We spent our last night in Serbia parked about a mile from the Bulgarian border and crossed first thing in the morning.  Sofia, the capital, was not far off, but we had just seen two capitals, and Sofia is not the ‘garden spot of the Balkans.’  In addition, Bonnie was running a bit of a fever and clearly heading for a cold, so we drove by the capital and went directly to Veliko Tarnovo, four hours into the center of Bulgaria and famous for its history, setting, and architecture.

We had heard from other travelers about a campground there run by English expats and a wonderful place to rest and recoop, which was certainly what we were looking for.  Bulgaria has a surprising number of British who have relocated there.  In part, this is because Bulgaria belongs to the European Union (though it does not use the Euro for currency) and because it is so very inexpensive to live there.   The campground is a real gathering place for the British living in the area, and while we were there was the site of a vigorous and lively sixtieth birthday party which went on for seven hours and included lots of music and dancing, even upon the chairs!

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The town of Veliko Tarnovo is set in a valley between beautiful forested hills, with the Tsarevets Fortress sitting above all, surrounded by walls and once holding over four hundred houses and eighteen churches, much still visible as ruins even today.

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It was the site of early defenses, first by the Thracians and then the Romans but its first real fortifications were built in the fifth and sixth centuries by the Byzantines and extended in succeeding centuries by Slavs and Bulgars.  All was destroyed in the Turkish invasion of 1393.

The town today is high above the Yantra River on an abrupt bluff and rises into the hills.

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Its architecture is typical of what we found in Bulgaria, with second stories often extending out over the streets and rooftops nearly touching,

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and many with balconies, often of wood, offering views out over the river and the countryside.

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This is General Gurko Street, closest to the bluff itself, and full of lovely old homes, many cascading down toward the river.

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Also recently restored is a medieval caravanseri or inn on the old market street, to the left in this photo.

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

In the end we spent eight days in Veliko Tarnovo and its campground while Bonnie recovered and we planned the rest of our time in Bulgaria.  It was a most welcome stop!

We then drove south across the mountains which divide Bulgaria to modern Plovdiv, called Philippopolis by the Romans and later occupants.  It’s Old Town is absolutely captivating, winding as it does across the hills on cobblestone streets, its houses beautifully restored to their mid nineteenth century grandeur.

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Chalukov's House, Plovdiv, Bulgaria

What distinguishes Plovdiv’s Old Town from so many others is that it is the seat of a major university with a strong art and music focus, and is full of galleries and art, with the sound of musicians practicing spilling over all from the windows of the music school.  Sculptures are everywhere

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and even the sides of buildings have been sculpted and stained to illustrate scenes from the past, dramatically enlivening the streets.

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And beneath it all lies the Roman past.  In 1972 a massive landslide revealed the remains of an immense Roman amphitheater from the second century and capable of holding 6000 spectators.  Today it is used for large concerts and events and has been beautifully restored.

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Even modern Plovdiv has a certain grace about it, with a wide Main Street pedestrian mall that traverses the center of the city.  What lies underneath is a Roman Stadium that stretches its entire length and once held 30,000 people for its spectacles.  Here is the restoration of one end, with the pedestrian mall over its length.  Note the Roman seating in the lower left.

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It extended for 900 feet and in the future an underground passageway will be built under the mall itself to reveal its entire length.  At its far end is the central square of the city, with the remains of the Roman forum and odeon or indoor theater close by.

Roman Odeon, Plovdiv, Bulgaria

There is such a richness to Plovdiv that it will be the European Capital of Culture in 2019, a very high honor indeed.

From Plovdiv we went about twenty miles south to the Bachkovo Monastery, the second largest in Bulgaria.  It was founded in 1083 by a couple of Georgian brothers and was particularly important in the Second Bulgarian Empire from 1185 to 1396.  Destroyed by the Turks, it was again restored in the seventeenth century and now houses twelve monks.

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It is just blanketed with frescoes, some of them stretching the entire length of outdoor walls, others filling every bit of space within buildings.  Here is the refectory, from 1601, with its long stone table and benches where monks ate their meals.

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In one of the churches, extensive restoration is going on.  There were two women working high above on scaffolds when we were there, and the difference they make by their cleaning of the frescoes is just startling.  Even with the harsh lighting, if you compare the frescoes in the photo below with the ones you can barely make out in the photo at the very top of this posting, taken in the same church, you can see the difference they are making.

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After a night spent in the monastery parking lot we headed for the highlight of most Bulgarian experiences, the Black Sea.  Running for a couple of hundred miles down the eastern edge of Bulgaria, it is a huge resort destination for not just the country’s citizens but Europeans from all over.  And like the east coast of, for instance, Australia, it is mostly made of large all inclusive resort complexes.  But we did manage to find one gem amid all the beach umbrellas–Sozopol.

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Like Rovinj in Croatia and so many other historical towns, Sozopol is built on a promintory from the mainland and thus more defensible and secure than it would be without the sea surrounding most of it.  There is evidence of Greek life here as early as the 4th century BC, and much of the town dates from medieval times.  But we were drawn to two things in particular:  The views from high above the Black Sea

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and the houses, here cloaked in wood and clearly exhibiting a strong Turkish influence.

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We were reminded of walks through the old residential areas of Istanbul where all the buildings are of wood and cost Turkey its forests in the second half of the nineteenth century.  This impression was intensified when we saw Turkish rugs hanging from a balcony!

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Wood is clearly still the fuel of choice for those cold, damp winter nights along the coast, as we found woodpiles everywhere, though this one was the most artful.

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We found the residents friendly and those who spoke English very open to talking.  Several we spoke with had spent years working on ships all over the world, and clearly the harbor, which was mostly filled with small fishing boats, was a comfortable place for old salts to spend a leisurely afternoon at their ‘club.’

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We also spent a few hours in another beach town, Nesebar, to the north and difficult to experience beyond the multitude of souvenir shops which seem to line almost every inch of street space.  But there were a few pretty spots close to the sea.

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It was here we met Jo and John Spencer, motorcycle travelers from Australia.

Jo & John, Nesebar, Black Sea, Bulgaria

They shipped their bike to Europe and have spent fifteen months exploring almost all of the continent including Ukraine, Moldova and Romania.  Full of great information for fellow travelers and good cheer, we intend to stay in touch and follow their blog religiously.