Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Bulgarian Honored by Yad Vashem for Saving Jews in 1943

Bulgarian Vladimir Kurtev has been honored posthumously as "a Righteous Among the Nations" for his role in the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps in 1943.

A medal and certificate of honor were presented to Kurtev's granddaughter on Monday at a special ceremony held at the Yad Vashem memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem in the presence of Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov, Bulgarian Ambassador to Israel Dimitar Tsanchev, and the Chairman of the Israel-Bulgaria Friendship Association, Dr. Moshe Mossek.

"Thank you for helping us not to forget those who had the courage to stand up against the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews. Among the many dark pages in Bulgaria’s history, the events from February 1943 are a beam of light which showed the action of civil society in Bulgaria leading to changing history, something which was supposed to happen everywhere across Europe," Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov said at the ceremony according to press sources.

Vladimir Kurtev (1880 - 1946) was a Bulgarian teacher and a revolutionary and activist of the VMORO (International Macedonia-Adrianople Organization) fighting for the liberation of the regions of Macedonia and their accession to Bulgaria.

As a resident of the town of Kyustendil, Kurtev joined 3 other non-Jews and traveled to Sofia to protest an order signed between the German SS and the Bulgarian Commissioner for Jewish Questions on February 22, 1943, calling for the deportation of 20,000 Bulgarian Jews.

At their meeting with Minister of the Interior Petur Gabrovski, the minister denied that such deportation orders existed. Kurtev retorted that he had heard about them with his own ears, and threatened the minister with Macedonian "sanctions" if the edict wasn’t revoked.

As a result of these efforts, Bulgarian Jews were released from custody and the order was revoked. Macedonian Jews, however, were deported to the death camps.

According to press reports, Kurtev disappeared after the war, and his fate is unknown, although it is believed that he may have been murdered by the Bulgarian communist authorities.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Expensive Meal, Inexpensive Meal

Last Wednesday night we joined our friends for a meal together at the Sofia Hilton. The Hilton was having a Thai Food Festival and our friend is the Honorary Consul of Thailand in Bulgaria. It was our first visit to the Hilton and its Seasons Restaurant. The special menu for the occasion had some interesting Thai dishes (although we passed on the prawns and pork). Although the service was a bit slow due to the fact that the restaurant was crowded, we enjoyed the Bulgarian wine and the company.

When the bill came for our party of six it was 165 Leva per couple (82 Euros). What made the meal expensive was the wine selection.

Last night Jodie and I dined at a Chinese restaurant not far from our house (after two other nearby Chinese restaurants had closed down). The food was quite good and served in large portions. In fact, the portions were so large that we will have another two full meals this week with the leftovers. The cost for this meal for 2 people, including tip, was 28 Leva (14 Euro).

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Montana, Bulgaria

Our last stop on our Sunday travels was in Montana. Montana, Bulgaria, that is. Montana is the administrative center for the region and the hometown of Ivelina, my former coworker and her family.

Above, Ivelina and me in the center of the town. Below are pictures of us with our friend from Israel, Iris, and Ivelina's mother and brother.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Belogradchik Rocks Rock!

Belogradchik is a town in northwestern Bulgaria and also the name of a fortress and nature reserve of bizarrely shaped sandstone, limestone and other rock formations. The Belogradchik Rocks were Bulgaria's candidate in the campaign for New Seven Wonders of Nature.

The Belogradchik Fortress, known as the Kaleto, incorporates the rocks into its defenses. The original fortress at this location was built during the time of the Roman Empire, and it was later expanded and reconstructed during the 14th century.

We visited Belogradchik with our friend Iris from Israel, and with my former coworker Ivelina, who lives in the town of Montana, also in northwestern Bulgaria. Below is the town of Belogradchik as viewed from the fortress above.

We viewed the amazing rock formations of the area from the fortress, which entailed climbing up many steep steps and one very vertical ladder. Great work Jodie and Iris!

After visiting the Belogradchik Rocks and fortress, we had lunch in a hotel in the town. Below is Jodie's artistic photo of the rocks through one of the hotel windows.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The House Museums of Koprivshtitsa

When we first visited Koprivshtitsa in March last year we shared the colorful, historical village with a heavy snowstorm. We vowed to return and again see the place where the the April Uprising against the Ottoman rulers started in 1876. This time the weather cooperated, and we enjoyed visiting the well-preserved houses from that time that now serve as museums and reminders of that important era of Bulgarian history.

Above is the first museum we visited, the Oslekov House, built in the 1850s by one of Koprivshtitsa's wealthiest merchants. The uniforms for the Bulgarian rebels were sewn in Nenchko Oslekov's house. When the uprising failed, Oslekov was captured by the Turks and hung.

The house above is that of Bulgarian poet Dimcho Debelianov. Debelianov comes from a different period of Koprivshtitsa's history; he was killed at the age of 29 in World War I.

Pictured above is Lyutov's House. It was bought by local merchant Petko Lyutov in the early 1900s.

Above is the home of Georgi Benkovski, one of the leaders of the April Uprising. Below is a picture of me next to Benkovski's statue.

Above and below is the Karavelov House, home to journalist and printer Lyuben Karavelov and Bulgarian politician Petko Karavelov.

On the Road East of Sofia = Scenery

Vasil Levski Memorial in the Mountains

Vasil Levski, who worked to liberate Bulgaria from the yoke of Ottoman rule in the 1800s, is regarded as the country's national hero. The main stadium in Sofia and streets all over the country are named in his honor. We stopped at a memorial to Levski as we drove east through the mountains on Saturday morning.

The view from this lookout point overlooking a colorful valley cloaked in morning mists was amazing.

We stopped at the exact same spot on our return trip to Sofia later that day and again we were amazed at the view.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Horses, Honey and Beer

You never know what you'll see on the roads of the Rila Mountains.

We particularly enjoy buying fresh, local honey on the roads leading up to the monastery. This stand let us taste the different varieties before we settled on a dark, rich honey with a unique taste.

As we had done on our previous visits to Rila, we stopped for lunch at a riverside restaurant for a meal of fresh trout. The beer hit the spot, and luckily the threatening dark clouds never broke the spell of our great visit.

Here's yet another picture of me guzzling Zagorka Beer.

Return to Rila

We had first gone to the Rila Monastery last June with my coworker Ionatan and then we returned with our children when they visited in August. This summer we'll probably return a few times with our many guests. The first of our visitors was our Neve Ilan neighbor and friend, Iris Peer. Jodie took Iris around Sofia on Thursday when I was still in Israel, and we headed south together to Rila on a Friday morning.

It seemed that the wall paintings on the church had been cleaned up since our last visits as the colors were very bright and the religious features, telling stories of the Bible and sainthood, were distinct and clear.

There was still snow on the distant mountains. Just beyond those peaks are the Seven Lakes where I had recently hiked.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On the Plane with Elton John's Band

The morning after attending Elton John's concert in Sofia, I (Ellis), headed to the airport to catch a flight to Israel on a short business trip. Waiting at the gate before boarding the plane I noticed a long-haired man, vaguely familiar. I asked him if he was in the concert the previous night, and he confirmed this. It was one of Elton John's guitarists.

The band and crew were taking an El Al flight ahead of their concert in Israel on Thursday night. I had a chance to shake hands with drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone. They, of course, flew business class while I was back in economy, but it was still interesting to meet them.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Elton John Concert in Sofia

The string of major concert acts to visit Bulgaria continues! Just 10 days ago we saw Bob Dylan in concert, and now we had a chance to see Elton John and his band perform. We had seen Elton John when he visited Israel some 30 years ago, and we were excited to hear him again. His Rocket Man Tour promised all of the singer's greatest hits. We were not to be disappointed.

The concert took place at Lokomotiv Stadium, in Sofia's far northern neighborhoods. We took a long taxi ride to get there, arriving in the midst of a traffic jam of fans heading into the stadium. The location provided places only for some 20,000 fans. We had seats in the 37th row and a good view of the stage.

In short, it was a great concert! Elton and his band performed for 2 1/2 hours without a break, singing hit after hit. Elton spoke to the crowd, saying that this was his first visit to Bulgaria but hopefully he would be back.

A non-definite list of Elton John songs at the concert included:
Funeral for a Friend
Love Lies Bleeding
Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting
Madman Across the Water
Tiny Dancer
Take Me to the Pilot
Rocket Man
Sorry Always Seems to Be the Hardest Word
Something About the Way You Look Tonight
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Candle in the Wind
Crocodile Rock
Philadelphia Freedom
The Bitch Is Back
I'm Still Standing
The Circle of Life
Your Song

Friday, June 11, 2010

Will Israeli Tourists Flock to Bulgaria?

"After the deterioration of our relations with Turkey, which was a main destination for about 400,000 of our tourists, naturally Bulgaria will be the best alternative for them," Israeli Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog said at an official meeting with his Bulgarian counterpart, Totyu Mladenov.

Media sources reported this week that Herzog was meeting with Mladenov to discuss cooperation on social issues, but the subject of tourism was raised as well.

"There are many retired people who go to spa resorts in Greece and Romania. The most natural thing for them would be to visit Bulgaria afterwards. Varna is a very popular tourist destination," Herzog said, as quoted by Novinite.com, the Sofia News Agency.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cherry Season!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Festival of the Roses, a Parade in Kazanlak

One of Bulgaria's most important exports is rose oil for the cosmetic industry. Every year there is a Festival of the Roses in central Bulgaria, where the roses are grown. We traveled to Kazanlak on Sunday for the parade that concluded the week-long festivities.

Bulgaria is one of the largest suppliers of rose oil to the world's perfume makers. Roses are grown in the central Valley of the Roses, with Kazanlak being the small town at the valley's center. The Bulgarian oil-bearing rose, or Rosa damascena, has been cultivated in this area of the country for some 300 years.

It takes approximately 4,000 kilograms of rose petals to produce one kilogram of pure rose oil. The roses are picked from the middle of May, usually by gypsy laborers at very low wages.

We arrived in Kazanlak with friends after 2 1/2 hours of driving from Sofia. We sat down for drinks and watched troupes of young girls performing ahead of the parade.

Everywhere in Bulgaria you can find souvenirs made of rose oil, but Jodie finds the smell a little too strong for her.

The hour of the parade drew near, and crowds gathered alongside the central street of the town.

The president of Bulgaria, Georgi Parvanov, was in town and greeted the crowds. “The image of the Bulgarian rose around the world should be protected and developed further,” he said. This was the second time we had seen the president, the first being at the 100th anniversary of Sofia's synagogue.

Here come the kukeri! Kukeri are traditionally costumed men, with animal masks and sometimes with cow bells around their waists, who play a role in Bulgarian folk tradition.

Marches included children and students from many schools in the region.

More kukeri!

Every year, the Festival of the Roses crowns its queen. The queen marched in the parade, and sat in a special place of honor, surrounded by rose petals. I managed to take a photo of one of the Rose Princesses.

Another Rose Princess.