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Europe » Bulgaria » Veliko Tarnovo Province » Veliko Tarnovo
September 15th 2015
Published: June 8th 2017
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Geo: 42.7252, 25.4815

The cricket eventually buggered off last night, thank Heaven! The music went on for a while but it was a nice jazzy sound, so I didn't mind it. For a short while, it was just a tenor sax playing, and it sounded happy and mournful at the same time.

My aunt asked if there's been any problem here with the migrant crisis. It's certainly in the news (though I haven't been keeping up with the news at all) but I don't think Bulgaria has been directly affected at all.

We had our long walking tour of Veliko Tarnovo today; the weather was gorgeous … and hot. I don't know what the temperature got to, but there wasn't a cloud in the sky so the sun was just beating down on us. I may need to think about taking a hat or at least a visor on future trips. I mentioned that our hotel is on the side of a hill. It's actually toward the bottom of the hill, so everything else is up: up stairs, up pathways, up streets.

After climbing many, many old stone steps, we arrived at a sort of viewing platform between two buildings, each of which had stucco
art from the late 1970s on either side. One of the walls showed a 19th-century Bulgarian architect named Kolyo Ficheto. He was a brilliant guy, and his methods are still studied today by architectural students. At one time, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was going to be torn down because of the rising waters of the Seine beneath the structure. Someone from the French government was buddy-buddy with the Bulgarian consul and asked him if there were any masters in Bulgaria that could be sent to figure out a way to save the cathedral. The consul sent Mr. Ficheto to solve the problem, and he did: he worked out a proper drainage system to keep the waters from undermining the foundation. And that's how a Bulgarian architect saved Notre Dame.

We saw one of his designs a few minutes later. It's called the House of the Monkey because it has a stone figure of a monkey over the doorways. It's built in the symmetrical style with faux brickwork. The businessman for whom it was designed and built used to travel a great deal, and apparently the monkey was a symbol of this and, ultimately, a symbol of the businessman's great wealth.

We walked by a couple more stucco walls showing scenes from Bulgarian history. These were all created in the 1970s and 1980s under the Communist regime as a sop to the people. Also we saw a statue of Stefan Stambolov (sp?), a 19th-century politician — some say the greatest Bulgarian politician of the 19th century — who was attacked by his opponents after losing an election. They cut off Stambolov's hands with an axe and cracked his skull. He didn't die for three days. His wife kept his hands and displayed them in her window. (Ew.)

And finally, what we'd all been waiting for throughout the entire trip: the arts and crafts street (and by "we" I mean "the women"😉. Stefan kept telling us not to shop because everything would be better in Veliko Tarnovo. And it is!

We visited a potter's studio and watched Nina and her son, Demeter, mold the clay on a wheel and paint the clay after the first firing. Nina uses traditional medieval patterns and an old Byzantine technique called sgraffito. From wheel to sale condition, a plate takes her one month to make. It's a very hard and very precise craft; one little slip and the object must be destroyed. The traditional colors used for the pottery are yellow and green, but they do other colors too. Demeter played a collection of bowls like a xylophone, and they made a beautiful sound.

The silversmith next door is named Todor, and many years ago he was featured in a Bulgarian calendar of artisans. He likes to take old, traditional forms and update them. Everything in his shop was beautiful — and shiny!—from earrings to jewel-encrusted altar cross. He showed how he makes a bracelet from silver thread that looks black but eventually cures in a solution of sulfuric acid (five percent) to look pretty. He learned his trade as an apprentice, and he now has two apprentices.

A kadaif maker was next. This is the main (pretty much only) ingredient found in our dessert last night. It's the only place in Bulgaria where kadaif is made traditionally. It's just flour, water and salt, and it's poured from a sieve-like contraption onto a giant, horizontal, convex wheel. The wheel (which is heated) spins, the batter dries into long threads, and the lady scoops them off. It looks like a spaghetti harvest.

The woodcarver, Rumi, has been carving for 17 years. Prior to learning to carve, she studied drawing. I bought something from her later on, and it turns out she's married to Todor the silversmith. They have a son who has just gone to university in the Netherlands to study 3D animation. She was having a hard time cutting the cord and proudly showed a photo of her son and husband. Her son is really tall, over six feet. I don't think I've seen many tall Bulgarians. She creates spoons with intricate handles, little boxes and puzzle boxes, candlesticks that look like wrought iron, and little toys.

Arts and crafts behind us, we proceeded to once again climb up, up, up to the Tsarevets Fortress. To be honest, at this point I was so hot that I stopped paying much attention. I'm pretty sure it was built by one of the first kings of Bulgaria in the 16th century (?) and … um … well, it's huge. There's a wall and another interior wall, and then at the top of another hill within the fortress, there's another wall surrounding a church. The church was actually built in the 1980s and was painted by a Bulgarian artist who was clearly influenced by Goya, Picasso and the Mannerists. It's art that has its place, just not in a church. None of the paintings were religious — though there was a vague spiritual overtone — but of Bulgarian history. Personally, I didn't like it. The best part was that there happened to be five of us there at the time, so out in the church's backyard, four of us spelled out LOVE (I was the O) and the fifth took a picture. I'll have to remember to ask for a copy.

Hung out for a while under the trees on the second hill down from the church (still in the fortress) and had a Bulgarian lemonade, which was tasty, cold, and most welcome. There were several of us there, and we all looked a bit wiped out by the heat.

I left with five others to go find lunch and we met Stefan, who happened to be going to the restaurant we wanted to try: Hadji Nikoli Inn. "Hadji" is a title that could be put in front of your name if you had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. So this guy Nikoli went to Jerusalem, came back to Veliko Tarnovo and built an inn. Now it's a restaurant, wine store, and gallery. We all ate outside. When it came to ordering, Stefan said he was going to have some sort of fried lentil dish. Connie asked if he would share, and he replied, "Joey doesn't share food!" Which cracked me up. I had to ask him if they get a lot of American television programs here. He said they do, and they're all dubbed but with the English track still playing.

I had grilled chicken with sweet corn and a beer, the first one of the trip. Melanie and Connie had the same sort of salad, which came in a mold and looked like a fancy cake. Everything was tasty, Stefan almost choked when the heat from a pepper hit the back of his throat, and we took selfies (well, I didn't because I'm crap at it). Later found out that Stefan posted one of the photos on Facebook, with the comment, "Lunch with some of my tour members. This is what guiding is all about." Someone from one of his May tours responded, saying that she could see her friend Diana in the photo. Stefan told Diana, who was amazed, as the commenter was, indeed, a friend of ten years. She had no idea her friend had been on the Bulgaria tour, and her friend had no idea that Diana was on the Bulgaria tour. What a ridiculously small world!

Some of us went shopping afterwards. My need for stuff finally overrode my need to keep my suitcase manageable, and I bought stuff from Rumi, the woodcarver from earlier, and another woodcarver who carved more lighthearted, ornamental stuff. I also - finally - bought a magnet, the first of the trip.

Back to the hotel to rest and recover for an hour, then a cooking demonstration in the hotel restaurant at 5:00. The first dish cooked was mishmash, containing tomatoes, peppers, puree of roasted tomatoes and peppers, salt, cheese and eggs, all cooked in a very hot pot of sunflower oil. We tried it with toast, and it was very good. Then Stefan, the barmaid, and another lady in a traditional Bulgarian vest did a circle dance that was very energetic.

Stefan and the lady then demonstrated how to make banitsa. Layers of phyllo dough were formed into rose-like shapes and put in a round pan, then cheese was added on top. Then another layer of phyllo roses and
more cheese, topped by another four layers of phyllo. Sliced lengthwise and crosswise, a boiling pot of butter was poured on top, and then it had to sit before being put in the oven. This meant another two circles dances, one of which I got dragged up for. I dearly hope there is no photographic evidence of this. I never did figure out what they were doing with their feet, but at least I could manage moving in a circle. At last, the banitsa was sent to the oven. Those Bulgarian dancing songs are long!

This evening we went to a performance at the cultural center in a nearby town. There are cultural centers in most cities and larger towns in Bulgaria, and they generally comprise a library, performance space, classrooms, etc. We were there to see a folk group perform especially for us. There were maybe 30 women and six or seven men who sang and danced for us in the most wonderful traditional costumes. The ladies had marvelous headdresses, and the men had beautiful coats and big furry hats. Stefan said the age range of the group is 16-76, but we didn't see any kids because today was the
first day of school in the country. There was a lot of high-pitched yipping from the dancing women and "Ho!," "Oop!" and "Hey!" from the men. They were accompanied by a seven-piece band: two types of string instruments, something that looked like a recorder, a drum, bagpipes, and an accordion.

The performance was excellent, and afterward we all had to get up on stage, with the performers, and do the dance we learned yesterday. It was actually a lot of fun, as it started in a circle but soon became a line just snaking around the stage in crack-the-whip fashion. We only had to dance for two or three minutes before we were exhausted. I can't imagine how the performers felt in their wool costumes.

When we got back to the hotel, we had the banitsa. So light and so buttery, and any calories we worked off dancing were put right back on again!


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No sitting this way, no sitting that way, no ballet.
The oldest singersThe oldest singers
The oldest singers

Apart from the costume, they remind me of nuns from "The Sound of Music."


15th September 2015

What a trip you are on. Beautiful scenery.
16th September 2015

It's hard to imagine the folk dancers in "regular" clothes. I guess that's the point. Love the Notre Dame story!
16th September 2015

I love this photo!
16th September 2015

Lovely you!
16th September 2015

That's truly a charming place!

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