Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Monks, cats and rain...

Our final day in Plovdiv went by quickly. We arose early, dropped our bags off at the train station, and caught a local bus to the Bachkovo monestary just outside of Plovdiv. During Ottoman times, the Eastern Orthodox Chruch survived by effectively retreating up into the hills. As a result, Bulgaria is litered with a large number of monestaries; of which Bachkovo is the second largest.

After a quick bus ride out of town, we made our way toward the entrance of the monestary through a long line of souvenier shops. While some of the items for sale made sense, like religious paintings and jars of homemade honey, other items for sale seemed a little more random and unnecessary - namely piles of toy machine guns.

The monestary itself was attractive and peaceful, with a beautiful and ornate chapel at its center. In addition, the monks were exactly what you'd expect from Eastern Othrodox monks, ancient beared men in long black robs and square topped hats. Walking past one monk, at one point, without looking at me, he suddenly reach down gripped my arm firmly, then squeezed my hand, before moving on like he hadn't even seen me.

Appropriately, but unfortunately, photography wasn't allowed, so we are only left with our memories of the experience.

We couldn't take photos in the monestary, but here's the entrance!

After checking out the monestary, we decided to take a short hike through the countryside surrounding the monestary. Originally, we thought we might be following a trail to another, older, monestary; but that goal soon fell by the wayside as we made our way up into the hills.

Hiking in the hills around the monestary.

Catching the bus again, and returning to Plovdiv, we were soon loaded onto our train to Veliko Tarnovo. Initially, we were excited to be taking the train afer so many hours on buses, but we soon learned that occasionally they have their downsides too... Namely, they get really hot, a problem that is only exasperated when the woman sitting next to the window refuses to open it for reasons that shall forever remain a mystery.

Even before the window-woman got on the train, it was already hot... as you can see by this photo of Sarah.

Arriving at Veliko Tarnovo, we were picked up by a person from the hostel we'd made reservations with. While driving us to our hostel, he pointed out several things to us: "There is the tourist information, they are very helpful" (we'll get to them later) and "that is the best restaurant in town" (we'll get to that later too). Checking into our hostel, we were able to clean up and appreciate the stunning view from the terrace.

The view from the hostel terrace of the fortress on the edge of Veliko Tarnovo.

Next though, we had to get food; so we hiked back down the winding cobblestone streets to the restaurant the hostel owner had pointed out. As we approached, we noticed the restaurnt was quite crowded.

"Hello, two for dinner, please," we asked. The waiter looked around quickly, "no."

OK.... No problem though, since we were able to get dinner at the restaurant next door. After that, tired from our trainride we called it a night. That's when we met Darko.

In the middle of the night, a woke up momentarily when Sarah got up to used the bathroom. But, rolling over, I was quickly falling asleep again, when... "gah!!" Why was Sarah attacking my feet!?

But, it turned out it wasn't Sarah. It was Darko, the hostel's kitten. From that introduction onward, Darko quickly became Sarah and mine's best friend in Veliko Tarnovo. He'd spend the nights curled with us in bed, and when we ate breakfast he'd circle our feet meowing trying to jump onto our lap. After several days of playing with Darko, Sarah and I have become fairly certain we want to get a cat after we are settled in again in Seattle.

Darko hangs out with Sarah in our room.

The next morning, we ate breakfast and headed into town. Our first mission was to secure train tickets onward to Romania. Even though we were planning on spending several days in Veliko, we had also read that you should buy international train tickets at least 24 hours in advance. So, we made our way to the ticket office downtown.

In the ticket office, the woman at the counter assured us we could buy tickets. But, rather mysteriously, she instructed us to come back at 2pm. This was a bit frustrating, because it was about 11pm which didn't leave us muchtime to explore around between now and then, so we'd be stuck milling around intown - rather that out hiking or checking out the fortress.

So, we made our way to the nearby Tourist Information building. The owner of the hostel had said it would be helpful, so we figured they'd be able to advise us on how to spend the next couple hours. Unfortunately, the woman working there seemed only interested in telling us that it was going to rain.

"Well, you can go check out this street, they have crafts and things to buy... but, it is probably going to rain, so..." *shrug* Or, "you can hike to the monestary, but it is probably going to rain, so..."

Luckily, leaving the Information building, we stumbled acoss a scenic street to wander down. The narrow street, lined with medival buildings provided wonderful views of town, and of a mysterious building and statue which seemed to sit on the other side of the river which bended through town.

Making our was down the historic street, many of the hills sit perched above the river that bends through town.

A little more searching, and we were able to find a bridge which allowed us to cross over to the building. The building itself was a museum which appeared closed, but the statue was a mammoth monument dedicated to four Bulgarian heroes that were depicted on horseback in a style that would do any Japanese animator proud.

When we tried to photograph the statues, they came out too backlit, but you can see the whole statue on theleft in this image.

After having burnt a little more time, we made our way back to the travel office. As we approached it, Sarah noticed the woman working there locking the door and walking hurriedly away. They made eye contact, but the woman just hurried away quicker. We walked up to the locked up building and looked at the times on the hours posted on the front door: Open till 3:30. But, very obviously, not.

So we made our way back to the Tourist Info, to see if she can explain why they were closed early. The woman's response went something like this: "Yeah, they do that all the time. You would think they would be open all day on Saturday. But, its going to rain, so..."

At this point, we were getting frustrated, and -since we hadn't eaten since breakfast- Sarah's blood sugar levels were starting to dip, fast. When Sarah starts to crash when she gets hungery, she quickly becomes listless and depressed. And, while I was still doing OK, I knew that I'd be right behind her since I generally crash in a similar manner about an hour later.

So, rather desperately, we scrambled to find a place to eat. Bizarrely (probably because we were so hungery), we couldn't seem to find a place to eat. Luckily, at the last minute we found a small non-descript cafe to duck into... and just in the nick of time, since at that moment the Info-woman's prediction came true, and it started to rain. Hard.

In Veliko Ternovo, it doesn't just rain, it pours. Curtains of rain accompanied by thunder that shakes the windows and makes you glance around looking for the Hollywood soundman shaking his piece of sheet-metal. But, no sooner had we finished our lunch than the rain stopped.

Later that evening, after playing around with the camera for a LONG time, I actually managed to catch a lightning bolt above the fortress!

Leaving the cafe, we decided to turn our day around, and go check out the fortress. The Tsarvet's fortress sit to one side of the old town, and is easily the most memorable feature of the town. Paying the admission, we crossed over the long bridge connecting it to town and began exploring it.

Most of the actual fortress is in ruins, but portions of it have been rebuilt or restored. Most notably, the church which sits at the peak of the hill. Interestingly, the interior of the church has been repainted with every wall now covered in Christian murals rendered in an almost graphetti style. Several other places caught our attention, like the Execution Rock, and thankfully it didn't rain anymore while we there.

The church at the peak of the hill on which Tsarvet's fortress sits.

The crazy graphetti-style murals covering the walls inside.

Execution Rock, where they'd push criminals from to execute them.

Back at the hostel, we spent the evening reading, playing with Darko and waiting to watch the Sound and Light show the fortress from the hostel terrace. But, the show ended up being cancelled that evening as another epic storm rolled in casting lighting around and wrapping the fortress in clouds.

During a break in storm, Sarah and I decided to go give the recommended restaurant a try. Again, the seats outside seemed crowded, but a few looked empty...

"Hello, two for dinner, please," we asked. The waiter looked around quickly, "no."

So, we had dinner at an Irish pub near our hostel.

The next morning, our plan was to hike to a monestary located 6 kilometers outside of town. Now, when we first started our trip, we would have prepared for a hike like this by loading our backpack with food and gear before setting out. But, these days we've gotten a little more loosey-goosey. So, grabbing our rainjackets and a bottle of water, we set out.

The trail wound up through town before heading out on a small muddy path. After crossing a hill and skeet-shoot range (that, thankfully, wasn't open) we made our way into a valley. The mud on the trail was almost clay-like though, building up on the soles until you felt like you were wearing uneven platform shoes. At one point, it even caughted me to slip and fall, letting out a string of swear words that might have been Bulgarian.

Crossing a river, and climbing another muddy trail, we came to a clearing... which is where we met Douglas. Douglas came stumbling up the trail with his shirt slung over his shoulder, looking slightly confused and clutching his own bottle of water.

"We just came from Veliko Tarnovo and we're going to the monestary. And you?"
"I'm coming from Veliko Tarnovo and I'm going to the monestary."

This came as a bit of a surprise, since he was headed in exactly the opposite direction. Still, it was enough to convince me that we were lost. So, with Douglas in tow, we reversed directions and headed back down the hill, across the river and to a fork in the road we'd previously ignored.

Hiking down the other trail, it quickly became apparent that this wasn't the right direction either. And, after talking with Douglas some more, we became increasingly convinced that we had been heading the correct direction all along. Still, Sarah and I didn't want to break the news to Douglas, so we soldiered on.

Luckily, fate sorted things out for us when -after another 30 minutes of hiking- Douglas suddenly announced: "Hey, I've been here!" So, climbing a makeshift ladder out of a steep valley, we were able to get our bearing and get back on track again.

After a relatively short and straight-forward hike onward, we were at the monestary. This monestary was notably smalled, but just as quaint. Also, it was interesting because it was in the middle of being restored, and the smoke damage from years past was being removed, so you could see the "before" and "after" effect.

The clocktower at the monestary.

Inside the chapel (which we could actually photograph this time), you can see the lower part has been restored, while thetop is still smoke damaged.

After exploring the monestary for a bit, we left Douglas resting on a bench, and started the hike back. Unfortunately, I had become convinced that I'd found a short-cut. And, of course, the short-cut added an extra half hour or so to our return trip. By the time we stumbled back into town, I was a tired, hungery, stumbling mess or mud, mumbling to myself about how I'd "never hike again." A pledge that lasted about 24 hours.

But, luckily for us, the recommended restaurant did have seats for us. And the food was very good. Also, while we sat there shovelling food and beer into our face, Douglas came stumbling up and sat with us. Amazingly, he'd managed to find his way back... something Sarah and I had had our doubts about. Eating and talking to Douglas proved to be an interesting and surprising conversation. Because, despite his somewhat confused and fish out-of-water appearance and behavior, he'd apparently been to pretty much every location we've been to on this trip... and more. Just goes to show you, I guess.

Having finished eating, we went back to our hostel to try to catch the Sound and Light Show. Like the other shows we've seen on this trip, the whole concept seems a little crass, but the delivery ends up being fairly interesting. From our hostel, we couldn't hear the musical accompaniment, but were still able to watch the captivating and colorful lights ripple over hillside and ruins.

But, even more interesting, we watched the lightshow with another guest at the hostel... who happened to be a writer for Lonely Planet.

Well, after seven months of living with and complaining about Lonely Planet, it had to happen. After the show had finished, we sat with him, drinking a beer and exchanging travel stories. He had a slightly distracted and self-important way of talking, but also was admittedly very informed about the area. The conversation was slightly surreal, and ultimately uneventful, but here are a couple of points which he made that Sarah and I found interesting... or at least telling.

- He was very forward with both us and the hostel staff about the fact that he was a writer to Lonely Planet writer. No, "secret shopper" routine where he tried to pass himself off as a normal traveller. So, while the writers for Lonely Planet don't take hand outs or bribes, its questionable as to whether or not their experience is the same as the typical traveller.

- He maintained that someone shouldn't be a writer for a travel guide unless they spoke the language of the country they are travelling in. I can see both the pros and cons of this... but also think that its worth noting.

- He also happily announced that he didn't like "being uncomfortable." While no one likes being uncomfortable, it also seems to be an odd thing for someone to say if they are doing a publication geared toward budget backpakers.

- And, he won't go anywhere there are large bugs.

These notes aside, I've decided that I won't use his name here because -ultimately- he was pleasant and professional, had a family, a passion for his work and was very informed on the region. So, I didn't want this to come off as me talking trash behind his back. It's just the entire situation was bizarre, surreal and (at the end of our trip) oddly fitting.

The next morning, we awoke, ate breakfast, said goobye to Darko and went to buy train tickets. At this point, we were a little nervous we'd even be able to get them. But, the same woman who had left us hanging the previous Saturday quickly sold us some. And, after a quick bus ride, we were on the train to Romania!

1 comment:

ambika said...

That's disappointing that he *tells* people he's from the Lonely Planet. Must go hand in hand with that dislike of discomfort because *obviously* he's going to get special treatment the minute it's known he'll be writing for a universally read travel guide. Gah.

Also, I spent 20 minutes of last night's book club talking about our cats so you can be sure I'll do a dance not only upon your return (so excited for the Hill-Stach return!) but for a cat joining the Hill-Stach house!