Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dance Festival at Dobroslavci

Yesterday, while Ellis was hiking in the Rila mountains, I joined a new friend for an outing with the Sofia HASH House Harriers. This is a group that meets twice a month for a bit of hiking, a bit of drinking, some food and a good time. Most of the members are ex-pats living in Bulgaria.

The destination for this week’s get-together was a bit of a stray from their usual outing, but was well worth the trip (unfortunately, I only have a few photos taken with my phone, as Ellis had the camera…).

We started out visiting a Monastery at Balsa, a short distance north of Sofia. We drove through a small village, and then parked in the fields at the edge of the village, and hiked up to the monastery.

The walk took about ½ hour, but most of it was very much uphill (and I told Ellis that I didn’t want to come with him, since it was too much hiking!). The monastery itself is not lived in, and there’s a small chapel with very pretty paintings inside.

After we returned to our cars, we drove a couple kilometers to the small village of Dobrovlasci, in order to watch a celebration of local dance groups performing traditional Bulgarian folk dances. Each of the surrounding villages sent their local troupes, often in traditional costumes.

Before the dancing started, women came out with the traditional Pogacha bread, and we all broke off pieces of these beautiful loaves and dipped them in salt.

The organizer of our outing also arranged for a traditional meal for us as we watched the dancing – there was Banitsa, with cheese and egg, Kebacha (small pork patties, but they kindly made me a chicken fillet!), Shopska salad and a beautiful, home-made marble cake. And – plenty of beer!

The program started, and each of the troupes got up and did a couple dances – the dances themselves are very similar to Israeli folkdances – and interestingly enough, they’re called “Horo” – while the most famous Israeli folkdance is the “Hora”.

The dancing continued for hours, and the organizers had even asked us to perform a small dance for them – they were very excited to have so many international visitors at their local celebration. We practiced an easy Scottish line dance, and were getting ready for our turn, when the huge black cloud that had been getting closer and closer to the village, finally arrived with gusts of wind and a huge downpour – and, so, the afternoon ended and our dancing debut never happened (or, as most of us said – Saved by the rain!).

Still, it was a lot of fun, and not something that most people get to see, as it wasn’t a tourist act, but just a lot of local fun – and we all enjoyed it thoroughly!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rila Mountains' Seven Lakes

The weather forecast threatened rain, but I bravely set out with 4 Bulgarian friends on a trek into the Rila Mountains and the Sedmete Ezera, or Seven Lakes. Jodie stayed behind as this was not the trek for her. The five of us drove up winding mountain roads through the village of Panichishte to the Rila Lakes Chair Lift, which would take us on an open-air ride of more than 2 kilometers to the altitude of 2,100 meters.

At the top of the lift we reached the Rila Lakes Chalet and from there we began our hike. It was 8 Degrees Celsius and there was still plenty of snow around. It will all melt by the end of June. We looked up to the ridge on our right = that was where we were heading. It was a hard ascent even for me, but there were young children and even a woman carrying a young baby making the climb.

The Rila Lakes are fed by snow water and are located on a series of steps down the mountain valley. We would see five of them, and they are viewed most spectacularly from above.

After our first ascent we reached an open plateau and the colors around us were astounding. Along with the rocky, snow-covered peaks, there were fields of flowers, with purple the most predominant color.

At many points we had to cross the snow, which in some cases was quite deep and slippery.

The scenery was spectacular, and these pictures barely do justice to the magnificent views around us.

Below are hikers seen crossing the snow.

The fifth lake, below, was frozen, with the ice covered with snow. There was no way we could make our ways higher up towards the 6th and 7th lakes.

Below: the frozen lake.

Tony took panoramic pictures of the scenery.

On our way down, Fori fell and twisted his ankle, and he had to hobble back to the chair lift. Luckily it wasn't something serious. We drove back towards Sofia, very glad that the weather held. It was an extremely enjoyable hike!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Fuzzie-Wuzzies Are Back

Spring in Bulgaria is accompanied by an unusual occurrence that I’ve never seen anywhere else before – and I’m talking about the Fuzzie-Wuzzies that float in the air.

They must come from some kind of tree, but I have yet to discover which – and considering the amount of fluff floating in the air, there must be a lot of them in the city. It starts off with very little balls of fluff that float around – almost reminding you of snow, but they don’t melt. As time goes on, they gather their forces together and unite in bigger and bigger balls of cottony-looking fluff. The heavier balls don’t float, but gather in the corners of your porch and wait for the chance to blow into your house as soon as you leave a door open. Then they dance around your room and dare you to try and catch them and throw them back outside where they’ll only gather together with other fluff balls, and make their way inside again.

Sofia isn’t the only city in Bulgaria that I’ve seen these in. I remember encountering them last spring on some of our trips around the country. I’d be interested to know where they come from, if anyone out there knows!

In the meantime, I’ll keep throwing them out of the house until they finally disappear altogether!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

High School Graduation Celebrations

During the last week of May, the streets of Sofia are full of cars racing along blaring their horns, with balloons tied to their antennas trailing behind. Sitting half outside the car in the open windows are high school graduates, celebrating loudly their first taste of freedom.

High school graduation is a big thing to celebrate in Bulgaria and the graduates spare no expense when preparing for their final parties. The boys spend money on fancy suits and the girls empty their parents' pockets to purchase expensive gowns. It appears that they're all noisily bound for the Senior Prom.

The graduates from one school gathered, with their parents and curious onlookers, in the street outside the Kempinski Hotel where their party would take place. As the cars drove up, bringing more and more teenagers, they were met by musicians, playing a lively Balkan beat.

Each graduate bounced up to greet the next of his or her friends to arrive. Pictures were taken and cameramen filmed the festivities.

Everyone was smartly dressed for the occasion, and soon everyone headed inside the hotel for the party. Who knows if these fancy suits and gowns will be worn again?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bulgarian Education and Culture, and Slavonic Literature Day

Today is a national holiday, Bulgarian Education and Culture, and Slavonic Literature Day, which celebrates the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet, which originated in Bulgaria. Although there is some dispute as to who really created the Slavic language alphabet, the main consensus goes to the brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius, who were born in Thessaloniki in the 9th century. They were missionaries in Moravia, and one of their main tasks was to translate the Bible, for which they first created the Glagolitic alphabet, which was then used for Slavonic manuscripts. The Cyrillic alphabet was a direct descendent of this alphabet. The early alphabet was very closely related to the Greek alphabet.

At the time of the invention of the Cyrillic alphabet, the Byzantine Empire was expanding into Bulgaria, and many saw the preservation of the Old Slavonic language with its own alphabet as a way of preserving their national identity. To this day, the Bulgarians are very proud of their language and their alphabet.

I appreciate the sense of national pride that the Bulgarians feel, but I still wonder – wouldn’t it have been easier to adapt a Latin alphabet to the Slavonic language, instead of making an alphabet which is a mishmash of Latin, Greek and Hebrew letters, and a few invented ones, instead?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bear With Us

On our recent weekend journey to the south, one destination was washed out. We climbed up into the mountains near Bansko, only to be turned back by heavy rains (which we learned later caused flooding in the hotels and homes of that ski resort).

We had hoped to reach the Dancing Bears Rehabilitation Park, located near the village of Belitsa. The park was founded in 2000 by the Four Paws International organization to serve as a refuge for bears exploited and maltreated as dancing bears.

On Wednesday the Bulgarian press reported that a 65-year-old man was killed by a bear in the Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria. The man, from the village of Kutela, was attacked in the forest near his home when he was collecting firewood. Residents of the village were afraid to leave their homes. Two days later, hunters shot and killed the killer bear, but authorities began searching the area because they thought the animal may have a cub.

We hope to visit the bear park in Belitsa in the future.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Farmyardy Yoghurt

On our trip south last weekend we stopped at a roadside stand and bought two jars of sheep's yoghurt. We have had sheep's yoghurt before on a number of occasions, including on our trips to the Rila Monastery, and enjoyed its richness and freshness, whether served with honey or jam. In Melnik we had a refreshing snack of frozen sheep's yoghurt with honey and nuts.

Half of the yoghurt we put into our freezer at home, hoping to recreate the Melnik treat at some stage in the future. The other jar would serve as our breakfast = muesli and yoghurt.

"This tastes farmyardy," Jodie commented after her first spoonful.

The sheep's yoghurt we bought was rich, but had not been fully processed, and still tasted a bit like the sheep farm from which it came, somewhere in southwestern Bulgaria.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Oracle Baba Vanga and the Church in Rupite

The village of Rupite is not far from the main highway south to the Greek border. It is the burial site of the oracle Baba Vanga. Legend has it that at the age of six, she was visited by an angel who gave her a choice = eyesight or clairvoyance. Vanga chose the latter.

Vanga gained a following due to her prophecies and healing skills. Some of her followers reportedly asked for her help with the Lottery. Some of her prophecies made her a controversial person in Bulgaria, with many skeptics dismissing her reliability.

Baba Vanga died in 1996 and was buried in the Sveta Petka Church in Rupite, a very nice, bright church in a scenic park at the site of an ancient volcano.

This is a somewhat frightening obituary notice of the oracle herself on the church door:

There were hot mineral waters on the church grounds.

Scenes from the Bulgarian Countryside

Samuil's Fortress and the Bulgar Slayer

Driving as far to the southwest of Bulgaria as we could, almost reaching the Macedonian border crossing, we arrived at Samuil's Fortress, scene of one of the most historic battles and infamous tragedies in Bulgarian history.

In the year 1014, Basil II, the Byzantine ruler, defeated the Bulgarian army in a fierce battle. Samuil, the Emperor of the First Bulgarian Empire, had resolved to stop Basil II before he entered Bulgarian territory, and even attacked the Byzantines at Thessaloniki. But the Byzantines prevailed in the various battles and captured more than 14,000 Bulgarian troops.

Having crushed the Bulgarians, Basil was said to have captured 15,000 prisoners
and blinded 99 of every 100 men, leaving 150 one-eyed men to lead them back to
their ruler. Samuil was physically struck down by the dreadful apparition of his
blinded army, and he died two days later after suffering a stroke. Although the
extent of Basil's mistreatment of the Bulgarian prisoners may have been
exaggerated, this incident helped to give rise to Basil's nickname of
Boulgaroktonos, "the Bulgar-slayer", in later tradition.


Today, Samuil's Fortress is a beautiful park along a stream, with huge trees and vistas of the agricultural fields towards the Greek border.

At the top of the hill is a monument to Emperor Samuil, and remnants of his fortress.

Maybe these pitchforks were used in the battle?

Stick Lady

She dropped her sticks to pose for us on the road in southwestern Bulgaria.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Torrential Rains in Sandanski

We stayed at the Hotel Timeout in Sandanski. Sandanski is a small city with mineral hot springs that cater to spa tourism. On Friday night we walked along the pedestrian mall and dined outside. But Saturday was a different story.

According to The Rough Guide to Bulgaria, "Sandanski enjoys the warmest, sunniest climate in Bulgaria." On Saturday it rained all day and we barely ventured out of the hotel.

The hotel had a very small indoors swimming pool and a small jacuzzi as well, so when we didn't get wet outside, we dipped into the water inside.

And we read. Our Saturday reading:

** Jodie finished World Cup Wishes by Eshkol Nevo.
** I read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson (which we were extremely happy to discover recently in a Bulgarian bookstore for 29 Leva).

For lunch we drove to a Happy Restaurant on the outskirts of the city and for dinner we had a rather unexciting meal in the hotel's restaurant. We retired for the night hoping that Sunday wouldn't be rained out.