Good bye Bulgaria!

Who needs Red Square?

It’s a travel cliche I know, but Bulgaria is a land of constant surprises and, on our overland adventure we were never quite sure what we were going to come across next. As we mini-bussed over the Shipka pass with our trusty driver Peppe, in the mountains we pulled up at the amazingly beautiful Shipka Monastery just hanging out in the forest with its huge golden domes and pink paintwork. It is very Russian Orthodox in style and was built to commemorate the Russian, Ukranian and Bulgarian soldiers who died in the Russia – Turkish war of 1877 – fighting for the liberation of Bulgaria.
The church’s bell tower reaches a height of 53 m and its bells, the heaviest of which weighs 12 tons, were cast from the cartridges that were collected after the battles.
It’s a fairytale of a building in a stunning setting and as with so many impressive things we saw there was NOBODY there! If this glorious building was in another part of Europe it would be swarming with tourists. Another short stop at gigantic lion guarded monument of liberty and we got a far away glimpse of strange spaceship-like building which was apparently built as a tribute to the communists shortly before their demise. Funnily enough it wasn’t on our itinerary..I thought it looked a bit like the Starship enterprise had crashed.

The aliens have landed


Our Odyssey continued with a visit to the stone tombs of the Thracian kings which have been found quite recently under a series of Burial mounds in Starosel. At this point in the trip I was more Thracian-ly aware than I had been at the beginning of the week see Ancient ancestors and awesome artifacts and had a much better idea of who this fearsome warrior race had been. I was even moved to buy a small book at the site entitled ‘Who were the Thracians?’
The burial mounds and their incredible treasures are quite recent finds, some were only unearthed in 2004. When you see the golden masks and crown and the great bronze head with the glaring eyes it almost makes you want to become an archeologist yourself.

Bronze Head of Seftus the Thracian king

There are lots of mounds yet to be excavated and there could be similar precious items underneath the others. There’s gold in them there hills.. Attached to the side of the South facing tomb – Thracians were sun worshippers – was a giant stone vat which could hold 60 tonnes of wine. The Thracians were big drinkers, there’s no doubt about it. The Thracian king’s giant head had gone to Sofia, but his fine crown of  golden leaves was in the local museum at Hissarya and it was very magical indeed.

If the crown fits…

We stayed in the Spa town of Hissarya in a strange sort of Eastern Block hotel full of elderly, impolite Russian Jews who fought over food at breakfast and bathed in the healing waters of the mineral Spa, presumably to cure their aches and pains. It didn’t seem to be cheering them up much. It did have a bit of a sanitarium feel to it with strange masseurs in white coats wandering around and taking people into the ‘underwater massage’ room which just looked a bit scary to me.The strange Eastern Block menu included a dish entitled ‘The Table Land of the Master Hand’ which we think meant ‘the Chef’s special.’
We encountered a fabulous boutique winery with an underground party temple where we did some wine tasting and then it was our final stop – the capital Sofia. A beautiful city which  has lots of stunning buildings all different styles from different eras and not very many people.

Designed by Nevsky (mostly)

It seemed very quiet in Sofia. August is holiday time for Bulgarians so many of them would have been at the coast but even so the entire population of the country is only 8 million souls.There are great stone lions everywhere in Bulgaria. Apparently the climate was conducive to lions many years ago and they were common here. We chatted to some protesters in the town square who had been there on a peaceful demonstration against the current government for 200 days.

Protesting pianist

The politicians are Mafia they told us. They are strangling the economy and making the Bulgarian people poor. One guy played rousing communist music on his upright piano as a storm gathered over the beautiful Nevsky cathedral and the huge bells started to ring. It was a fittingly dramatic end to an unforgettable week behind the iron curtain..

Just say NO!