Where's Spencer?: Bulgaria Edition

Spencer frequently (both purposefully and inadvertently) photobombs my panoramic shots in every city. Even though I try to capture the photos without him somehow, somewhere appearing, I nonetheless seem to fail. I figured since I've got this treasure trove of I-Spy Spencer shots, I'd feature a Where's Waldo-esque post of my Bulgarian panoramic shots in which Spencer somehow, someway photobombed. Enjoying finding him in each of the photos below (click the photos to enlarge). Stay tuned for Where's Spencer?: Turkey Edition, coming soon.
Sofia City Gardens
Sofia Bath
Alexander Nevski Cathedral
Mound of Brotherhood
Monument of the Assens
Rila Monastery
Rila Monastery
Rila Monastery
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Veliko Tarnovo - The City of the Tsars

The Yantra River
We only meant to spend one day in the "city of the Tsars", Bulgaria's former capital, but as with everything in Bulgaria, it surprised and enchanted us, so we extended our stay to 3 days. One day was spent exploring Buzludzha, while the rest were passed exploring the mountainous historic village.

After we explored Buzludzha, we wanted to go on the free city walking tour in order to fully appreciate the history around us, but it was the day after Halloween and the guide was a no-show - I guess we shouldn't be surprised. Instead we gave ourselves our own tour. Veliko Tărnovo, as with the rest of Bugaria, dates back to antiquity - 5 thousand millennia to be exact. The city sprawls out across three hills (Tsaravets, Sveta Gora, and Trapezitsa) and nuzzles its way between the lazy twists and turns of the Yantra River.

Due to its mountainous location and access to water, Veliko Tărnovo made a prime fortification location and was Bulgaria's largest fortification between the Medieval years 1100 and 1300, and during these years of the Second Bulgarian state, Veliko Tărnovo served as Bulgaria's capital. During this time, Kings Assen the 1st, Peter, Kaloyan and Ivan Assen the 2nd ruled over Veliko Tărnovo as it turned into an important political, economic and cultural hub for Bulgaria. The Second Bulgarian State would later cease to exist, but their memory is not forgotten. To mark the 800th anniversary of their rule, an enormous monument dedicated to each of the four Kings was erected in the crook of the Yantra River, able to be viewed from nearly any corner of the city center.

Monument of the Assens
The Kings during the second Bulgarian State lived like, well, Kings. Atop Tsarevets hill sits Tsarevets fortress, which used to house a royal palace so extravagant it was compared to Rome and Constantinople. Besides being a stronghold, Tsarevets held a palace with a throne room, residential quarters, monasteries, churches, and crafts shops, as well as a tower, which has been rebuilt and now stands tall among the ruins. Also on Tsarevets hill is Executioners Rock where traitors where pushed into the Yantra River below. When the Ottoman Empire set its sights on Veliko Tărnovo, they besieged the fortress for three weeks before finally burning it all down, thus ending the Bulgarian state and commencing Ottoman rule. The fortress remains in ruins today, with the lone tower standing above the city as a reminder of the city's great past.

Tsarevets Fortress
In 1393 the Ottoman Empire captured Veliko Tărnovo and years later the whole country itself. And so they stayed under Ottoman rule until 1876 when Bulgarians launched the April Uprising and demanded independence. In an attempt to Europeanize Bulgaria, the capital was changed to Sofia, but today Veliko Tărnovo remains and important center of education and art.

Veliko Tărnovo is small, but quaint. It surprised me with how adorable it is nestled into the rolling hills and divided by the winding river. The hostel we stayed at was awesome - great free breakfasts and dinners, a cozy living room, and spacious outdoor patios - and the other backpackers made it even better. Not to mention, every meal we ate in Veliko Tărnovo was top notch and dirt cheap. Certain circumstances and experiences make specific places special, an Veliko Tărnovo, like Sofia, had that special something that made me fall in love with it. Bulgaria, I think I love you!

While Veliko Tărnovo was amazing, and the Buzludzha trip was crazy, it eventually came time for us to move on to what is considered the oldest city in Europe: Plovdiv, Bulgaria. We take yet another step back in history to literally the very birth place of European civilization before moving East into Asia.

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Buzludzha - A Chance to Talk about Communism and UFOs in the Same Sentence

It’s cold - colder than I’ve been in over two years - and it’s Halloween, and I’m standing on top of the highest peak in the Balkan mountain range in Bulgaria in an abandoned building as fog and clouds cloak everything in white obscurity. But this isn’t any abandoned building, this is one of many of Bulgaria’s Communist-era relics, but unlike the others, this one is particularly strange and, well, absurd.

Buzludzha. Besides being a complicated word to say for a non-Bulgarian speaker, this word meant nothing to me until today. Now the word conjures up images of cloud covered peaks, hammer and sickles, and red Communist stars on a building that looks not too different than what UFO shuttles look like in the movies.

Buzludzha. It comes from a Turkish word meaning icy or cold, and in my opinion, that’s a pretty accurate descriptor to describe this wind whipped peak. Buzludzha is an important site for Bulgarians, as it is the site where Bulgarian rebels fought the final battle against the Ottoman Empire, and not long after victory, it’s the place where Bulgarian socialists convened to create an organized fore-runner to what would later become the Bulgarian Communist Party.

Buzludzha is far from everything. High in the frigid mountains, there’s no village for miles and miles. Reachable only by hair pin winding roads through the Shipka Pass, it wouldn’t be a natural place to construct what Communist Party members hoped would be the headquarters of their party. But the place holds significance.

Buzludzha was chosen because of its prominence as the site where Bulgarians overthrew Ottoman occupation, and also where the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party has its roots, so naturally, to commemorate these significant achievements and moments, the Bulgarian Communist Party thought it would be a nice idea to construct their headquarters on this cold, windy, hard to reach peak.

The Buzludzha building was built in 1981, when the Bulgarian Communist Party seemed as if it would be a permanent fixture of The Bulgarian politiscape. The building was meant to" impress, inspire, and intimidate". At a cost equivalent to 35 million USD, it took 5 years to complete. In a moment of irony, for a building and party meant to withstand the measure of time, both crumbled.

My time in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria was meant to be short, but Spencer and I decided to extend our stay in order to fit in a pilgrimage of sorts to Buzludzha. We rented a car for a total of $20 along with two other backpackers, stocked up on picnic supplies at the local grocery store, and drove into the autumn wilderness.

To the rescue
After an hour, we began our ascent up the Shipka Pass, and we drove past the last village we were to see. We looked up and saw a monument, what turned out to be the Shipka monument commemorating the battle against the Ottomans, and decided to confirm with a local that we were headed in the right direction. Along the road we saw a horse laying down on the ground with a rope wrapped taught around it’s neck as a younger horse frantically nudged the motionless body. We wondered if the horse was alive or dead, and wondered where the heck its owners were in this ghost town of a village. We got out and cautiously approached the two horses. As the one continued to frantically kick the other’s motionless body out of fear, we realized the horse on the ground was indeed alive, but barely so given the rope was strangling him. We rushed to the tree to undo the rope so the horse could breathe, and then we saw the owner emerge from out of nowhere in a panic. Together we all pulled the rope free as the young horse urged the bigger one to stand up. After a few minutes, all was right and the owner thanked us for our help. The whole situation was weird. A horse dying on the ground in an empty village with identical houses with a dinosaur statue in front halfway up a Bulgarian mountain. This was just the start of an odd day.

But really, what's up with the dinosaur?
We continued driving south on the Shipka Pass and around the hair pin turns for another 30 or so minutes until we reached the mountain peak, and with it the Buzludzha building appeared, indeed as if a UFO landed there to regain its bearings.

The auditorium, whoa.
We were greeted by a monument of two strong torching-bearing hands which marked the beginning of the steep ascent up to the building itself. We parked the car, grabbed the picnic supplies, bundled up in scarves and gloves, and began the climb. It took a good 15-20 minutes to finally reach the building. We all rejoiced in the thin air as we struggled to adjust to breathing in the high altitude. Fog and clouds engulfed us and the building in wisps of grey. We approached the building and, as we suspected, found the front door barred and locked and the secret entrance hole to the right side. We climbed upon a pile of rocks and squeezed through the small opening while trying not to slip into the deep abyss below or get poked by one of the protruding metal bars.

Feet safely on semi-crumbling concrete, we followed the staircase into what was the building's basement. The whole basement was cloaked in darkness. We lit our headlamps and explored to find only broken concrete and crushed red glass - lots of broken red glass, which gave the appearance that this was the site of a mass murder.

Is this blood...?
We peaked in and crawled around in the various rooms adjacent to the basement hallway. Old bathrooms, storage closets, kitchens - all stripped bare. At this point I was adequately creeped out, so we ascended to the main auditorium and back into the cold.

The main auditorium was more spectacular than I imagined. A giant hammer and cycle in gold, red, and encircled in green Cyrillic writing hung over the auditorium as mosaics with shimmering metals draped the circular walls. The mosaics depicted communist leaders, revolutions, and harmony. Idyllic scenes of what I'm sure the Communist Party imagined to be Bulgaria's egalitarian future society that failed to come to pass. While many of the mosaics have been stripped down by looters, their themes and messages are still clear. This building was indeed meant to inspire the men who imagined leading the world in a communist revolution.

Gingers of the World....UNITE!
We exited the auditorium to the encapsulating hallway that runs around the circular building. The windows have long since been destroyed, exposing the hallway and auditorium to the harsh elements. As today was overcast, clouds whipped through the hallway and entered the auditorium, masking everything in an opaque white haze. The windows normally allow for a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, but today it was only white.

Beautiful Mosaics
It didn't take long standing in the clouds to feel as if our fingers where numb. When i could no longer bend my finger to take pictures, I retreated back to the auditorium. We all agreed that it was time to picnic. We reluctantly took our hands out of our gloves and pockets and laid the bread, salami, pepperoni, ham, cheese, pickles, bananas and cookies across the bleachers and dug in, trying hard to soak in the significance and impermanence of where we were.

No weirder place to picnic!
We finished eating and took one more stroll around the place as Jay-Jay, the more adventurous of us, decided to climb the metal ladder to the top of the building. I, having a broken foot and no gloves, opted out. When Jay-Jay returned, we all turned around and began to descend just as larger and thicker clouds of cold rushed in, cloaking anything more than 10 feet ahead in white.

I turned back and noticed the graffiti above the door which once advised "Forget the Past" but which now advises "Never Forget the Past". And we shouldn't - while this building is crumbling and vandals destroy it further for raw materials, perhaps the greatest reminder of the absurdity of Communism is literally disappearing before our eyes. From the Bulgarians I've encountered so far, they struggle with their country's Communist past. Their feelings range from being ashamed, to wanting to forget, to feeling cheated, to being downright angry. Despite how they feel about their country's Communist past, they should never forget. Every country has a shameful past, but it's necessary to remember to avoid similar mistakes in the future. While this monument stands with its price tag posted on the front entrance, Bulgarian remains the poorest country in the EU. What could have been used to buy food and seeds for Bulgarian peasants instead went to build this nonsensical UFO of excess.

Back in the car we cranked the heat up and tried to thaw out. As we drive off I looked back once more at the building one last time as it got swallowed by a cloud. Here and gone, just like the Bulgarian Communist party and Bulgarian nationalists and the dreams they had and shared. Here and gone, just as this building might be in a few more years.

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Touring 6,000 years of History in Sofia

Sofia has been such a pleasant surprise, and a lovely start to my backpacking trip. I wasn't expecting Bulgaria to be as beautiful as it is, nor was I really expecting much of Bulgaria at all; but it's not only gorgeous, but the food is excellent and the people friendly. I'd even hazard to say that Bulgaria has been my favorite country I've ever visited - although Paris will always hold a special place in my heart.

The other day Spencer and I wanted to do a day trip to another monastery and do some hiking, but since I cut my leg cast off the other night (I broke my foot two weeks ago, if you didn't already know), I decided to take it easy to avoid further destruction of my foot, so we took a walking tour of Sofia instead.

Sofia has a very European feel to it, yet also extremely influenced from its Balkan, Turkish and Russian neighbors, so it has quite a unique feel. The tour of Sofia was extraordinarily informative, and our guide was chipper and knowledgeable. Not to mention, I'm quite a nerd and I love walking around endlessly, so a historically informative walking tour was really right up my ally.

Lion Walking Incorrectly

The tour convened under the spotless blue sky at the courthouse with about 20 other folks, Europeans, Ausies (always those dang Ausies everywhere), and Bulgarians. The Sofia courthouse is a popular meeting place for locals given its centralized location in the city center. The courthouse is riddled with small bullet holes - souvenirs from World War II - and flanked by two lions, which are the national symbol of Bulgaria. Our guide explained to us that many statues in Sofia are problematic, including these lions. Since Bulgarians don't have much contact with lions, and therefore have no idea how they walk, the lion to the right side of the building is walking incorrectly while the lion to the left side is walking correctly. If you look closely, you can see his steps are completely wrong.

St. Sveta Nedelya

We moved on from the courthouse to St. Sveta Nedelya, which is directly next to the courthouse. Sveta Ndelia is an Orthodox Church that was the site of Sofia's largest terrorist attack, which is clearly a fact that piqued my interest given my unique obsession with the history of terrorism. The Cliff Notes version of the story says that a leftist terrorist group wanted to overthrow the Bulgarian monarchy, so they took 25,000 kilos of dynamite and planned to bomb the entire church during a funeral while the monarch was meant to be present, but as fate would have it he was running late because he was attending another funeral, and therefore escaped the whole ordeal unscathed. Even though the monarch didn't die, they still managed to kill 100 and wound 500.

St. Sofia

We turned the corner and arrived at St. Sofia, a black and gold statue built in 2000 as a symbol of Sofia. When it was built, many people mistakenly took Sofia to be named after St. Sofia, but she actually has nothing to do with the naming of the city. In the Eastern Roman Empire, Sofia and her three daughters were Christian and therefore persecuted. When they were eventually executed, Sofia was canonized. The presiding officials of Sofia decided to make her the millennial face of Sofia (she took the place of a statue of Lenin), and while the people of Sofia have no problem with a statue of St. Sofia, they do, however, have an issue with what she is carrying. The statue holds an eagle, wreath, and crown, all of which are pagan symbols and therefore offensive to her memory. Yet another example of the problematic statues in Sofia.

Oh, it's just an archaeological excavation of thousand year old history

Sofia is an extremely old city, 6,000 years old to be exact. The first people to settle in Sofia were the Thracians, and they eventually created the ancient town of Serdica. As contemporary Sofia expands and builds subways, they keep running across Serdican ruins and have to stop work in order to excavate and preserve the ruins. Across the city you'll see excavation sights. Even in many of the Metro stations there are glass windows to see live excavations for you to view already excavated ruins. It's planned to eventually connect all the ruins, yet that will be in the far future.

St. Saddlers Church

Adjoining an excavation site is St. Saddlers church, which was built in the 1400s by men who saddled horses. Since so many people rode horses back then, saddlers were pretty well-off gents. They eventually wanted to build a church among them, but in the Ottoman Empire churches had to obey by certain rules, such as that they had to be on holy land (St. Saddlers was built on ruins of ancient Serdica, which were considered sacred) and the church couldn't be taller than a mosque. After a few years of saving funds and paying bribes, the saddlers gave up and decided to build the church with free materials, which is why the church is made from a hodgepodge of random stones collected from all over.

Banya Bashi Mosque

Nearby is the Square of Tolerance, which it is so called because sights of all major religions and denominations can be seen from this one square, such as a Catholic church, and Orthodox church, a synagogue and a mosque. The mosque that sits at the crossroads of the square of tolerance is the only mosque in Sofia to service the city's 10,000 Muslims. Although Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule for centuries, a very small percentage of the population converted to Islam. As for the Jewish community, there are about 5,000 Jews in Sofia today. In fact, Bulgaria is one of the only three countries in Europe that tried to save its Jews during the Holocaust. When Hitler called on countries to hand over their Jewish population, the Bulgarian monarch said he needed the Jews for labor for 6 months, and when the 6 months ran out, he extended the time frame, and he did this for as long as he could. In sum, Sofia, and Bulgaria in general, is a very multi-cultural and tolerant country.

Central Baths

Behind the Banya Bashi Mosque are the Boyana Baths, which used to be what they sound like: public baths. These baths used to be the meeting place among Sofian residents. Sofia sits above large amounts of mineral water, and the baths used and heated this water to provide public baths for the city's inhabitants. The building is designed in the colorful traditional Byzantine style, and it now serves as the Sofia historical museum. Despite Sofia having such vast access to mineral water, the infrastructure and capability to exploit the mineral water is actually low, a fact that reminded me a bit of Cameroon.

Former Communist Party Headquarters
Further down the main road is what is known as the Largo, a formation of three buildings from the 1950s in the Socialist Classicalist style. The center of the three buildings used to be the headquarters of the now defunct Bulgarian Communist Party, and now serves as offices for Bulgaria's ministers. Also along the Largo is the Presidential office, which the Bulgarians also refer to as the White House. On top of the former Communist Party headquarters, where the Bulgarian flag is now placed, used to sit a big red star, which was torn down by helicopter after the fall of Communism. Even though the turbulent history of Communism has subsided, that doesn't mean Bulgarian politics are calm - the day we toured Sofia, a protest was being held outside the former Party headquarters to protest a current government minister.

Ivan Vazov Theater

Sofia is one of the most green cities I have ever seen - practically every corner you turn, you can see a large garden equipped with free wifi (step up your game America!). The City Garden is the largest garden in Sofia, and a small library was recently placed in the middle of it so visitors could check out and read books while they relax in the park. Sitting at the edge of the city gardens is the Ivan Vazov Theater, which was named after a famous playwright during the Ottoman Empire. Rumor has it that Mr. Vazov was popular with the ladies, and while the official story says he died of a heat attack, the unofficial story says he died in the arms of a much younger woman. The theater burnt down during one of its shows, after a smart man thought the shows would be more enjoyable if candles flanked the stage curtains. After it was rebuilt, gold trimming was added to some of the figures on the building, which ended up costing one man his job after he tried to be clever:

Oh, I see what you did there...

Tsar Samuil

Down the road is the statue of Tsar Samuil, the last ruler of the 1st Bulgarian state, and in 1015 he sent troops to fight the Byzantine empire, but they were outnumbered and ill-equipped so the Byzantine army captured the Bulgarian army and blinded 99 out of 100 men, and with the other 1 out of 100 men they only blinded one of the eyes so they could lead the troops home. In total, 14,000 men were blinded. When the Tsar got the news, it is said he died immediately. Bulgarians particularly don't like this statue because not only did Tsar Samuil cause the death of thousands of Bulgarians, but also because the eyes of the statue glow at night, yes, you heard me, glow. There's an LED light inside the statue which gives the eyes and ominous light during the night, so if the presence of the Tsar Samuil statue wasn't offensive enough, now every Sofian is reminded of the horror that the Tsar's leadership caused.

Creepy Eyes

Alexander Nevski

Lastly we arrived at Alexander Nevski Cathedral, which is the postcard image of Sofia, if you will. Alexander Nevski is a giant mass of cascading domes of green into the lonely square below. The Alexander Nevski Cathedral used to be the largest cathedral in the Balkans, but is now beat by one in Macedonia. It's an impressive, if not imposing cathedral, whose gigantic bells are rumored to break all nearby windows if rung together was constructed in the 1800s by only donations and it is named after a Russian saint.

The tour ended and Spencer and I went out in search of sushi. Our time in Sofia came to an end and it's hard to pack up and leave. Even though we've probably seen everything, Sofia was a beautiful city with a fun atmosphere, good food, and gorgeous architecture. I'm not sure I could ever get tired of Sofia and her mountainous beauty, and I couldn't have chosen a better place to launch my two month trip, but alas, it's time to move on, North to be exact, to Veliko Tarnovo. We move from the current capital of Bulgaria to the former capital of Bulgaria, and even further back in time. Stay tuned.

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Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery, Rila, Bulgaria
 On Tuesday morning, Spencer and I made our way to our hostel's breakfast and discovered that we were signed up for a day trip to the Rila monastery, which is an Eastern Orthodox Monastery about 120km from Sofia. Our hostel arranges all-day tours to the monastery for only $10 for the two hour transport there and back (as Spencer likes to say, 'You can't beat that!'). We had initially signed up for Wednesday, but apparently some ballsy person moved our name to Tuesday instead. So far our trip has been pretty impromptu - we don't exactly know what we are doing nor when, and are just going with the flow and seeing what presents itself, and thankfully, thus far at least, it has worked out pretty well! We quickly ate and were greeted by our driver, a large Slavic man wearing shorts in the 50 degree autumn chill. Also going to the monastery were two Aussies (with whom Spencer and I would hang out with over the next few days) and a guy from Macau.

After two hours of driving through the rolling mountains with brightly colored leaves, we finally arrived in the small village of Rila and, soon after, the monastery complex itself. But before entering the monastery, our driver took us to a little spot in the woods where we climbed the side of one of the mountains for about 30 minutes until we came upon a small, simple church and a cave.
The Simple Church and Path Leading to the Cave
 Ivan Rila, Bulgaria's patron saint and their first hermit, after whom the Rila Monastery was named, lived  in this cave for 12 years (he would have made a fantastic Peace Corps volunteer). It's rumored that Ivan preformed many miracles, and students from near and far flocked to Rila for his guidance. His students would later be the ones to build Rila Monastery and name it after Ivan himself. We took a brief walk around the outside of the church, which sits on the mountain's precipice before entering the cramped cave flanked by rocks with tiny bits of paper with wishes written on them hidden among the cracks of the stones. Once we entered the cave, which was barely large enough to hold us 5 people, we proceeded up some more rock steps before coming to a small hole in the ceiling which led outside the cave. In order to get out we all had to scale the rocks and squeeze through the tiny hole. It took some time for me on my broken foot, but somehow I managed not to break any more limbs!
Cave Exit
A short distance further was a small mosaic of Ivan next to a small mineral spring with fresh water from which we drank. We took 20 minutes to descend down the mountainside and then were dropped at the entrance of the monastery complex and given 2 hours to explore.

The outside of the complex is unremarkable, but the minute you enter the gates, the stunning beauty hits you. The complex is formed by the walls of the monk living quarters, which are styled in traditional white plaster and wood beams. There's a larger brick plaza in the middle of the compound, and in the midst of it all is the monastery, itself quite large.
The Monk Quarters and Church
The Rila Monestary was established in 927, but the current building was built in the 19th century, and it doesn't need saying that it is a work of art. Colors abound in the golden dome, the black and white striped arch doorways, and that's not to mention the walls and ceilings that are covered in brightly colored (though often violent) frescoes that leave not an inch uncovered.

Inside is equally as gorgeous. The black and white striped floor tries not to distract from the wall frescoes which detail the various kinds of torture that sinners receive in hell. Despite the grotesque theme of the paintings, they are painted in vivid and vibrant colors.

Sensory Overload
We walked around the nearly empty complex and tried to absorb the stunning beauty of it all. If the monastery itself wasn't enough, the whole complex sits in a valley, flanked on every side by huge mountains covered in trees of every autumn color imaginable. My senses were on chromatic overload, but in the best way possible. Especially as I haven't seen the changing seasons over the past two years, I had no difficulty appreciating the natural beauty of the colored leaves.

After an hour of walking around the monastery, we settled down at the nearest restaurant and nursed drinks as we looked at the mountainsides surrounding us and sat alongside a rushing stream. The cool autumn air nipped at my skin and as I tried to soak in the awe-inspiring beauty of it all, it finally hit me that I'm not longer in Cameroon.

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