A Travellerspoint blog

More than a Postcard?

Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria

sunny 34 °C

My next stop following my stay in Plovdiv was Veliko Turnovo, a city known best for its beautiful valley setting and the winding river around which the town’s core overlooks. These buildings cascade down to the water at an alarming height, with the lowest windows of any building often two to three stories below the front door facing inward to the street. There is no discernable historic center, simply the main artery that runs across the apex of central plateau high above the river. One end of this road leads toward the walled fortress whose area is enormous, crowning its own gigantic hill at one edge of town which is reached using a narrow strip of fortified land. The fortress appears to be almost as large as the old town. The other end of the main street filters into the modern portion of town which has a fairly non-descript feel to it, potentially even bland if one didn’t look past its utilitarian architecture. It feels Bulgarian though, perhaps a slight bit backward but grasping for a modern western identity in spite of its Turkish and Russian past. Again, this is the whole reason I came this way, to witness firsthand this tug or war – identity shuffle – as the Bulgaria is increasingly leaning to the West, joining the European Union and such.

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The old town has a rustic appeal once you wander a little beyond the center, particularly the higher up one travels from the river. In some backstreets one stumbles upon roads – more like paths – which are a strange combination of cement and dirt, unkempt with weeds seemingly swallowing up what little remains of the walkway. My hostel was situated almost at one of the highest points in town, almost as far from the modern order below as one could venture. Though the walk added unwanted stress to my quads, and saturated with multiple communities of stray cats, once reached the views afforded from the balcony made the trip of the hill two to three times a day well worth it, particularly at night during the daily fortress light show. I know it sounds quite tacky, but when you finally see it is kind of entertaining, if not impressive thought.

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The fortress was truly a majestic site. More archaeological site than fortress, it is teeming with remnants of stone homes which once sat inside its walls to protect against the Turks in centuries past. As the pictures try to demonstrate, it is so well positioned and fortified that it in times past it truly functioned as the core of the town – probably why there is no discernable center - the place where all activity of consequence took place under protection of any potential siege. That said, its modern appearance shows the ware of repeated sieges – up to the challenge but eventually succumbing to recurring attacks. In the center though, high up on the hill the fortress sits on, is a fascinating little church, rebuilt in modern style and displaying some surprising artwork inside. I have never in my life seen murals and paintings inside a church there were so modern, so abstract, so different from the traditional church montages and their conservative nature. I was surprised to find this deviation in Bulgaria where the Orthodox Church seemed to be well-entrenched and traditional in nature. Unfortunately I have no pictures but if you ever find yourself here, don’t miss its interior.

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Veliko Turnovo is also the sight of Bulgarian independence and where the constitution was signed. There is a small museum – as usual, quite an empty one – which recounts the struggle for independence, promoting the war heroes revered in these parts for their part in the Turkish resistance. Upstairs in this museum is also the very room where the constitution was designed and then signed, recreated to look it had in 1878 when the nation’s leader convened with Russian and Turkish envoys to officially usher in the Bulgarian state. It was difficult to tell whether this region truly was the epicenter of the resistance – it seems all regions want to elevate their roles, demonstrate their significant contributions. It seems every region has its story, valiant attempts squashed year after year until some breakthrough, or more importantly, the introduction of some new ally backing them with their own specific incentives – Russian seeking a weakened Ottoman state. It was a worthwhile place to spend an hour plus, though strange – but somewhat expected at this point – for a staff member to follow you room to room turning off lights to conserve energy once you move on.

Finally, I must devote a little attention to the river and the monuments built up around it. To call it a wind would be misleading – this is the truest meander (think aerial photo in geological sense) I have seen at the heart of a town or city, truly defining the entire geography of the place in a way which is quite fascinating. I spent some time walking down by the water’s edge though this is not something easy to do, really forcing a few paths and pushing the overgrown bushes and weeds out of the way to get some great views of the town from below. The inside of this bend here, the portion which looks out to the town which rings itself around the peninsula like plateau, is the sight of a museum and an amazing sculpture jutting out to the very edge – see the picture, its pretty amazing. The landscape – much of which is defined by the river – might be the most alluring aspect of the town, as more than the average place, every aspect of the town is defined by it.

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As you can tell, there was a lot to like about the town. Every step I took I was struck by the temptation to pull out my camera and capture the beautiful landscape before me. It would be extremely difficult for me to identify a more photogenic town on my journey, and I have seen some truly special places these past two months. And the town had its fair share of modern sculpture which has become a must-see experience part of my trip of late. But this is not a place I could spend more than a night or two without growing restless. It may be because I just came from Plovdiv, an eminently livable place which although perhaps not the most exciting place I have ever been it is one where one could settle and be content. Veliko Turnovo lacks the same depth, the same livable qualities that could sustain someone’s interest beyond the sights mentioned above. It is purely a tourist attraction to me – a place to take pictures, enjoy the cheap Bulgarian fare, and then move on to greener pastures. There is no magnetic pull – more repellant after seeing the highlights.

Posted by AAY 03:01 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Long Overdue Return

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

all seasons in one day 28 °C

Almost three months have passed since my last entry. I’m unable to offer a reasonable explanation for this extended period of neglect. I simply lost motivation one day and watched the mounting list of cities to write about grow. At some point the list became too daunting of a task to bother pursuing. That said, I did make a promise to myself that once I was settled in Madrid I would take the time to recapture the moments I failed to write about in the moment, more for my own sake so that years down the road when my memory begins to fade I have some way to recollect my thoughts and feelings from the trip. So, though I can’t explain why this morning I woke up motivated to begin capturing a month’s worth of my memories, from here on there will be a fairly regular effort on my part to complete the incomplete – everything that lies between my time in Sofia and the few days I spent in Athens with my mother. As all of these events have occurred in the past it seems this would be the most appropriate tense for me to use. That said, from here on I promise to avoid – or more so, try to avoid - any time reference that may hint at a three month lag time from the event and the time the entry was logged. For anyone who decides to read what lies ahead – happy reading.

Renewed Optimism

Departing Sofia did wonders for my spirit. It allowed me to finally put the camera fiasco at the monastery behind me and concentrate all my attention on enjoying my time in Bulgaria. Though I enjoyed Sofia, too much of my time in the capital was spent sulking over the loss of my beloved camera and fretting over the cost of a buying a new one. Bulgaria may be the cheapest country I visit, but that label does not extend to electronics. Times like those make me miss the States and, more so, my friends at Amazon.

Outside of stumbling upon some fellow travelers – three Austrians and a Canadian girl with whom I would spend much of the next three days – the short, 2 hour ride to Plovdiv was quite uneventful – and wanting of pretty landscape. Bulgaria’s geography often leaves much to be desired with most transport lines running east-west through two giant plains that run parallel to two enormous mountain ranges that extend almost the entire length of the country. Moving east to west therefore is quick and painless though crossing either of the mountain ranges – as I late found out – is a slow, time-consuming journey, something which is quite common across the Balkans. Mere distances are often deceiving, providing little insight into the true length of a journey and the circuitous route the bus must take through the mountainous landscape.

Plovdiv itself is a great place to visit. It has the feel of a modern and vibrant provincial capital juxtaposed against remnants of some of the most important historical periods in Bulgarian history. The old town sits on a small hill overlooking downtown and feels like one big monument to the national revival era – late 19th century shortly after Bulgaria’s independence. It is a very quaint and colorful setting, with traditional wood homes which give the area a small village feel in spite of the urban surroundings. Hidden among this maze of homes is a well preserved Roman theater facing south with great views of the Rhodope Mountains which loom over the city in the distance. This theater is but one sign of the city’s Thracian roots, though to be fair the remainder is more often than not a bunch of poorly preserved rocks sitting within some long neglected fenced in enclosure than something for which locals can take pride or tourists to visit.

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One of my favorite parts of the city (and to be honest, the Balkans in general) was many of the more recent monuments/soviet style sculptures sprinkled throughout the city. In particular, the hill of the liberators was a well worthwhile hike where at the summit one finds two monuments commemorating the pivotal Russian role in driving out the reviled Turks. Though the Russians have their own checkered legacy here in Eastern Europe, Bulgarians seem to direct much of their antagonism toward the five hundred years of Turkish rule which preceded Communism and remain somewhat appreciative of Russian contributions to vanquishing the Ottomans from the region once and for all. No matter how destructive the Russians were, the Ottomans have left a greater scar on the nation’s consciousness and their independence is inextricably linked to them.

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Last but not least, Plovdiv turned out to be a fun place to spend a few days because of the people that I met and some of the bars which I visited. The crowd of fellow travelers was diverse and interesting, the people who ran the hostel were fun and engaging, and the Bulgarians I met in town friendly, great hosts. The first night turned out to be somewhat of a wash because of the weather – in more ways than one, I have never seen it rain so hard in my life – and ended up marooned away from the hostel waiting it out with the people I met on the bus. The second night I made the decision to go out against my better judgment and ended up finding my favorite bar of the entire trip to date, this small wood paneled number with no name advertised outside, cheap Bulgarian beer on tap, a friendly relaxed clientele and though the music was a little hard for my tastes, all around great atmosphere. I met a Bulgarian med student who spoke basically no English – his name was Boris – and some fifty year old man who had once lived in Kansas City and wanted to me about my impression of his country and his memories of mine. We stayed out late with these randoms soaking in a great night with some friendly locals, closing down the bar early in the morning and delaying my moving on to Veliko Turnovo deep into the afternoon. That said, if I ever find myself back in Bulgaria which I will hope to be the case someday I made a promise to return to this town, to this bar, to relive some of the great moments I had here because it truly was an interesting place with plenty more to offer in terms of daytrips to the mountains which I failed to take advantage of during my short stay there.

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Posted by AAY 00:42 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Rila Monastery

Near Rila, Bulgaria

-17 °C

When I set out on this journey there were only a few can't miss spots on my agenda. These sites were to serve a guiding purpose in developing my itinerary, but around them I hoped to remain flexible enough to respond to a suggestion of a fellow traveller and stray from any defined path I may have set for myself. At the top of my list was Rila Monastery, tucked away in the the mountains of the same name, a little over two hours south of Sofia. It has been a site of interest for me for several years now, ever since I saw a picture of the monastery in a book that I read about the region. The monastery is perhaps Bulgaria's most treasured attraction, and thankfully because its not the easiest of places to get to, it is crowded but not overly saturated as I imagined leading up to my arrival. To get to the monastery there is only one bus in the morning, and one bus out in the afternoon, which given the trips length leaves one with little over an hour to enjoy the site. Even then, because of the great number of people on the one bus, the queue for getting back on starts to gather more than 30 minutes before its departure, leaving 15-20 people forced to stand for the duration of the return trip. Thankfully I was able to snag a seat in the last row of seats.

The monastery did not disappoint, meeting even my lofty expecations. It is set in the mountains, isolated maybe 20-30 minute drive from the closest town. I wish I was eloquent enough to describe the design and makeup of the place in lieu of a picture which I lack right now, but I am afraid I can't really do it justice. In brief though, there is a church in the center of the complex, which dates from the late 19th century as the previous one had burnt down, with colorful paintings covering most of the front and side walls of the exterior. It is then surrounded by a four story trapezoid like figure, the cells that the monks would stay in but which are now used to house many of the tourists who come for the night. I regret not having done this, 15 usd for a cell on the complex and all the time I desired to hike and enjoy it in relative solitude. Next time perhaps.

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Unfortunately I had a pretty frustrating accident shortly after my arrival. As I prepared to take my first picture of the day I noticed a ledge a few feet to my left and decided that would be a better spot to snap my photo. Confident in my jumping ability, I lept up only the snag my foot, falling to my side. In my right hand was my camera, with my lens protuding, the only crutch I had to break my fall. It smashed hard into the stone. The camera was dead. The worst of timing really but thankfully one of the fellow travellers at my hostel who had made the journey with me kept with him a spare camera, which he graciously let me use for the duration of our stay. I was able to quickly put it behind me and enjoy my stay. I was really surprised by how little it undermined the experience. The next few days though were then spent scouring sofia in the rain for a good replacement. The prices were outrageous. All of the cameras were marked up almost twice the price of what they would be in states, or at least from the many online vendors that taunted me as I read reviews on the web. Pretty disappointing but now I have a much nastier camera to take pictures with, so it is perhaps a blessing in disguise.

As for Sofia, it seems like a city with a lot potential which I unfortunately experienced predominantly in the rain. It has a small town feel - few tall buildings, treelined sidestreets dominating the center - which never seems to really wake up, no hustle and bustle. To be fair, I was particularly sensitive to that moment when the city comes alive, as I arrived at the bus station at 5am, sat in the train station until the sun came up, and walked 2kms to the hostel during hours when you expect the streets to be full of people heading to work, starting their day. But that never really happened. People slowly trickled onto the streets, but it never seemed like a capital city. I can attribute part of this to it being the start of August, a time when most european capitals slow down as people head to the beach on their holiday, but not all of it. It just seemed to more like an sprawling village with no real defined center, no central square at which people congregate. There were some monumental government buildings sprinkled in, with some fantastic churches on yellow cobblestoned streets, but again, they seemed at odds with everything else going on around them. All that said, it was a really nice place to spend a few days. I had heard very little positive about the place from those I have met on the road but I had no problem spending three nights there, and enjoyed walking the city for hours on end, even in spite of the rain. All in all, the average person might not see much charm here but I did, and expect to return someday.

Finally, I know I am behind a few cities and will do my best to make these up these next few days. Since last writing I have spent two nights in Plovdiv, two nights in Veliko Turnavo, and then one in Bucharest. I am actually in Brasov, as it will be my intention to really see Bucharest on my way back to the Bulgarian coast, as I head to Istanbul. So, expect either individual entries, or a comparative one, on the remainder of my time in Bulgaria. Then Brasov/Transylvania.

Posted by AAY 12:23 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Rejuvenated

Ohrid, Macedonia

sunny 28 °C

I needed a few days to recuperate after my first six weeks on the road and Ohrid provided the perfect venue for me to sit back and do nothing for a bit. There is a fair bit of culture here, with some beautiful small churches in the old town area perched high on a hill overlooking the modern city which surrounds it. Attached there should be a few pics to show you how peaceful and serene the location truly is, one of the church, and another of the lake from atop the hill. It is Europe's deepest lake and one of the five oldest in the world. On a clear day one can see across - a fifteen km distance - to Albania. Most people who I met at the hostel had actually come from that direction, tempting me to again go out of my way. But instead I used whatever free days I felt I had to extend my stay here, and really with no end in mind but to sit on the third floor balcony of the hostel, reading my book and admiring the lake view before me. It really felt great to be lazy again, to not feel pressure to see x museum or y church but to simply be for a bit before returning to the grind of the road. The people again were great, including the guy who owned and ran the hostel, a 24 year old Finnish dude who liked to show everyone where to go out at night, to hang out like one of the travelers most of the day. I even spent one evening out at a bar with three guys from Kosovo, and though I tried to limit the conversation about their home, I did acquire a pretty healthy awareness of what its like there. In truth, I now regret not having gone that direction. My mom just cringed I think. Anyway, had a blast sitting back, hanging out, doing very little, and putting off my next move for a couple days and really feel ready to tackle the next portion of my journey. It was sad leaving the former Yugoslav republics, but Bulgaria and Romania should be pretty cool. Enjoy the photos...

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Posted by AAY 02:17 Archived in Macedonia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Still Seeking Silver Lining

Skopje, Macedonia

sunny 34 °C

Skopje is not a city I ever plan to return to in this lifetime. Its intentions may be good, but there is little endearing about this dusty, modern town. I usually do a pretty good job seeking out the silver lining in cities which fail to charm tourists with their natural beauty. But my ability was strained during the 2 day stop in Macedonia's capital. That said, I would not go as far as to demand for those 48 hours of my life back. I'm glad I saw it, perhaps though it could have been in a shorter period of time. It seemed as if it could all be done in just a few hours, and from there I found myself simply pounding pavement in every direction to get a better sense of the gritty existence that is life here.

To be fair, much of the blame can be attributed to mother nature. The city suffered an earthquake here in 1963 which levelled 90% of the city. Its a case of unfortunate timing really - with the rebuilding effort occuring at the height of Eastern Europe's obsession with soviet-style high rises. What exists today Im only assuming is much different than what lied here before, rows of high rise buildings sprawling out of the central square. It makes one wonder what harm might be perceived forty years down the road if a city today was afforded a similar clean slate to start over from. The remaining 10 percent is fortunately some of the cities best sites - the old mosque, fortress, and original turkish bazar.

Where I gained the most was my time spent in the Turkish quarter north of the Vardar river bisecting the city. This side is more village than city, alive with action during the day and almost abandoned once night comes. It maintains an extremely genuine feel, vibrant and not tainted by even a speck of tourist oriented commerce. The market place is bustling during the day, with any commodity one might ever be in need of available for sale. Its a rare opportunity to visit any capital city and find it so devoid of fellow tourists, though there is a sizable english speaking community who commute to and from Kosovo. In a way it didnt feel like Europe, with such a strong turkish community, a remnant of their 500 year rule.

Anyway, I was very glad to move on to a more relaxing setting and have found Lake Ohrid to be a far more appealing destination in Macedonia. If it wasnt so far out of the way, I'd suggest you all come to visit this place. But then you would have to spend a few hours in Skopje. Proceed at your own risk. At least I have done my part, you have be warned. I have never had dirtier feet in my life. Its a dust bowl.

View from Fortress, Across Vardar River, of Modern Skopje:

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Couple Interesting Encounters:

I arrived in Skopje on what ended up being a 14 hour night train through the Serbian countryside. The trip was quite eventful, spent talking with two extremely friendly Serbian guys who represented such different sides of the spectrum of your average Serb. One was from Novi Sad, a city two hours north of Belgrade. He was a teacher, quite religious, and on his way to volunteer in Greece for the next month. The other was a young guy from Belgrade, who drilled me for a long time about the nightlife in NY even after I explained to him that I had little info to offer. He was typical Belgrade guy in his mid 20s, stylish tight clothes who loved house music and was off to party in Greece with some friends.

At about 2 in the morning another man entered our compartment. I'd presume him to be about 45, and a self proclaimed Serbian peasant. For the next several hours the two younger guys took turns doing a rough translation of his ongoing monologue, apparently including serbian swear words every 5th word or so. He loved that I was American, and would not stop handing me his 2 liter beer which I reluctantly took in hand, sipped, and passed back. Must have had half of it by the time we finally went to bed. He even gave me a present on the way out, a gag gift that is a license to drink which he made, in Serbian of course. Quite the experience, very interesting guy, who brought the house down for a couple hours.

Next I arrived in Skopje with little more than a street address on how to get to my hostel, thinking that it would not be so hard to ask and then find it. Well, apparently street names change here every fifth day, leaving me ready to succumb to the line of taxis salivating for the chance to overcharge me, when low and behold, a jehovah witness recognizes my being lost, asks if I need help, and proceeds to walk me the fifteen minutes to the hostel, asking every policeman and store clerk in sight if we were on the right track. Great guy, didnt even preach to me in fact, though we spoke briefly of the philosophy. I just might show these people a little more love when confronted with them in the future.

Finally, my nemesis in Skopje was a young Norwegian electrian named Laurus. He latched on quickly at the hostel, and somehow suckered me into making him dinner alongside mine. I finally left his pasta to cool off, refusing to poor the sauce on for him, bc he was so reluctant to take part in the cooking. Even after I washed the dishes. But more so, he could not resist using the word in america before any of the thousand generalizations he made in our time together and hanging out with this czech dude. He was often wrong to, and we finally got into a debate about Norways welfare state as I defended the virtue of the American way. Worse yet, I ran into in my next hostel and endured another night of him. Awful..

Posted by AAY 07:59 Archived in Macedonia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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