Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photography by Manos Angelakis and Barbara Angelakis
Ancient civilizations; mysterious cultures; remarkable art; spectacular natural scenery; mythical caves and natural mineral springs; friendly people; charming traditional villages; nine UNESCO World Heritage sites; great food and even better wine; and yes, I’m talking about Bulgaria. I invite you to come with me now on a journey to discover Bulgaria!
Due to its coveted Eastern European location, it is not surprising that Bulgaria “hosted” (sic) so many civilizations and its borders shifted so many times. Presently and for the foreseeable future, it occupies the Eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula where its northern neighbor is Romania with the Danube River as a natural border; to the east is the Black Sea; to the south it borders both Turkey and Greece; and to the west the Republics of Macedonia and Serbia. The Balkan Mountain range runs horizontally through the country and gives name to the entire region. In the south are the stunningly beautiful Rhodope Mountains where we spent most of our visit.
We flew on British Airways from New York via London and arrived in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, early on a beautiful sunny day with a real blue sky, puffy white clouds, and no pollution – due no doubt to the lack of industrialization which collapsed, along with the Communist regime, back in 1989. Driving the short distance from the airport into the center of Sofia, I saw a sophisticated, clean, modern city with wide boulevards and modern outdoor vehicular-free shopping malls. Towering above Sofia, and lending a pastoral air, is the 2500 meter-high Vitosha Mountain.
Distinctive architecture marking the various periods of foreign occupation - with a nod to Communist style buildings and monuments - also give Sofia an eclectic charm. Even our five star hotel in the center of the city, Arena di Serdica, was built over the site of a 2nd – 3rd century Roman Amphitheater. Serdica was one of the earlier names of the city and Arena refers to the amphitheater that was uncovered excavating for the hotel’s foundation. Imagine walking into your hotel lobby that is part reception, and part authentic antiquity open to the public as a free walk-through museum. Just about anywhere you dig, not only in Sofia but anywhere in Bulgaria; you are likely to unearth remains of an earlier civilization, with findings often dating back to the stone, copper and bronze ages. The earliest known Thracian civilization dates to about 5000 B.C., and then there were the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottoman Empire which was expelled in 1878, and for a brief time, until the end of WWII, Bulgaria was free. The Communist regime lasted from 1944 to 1989, after which Bulgaria became a parliamentary republic and joined the European Union in 2007.
Not wanting to lose a moment of precious time, we dropped our bags at the hotel, and left to see one of Bulgaria’s greatest treasures; the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Boyana Church. This Bulgarian Orthodox church is a bit out of Sofia in the village of Boyana, and is well worth the drive. The church’s frescoes were painted in the 11th century and the colors are still bright but the walls have deteriorated over the centuries. Due to the delicate nature of the interior, access is strictly limited, but waiting time is pleasantly spent in the fragrant pine tree forest surrounding the church.
Also in Boyana is the not to be missed National History Museum with its huge collection of cultural artifacts from Prehistoric to the present time. Noteworthy is the large exhibition of Thracian Golden treasures which are the earliest known gold and silver objets d’art in the world. Surely the high point of any visit to Bulgaria is a stop at both this museum and the Archaeological Museum in Sofia, which is the oldest museum in Bulgaria and repository of the Valchitran (the village where a large cache was unearthed by a farmer) gold treasure from the 14th Century BC. Many of the artifacts found were vessels for wine, not surprising since Thracians were very fond of the brew. Thracians considered wine a divine gift and it was lavishly consumed in order to achieve connection to their deities… some things never change!
The Thracians were renowned throughout the ancient world for their elegance in working gold and silver, and their expertise is unimaginable even in today’s technological world. Their ability to craft shapes and designs in the minutest detail is astounding and their depiction of faces … each one perfectly framed and different then the others… were surely sculptured from real live people, a technique unpracticed in art until centuries later.
The Thracian civilization was tribal in nature and inhabited a vast area in Eastern Europe - from the Carpathian Mountains to the Aegean Sea. They never developed a written language, and what we know about them is mainly from Greek historians, specifically Herodotus (484-425 BC), who wrote of their customs; religious beliefs; birth, marriage and burial practices; in a somewhat disdainful manner and heavily skewed by the more cultivated Greek attitudes of the day. Herodotus wrote of a brutal primitive society that “have many names, each corresponding to their state; but they all have approximately the same customs in every sense, except for the Getae, Trausi and the Thracians living above the Krestoni”.
Thracians believed in immortality and Herodotus wrote that the Getae tribe lamented over the birth of a child, loudly proclaiming all the possible misfortunes it could face in a lifetime while celebrating death with gladness and rejoicing for the happiness the deceased person would soon encounter. Then there was the Krestoni tribe who were allowed to take many wives. When a man died the wives viciously fought to decide which one was his favorite. When one wife was finally agreed upon, with great festivity she was dispatched by her closest relatives, and buried with her dead husband.
“The rich are buried in the following way: the corpse is kept exposed for three days; they slaughter animals and binge, mourning the dead before that: after that they bury him, burn him or just bury him in the ground. Then they build a mound and organize competition games, and they spare large prizes for single combat according to its meaning”. Herodotus was spot on; the famous burial scene from the tomb in Kazanlak depicts the exact celebration as he described it.
Putting my fascination with the Thracians aside, we returned to Sofia for overnight but not before walking through the old town on its famous yellow brick road leading to the massive gold-domed St. Alexander Nevski Temple Church. The yellow cobblestones (ceramic hand-made blocks) were a gift from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Tsar Ferdinand I on the occasion of his wedding to Princess Marie Louise of Burbon-Parma in 1893. The road runs between the Royal Residence and the National Assembly building. Sadly there was no sign of Dorothy or her dog Toto as we dodged traffic to cross the square - not to the fabled Emerald City - but to the very real and somewhat overwhelming Temple Cathedral – largest in the Balkan Peninsula. It was built in honor of Tsar Alexander II, who liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule and named after his patron Saint. It is another must-see in Sofia, along with the priceless icon collection in the chapel just to the left of the main entrance. Off to the side of the church is a small park full of souvenir stalls which were fun to explore and a good opportunity to talk to people.
Next day we left Sofia, for Villa Gella, a luxury retreat in the Rhodope Mountains and our home for the next few days. On our drive to the Villa we made a detour for Plovdiv, the city so-called “founded”, in 342 BC by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II of Macedonia. Plovdiv turned out to be a thriving modern city – the second largest in Bulgaria - with one of the most unique and delightful old towns to explore… if you can persuade a cab to take the torturous drive up the hill or if your legs have the stamina to provide your own transport. Luckily we secured a ride with a cab that looked, and drove, as if the kindly proprietress gave in to many a pleading tourist. As was the custom of the day, the original settlement was established at the apex of a steep hill for defensive purposes.
Plovdiv is one of the oldest towns in all of Europe – perhaps as old as the 6th millennium BC - and already existed when Philip conquered the area and named the town Philipopolis after himself. When exploring the old town take care to wear good walking shoes with thick traction soles as the streets are more paving stones then cobblestones, steep and slippery, and its easy to be distracted by the delightful Bulgarian Revival style houses, many well kept 19th century originals, with unique exterior decorations.
And for fun, have a snack at one of the cafés overlooking one of the world’s best preserved ancient Roman Amphitheatres. Unearthed in 1972 after a freak landslide, the ancient theater originally held 6,000 spectators; after restoration, it once again offers theatrical and musical performances with the same perfect acoustics experienced over two thousand years ago. And this is not the only original Roman still-standing building in Plovdiv nor the only reason to visit this city. Plovdiv is a candidate for the European Capital of Culture in 2019.
Sadly we departed Plovdiv and headed towards Thrace, the mysterious region that the Greeks believed to be the birthplace of Dionysus, the God of wine, and the Valley of the Thracian Kings, a vast area pocked with burial mounds, many of which are still unexplored. There are potentially priceless golden treasures and decorated tombs still to be discovered. We visited the UNESCO World Heritage Thracian tomb at Kazanlak that graphically depicts the funeral tradition for royal or noble deaths described by Herodotus (mentioned above). The original tomb is too fragile to accommodate visitors but an exact replica has been constructed next to it that is open to the public for a small fee.
From the valley, we drove up into the Rhodope Mountains, which provided endless scenic views as we wound our way on a two-lane highway around its continuous curves. After some time I asked if the endless curves had ever been counted… a silly question that elicited an equally silly response – “the locals claim there are only two curves – left and right”. After a warm welcome at Villa Gella and a delicious dinner, we were entertained by a traditional bagpiper who described the bagpipe as a musical form that originated in Bulgaria.
Villa Gella is a family run, fully serviced, authentic destination unto itself. Located in the hills above the traditional village of Gella, the Villa will be our base for exploring Orpheus’ cave know as the Devil’s Throat; the Rila Monastery; and for just enjoining the absolutely stunning views out the windows or from its terraces.
After a sumptuous Bulgarian-style breakfast we left Villa Gella for the one-hour drive to Devil’s Throat. Our path was through the spectacular Trigrad Gorge, carved out of the mountainside by the Trigradska River, which flows sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right, of the ever winding road…and always the rock face of the gorge towers above, often blocking out the sky, with its wind-shaped sculptures that captivate the imagination.
Devil’s Throat is a huge cave the roaring river hollowed-out under the mountain, so massive it could accommodate a large cathedral with room left over for the colonies of bats that call it home and terrorize tourists. Legend claims it is the entrance to the underworld that Orpheus (a Thracian Prince) entered to bargain for the life of his beloved Eurydice. The way into the cave is slippery and steep with handholds only at the most terrifying spots… all the while the continuous thunderous roar of the river cautions that one misstep could sweep you away. We descended past the depression in the wall where legend claims Orpheus, fearful that Eurydice was no longer following him out of Hades, foolishly turned, only to see her lost to him forever. This celebrated place is called “Orpheus’s tears” and there is a leak in the wall that mirrors flowing tears. Once we reached the bottom of the cave peering into the raging river, we were told a 240 step staircase would lead us out to the natural entrance of the cave… or we could simply retrace our path – with only 140 steps along with steep grades to maneuver… piece of cake! We finally exited the dark, dank, cave congratulating ourselves on escaping Hades wrath… too bad Eurydice did not fare as well.
The following day we drove to another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Rila Monastery, located in one of Bulgaria’s highest mountains and regarded as a spiritual, educational, and cultural center. The fascinating story of Rila recounts the life of a 10th century hermit called Ivan. Ivan lived in a cave and existed solely on herbs – some say he was crazy and tried to embalm himself – others say he devoted his life to fasting and prayer – regardless, he somehow survived his self-imposed punishment and began to treat and heal the locals with the herbs that had sustained him during his period of seclusion. Rila Monastery is a spectacular expression of devotional iconography. The buildings are painted inside and out with Biblical scenes by Byzantine Orthodox monks and it still serves today as a working monastery. Ivan’s cave, as well as his grave can be visited.
On our trip we visited only a small percentage of the vast riches of Bulgaria and we look forward to a return visit to continue our exploration of Undiscovered Bulgaria.
© July 2014 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.