Sunday, June 23, 2013

Bulgarian Road Tripping with Dad

As you may be aware, I recently had to cancel a trip to Seattle (where I had hoped to catch up with my family and friends after a year and a half away) because of a serious medical condition. Although I have been out of the hospital for several weeks now and I am feeling much better, it's still dangerous for me to travel for long periods of time. That's why I won't be visiting my family for a while. :(

Dad's first Bulgarian meal

Luckily, my Dad was able to come visit me and also see Bulgaria for the first time. It was so great having him here, and really brightened my mood. During his two weeks here we were mostly at home, as I find myself getting tired easily and needing more rest. But we were also able to take him on a short trip around the country, our final destination being the Black Sea. With Kiril driving and Dad in the front seat, I was able to stretch out across the back seat and keep my leg elevated while on the road.

The southern highway to the Black Sea (Sofia-Burgas, or Thrakia Highway) passes close to Plovdiv, one of Bulgaria's oldest and largest cities. We spend a little time walking up to the Roman amphitheater and then having lunch in a former Dervish monastery that was constructed atop one of the old city's Roman walls (visible downstairs and from the patio outside).

Me and Dad in the center of Plovdiv

Our next stop was a Thracian temple and royal tomb, recently discovered near the village of Starosel. The temple, which dates back to the 4th century B.C., is the largest one found so far on the Balkan peninsula. A tour guide explained that the temple was used for worshiping the three dimensions of sky, earth and underworld. Three natural colors were painted in a repeating pattern around the walls and are still visible today. After that we stopped in nearby Hisarya, a town famous for its mineral water and Roman history. There are many resorts there where you can try out the healing properties of the famous water for yourself. It took us longer to find the southern gate of the late Roman wall, nicknamed "The Camels" than we spent looking at it, but it was getting very hot so we kept driving to our next destination.

In front of "The Camels" southern fortress wall in Hisarya

We spent the night in Veliko Turnovo, but on the way passed through the Shipka Pass. This landmark is an important part of Bulgaria's independence period, and a fierce battle was fought there between Bulgarian rebels and Ottoman soldiers. Last year I visited the monument and museum on top of the peak, but this time we just drove through on our way to Bulgaria's medieval capital. Our hotel was located right next to the Tsarevets fortress in the old town, which would have been perfect for watching an evening light show on the fortress walls. However, after a long day of driving and waiting a long time to eat, we had dinner in the hotel restaurant and went to bed early before starting another day of sightseeing.

The Holy Forty Martyrs Church in Veliko Turnovo

The next morning, after exploring the ramparts of Veliko Turnovo's medieval fortress walls and church (I opted to wait on a shady bench while Kiril and Dad made the hike), we drove down to the Holy Forty Martyrs Church on the banks of the Maritsa River. This church has an interesting history, and has also borne witness to some of Bulgaria's historical milestones. Tsar Kaloyan, one of Bulgaria's most legendary rulers, is buried in the church. Under Ottoman rule, the church was refashioned into a mosque, and many of its paintings and murals were destroyed. In 1908, Tsar Ferdinand declared the independence of the whole territory of Bulgaria inside the church. There is one remaining section of the church with original foundations and the rest has been restored. The newer interior is bright with white painted walls, which is uncommon for Bulgarian churches but has a very airy and calming feel.

Foundations of a pagan temple and first Christian Basilica at Pliska

After leaving Veliko Turnovo, we headed east towards Shumen and eventually got to Pliska, the capital of the first Bulgarian Empire from the year 681. It was founded by Khan Asparuh, who established the first Bulgarian Empire. Not a lot is left of the original buildings in the complex, as many of them were made from wood, but the stone foundations of a pagan temple, two basilicas, the royal palace, a bath house and several outlying buildings remain. A small museum describes the site's history and provides reconstructions of all the original structures.

On the Black Sea in Sozopol

Finally, we reached our end destination and checked into our hotel in Sozopol, just a half hour south of Burgas. Incidentally, we stayed at the same hotel as the first time I visited the Black Sea almost three years ago. I love staying in the old town because it is so charming and peaceful. And Sozopol is easily my favorite town on the coast, as it boasts small, charming cobblestone streets, two beaches, ancient walls and ongoing archaeological investigations. A recent one was the reported discovery of some relics of St. John the Baptist, which were probably transferred to the island of St. Ivan (St. John in English), just a kilometer from Sozopol's public marina, by a Christian monk in the 5th or 6th century. The relics are on display in the restored Church of Saints Kiril and Metodi, and the waterproof container likely used to transport them is in the regional historical museum. That museum also currently houses one vampire skeleton, part of another exciting and fascinating recent find near the town.

Medieval ruins of a monastery on the island of St. John the Baptist

We were able to visit the island by boat, and the roundtrip only cost us 40 leva, or roughly $9 per person. Our captain Dimitar told us that he has worked with the archaeologists working on the island, and that his boat actually transported the relics to the mainland. The island is small, and today mostly a nature preserve. We saw lots of young seagulls getting ready to take their first flight. A lighthouse built in the late 19th century still stands there, and the ruins of two churches can be viewed easily by tourists. The older one is where the relics of St. John were found, buried under the altar, in the summer of 2010.

Me and Kiril, on the boat ride back to Sozopol

We didn't make any more stops on our return trip to Sofia, so it was much faster, and Dad had just enough time to get his bags packed up before heading home to Seattle the next day. He was very happy at the end of our trip that he got to see so many parts of Bulgaria. But still, there are many more to see so I hope that he will come back again soon!


  1. Very enjoyable report of your trip! It brought back many memories of when I lived in Bulgaria.

    1. Thanks, Ellis! Nice to hear from you and glad you enjoyed the post. I will keep an eye out for your book... :)