September 29: Veliko Tarnovo
I was planning a side trip to the Dryanovski Monastery. Hidden among high rocks of the Dryanovski river gorge some 40km away, the monastery is one of the ‘big’ four monasteries in Bulgaria. It was first established in the 12th century. Andrew advised me to visit the nearby Bacho Kiro Cave as well.
The tourist information office staff told me to catch the 10:30am bus from the west bus terminal. Sadly, I met no one who could speak English to tell me how to reach the bus terminal on foot. A taxi driver refused to take me. Hence I gave up.
Instead I went to a market to get fresh vegetables and drumsticks. I wanted a nice and hearty meal. I took the stuff back to Andrew who was happy to cook. It worked out well!
|Assens Monument & Boris Denev State Art Gallery|
In the afternoon, I purchased a bus ticket for Sofia in the bus stop in the city centre for 22lv. Then I walked over the Stambolov Bridge in order to reach the Boris Denev State Art Gallery. In front of the gallery, there is the Assens Monument, a landmark erected to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the crowning of Tarnovo as the capital of the Second Bulgaria kingdom (1185-1393). The monument depicts four Bulgarian Tsars Assen, Peter, Kaloyan and Ivan Assen on horseback. It was extremely hot and I lost interest in sight-seeing and took refuge in the hostel.
Andrew put the vegetables and drumsticks in the oven and we had a lovely early dinner. It’s the best home cooking I had since I left Hong Kong on July 21. A French young man and a Swedish girl arrived. The hostel became lively! The sound and light show came on again under a fairly full moon. I suddenly remembered it was the Mid-Autumn Festival Eve!
September 30 (Sunday, Mid- Autumn Festival): Veliko Tarnovo – Sofia (230km)
I was sad to leave the hostel. Andrew kindly carried my suitcase downhill and I pulled in along on a well-paved road for another 15 minutes. My bus left on time at 9:30am. I arrived in Sofia before 1pm.
As I had about two weeks more to spend in the Balkans, I could only spend three more days in Bulgaria. I therefore bought a bus ticket for Belgrade, Serbia on October 3. The ticket cost 55lv.
I did not want to carry my suitcase and decided to stay at Sofia Plaza opposite the station. I paid 40euro for a single. I did not like the room which was dark and old fashioned. Hence I decided to look for another place in the town centre for the next two nights.
I took the tram to the town centre and walked for four hours. I find Sofia a lovely compact capital with lots of trees and parks, many elegant European-styled buildings in the old quarters. I started my walk at the Law Court at the crossroads of Boulevards Maria Louisa, Alabin and Vitosha. I saw six churches in a go beginning with the magnificent Svet Nedelya Cathedral built between 1856 and 1863; then the Church of St George which was originally built by the Romans as a rotunda in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC; the small 14th-century Svet Petka Samardjiiska Church next to the metro station; St Nikolai Russian Church on ul Tsar Osvoboditel and Church of St Sofia close to the colossal Aleksander Nevski Church, the city’s landmark. Aleksander Nevski Church was built between 1892 and 1912 as a memorial to the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria’s independence during the Russian-Turkish War (1877-78).
I walked along the famous ul Tsar Osvoboditel (also known as the yellow paved boulevard) where the National Assembly, the Presidency, the Council of Ministers, the Russian Church, the National Museum of History, the Central Military Club and many fascinating and buildings are located. I stopped at the National Art Gallery and the Ethnographical Museum both located in the former Royal Palace and saw a special exhibition of Vladimir Dimitrov, a famous Bulgarian painter. I have never seen the use of vibrant colours of red, orange and blue to capture the subtle but strong bondage between a mother and her child, the scenes and spirit of weddings in villages, some world-famous cities and mosques. But the display in the Ethnographic Museum is disappointing.
I had forgotten it was the Mid-Autumn Festival when Chinese gather for a sumptuous meal. I just had simple local food in a cafeteria before returning to the hotel before dark.
October 1 (China’s National Day): Side trip to Koprivshtitsa
I left my suitcase at the bus station and took the 8am bus to Koprivshtitsa, a picturesque Bulgaria village some 110km east of the capital. It was also the place where Todor Kableshkov proclaimed the national uprising against the Turks in April 1876. The village has been preserved as an open-air museum of the Bulgarian national revival period. It has some 400 buildings of ‘architectural and historical’ importance.
I brought a combined ticket for 6lv to visit ‘house-museums’. Unfortunately as it was Monday, only three were open for visitors. I visited the Karavelov House which was once home of Karavelov (1843-1903), a leading political figure, the Benkovski House of Garvil Hlutev (1843-1876), one of the most renowned figures in the Bulgarian liberation movement, and the Lyutov House (reminiscent of the baroque homes found in Plovdiv). The lady at the Oslekov House kindly let me see the house (without ticket) as it was supposed to be closed. The best part of my trip was to stroll aimlessly along the cobbled stone streets, appreciating the brightly coloured houses each with their own style and patterns. I also walked all the way to see the Equestrian Statute above the Benkovski House which overlooks the village.
As the bus did not leave till 4:50pm, I spent almost two hours in a hotel on a sumptuous lunch (by my standard). As I still had time to kill, I sat in a pub by the bus stop and had a glass of local white wine for 2lv. The wine is good!
When I got back to Sofia, I went to stay at the Art Hostel located in a lovely old building on ul Angel Kanchev. The owner is an actor and artist and the place has an appealing bohemian atmosphere. Once again, I had a room to myself as others stayed in the other two rooms.
October 2: Side trip to the Rila Monastery and Boyana Church
Bulgaria has eight World Heritage Sites and two (the Rila Monastery and Boyana Church) are close to Sophia. I joined a shuttle bus tour to these two places for 25euro. The meeting point was Place Aleksander Nevski. I was surprised to see a Chinese lady and guessed she must have joined the same tour. It turned out that both Yan and her colleague Kuen are from Hong Kong. They were on an assignment for a popular magazine which planned to have a few issues on travel in the Balkans. At the end, three of us had the car and a driver to ourselves!
We spent two hours in the Rila Monastery some 120km south of Sofia. It is the largest and most famous monastery in Bulgaria. Built in 927 and extensively restored in 1460, the monastery is the holiest place in the country attracting pilgrims and tourists. The courtyard is flanked by an imposing four-level building with colourful balconies in red, white and black. In the middle is the magnificent Nativity Church which interior is covered with some 1200 murals. Next to the church is the 23m-tall stone Hrelyu Tower built in 1335 (the only original structure left in the monastery). I visited the museum which has the Rila Cross on display. It is a double-sided cross with meticulous carving of hundreds of figures which Brother Raphael took over 12 years to create in the late 18th century.
We had a lovely lunch and I had a delicious grilled river trout and a glass of local white wine for about 7 euro. Great value! Our final stop was the 13-th century Boyana Church which become world famous because of its murals. Those painted in 1259 is regarded as the predecessor of the European Renaissance. The murals are so precious that only eight visitors are allowed in at a time and they cannot stay more than 10 minutes! I find the murals amazing as they have no resemblance to the iconic painting of their time. Whoever painted them was a genius, at least a couple of centuries ahead of their counterparts!
I had a great time with Yan and Kuen. We had a dinner in a Bulgarian restaurant and I joined them on a guided pub crawl. I had never taken such a tour before. But as it was the end of the tourist season, there were only three of us. Our guides Chris and Daniel woman had met the day before on a walking tour explained they would normally take the group to five pubs. As I only intended to go to stay for an hour and leave, they decided to take us to see two most interesting ones. We fist went to Hambara which was a secret hangout for artists and intellectuals during the communist era. Located in the basement lit by candles, it is atmospheric. We met several members of a ‘couch club’ (people offer their couch to travelers free of charge) having their monthly meeting. The place was once a printing house.
The second pub is called ‘Apartment’ with decorations like ‘home’. The atmosphere is very relaxed. Some customers were reading while a couple was watching video. We went to the kitchen to pick our drink and snack! I paid only 15lv for three drinks and we had fun. They then left us at a pub which is famous for brewing its own beer. We took beer from a small barrel with a tap on our table and paid according to the amount we had consumed. Sofia is famous for its club/pub scene and I enjoy the pub crawl which is a great way to discover this exciting city. Chris and Daniel are cool, helpful and knowledgeable!
October 3 (Wednesday): Sophia, Bulgaria – Belgrade, Serbia (330km)
As my bus would depart at 11am, I spent my last two hours strolling from the hostel to the bus station taking a last look at the city centre. I took pictures of the old Central Hali shopping Centre, the Sofia Synagogue and the Banya Bashi Mosque.
The journey to the border is short and we arrived at the Serbia side in less than an hour. On the bus, I met a lovely couple, Nilly and Rani from Israel with whom I travelled with in Serbia and Bosnia!
I had a wonderful time in Bulgaria. That is so much to see and I could easily have spent another week to visit the remaining seven World Heritage Sites which would take me to all corners of the country. I like the people and the laid-back atmosphere. The cost of living is much lower than Western Europe and it is affordable for a pensioner like me! I stayed in three hostels all of which are cozy, comfortable and clean.
Bulgaria has a lot to offer and is worth visiting!