Monday, 6 December 2010

Bulgaria 1 – Nikopol to Shipka

25th to 28th November 2010

Sometimes, just sometimes, you get an instant good vibe about a place. I think that’s what happened to me (Lesley) on our first day in Bulgaria. I’d read a few off-putting things before arriving, mainly about car theft, corruption and being stopped by the police. We met an English speaking Romanian in Săpânţa cemetery, who warned us off the whole country, with the parting words of “just be careful”, but then again he now lives in Morden, of all places. Arrival through Nikopol’s newish ferry terminal on a dull November afternoon was pretty painless. The officials were very helpful with where to buy the vignette (one week’s road tax was 5€), and which side to stick it – when it says on the left of windscreen it means as you are sitting in the vehicle, not standing outside scratching your head looking at the front!
First sight of Bulgaria from the Danube ferry

Then, 10km out of town we came across a motel with a restaurant which described itself as a mehana – a loose term for a rustic inn or tavern. It had perhaps seen better days, but they were happy to let us park there, with electricity, a lovely hot shower, fresh water and toilet dumping for 5€, once we managed to get the fact across that we didn’t want a room - we had a room in our van. Rob’s all purpose Slavic was being stretched to the max already - it was all so much easier in Romania with its Latin-based language. We ate in their restaurant – tasty soup, shopska salad, grilled meats – pretty much what we’d had in the Bulgarian place we went to in Warsaw, watched a bit of their version of Strictly Come Dancing, drank some of their very nice home-made red wine and went to sleep feeling pretty pleased with our first taste together of Bulgaria. Of course, it’s yet another place Rob has been to before, on a cycle tour from east to west in 2008, but we were headed south and needed to research a couple of mountain passes before we went further – it being November with snow likely to be in air.
Muselievo - Kompleks Hashove mehana stop

We got our chance for research the next day on a free wifi network in a café in Pleven, which is a small city mid-way between the Danube and the first mountains. Pleven is in many ways typical of many Bulgarian towns, for what you see is mainly quite new, and even the old quarters only date back to the late 19th century, and it is also full of memorials to the wars and martyrs of the 1870s that led to Bulgaria’s liberation from the Ottoman empire. Bulgaria’s underground independence movement launched a doomed uprising in 1876, but victory came only with the help of Russian armies in the Russo-Turkish wars of 1877-78. Many thousands of Russians and their allies died, and are commemorated throughout the country in monuments and street names. Pleven has a special place in this version of history, as the scene of a bloody siege of the still Turkish-occupied town, which cleared the way for a Russian-Bulgarian victory. The centre of Pleven is built around one enormously long pedestrianised square, on which stands a ‘mausoleum’ – in fact a rather dumpy Orthodox chapel, with some austere 1970s-style brown and white frescos inside – commemorating the Russian dead. Around it old cannons stand as decoration, and elsewhere heavy gun barrels are integrated into park railings.

Our time in the café introduced us to two things about Bulgaria. One, that the Bulgarians love their cafés, and many seem to have a lot of time to spend in them in the middle of the day, and two, that heavy smoking is almost universal regardless of sex or age or no-smoking signs.

‘My lucky’ number’s two’: so sang Lene Lovich in 1978, and that is exactly the number of leva we paid to park for an hour in our next stop - the old town in Lovech. It would have been only one, but here, if it looks like a minibus it pays minibus rates. Lovech lies in the foothills of the Balkan range, where the river Osâm winds around a limestone ridge. Arrival from the north does not show the town’s best side, as you pass first through a valley of concrete housing blocks that look near-derelict, but beyond it lies an old town that, if not the best in Bulgaria, gives a good flavour of the 19th century quarters to be found throughout the country. The streets are narrow, winding cobbled alleys ranging up a hillside, and the houses have overhanging first-floor jetties and wide eaves that crowd over the lanes. These houses are typically whitewashed, especially if they have been renovated, as is often the case in these self-consciously preserved districts. This style is known as ‘national revival’, and was associated with the growth of Bulgarian national consciousness and political ambition in the mid 19th-century, although an outsider can see that it has similarities to building styles found throughout the southern Balkans from Turkey through Greece to Bosnia and Serbia.

Lovech - there's a camper van in one of these pictures

Lovech lies under the stern gaze of a gigantic statue of Vasil Levski, one of the 1870s nationalist revolutionaries who have been elevated to near-sainthood by the Bulgarian state. You cannot escape from him or his cronies Ivan Vazov or Hristo Botev. We spent a peaceful night parked by the river bank in old Lovech, and a glance out of our right-hand window revealed the huge Mr Levski towering illuminated above us.
Vasil Levski – he’s big in Lovech

The road south led into the Stara Planina, which is the main and highest branch of the Balkan mountain range. Below its heights lies Troyan, which had a pleasant location and vague feeling of a mountain town, but few specific sights despite the number of Saturday afternoon strollers and visitors.
Troyan town square and chunky monument

A few km outside however lies Troyan monastery, and this is a different matter. We regretted that no photos were allowed, as this 19th century building was decorated with some remarkable frescos on both the outside and inside walls. Although not particularly ancient, the frescoes followed the time honoured traditions in such things, and had particularly interesting scenes from the Last Judgement. Tombs were opening at the trumpeted command of an angelic herald and their occupants rising up to face the weighing scales. Tortures most horrific were being visited on those not lucky enough to be shown through heaven’s gates – presumably for all eternity, and there were gruesome visions of sinners being thrust by demons into the fiery jawed, gaping mouth of hell personified as something dragonic. It was good stuff and well executed by Zahari Zograf, who, along with fellow painters from the Samokov school of art, seems to have painted a large number of the Bulgarian monastery frescoes in the late 19th century. There’s also a fair amount of symbolism in his painting, referring to Bulgaria’s struggles against the long Ottoman rule, such as lions showing their strength, elephants their patience and an unsurprising number of the sinners dressed in Turkish baggy pants. This monastery was quite closely linked to the Bulgarians’ struggle in other ways, frequently hosting revolutionary committees led by Vasil Levski (yes, him again!) and involving themselves in the procurement of arms. Like other orthodox monasteries we’ve visted on this trip, this one also has its miraculous icon, the “Three-handed Holy Virgin”. Mary does indeed appear to have three hands, though we couldn’t find out why.  
Troyan monastery

The Stara Planina has some lovely scenery, and the high peaks were looking magnificent with their snow covering. We decided to detour eastwards a bit to enjoy some more of it (and reach a lower pass – the 1445-metre Troyan pass was still open, but Shipka at only 1185 was looking appealing), and after passing more mountain villages got to Batoshevo, where a Dutch website had listed a small campsite by a fishing lake. We found it, and after a call from the caretaker to the boss, we were on, with electricity for €8.
View of fishing campsite  near Kastel

Since we were camped by a fishing lake it was no real surprise when a group of Sunday fishermen turned up at around 8 a.m. the next morning. That was our cue to get up, although our usual slow breakfast and packing up meant we didn’t get going until nearer eleven. We had another pleasant, sunny drive through some pretty countryside, with layered cliffs which looked almost like natural steps coming down the hillsides, and rivers tumbling over shallow rocky tables in the valleys. The villages, while still ramshackle affairs with peeling paint and crumbling walls, managed to look pretty and we began to see quite a few timber-framed buildings, often with cob brick infill.

We stopped in Gabrovo, which had a few restored national revival style buildings in the very centre and a nice looking pedestrian main shopping street, but around which was another one of the great sprawls of shabby high rises which we are coming to associate more and more with Bulgarian towns. These ones almost all seemed to sport tatty, dirty curtains or blinds at their windows, which I (Lesley) always think is an indicator of the standard of the accommodation. Gabrovo also had more than its fair share of semi-ruinous factories and ankle twisting paving, yet, among all of this there were touches of grandeur. Of course there were the omnipresent over-large monuments, but also some fancy decorative lanterns and statues on bridges, and it made me wonder if it was all once shiny and new and they’ve just let it rot, or whether they’ve always built grandly amid the decay.

After Gabrovo we went to Tryavna, almost its antithesis, being a major tourist draw with a wealth of restored wooden framed national revival buildings and streets lined with gift shops, cafes, galleries and estate agents – this area is one which has gained ground in the holiday/second home stakes over the last few years. It’s very pretty, but mostly for tourists, nearly all of whom were Bulgarian on a Sunday in late November, and it didn’t really feel much like the rest of the Bulgaria we were coming to know.

To get to the Shipka Pass we drove back through Gabrovo, past a row of lorries offering hundreds of cabbages for sale (they do like to specialise in their wares round here) and headed up towards the ridge in glorious sunshine. Half an hour later, we were in a cloud (fog makes stealth parking so easy). A few hours later and we were being kept awake by the buffeting of strong winds against the sides of the van. By 3 a.m. Rob was moving the van to find a slightly more sheltered spot and we were wondering if the large, empty car cark at the top of the pass wasn’t the best choice for our overnighting place after all!
Anyone for cabbage?

Shipka Pass

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