.

Belogradchik / Белоградчик

We went to Belogradchik the other day. Actually we went to two Belogradchiks, one timeless and one frozen in time. It’s not the same thing at all.

town

There is Belogradchik the ancient fortress and even more ancient rock formations. Then there is Belogradchik the town, which seems unaware that the world—and most of Bulgaria—has moved on since pre-1989 days.

 

fortressOur original plan had been to drive to Belogradchik from staying with relatives in Kozlodui and to stay overnight. We thought that the famous fortress and unique rocks formations, a natural environmental tourist attraction if ever there was one, would have inspired development in the small town on the order of quaint cafes, artisan shops, small family hotels with warm service and pleasant conversation. We thought wrong.

Instead we walked up and down the main street lined with communist-era bleak storefronts, many of them deserted. The “999 Products” store had long been emptied of however many products it actually had on its shelves and seems now to be full of empty cardboard boxes piled so high that one can’t see anything else through the windows. One store had the forlorn name of the product it sold, Българско бельо (Bulgarian underwear). What might have been an attractive atelier for the master craftsman making sheepskin coats and hats to order was an oversized former store with only a bench containing scraps of sheepskins, a калпак (traditional cone-shaped hat) or two, and no one to be found.

rocks1After roaming around for a bit for a place to each lunch, we found a small place serving buffet-style. Serving would be a misstatement. The choices were limited but sufficient. The food was not appealing in its presentation, but was made well. The employees were not in sight. After some time standing in front of the counter, an unsmiling woman appeared saying only, “I’m waiting for you to say what you want.” We ordered three bowls of soup, paid, and found a table. We were the only people in the place. Another woman, also expressionless, bellowed “Soup’s ready,” and we stood to retrieve the steaming hot bowls. The soup was good.

rocks2Had the entire scene been filmed, any audience watching outside Bulgaria would have thought it exaggerated in its drab appearance and militant bad service. So bad it’s good, frozen in time, any number of clichés would suffice. When we described the experience to friends back in Sofia, they only groaned in recognition of the universal pre-1989 experience they hoped never to experience again.

rocks3We decided to go see the fortress and rocks, after which we would drive straight back to Sofia rather than discover what would surely be pre-1989 Balkantourist style accommodations and personnel who resent any guests as an intrusion on their solitude and smoking breaks.

 

rocks5The little information on the few signs—and these translated into English in the manner of Google translate—did not take away from the stark beauty of the red rock formations. It was an overcast day, windy, and unusually cold for the end of June. The fortress remains are vast, encompassing some of the rock formations while overlooking others.

rocks6The 45 years of communism that cast such a pall over people’s natural inclinations and created structures that merely began to deteriorate immediately upon completion have had no effect on the immutable natural structures created by wind and water over two hundred million years ago. The red peaks, rocks, and precipices are garnished with the greens of trees, bushes, and grasses. Better, we thought, to be disappointed by the town and overwhelmed by the magnificence of the view. We went to Belogradchik the other day and we were glad we went.