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Entries in Bulgaria (2)

Tuesday
Apr042006

Back on the Bosfori

I am on the Bosfori Express, headed back to Istanbul. I said goodbye to Andy and Katho and now I am travelling by myself again.


We had a really good day exploring Veliko Tarnovo together. Last night we finished up with a few beers on the balcony of Hikers Hostel (the three of us were the only ones staying there at the moment) and chatting to the guy who works there (he said he is incredibly bored at work with no one there). We had a view of the castle and watched the sound and light show.


Andy said he expected more lasers.


A good night's sleep and a nice shower work wonders, and this morning I was ready to look around.


We walked down to the Tsarvets Fort and as we walked in the gates Katho and I were disgusted by the hideous contraption that played piped medieval music and had corney moving dummies of the King and Queen inviting us to explore. Andy said that it was enchanting, and better than Katho's favourite ride at Disneyland.


The fort is very large, an entire hill walled off, enclosing the ruins of 400 houses and a score of churches. We walked along the walls to Baldwin's Tower, climbed through the ruins, saw lizards scurrying and the execution rock. the most bizarre was the 1000+ year old Patriarch’s Church in the centre, which was restored ten years ago and turned into a museum. During the restoration they covered the inside with bizarre paintings, a dark and twisted modern depiction of the bible, closer to the 'Scream' than to religious paintings.


After Tsarvets we caught a taxi to the nearby town of Ammervasi, where we wandered around and saw the Nativity Church, unusual because it was built during Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria, and they insisted on no dome or cross, and the building had to be lower than a Turkish solider on a horse holding up his sword. To make up for the low long building, they covered the inside with paintings, thousands covering the surface from the Old and New Testaments and of saints. The paintings are unique in their deviations from orthodox traditions, and some are heretical, such as a wheel of life hinting at reincarnation, and the unusual depictions of god.


We took a nature walk back from Ammernasi to Veliko Tarnovo. Katho was sad that a bear cub didn't jump out and attack her with hugs during the walk. We saw St Dimitri's church, where the rebellion to start the second Bulgarian Empire was started, and had an excellent dinner before I had to leave.



Monday
Apr032006

Bosfori Express

Last night was my last in Istanbul. Goodbye to Michelle, the last of my friends to leave. Goodbye to Tamara, a wonderful new friend. She gave me her Lemony Snicket badge to give me good luck, which was really sweet, and walked me to the train station to wave me goodbye at the station.


At the Istanbul train station:


Could I please get a ticket to Veliko Tarnovo?

Oh no, the Bosfori Express line is being fixed, it is not going to Veliko Tarnovo for a month or so.

It gets as far as Dimitrovgrad or Stara Zagora.

Can I get to Veliko Tarnovo from there?

*shrugs* Who knows? It is Bulgaria.



So I hop on the Bosfori Express with Andy and Katho (Ruth decides that it is pushing it too much for her return to Istanbul), into a beautiful three-bedroom sleeper room. Fake wood lining, sheets and blankets, a small cabinet with a mirror, the train is deluxe. I sleep on the top bunk, and strap myself in to not fall out (remembering people with bunk-bed confidence due to a bunk full of toys). About three in the morning we are woken up to hop off the train, emigrate from Turkey, then keep on going. The Bulgarians are kind enough to do their passport control on the train.


This morning I wake up to knocking at the door - "Stara Zagora". We pack our bags and hop off in a city (the third largest in Bulgaria) that none of us had ever heard of. At the train station they sell us tickets to Veliko Tarnovo with no issues, and we wander off for breakfast (pizza and fruit salad). We all have a favourable impression of Bulgaria at this stage, enjoy a slow breakfast and wander back down to the train.


A three hour train to Veliko Tarnovo is charming, with a kind Bulgarian lady showing us to the train, then sharing a compartment with us. She talks to us in English, and looks like us when we don't understand. When Katho looks up "thank you" in Bulgarian she beams at us. A young guy hops on, she talks rapidly to him, and he turns to us and says "I can speak English no problems". He is studying to be a tour guide (speaking Bulgarian, Russian, German, Italian, English and a little Polish and Slovakian), and has lived for a while in the US. He tells us about the great parties at the Black Sea coast, how he loves all the European girls (but not Bulgarian girls), and about his weighlifting (he has enormous arms). When I reply to his questions that I am a scientist, he asks if I know anything about Finnish genetics, and we have a conversation *smiles*. We share chips and the old lady shares pretzels, then he hops off and another young guy hops on. He also chats to us, but with very poor English.


To define very poor English: he was able to communicate to us that he was a final year Philosophy major, he favourite philosopher is Plato (he doesn't like Democritis because he is materialistic rather than idealistic), he has worked in Greece (being half Greek), and doesn't like Bulgarian because the people don't study philosophy or science enough, and the skinheads are racist against the Turks, Muslims, Russians and Macadonians. The most charming thing about our conversation is that Bulgarians nod their head for no and shake their head for yes, which is very confusing even if you know it is happening. The one thing you assume is universal...


He told us that it is ironic that with Bulgaria joining the EU, they have a far longer history than most of Europe, being an empire when most of Europe was only tribes, yet they have a much lower standard of living. The first Bulgarian empire was actually formed in 681, after the collapse of the Roman empire, and was independent until 1014, when it was conquered by the Byzantines. It became independent again in 1185 (the second Bulgarian empire, of which Veliko Tarnovo was the capital), until 1396, when the Ottoman Empire absorbed Bulgaria until 1878 (after the French revolution swept across Europe). It allied with the Nazis in WWII, but Tsar Boris III refused to send the 50 000 Bulgarian Jews to concentration camps, and swapped sides to the USSR before the end of the War. Bulgaria became an independent communist state after the war, and a democracy in 1989.


Now we are in Veliko Tarnovo. He made it to the Hostel with the lightning beginning (first rain of the trip), with a charming hostess and empty rooms. We walked through the city with beautiful cobblestone roads and well-dressed people (a European city in an ancient capital), then settled down to dinner.


By the start of dinner, with the amazing view out the window over the Yantra River Gorge, with old houses clinging to the side of the cliffs and a river meandering below (interestingly, Meander was a river by Ephesus, the word meander comes from the description of the flow of the Meander River), I was in love with Bulgaria. By the end of dinner, with a wonderful vegetarian lasagne and many beers with Andy and Katho for $7, I was avidly reading the Veliko Tarnovo real estate classifieds. Maybe at the least I could have a summer house here? For under A$100 000 I could have a beautiful house overlooking the 5th-17thcentury Tsarevets Fortress... I could live and work in Germany (a nice snazzy downtown apartment in East Berlin - according to Tamara one of the ways you know you are in East Berlin and not West Berlin is that the green walking men are wearing formal hats), and have getaways in Bulgaria...