A couple years ago, I read an article in a travel magazine about Bulgaria. It described the country's beautiful, historic monasteries tucked away among forested hills like hidden gems of Medieval Europe. I vowed to go see them, one day. When the appropriate airline passes came my way this summer, I began to plan my pilgrimage to Bulgaria and its monasteries.
While reading other traveler's experiences in Bulgaria on the web site Igougo.com, I saw a post from Krassi, a Bulgarian native. I e-mailed him some questions, and in the course of our conversations, he offered to be my guide during my visit. All I would have to pay for would be the gas we used, entrances to the places we visited, and $25 a day "pocket money." That price for a private driver/guide interpreter was unbeatable. Not to mention that I had read that most signs -- especially in bus or train stations -- were NOT in English. Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which could make relying on public transportation a challenge.
I landed in Sofia in the early afternoon of a sunny, pleasant September day. As my Lonely Planet guide book advised, I bypassed the men asking, "Taxi?" and walked to the official airport taxi stand and hopped in. The Bulgarian Lev is approximately 2-to-1 to the dollar, making it simple to calculate that my 6 lev taxi ride to the hotel was a bargain. After checking in, I changed clothes and headed out to see the Bulgarian capital's sights (which are compact enough to see in a leisurely, several hour walk).
The afternoon ripened into an absolutely gorgeous one. The gold domes of the Alexander Nevski Church blazed in the sun, providing dramatic contrast to the clear blue sky. Nearby, in a tree-roofed park, the domes of the St. Nicholai Russian Church also shone in the sun. Its colorful mosaics and tiles flashed brightly to passers by. As scenic as the outsides of Sofia's various churches were, the frescoes painted on the inside walls and ceilings were just as beautiful. Most were hundreds of years old -- some approached a thousand. Gazing up at images of the saints and churchmen, I was stirred to think I was seeing the same sight Bulgaria's kings, nobles and untold generations of its citizens looked upon. I noted the influence of the Byzantine art in the large eyes of the saints and their placid expressions. They seemed to exude calm, urging me to slow down and realize all is in God's hands.
My guidebook's map was excellent, and even though I never saw a street sign I could read (all really was in Cyrillic!), I got around fine. I met a couple people who spoke English -- mostly collecting my entrance money at the various sites! Bulgaria is fairly inexpensive, though. I think the most I paid to visit a church or museum was 5 Lev (about $2.50). Many were free, but none were crowded. It was pleasant to wander around them, looking up at the man-made beauty.
After I'd checked off the sights I'd planned for my half day in Sofia, I decided to go on a scouting mission. The next morning, I would take a bus to Plovdiv, where my guide Krassi lived. He would pick me up at the bus station, and from that point on, I wouldn't have to worry much about directions. Anyway, I thought it might make things go smoother if I sorted out the bus station ahead of time. So, as the sun was setting, I tromped over to see just how confusing "the most disorganized in Bulgaria" could be.
The bus station abuts the train station, and to be honest, it was hard to tell where one began and the other ended. The giant board showing city names and times was a squirming mass of spaghetti lettering to my eyes. After about five minutes of looking, I finally found the Cyrillic spelling of "Plovdiv" on the board. Then, I couldn't tell what days those times were good for. Was one side weekdays and the other holidays?
My impression of Cyrillic is that roughly a third of the characters are ones that we don't use in Latin letters. Maybe another third are same as the ones we use, but correspond to a different letter ("B" is the Bulgarian "V"). For example, Plovdiv has seven letters in both Latin and Cyrillic. The Cyrillic P looks vaguely like the Greek (or math) symbol for "pi." The L is an upside down V (like the Greek "lambda"). The O is the same. The V is B, remember, and the D was a really odd-looking beast like a TV perched atop a wrinkled carpet. The I is a backwards "N," followed up, finally, by another B (which, as you now know, means a V). Confused? I sure as Hell was!
Now, by the end of the trip, I got a lot better with the letters. Initially, it is quite a shock, though. And the guidebook was right: It is a rare thing to see Latin letters anywhere near public transportation. Oh, want something else that threw me the entire trip? Yes and No. When a Bulgarian is saying Yes (or "da," like Russian, which it is similar to), he shakes his head like we do for No. When he is saying NO (or "ne"), he inclines his head, like we would when we agreed or understood something another was saying. It seems simple but it threw me for the entire trip to hear a Bulgarian saying yes and seeing him shaking his head no.
For dinner, I continued a decades-old and time honored traveling tradition for me. Yes, that can mean only one thing -- Pizza Hut! Much to my surprise, though, they did NOT take credit cards (like every other Pizza Hut I've visited in the world). And that would hold true for much of Bulgaria. Very few places take credit cards, so if you go, plan on not being able to use them.
The next morning I discovered my scouting trip of the evening before was useless, as it took me another good 15 minutes of wandering and asking before I found the bus to Plovdiv. Once I discovered what time it left, I had to call Krassi to let him know. A friendly, unemployed Bulgarian helped me out, and even let me use his own phone card. I paid him back by buying him a coffee and slipping him some cash for his help. I think that was his "job," really -- helping out foreigners and (in the mildest way possible) begging some cash from them. The day before, I had to shoo off a half dozen not-so-mild beggars on the steps of the churches or on the streets. I got the impression business is NOT booming for all Bulgarians. It is not the poorest country in Europe, but it seemed to have its share of people down on their luck.
The bus ride went by quickly and Krassi was waiting at the bus stop. He took me to my hotel to check in, then we set out to explore Plovdiv, Bulgaria's "second city." We started in the Old Town, which is quite beautiful, with cobblestone streets, colorful 19th Century houses with intricate woodwork, and a seasoning of nearly 2000 year old Roman ruins. The signature sight is Plovdiv's Roman amphitheater, which is in great shape, and is used for concerts, plays and operas. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, its dramatic views doubtless enhance the performances. I wandered around the seats, soaking up the ancient heartbeat of the place.
Krassi was a good guide, pointing out spots for photographs, and explaining the history of places. In Plovdiv, he is a web page designer and internet entrepreneur who yearns to earn enough to buy his travel agent license. It felt good helping him out. I'm sure there are professional tour guides whose knowledge and store of anecdotes is greater. However, seeing the city with him was like seeing it with a friend.
After a bite to eat in a cafe, we drove about 20 miles south to Bachkovo Monastery. Like advertised, it was nestled peacefully among forested hills. Clad in their black robes and hats, the brother monks milled in and out of the monastery's church, bowing and praying before the icons and altars. One burly bearded fellow reminded me of Gimli the Dwarf from Lord of the Rings. I was struck by the expression on his craggy face when paused in front of the silver-plated icon of the Virgin Mary. It was the smile with which you greet an old friend with whom you share many secret memories. The monastery grounds were gorgeous, with well-tended flowers and trees surrounding the fresco-covered walls of the buildings, which had been rebuilt more than once since its founding in 11th century.
On the way back to Plovdiv, we stopped by the ruins of a hilltop castle and its accompanying church (which unlike the castle was still in good shape). The views up the valley towards Bachkovo and down towards Plovdiv were resplendent with green trees, broken by the tawny scar of the granite hillsides. As light faded, we stopped by the Monument to the Soviet army, which sat atop Plovdiv on a commanding hill. The Bulgarians have a different view of the Soviets than we do as Americans. The Russians had long been there allies, and their help was instrumental in freeing Bulgaria from Turkish rule.
The next morning we drove three hours or so northeast, over two mountain ranges and through the "Valley of Roses" to Veliko Turnovo. Billed as the heart of Medieval Bulgaria, it is a town scattered on various sides of a gorge that encircles and slithers amidst a series of hills. The Tsarevets Fortress commands the highest ridgetop, its walls encircling a triangular shaped plateau. We headed straight there and I was immediately in my element, walking along the walls, peering from the guard towers at the dramatic views of the town rising up on the opposite slopes and examining the ruins of churches and buildings scattered across the grounds. I think I walked poor Krassi to exhaustion as I clambered all around the ruins, losing myself in the views and sense of history.
In the center of the plateau are the castle-like ruins of the Royal Palace. Veliko Turnovo is called the City of the Tsars, as many of Bulgaria's Tsars and Kings ruled from here. On the hill's highest point is the Patriarch's Complex. Its spire commands the view from town, but the interior of the building is a disappointment. Instead of ancient frescoes or austere stone, there are modern art murals on the walls, with distended, impressionistic figures illustrating Bulgaria's history -- bleah! It felt as out of place as a shopping mall.
We took a break at the cafe to enjoy the fortress' wonderful views of the town -- and to rest Krassi's feet. It was another glorious, sunny day, and the small handful of other visitors to the fortress basked in the sunshine. Krassi thanked me, though, for convincing him to come to Veliko Turnovo. Like many people across the world, he hadn't been to one of their country's stellar sights! We took one more walk along the walls to Baldwin's Tower -- named for a deposed emperor who was imprisoned there -- before leaving the fortress.
We then drove to St. Peter and Paul Church, in the gorge below, that had splendid murals from the 14th - 17th centuries. The caretaker was an enthusiastic women who apologized when her English gave out as she took us from fresco to fresco, explaining each and its significance. I noticed that many of the saint's portraits had their eyes gouged out, and asked why. My thought was perhaps they were defaced during Turkish rule. Her explanation was a fascinating step into the Medieval mind. It seems that the phrase "The eyes are the windows of the soul" exists in Bulgarian, too. Well, the local inhabitants -- who had no hospitals or medical clinics to visit -- naturally had to make their own medicine. They felt if the potion or poultice contained a part of the Saint's soul, recovery was guaranteed. So, they would chip a tiny portion of the eyes of the saint off the mural and mix it with their medicine. Toss in centuries of this practice, and you have a church wall with saints' eyes gouged out.
We wanted to squeeze in one more sight, so drove to the quaint hilltop village of Arbanasi. Nearly all of the village buildings are hundreds of years old and built in the traditional style, surrounded by their own individual walls. This made it difficult to appreciate as almost none are open for visitors. However, nearly all were open for business, with a table set out in front selling souvenirs and crafts. I found it too touristy, which upon reflection, was exactly what my Lonely Planet guide book had said, too.
We then made the long drive back to Plovdiv. Krassi is a disco fan, and I'd been listening to it for two days. He must have felt sorry for me, though, as he changed it to a rock station for most of the drive back. The sun was setting as we climbed through the Shipka Pass, site of an intense battle in the 1800s between the Turks and the Russians with their Bulgarian allies. The Russo-Bulgarian victory against four times their numbers is commemorated by the delicate golden onion domes of the Nativity Memorial Church on the southern slopes, and a stone monument at the top of the pass. On the way here in the morning, we'd stopped and struggled through fierce winds and cold to the stone monument. On the return trip, the weather looked much more benign, but we didn't have time or the energy for another try.
Once back in Plovdiv, we had a couple drinks in a cafe on the main pedestrian "drag." Krassi explained that the locals saunter up and down the street, doing what the Italians call "La Passegiata" -- checking everyone out. None of the Bulgarian women (who are quite good looking -- not the stereotype Olympic weightlifter that seems to be the assumption in the U.S.) seemed particularly interested in a dusty, travel-worn American traveler, unfortunately. I thanked Krassi for all his help, and wished him luck on his ambitions in the travel industry.
The next morning, he drove me to Sofia airport. During my planning back home, I'd wished I'd given myself more days here. As I boarded the plane, I knew my pilgrimage to the monasteries, churches and historic sights of Medieval Bulgaria had been too short. But then, sometimes all we can afford are the small gems, and remember they sparkle none the less for their size.