Having left Bucharest behind in the night, we have traversed the increasingly swollen Danube in the night and reached Bulgaria.
“Bulgaria was under the Turkish yoke for 500 years,” our guide Polina tells us as we set out on our bus expedition of the day. “That disasterous period is still in the minds of the people. It was the darkest days of our existence.”
I sense a heaviness, a tinge of melancholy in Bulgaria— not surprising considering their long and difficult history. Founded by the Celts, it has been conquered over and over; besieged by the Romans, ground under the heel of the Ottoman Empire, liberated from the Turks, occupied and later liberated from the Nazis, and finally brought to heel by the communists. But…“Democratic changes in Bulgaria started here in the city of Russe,” Polina says, proudly.“ You see, there was a chlorine plant nearby and the fumes made it hard to breathe. I had two babies, and I was worried for them. In 1988, journalists from democratic countries urged us mothers to take our babies into the square and demonstrate against the chlorine fumes, so we did… so many mothers and babies.” Soon demonstrations were held all over the country, and in 1989 the Green Party was established in the government. The communist rule was over.
She tells us this story as we leave the city of Veliko Tarnovo, a medieval city which once full of craftsmen’s workshops, churches and monasteries. Stone houses line the terraced sides of a steep hillside, and the old town’s cobbled streets are flanked by restored timbered buildings. The scent of flowering elms—their honey is sold locally—pervades the air as well as that of the rose oil for which Bulgaria is famous.
History is everywhere in Bulgaria. It’s there when we are visiting a Eastern Orthodox church built in 1597. The church’s walls are covered with intricate biblical scenes, and there is a partition between the area where men worshipped, and where the women prayed. The church is low to the ground because the Turkish conquerors forbade a Christian church to be taller than a spear-wielding warrior on horseback!
This fear of the Ottomans is obvious when we visit the historic home of a wealthy merchant. The windows are barred, the house equipped with a secret ‘safe room’ in case the house was invaded by marauding Turks. “No one was safe,” Polina says. “One of the worst things the Turks did was to take away 4 or 5 year old boys and raise them to be savage fighters. When they were grown, the boys would be sent back to their homes to convert their families to Islam. If the families resisted, the boys killed their own families.”
All this violence recalls what we have recently learned about Dracula of vampire fame. And a scion of this area. According to facts, Vlad II or Bulgaria, better known as Dracula, was one ruler who resisted the Ottoman Empire. Known for his incredible cruelty (he once impaled 25,000 Turks in one fell swoop), Vlad II was inducted into the Order of the Dragon—Dracule … thus the name Dracula. No wonder that this charming individual was named ‘Vlad the Impaler’!
Another and nicer historical character was a Trachian, a descendent of the earliest known people known to have occupied present day Bulgaria. This is Spartacus, who was captured and sold into slavery then became a gladiator and defied the might of Rome (remember Kirk Douglas?). As our bus now begins to ascend the Balkans, I think of people who lived long ago and wove their lives into the tapestry of this country. I think of King Boris III of Bulgaria who refused to turn over Bulgarian Jews to Hitler and who instead sent them to safety—for which decent act he was probably poisoned by the Nazis.
Now, the bus is climbing higher, and we see donkey and horse-pulled carts … and look! There’s a stork’s nest and the mother stork is busy feeding her fledglings! Here also are fields edged with wildflowers… poppies, lavender, and tall spires of yellow blossoms which were unfamiliar. “As if Van Gogh himself painted them,” muses Polina.
So much beauty here…
Did the maidens long ago
Pick flowers and dream?
The road leads us to the village of Arbanasi. Here many craftsmen’s shops line the cobbled streets, and we are released from history to do some modern shopping. Stopping at a coppersmith’s shop, we watch him using the same tools that are used centuries ago.
“Bulgaria is awakening after a long sleep,” a somber Polina tells me as we are walking toward the bus. “We have enough goods and modern inventions… now we need to want more opportunity, more imagination. We need the Global view.”
DAY 2: Rock climbing
Today the weather has decided to cooperate fully, and the sun is shining when we slide into Vidin.
Vidin has a long history of being a military, commercial and transport center. Occopied in turn by Hungarians and the Ottoman Empire, it still has managed to wrest back control of the country and defeated the Serbs in the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885. Further inland there is Belogradchik (translated as ‘Little White City’) where stands a fortress built by the Ottomans on top of the remains of a Roman fortress.
This is our destination today. As our bus climbs up into the Balkans, the plant life grows more plentiful and the air fresh and clear of any kind of pollution. In the upper regions of this place eidelweiss grow, but we do not go to such heights. Our goal is to reach the Belogradchik Rocks, stone formations that dwarf the landscape.
2,000,000 years ago, this part of the world was under water, and some great cataclysmic shift in tectonic plates must have forced these great rocks upward. There they stand, monoliths formed in such peculiar shapes that they have names: Adam and Eve’s first kiss; the horseman; to nun; the sitting duck; the school girl. They have stories, too, one of them being that once a convent stood in this place. A member of the convent, a beautiful young nun, fell in love with a Roman soldier. When she became pregnant, legend goes, she was forced out into the wilderness. Distraught, she appealed to Heaven, and both she and her horseman lover were turned into stone. Ah, but here is justice, too–apparently the entire convent was turned into stone for their heartless behavior!
To see the wonderful Belogradchik stone formations— they were a contender, we are told, for the new seven wonders of the world—we have to climb through three ancient stone gates and up a whole bunch of stairs. Some stairs have hand rails, most have not. Some are not stairs at all but rocks impossibly placed in the mountain so that we have to rise crablike, clinging to roots and rocks . Still, with a lot of panting and puffing, we manage to scale these heights and look out at the incredible formations. Oh, they are marvelous, full of an ancient beauty that began eons ago!
What did they look like
When they lay under the sea,
These enormous stones?
To recover from all this activity, lunch is in order. There is a farmer’s market going on as well as a flea market, and after we eat, we set out to see what a Bulgarian flea market is like. After our strenuous morning, it’s fun to enjoy the crowds and the wonderful array of fruits and vegetables—apricots, chilli peppers, bunches of herbs, and baskets of cherries offered by the wayside—and to savor small cones of ice cream as we walk along.
Our afternoon is cut short by an approaching thunderstorm and the knowledge that some children will be performing folk dancing on the ship. As we walk shipward, I remember what our guide for the day told us.
“We are a tough people,” she said. “We have withstood the Romans and the Turks and the Communists. That building was once a telephone factory under the communists. Now it is abandoned, but see? The building next to it is our NEW telephone factory! We will grow strong and succeed. You will see.”
And I have a feeling that she is right.
Day 3: Danube Waltz
It is true that we have waltzed on the Danube, though not to Strauss’ well known music. Truly, we dance every night on a very small dance floor or along the ship’s corridors or wherever we can find room! The musician is a tough old Bulgarian with a superior smile whenever we request a number, but he carries a good beat.
Today we are gliding on the river approaching the border between Romania and Serbia where the Danube’s borders narrow to become the Iron Gates, the four steep gorges that pass through the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains.. Before the two dams were completed, crosscurrents and sharp turns kept most captains from sailing through this part of the river, and many foolhardy boats were lost.
There two dams built in 1972 and 1984 as well as hydroelectric stations provide energy for the two countries. Not without cost, we understand, since 17,000 people were displaced. But the dams have done their work, and our ship passes through the locks to enter a scenic gorge lined with cliffs of stone 3,000,000 years old. Their striations are impressive, and so are the sights we see along the way… a cave where whole armies entrenched themselves and battled the Turks, a tablet set on the side of the mountain by Romans centuries ago.
There is also a 40-meter high statue carved into the very face of the rock, and we are introduced to the Dacian emperor Decebalus who fought three wars against two different Roman emperors. He has been a national hero for nearly two thousand years, and a team of no less than twelve sculptors have carved his face from a stone outcropping near Orsova, Romania, completing their work in 2004.
Further down the river on the Serbian side stands the Golobana Fortress, a beautifully preserved medieval fortress carved into the living rock. I somehow sense a cruelty about this place, and the story that is attached to the place proves me right. The tale is of a beautiful maiden who was desired by the cruel Pasha who ruled the fortress. When she refused his advances, he had her tied to a rock in the river there to die watching the fortress which now bears her name.
Passing the gorge, we sail through banks of green farmlands and rolling hills topped by windmills. We are on the way to Serbia.