August 11. I had planned to drive to the Danube Delta in Tulcea but abhorred the thought of driving on any more roads in Romania, which were either riddled with potholes or so full of traffic that I was tempted to travel by helicopter. Changing my itinerary, I headed to Bulgaria. I was only an hour from the old Bulgarian capital of Veliko Tarnovo. I drove along happily till I reached the border, when I ran into a broken toll gate. I asked the guys ahead of me what happened, and they laughed and said we might be waiting an hour or two. Luckily, it was only 20 minutes. I’d gotten used to waiting in Romania. Once in Bulgaria, it seemed that the roads improved immediately and that infrastructure was more solid. It turns out I was in one of the poorest sections of Bulgaria.
I arrived in Veliko Tarnovo around 2pm and had a nice walk around. It was incredibly hot that day, but I was able to walk up through the winding streets to the highest part of the town, where I saw a cat who was frothing at the mouth and yowling at another cat. It seemed that it was blocking the other cat rand not allowing it to leave. Yikes. I wondered if it had rabies, and kept my distance. I’d tried to enter an Orthodox Church but had been shooed away. Then I walked near a house and wasn’t sure whether the road was a driveway, but the people ushered me through and yelled at their dogs to be quiet. I got a really nice view of the fortress from there, and planned to walk over to it, but thought I’d wait till the next day. I had a great traditional Bulgarian salad and headed out to get some groceries.
Then I headed to Bojentsi, 45 minutes east of Veliko Tarnovo near Gabrovo. Bojentsi is one of the few preserved villages from the period of Bulgarian Renaissance. Unlike a skanzen, where buildings from many places are moved to one location to create a psuedo-village, Bojentsi is a real village. I walked around in the fading light and when it was too dark, contemplated parking inside the village to sleep. But there were many guesthouses around, and I felt nervous about wild camping inside a village, so I drove out and found a dirt road leading into a forest. A bit prickly, but a pleasant enough bed for the night.
August 12. I awoke and returned to Bojentsi for a tour the some of the most important buildings. There was a bit of run around and delay as I was told to find a woman who would be my guide, who wasn’t where she was supposed to be. I was told to wait for another guide, and this one didn’t speak English. Finally, an English-speaking guide gave me a private tour of four different buildings: a school and 3 private homes. The houses and buildings in the village have been renovated to reflect their state in the 18th century. They are located on either side of a valley with a river running through it. It’s a wooded area, deciduous trees mostly, and the homes are built of stone and wood, with heavy slate roof shingles, and walled-in courtyards. The streets are small and steep, and covered with stones. The typical house is two or three-stories with a high lower ground-floor where home and business premises, warehouses, cellars and shops would have been located. Most have an external staircase leading to a veranda, from which one would enter the living room, kitchen, and bedroom. Most of the houses also have a large corner fireplace, and would have homemade wooden furniture and colorful homemade rugs and carved ceilings painted with various motifs. Other than the village homes, there is a church dedicated to Prophet Elijah and built in 1835, a school built by the villagers in 1872, and the house of Doncho Popa. It was nice because the houses I looked at were decorated in the traditional fashion, and I felt like I was really entering 18th century Bulgaria.
From Bojentsi I drove to Etara, an open-air Ethnographic Museum in Bulgaria, which offers a glimpse of life there from the end of 18th and beginning of 19th century. Unlike Bojentsi, the buildings were moved to one place to display the characteristic architecture, ethnography, folklore, handicrafts, interior decoration and design and the traditional costumes of the Bulgarian Renaissance period. I walked the main cobbled craft street, and especially enjoyed the mills and fruit pulverizers and dryers as well as the examples of the production of variety of goods typical for Gabrovo region, including blacksmiths, potters, coopers, icon makers, weavers, and sheep cheese makers. The craft houses face the street, allowing the crafts people (masters) direct contact with their clients. I especially liked the example of using water power to drive a bobbin threader in weaving production, and the drying racks for plums.
After a nice visit, I headed up the mountain to Sokolski monastery, which had been recommended to me by a guide at Bojentsi. There I admired the small church built into the limestone cave, and the steep precipice on which it was built. The monastery was lovely and quiet, and backed onto the forest lands of the Central Balkan National Park. After a nice stroll through the grounds and glimpse at the panoramic view, I headed to Plovdiv through the mountains around Gabrovo and Stara Zagora. I wanted to see it because of its history. It wins the prize for Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city. I arrived around 8:30pm and walked around the Garden of Tsar Simeon and admired the Singing Fountains. I got ice cream and walked until it had cooled off, then drove into the mountains where I camped for the night. I’d found a place that I thought was ideal until a van drove by. I moved, as I didn’t want to take any chances.
August 13. I woke and headed back to Plovdiv to walk in the old town. I knew there were Roman ruins, but had a treat in store, as I wasn’t aware of all the preservation work the former mayor had initiated. It was another beastly hot day – by 9am it was 85F. In preparation for being the European Capital of Culture in 2019, the city was sparkling with improvements and archaeological work. The ancient town straddles seven hills, and I was hoping to climb at least one for a panorama. I found the old town full of narrow cobblestone lanes and colorful and creaky National Revival–era mansions that are now house-museums, galleries and guesthouses. The main road through old town, now a pedestrian thoroughfare, winds through archaeological discoveries like the marble benches that were part of the stadium. I came upon a lovely mosque marking the Turkish presence (500 years of occupation, but whose counting). Further on, I saw a Roman amphitheater, and paid the admission to walk up and down the steep marble steps and admire the deftly carved seats. The lowest seats were richly ornamented, and the prosenium behind the theater stage was impressive in what remained. I wandered into a few house museums to admire the interior of the homes as much as the art on the walls. This is one of a few amphitheaters still in the use. The impressive ancient theater in Epidavros, Greece, which I saw last year, is another.
From there I walked up the hill to the Ethnographic Museum. I decided to pay for a photo ticket as I was tired of sneaking snapshots. Ironically, the woman who sold me the ticket yelled at me 5 minutes later, saying that I wasn’t legal because I didn’t have my yellow photo sticker. Annoyed, I searched the other rooms and found it. It hadn’t stuck to the gauze-like netting on my dress. I was reminded of arriving in the Riga airport in Latvia. I’d done due diligence and purchased a bus ticket in the airport, only to have an officious older woman (I was reminded of the communist era) yell at me for not validating the ticket and forcing me off the bus to wait for the police. I would have none of it. Angry at having made the effort and not being believed, I walked the rest of the way to town. These are the things that make me tired of traveling. The museum wasn’t a knock out. It had a pretty extensive collection of folk material but no information, so I took photos and continued walking. I discovered a wonderful mosque at the top of the hill which is now a restaurant, and felt like an archaeologist exploring its many rooms. I went into several house museums which had lovely collections of local artists’ paintings, and were beautifully remodeled. Climbing up toward the highest hill, I peaked my head into a courtyard and was beckoned inside by one of the artists.
He showed me his wares, and told me that the seed bead jewelry averted the evil eye. I wasn’t going to buy anything but fell in love with a lovely green and gold beaded bracelet with purple overtones. I had watched him beading and realized it was quite difficult. He was essentially crocheting the beads. Happy, I wore it out of his store and haven’t taken i off since. Maybe it helped protect me a few weeks later when I had the car accident. Who knows. I had a nice talk with another artist, whose Facebook moniker is Mask Bulgaria, the Black Atelier. He lives up in the hills and makes talismans out of fimo clay. A woman gave him some protective amulets from Australia and New Zealand. He commented on the jade fish hook which my mom brought me from New Zealand. I wear it to protect my bones. I was told that jade will break before my bones would, and needed some extra help in that department after a number of bone-breaking accidents.
Bidding him farewell, I climbed to the top of the hill and surveyed the other hills. It is said that old Plovdiv was built on seven hills. The old city is very small, probably a square mile at the most. On the way down, I saw a curious house and went to investigate. It turned out to be the house of the former mayor who had single-handedly renovated the old town. I felt like I knew him after gazing at the art and furniture he’d used to decorate his house. I wished I had known him. He’d started a public art gallery in his courtyard, and I wish I’d been here when he was still alive. He’d revitalized the town and made it a place where artists wanted to congregate. I’d seen the works of several artists that he’d supported in house galleries, and admired one more house gallery on the way down the hill, a sumptuous villa full of paintings from all over Romania. Reluctantly, I finally left Plovdiv around 2pm and drove to Sofia. It was a rainy day and I parked near the main square. I needed to dry my tent and aired it out for a bit, then searched for a place to have a latte and found a cafe which looked nice but whose coffee was questionable. On the way back, I saw a lovely kiosk in the park and met Anton there. He was working as a tourist information person, and was being visited by an Australian couple whom he’d met on a train to Greece. Anton and I had an interesting political and historical discussion. He’s a history buff and speaks English remarkably well. After talking for an hour or two, he suggested that I visit the archaeological and history museums as well as the orthodox church and Russian church. I went to the archaeological museum, which was in a lovely buildings, then walked on main shopping street and bought Bulgarian rose essential oil. I walked to the huge cathedral and admired the crypt which was completely gilt, then walked by the Russian orthodox church which had sadly just closed. Apparently the priest of the church was known to perform miracles, and before he died he told followers to write him a note when they had a request. I’d hoped to have a chat but figured what’s a few feet to a miracle maker? I made my request from the other side of the fence. At dusk I returned to the kiosk and told Anton about my day. He was closing up, and I met his friend who’s currently studying in London and hopes to make a trip to the US.
I left Sofia for Serbia around 7pm. In retrospect it was a mistake, as I had to wait two hours at the border in a kind of chaotic hell surrounded by angry drivers honking and revving their engines nonstop. I had hoped to find a camping spot before the river canyon a few miles from Nis, but everything looked shabby and dilapidated in the darkness. I drove to a memorial on a hill near Nis which some girls said was a safe place to camp. Within minutes of my arrival, some young men drove up and started doing wheelies and blasting tunes till 2 or 3 am. Afraid, I drove down a bike path of sorts in an attempt to conceal my whereabouts, and slept pin the locked car. The next morning I got a thorn in my foot the next morning which bothered me for a week until it finally made its way out.