Why Bulgaria?

 

Bulgaria is not a very popular travel destination (except for European summer vacationers going to the Black Sea). But Bulgaria has a lot to offer. It played an important role in Western civilization. The Thracians ruled in the first millenium BCE, Greeks established colonies and even the Persians ruled for nearly half a century.

 

It has fascinating archeological sites going back the prehistoric times. It played a major role in in the development of the Eastern Orthodox church. Very importantly, the Cyrillic script was developed in the first Bulgarian empire during the 9th C and is the basis of alphabets used in other Slavic countries  and Russia. Bulgaria was also  occupied by the Turks for nearly 500 years.

 

The landscape is varied and very beautiful. The food and wine are delicious and the people are friendly.

 

An example of its role in ancient mythology is the legend of Orpheus.

Juergen remembers a line from Ovid: “Saxa ferasque lyra movit Rhodopeius Orpheus,”

(Stones and wild animals were moved by Orpheus from the Rhodope mountains).

He never realized the Rhodope mountains were in today’s Bulgaria.

The legend of Orpheus still plays an important role today as we will see later on.

 

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Our tour went clockwise around Bulgaria starting in the capital Sofia.

There are many resorts on the Black Sea which are popular with Europeans (which we didn’t visit).

All of the places with names in bold font (map below) were very interesting.

 

 

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We started in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.

 

This was the view from our 2nd floor hotel room.

 

The white building is the National Assembly of Bulgaria.

 

Behind it is the Aleksandur Nevski Memorial Church which commemorates Russia’s role in the Liberation of 1878.

 

The equestrian statue is of Alexander II of Russia, the “Tsar Liberator” of 1878.

 

The city has many areas of lush trees which is very nice.

 

Aleksandur Nevski Memorial church commemorates the Russia’s role in the Liberation of 1878. This church was used for this website’s background.

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The mosque is the Banya Bashi Mosque, which was completed in 1566. It is the only functioning mosque in Sofia.

 

Sofia should be more famous for tourists, if just for the many remnants of Roman buildings underneath.

 

Sofia grew into a city in the late 19th C, with its boulevards imitating Paris and Vienna.

 

It was greatly enlarged during the Communist era.

 

 

 

 

The 4thC St George Rotunda was a Roman temple in the ancient town of Serdica. After being destroyed by the Huns, it was rebuilt as a church, and is now restored.

This is the oldest preserved structure which still serves its original purpose in Sofia.

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In the middle of a large boulevard in the center of Sofia, 97,000 sq. ft. of the Roman city Serdica that is underneath is now visible and open to visitors.

 

The excavated old city is visible from the walkways above as it is covered with glass panels.

 

In this photo, both the archeological remains underneath and the reflections of the surrounding buildings and the sky on the glass can be seen.

 

Stairs are available to descend and explore.

 

Even though it is a very large area there’s more to be exposed, including a Roman mosaic.

 

 

Soviet style statue of St. Sofia.

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The Boyana suburb of Sofia has both the National History Museum and a very famous church.

 

This wonderful drinking vessel from the valley of the Thracian kings (4thC BCE) is in the National History Museum.

 

This Corinthian-type helmet, is from the 5thC BCE.

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A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Boyana Church is a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church in Sofia.

 

It is covered inside from floor to ceiling with beautiful 13thC frescos. There are 89 scenes with 240 human images.

 

They pre-date Giotto’s frescos in Padua by some 50 years and are clearly precursors of the Renaissance (example below).

 

Visitors can only stay 15 minutes.

 

Byzantine art is based on religious expression using carefully controlled forms. Portraits present flat, rigid, unnatural poses.

 

This fresco of a St Nicolas in the Boyana Church dates from 1259 and is one of the group which is world famous.

 

The natural poses are distinguished by individuality, convincing psychological characterization and vitality.

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In the garden of the Boyana church is a giant redwood planted by King Ferdinand in 1907.

 

Koprivshtitsa, a mountain town,

was founded in the 14thC as a rich center of cattle farming.

 

It prospered during the Ottoman times (1400 – 1878) largely because they kept the passes clear of bandits and provided leather, woolen cloth, pottery oil and silk.

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This is the Kableshkov house, the elegant home of the leader of the 1876 April uprising against the Ottoman Empire which indirectly resulted in the re-establishment of Bulgaria in 1878.

 

Bulgaria had been part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 500 years after it was conquered in 1393.

 

There had been many uprisings during those years trying to overthrow the Ottomans. This one succeeded and Bulgaria has been a country since that time.

 

This commemorates the April 1876 uprising.

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Arch of freedom is at the top of the Troyan pass and was built in 1980 to commemorate the Russians who died for Bulgaria’s liberation.

 

There were a bunch of horses walking through when we were there.

 

This huge arch can be seen for many miles.

 

Our lunch was a local specialty at a restaurant just north of the Troyan pass.

 

It was delicious - but not exactly health food.

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Near the top of the Troyan pass is a small ski area about 30 minutes’ drive from our guide Martin’s home.

 

Martin’s grandfather bought this triplex many years ago. Today he has one part, Martin’s parents have another part and Martin has the third part.

 

He comes here to ski in winter with his wife and kids, to hunt for mushrooms in fall, to play in summer. This is called a dacha.

 

Each part is two floors and is very Spartan, but they and guests can eat on the ground floor; all beds are upstairs.

 

The Troyan monastery was founded in 1600, and renovated in the mid-19thC.

 

This monastery is Bulgaria’s 3rd largest and the frescoes exemplify its 19th C artistic renaissance.

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These “cheerful” frescos are on the façade of the church.

 

Here, devils torture sinners before rivers of fire sweep them into the jaws of monsters, while saints and Christ look down from Heaven. Note the feet sticking out of the mouth of a monster.

 

Eight poor villagers from the tiny village of

Gumoshtnik perished with the Titanic in 1912. There is a memorial in the yard of the village church. On the plaque one can see the Cyrillic spelling:

 

                 “ТИТАНИК”

 

The sinking was a disaster for this village. At the beginning of the 20thC America for Bulgarians was like Germany for the Turks in the 1980s. Hundreds of men from the poor mountain regions traveled to the US to make money before returning home. Agents traveled around Bulgaria to help organize such trips. Families had to sell their property to collect the $75-80 US dollars necessary.

 

There were 38 Bulgarians aboard the Titanic that day as 3rd class passengers. The village of Gumoshtnik lost half its men.

 

 

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Village church of Gumoshtnik.

 

Fresco of the patron saint Nikolaos.

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The church was built in 1830 and is famous for its wooden iconostasis.

 

 

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This is the bottom row of carvings on the iconostasis.

 

It’s amazing to see this workmanship is such a tiny, out of the way village.

 

We visited an old school house (one room) where all grades were taught.

 

The little kids had the sand desks to practice their printing and arithmetic.

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The first four signs Martin is pointing to say:

 

Liar

Disturber

Thief

Inattentive

 

(The 5th one we couldn’t remember or decipher)

 

If a student was naughty, he stood in the corner with the appropriate sign around his neck.

 

The sign on Martin’s right side says “Black Board.”

 

With so many grades in a room the teacher had this aid to keep kids in place while she taught.

 

The difficult kids were put within the hoop.

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This is a typical dining room in a mountain farmhouse.

 

The kitchen stove could heat another room if the embers were moved there.

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The living room was very cozy.

 

Our tour guide in the village school and church also runs a B&B.

 

Here we’re trying her homemade schnapps in her home.

 

We lived through it!

 

Happily. …

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The hostess was a widow. She served us a variety of snacks. Everything we ate was made by the hostess.

 

She milked her cows, fed her pigs and hens and maintained the B&B. She made the cheese and embroidered all of the furnishings.

 

 

 

The Etura complex is an open air museum which is set up to show the way the Bulgarians lived 150 years ago.

 

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We ate a “typical” lunch in the complex.

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Tryavna is famous as a crafts town and has many nice houses in its old quarter.

 

Founded in the 15thC, the inhabitants turned to crafts as there was little good land for crops.

 

 

 

The Dryanovo monastery has a complicated history (the Bulgarian Alamo!).

 

Founded in the 12thC. It became a center of Hesychasm in the 14thC.

 

Hesychasm was developed by the monks of Mount Athos in Greece. It is a mystical Orthodox religion which demands the rejection of social activity. Based on contemplation, prayers are repeated hoping to reach an ecstatic state and experience God.

 

Ottoman troops burned it down in the 15thC and again in the 17thC.

 

It was rebuilt in 1840 and later became a secret meeting place for the Central Revolutionary Committee. After the uprising in 1876, a group of 100 rebels held out in the monastery for 9 days against an overwhelming Ottoman force. Most were killed and the monastery was burned again.

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Veliko Tarnovo is one of Bulgaria’s beautiful cities. It was the capital from 1185-1393.

 

This is the view from the front of our hotel in Veliko Tarnovo (also from our room).

 

The river makes a U-turn at the bottom of the steep-sided canyon. The town buildings are stacked up the sides of the canyon.

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We loved our hotel (Gurko) in Veliko Tarnovo. Our room was the protruding part on the 2nd floor.

 

The roads in the city are all like this one: very narrow.

 

The view from here was really nice and we sat here a long while before dinner.

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We saw many storks and their nests.

 

This map shows the old fortified part of the city.

 

We walked out to the castle from the gate at the lower left of the map.

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This tower is shown on the map above at the lower right.

 

The Cathedral of Nativity in Arbanasi has a simple exterior that is a contrast to the amazing colorful interior with frescos from 1632-1649.

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There is some confusion as to who settled Arbanasi, but they were granted autonomy and fiscal privileges by the Ottomans for guarding the pass leading to Veliko Tarnovo.

 

The merchants prospered by exporting locally produced leather as far as India and Persia.

 

 

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These frescoes are from the 17thC.

 

 

 

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This is how areas of Italy look during sunflower blooming season. We never were in Italy during the right time, but we were in Bulgaria at the right time.

 

 

Nikopolis ad Istrum was a once magnificent town founded by Trajan in 102 CE.

 

It had temples, baths, theaters, and gladiatorial games.

 

In the 6thC the town was destroyed by Goths and Slavs.

 

The town has been partially excavated but is now overgrown.

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The ancient paved road which led into the town.

 

 

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In the 14thC a large community of monks lived in Ivanovo Rock Monasteries.

 

A platform has been built for tourists which extends out from the Tsurkvata cave, the only one that has been kept as a museum because it is filled with frescoes. That platform is shown about halfway up the face of the rock.

 

We got up there!

 

At the parking lot we found a large German tour bus filled with 50 Tourists! They were bused in from Ruse on the Danube 30 mi away. When we went to Ruse later we saw the river cruise ships docked. Fortunately, the Germans were done with the Rock monasteries when we arrived.

 

 

Long stair-walkways zig-zagging up the side of the rock led to the rock monastery.

 

It is very lush there – it’s a nature park.

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On the platform! (See two photos previous).

 

Inside the rock monastery there is some earthquake damage to the ceiling.

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All of these frescoes are in the same rock monastery.

 

This is a view to another rock face nearby.

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The Rock monastery of St. Dimitar Basarovski is some distance away. It is also reached by a zig-zag stone staircase.

 

This is the only still-functioning rock monastery in Bulgaria.

 

The church is icon-filled and founded in the 15thC.

 

We explored everything we could.

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Isn’t he beautiful!

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This color isn’t too shabby either.

 

We stayed a night in Ruse on the Danube River.

 

We walked to the boat/restaurants along the “beach”. They had just had a sand sculptures contest.

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Our hotel was in a very old beautiful wooden building that was a bit away from the walking zone of Ruse city.

 

This photo was taken from our balcony. The Danube is a short walk to the right side of the photo.

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We stayed in the Hotel Anna Palace. It was crazy! This sitting area was at one end of the long room.

 

There were three rooms and a large modern bath.

 

We felt like royalty!

 

In Italy, Yvonne often orders “caprese” which is buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes. Here in Bulgaria it also had large cooked slices of eggplant.

 

YUM!

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Juergen had trout. It tasted better than it looked.

 

The facial expression of the trout seems to indicate unhappiness with the way it ended up.

 

So it goes.

 

 

Ruse is the largest Bulgarian town on the Danube, once called little Vienna. It has a 19th and 20th century European influence reflected in well-preserved buildings under a European Heritage Initiative.

 

 

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The entire downtown is now a pedestrian-only zone and it is lovely.

 

 

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This reminded us of when we first learned to read and sound out the Cyrillic alphabet in Moscow in 2012.

 

We saw a sign that sounded out as Raiffeisen Bank, which Juergen remembered as an Austrian Bank.

 

It was founded there in 1862 and expanded in 1986, mostly into former Soviet bloc countries.

 

Juergen (but most likely nobody else) finds the Cyrillic transliteration of the German name interesting:

German does not have a single vowel for the sound “i” in English (like in “wine”) but uses both identically pronounced diphthongs “ai” and “ei” for that sound. In the bank’s name both are used. Since there is apparently only one Cyrillic diphthong for that sound, namely

“аЙ”, it’s used for both the German “i” sounds.

 

 

The ancient city of Abritus was a late Roman city, established in the 1stC as a Roman military camp.

 

It was built on the ruins of an ancient Thracian settlement.

 

 

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Again we tried a specialty of the area, a local sausage.

 

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After dinner we had fun watching lightning bugs. Martin caught some for us.

 

The “gal” is on the ground on the left and the “guy” is flying on the right.

 

 

The Kazanlak Thracian tomb of 4thC BCE is closed to the public. This is an exact replica nearby.

 

The photo shows the entry to a tunnel that led to the middle of the large mound which covered it. At the end of the tunnel was the burial site, a round room with a domed ceiling.

 

It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

This area was a holy place for the capital of Seuthes III who ruled a powerful tribe in the 4thC BCE.

 

About 15 of these burial mounds have been excavated but only a few are open to visitors.

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The wonderful grave goods.

 

This is a bronze head of the Thracian ruler buried inside the tomb. It sat at the entrance before the door to the tomb.

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This is one of the four gates into the ancient town of Hisarya (27 mi N of Plovdiv).

 

Thracians settled here in about 1000 BCE; Romans developed the settlement into a luxurious spa town.

 

In 251 Hisarya was trashed by the Goths, then rebuilt with walls as high as 33’. This Kamilite Gate remains; it was named after the camel caravans that passed through it.

Prosperity returned in 293 CE and remained until the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in the 6thC.

 

One thousand years later the Ottomans rediscovered its healing mineral springs.

 

 

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Plovdiv has an amazing history!

 

Plovdiv stands on three hills, settled first by Thracians in 5000 BCE. Philip II of Macedon captured the town in 342 BCE. From the 1st to 4th centuries CE it was held by the Romans. Then it was destroyed by Huns in 447.

 

In the 6thC it was occupied by Slavs. Back and forth it went between the Byzantines and Bulgarians before the Ottomans took it in the 14thC.

 

It’s a great place and we enjoyed walking all over it. This photo doesn’t show the old downtown.

 

The Georgiadi House was built in 1848 for a wealthy Greek merchant.

 

Many of the streets are lined with fine National Revival houses.

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This impressive Roman theatre was discovered during construction work in 1972!

 

It was built in the 2ndC CE and formed part of the acropolis.

 

Today the theater is used for concerts and plays.

 

Plovdiv’s ancient stadium was built in the 2nd C CE and could seat 30,000 spectators.

 

It has been incorporated into the foundations of modern Plovdiv.

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The Odeon sits in the middle of a neighborhood.

 

Asenova Krepost (Asen’s fortress) is a medieval fortress in the Rhodope Mountains. The earliest archeological findings here date from the Thracians. In Roman times it was a fortress.

 

In the 11thC it is described as a monastery. It was conquered by armies of the Third Crusade.

 

It was renovated in 1231 as a fortress against Latin raids.

 

The Church of the Holy Mother of God (12th-13t C is the most preserved feature left.

 

We climbed (Yvonne with crutch as always) to the lookout at upper right on the old stone steps.

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It is a magical location.

 

Tatul is a unique megalithic monument from the 2nd millennium BCE.

 

Settlement here dates to 4000 BCE. This is the sanctuary and tomb of an influential Thracian leader who was deified after his death. Ancient sources describe the burying of leaders in above ground tombs (not in a mound) only for Orpheus and Rhesus, two of their leaders.

 

A small figurine of a nude man holding a lyre was found near here, adding to the legend that Tatul is linked to the cult or Orpheus.

 

There is a tomb chiseled into the top of the rock where Juergen is sitting.

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Juergen and Martin on top.

 

We stopped at this reservoir where they are known for their farmed fish.

 

 

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We were delighted to know that the fish we’d eat were “thoroughly hatched…”

 

The name of the restaurant (at left) is

 

   МОбН ДИК (MOBI DIK)

 

 

Orlovi Skali or Dogan Kaya (Eagles rocks) is still of unknown origin.

 

This cult complex is considered to be a rock shrine from the 4th millennium BCE or maybe, a 1st millennium BCE.

 

This rock is over 100’ high.

 

These trapezoidal niches are found only in this area.

 

 

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In order to get to the Eagle Rocks, we had to get over a cleft in the mountain by climbing up and over it.

 

This was a bit tough for Yvonne as the crutch tended to slip on the loose gravel.

 

A view in the Rhodope mountains.

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We stayed in the Meresevi guest house on the edge of a beautiful valley.

 

Pirinsko and Ariana brand radlers (bikers’ beers).

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The Wonderful/Marvelous Bridges (Chudnite Mostove) are a major attraction in the Rhodope Mountains.

 

The Erkyupryia River eroded the rocks to form the two bridges.

 

Note below is a zip line.

 

 

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We took the elevator up the 500’ tall Snejanka TV Tower for lunch.

 

It is at the top of one of Bulgaria’s best ski resorts.

 

This is one view down from the tower.

 

At this time of year the ski runs and trails through the woods are very popular with mountain bikers and it was fun to watch from up here.

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The Bulgarian government continues to be busy creating new resorts for the ski area which attracts many skiers from Europe as well as Bulgarians.

 

The Devil’s Throat Cave in Trigrad Gorge is said to have inspired the tale of Orpheus descending into the underworld to find his lover Eurydice.

 

The opening to the cave is this waterfall which plunges 137’ straight down into the earth, before the water escapes through a funnel into the underground river which exits lower on the mountain.

 

The visit to the cave is on a walkway were the waterfall is visible as it comes down and goes into the funnel below.

 

The visited part of the cave is 360’ long and 115’ high.

 

It’s really noisy being in the cave with the thunder of the waterfall.

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This is the walkway in the Devils Throat Cave.

 

The waterfall thunders down the wall at the right, then goes into the rock before coming out below the walkway at lower left.

 

Then the water goes out of site into a funnel.

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At the back of that cleft is the water fall.

 

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We stayed in the area at the rustic Arkan Hotel.

 

From our room window we watched sheep herded to pasture followed by these cattle.

 

We had watched the “cows going home” the evening before.

 

Martin washes his van.

 

This area is popular because it is such a steep canyon.

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The Eagle’s Eye (Orlovo Oko) platform was built about 2000’ above the chasm.

 

This photo of the platform (top center) was taken from the road below.

 

 

The fun part was going by 4x4 for an hour to get up there.

 

We only saw a few other tourists in 4x4s. This part of the road is the best we had.

 

The trip initially starts up zig-zagging up a very steep road to get up the first level.

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Most of the roadway was like this – or rougher – and steep.

 

 

On top of the world!

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Walking from the car to the lookout.

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It’s a long way down to our road.

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We stopped in Dolen, a town whose 350 old houses are starting to be restored.

 

Early on, this area had many Thracian hamlets whose remains can be seen around the village.

 

The Thracian vineyards were still being used until the Bulgarian National Revival in 1762 – 1878.

 

During archeological excavations near Dolen they found an ancient village, a late ancient village, a late ancient necropolis, a late ancient fortress, a late medieval church and the remains of a smelter.

 

In 1977 the village was declared a historical cultural reserve.

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This is a local lady we spotted carrying her load as she stopped to rest.

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Every tour to Bulgaria, even a 2-day tour, includes Rila Monastery.

 

It is very important to the Bulgarians due to its history. It was rebuilt the last time in National Revival architecture with funding from wealthy Bulgarians after a fire in 1833.

 

It was established in the 10thC and was supported by successive kings, flourishing until Ottoman raids destroyed it in the late 15thC.

 

The Russian Church sponsored its renovation after the 15thC and Rila’s monks played an important role in preserving Bulgaria’s language and history during the most repressive periods of Ottoman rule.

 

The monastery is protected by fortress-like walls 65’ high.

 

Hrelyo’s Tower is the monastery’s oldest surviving structure. It was built by a feudal lord in 1334.

 

To the right of the tower  is the Church of the Nativity.

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The church murals were painted, in part by Bulgaria’s greatest 19thC painter, Zahari Zograf.

 

 

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We really enjoyed our time in Bulgaria.

 

We saw almost no tourists, although Europeans are visiting more now.

 

 

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On our flight home from Milan, we crossed the Alps and saw these mountains with Mont Blanc in the background (not visible in the photo).

 

The Vallee Blanche, the glacier at the left of the photo, didn’t look like this in 1999! We skied it almost the entire way down to Chamonix (about 15 miles) then.

 

The cable car went almost straight up from Chamonix (bottom right of photo) to the Aiguille du Midi (el 12605’) about photo center at the end of the sharp dark ridge.

 

We were as close to Mont Blanc as possible without having mountaineering experience. We did have to have a mountaineering guide.

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