The sunflowers that cover the landscape of Bulgaria, a mark of the country’s identity and number one on the ’30 things not to miss’ in the Rough Guide, had come to the end of their season on my recent visit in mid-August. They looked quite sad, crumpled up and heads drooping. However, this only drew my attention to the rest that this country has to offer – much more than just beaches and skiing as many UK tourists associate the country with. Bulgaria has a long and rich history, a distinctive cultural heritage and is full of natural and cultural beauty.
Our group was led by the charismatic, knowledgeable and passionate Velislava (Velis for short) who is a coordinator at the Devetaki Plateau Association, an association that works to promote sustainable development in the areas of the environment, culture and tourism in the Devetaki Plateau region of Central Bulgaria.
We began in Sofia, exhausted after an overnight flight, we wondered around slightly zombified trying to take in this new and unknown country. We visited the impressive archaeological museum built in an old mosque, admiring the vast array of ancient artefacts on display, an overwhelming introduction to the country’s vast history, more of which we would learn during the coming week. We managed a short walk round the city, taking in some Roman ruins that had been uncovered when digging to build a subway, and a Roman theatre underneath the grand Arena di Sercica hotel. After this we relaxed with a refreshing beer and our first taste of Bulgarian cuisine – very welcoming both for its taste and price at £1 for a pint of lager! I ate tasty spinach and cheese fried patties. Then it was off to the hotel for a long, much needed sleep.
The following day, feeling refreshed after a long sleep, we had our first experience of a Bulgarian rural village – Telish. On arrival at the village cultural centre, we were welcomed by three girls dressed in traditional Bulgarian dress – white blouses with bright coloured embroidery down the front, and heavy striped wool aprons layered over more embroidered white skirts. They stood proudly in a line and sang traditional songs for us before bowing, rushing off and appearing soon after in their more relaxed modern jeans, t-shirts and trainers. Meanwhile, our hostess served ice tea and biscuits while a local archaeologist told us of his excavations of a nearby Neolithic (New stone age – 10,000 – 2,000 BC) settlement where clay goddesses, pots and household accessories were excavated.
In the garden of the cultural centre the locals, along with the help of a group of archaeology students and some funding, built two replica Neolithic houses made with clay, animal dung and straw with a thatched roof. A strong and environmentally sound house, cool inside with just small windows, and warm in the winter, it is a wonder why today’s builders don’t use this simple but effective building method today. The interior had been designed according to research and discoveries and contained a wooden bed with a jute blanket, a felt wall hanging, animal skins on the wall, a hearth with two stones at the side used for grinding wheat, and two large very simple weaving looms, one with a partly woven mat using goats hair.
Moving on from Telish, we drove to Russe in the far north situated on the river Danube and the border dividing Bulgaria and Romania, after a stop in Pleven for a lunch of Mussaka and beer. What struck me about Russe, and a lot of Bulgaria, was how quiet it is. t seemed as if most people had deserted the place. What added to this sense of abandonment were the empty forlorn looking buildings, some 19th Century with highly decorative facades, contrasting with the stark, grey concrete buildings of the Socialist era which ran from the end of WWII to 1989. However, by evening time the central square with its fountains, gardens and monuments was much more buzzing with families venturing out for dinner, walks or ice cream.
The archaeological museum in a grand political building overlooked the square, housed another impressive collection of pre-historic, Thracian and Roman artefacts and animal bones as well as ethnographic and photographic displays. Around the corner were the ruins of a Roman fortress, the ‘Sexaginta Prista’ meaning sixty ships in Latin, built high up overlooking the Danube to defend against forces from the other side of the river.
It was back out into the countryside again then as we headed to the Ivanovo Rock Monasteries 18 km south of Russe. Built in natural caves within a wide craggy gorge, housing Stone Age tribes and medieval hermits alike, these monasteries were created by 13th Century monks. The walls and ceilings were covered in magnificent frescoes, most of the detail and natural colours almost as new. We spent a long time studying and staring in wonder at each fresco depicting scenes from the bible and portraits of saints and monks in.
It was then onto the medieval fortress of Cherven, a further fifteen kilometres south of Ivanovo. The maze of ruined walls stood up on a hill with impressive views to the valley. The fortress has been called the ‘city of churches’, I counted six but there may have been more. One stood out among the others, built later than the citadel was first founded in the sixth or seventh century, distinctly byzantine in style with its wave like edges and walls built with layers of chunky stone interspersed with thin clay bricks, a technique first championed by the Romans.
Watch out for my next post for more mysteries and wonders of Bulgaria!