Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis
Ancient civilizations; mysterious cultures; remarkable art; spectacular natural scenery; mythical caves and natural mineral springs; friendly people; charming traditional villages; nine UNESCO World Heritage sites; great food and even better wine; and yes… I’m talking about Bulgaria. I invite you to come with me now on a journey to discover Bulgaria!
Due to its coveted southern-central European location, it is not surprising that Bulgaria “hosted” (sic) so many civilizations and its borders shifted so many times. Presently and for the foreseeable future, it occupies the Eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula where its northern neighbor is Romania with the Danube River as a natural border. To the east is the Black Sea, while in the south it borders both Turkey and Greece and to the west the Republics of Macedonia and Serbia. The Balkan Mountain range runs horizontally through the country and gives name to the entire region. In the south are the stunningly beautiful Rhodope Mountains where we spent most of our visit.
We flew into Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, early on a beautiful sunny day sporting a blue sky, puffy white clouds, and no pollution – due no doubt to the lack of industrialization which collapsed, along with the Communist regime, back in 1989. Driving the short distance from the airport into the center of Sofia, I saw a clean, modern city with wide boulevards, modern outdoor vehicular-free shopping malls, fashionably dressed locals, and traffic moving in an organized non-chaotic fashion. Towering above Sofia, and lending a pastoral air, is the 2500 meter-high Vitosha Mountain.
Distinctive architecture marking the various periods of foreign occupation - with a nod to Communist style buildings and monuments - also give Sofia an eclectic charm. Our five-star hotel in the center of the city (with three-star prices) Arena di Serdica, was built over the site of a 2nd – 3rd century Roman Amphitheater. Serdica was one of the earlier names of the city and Arena refers to the amphitheater that was uncovered excavating for the hotel. Imagine walking into your hotel lobby that is part reception, and part authentic antiquity open to the public as a free walk-through museum. Just about anywhere you dig, not only in Sofia, but anywhere in Bulgaria; you are likely to unearth remains of an earlier civilization, with findings often dating back to the stone, copper and bronze ages. The earliest know Thracian civilization dates to about 5000 B.C., and then there were the Greeks, the Romans and the Ottoman Empire which was expelled in 1878, and for a brief time, until the end of WWII, Bulgaria was free. The Communist regime lasted from 1944 to 1989, after which Bulgaria became a parliamentary republic and joined the European Union in 2007.
Not wanting to lose a moment of precious time, we dropped our bags at the hotel, and left to see one of Bulgaria’s greatest treasures; the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Boyana Church. This Bulgarian Orthodox church is a bit out of Sofia in the village of Boyana, and well worth the visit. The church’s frescoes were painted in the 11th century and the colors are still bright but the walls have deteriorated over the centuries. Due to the delicate nature of the interior, access is strictly limited, but waiting time is pleasantly spent in the fragrant pine tree forest surrounding the church.
Also in Boyana is the not to be missed National History Museum with its huge collection of cultural artifacts from Prehistoric to the present time. Noteworthy is the large exhibition of Thracian Golden treasures which are the earliest known gold and silver objets d’art in the world. Surely the high point of any visit to Bulgaria is a stop at both this museum and the Archaeological Museum in Sofia which is the oldest museum in Bulgaria and repository of Valchitran (the village where a large cache was unearthed by a farmer) gold treasure from the 14th Century BC. Many of the artifacts found were vessels for wine, not surprising since Thracians were very fond of drink. Thracians considered wine a divine gift and it was lavishly consumed in order to achieve connection to their deities… some things never change!
The Thracians were renowned throughout the ancient world for their elegance in working gold and silver, and their expertise is impressive even in today’s technological world. Their ability to craft shapes and designs in the minutest detail and their depiction of faces… each one perfectly framed and different than the others… is astounding.
The Thracian civilization was tribal in nature and inhabited a vast area in Central Europe - from the Carpathian Mountains to almost the Aegean Sea. They never developed a written language, and what we know about them is mainly from Greek historians, specifically Herodotus (484-425 BC), who wrote of their customs; religious beliefs; birth, marriage and burial practices; in a somewhat disdainful manner and heavily skewed by the more cultured Greek attitudes of the day. Herodotus wrote of a brutal primitive society that “have many names, each corresponding to their state; but they all have approximately the same customs in every sense, except for the Getae, Trausi and the Thracians living above the Krestoni”. Thracian’s believed in immortality and Herodotus wrote that the Getae tribe lamented over the birth of a child, loudly proclaiming all the possible misfortunes it could face in a lifetime while celebrating death with gladness and rejoicing for the happiness the deceased person would soon encounter. Then there was the Krestoni tribe whose men were allowed to take many wives. When a man died the wives viciously fought to decide which one was his favorite. When one wife was finally agreed upon, with great festivity she was sacrificed by her closest relatives, and buried with her dead husband… an honor to be coveted.
“The rich are buried in the following way: the corpse is kept exposed for three days; they slaughter animals and binge, mourning the dead before that: after that they bury him, burn him or just bury him in the ground. Then they build a mound and organize competition games, and they spare large prizes for single combat according to its meaning”. Herodotus was spot on; the famous burial scene from the tomb in Kazanlak depicts the exact celebration as he described it.
Putting my fascination with the Thracians aside, we returned to Sofia for overnight but not before walking through the old town on its famous yellow brick road leading to the massive gold-domed St. Alexander Nevski Temple Church. The yellow cobblestones (ceramic hand-made blocks) were a gift from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Tsar Ferdinand I on the occasion of his wedding to Princess Marie Louise of Burbon-Parma in 1893. The road runs between the Royal Residence and the National Assembly building. Sadly there was no sign of Dorothy or her dog Toto as we dodged traffic to cross the square - not to the fabled Emerald City - but to the very real and somewhat overwhelming Temple Cathedral – largest in the Balkan Peninsula. It was built in honor of Tsar Alexander II, who liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule and named after his patron Saint. It is another must-see in Sofia, along with the priceless icon collection in the chapel just to the left of the main entrance. Off to the side of the church is a small park full of souvenir stalls which were fun to explore and a good opportunity to talk to people.
Next month our trip continues into the Rhodope Mountains and more of Undiscovered Bulgaria.
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