Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Israeli Memorial Day = In Sofia

Monday night marked the start of Israel's Memorial day for soldiers who gave their lives to build and protect our country and for the victims of terror attacks. This is always a day that is felt very strongly in Israel, and at Neve Ilan, we participated in the annual ceremony that took place on the hill at 8:00 pm, when the siren was sounded and called us to attention. It was difficult to think of being far from home at this time, and not to be a part of this national experience, and the personal one at home, where we also remember Danny Wein from Neve Ilan, who was killed while in the army over 20 years ago.

Therefore, we were very pleased when we received the invitation through Ellis's office, to attend a Memorial Service at the home of the Israeli Ambassador to Bulgaria. Along with 12 Israeli colleagues, we arrived at the Ambassador's home in an attractive neighborhood at the edge of Sofia. We could tell we were at the right place, as we could see a police car by the house, and security guards at the entrance. It was like walking into a small part of Israel in Bulgaria - all around us we heard Hebrew being spoken and we were surrounded by Israelis of different ages, including familes with young children. There were also Bulgarians from the local Jewish community.

The ceremony took place in the front garden of the Ambassador's home. After observing a minute of silence (obviously, without the siren that is heard in Israel), the flag was lowered to half-mast, and a torch was lit. There were prayers and poems read - in both Hebrew and Bulgarian. It was strange to hear Hannah Seneshe's poem - "Eli, Eli" read also in Bulgarian. A rabbi from the local Habbad house sang "El, Maleh Rachamim". The Ambassador also spoke briefly, and in the end, we all sang "Hatikva".

After the ceremony, everyone was invited into the Ambassador's home for coffee and cookies (served on official State of Israel china). A woman approached us and said that she didn't recognize us from previous events, so we introduced ourselves, and she introduced herself as the Israeli consul in Bulgaria. She asked us if we had met the Ambassador yet, and she brought us over to introduce us to him. We had a very pleasant talk with him. As Ellis had read his resume on the Embassy website beforehand, we knew that he had also been Ambassador in Uzbekistan - which led us to ask him if he knew our friend from the army who had also been Ambassador of Uzbekistan. He had actually recomended that our friend replace him when he left - they had gone through the diplomatic training together and were friends! A small world...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Weekend Visit to Vratsa

On Saturday morning we took a taxi to the Central Station and there boarded a train bound for Vratsa, Bulgaria, about 120 kilometers north of Sofia. We had a very comfortable ride, with two seats in a six-seater compartment. The train took a scenic route, traveling through the picturesque Iskur Gorge. We could see the river alongside, the poor villages and the sharp mountain cliffs as we traveled north.

After two hours we arrived in the small town of Vratsa, where we took a taxi to the Zora Hotel where we had booked a room. From there it was a 20 minute walk through a light drizzle into the center of town. The unique feature of Vratsa is that the mountains of the nearby national park reach up to the very edge of the town.
After a light lunch we visited Vratsa's Historical Museum, an unimpressive, dark concrete structure whose claim to fame is its golden display of Thracian artifacts, discovered in the nearby village of Rogozen in 1985.

On Sunday morning we were picked up at the hotel by our guide, Tchenko, who drove us into the Vrachanky Balkan Park, Bulgaria's second largest national park. Just two kilometers out of town you reach the narrow entrance to Vratsata Gorge. The rock cliffs are so steep here, that rock climbers from all over Bulgaria use this as their central training mountain.

We drove higher and higher into the mountains, on steep, twisting roads that had seen better days. To our great surprise, at the very top we discovered a world of white, which Tchenko said was quite unusual for late April.

Despite the overcast skies, at one point we had a view of the entire valley, of the Gorge entrance and the village far below.

Tchenko spoke a bit of English, and we didn't understand everything he said, and he didn't understand everything that we said. It's too bad that we didn't speak Dutch, as he had lived in Holland for 20 years. Even so, he was able to take us around the park at a nice, leisurely pace.

Our next stop was the Ledenika Cave, a stalactite and stalagmite cave that is also a popular breeding ground for bats (not that we saw any). We took a one-hour hike inside the cave.

Here we are, back above ground, at the Vratsata Gorge.

Tchenko drove us back to Vratsa for some last minute sight-seeing, including this statue of a Russian soldier, who helped free the town from Ottoman rule.

From this vantage point, we had a good view of the park and the town.

Our train ride back to Sofia was a little less comfortable than the earlier journey. There were no reserved seats, and as the train originated further north, it was full and we couldn't initially find seats together. The train was also a local one, making stops at towns along the trip south. After just over two hours we pulled into the Sofia station and took a taxi home.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Bulgarian head shake

I walked into a car showroom near the City Center Sofia Mall this afternoon. The showroom displayed very fancy Italian cars, but it also had a huge AVIS sign on the outer wall, and a standup AVIS poster by the window. Based on my having previously picked up an Avis pamphlet at the airport, I assumed this was an Avis office. I went inside to inquire about car rental, as if so, it would be conveniently located near our home.

The sales clerk inside didn't speak English, but he understood my question.

"Is this an Avis office?" I asked.

The sales clerk shook his up and down, the universal symbol for a positive response.

"No Avis office," he said, confusing me momentarily.

Then I remembered having read in the guidebook: Bulgarians shake their head 'yes' and nod their head 'no'.

This Bulgarian custom is a shake different from the one we know.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spring arrives in Bulgaria

When we left Bulgaria for our Passover vacation in Israel, at the beginning of April, we had just enjoyed our first two really warm days. The long winter was over. When we returned to Sofia on April 16, everything was green. The trees were blooming, Spring had arrived at last!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The golden vessels of Thrace

Our second stop in Boyana was the National History Museum. The guidebooks said it was only 2 kilometers from the church, and as this was all downhill, I suggested we walk. This meant Jodie's feet were tired before we arrived.

The building, a former government palace, reminded us of the Knesset. What do you think?

The museum houses Bulgaria's "most worthwhile assemblage of ancient and medieval artifacts," according to the guidebook. Here the guidebook was correct, but it was out of date when it noted that "English-language labeling is almost nonexistent." This turned out not to be correct, as although the main signs were in Bulgarian, all of the items had English explanations.

What was most fascinating at the museum were the gold and silver vessels associated with the Thracians, who inhabited the eastern Balkans during the pre-Christian era. As the guidebook notes, the most eye-catching of these are the rhyta (drinking vessels) designed in the shape of animal heads. One archaeological site recently discovered apparently offered more than 15,000 individual items of gold.

Upstairs was a hodgepodge collection of recent Bulgarian memorabilia, from theater posters to military uniforms. One thing we found interesting was this hannukiya, given a few years ago by the Jews of Washington to Bulgaria in thanks for the country's efforts to save its Jewish citizens during World War II.

The medieval frescoes of the Boyana Church

Boyana is an affluent village suburb of Sofia, on the slopes of Mt. Vitosha. We went there by taxi on a beautiful, warm Saturday morning. Our first stop was Boyana Church, a historical site included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.

Boyana Church dates back to the tenth century, but most of the exquisite medieval frescoes within date back to the year 1259. When you arrive, you walk through a forested garden with some of the largest trees we've seen.

Entrance to the church was 10 Leva, and you can actually go inside only for a period of ten minutes. We had a guide who spoke excellent English, and she explained the frescoes and their significance. We saw engravings in Greek, dating from an earlier period, and many that we could read, but not fully understand, in Bulgarian.

It was forbidden to take photographs inside the church, so it will be hard to describe how beautiful the frescoes were. They were of Biblical scenes, as well as of the Bulgarian king, queen and patron saints.

The Boyana Church owes its world fame above all to the frescoes from 1259, which demonstrate the exceptional achievements of mediaeval Bulgarian culture. The majority of the more than 240 figures depicted here display individuality, remarkable psychological insight and vitality. (from the official website)

In one place we could clearly see the colorful, textured frescoes from 1259, which were on a new layer covering earlier, plainer wall paintings. Our visit to the church was short, but remarkable.

Friday, April 3, 2009

And then Jodie danced...

On Friday night, we went to a Bulgarian Folklore restuarant. This was a really fun experience. To start off, although we've seen the mountains surrounding Sofia since we've been here, this is the first time that we've come close to them. We weren't quite sure where the restaurant was (recommended by one of my co-workers), but the taxi driver knew where to go. We were glad that it was still light out, so that we could enjoy the forests as we drove up the slopes of Mt. Vitosha, climbing steadily up the mountain. (The infrastructure on the roads here is horrendous, and this narrow winding road was full of potholes.)

The Vodenitzata restaurant is right near the Dragalevtsi ski-lift. It's a pretty wooden building in the mountain forest , on the site of an old mill (that's what the name means). We came in, and immediately noticed the decor - lots of stuffed animals, from chickens, rabbits, deers' heads, foxes to the wild boar head overlooking the tables. There were even a few stuffed pigeons on the "roof" above the bar. In addition, there were traditional Bulgarian outfits and musical instruments hung decoratively on the walls.

Reading the menu took some time, even though the dishes were listed in English as well. Where does one start? Ellis started with breaded tongue, which could have been a meal in itself. I had the fried pieces of zucchini served with yoghurt and dill. Outstanding. For the main course, we both chose lamb, and it was probably the best we've ever had. Ellis had the lamb "Balkan Style", which meant a filet of lamb covered a bed of spinach, and I had the lamb "St. George", served with rice and lettuce. It was excellent!

There was a grill barbecue at the back of the room. The waiters brought the prepared plates to the grill and the chef quickly grilled the meat or fish right there. The table next to us had grilled fish. It was the first time we've ever seen the waiters fillet the grilled fish for the guests and remove all the bones before serving it!

At 9:00, the entertainment started. Young dancers and a band of musicians provided us with enjoyable, traditional Bulgarian entertainment. The singer at the end was a bit past her prime, with her very low-cut dress, but she did have a nice voice. And I even got up to dance with the dancers in their line dance around the room.

Even the bathrooms were fun. The ladies' room had funny cartoon murals on the walls, in a room that felt a bit like an old stone cottage. Ellis reported that the mens' room gave a very different experience. There were icecubes in the urinals, and when you used them, the ice melted! Not quite sure where this idea came from, but it was different!

Even after such a filling meal, we needed something cool and refreshing to end the night. Ellis ordered the Crem Caramel, and I chose the Fruit Salad. What I received was a mountain of whipped cream, with a few pieces of orange, apple, and kiwi underneath.

We ordered a taxi home and headed down from our mountain side Bulgarian folklore meal and show.