In the states today is Easter, but here in Bulgaria last night was, so today it seems that most families are out and about on treks around the mountains to various spiritual sights. So are we! Our amazingly taxi-like rental car was dropped off with us yesterday and sat partially parked on the sidewalk all night. Today we packed up, checked out, and hit the open Bulgarian road.
We have a low-detail road map and have navigated surprisingly well. Bethany decided she’d rather I nav, so she is driving. I think she finds driving a fun challenge since she doesn’t get to very often. Well, the driving here is certainly a bit of a challenge and she’s doing amazingly! Our goal for the end of the day was Veliko Tarnovo, but we had a lot of fun pitstops along the way. The first was Bachkovo monastery. It was our first foray into Bulgarian monastery visits; apparently there are numerous monasteries here and this is the second largest. It was interesting.
We parked low on a hill after finding our way out of Plovdiv about 19km and off the main road a good ways into the hills where this place is. Leading up to the monastery are lots of stalls selling everything from local jelly, nuts, and foods to dolls, shirts, and casserole dishes. The monastery itself was pretty crowded with Easter-goers in line to enter the church and kiss a particular icon. We were able to skirt the line and get inside to watch a bit of the service. Seems that there is alot going on – men chanting, priests entering and exiting the iconostasis (a big icon-covered wall) and lots of people going in and out. It was neat to see, but confusing non the less. Zoe thought seeing the priest in his giant crown was like seeing a king.
Outside the church Zoe fed the sheep some dandelions and we snapped a few pictures though the signs said not too. The Bulgarians were doing it, too. Done with the crowded monastery we took a bit of a walk up a path with other Easter revelers to another religious building. It was closed. We decided to ditch all the local walkers and head back to the car. Seems that there is a volksmarch type atmosphere to Easter sunday here with people wandering all over the hills to various tiny chapels and sights all around. A few km down the road was our next sight: the Assanove Fortress. Cool!! It is a bunch of ruins precariously balanced on top of a cliff with a still-functioning church. I held Avi and Bethany assisted Zoe while we explored the ruins. Unlike in the states, there were few guardrails; the place had a very a “don’t be an idiot” atmosphere. The view up and down the valley was awesome, and the tiny church also yielded some pretty cool frescoes. I liked it much more than visiting the monastery even though the fortress is considered a tack-on to visits to the monastery. Back in the car we had some snacks, fed Avi, and then got trucking.
We opted to take a ‘short-cut’ route on the map and much to my surprise it worked out perfectly. I really thought we’d get unbearably lost. Most road signs here are in cyrillic until you are right near the town, but our map doesn’t have the cyrillic on it. I guess I have crazy map skills. The short cut, though shorter in mileage, was a tiny local road that had potholes the size of Mars. Huge. Bethany was swerving all over the road to avoid them and we still hit some biggies. It was funny to see the rare oncoming traffic doing the same thing. It was along this road we saw our first tiny Bulgarian towns, horse-drawn carts, and abandoned factories. An odd, disturbing, mix.
The kids fell asleep, so it was a great hour or so in the car just chatting grown-up like until we arrived in Kazanlak. Almost every town in Bulgaria has a less than appealing description in our Lonely Planet book, and this one is about the worst. It is accurate. The place looks like a few thousand people just up and left of soviet block housing and then let all their trash and wild dogs run around. Not a garden spot. We weren’t here for long, however, just time enough to stop into the old Thracian Kings Tombs which was pretty cool. It is a reproduction of the actual tomb that is closed off. A tiny triangular door leads to a painted mini hallway and a tiny domed room where the bodies and offerings were found buried. It was gorgeous as the walls and domed ceiling were covered with paintings. It’s amazing to think that people had such culture in this area during times BC.
Thank goodness the stop didn’t take much work to find, and made a great pitstop for us all to stretch our legs before continuing our drive to the hamlet of Shipka. Now this town was truly a tiny village with very rough roads, and an incredible church. The church was of the Russian style with 5 beautiful golden domes that just shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight. We ended up spending a nice long time here – seeing the church, but then getting some snacks from the snack bar….makes me think of China as there are little kiosks at all the sights ready to sell you some food and drink. We then played around on the church lawn for a while. Avi really liked crawling around to pull up the daisies while Zoe occupied herself picking and crushing flowers. The weather has been amazing – sunny and warm. So, it was nice to spend an hour just relaxing at this church with the local Bulgarians all doing the same thing.
When we finally got on our way it was to drive up a super winding and sick road to the top of Shipka pass. A location notorious in Bulgarian history – we just learned about it, of course – when the Bulgarians on behalf of the Russians were able to hold back the Turks during the Russo-turkish war. There is a big monument to that at the top – this is amazing, but the best thing is the view. We could see down the way we came, but also over the mountains the direction we were headed. This country has amazing geography. There was even still snow in the shadow up here!!! Zoe grabbed some for the car. Down , down down we went and through many nearly abandoned villages, old run down factories, giant crumbling soviet-era apartments, horses tied up outside homes, and a beautiful forest.
Our next stop was Dryanovo monastery. We popped in just before close which worked out great since the monks were happy to see us and especially liked Avi. The one even gave him a little blessing. The monastery is incredible. It sits down in a cliff-lined valley along a large river. If I were a Bulgarian monk, this is where I’d be….that’s what Bethany said and it’s true. absolutely. They also had chickens and goats and an incredible church to see. Zoe and I mostly just enjoyed the incredible location and super cool suspension bridge over the river. Being at this place was the first I’ve felt a bit of soul-settling since we began this trip. We stayed for a while wandering around.
Back in the car, we were racing the sun to go the next 19 km to our goal of Veliko Tarnovo, but we made it just as the twilight was dimming. Took us a bit of navving and one turn around to find our beds for the night at Hostel Mostel. When we got here Alex and Randy helped us lug up our bags and gave us the tour. It’s a great hostel!! We have our own 3 bed room with bathroom, and there is a great outdoor hang-out patio, a kitchen with nightly food and drinks plus breakfast, and a great common room near the check in. It’s pretty cool I could see hanging here for a while if there were time. Bethany and the kids played in the common room and got settled in the bedroom while I headed out to the grocery for the evening. I needed diapers, wipes and something for dinner….luckily a few other guys (the main hostellier Alex included) were on their way, so I hitched with them. Good thing too, as I would’ve gotten lost driving to this place at night. I got some ramen noodles for dinner among other things which we cooked in the kitchen downstairs and picnicked in our room. By the time we went to bed it was late-around 9:30. We were beat for the travelling, but excited to be in Veliko Tarnovo. This town is markedly different than all the others we’ve driven through. It’s pretty, it’s bustling, and it’s kept up with the times while keeping old world charm. Can’t wait to explore it tomorrow.