29th November to 4th December
On the morning of Monday 29th November, after a night on the top of the Shipka Pass being rocked vigorously by strong winds and shrouded in thick fog, we woke to relatively clear skies. We stopped briefly at the memorial at the very top - another one to a major battle in the Russio-Turkish war of 1877 – from where we had splendid views back to Gabrovo, looking very white in the morning sun. We decided not to drive 15km along the ridge to the Buzludzha memorial, which loomed on the next hilltop, looking every bit like an abandoned prop from War of the Worlds – the Bulgarian communists had some odd architectural ideas – an instead drove down the other side of the Shipka Pass.
Shipka – the memorial church
At the bottom of the pass, the golden onion domes of the Shipka Memorial Church glistened above Shipka village, looking as if they had been plucked straight from Red Square in Moscow. Well, it is a memorial to Russian dead. The outside walls are colourfully painted with flowery patterns and the frescoes inside could have come straight from the brushes of the Pre-Raphaelites. They are late 19th century, and depict great tsars, Russian and Bulgarian heroes and saints, but we decided they could easily have been King Arthur and his knights, or even illustrations for The Lord of the Rings. It was when we started pointing out Gandalf, dwarves and elves that we decided we might be a bit churched out - time to move on to a different kind of monument.
Luckily we were heading to just the right area. A drive along the foot of the Stara Planina mountains took us through an area called the Valley of the Roses, where the economy is based on growing roses and lavender, which are then distilled into oils used by the world’s perfumiers. There’s not a great deal to see of that in late November and the village of Kalofer, probably more geared to having visitors in early summer, looked very sleepy as we wandered across yet another vast white square with the obligatory towering hero, in this case one Hristo Botev, looking down on us.
Kalofer – Hristo Botev statue – he’s the beardy one
Next we crossed the Thracian plain, on which different civilisations have left their mark. The small spa town of Hisar is surrounded by massive Roman walls, and we began to pass conical lumps in the fields which indicate Thracian tombs. Outside the village of Starosel was a large tomb complex discovered in 2000, and, arriving there at about 4:30 p.m., we decided that their car park would make a great wild camping spot – it even had a toilet and a fresh water spring. The detail of these Thracian tombs surprised us. We’re more used to the empty barrows of Wiltshire and Orkney, but the Thracians liked their burial sites a bit more decorative, and luckily many seem to have survived the centuries without being ransacked. Large stone blocks formed the tiered entrance and created a small arena where dancing, wine drinking, sporting activities and maybe the odd sacrifice, took place to the memory of the dead leader buried here. Inside were carved pillars and decorative architraves, some still quite bright with painted patterns. The valley above Starosel has one of the highest concentrations of these tombs, although they are found right across central Bulgaria.
The short oak trees that covered the hills around Starosel gave a decidedly Mediterranean feel to the landscape, reminding us how far south we had now come. Only the olive trees were lacking – we’ll have to wait till the next country for those.
Starosel – Thracian tombs
It’s weird. There are just some things I (Lesley) don’t “get” about Bulgaria. Like – why did their urban planners think huge, and I mean massively oversized, squares would look good in towns and even in smallish villages? Some of the ones we’ve seen make central Coventry and London’s South Bank look attractive by comparison, especially since these ones have been poorly maintained and their slabs of white paving now rise up to trip you or open into foot-swallowing chasms. They all come with the obligatory monuments too.
Bulgarian does go in for these huge town squares
It’s also weird how you often find areas where people are only selling one thing. On our journey from Starosel towards Borovets we found no-one selling by the roadside at all, until we reached the tiny village of Karabunar, near Septemvri, where there were dozens of stalls all selling the same range of honey, wine, jam and pickled veg. Then, driving through Belovo, we passed a dozen stalls selling mostly toilet rolls. Why not spread out a bit? Sell some loo rolls down the road? What does everyone do then – you know they sell honey in Karabunar so you go there to get it, or you make a special trip to Belovo to stock up on loo roll? It was after we went through potato land, around Samokov, that it struck us that perhaps the people who worked in the toilet roll factories or the potato fields were being part-paid in goods, and their only way of making money was then to sell them on. Now that I get.
Karabunar wine and preserve stalls
The Rila mountains begin suddenly beyond the old Sofia-Plovdiv road, and we started the climb towards Borovets just as light was fading. A motel let us park for free if we ate in their restaurant, and while in there we chatted to an English couple who have an apartment on a golf-course development nearby. We’d reached some more frequented parts of Bulgaria! The next morning the mountains had been greyed out, but shortly before Borovets we noticed that the cloud was now below us, lying as a thick blanket in the valley bottom. Borovets itself was as uninspiring as you would expect of a ski resort waiting for snow. The spaces between the giant hotels were tightly packed with assorted wooden chalets, housing the dozens of bars, discos and restaurants which will make up the season’s après-ski fun. It was a hive of activity already though, as a small army of workers laboured to prepare everything on time. A good layer of the white stuff will no doubt transform the place, but from the state of it all we were reassured that we had a few weeks yet to get through the area before any snow touches it. Strangely enough, just at this time our families back in the UK were reporting that they had far too much snow for comfort.
Our destination for the first day of December was one of the most visited tourist destinations in Bulgaria, Rila monastery, and to reach it we moved on from Borovets through Samokov and Dupnitsa, following a flattish valley skirting the Rila mountain range. We arrived mid-afternoon, in the drizzle, and decided to leave visiting the monastery until the following day when the light might improve and provide that “killer shot” photo that Rob’s always searching for. We drove past, saw smoke coming from a hut on Bor Camping, and arranged with the caretaker to stay there for 15 leva, for which we got electricity and a very pretty location, but not a lot else. The next day was even wetter, so we stayed put, increasing our anticipation of the delights of Rila monastery and giving ourselves time to catch up on “stuff” - like writing, using the clippers on Rob’s rapidly waving mane and generally chilling out.
Friday 3rd December dawned a little dryer and brighter than the previous day, and we set off down the valley to Rila Monastery. I (Lesley) had first seen pictures of Rila on another motorhome blog – www.theworldisourlobster.com – where Catherine and Chris provide an interesting and amusing account of their ongoing journey to visit every country in Europe. I’ve been keeping in contact with them and they said Rila was a “must see”, so we had high expectations of the place. Set in a valley high in the mountains, it has the advantage of a fantastic craggy backdrop, which, when we were there, was snow-topped. So coming round a bend in the road and finding Rila’s massive walls suddenly in front of us, taking up the whole view and looking every bit like a fortress, was more or less bound to impress. As you enter the gates, the paintings of saints and floral folk art soften the castle-like impact, but it’s once through them and into the courtyard that the awe and wonder effect really takes hold. I’m not sure what draws your eye the most, the stripy affair of the church, reminiscent of the cathedrals in Sienna or Cordoba, or the elegant arches, balconies, colonnades and covered wooden stairways around the edge of the courtyard, which contain the monastic cells and other living areas. It all fits together so well and has a mesmerising effect, which makes you just want to sit and stare. The frescoes on the outside of the church are among some of the best in Bulgaria and on the usual themes - Judgement Day, grotesque tortures carried out by bizarre demons, condemnation of village “wise women” (including a demon pooing into the cure being delivered into a patient’s mouth) and with a strong tendency for the baddies to wear Turkish costume. They are very similar to Troyan’s frescoes, which is unsurprising since they were largely painted by the same artist. The smoke-darkening of the interior adds a sense of mystery to the place and your eye is drawn to the golden iconostasis at the front, which is probably one of the most intricately carved that we have seen on our travels through Orthodox lands.
After Rila we rejoined the main road south. It is always in sight of high mountains, and where it follows the narrow Struma gorge, a line of restaurants and snackbars has grown up, giving us an excuse for lunch. All of them sold a range of preserves and pickles and thick lumpy ewe’s milk yoghurt (again, why all in the same place?), and we bought something of each type. Figs in syrup with the yoghurt made a wonderful desert that evening.
Details from Rila frescoes
In another stroke of good fortune, we found an LPG station willing to refill our Camping Gaz 907 bottle. The trick seems to be to present it with the adapter on the top, which gives the gas filler a more standard-sized connection to work with, and also to forget about LPG pumps at service stations but seek out the small yards that specialise in gas, that may here be marked ГАЗ or ГАЗ СТАНЦИЯ. We should have thought of this two months ago in Lithuania or Poland.
In Bulgaria, the Eastern Bloc drives on.
Shortly before the Greek border we turned off to go to Melnik. This small village sits in a narrow valley under steeply eroded sandstone cliffs carved by the action of the water over the centuries into towers and pyramids. One hundred years ago it was much larger and mainly Greek, but the Balkan wars of 1912-13 led to ethnic cleansing on a huge scale, and with most of its citizens expelled the town withered away. Tourism has saved it though, and today most of the buildings you see are rebuilds or new builds, and both sides of the little stream that runs down the main street are lined solidly with hotels, restaurants and tourist-oriented food shops. We decided to park overnight on the street in Melnik, which allowed us to go to one of the many, largely empty, restaurants in the evening.
Melnik is still famous for its wine and people come here just to buy it from the producers. We must have had some from a bad batch that night in the restaurant. It is not often we can’t finish a drink but our jug of red had a vinegar after-taste. We weren’t tempted to buy any to take away – well, not the red, though later we did relent on the white, after a tasting from the barrels in a guy’s garage which persuaded me (Rob) that it was worth the 3 leva a litre, which seems to be the going rate for most unbottled wine in Bulgaria.
Melnik area – sandstone formations
The next day we visited Rozhen monastery, some 7km further up a valley of sandstone pinnacles. The church and surrounding courtyard were quite rustic and frugal compared to Rila. The outside frescoes have been battered about a bit, though there was a very graphic Judgment Day, showing the righteous climbing a stairway to paradise, guided by angels, while sinners attempt to clamber on only to be tossed by demons into the mouth of a large red serpent. Inside the church, endless ranks of saints cover the walls, while on the iconostasis there’s a mix of richly painted icons and a more naïve style, with swirls of flowers which wouldn’t look out of place on an English narrow boat. A monk constantly watched over an icon of Mary and Child, while a steady stream of pilgrims genuflected before it. It is a copy of an icon on Mount Athos in Greece which, so the story goes, had once walked across the Aegean in a sheath of fire, and wandered around the Greek monastery grounds at night under its own steam. Make your own mind up.
Rozhen monastery - Rob and Lesley came too
The countryside hereabouts was very attractive, thickly covered in vineyards and in the shadow of high mountains. We noticed that some vines still had leaves, in December, and concluded that we had entered a new climatic zone. With that we continued to the border at Kulata and crossed into Greece.
This ended another stage of our trip, that of the ex-communist countries of eastern Europe which we’d been travelling through since Estonia in September. However, we’re not out of the Balkans yet – we’ve still got Greece to go.