Thursday 26th May 2011, Veliko Tarnavo
We left the pleasant but shadeless campsite early this morning and drove down into the town of Veliko Tarnavo. It has a population of around 70,000 and sits protected on all sides by the writhing bends of the Yantra river. Its setting is magnificent and the town alone justified a visit to Bulgaria.
The river cuts deeply through a gorge of sheer-sided rocks topped by a fortress and defensive walls dating from the First Bulgarian Empire (681-1018) Defensive battlements also extend to the cliff top on the far side of the ravine.
The day has been hot and humid so we struggled very slowly up the winding paths through the ruins of the ancient early city of Veliko Tarnavo known as Tsaravets, sacked by the Turks in 1393, to the Patriarch's church on the summit with its rather strange modern icons covering the wall and recording scenes from the history of Bulgaria from ancient times to the present day.
From here there were spectacular views across the ravine, down to the river and back towards the old town where houses with wooden upper stories and balconies crowded along narrow cobbled streets, climbing up the steep hillside.
We also looked in at several museums including a merchant's house with its collection of folk art and the archaeological museum with artefacts found in the region. As it was Thursday it appears that the museums are open free, but we were still the only visitors in both museums and the lights had to be turned on for us.
Down below stood the massive iron monument to the Assens, local heroes who led the first successful attack against the Byzantines and subsequently became tsars of the Second Empire.
The city has to count as one of the most spectacular settings and delightful towns we have discovered during our travels. It was once the capital of Bulgaria, of comparable importance to Constantinople, but lost out to Sofia when the new capital was established after Bulgaria's independence around 1879.
We also explored the modern city with its smart shops and tree-lined streets. Cafes had pleasant terraces that looked down onto the old town and the river snaking between green and bushy banks. For lunch we discovered a shady terrace overlooking the gorge serving Bulgarian food – pork braised with creamed mushrooms and roast potatoes.
We descended the long road from the entrance of the Tsaravets to the Church of the Forty Martyrs down by the bridge over the Yantra. Our guidebook had led us to believe that there was a library of medieval manuscripts there. The church was indeed a very important monument to Bulgaria’s history. It was built about 1230, during the Second Empire but had been heavily restored. It was the resting place of several tsars, though the tomb slabs were modern. It also had earlier features built in - columns with inscriptions by tsars from both the First and Second empires and murals from medieval times. It survived as a church for some time during Ottoman rule but eventually became a mosque. It played a role in the creation of the independent Bulgaria in the nineteenth century, but among the rather sparse furnishings there was no sign of manuscripts. The curator told us that it was all the stuff of legend. There seems to have been a library during the Second Empire, but many of the volumes were removed to Russia by monks during the Ottoman period, only to be lost during the 1918 revolution. Other legends say that volumes were walled up in a nearby church only to be revealed after an earthquake. The Greek archbishop responsible for the area at the time, mistrusting the products of the Bulgarian monks, used them to fire the stoves that heated the stills used to produce his rakia. Discussions continued on the antagonisms between the various brands of Orthodoxy and went on to cover Tsar Boris III’s refusal to hand over Bulgaria’s Jews to Hitler and his mysterious death just one week after an acrimonious encounter with the Führer in 1943. He wryly said that the current economic problems facing western economies would have no impact on Bulgaria which already had enough problems of its own over the centuries. So our disappointment at missing the manuscripts was made up for by another interesting encounter.
We went on to explore the picturesque area around the bridge, in medieval times the home of craftsmen serving the needs of the Tsarevets and ended up at the beautiful church of St Dimitar, the oldest intact church in the city. Its elegantly patterned brick and stone walls date from the late twelfth century. It was consecrated in 1185 when local tsars, the Assens declared the uprising against the Byzantine overlord that created the Second Bulgarian Empire.
The sky looked dark and thunder rumbled noisily around the gorge. Humidity levels meant I could only walk slowly back up the steep road, still gasping for breath, to the town centre where we had parked Modestine. Half-way up, too far to seek shelter anywhere, the rain started, soaking everywhere in seconds and causing a flood of water to come tumbling down the hill. By the time we eventually reached the top and rejoined Modestine we were soaked through.
Reluctant to return to last night's campsite we continued along the route we will be taking tomorrow towards the border with Romania. This campsite is also run by an Englishman and seems to have developed into a sort of commune for strange, English speaking eccentrics including an architect from Barcelona with a hang-up about Gaudi and a rock climbing enthusiast who has taken to living here because of the nearby climbing facilities. The place is beside the river and is overrun with frogs which can make the most unbelievable racket! Hopefully they will eventually shut up for the night.
Friday 27th May 2011, Ruce, Bulgaria
We've had a full and exhausting day. The sun is now far too hot for us during the day and even at 8pm it still had too much heat and glare.
This evening we have taken a hotel in this really rather splendid town of Ruce on the banks of the Danube. Yes, the river has returned to our lives yet again. Over the years of our travels we have crossed back and forth in ferries or on bridges dozens of times in various countries. It has become a familiar friend.
Ruce is the last town in Bulgaria. Across the river lies Romania, so this will be our final night in Bulgaria. Our map marks several campsites around the city but they seem to be either fig-leaves of people's imagination or they closed around 1990 when Communism fell and the practice of spending your allotted holidays in a campsite dictated to you by your factory leader finally ended. Since then, Bulgarians have never really accepted the concept of campsites and they are only slowly beginning to emerge again, mainly down on the Black Sea Coast. So, in order to see the various places of interest we decided we'd find a hotel for the night and use up the last of our levs. This one you really can rent by the hour but it is far smarter, and the bed more comfortable than the one in Blageovgrad. It is also more expensive though we did negotiate the price down. Thus we have it until tomorrow for the price of hiring it for a couple of hours!
We were rather glad to leave last night's campsite. The frogs were still warbling away when we woke this morning and all the dysfunctional residents were busy being dysfunctional –fishing for breakfast in the river, preparing climbing gear or touching up their tattoos. The owner, Cliff Hanger (I made the surname up but the forename's true) had LOVE tattooed across his knuckles and moved everywhere surrounded by five dogs. He also had a huge Union Jack flying above his shack and drank tea from a mug with Rule Britannia painted on it. He seemed to spend more time rock climbing than looking after the rather scruffy campsite.
After heading north for 50 kilometres we turned off down a rural byway and entered another world. We were amongst the very few cars using the road. There were donkey carts piled high with freshly cut grass, pony traps filled with peasant ladies wearing headscarves and carrying wooden tools on their way to work in the fields. Smokey little motorised vehicles using lawn-mower engines and considered an advance on the horse or donkey, chugged along the roads pulling carts loaded with wood. There were horses pulling ploughs across vast acres of fields. How can the country ever cope without proper modern equipment? Huge fields were planted with potatoes and tomatoes. There were fields of yellow rape. When we passed through little linear villages women were out in force, bright dresses and headscarves fluttering as they hacked away together in front of their houses to clear the ditches of grass and rubble.
We were seeking out a mediaeval village deep in a ravine. We parked Modestine in the shade and, unable to understand the Bulgarian notices about the site, walked off along beside the river. Eventually the path turned steeply up through woodland where my lungs objected strongly to being forced right up to the top of the ravine. We made it however, only to discover three lost French women, also unable to understand the Bulgarian signs. We set them safely on their path down into the ravine and in exchange they warned us of snakes they had seen amongst the ruins.
My enthusiasm for exploring the hilltop site, overrun with snakes and under a relentless sun, rapidly evaporated. Ian is tougher but even he admitted he'd expected an inhabited settlement rather than a heap of ruined streets and broken walls. So we climbed up into the 14th century castle fortress with its several ruined byzantine churches. Here I wimped in the shade of an altar wall while Ian ran around deliriously photographing heaps of old stones and forgetting which wall he's left his sunglasses on. The views around were really impressive and it was hard to tell where the ruined walls ended and the bare, grey crags of the gorge began. There were hedgerows too making the air heavy with the scent of creamy elderflower. In the long grass there were wild flowers – roses, poppies and daisies. We never saw a snake though, no doubt something to do with us stamping and singing loudly to warn them off.
Eventually we returned to the shade at the bottom of the ravine where the river swept briskly through. A little stall had cool, covered tables beside the water and was selling meatballs and chips! The Bulgarian girl told us that she didn't speak English but we managed to struggle by using the unlikely language of Spanish. She'd once worked in Alicante. We all ended up giggling when Ian invented a Spanish/Bulgarian way to say thank you - "mucho blagodaria."
Just a few kilometres to the north is to be found a painted rock monastery, again at the head of a ravine. We parked Modestine under a shady willow tree, only to discover water dripping steadily on to her roof! The sun was shining and it was really hot but the roots of the willow were deep down beside the water. Do weeping willows really weep? That's certainly what it seemed like. I thought they were called that because they overhung water but this tree must have had a broken heart it was dripping so much! There was a puddle around us as it was dripping faster than the water could evaporate in the heat!
Once again we had to climb steeply up the cliff to an opening half way up the sheer face. Fortunately it was shaded by woodland. At the entrance we discovered the admission charge was surprisingly high for Bulgaria. A group of six Americans and two Bulgarians travelling together invited us to join them and together we all got in at a reduced rate as a group. They were very friendly and intrigued that we were travelling alone in a tiny camper van.
The cliff church was amazing. The cave had been hollowed out in mediaeval times, plastered and painted with bright frescoes of religious scenes. They were as fresh today as they were when painted some 700 years ago! There was a lengthy series depicting the last week of the life of Christ. The church opens onto a dizzying drop protected by a perfunctory balcony. We were reassured to see that the flimsy structure was safely supported by a piece of railway track labelled Middlesborough Bessemer Steel 1898.
By now though I was coughing and exhausted so we returned to Modestine and continued our way to Ruce. Just as we approached the town we were overtaken by a minibus, hooting cheerfully as the Americans of earlier recognised us from our GB sticker. We all waved and they drove out of our lives. It was a very cheerful moment though.
Ruse is the fifth largest town in Bulgaria with a population of about 150,000. Near the centre we followed a sign to this hotel. Once we'd accepted the room we both went straight to sleep for an hour. By 6pm it was cooling down slightly and we set off to explore the town.
At the end of the 19th century Ruse was the largest and most prosperous town in the newly independent Bulgaria. It prosperity was increased by the arrival of the railway which opened links to western Europe and led the town to develop an architectural style reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with many neo-classical and neo-baroque buildings their facades adorned with pillars, capitals, garlands, masks and statues. Many are well-maintained and the street layout is generous, with wide, tree-lined avenues and handsome squares. The main one and the first we reached from our hotel, Svoboda Square, was undergoing a makeover so much of it was off-limits, but the centre is dominated by the Freedom Monument, erected in 1908.
A few years earlier the so-called "Profitable Building" was completed on one side of the square as a centre for theatrical performances. It is one of the grandest buildings in the city, adorned with statues representing the arts and industry at a period when both were thriving.
On another side of the square is a building where the first cinema presentation was given in 1896 – Ruse is a city full of Bulgarian firsts. Another square, Battenberg Square, is lined with public buildings dating from the turn of the century, the City Museum, the regional library and a large school in classical style.
We made our way down to the Danube, lined with a grassy promenade. The river was quiet when we were there at about six in the evening, but is normally busy with barges ploughing their way to and from the Black Sea.
We returned to Svoboda Square and strolled along the ul Alexandrovska, the city's main pedestrian drag, wide, mercifully shaded by trees as the sun was still warm, and lined with elegant classical buildings. We had counted up our remaining lev and stotinka and realised we could allow ourselves a pizza with a salad and draught beer, which we lingered over, watching the Friday evening crowds. There were far more families with children out and about than you would see in an English town of an evening, several groups of young girls, aged about ten to twelve, gathering around the popcorn stalls, and the entrance to the nearby supermarket attracted a steady stream of customers. It seemed a town of people who could afford to relax and enjoy themselves, and a pleasant note on which to leave Bulgaria, a country we had entered under such unfortunate circumstances.