Let’s get one thing straight. Bulgaria is much, much more than Sunny Beach and cheap skiing. In fact, our recent tour of central Bulgaria revealed a country of stunning natural beauty, friendly people, and fascinating history with exciting archaeological treasures from ancient civilisations at every turn. At the beginning of the trip I was still wondering ‘Who were the Thracians?’ By the end of the week I was hooked.
On the way to Ruse on the banks of the mighty Danube we called in to a small museum with a collection of neolithic artifacts from the bronze age around 5,000BC. Many were female figures – the Mother Goddess – with strangely alien faces, you can see where Henry Moore got his ideas from.
Top Gun was here
These bronze age Bulgarians had lots of ceramics, quite a sophisticated domestic set up, and their mud houses were cleverly built to withstand earthquakes, and to be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The local village seemed unremarkable in the hot August sunshine apart from the Russian MIG 21on the village green and a random unexplained coffee machine which looked a bit like the Tardis.
Not a phone box
We stayed in a small hotel in Russe with rather eclectic decor and were served small pastries with Nutella and Fanta for breakfast. The previous evening we had tried to get a drink at the hotel bar but after the barman systematically picked up everyone of the bottles on his display and turned them upside down to illustrate they were all empty with a bit of Bulgarian shrug, we gave up and went to bed.
There were some stunning buildings in Ruse and a small Roman fort and museum. (one thing I learnt from this trip is that the Romans got everywhere) I also had my first encounter with the Thracians here as they were big in this area.
A war like, hedonistic tribe, the Thracians were great horsemen with a fondness for large quantities of wine, women and song. Allies with the Trojans against the Greeks in the Trojan war, they wept at the birth of their children for all the suffering they would have to endure and celebrated death as the gateway to the afterlife. They worshipped the Sun and were accomplished hunters. They also fell out among themselves quite a lot which definitely contributed to their demise.
Thracian Hat Shop
Despite being impressed by the amount of wine they able to drink, the Romans and Greeks considered the Thracians to be complete Barbarians and set about wiping them out. They were however, master craftsmen in Gold in Silver and some of the most impressive things I saw were Thracian treasures from the burial mounds in the Valley of the Thracian Kings, many of which have still yet to be excavated.
In an action packed day we took in the amazing Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo which the monks carved out of solid rock on the high rocky banks 32 m above the river. They are famous for their stunning medieval Frescos, so well preserved, whose natural colours are still incredibly bright, despite being thousands of years old. Many are on the ceiling and best photographed while having a lie down.
We also climbed up the hill to the nearby Cherven medieval fortress which had stunning views across the valley and where groups of UK archaeology students get to dig up stuff every year. The fortress was the stronghold of the Second Bulgarian Empire’s military, administrative and economic centre. The town in the valley is still inhabited but thankfully things are a lot more peaceful now. Next we moved on to stay in a local village house to sample the delights of Bulgarian country cuisine…