When the Universe presents a welcome opportunity to spend a week in Bulgaria, taking in the sights and sharing the experience with a delightful friend; you get yourself on a plane and go.
Geographically, Bulgaria bridges East and West, combining the natural beauty and culture of both regions that is clearly visible in the country’s society and historical landscape.
Arriving in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital during mid-morning on an early summer’s day left ample time to take in some of the known sights; however, not before sharing a delightful catch up with a friend over lunch and a celebratory class of wine at Made in Blue.
Made in Blue is a revival of an old abandoned home with interesting double glassed windows, an interior that showcases a unique retro and artsy style, and captured within the buildings blue exterior and a delightful terrace garden with a none resident cat enjoying the cool soil of a garden pot located at the entrance.
This quirky, quaint café feels like home and doesn’t offer Bulgarian, Italian, French, or Turkish style food. The menu boasts a wonderful selection of homemade tasty dishes, like falafel with hummus and a Middle Eastern fattoush salad, and other in season salads. A unique zucchini mash, topped chicken fillet; or a slow cooked pork carnitas burrito. The deserts being served at other tables looked equally inviting.
With the need for good food meet along with a chilled white wine, my friend suggests we take a look around the city before indulging in a desert treat a little later.
Bulgaria is a country that is more known for its coastal Black Sea, a beach holiday destination for water lovers. However, for those who only head to the established tourist routes they really are missing out on a side of the country that is truly worth visiting. Mother Nature has been graciously kind, with lush green valleys and high mountain ranges; unique natural landscapes know as Hoodoos that hold interesting local legends, to historic cities with a tumultuous past and exquisitely designed religious churches and cathedrals that adorn the landscape and built during the various occupations. From early Roman times, the Byzantine period, centuries of Turkish domination and decades of communism. To heavenly and exquisitely scented fields of Damascus Roses that produce the finest pure organic Rose essential oil in the world.
Bulgaria is predominantly an Orthodox Christian country, with 6.7 million, or approx. 85% of the population officially registered as belonging to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Christianity was introduced to Bulgaria in 865, following the appointment of an Archbishop sent from Constantinople and is shown throughout the country’s many churches. Sofia is amongst some of the most significant centres of Orthodox Christian faith and culture in Europe.
Following the end to the Russo-Turkish war in 1878, when Bulgaria gained independence the largest Orthodox Cathedral in Bulgaria was constructed. The domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, (BG – Катедралата на Александър Невски) was built as a token of gratitude and in memory of the thousands of Russians, Bulgarians, Ukrainian, Moldavian, Finnish and Romanian soldiers who fought against the Ottoman Empire during 1877 – 78. Named after the Russian commander, the Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky, construction started in 1904 with completion in 1916, and sanctified in 1924.
Drawing on Byzantine religious architecture from the 11th century, and topped with ornate gold leaf domes and solid timber doors, the Cathedral provides sanctuary for 5000 worshipers. I returned to the Cathedral five days later to visit the darkness of a dimly lit interior, with decorative work of high columns and detailed frescoes.
A short walk from the Cathedral, along Tsar Osvoboditel, is the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle Maker, (BG – Църквата на Свети Никола Чудотворец).
It’s also clear to see why this church has been aptly named the ‘Russian Church’. The church was built on the site of the former Saray Mosque that was destroyed in 1882, following the liberation of Bulgaria and the end of Ottoman rule. Completed in 1914 this small church has five golden domes and presents itself as a light, along with the multi-coloured imitation of 17th century Moscow architecture.
The church owes its existence to a Russian diplomat who negotiated the construction of the church and allowing Russian expats to have a place of worship, and also became the official church for the Russian Embassy.
In August 1921 Russian born Vladyka Seraphim, was appointed Director of Russian Orthodox monastic communities in Bulgaria and arrived as the Bishop of the St Nicholas the Miracle Maker church. During his early years he formed a committee and gained support for helping those in need, of free hospital treatment, obtaining pensions, securing homes for the invalid, and was also known for providing others with food in his home. It was during his sermons he appealed to parishioners to donate to these worthy services. In 1934 Vladkya was appointed the position of Archbishop and soon became known for his gift of being a ‘miracle maker’.
With the outbreak of WWII saw the Bulgarian Monarchy abolished and the Russian Communist Party winning the election. During nearly 50 years of Communist rule in Bulgaria, people were unable to attend church services, have their children christened, nor have a priest in attendance during funerals. It is said that at some point, things became so bad that on any religious holiday, police would be present around churches to ensure no one walked in.
And, yet during this time many, many hundreds of people went to church seeking help from Archbishop Seraphim. It is noted that the day prior to his death in 1950, he told a saddened women, “When I am gone, write letters.” His sepulcher, in the crypt of the Russian Church of St. Nicholas has been an uninterrupted source of miracles, and today is visited by those near and afar who leave letters seeking his help.
Without knowing the history of this church, and being the first church I set foot in, in Bulgaria; I at last took a moment to light a candle and acknowledge the recent passing of my own Father.
By mid-afternoon, we found ourselves amongst many others out enjoying the cool of the green lawns surrounded by gracious large and leafy trees in the City Gardens (BG – Градска градина).
Water features, including a dancing ballerina and water fountains adorn the parkland centre walkway that is located facing the façade of the Ivan Vazov National Theatre (BG – Народен театър Иван Вазов), Bulgaria’s national theatre.
Founded in 1904, the theatre in the oldest and most authoritative theatre in the country and an important landmark in Sofia. The theatre’s neoclassical design was the creation of Viennese theatre architects Hermann Helmer and Ferdinand Fellner and was completed in 1906, opening its doors on 3 January, 1907. A fire broke out in 1923 during an anniversary celebration resulting in extensive damage and then reconstructed by German architect Martin Dülfer, in 1929.
Many beautiful architecturally designed buildings are located in the city centre that is formed by yellow painted cobbled stones pavements, accessible by both foot and vehicle traffic. It was interesting to note, that at all times pedestrians have right of way.
It’s now late afternoon and time for the indulgent desert treat at Confetti, a superb traditional homemade Italian Gelataria and restaurant.
With an extensive choice of ice-cream flavours to seriously decadent ice-cream creations that are more like a work of art.
Maybe, I’ll try a work of art creation another day.
What a delightful day sightseeing Sofia.
An hour’s drive south towards the Bulgarian/Greek boarder (Kulata BG – Кулата) and we arrive at my friends’ home in Blagoevgrad.
We arrive in time and walk fifteen minutes to the city centre square to meet with some friends and enjoy listening to some local live music.
The small city of Blagoevgrad is situated at the foothills of the lush Rila Mountains with approx. 71,000 inhabitants. Founded by the Thracians in 168 BC for the thermal springs close by, and later becoming part of the Thracian-Macedonian Empire, which was then part of Greece. The Roman occupation set in during 46 AD and during the Ottoman era, Blagoevgrad was used as an army base. Until 1950, Blagoevgrad was known as Ano Tzmaya being part of Turkey and was liberated during the Balkan war on 5 October, 1912. The city is settled along the picturesque banks of Blagoevgradska Bistritza River, within the river-basin of the bigger Bulgarian river Struma. Today the city is the economic and cultural centre of southwestern Bulgaria and boasts a long history of human habitation. During the Ottoman era at the place of the Thracian settlement of Skaptopra, evidence was found noted in the Skaptopraski inscription from 238.
A relaxed Sunday morning comes with a freshly baked traditional Bulgarian pastry.
Banitza (BG – баница), is generally a breakfast dish; however is also a specialty for New Year’s Eve. Small charms are mixed with the Greek yogurt, eggs and feta cheese, before being spread out on flaky pastry and baked. The charms are said to bring good fortune, and good health for the coming year for the lucky person who has the charm in their piece of Banitza. A delightful, light and very tasty breakfast. Look closely, you’ll see this tasty breakfast treat is a mere 1.30 levi, approx. .65 cents euro.
The morning turns to early afternoon and we take a drive through the lush green Rila Mountains, past the township of Kocherinovo (BG – Кочериново) and Rila (BG – Рила) to visit Rila Monastery (BG – Рилски манастир), located deep within the valley along the Rilska River, yet high in the Rila Monastery Nature Park. The largest Orthodox Monastery in Bulgaria.
Walking through the heavy fortress like entrance you are suddenly in awe of the sight before you.
The monastery was founded by the hermit St. John of Rila (Ivan Rilski, 876 – 946 AD), whose name it bears, during the rule of Tsar Peter I (927-968). Rilski actually lived in a cave not far from the monastery, while the complex was built by his students, who came to the mountains for their education. Nowadays it is a remarkable cultural and spiritual centre of the Balkans and is pictured on Bulgaria’s 1 lev banknote.
A very relaxed and peaceful atmosphere captures you as you walk inside the dimly lit interior of the Hrelyova Church. On the afternoon of our visit there where a number of monks singing in unison and creating beautiful harmonic acoustics.
Returning outside and looking up to see the colourful and exquisitely detailed frescoes’ that decorates the exterior eves.
A sense of calm is everywhere and the coolness of being so high up in the mountains bring a refreshing feel.
The Monastery building is home to 60 monks and a working water mill provides fresh water all year round. The large kitchen cauldron can hold 2500 litres providing food for 5000 worshipers.
Before leaving the surrounding Monastery grounds we take a short walk through the woodlands and breathe in the refreshing clean air.
The following day is spent taking an afternoon stroll through Blagoevgrad Central Boulevard under the shade of the colourful umbrellas on our way to the Virgin Mary Church (BG – Църква Дева Мария).
The church was built in 1844, by 200 local volunteers, and is a traditional Bulgarian Orthodox style church in the old town of Varosha (BG – Вароша).
A stroll around Varosha old town to admire some original architecture, then returning to the city centre in time before an afternoon down pour. Great opportunity to take refuge at Raffy Bar and gelato for a late afternoon bite to eat of freshly made hummus, garlic and cheese oregano bread washed down with a refreshing glass of three of Mojito.
Today’s an early start from Blagoevgrad that leads to a four hour road trip to the region known as the Rose Valley (BG – Розова долина, Rozova dolina), nestled between the Balkan and Sredna Gora Mountains. Wide open roads with speed limits of 120 km provide safe and quick travel as we bypass Sofia city and head east towards Central Bulgaria and the township of Kazanlak (BG – Казанлък).
Stunning scenery, dripping in shades of green and picturesque views across the valley greet us as we near the Damascena Ethnographic complex in Skobelevo, a short drive on the outer regions of Kazanlak town centre. It’s early June and many rose fields have been picked, however as we drove along the open regional roads, we see fields of roses being handpicked and placed in large bags. Smaller Lavender fields also grace the landscape.
Arriving at the Damascena Ethnographic complex, was something of a ‘BIG’ treat for me. I personally use many Essential Oils, as part of my self care practices and finding myself in Bulgaria at an Organic Rose Farm and distillation centre was pretty special.
The seated women statue at the entrance of the complex greets you with a small basket of rose petals. Many other statues pepper the grounds of the complex along with numerous rose bush gardens.
Each year during the first weekend of June, the township of Kazanlak celebrates the Festival of Roses. A festival tradition is gathering roses early in the morning by people dressed in traditional costumes, whilst folk dancers, singers and musicians perform in the fields. We missed the last day of the festival by two days.
Walking into the distillation area, to witness three bags of rose petals being dropped into the large vats and the hit of steam along with the aromatic sweet smell of roses was an enjoyable experience.
Generally someone is paid to pick the roses; I however, choose to pay and took home a basket of heavenly freshly picked Damascus Rose petals. Picking the roses and breathing in the exquisitely scented aroma, was a divine and magical experience.
Time spent in the gift shop sampling various aromatic products and the opportunity to bring home a small bottle of the exquisite Organic Rose Essential Oil.
Leaving the Damascena Ethnographic complex, we took a short drive to the town of Kazanlak, only to decide that the lure and recommendation to spend time in the charming and charismatic city of Plovdiv (BG –Пловдив) is calling. Retracing a short distance, the road trip continues and we drive 75 kms to Plovdiv. Rich in history and lush public parks provides for a captivating afternoon experience.
Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria and has been titled the European Capital of Culture for 2019. Situated in the western region of the Upper Thracian Valley, Plovdiv is also one of the oldest cities in Europe.
Learning more about the country’s history and that the present city of Plovdiv is built on layers of former towns and cultures. Evidence shows early habitation dates back to the Stone Age, along with finds from both the Bronze and Iron Ages. Around 400 BC the people known as Thracians founded the land of modern Plovdiv, under the name Eumolpius. During 342 BC Eumolpius was conquered by Phillip II, from Macedonia (then a small kingdom outside of the area dominated by the Greek states) and renaming the town, Philippopolis and turning the town into a fortress. Fast forward to 100 AD when the town fell under Roman rule and become a key economic, cultural and political centre, with another name change, then known as Trimontsium. In 395 Bulgaria became a part of the Eastern Roman Empire, when the Roman Empire was split in two. During the succeeding two centuries, inhabitants of the Roman occupied town were inflicted with various raids by both Hun and Gothic tribes. By 500, the Slavs arrived, settled, populated and laid claim the area and gave the town, yet another name – Paldin. In 815 Khan Krum, a military ruler of Bulgaria reclaims the area within the boundaries of Bulgaria. By 971, Byzantine ruling Greek Constantinople capture eastern Bulgaria and in 1018 is absorbed as part of the Byzantine Empire. Records show the town’s name as Plovdiv during the 11th century, yet with rebellious uprisings and defeats continuing throughout the following three centuries until the Ottoman Empire conquered the town in 1396 and renamed it Phillibe. This began the slow decline and the eventual loose as a key economic, cultural and political centre. More uprisings and defeats left Bulgaria being split in two in 1878 as part of the Treaty of Berlin and given little autonomy. On 16 January the same year following a one year Russo-Turkish war, Plovdiv was liberated and recalled its name under the San Stefano treaty for the liberation of Bulgaria. Bulgaria then became a completely independent and united country in 1908, however with the onset of WWI surrenders in 1918 and looses some of her territory the following year. The Bulgarian Zveno military stage a coup in 1923, resulting in elections being held in 1931. Another coup by Zveno Military in 1934 saw the abolition of political parties that reduced the status and power of Boris III, Tsar of Bulgaria. During the following year, 1935 Boris III staged a counter-coup and assumed control of the country, with subsequent elections being held in 1938. Shortly after WWII broke out and during the early days of WWII, Bulgaria was neutral, however powerful groups in the country swayed its politics towards Germany (whom Bulgaria had been allied during WWI). This resulted in Boris III, Tsar of Bulgaria allowing German troops to travel through Bulgaria to neighbouring countries. During 1944 with the advance of Russian troops against Germany, Russians entered Bulgaria and began the gradual course of communism. For the preceding 45 years, Bulgaria is under Russian rule until the collapse in 1989. Each Empire contributing to the city’s prosperity, or ruthlessly ruining what was created. The later part of the 20th century, sees a sense of calm and in 2004 Bulgaria joins NATO and three years later joins the EU, whilst retaining its national currency – Bulgarian Lev.
With such a tumultuous past, with friends and foe that came and went it is only in more recent years that the charming and charismatic city of Plovdiv has regained a name for being an economic, cultural and political centre.
The city’s rich history, lush open public parks and blended Empire ruled architecture provided an unexpected, yet delightful few hours.
Admiring the blend of old in ruin, needing some love and colourful buildings before walking through the beautiful and lush Tsar Simeon’s Garden (BG – Градина на цар Симеон) and spotting small groups of men playing cards under the shade of the leafy giant trees, before reaching the Old Town.
The Old Town with a unique blend of cobbled stoned streets, lined with 150 year old beautifully restored, and colourfully painted residences, positioned atop the well preserved Ancient Stadium (BG – Старинен римски стадион), from the Roman era along with the Dzhumaya Mosque (BG – Джумая джамия) oozes charm, charisma and calm.
The Ancient Stadium runs under the main shopping street, Knyaz Alexander 1. Built during the rule of Hadrian in the 2nd century, is one of the most notable landmarks in Ancient Philippopolis.
Fourteen tiers of marble blocks provided seating for up to 30,000 spectators. One of the tunnels used by the competitors to enter the stadium is also visible from the street above. This preliminary architectural project started in 2008, and is unfolding and preserving the rich archaeology within the city as the first stage of the future Underground Museum of Philioppopolis.
Adjacent the ancient stadium in the heart of the pedestrian zone stands Dzhumaya (translated as Friday) Mosque and is one of the oldest and largest in the Balkans. This was also the first and only Mosque I saw during my visit to Bulgaria.
Its pink painted minaret stands a proud 23 mtrs tall and the dusky pink brickwork denotes the Mosque being built during the 14th century. The façade on one side is covered in carved wood, that suggests was added at a later date.
Unlike many Mosques built during a later time with only one dome, the Dzhunaya Mosque has nine and each covered in lead.
As the early afternoon, turned to early evening we reluctantly made our way back to the car, however not before one last unexpected surprise and an opportunity to see a local group of school children in preparation for a night of traditional singing and dancing.
We’re on our way, after a stop at a fast food highway outlet (can’t believe I was eating fast food), before travelling the four and a half hour drive back to Blagoevgrad. As the day turned to night and the Sun slipped behind the lush green mountain range, with my friend behind the wheel and her dog that accompanied us for the day resting in the back seat; I reflect on what has been a wonderful, truly delightful and richly rewarding day. Somewhere in the distance is Blagoevgrad.
Following a big day of travelling and taking in so many amazing and delightful places yesterday; a slower pace day closer to home was needed.
A leisurely walk into the city centre past an interesting street mural along the main boulevard of the city’s Virgin Mary Church. Walking through Blagoevgrad’s lush and cooling city park, and time to stop an admire the many statues.
On my second last day, I decided to take a trip to Sofia using the local public transport. It’s always and interesting experience when you don’t speak the local language and Bulgaria is extra unique. But, you figure it out with the help of locals and Google translate. Along with additional help from a wonderful young Macedonian woman, who works in Bulgaria during the summer season and spoke fluent Bulgarian and English. I soon learn that I can buy a return ticket, however I needed to have the return ticket validated when I arrive at Sofia central bus station. Why, because you are allocated a return seat number, at a return time. Limited flexibility if you are enjoying your day and running late. As fate has it, the young women and I were allocated seats beside each other, and I learn more about Bulgarian cultural and some of the unusual practices held over from their days under Communism rule.
Arriving in Sofia, bus service sorted – it’s time to tackle the train and metro systems. Seems simple enough! Once I learn that I’d need to catch a train service then change to the Metro and change Metro lines to get to Sofia CBD. Not quite as easy as it sounds with very limited signage located in obscure points in train stations and the Metro requires a ten minute underground walk between Metro lines.
I find myself existing the Metro at the Kliment Ohridski University (BG – Университет Климент Охридски) stop.
A walk through St. Kliment Ohridski garden, past the beautifully designed Sofia University of the same name.
The park is home to a Monument of Saint Clement of Ohrid. A Bulgarian saint, scholar, writer and enlightener of the Slavs.
To find myself back at the St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral.
Sofia is a beautiful city with many open public parks and equally beautiful buildings. Like the Cathedral, the Central Military Club, the National Gallery of Theatre and Film, that was formerly a Palace and too many more to list.
Roaming the city streets and admiring the many, many statues, monuments and the many building; I find myself waiting for a tram to pass before being back at Confetti where they serve those delightful traditional Italian gelato.
Somewhere in there below the strawberries, the amaretto biscuits and a swirl of amaretto liquor is salted caramel ice-cream.
It’s time to make my way back to the Metro and return bus trip to Blagoevgrad. Walking down Tsar Osvoboditel, pass the small Russian Church and noticing a lovely carving of a women and two small children on the adjacent DZI (State Insurance Institute) building opposite.
With the fall of Communist Government in Bulgaria in 1989, major international companies previously not present in the Bulgarian market moved into many of the ornate architecturally designed buildings.
Remember the lack of signage and confusion in the metro/train stations? I’m now running late to make my assigned (validated) return bus service time, along with assigned seating allocation. I am on the wrong platform, heading in the wrong direction.
Phew…I made it, with literally one minute before scheduled departure. Crazy system, 14 vacant seats and I am still required to sit in the assigned seat number, beside another passenger for the return one hour plus journey to Blagoevgrad and no extra stops.
On my last day in Bulgaria, my friend and I decided to take a short drive to the semi deserted village of Stob, with approx. 600 inhabitants. The village is known for the Stob Earth Pyramids (BG – Стобски пирамиди). Natural stone and earth formations, also known as hoodoos, which stand 30 – 40 mtrs deep, that have been created by the harsh winter snowfall, strong winds and heavy rains over an extended period of time. The sediments are coloured in various shades of rusty brown, to reddish and yellow.
With the sun shining brightly in the mid-morning sky we start walking the 1 ½ hour return walk through a lush green lower woodland area and picturesque views across the valley below and the village of Stob.
Pops of colourful late Spring wildflowers are dotted around as we reach the stone inscription and only evidence left of the original 1373 church of St. Procopius, known as the patron saint of beekeepers and newlyweds. And is the only church in Bulgaria named after him.
It is said that the medieval church was dismantled stone block by stone block during the Ottoman occupation because it was illegal for Orthodox Christian worshipers to be higher than the Turkish occupants and their mosque living in the valley below.
The new position for St. Procopius is now situated on a lower site, down the hill closer to the present day village of Stob.
With the sun now high in the morning sky and the woodland area behind us, the air is hot and the colour of the earth formed pyramids a shade of burnt orange and others a pale yellow.
The Stob Earth Pyramids, mostly shaped as pointed with mushroom like tops are steeped in local legends of unfortunate love.
Two lovers from a nearby village are said to want to marry, however the bride’s Mother was against the wedding and turned the couple and their guests into stone. Another legend, of two lovers who were unable to live with their parents disapproval, took their lives by jumping from the rocks; giving the pyramid now known as ‘The Bride’, its name.
Returning to the car, we learn that the stone blocks from the relocated church that now forms part of the 19th century St. Procopius church is right where we parked the car, at the entrance to park.
Life is quiet in the small semi deserted village of Stob. As we drove back through the village we noticed a number of large black tied ribbons in the form of a bow across the door entrance to the home.
My inquisitiveness later learns that this is an old local tradition respecting a recently deceased member of the home. The black bows remain on the door entrance for approx. 30 – 40 days to honour the deceased and is symbolic of the soul’s smooth transition to the afterlife.
An unanticipated stop at what looked like an old car yard, that’s actually an amazing antique place. ‘Junkshop “Shedyovar” (Masterpiece)’ is an eclectic mix of post war and historical local memorable, in the town of Kocherinovo (BG – Кочериново). A man who only spoke Bulgarian approached us and hands a typed English explanation of the store/museum. “The collection has been gathered to store and show to those interested a part of the material and spiritual culture of the Bulgarians from near and remote past. Emblematic and giving meaning to the life in previous decades and being more and more rear today, these objects help us get to know where we come from”.
The last lines read – “Those with no past have no future”.
Returning to Blagoevgrad we continue on, too Bachinovo Park (BG – Парк Бачиново). The park is located a short drive just outside the city and provides a relaxing and charming location to enjoy lunch; under the shade of the large leafy trees that stand along the Blagoevgraska Bistritsa River.
Bulgaria has much to offer. Every city and town offers green open public parklands with towering lush shady trees, along with a blend of architectural treasures, in the form of buildings, statues and monuments that serve as reminders of an extensive and tumultuous history.
This blog is the first in a series of posts sharing the wonders of Bulgaria. Read and learn more about Bulgaria’s natural beauty, markets and more here. I hope you enjoy reading and that I bring some inspiration (if needed) to visit this amazing and magical part of the world.
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