Saturday, March 8, 2014

Macedonia and Bulgaria

On February 19th, we woke up at our Villa Ohrid apartment to the gift of lovely weather for our first day in Ohrid, Macedonia.
The view from our apartment terrace. That haze along the center of the photo is smoke from wood burning fires across the city.
After some homework in the morning, we walked down to the city center and walked along the stretch of the lake promenade looking for a place for lunch.
We walked by this shop selling traditional Bulgarian costumes and crafts.
Along the way, we met a couple of boat owners who offered 30 minute and 60 minute tours of Lake Ohrid; we priced those and then found a restaurant.
A view of Ohrid's old town from the promenade. With a population of about 60,000, Ohrid is the 8th largest city in Macedonia. It has been called the "Jerusalem of the Balkans" having at one time 365 churches in the city, one for each day of the year.
Fortress Samuel can be seen situated on the hill above Ohrid. For a short time in the early 11th century, Ohrid was the capital of a Slavic empire ruled by Car Samuil, who built this fortress. It was once one of the most impregnable strongholds in the Balkans, with walls 3 km long and 16 m high. Today, 18 towers and four gates still remain from the original structure.
After lunch, we decided to take one of these boats out on the lake. Some of us didn't have jackets or trousers on so we headed back to the apartment to get some warmer clothes. Once in the apartment, Vince realized he couldn't do the boat tour and get back in time for his conference call, but asked that the kids and I go anyway to give him some peace during his call.

We took a 60 minute tour (1800 denar) with Dimitar, who spoke English quite well. We went out at a perfect time. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and no breeze at all. The lake was as smooth as glass. It was one of those truly idealic experiences.
Paul quickly settled in and got comfortable.
Ohrid is a town that goes back to the time of King Phillip II of Macedon (359-336 BC; father of Alexander the Great and Phillip III).
Occasionally James would look up from his Kindle book and admire the view.
The tour went by the former residence of Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito and the current Macedonian President's summer residence and then towards the church of St Jovan Kaneo and finally back towards Ohrid's old town pier.
St Jovan Kaneo is a Macedonian Orthodox church situated on the cliff over Kaneo Beach overlooking Lake Ohrid. The church is attributed to John the Theologian, author of the Book of Revelation. It is a combination of Byzantine and Armenian architectural styles.
This is a photo of St Clement's Monastery Church. St Clement was buried at the church in 916 AD. The church fell into ruins during the medieval period and was replaced by a mosque during the Ottoman period.
Another view of Samuil Fortress.
After our boat trip, we still had a good hour to put in before Vincent wanted us back at the apartment so I suggested we go see the St Jovan Kaneo church which, after Lake Ohrid, is the most popular sight in Ohrid.
On the way to St Jovan Kaneo, the kids befriended this dog. (Didn't they learn anything from my dog attack experience 48 hours ago?!) A few scratches behind the dog's ears and it wanted to join our pack.
Walking through the gate to St Jovan Kaneo: Archaeologists believe that the church was constructed some time before the rise of the Ottoman empire, very likely in the 13th century.
On the grounds of St Jovan Kaneo with Lake Ohrid in the background: Our new four-legged friend was still with us.
St Jovan Kaneo overlooking Lake Ohrid.
After leaving St Jovan Kaneo, we hiked up to the walls of the Samuil Fortress to find that it was closed. At this point, James was trying to discourage our dog friend from sticking with us but the pup continued to follow, now however at a distance.
In the end, the dog stalked us in the tall grass. This is a zoomed in shot of the dog watching us as we continued along the path. It was so cute but we knew the friendship had to end. Our dog, Molly, would have no part of another animal on the scene.
That evening we walked to Ohrid's main shopping district. It has jewelry shops galore. If one is in the market for pearls, this is the place in Macedonia to purchase them. Unfortunately I couldn't really justify another pearl necklace or set of earrings and I find it too hard to shop with 4 stragglers waiting for me, so I didn't spend much time even window shopping. We focused instead on finding a restaurant and we found a fairly decent one broadcasting the Olympics, which was an added bonus.

On February 20th, we wanted to visit a couple key sites around the lake. We first headed out to Bay of Bones (Museum on Water) which shows two reconstructions from earlier periods. The first is a platform with about 20 houses on it representing a settlement from the Bronze and Iron ages, 1200 – 700 BC. The second consists of walls of a castrum (Roman military fortification) which were conserved and accentuated through restoration. 
The open air museum, representing the settlement on water, is a replica of a nearby underwater archaeological site, Plocha Michov Grad. It has an area of 8,500 square metres and dates to 1200 – 700 BC. During this period, the Bryges people left to Asia Minor and founded Phrygia in Anatolia.
The Plocha Michov Grad has been excavated underwater since 1997. Many artifacts were discovered including pottery sherds and some complete vessels, stone and flint objects, a few bronze artifacts and many fragments of animal bones some of which were used as tools. A small museum house presents a subset of the findings.
The platform on which the museum houses are built is about 15-20 meters away from the shore at a level of about 1.5 metres above water level. There are circular, square and rectangular shaped houses. This really is an outstanding replica of a pile-dwelling prehistoric settlement.
The houses are built on wooden supports with "wattel and daub" walls. A woven lattice of wooden strips called "wattle" is "daubed" with a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw. This building technique has been used for at least 6000 years. The roofs were made out of wooden beams and thinner branches which were then covered with straw or reed.
The interiors of some of the houses are shown with typical furnishing of the Bronze/Iron age periods: Beds cushioned with animal skins, clay stoves, looms used to make the woven matts, and tools and other objects similar to the original artifacts discovered in the underwater archaeological investigations.
The Roman site is called Gradishte, named after the nearby village. The walls of the original fortification that once protected the Roman Empire from its enemies may date back as far as the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 2nd century BC.
After leaving the Bay of Bones, we continued south along the lake to the Sveti Naum Monastery. The monastery was established in 905 AD (when the area was still part of the Bulgarian Empire) by the monk who bore the same name (now St Naum) and who is also buried in the church.
As with most Byzantine churches, St. Naum was chosen primarily for its location; it's on a high, rocky outcropping at the edge of the lake, above forests and the springs of the river Crn Drim.
 Most of the church's iconostases and frescoes date from the 16th and 17th century, however the monastery also shows earlier etchings in the Byzantine Greek style. Apparently, Macedonians believe one can still hear St Naum’s heartbeat by pressing an ear to his stone coffin inside the church. We didn't try it so cannot report if there's any truth to that rumor.
We observed that money was left all over the iconostases.
The highlight for the kids here was seeing all the peacocks milling about. There must have been twenty or more on the grounds surrounding the monastery. There were posted warnings that the peacocks would bite so I kept my distance. (No more surprise attacks for me!)
On February 21st, it was time to leave Ohrid and head to the capital of Macedonia, Skopje. Since our drive would be less than 3 hours, we didn't leave Ohrid until a little after 11am. The 2-lane highway was pretty good, not completely smooth but it had no major pot holes. Road tolls were collected along the way so the Macedonians seem to have figured out how to fund the maintenance of their major routes. It was fairly foggy or smokey (or both) along the way so there didn't seem to be any great photo opportunities. The landscape remained mountainous but not as grand as back in Albania. The housing appeared to be more complete and of better construction. We were surprised to find so few restaurants along the way and wondered where Macedonians eat. We stopped at two rare restaurants but they were so dense with cigarette smoke that the kids waved them off, despite being very hungry. Finally we found a sandwich stop and we ate there.
This is the only photo I took en route to Skopje. Not great but it shows the improved housing construction, the lower mountains and the "okay" paved road on which we traveled.
We arrived in Skopje around 15:00 and made our way to where Vincent thought the apartment he booked was located. Navigation and general language interpretation is tricky in Macedonia because they often use the Cyrillic alphabet so when the GPS got us within 100 ft of our target destination, we still had trouble figuring out whether we were at or near the right address. Thankfully, Vincent found a woman who was willing to call the apartment host for us and he came to meet us.

Our host was hands down the most enthusiastic, helpful lodging manager we'd ever met. He helped carry our luggage in, insisting on carrying most of it. When we asked about whether or not there was a washing machine in the apartment, he told us there wasn't but he'd have the laundry done for us. We asked about what he recommended we do and see, given the kids, and he had glowing suggestions for a number of things and then left us for about 15 minutes and returned with a handful of maps and tourist information pamphlets. When we drove into Skopje, Vincent and I were thinking maybe our 3 days here would be too much but after meeting our host, Peter, we began to think maybe it wouldn't be long enough.

After the unexpected thrill of finding and watching the US-Canada Olympic hockey game on Macedonian tv, we set out to find some dinner. Skopje's main city center square was just a few minutes walk from the apartment. I don't know if I've ever been blown away with seeing a new city for the first time like I was when I saw Skopje's center. After reading about Podgorica, Montenegro and seeing Tirana, Albania, I wasn't really expecting much with Skopje, Macedonia, particularly since the country's population is just over 2 million. But, wow, Skopje at night was grand and beautiful.
Porta Macedonia: The arch was built by Valentina Stefanovska and was completed in 2012. It stands at 21 meters high and cost €4.4 million. Part of the Skopje 2014 project, it is dedicated to 20 years of Macedonian independence; its outer surface is covered in 193 m2 of reliefs carved in marble, depicting scenes from the history of Macedonia. Apparently, the the Greek  Foreign Ministry has lodged an official complaint to authorities in the Republic of Macedonia due to using images of Alexander the Great; it's historically misleading because Alexander the Great did not come from Macedonia, as it's borders are defined today. He was born in the Kingdom of Macedonia which was located in what now is the northern region of Greece.
Museum of Archeology: The building primarily serves as a museum; it also houses the Constitutional Court and the National Archive of the Republic of Macedonia. The river running in front of the museum is the Vardar; it's the longest (388 km) and is the major river in Macedonia and is also a major river of Greece.
On February 22nd, we decided to spend some time walking around Skopje's city center. We headed out to the old bazaar which is the largest bazaar in the Balkans, outside Istanbul, and is situated on the eastern bank of the Vardar River. I took a number of photos but found the lighting really tough for creating a well defined image.
At each end of the bridge section of the Boulevard Goce Delchev are a set of two grand lion statues. This more classical lions stand on the western side.
While more contemporary lions stand at the eastern end of the bridge.
We found a restaurant in the old bazaar zone for lunch. It was one of the best lunches we had from a restaurant with the term "turist" in its name.
We had just finished this delicious mix of salads, grilled peppers and bread...
When this platter of mixed grilled meat arrived. We hardly made a dent in it and took most of it with us for dinner the next night (to eat during the Canada-Sweden Olympic hockey game).
After lunch, we strolled around the old bazaar area. The outer rim consisted of narrow pedestrian streets with rows of small shops, while the inner area was a city of densely arranged tents and stalls.
A typical street in the old bazaar: The old bazaar lies on the eastern bank of the Vardar River, stretching from the Stone Bridge to the Bit-Pazar and from the Skopje Fortress to the Serava river.
The boys had been keen to get their hair cut the last several days and they decided today was the day to get it done. We found a hole in the wall barber shop and the boys felt confident that a hair cut here would work out.
James getting his hair cut: The barber shop was heated by this stove on the right. Water was warmed in the kettle and was used when customers came in for a shave.
The barber (center) who cut Paul's hair was quite keen that I took a picture of Vince, Paul and him. James is still being worked on in the background. Two haircuts for 200 denar = about $4.00. Can't beat it.
After two successful haircuts, we set out to explore some more of the old bazaar area.
We came by the Mustafa Pasha Mosque which stands above the old bazaar and is one of the most beautiful Ottoman monuments in the republic of Macedonia. It was built in 1492 by Mustafa Pasha, vizier (political advisor) on the court of Selim I (who was Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1512 to 1520). The mosque is spacious, simple and lovely inside, painted white with blue embellishments. No additions have been made through the years. As someone was praying inside, I did not take any photos of the interior.
This was the first mosque where I had noticed facilities to perform "wudu" (ablution) (washing parts of the body) before praying.  "Wudu" is a sacred wash that symbolizes spiritual cleansing and purity in readiness for coming before God.
No one is safe from falling down a rabbit hole in Skopje (similar to Montenegro and Albania). I noticed a number of examples of uncovered holes in or near several pedestrian areas.
Whole animal carcasses available to serve a crowd.
Lots of jewelry shops. We bought 9 silver charms for Sarah's and my charm bracelets (~$10 each), representing the Balkan countries we had visited; it was sort of cheating to not get each one from the respective country but we were aiming for efficiency. At ~$10 each, we probably didn't bargain enough but compared to spending ~$30 for charms in the UK or France, we felt it was a good deal.
There were several fancy dress shops. I know where to go for Sarah's prom dress. Skopje gals must have quite the social calendars.
Lots of fresh produce and beautiful flowers for sale.
Need a cradle or pizza pan? This was the section to visit.
Rice and beans sold by bulk.
Need a pinch of chili powder?
Probably should have bought Paul's new boots here instead of Kotor; bet they would have been half the price.
After thoroughly checking out the bazaar, we walked towards the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle. En route we passed a number of statues, many of which had obviously been recently constructed (and part of the Skopje 2014 project). Walking around Skopje, I was struck by how larger than life the statues were, and there were so many. Reading about the city, someone commented that it was a bit Disney-esque and, yes, that description clicked. Vincent also observed Skopje construction reminded him of Las Vegas which I think is even a more accurate comparison.
Philip II of Macedon: This 29 meter tall statue faces Alexander the Great (Philip's son) on the other side of Skopje's stone bridge. The statue is formally called “Warrior with accompanying elements”, a rather vague description apparently designed to avoid further upsetting opinion in neighboring Greece, which claims Philip and Alexander are Greek (not Macedonian) heroes.
The statue of Alexander is formally entitled "an equestrian warrior". Greece has blocked Macedonia’s EU aspirations since 2008, insisting that the name "Macedonia" implies territorial claims over its own northern province of the same name. The statues, albeit with inoffensive titles, are unlikely to help Macedonia's efforts to settle the name dispute with Greece. Last year, Athens sent a protest note after the Alexander statue was unveiled, characterizing the government-funded sculpture as a provocation.
Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia: Located on Karpoš Rebellion Square, this is another structure which is part of the Skopje 2014 project.
Saints Cyril and Methodius Statue: Saints Cyril and Methodius were 9th-century Byzantine Greek brothers born in Thessalonica, Greek Macedonia, in the Byzantine Empire. They were the principal Christian missionaries among the Slavic people, introducing Orthodox Christianity and writing to the hitherto illiterate, pagan Slav migrants in parts of Macedonia and elsewhere in the Balkans.
Four Lions Statue.
We generally enjoyed our visit to the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle. Visually, the museum is one of the best and most creative and polished we'd seen anywhere. With about 50 wax figures, and ingenuitive displays, the planners made great strides in making the history come alive. Visitors however can only go through the museum with a guide and that's where the problem lies. Our guide's accent was so strong and she spoke so quickly that much of the details were lost "in translation"; all that complicated information could not be understood. It was a shame really. They either need to hire people whose accents more closely match the language they are speaking or perhaps they should provide audioguides so that visitors can go through at their own speed.
Museum of the Macedonian Struggle: The museum was opened to the public on September 8, 2011, the 20th anniversary of the declaration of independence. The exhibit covers the fight for Macedonian statehood and independence from the days of the Hajduks against the Turkish occupation during the Ottoman Empire until the declaration of independence from Yugoslavia on September 8, 2011.
In the entrance lobby sits the the original copy of the 1991 Declaration of Independence. Taking of photos was prohibited in the rest of the museum so I couldn't show anything of the well done interior.
The beautiful domed ceiling, that includes ~16,000 pieces of glass, located in the museum lobby.
After we left the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, we were a bit at odds of what to do. The Holocaust Museum was just across the street and I had read that it was free so thought it worthwhile to take a look, considering it was rated as one of the better museums in Skopje. I couldn't rally any enthusiasm however. Given the subject matter, I wasn't surprised. We walked around the center a bit more, looking for an ATM and ultimately decided to sit down, have a drink and perhaps watch some Olympics, if we found the right cafe.
A lone carousel was operating next to the Stone Bridge and the kids all wanted a ride. 90 denar for the 3 of them (~$1.80).
Boatmen of Thessaloníki monument: This was a Bulgarian anarchist group, active between 1900 - 1903. From April 28 until May 1, 1903 the group launched a campaign of terror bombing in Thessaloniki which was referred to as the "Thessaloniki bombings of 1903".  Their aim was to attract the attention of the Great Powers to Ottoman oppression in Macedonia and Thrace. Despite the objective of the destruction, I found it odd that this group was glorified by a a monument given their methods.
An evening view of the Museum of Archeology: The Stone Bridge is lit with a rotating rainbow of colors.
That evening, we returned to the Chinese restaurant where we had eaten the previous evening which was the best strategy for getting vegetables into Paul.
James taught Sarah how to hold and use chop sticks.
On February 23rd, Vincent, Sarah, James and I drove to the Matka Canyon. Paul wanted to stay behind to work on algebra. When we drove by Tresca Lake and reached Matka Canyon, we stopped at the first restaurant we saw for lunch. We then stopped by the Monastery of the Holy Mother of God, which had been recommended to visit.
Monastery of the Holy Mother of God built in the 13th century.
Interior of the Holy Mother of God church.
The frescoes date from the end of the 15th century and feature characteristics of the fresco painting of the (Ottoman) Turks. Macedonia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for over 500 years, from 1392 to 1912.
Afterwards, James, Sarah and I went for a hike along Treska River while Vince took a power nap in the car; intensive tourism was taking its toll on all of us. I had seen photos of "Matka Canyon" in the brochure that our apartment host had given us and where we were didn't match the photos so I felt we needed to go further.  We went back to the car and rallied Vince to drive a bit further along the river where we parked and continued to walk along the river. 
Photo of the Treska River just as we came to the Matka dam.
We reached a restaurant and noticed one could hire a boat to go to a cave (Vrelo Cave). This is where we had a lesson in the value of prepositions. Because a boat would take us to a cave we interpreted the trip as "in" a cave. Having been to the Blue Grotto in Capri, this is what we expected. (But the trip was indeed "to" a cave.) I mentioned the idea of taking a boat trip to see a cave and Sarah and James were very keen.
The restaurant and boat house where one can hire someone to take them to the Vrelo Cave.
The journey took about an hour and cost 1600 denar (about $32) for the 4 of us. We traveled about 4 km down the river, landed and then had to hike part way up to the mouth of the cave.
Matka Lake (formed by the dam) is a exquisite turquoise color. It is so clean, one can see 15 or more feet below the surface.
We saw some creative river dwellings along the way.
Vrelo Cave was suggested as one of the top 77 natural sites in the world in the "New7Wonders of Nature" project that was launched in 2007. (It didn't make the final cut of "winners" list.) There are two lakes in the cave. Tthe smaller lake is 8 metres at its longest length and 15 metres in depth at its deepest point. The larger lake is 35 metres at its longest length, and 18 metres (59 feet) at its deepest point. We only saw what I think was the smaller lake and this is a photo of it.
Vrelo Cave has many stalactites and stalagmites which are lit up dramatically through the use of a generator power system.
After our boat trip, we returned back to our apartment to see if we could catch the Olympic gold-medal hockey game and the closing ceremonies. Thankfully Macedonia was one Balkan country that paid enough of the Olympic licensing privileges that we actually saw some coverage while we were in the country.

On February 24th, we decided to give the kids a break with historical sights and suggested we go to the zoo. I hadn't completed the word "zoo" yet and already Sarah exclaimed she wanted to go.
The zoo is in walking distance of the city center so we were able to make our way there on foot. Entrance to the zoo was only 250 denar (about $5.00 for the five of us) and, at first glance, I thought they should be charging a bit more and putting some investment into it. It looked like it could use a little TLC. Some animals seemed to have a lot of space to roam around while others appeared too caged in. Many of the signs were so faded, they were impossible to read (albeit very little was in English). The zoo had a surprising variety of animals and I don't think I've been to a zoo where many of the animals were so active. We had fun watching the bears wrestle with each other and the monkeys were a hoot.
Vincent and Sarah at the entrance to the Skopje zoo with a map of the layout above them.
This ostrich kept stretching his neck to check out his buffalo neighbor.
There were several varieties of monkeys and 3 baby monkeys (that we noticed) who were a few days to a few weeks old. This little guy was just trying to figure out how to climb onto that branch. It was hard to tell which monkey was the baby's mother because they all seemed to be looking out for the baby.
"Eye of the Tiger": Makes one think of that 1982 Survivor song.
After leaving the zoo, we walked along the Vardar towards the city center and then up to the Fortress Kale.
We walked by more statues. This is of Emperor Justinian I. The Stone Bridge can be seen in the background.
Karpoš Statue
Sculpture of lovers in the new gazebo on the main square
Monument of Dame Gruev: Damyan Yovanov Gruev (1871-1906) was a Bulgarian and Macedonian revolutionary.
Thespian statues in front of the theatre.
Fortress Kale: The first fortress was built in 6th century AD on land that was inhabited during the Neolithic and Bronze ages  (roughly 4000 BC onwards). Over the years, it had been destroyed through earthquakes and battles and then rebuilt.
When we reached the entrance to Kale, we found that it was closed, so I took a couple photos of the view.
View of the Boris Trajkovski Sports Center from the Fortress Kale. The center was opened in 2008 and was named after the former President, Boris Trajkovski who died in a plane crash in 2004.
View of Skopje's city center from Fortress Kale.
We then walked down to the city center and looked for dinner. Our apartment host recommended the Pelister restaurant located on the main square and we had an excellent meal there.
Sarah finally found some chic gals to hang out with.
On February 25th, we left Skopje and drove to Sofia, Bulgaria. It was a 2-laned highway/road and with tolls every 10 or 15 miles (or so it seemed), we found the roads were in reasonable shape. We arrived in Sofia before dark. We had to first buy a SIM card (6 lev = about $4) for the cell phone so that Vince could call our apartment host and inform him we were arriving. We then had to drive through the center in order to reach our apartment which was about 4.5 km from the city center and so it was not as nicely situated as the apartments we had occupied previously. While the area looked a bit gray and tattered, the apartment itself (€45) was quite modern and clean and quite alright. That evening, when looking for a restaurant we found a Chinese restaurant around the corner; it was the best Chinese restaurant we had encountered yet on this trip.
Largo building: Seat of the unicameral Bulgarian Parliament (National Assembly of Bulgaria). Example of Socialist Classicism architecture.
On February 26th, the kids did homework in the morning and then we set out to find bus #9 that would take us to the city center. The bus was a bargain 1 lev/ticket (~$0.70). We quickly observed that there was very little signage to help out the tourist. The bus stop had no information regarding what bus # stopped at it or any information about the route. Coming towards the city, the bus didn't announce coming stops and most of the bus stops along the way were not labeled. It was as if commuters were just "expected to know" where they were. We knew we wanted to disembark at the St Kliment Ohridski Sofia University stop where I had researched there was a tourist information center there. The St Kliment University stop wasn't obvious but I know it shared a metro station in the same location, so that's where just having the "special feeling" that we were in the right place came in handy and we surprisingly actually got off at the right stop.

After looking at two different entrances to the metro, the third entrance was the charm and we found the tourist bureau. There were two women in there who were very enthusiastic and helpful; had we not encountered them, I would have been writing Sofia off in my mind by that point. They gave us a map, pointed out several landmarks and highlighted the Sofia Theatre and National Opera and Ballet House which were highlighted as places we should go.

After leaving the tourist office, we walked across the corridor to McDonald's which, as much as Vincent hated to go there, Sarah and the boys were thrilled to have some familiar fast food.

After lunch, we walked to the Stefan Makedonski Music Theatre where we knew "My Fair Lady" was playing. When we talked to the box office we found that the play was in Bulgarian (which really should have been a bit obvious) and so we didn't buy any tickets. We then proceeded on to the National Opera House. When Vincent and I were talking to the woman in the opera house ticket booth, Paul and James were sitting on the stairs about 12 feet away from us talking quietly. Along came an older man who motioned to Paul and James that they should get out of the building. With a quizzical look on their faces they left the building and then stood outside the theatre doors waiting for us. About 3 minutes later, the same older man walked by Vincent and me and exited the building proceeding to tell Paul and James (in Bulgarian) to leave the area. There's international body language for "scram", "beat it", "get lost kids". I went out and asked the man "what's the problem?" in English (of course) and then another man who was waiting in the ticket line came to assist us, telling the man the the two boys were with me. Paul and James weren't doing anything but chatting quietly with each other. I couldn't understand what the problem was. And I'd be the first to recognize any of my children being out of line. The lasting impression I had from this encounter was that Bulgarians have zero tolerance for kids that look a little out of place. (How's that for a massively unfair generalization?) Perhaps there's a significant problem with troubled youth in Sofia, that I hadn't yet read about or issues with vandalism at the opera house? There was something that the old man didn't like about Paul and James and the only thing I could come up with is that they were "teenagers".
Sarah next to the Aleksandar Stamboliyski monument located in front of the Sofia National Opera House.
Aleksandar Stamboliyski was the Prime Minister of Bulgaria from 1919 until 1923. During his term in office, Stamboliyski made a concerted effort to improve relations with the rest of Europe. This resulted in Bulgaria becoming the first of the WW I defeated states to join the League of Nations in 1920. Though popular with the peasants, many considered him to be a virtual dictator or a peasant thug and he was ousted from power in a military coup on June 9, 1923. He attempted to raise a rebellion against the new government, but was captured by the IMRO (Bulgarian National Movement), who detested him for renouncing Bulgarian claims on the territory of Macedonia, was brutally tortured, and killed.
Sofia National Opera House: The building opened in 1953.
We left the Opera House with tickets to the ballet for the next evening (Leo Delibes's Coppelia) at 15 lev/ticket. The boys were thrilled. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) We also got 3 tickets to a children's opera, The Grumpy Goat by Yuli Damyanov for Friday morning at 8 lev/ticket. I had read that Bulgaria promotes some operas and classical music performances to children to help get them interested at an early age, so we thought we should do that while we were here. Vincent figured he and Sarah would go to The Grumpy Goat with perhaps one of the boys or me, depending who was up for it Friday morning. The Grumpy Goat would be about an hour long, sung in Bulgarian, and I rationalized that it's hard to understand opera when it's sung in English so hopefully would be just enough but not too much. Both Vincent and Sarah are mad about musicals.

With our plans for Bulgarian culture all set, we started walking about Sofia to see some of the main sights.
St Sofia Church: Dating back to the 6th century, the St Sofia Church is the second oldest church in Sofia. It is now one of the most valuable pieces of early Christian architecture in southeastern Europe.  The church stands in the middle of an ancient necropolis and many tombs have been unearthed both under and near the church.
The present building is a cross basilica with three altars.
Because Saint Sophia represents "the Divine Wisdom" along with a historical saint, Sophia the Martyr, icons within the church depict Sophia as Christ Emmanuel, a young figure of Christ seated on a rainbow. The church also displays icons of historical saints, including St. George and St Vladimir.
Sarah loved this lion which can be found just next to the St Sofia Church.
The Monument to an Unknown Soldier is situated next to the church. The monument commemorates the hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian soldiers who died in wars defending their homeland
St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: It was completed in 1912 and was built in honor of the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, which resulted in Bugaria being liberated from Ottoman rule. The cathedral is built in the neo-Byzantine style and is named after Saint Alexander Nevsky who was a Russian prince (1220-1263).
To the left of the altar is a case displaying relics of Alexander Nevsky, given by the Russian Orthodox Church. Construction and decoration of the cathedral were a pan-European effort, completed by a team of Bulgarian, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and other European artists, architects and workers. After taking this photo, I was told photography was not allowed so do not have anything further of the interior.
There were a lot of street vendors out selling their wares. Religious icons anyone?
The Russian Church: Built in 1912, it is dedicated to St Nicholas, the miracle worker.
We then came to the Sofia National Art Gallery which was ranked high as a place to visit.
The National Art Gallery was at one time the former royal palace of Bulgaria. It was built shortly after Bulgaria’s proclamation of independence from the Ottoman Empire (1878). The building itself is worth seeing, alongside the art collection which is extremely light compared to other "national galleries". I asked if I could take photos and was told it was allowed.
The Old Plovdiv by Tzanko Lavrenov (1896-1978), who was a Bulgarian painter and writer. He was one of the most important artists in Bulgaria in the 20th century, achieving renown for his unique style of painting and for his decorative, brightly colored scenes of legends and fairy tales.
Shepherds from Brazovo (1941)by Zlatyu Boyadjiev (1903-76): In 1932, Boyadjiev graduated from the Academy of Art, Sofia, having studied under Tzeno Todorov (1877-1953). In 1939 he went to Italy, where he studied painting. On his return to Bulgaria, he was a founder of the 'Baratzite' group, along with his fellow artists Vasil Barakov (1902-91) and David Peretz (1906-82). One of the unique aspects of Boyadjiev is in 1951, due to a serious illness, his right hand and part of his body became paralyzed. After two years he began to paint again, this time using his left hand. As a result, his style changed drastically. His paintings became expressive and dramatic and he paid special attention to folkloric and mythical motifs.
The Art Gallery gift shop was packed with Bulgarian crafts. When I took this photo, I was told "no photographs". Huh? It was okay to take photos in the gallery but not in the gift shop? That was a policy I'd never encountered anywhere else.
After leaving the National Art Museum, we found ourselves walking past the Natural History Museum and decided to take a look. Turns out the Natural History Museum is a homeschooler's mecca, in addition to being a pretty fascinating place for anyone to explore. Founded in 1889, the Natural History Museum is Bulgaria's oldest museum. The museum's collection includes over 400 stuffed mammals, over 1,200 species of birds, hundreds of thousands of insects and other invertebrata, as well as samples of about one quarter of the world's mineral species.
Mineralogy: About 1300 mineral samples are exhibited in this one hall in fifteen vertical glass-cases. They are arranged in systematic order: Native elements, sulphides and sulphosalts, oxides and hydroxides, halogenides, silicates, borates, phosphates, arsenates, vanadates, sulphates and carbonates.
In the amphibians and reptiles hall, one can find all 52 species of the Bulgarian herpetofauna. Here one also finds a detailed crosss-section of a snake's head.
The insects exhibition on the fourth floor shows 728 boxes of insect species that have been painstakingly pinned to display boards and categorized. Want to learn more about wasps? This is the place.
It must have taken a real OCD individual to mount and categorize each of these insects.
On February 27th, we drove just outside of Sofia to the foot of Vitosha mountain where we took a cable car up to the skiing base. This is one of the best features of Sofia; skiing (in winter) and hiking (in summer) are only 10 kilometers away.
On the drive to the cable car depot, we passed by this advertisement. James commented, "Hey look, it's a minaret for beer!"
The cable car ride each way was 6 kilometers, taking 30 minutes. It provided a spectacular view, but ugh that smog.
Sofia below: It may not be surprising that in 2009, Sofia was ranked the 29th of "30 Greenest Cities in Europe" in a survey conducted by Seimens.
After having lunch, we descended back down the mountain and made the call to go to the zoo. Having just been to the zoo in Skopje, some of us weren't ready to repeat the experience but Sarah really wanted to go and we thought it a better option than going through a museum given in the evening, the kids would be "stuck" at the ballet.

Sarah and Vincent at the Sofia Zoo entrance.
I found parts of the Sofia zoo to be pretty depressing. Some animals didn't seem to have enough space to move around, while others had fairly good conditions. The white rhino didn't have enough space to roam around with just a small circle in which to pace and the single elephant seemed lonely. The lions had lots of space and so did the ducks and swans with their big pond. (Ducks and swans always seem to have the best circumstances; they must have the best negotiating skills.) I read that some animals are "sponsored" by businesses or individuals and those ones have the better situations. Paul repeatedly grumbled about zoos in general and the caging of animals which raised a good discussion or debate about the ethical nature of zoos. When, and in what circumstances, is okay to contain animals so that humans have an opportunity to see them and learn about them?
"That bear's habitat looks like a US embassy," commented James.
The Sofia Zoo has a number of playgrounds and I think that is what the kids liked best.
Later that day, it was time to go to see the ballet, Coppelia. We didn't know anything about it prior to reading the Wikipedia synopsis and thought it was a plus, where the kids are concerned, to learn that it was a comedy. Who knew a ballet could be categorized as a comedy? The boys repeatedly asked why they didn't have an option to avoid the ballet, but in the end they said it was "okay", which was a pretty good outcome given we're dealing with 14 year old boys. Sarah loved it and wanted to try another ballet in the future.
After taking this photo and one of the Opera House ceiling, I was told no cameras were allowed "at all" in the theatre. Of course I could understand the reason for no photography during the performance, but photos of the building? What's the reason for that?
With only a few days to get any impressions of the country, I garnered that there are strict protocals for certain things, theatre etiquette being one of them. During the ballet (and the next day's Grumpy Goat) there seemed to be an inordinate number of ushers who were ready to pounce if anyone in the audience was falling out of line. If anyone pulled out a smart phone or camera, they were on it in a heart beat (even during non performance periods with the curtains down). If there was any talking they rushed over to motion "shhh". Part of me was annoyed by this policing but another part of me appreciated the strict adherence to behavior protocol, as everyone in the audience benefits.

On February 28th, we were out early to see The Grumpy Goat. James asked to stay behind and work on homework so we consented. We only had 3 tickets as it was. Paul came with us as we wanted to give James the chance of some alone time. The Grumpy Goat was targeted as a children's opera and the dress circle of the Opera House was pretty full with 5-8 year olds, their teachers and parents, and us. It was not unlike a children's play we'd see in California on a school trip except that the music was opera, there was a full orchestra and it was in Bulgarian. For British readers, I'd categorize it as the Bulgarian version of the "panto" (with a fair bit of audience participation). The performance lasted about 45 minutes which seemed a long 45 minutes to me (given the Bulgarian language barrier) but Sarah still enjoyed it and got more out of it than I expected. Paul was okay with it too. It's not something we'd repeat, unless done in English, but it was interesting to see what Bulgarian kids are exposed to.

At the end of the show, we got in the car and returned to the apartment. We had lunch at a hole in a wall restaurant below our unit and then headed for the National Museum of Military History. The museum was founded in 1916 and was recently relocated and updated with new displays. The permanent collection traces the history of the Bulgarian military from the First Bulgarian Empire to the present day. There are displays of Bulgarian military uniforms during the Middle Ages, collections dedicated to the struggle for national independence, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1888, and the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). There are also dioramas of Bulgarian military participation in the First and Second World Wars and in other military campaigns up to the present day.

If one is a military buff and well-versed in Bulgarian history, this is the museum for you. We thought the boys might like it because the military museum in Paris was such a hit. Many of the displays have English translations (although some signs are blocked by display items so maybe they really didn't expect English speakers to actually go to the museum). While there are a few sound effects, the design of the museum is old-school with hundreds of uniforms, medals, weapons, documents and other historical artifacts enclosed behind glass cases. If one isn't well informed on Bulgarian history, one quickly gets overwhelmed with all the details. The museum would be so much better if they offered audioguides or if one of the many staff gave tours. With the exception of about 5 others and a school trip, we were the only visitors in the 4-storey building. There were an inordinate number of museum overseers/room monitors and I felt we were practically matched 1:1. Sometimes there were 3 monitors hovering around watching us. While Bulgaria's unemployment rate hovers around 13%, the unemployment in Sofia is closer to 2-5% (depending on the source). I'm not surprised given how many "assistants" are hired in theaters and museums; that really helps keep the unemployment numbers down.

The outdoor exhibition area has more than 230 examples of military artillery, aviation equipment and marine equipment.  Photography was not allowed in the museum so I've included a few shots of the equipment on display outside.
23-mm ZU-23-2 Anti-aircraft Gun: It was produced in USSR and has been in service with the Bulgarian Army since 1961. What is it with boys and guns? They just have to try them out.
Tactile Ballistic Missile Complex 9K72 SS-1 "SCUD B": Minimum range, 50 km. Maximum range, 300 km. Striking area, 10,000 m2. Produced in USSR. In service with the Bulgarian Army 1965-2002.
A PMZ-4 Mine Layer for high-speed (5 km/hr) mine laying above or below ground. Produced in the USSR and in service with the Bulgarian Army since 1962.
After leaving the museum, we drove the car to our apartment and parked it. We then walked over to the SkyCity shopping mall that was situated about a half mile away. We wanted to find some hats, scarves and gloves that would help keep us warm during our skiing adventure the next few days.
At the entrance to the shopping center, we saw this sign indicating "no photos" in the mall. Seriously? What's the point of that? I can assure you there was nothing special about the interior of the mall that it had to be protected.
We found a subset of our items and then went to the bowling alley up on the 4th floor.  We signed up for 2 games and this was the first bowling alley that I had been to where we could have the bumpers up for Sarah's turn but the gutters exposed for the rest of us. I wondered how long it would be before one of us got reprimanded for doing something out of line. It only took to the second frame when Sarah was told by one of the staff to not step past the foul line. (At this point I was definitely feeling some of the former communist undertones. And reading about Bulgaria, it may not have been entirely my imagination because Bulgaria has taken a lot longer to embrace the freedom (and gain the benefits) of democracy than any of its neighbors. To quote one source, "Bulgaria has been slow to slough off its communist past".)
James demonstrating his bowling style: He's actually pretty good. With more frequent practice, he could be very good.
On March 1st, we left Sofia and drove to our next destination, the Village Amampuri near Pamporovo where we'd have a three day skiing vacation. While Vincent and I had skied a few times in our lives, neither of us had been on skis for over 15 years and the kids had never been on skis so Vincent booked us all into skiing lessons for the 3 days.

Once we exited Sofia and got on Bulgaria's so-called highway, a traffic control officer motioned for us to pull over. We'd been pulled over a number of times, particularly in Albania where people were being checked that they had paid their registration and license fees; but as soon as the officer recognized that we were driving a US-registered car, they always waved us off. So we didn't think much of being pulled over this time. The officer asked for our insurance, then Vincent's driver's license and then he asked for our passports. The passport request seemed odd. He then walked off with our documents. After a minute or so, Vincent got out of the car and walked back to the officer. It turned out this was some kind of a "shake down". Because the officer only spoke Bulgarian, Vincent thought this was the gist of the message; he was going to write Vincent a ticket for not having a vignette and it would cost €150. (I've since researched that tickets for not driving with a vignette can be as much as €60.) Vincent would have to go back to Sofia to buy the vignette which would cost 10 lev. As soon as Vincent heard the €150 cost, he knew this was not on the up and up. Vincent repeatedly said, "Okay, please give me the ticket for the €150 and when do I get my documents back?" The officer started to write out a ticket but then tore it up. A second officer was getting frustrated with the officer who was trying to scam Vincent and finally grabbed our documents out of the first officer's hands and gave them to Vincent. The second officer then instructed Vincent to drive 2 km down the road to the next petrol station and buy the vignette there. As I looked in the car's side mirror, I saw Vincent shake the second officer's hand and at that point the officer said, "Good luck." We had read about the need for vignettes in other countries, such as Austria, but somehow Bulgaria didn't hit our radar. I would have thought we would have been instructed to buy one as soon as we crossed the Bulgarian border or had seen signage to do so. Vignettes are actually a pretty good system; they seem a lot more "driver friendly" as they are an alternative to toll booths.

We drove a couple kilometers and then pulled over to buy the vignette. There was a huge queue so we weren't the only ones in arrears. Then after driving another 40-50 kilometers, we saw signs for Burger King and McDonalds. The kids wanted McDonalds so that's where we went. You know Vincent has truly given up on a country when he willingly goes to a McDonalds.
Another boost to Bulgarian employment is the use of manual railroad/level crossings. En route to Pampolova, we had to wait for a train to pass and watched this station man raise and then lower and the barrier.
We arrived at Village Amampuri before dark and got checked in to our house. Other than it being very cold (and took about 20 hours to heat up with individual heaters in each room), it was fine with a lovely view. It was too foggy to take a good photo so hopefully will get one before we leave.

March 2nd was our first day of family skiing. We woke up to rain (with forecasts of rain for the next 3 days) and we thought that this could either be really good or really bad. There's no middle ground for precipitation. Our apartment host was very kind and offered to take us to Pamporovo, the place where Vincent had pre-ordered ski rental equipment and ski lessons. The Pamporovo ski resort is in the heart of the Rhodopi mountain and claims to be Bulgaria's sunniest ski resort; you'd never guess that given the day's weather. At 9:00am we set off and were at the rental shop by 9:25. Fortunately, the change in elevation turned that rain into snow. We were all outfitted with boots, skis, poles and lift passes in no time and instructed to join the beginners group. Both Vincent and I had skied before but it had been decades ago so we stuck with the beginners. Paul, James and Sarah had never skied and so we were all together. In hindsight, Vincent and I should have joined the intermediate group because by lunch time we were both bored but we had fun cheering on the kids when they each mastered a technique. I had a fun moment talking with a man from Bristol, England who asked me how we got to Pamporovo (wondering did we buy a charter package or organize our own flights). I responded, "We drove." The baffled expression on his face was priceless. I then had to explain, "Yes, we drove from California...and our car with California plates is in the resort parking lot."
James, starting to get the hang of it.
Sarah getting the hang of it.
Paul, not quite.
On March 3rd, we woke up to a brief break in precipitation.
A glimmer of sun! But it wasn't to last. By the time we left for our Pamporovo, it was snowing heavily.
We left our house at 9:30 for what should have been a 20 minute drive. The snow on the roads (and ice underneath) spelled perilous conditions and we had a tough time of it getting to the main road. Surprisingly, there seemed to be several other motorists out there who were stuck and unable to manoeuver. ("Surprisingly" because I'd expect most motorists up here to be used to the conditions, but maybe they were tourists like us.) Fortunately, Vince brought chains so, while a pain to put on, we did have the means to get traction and make our way to Pamporovo. Unfortunately we arrived about 90 minutes later and missed our ski school start time so had to muddle along on our own for about 40 minutes until we crossed paths with our ski instructor.
Time to get the chains out. Brilliant Vincent thought to bring 2 sets of chains; as it turned out, one chain wasn't working properly so we could break out one from the reserve set.
James and Sarah continued on the beginner's hill for the rest of the morning.
Paul, Vincent and I moved the the next level of hill to work on our turns. This is Paul; he'd mastered turning left but turning right was still troublesome.
A view through the front windshield on the drive home. Glad we had the chains on. So many motorists didn't and it was chaos getting out of the ski resort to the main road.
Safely back at our house after a long day.
A view from our terrace.
Another view from our terrace as Paul takes aim at moi.
March 4th was our third and last day of ski school and our last day at the Pamporovo ski resort. Our instructor was going to take us to the top of the mountain and to use her words, "hopefully we would be ready to make it down".  Fortunately that morning, Sarah seemed willing to go up in the chair lift with the class and I told her that if a section of the slope was too steep, we'd just take our skis off and walk down. She could deal with that.
Riding the triple chair lift to the top: It was a snowy, foggy, cold 15+ minute ride.
At the summit, we broke through the clouds and were met with some brilliant sun.
After reaching the top, we spent some time "practicing" our turns on a very mild slope and after about 5 runs, our instructor said we were ready to take the green slope half way down the mountain. Having an instructor lead me down the slopes made a big difference. I think this was my fifth time "learning how to ski" and the first time I had an instructor take me down the mountain. Without her, it would have been another stressful experience with the end of the day being a huge relief that I didn't break something or die (which was my typical feeling); this time, I actually enjoyed it more than dreaded it and at the end of the day I opted to take a last run with Paul and Sarah rather than rush off to the rental hut and hand over my equipment with a deluge of "Thanks be to God" for sparing me once again. Meanwhile during the day, both Paul and Sarah turned a corner and ended up quite controlled, able to go much faster than "Mom", and just loving downhill skiing. James however hurt his knee and quit after lunch. Vincent progressed to the advanced class and went down a number of blue runs and a red run, so he was another one hooked on the skiing experience.
Lovin' the skiing and looking forward to one more run.
A look back at the base camp as we start our ascent.
Our last trip up to the summit.
That evening we had to start packing up again for our next destination, Istanbul Turkey. There were many aspects of our brief stay in Bulgaria that we really enjoyed, particularly the skiing and people we met at Pamporovo. But given Bulgaria is part of the EU and on the edge of being accepted into the Schengen Treaty, I assumed it would be culturally more like western European countries. It is quite different, which points to the value of traveling and experiencing different cultures first hand, if one has to opportunity to do so.

No comments:

Post a Comment