Sunday, 23 August 2009

Veliko Tarnovo

Monday 24 August: Ancient capital and fortress town of Veliko Tarnovo, complete wıth hilltop church and execution rock where traitors took the plunge down to the meandering loops of the Yantra River gorge below. Picked up from station by Toshe from Hiker's Hostel in his gas-powered Peugeot Partner car (19th mode of transport).
Fun evening watching the castle sound and light show from the hostel balcony with two beer-swilling Hungarian bikers, the cheery one with the unforgettable name of Attila, Maria, the day receptionist and Dyanna, the night one. Like an episode from Men Behaving Badly - we drank the place dry, almost. Snippets of conversation follow. Dyanna on the subject of names: "My name is Deeanna, not like Lady Dianna, it's a man's name". Me on the subject of girls "I love the sexy way Bulgarian girls say yes" (a lazy sheepish-like swaying shake of the head from left to right) to the agreement of all the guys. Maria: "They also say no!" (demonstrating wıth a sharp backward nod of the head), laughter all round. Atilla on the subject of Guinness "If I wanted a drink that tasted like coffee, I'd drink coffee". Maria: "I will be back tomorrow morning to make coffee for your hangovers". Dyanna on the subject of bribe-taking traffic police: "Beggars in uniform". Maria next day looking in the fridge, disgusted but laughing: "Aagh - you have left only milk!".
Next day short 9 mile hike from hostel along the escarpment to Preobrazhenski Monastery where falling boulders 'miraculously' split apart to avoid hitting the monastery or the bee-keeping monks.
Pictures of Veliko Tarnavo. East agaın by prıvate bus to Varna and the sea.


Thursday 20 August: Bulgaria's cultured second city, Plovdiv, with ancient Thracian and Roman remains as well as Revival-period architecture, house museums and great art galleries in cobbled old hilltop town.
Roman amphitheatre, now a city icon, is remarkable as it was only rediscovered after a freak landslip in 1972. The municipal Cıty Art Gallery shows the typical broad confident Autumnal brushstrokes of a master, Vladimir Dimitrov. Not one of his . . . 'The Mad Woman' reminded me of an ex-gırlfriend. Philipopolis, opposite, encourages photography and both the furnishings and temporary exhibits reflect the quality of the paintings. Vladimir Dimitrov's works prevail but, amongst others, Dimitar Kazakov's Figure Composition and Mihail Lyutov's Railway Station have traveller appeal. Below, the contemporary gallery has modern depictions of old religious themes and the outdoor Red Pony Gallery, up the hill, also sells artworks.
Spotted a cellar own-brew bar from the street wıth real lager but it lacked atmosphere, Naylona bar packed with atmosphere but lacked decent beer. Plovdiv Guesthouse in the heart of the old town, just 18 lv (9 euro) for B&B. Click Plovdiv for photograph art show. Train northeast to Veliko Tarnavo.

Rila and Pirin Mountains

Saturday 15 August: direct 10:20am bus from Sofia's southern Ovcha Kupel bus station to UNESCO World Heritage Site of Rila Monastery. Guiltily smuggled a bottle of Melnik red wine into my basic 52 'cell' bedroom and was punished for my sin by vivid nightmares of hook-nosed demons with chains and spears tormenting sinners in various stages of nakedness. See my photos of Rila Monastery. Glad to board the bus from Rila to Blagoevgrad (in Cyrillic script) and on to Sandanski's Grozdan Hotel (comfortable en-suite room with TV and fridge) in the Pirin Mountains.
aturday 17: day trip further into the mountains where I celebrated my birthday tasting wine and cheese in the cave-cellars below the eroded sandstone 'pyramids' of Melnik from where Churchill once imported wine by the barrel-load. Dined lavishly in Tropicana at the top of town, Sandanski, to finish off a good day.
Next morning on to ski resort of Bansco, chock-full of mehanas or traditional-style taverns, for a bit of gentle hiking on the heavily-forested lower slopes of the Pirins, but difficult without a guide as 1:50,000 maps show ski-runs but not footpaths - a lot of bloody use in the Summer. Then eastward once again and over the Rila Mountains by slow but delightful narrow-gauge scenic railway (18th mode of transport) from Bansco, via the Balkan's highest railway station of Avramovo, before corkscrewing down through numerous tunnels and racing slow-moving cars and a swift river to Septemvri for mainline to Plovdin.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Bulgaria: Sofia

Sunday 9 August: Compact city-centre and leafy tree-lined boulevards of Sofia with a great symbolic statue, cathedral and sunken churches. Colourful former mineral baths next to piping-hot spa where locals and visitors alike fill-up their drinking bottles with free mineral water. One remaining mosque and two central gold-domed Russian churches, one small and pretty and one large with holy icon collection in crypt. Russian statues too, now neglected and struggling against the elements. Museums and art galleries well worth it: Goshka Datsov's Dream of Mary Magdalene shockingly, almost pornographic. Also, changing of the guard ceremony, every hour, on the hour, a real crowd pleaser.
Day trip by marshroutki (17th mode of transport), city minibus 21 to Boyana. Tiny Boyana Church with two layers of murals inside. The earlier 1259 layer showing static figures and the top one depicting animated figures. Nearby the National Museum of History has hordes of Thracian gold treasure including drinking goblets in the shape of animal heads.
Sofia very laid-back in August, like a Sunday every day. Great little microbrewery pub Pri Kmeta just north-west the large Russian Aleksander Nevski Church for a bite to eat with dippy English girl, Julia, and a jug or two of delicious dark 'unfiltered' real ale at about 1.5 euro a pint - Nazdrave! (Julie who spent two days washing and caring for a tiny, abandoned flea-bitten, worm-ridden kitten on death row - hope she survived).
See my photos of Sofia and away-day to see Bulgarian National Revival-period house architecture in Koprivshtitsa heritage village where the disastrous but ultimately successful 1878 April Uprising, against the Turkish 'yoke' began.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009


Sunday 2 August: Belgrade - not only a change from Catholicism to Serbian Orthodox and from Roman alphabet to Cyrillic script but also from the Kuna to the Dinara and to suddenly to much more affordable prices. Overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers Kalemagdan Citadel, or Belgrade Fortress, remains a popular hang out for locals and visitors alike. Uncool, or ultra cool, to take the toy tourist train (13th mode of transport) to Belgrade Military Museum to see, amongst others, captured US prisoner uniforms and fragments of stealth bombers displayed next to small-arms taken from Kosovo militia? Rocking, reeling, rolling ride on antiquated, communist era, red number 2 tram (14th mode) around the city centre far better than the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus option.
Cultured, pedestrianised shopping promenade, Knez Mihailova is dubbed silicon ridge by local wags due to the quality and quantity of fashionably low-cut devas taking summer evening strolls. Better value restaurants, like Ima Dana, in cobbled Skadarska have more traditional musical entertainment. Annoyingly all the city plans and guide books maps are in tourist-friendly Roman script whereas in reality all street name signs are exclusively in Cyrillic.
The biggest Orthodox church in the world, Sava's Temple, the Bank of Serbia Museum (who say they will print any face on a banknote) and Marshal Tito's grave in Yugoslav Museum, by number 41 bendy-bus (15th mode), all worth the effort. The bus even passes strategic targets,
like the police headquarters, bombed out by NATO in the early 1990s.
Saturday 9 August: Couchette in dilapidated but clean 9:15pm Balkan Express (16th mode) from Belgrade to Sofia.
Photos of Zagreb and day trip to Novo Sad.