Unexpected Opportunities in Bulgaria: the Rila Monastery and Plovdiv

CNN anchor talking about the volcano - or about to eat Iceland

Going to Bulgaria and only seeing Sofia is a crime, in my book – Plovdiv and the Rila Monastery prove my point.  Sofia has some of the key sites to see in Bulgaria for sure but it is only but a fraction of what a visitor should experience.  I did not have ample time to travel around Bulgaria but wish I had been able to.  I hear folks in the smaller towns are very hospitable and that the natural beauty of the countryside and the large number of monasteries and churches around the country are worth seeing.  And let’s not forget wineries!

Our time was limited in Bulgaria since we were there for a wedding but was expanded courtesy of the volcano in Iceland that shall not be called by its name.

CNN anchor talking about the volcano – or about to eat Iceland

That presented us with an unexpected opportunity…  So we decided to explore more of this interesting Eastern European country!

Side street in old Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Side street in old Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery

Since our time was limited, we made the Rila Monastery our top priority for being the largest monastery in Bulgaria and being a beautiful one in a beautiful location, about 73 (117 km) miles from Sofia in the valley of the Rilska River and at an altitude of over 3,700 ft (1,100m +).

We got a car and a driver as we did not have time to figure out other logistics given how busy we had been with the wedding events.  This allowed us to recover from the wedding party the night before but also to soak in the scenery.  We drove past apple orchards (I had never seen one) and small towns on our way to enter the Rila Mountains area where the monastery is nestled in.  This part of the drive was simply beautiful full of green and tracking the river most of the way.  With the snowmelt from the mountains, the river was fast and it was a sight to behold.

We arrived at the monastery and seeing it blew us away.  What an incredible structure!  It is not ancient (reconstructed in the 1830s; the tower dates from the 14th century) but the site has been in use for centuries as a monastery.  St. Ivan of Rila lived in a cave about an hour’s walk away from the monastery many centuries before.   One can make the hike to the cave and it surely is a beautiful walk through the forest but we didn’t have time to do that…

Inside the monastery’s courtyard is a beautiful church.  Its architecture seems an interesting mix of what I understand Orthodox church architecture to be but also with elements that reminded me of the Mezquita de Córdoba in Spain (and, thereby, of Arab architecture as in the columns and arcs on the perimeter of the church).

Rila Monastery church in Bulgaria

Rila Monastery church in Bulgaria

Rila Monastery church portico ceiling

Church’s portico ceiling

Old tower at the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

The old tower

Rila Monastery hallway in Bulgaria

Around the halls of monastery

Plovdiv

As we looked into how to spend an our final day in Bulgaria, Plovdiv was brought to our attention as worth seeing so, since it wasn’t far from Sofia (about 90 miles), we decided late that morning to go for it.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city and has a population of over 330,000, was something unexpected to me.  It is a very charming town, with a large pedestrian area in the old part of town.  It has seemingly a different climate than Sofia and I do not mean just in meteorological terms:  it felt happier, livelier.  Not being the capital city, it didn’t seem to have the weight that title may impose.  While there were definitely buildings that carried Soviet-bloc stereotypical architecture, there did not seem to be much of it in the city center – I am glad they did not raze parts of old town, like in Bucharest, for grandiose communist projects!

Pedestrian area in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Pedestrian area in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Mosque in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Mosque in the city center

The city center teemed with life, people were out and about, and the open spaces seemed more inviting and taken advantage of than in Sofia.  To be fair, it rained most of the time I was in Sofia but somehow, I think Sofia is more of a “city” and Plovdiv more of a “town” where I give the town label a more positive meaning.  In the city center (which reminded me of Bratislava and maybe Salzburg, a little bit), there are some Roman ruins, cleverly revealed in the midst of the pedestrian area.
Roman ruins in Plovdiv, BulgariaThe hill (one of 6 around the city; a seventh was removed early in the 20th century) in old town Plovdiv is definitely a must-see.  It has some of the best views of the city but also some neat architecture.  It also offers views to excavations of Roman ruins and a Roman theater near the appropriately named Yellow School.
Ruins of a Roman theater in Plovdiv, BulgariaWhile some of the old buildings need repair, restoration work is evident in many of the structures, which are very interesting architecturally.

Building in need of repair in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Beautiful even it its disrepair

Home on the hill in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Colorful home on the hill in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

I wish we had known about Plovdiv before going to Bulgaria.  I would have really enjoyed an overnight stay to relax in a cafe and watch life go by…  If you go to Bulgaria, do not miss spending some time in Plovdiv!

Visiting my First Eastern European Capital: Bulgaria’s Sofia

Guard post in Sofia, Bulgaria reminiscent of communist times

As I wrote in other entries about the trip to Bulgaria, the main purpose of my visit to Sofia was to attend a wedding. Around the various events, though, I had time to check out the city, of about 1.2 million residents (15th largest city in the European Union as of this writing) by walking around a lot and stopping at key sites based on my travel guide and curiosity.

Sofia was a Roman capital, which belies my ignorance as I didn’t realize the Romans got to this part of Europe.  It also was home to a Celtic tribe before that.  And about the 7th century BC, it was home to the Thracians.  All this followed by probably gazillions of tribes, peoples, empires given its strategic location in southeastern Europe.  I did not realize how old this city was in its history!  But there was a lot of learning and discovery for me as I spent time in Bulgaria’s capital…

Churches and Religion

I guess the main type of site to visit is churches. There are a lot of churches in Sofia and out in the country. In Sofia, I visited the Saint Nedelya, Saint Sofia, Saint George, Alexander Nevski (the Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral), and perhaps a few other lesser known ones.

Saint George, a 4th century church! (between the Sheraton and the Presidency)

Cathedral of Alexander Nevski in Sofia, Bulgaria - Orthodox Church

Cathedral of Alexander Nevski in Sofia

I began to see that while each church is unique in its own way, they tend to be quite dark and austere.  I imagine this is as intended but being new to visiting Orthodox churches, that was a new piece of “data” for me.  The iconostasis, or what to be is the back of the altar area, was always unique and beautiful.  There were always icons placed around the church; the faithful would walk to each, bow, perhaps kiss it and say a prayer.  The faithful would also buy candles upon entering the church and light them as they prayed.  It was moving to see the display of faith.

Inside the Cathedral of Alexander Nevski in Sofia, Bulgaria

Inside the Cathedral of Alexander Nevski

My mind wondered how religion and its public expression may have changed since the fall of communism (a religion of its own in my opinion but of a darker sort…).  Regardless, it is good to see that it is alive.

Reminders of the Communist Past

Walking around town, you see a fairly modern and free society – and then you run into sights that remind you of the serious communist past of the country.  I recall reading somewhere that Bulgaria was more Soviet than the Soviet Union itself (well, the communist leadership anyway; not sure that all Bulgarians shared that preference!).

Office House of the National Assembly in Sofia, Bulgaria; formerly the House of the Communist Party of Bulgaria

Office House of the National Assembly; formerly the House of the Communist Party of Bulgaria

Art mural in Sofia, Bulgaria

Mural on the side of a building in Sofia

Statues in a park in Sofia, Bulgaria

Statues in a park in Sofia

Guard post in Sofia, Bulgaria reminiscent of communist times

Guard post at an intersection

Rain, Rain on My Face

It rained most of the time I was in Sofia, except during the weekend which was perfect since that’s when the wedding events were taking place – I can only imagine the bride’s concern at all that rain right before her wedding day!  The worst part was that water didn’t clear fast enough from the curb so when walking in narrow-sidewalked streets, you played a game of dodge of sorts…  Most drivers slowed down, if not for the common potholes, for us as pedestrians.  But there were one or two drivers who saw opportunity in the convergence of curb water and pedestrians… Evil! :)

Pothole (LOL, not from Sofia, just searched for a pic on the Net)

While it was common to see potholes on the streets, I may add that the sidewalks weren’t much different!  You really had to watch where you stepped.  In some places where the sidewalk was made up of square tiles, you had to mind that the tile could be lose and, if so, there was water under it, so stepping on it could also mean getting splashed even if a little bit, by oneself!  The rain did not deter me -or the locals- from venturing out.

Vitosha is the name of the main shopping street where only the tram and buses travel the roadway and which sort of ends at the church of Saint Nedela.  I enjoyed walking it and seeing the shops – and the folks. I wondered if people thought I was a local given my looks…

File:Vitoshka-with-St-Nedelya.jpg

Vitosha (not my picture!)

Because of the rain, there was not much available in terms of open-air cafes. I don’t recall seeing many places with that type of facilities, except maybe in Vitosha street. Because it is still a heavy-smoking culture and because I am no longer used to being around smoking, I was longing for an open-air cafe but the rain pretty much killed that possibility even where such cafes existed. I did manage on the weekend to sit at Flo-cafe across from Saint Nedelya and enjoyed a beer sitting outside. It was cool enough that I wanted to be inside but not too much that it was going to be intolerable so I opted for “fresh air”.

The weather did not allow for the best of photos but some of the views were still worth a picture!

National Theater in Sofia, Bulgaria

National Theater in Sofia, a beautiful building

I visited the Archeological Museum (across from the Presidency) which was as impressive a building as it was in terms of its contents. It was well labeled in Bulgarian and English and I recommend it if you are interested in artifacts from a long time ago.

Guards at the Presidency in Sofia, Bulgaria

Guards at the Presidency

There were other museums that I did not get to visit (National Art, Natural History) as I wasn’t feeling too museum-bound in spite of the rain which invited one to find indoor entertainment/activities.  Some key places offered info via your mobile phone and were so identified with signs like the one below.

Sign in Sofia, Bulgaria for tourists to get information

Bulgarian and the Cyrillic Alphabet

I walked around the Presidency, the Party building (former home of the Communist Party), and many non-descript sidestreets that allowed me to see more about real life in Sofia.  One key challenge at the beginning was figuring out where I was on the map. Most street signs, not all, were only in Bulgarian.

Building in Sofia, Bulgaria - neat color and architecture

Around Sofia’s center

As you may know, they use the Cyrillic alphabet which often but not always looks like the Greek letters we used in my science/math classes in college.  I finally figured out the value of studying engineering when one does not work as an engineer: it is easier to sort through Cyrillic/Greek alphabets when traveling abroad!! I would like to say that I can finally justify my engineering degree as it was going to help me in my travels!

Having said that, it was not cake to sort through Cyrillic but, I like puzzles so I kept looking up the letter “conversion” to my alphabet and kept trying to read signs phonetically. I think that helped me a lot as I was able by the 4th or 5th day to pronounce most words I read. Now, that did not mean I knew what the word meant!  But since my map used English street names, it helped me at least learn to find my spot on the map and then get to learn how to move about the city.  In about 3 days, I didn’t need a map to navigate around my part of the city as my sense of direction and memory allowed me to get rid of the dependency on the map.

Some words in Bulgarian are similar enough to words in languages I speak so being able to read the Cyrillic helped me out. Of course, I also made an effort to learn a few words in Bulgarian (to read menus, for example) so that helped. I did notice some French influence and I wondered how that came about and if it had always been like that or if that was a post-Communist thing.  For example, the word for “thank you” in Bulgarian is quite long so people just say “merci”.  Another example is that one can say “aerogara” to refer to the airport.  If you are curious on the Cyrillic alphabet and how it came about, check this link out:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrillic_alphabet

Impressions of Sofia and Bulgaria

I could clearly tell that Sofia was a capital city given all the government buildings around the area where I stayed.  The former influence of the Soviet Union was felt in some of the architecture though there is enough of other architecture that I didn’t feel like I was drowning in state-planned architecture (mercifully).

I was sad to see the state of some of the buildings and infrastructure.  Bulgaria is now in the EU but that is also an expensive proposition for a country recently escaping from communism that may not have had the pre-communism experience of capitalism other ex-Soviet bloc countries may have had (like the Czech Republic).  I could see that the country is moving forward but I didn’t feel unbridled energy.  A local told me that Bulgarians don’t like to see others “get ahead”, that they want everyone to be the same and that such mentality keeps the entire country from exploding in growth and new ventures, things needed to help lift a country to the next level.  I wondered if his viewpoint was skewed in any way but what he said made sense to me knowing that the country had been under a stern Stalinist model for close to 50 years.

I think the country is blessed with great natural beauty, a perfect setting for trade (it is at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East/Turkey), great climate, and a rich history.  It is a great destination should folks be willing to go somewhere different where the sights and “feel” of the city are not exactly those of the major European capitals or even towns like Tours, Toledo, Siena, Salzburg, or Krakow.  I wish I had had more time to explore other areas of the city and more of the countryside and smaller towns to experience it more fully.  But I am glad I got to get at least a peek at it and finally get a real picture of that country that seemed so inaccessible and remote in my childhood…

A Wedding in Bulgaria

Bulgaria, Sofia, national theatre, alexander nevsky cathedral, orthodox church, view from above, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Early this year, one of my cousins told me she had to go to Sofia, Bulgaria for a friend’s wedding and that she was hoping her Dad or another cousin would go with her.  My ears perked up and I offered that, if neither could go, I may be able to go with her.  Bulgaria, that’s a place I remember from my childhood, pre-Berlin Wall fall, as a very Stalinist-type of state (some say even more than the USSR itself), tight with the USSR right along with East Germany; a big mystery to me as a curious child.  Wow, how would the place feel close to 20 yrs post Wall fall…

Bulgaria, Sofia, national theatre, alexander nevsky cathedral, orthodox church, view from above, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

The Bulgarian National Theatre and a smallish Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the background

As Usual, Planning Is Half the Fun

About a month and a half ago, my cousin confirmed that indeed she didn’t have any takers yet on the trip so I signed up for it.  Cool.  Bulgaria.  Knowing not much really about Bulgaria, my mind filled up with the possibilities.  And there were intereting places nearby that I wouldn’t mind exploring… Macedonia, Serbia, Romania.  Could I fit something else in the trip…  (Oh, and how would it be not only with a place whose language I didn’t speak but also with an alphabet I didn’t understand.)

However, travel logistics ended up settling the matter for me.  I planned to use a free ticket with my frequent flyer miles but the options were limited.  First, the miles couldn’t get me all the way to Sofia and back given limited seat availability for free tickets.  Second, it sure was going to be nicer if at least my cousin and I coincided on the flight into and out of Bulgaria to ease the planning and to not travel alone.  Third, the return flight to Atlanta offered the option of going elsewhere as a complement to the visit to Bulgaria.  While I had time to research things, I also didn’t have all the time I would have needed to explore 100 different ways to do the trip.  So, of the possible ports of departure from Europe, Copenhagen offered both a convenient itinerary plus getting to see a place I had not been to, perfectly meeting requirements!

I had much less time to research what I should do while in Bulgaria outside of the wedding-related events but I managed to get a travel guide and do some brief reading…  Fortunately, the wedding folks had connected all travelers with an apartment renting company in Sofia that they knew so that solved our accommodations logistics – always cheaper to stay in an apartment plus it offers the benefits of full kitchen, washer/dryer, TV with cable, and wi-fi.  Not bad for 26 euro/night per person!

The Wedding Events

The main purpose of the trip to Bulgaria was the wedding so I will describe a little bit what that was like.  The bride, who lives in the US, is Bulgarian-born while the groom is American.  The wedding, therefore, was planned quite similar to what I am used to.  My cousin was the maid of honor so that immediately placed us in the pre-wedding events (parties, rehearsal).  The bride picked us up at the airport and took us to our apartment which was located in ulitsa Gurko.  A smaller but busy side street in Sofia quite close to key government buildings and the key tourist attractions of Alexander Nevsky Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the National Theatre and other key sites.

Friday night the bachelor and bachelorette parties took place.  Sorry, I can’t tell you what happened.  You know the rule… what happens in Sofia, stays in Sofia…  Actually, since there was only a small group of visitors attending the wedding (and a couple of those never made it due to the ash-related airspace closures), the bachelor party was a dinner with the father, father-in-law, uncle-in-law and brother-in-law.  Since my cousin was going to be busy the entire day, the bride offered me participating in the bachelor party though I had not yet met the groom (and had just met the bride at the airport).  Knowing I had nothing better to do and wondering how it would be, I decided to go.  We drove to the outskirts of town to the Eleganza Hotel (a nice hotel in case you are looking outside of the city) to eat at its restaurant since the in-laws knew the owner.  The food and restaurant were very nice and we enjoyed good conversation (at least, those of us who shared a common language since some of the inlaws didn’t speak English; I assume they had a good conversation among themselves!).  I avoided drinking rakia as I knew it could get out of hand given how one of the inlaws was downing it…   It was good to meet the groom and his dad since I was going to be seeing them the next couple of days and I was very glad I went.  From what I hear, the bachelorette party consisted of spending a whole day in a salon, having some drinks and other entertainment.

Saturday was time for the rehearsal.  The wedding church was Saint Sofia, a beautiful church close to the larger Alexander Nevsky Church.  After the church, we went for coffee at the Cafe Vienna next door to finish discussion of logistics, etc.  That evening, we all met up at a nice pizza restaurant outside the city center.  I had grown to love the shopska salad so I had that and a pizza that I shared with my cousin.  The shopska salad is cucumbers, tomatoes, dill and a large serving of sirene cheese, a white cheese made from cow and sheep milk (or so we were told).  I think it was my favorite culinary discovery for the trip!

The Wedding

I got to the church 5-10 mins before it was supposed to start but, not seeing anyone and after confirming in my mind that I was indeed at the right place, I moseyed over to see the magnificent Alexander Nevski Church.  I was not going to have time to explore it in detail but at least I wanted a mental picture.  It is such an amazing church on its exterior yet quite austere inside for such an imposing structure.  The juxtaposition may not have been accidental, I suppose.

Anyhow, back to the wedding since that is what this blog entry is about…  Not being orthodox and not speaking Bulgarian kept me from understanding all that was going on but the ceremony seemed rich in tradition and a high reliance on everything 3.  The rings were crossed by a wedding party member in front of the groom and bride 3 times before they were placed on their final spot on the respective hands of the couple.  The couple walked around the altar 3 times.  The crowns they were to wear were crossed 3 times too.  The priests’ garments were bright orange and gold, pretty spectacular.  The bride looked gorgeous.  The wedding party stood behind the couple in line the entire ceremony.  And the guests stood the entire ceremony.

Petals were thrown at them as they walked outside of the church and a wedding party member passed around sweets on a tray in front of the church.  All part of the traditions and I liked them.  The greeting line for the couple and key wedding party members was held right outside the church before the couple did the pictures.  People brought flowers that they handed the bride.  An old lady was walking around the crowd asking for money until she figured out that her best strategy was to stand at the end of the greeting line right after the bride and groom.  It was hilarious and a good fast assessment of her market’s conditions!

The Reception

Before the reception, we headed to the Arena di Serdica Hotel not far from the church.  It is a magnificent hotel built on top of old Roman ruins (the town was called Serdica back then; I didn’t know but Sofia is one of the oldest capitals in Europe).  The lower levels of the hotel below the lobby open up to the lobby so everyone can see the Roman ruins below the hotel.  The cocktail was held at the lowest level among the ruins and with a band of musicians playing classical music.  It was a perfect setting for the post-wedding cocktail.

Sofia, Bulgaria, Serdica, hotel, Roman ruins, history, architecture, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

The basement of the hotel kept the Roman ruins uncovered – great ambiance!

From there, once the bridal party arrived and partook, we left for another hotel to the reception.  The hotel was in the city but a little beyond Alexander Nevsky.  The meal was phenomenal (I had a rabbit-based appetizer and fish for the main course).  Traditional music alternated with music I knew from the States and Latin America making the party quite fun.  The traditional flower bouquet toss took place as well as the local “bread contest” between the couple.  In this contest a massive piece of bread is placed above the couple’s heads and they must wrestle it from each other.  Whoever takes the largest piece will “rule” the household.  The groom won and I heard the bride say “I am not happy”.  :)

I greatly enjoyed getting to go to a wedding in Bulgaria even if the wedding was a blend of cultures.  In this global world, this will become more and more the norm but I was pleased to see local traditions will not die off any time soon!  Cheers to the happy couple!

How Ashes Changed my Vacation – Who Knew They Could!

Well, my trip to Europe was to be a few days in Bulgaria attending a wedding and then a quick jump to Copenhagen.  Bulgaria happened.  Denmark did not.  Ashes were to blame.

I arrived in Europe at Frankfurt where I was meeting up with my cousin and then traveling together to Sofia, Bulgaria.  Right before we boarded our flight that Thursday, the flight next to us which was going to Berlin got cancelled due to volcanic ash.  I remember thinking “volcanic ash?  that’s weird.”  A friend emailed me that I seem to escape chaotic situations (like the Chile earthquake by a day or so) since I made it to my destination before the airspace closures – I knew he had just jinxed me unknowingly!

As the weekend progressed, we kept hearing the news about the volcanic ash and the airspaces closing.  We started beginning to think that our Tuesday departure was not going to happen.  We enjoyed the wedding events on the weekend and we even took a daytrip on Monday (more on those things in a separate post).  But when we finally got to the apartment on Monday, we checked with the airlines and our worst fears got confirmed and our flights were cancelled.  Our flights got re-scheduled for Thursday.  In my case, my new flights were still taking me to Copenhagen via Munich.  However, the news kept talking about how Denmark was right in the path of the volcanic ash even after other countries were expected to re-open their airspaces.  So, I started working on a new plan to fly out on Thursday but via a more southerly connection spot to Atlanta.  I knew there were direct flights from Sofia to Barcelona, Madrid, Athens, Istanbul, and Rome.  I could book a one way ticket to one of those cities and then get Delta to switch my return flight accordingly.  However, another option was to keep my flight to Copenhagen via Munich but stop in Munich since from there I could also catch a Delta flight or was close enough to other cities (Prague, Zurich, Vienna) if Delta could not get me out from Munich soon enough.  I was calling Delta several times a day and I kept getting quoted the 28th or 29th as the earliest they could squeeze me into some flight.  That was not good enough as it was a week away.  I managed to get the 25th from Madrid but I did not snatch it and when I called 20 minutes later, it was gone…

The biggest challenge for someone in my situation (which was not the worst by far compared to what others went through) was trying to decide which way to go with things.  If I did not go to Copenhagen or at least to Munich with my itinerary, I would lose the unused portion of my Lufthansa ticket.  If I didn’t make it to Copenhagen, my hotel booking would not be refundable (I had gotten it with miles not actually paying but it was nevertheless non-refundable).  However, I wasn’t willing to get into Denmark (if I could even fly in) only to risk its airspace getting shutdown on further eruptions’ ashes…  I also needed to be sure my cousin had a good plan to since she didn’t like the idea of staying behind in Sofia on her own or of staying in an unknown European city by herself (I, on the other hand, was not too troubled should I find myself in that situation).  This all complicated deciding what I should go for…

Finally, I seemed to score.  Delta could get me on a flight to Atlanta from Rome today (Thursday the 22nd).  I knew I could get a $150 ticket from Sofia to Rome with a 2 hr connection in Rome so I went for it.

Tonight, I write from Atlanta, having “gotten out” of Europe with not many scars, outside of half a ticket lost with Lufthansa and miles lost on the Copenhagen hotel (I am still going to try get that refunded… no harm, no foul!).  My flight from Rome had a number of empty seats making me wonder how bad was it really?

In the end, my vacation got cut short one day but, on the upside, I ended up with two more days in Bulgaria.  Since I may not make it back there any time soon, I am glad I did get those couple of days.

P.S. – On my last day in Bulgaria, I kept hearing on the news how IATA was accusing European governments of being too serious with the airspace closures.  I was aghast that the airline industry feels that making money is more important than our safety.  Since the impact of the ashes was not well understood, I for one was certainly glad the governments were cautious on this since, APPARENTLY, we could not rely on the airlines to do the safe thing.

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