Monday, 25 May 2015

Mysterious Bulgaria

Bulgaria is an old country, and as you might expect it is rich in history, traditions and folklore. They are all around you, from the major cities to the smallest of villages, and sometimes where you least expect. Through writing these blogs, I often so plenty of research, which might surprise some. All too often I have to admit that I do get sidetracked, when one little gem or another piques my curiosity. Sometimes these get filed away for use another day, then others are only ever a paragraph maybe two if I am lucky. Some of you reading this might never have been to Bulgaria, but I consider myself lucky enough to actually live here, and I get to see and do so much which might otherwise have eluded me.

Take for example the Trakia Highway (named after the historical region of Thrace), also known as route A1. It links Sofia and Burgas, via Plovdiv. Possibly not much of interest there you might think, but you would be surprised. If you travel from Sofia, after about 55km you will pass through a tunnel known as the Gate of Trajan tunnel (Тунел Траянови врата). You might wonder why it has such a name, but in days gone by the old roads and tracks passed through a mountain pass as it followed part of the course of the River Yavoritza. This pass was of strategic importance as it was one of the few means of getting between the lowlands of Sofia and the Upper Trakia valley.

As such it has been well guarded by whoever was in control of that area. from the times of the Thracians. It wasn't until the times of the Romans that a permanent fortress was built, to house a garrison to guard this important pass. Many believe that it was on the orders of the Emperor Trajan himself, and originally it was called Stipon. Today the remains of this fortress can still be seen. These remains are on a hill overlooking the pass, some 600 metres from the tunnel. The ruins are quite small, some 60 metres by 40 metres, but plenty of the stone and brick walls can be seen. You can imagine the guard towers looming over the pass, and the many rooms held within the fortress, It wasn't until the mid 1970s for any real archeological excavations to take place. Various surprises were found, for example a tunnel was discovered just inside the gate area, leading down to the river. So the Romans had an 'easy' means of water supply, and this tunnel would have been constructed at the same time as the fortress itself. There is always something to be said for planning ahead.

Perhaps the best known battle for the pass happened during medieval times. This happened between the Byzantine army of Emperor Basil II, and Bulgarian forces led by Tsar Samuil. It effectively prevented any further incursions through the pass into the West of Bulgaria. Effectively the Byzantine forces were routed during the battle of 17th August 986. For 7 years Bulgarian forces held the pass against repeated attacks. Move ahead 500 years or so, and the winter of 1443/4 saw Wladyslaw III of Poland lead his crusaders against the Ottoman Empire. He reached the 'Gates of Trajan' in his initial campaign, but realising the difficulty in capturing this pass the following year he moved his forces through the Northern part of Bulgaria. Then during the war of Independance (1877/8) Ottoman forces dug trenches in the area, as they prepared to face a decisive battle against the Russian army. Maybe it was because of panic, or at least disorganisation, the Ottoman forces withdrew to Pazardzhik before the battle began.

Being a main route through the mountains, this area was often plagued by bandits. During the Byzantine and Ottoman occupations even the garrisons stationed there failed to control them. A few local villages (Klissura and Vetren) were given partial tax exemption during the Ottoman occupation, in the hope that they would prove more successful in preventing these attacks by the bandits. Nothing really worked, and people began to make a detour through Momin Prohod, Kostenetz and Belovo. Effectively abandoning the pass to the bandits. However, that is not the end of the interesting things that I have learnt about this area.

In the years before the archeological excavations began, the villagers of Gorno Varshilo and Dolno Varshilo would pass by the ruins as they took their produce to the city markets. As dusk began to fall, any villagers near the fortress remains began to hear strange hissing noises. Villagers the whole world over are quite a superstitious bunch, and soon they began to believe that they were hearing Samovilas, or Samodivas. These are beings from Bulgarian and Romanian folklore. The Romanians refer to them as Lele's.

These beings are said to inhabit the mountains and forested areas, and are of an unearthly beauty. They have the power to bring drought, burn crops and give livestock a high fever. When angered they can fly and fling fire at enemies. Somewhat similar to the Harpies of Greek myths. They have a hostile and dangerous attitude towards people, but any man who gazed on a Samovila would become obsessed by her beauty, and chase her relentlessly. Women faced with such beauty would kill themselves. Fortunately these creatures are nocturnal, but any villager passing near the 'Gates of Trajan' was always very careful to not offend these beings. After the excavations the odd noises and hissing stopped. Many think that a partially blocked tunnel was to blame, with the change in air pressure as the day cooled.

For any further reading about this area you could always try this book by Miho Chervenkov about the City Kostenetz and the surrounding area.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Village Sounds

I always used to think that village life would be quiet and peaceful. However, the longer that we have lived here, the less I find that that is the case. You just have to stop and listen, and you will soon hear that it is not quite as quiet as you might imagine. I am not complaining, as the majority of sounds are made by nature, rather than by mankind. If you will bear with me I will take you through an average day, starting with the sun just rising. As we are in a rural setting we have plenty of woodland and lakes surrounding us, so the village is a constant hive of activity for bird life amongst other things. Now that the weather is warming up, each day is greeted with the dawn chorus, rather than the birds being huddled up in their nests, coughing and sneezing.

It doesn't take long for the various Cockerels to start crowing, and as soon as one starts another one tries to outdo it. They carry on throughout the day, as they try and keep an eye on their gaggle of hens. Then there are the various Geese, Ducks and Turkeys which have also been roused into wakefulness. Occasionally you can also hear the odd Pheasant or two, coughing away at the edges of the village. The villagers are soon up and about, sorting out their livestock, and getting children ready to meet the school bus. The children must still be half asleep as I never hear them first thing in the morning. Dogs soon begin to appear on the village streets, I can only assume that they belong to people as come the evening they have all disappeared again.

The morning continues to warm up, and goats and sheep are taken to the shepherds who then take these larger flocks out to various bits of pasture. I am always amazed when they return, as they all know where they live once they get back into the village. People just stand at their gates to hold them open as their animals return. There are no barking dogs, no shouting, just the gentle clanking and clonking of various bells. Every so often one adventurous goat might take a fancy to a choice bit of vegetation, but a stern "Haide" and they are off to catch the others up on their return journey home.

Once the livestock, and children, have been sorted out people can then start on their own daily bits and pieces. More often than not this will involve tending their gardens. So above the hum and drone of bees visiting flower beds and blossom, you might hear the odd word or two or a radio being played. What we do often hear though are two shy visitors. Every so often you might see a flash of yellow flying between trees, this will be the Golden Oriole, but it has a very melodic call. The other is the Cuckoo, definitely not so melodic, but always a pleasure to hear, even if it is bad at telling the time. Whoever heard of 27 o'clock? Some villagers don't seem to have a working volume control, and any conversation is carried out at one level, loud. I am sure that these could hold a conversation between them selves from one end of the village to the other.

If there is work to be done in the fields, old asthmatic tractors are fired up and off they chug. There are a couple of newer ones, but the old faithfuls do keep going, even if they do look like they are held together with bits of wire and recycled bits. Nothing seems to be wasted, even if it can no longer be used for its intended purpose, it will be given a new lease of life when it becomes incorporated into something else. Eventually even old tractors have to die, but some of their parts still live on. There always seems to be someone tinkering away, elbow deep in the guts of an old tractor. So rather than everything having a use, it seems as though everything has a multitude of uses, it all depends on how far along the timescale it has got.

We often get wood lorries growling their way through the village. Many appear to be ex-military, and have definitely seen better days. Like the old tractors they keep on going, often only on a wing and a prayer. Then there are the recycled rotavators, which will putter along, towing a trailer. It might be quicker to walk, but in the Summer heat no one wants to rush anywhere. The quietest time in the village seems to be between 1 and 4 in the afternoon, which coincides with the hottest part of the day. We are often sat up under the barn then, reading and just letting the sounds of nature wash over us.

Life seems to pick up a notch with the imminent return of the school bus. Parents and Grandparents go to meet the youngsters, and take the opportunity to sit and have a natter and catch up with each other. Pretty much the same the world over, although what happened in EastEnders, Coronation Street, or Britain's Got Talent might not feature highly on the list of village interests. Its nice to hear the children playing, laughing and shouting when they get off of the bus. At least here children are allowed to be children, and once they have done their chores they are allowed out to play again. They seem to do whatever homework they have in the early evening, before turning in for the night.

As the sun sinks lower on the horizon the chorus of Blackbirds, Starlings and Sparrows picks up from where it left off in the morning. The Swifts, Swallows and Martins do their bit for mankind by eating as many mosquitoes, gnats and midges that they can before calling it a night. The fading light doesn't mean that there is a cessation of noise however. It just gets passed on to something else. Often I seem to be followed by a cloud of whining, biting bugs as I finish off watering the garden, so there are the slaps accompanied by vaguely muttered swear words. We also get a Jay which sits up in one of the Walnut trees laughing at me, if I get my hands on it it won't be laughing any more.

The warmer weather has woken up a numerous amount of field crickets, much to the cats enjoyment as they seem to feel that they need to be hunted. From the remaining crickets there is that constant chirruping in the background. In a few weeks time they will be joined by the tree frogs. Sometimes it sounds almost tropical living here, thankfully we don't have quite so many nasty beasties living here.
After having eaten their fill of crickets our cats seem full of energy, and will play fight between themselves. Heaven help any strange cat which dares to venture into their garden, as they will gang up on it and have a full on scrap. The cats fighting will even drown out the sound of the local frog and toad population. From around the lakes, and beside the stream they can be heard, croaking, booming and chuckling. This will carry on throughout the night, and at times it sounds like a constant hum, similar to what you used to hear if you stood beneath a power pylon.

Finally, you can lull yourself  off to sleep by listening to various Bats, Owls and Nightingales. During the Spring and Autumn we sometimes hear Foxes having a nose round the village. It is easy to trace their path, as the sound of village dogs barking follows them. Then in the Winter there are the Jackals up in the woods, the colder the Winter the closer they will come to the village.

Maybe with Paisii being in a small valley up on top of the hills, sounds might be a little more enclosed and tend to echo a little, but if you listen it is always full of life. This village life certainly might not be as quiet as I once imagined it, but I wouldn't want to swap it.    

Sunday, 12 April 2015

April Uprising 1876

As we are now in April, there seems no better time than now to write about the April uprising (Априлското въстание) of 1876. At a meeting of the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee, held in November of 1875, it was decided that the time was right to start preparing for a general uprising. To that effect Bulgaria was divided up into five revolutionary districts. These were centred in Vratsa, Veliko Tarnovo, Sliven, Plovdiv and Sofia. However the revolutionary committees of Sofia proved ineffective. To combat this the centre for region IV was moved from Plovdiv to Panagyurishte, so that both regions could be overseen from there.

Somehow the Ottoman rulers got wind of a meeting of the sub-committees within the 4th district, and the Ottoman police arrested the leader of the Koprivshtitsa local revolutionary committee, Todor Kableshkov. Armed rebels attacked and surrounded the police headquarters, where Kableshkov was being held effecting his release. This led to the rebellion being proclaimed two weeks ahead of schedule, and soon the rebellion spread throughout the Sredna Gora region, and various other towns and villages within the north-western Rhodopes. Kableshkov is claimed to have sent a letter to the headquarters of the 4th Revolutionary council, proclaiming the revolt. He signed the letter in the blood of the slain Ottoman governor, hence it is often referred to as the 'Bloody Letter'.

Since the plans were made for the uprising, villagers throughout the regions were building up stockpiles of arms and ammunition. These included wooden cannon, which were made from cherry and elm wood bound by iron. As it would be impractical for the 4th district to foment rebellion throughout the whole area, it was passed on down to sub-committees to charge trusted citizens to undertake this task. So rather than using a broad brush to paint the picture I shall focus on one area. That area is Bratsigovo, as that played quite a significant part in these uprisings. In this town a local man, Vasil Angelov Petleshkov, was given the task of coordinating the rebellion in that area, by Georgi Benkovski the head of region IV. But who was this man, in whom such trust had been placed?

He was born in Bratsigovo on January 14th 1845, and was the son of Catherine and Nayden Velchev. Unfortunately his father died while he was still very young, and so his mother Catherine remarried. She married another local man, called Angel Petleshkov, who adopted the young boy. Young Vasil travelled to Constantinople, or what is now known as Istanbul, to study as a Pharmacist. On qualifying he returned to Bratsigovo, where he worked tirelessly for the cultural advancement of the local population. In 1874 he founded the local library and community centre, 'Trandafil', and he became its chairman. It was during this time that he devoted himself to help free the struggling population from oppression.

Once news of the revolt reached Panagyurishte, he made straight for Bratsigovo, and announced that the long awaited rebellion had begun. The villagers armed themselves and set about guarding the approach roads to the town. They successfully repelled several skirmishes by Ottoman troops and irregulars. Bravely they fought against insurmountable odds, aware that they couldn't hope for any help from outside. They could only rely on themselves and their families. Elsewhere the rebellion was being put down with unwarranted savagery, most notably in Batak, but still they fought. For almost a week they lasted, inflicting casualties on their oppressors, but such victories were short lived.

Enemy numbers were increasing, and on the 16th day they overwhelmed the town's defences. Vasil spent several days in hiding as enemy forces tried to capture the rebellion leaders. Many claim that it was Vasil's step-father who gave up his step-son's hiding place to the Ottomans. Whether that is true or not has faded into history, perhaps it was simply to prevent any more bloodshed. Being a pharmacist Vasil managed to take poison before he was captured. Unfortunately it wasn't fast acting, and he had to endure a cruel torture at the hands of the Ottomans.

He was taken to the edge of the town where his body was tied to a stake, which was placed between two fires. These fires were then lit. Still the poison hadn't fully acted on him. As the fires were fanned, and burning hotter and hotter, he spoke his final words, "I am alone, there are no others. I led, I commanded. Look for no others." He died on may 8th 1876. His body was later found in meadows outside of the town, he had also been bayoneted several times.

How successful was the April Uprising? For one thing it did highlight, to the Western world, the atrocities that the Ottomans had used to suppress the rebellion. In short maybe this helped to focus public opinion from outside, which in turn maybe they saw the forced removal of the Ottoman yoke as a justifiable act. Would this understanding have happened were it not for the sacrifices that such men made throughout Bulgarian history? One good thing that I have found is that Bulgarians do not lightly forget their national heroes. Their lives live on through history lessons taught in schools, roads, stadia and schools are proudly named after them, and their statues can be found all over the country. Their houses are preserved as museums, and some even make it on to stamps.


Thursday, 2 April 2015

Going Underground

A quick look at the calendar shows that we are now in April, it is so easy to lose track of the days here in Bulgaria. Which means that Baba Marta has packed her bags for another year. The Storks are back, there is blossom on the fruit trees and daffodils are nodding their heads in the gardens. I think that we can say that Spring is definitely here, and as we all know following Spring we have the long awaited Summer. Summer is also the time when families come out to stay in Bulgaria. Not only that, those of us living here also start to get itchy feet, and start to plan our own Summer getaways. Some will choose to explore different parts of Bulgaria, whereas others will have their sights set further afield. Whether it be family coming into Sofia, or yourselves leaving from there, the common link is the airport.

So let us take those flying out, as for anyone flying in this hopefully handy guide will operate back to front. Many choose not to drive and leave their cars in the long stay car parks at the airport. This tends to give them one of two options to get to Sofia, either by train, or by bus. Fortunately the Central Bus and Railway stations stand almost side by side on Knyaginya Marie Louise Blvd, not that far from the Lions Bridge. Previously, to get from either place out to the airport, involved dealing with taxi drivers and their somewhat erratic tariff schemes, which in some cases cost the unwitting 100 Leva. As of today, April 2nd, there is another option, as the Metro line out to the airport has opened, and the price of a ticket in 1 Lev, for anywhere on the Metro.

As is always the case with something new, there are going to be people worried about how to use the thing, but hopefully this blog will help as I haven't found anything in English yet. So first of all, if you have arrived in Sofia's Central Bus Station you need to wander over to the Central Railway Station, but please remember to watch out for buses and taxis. Especially the taxis, as they know where you are going, and you are one fare less for them. Once you have safely reached the Railway Station you will need to find the Metro, so look for the big blue M above a blue chevron. Tickets can be bought at the ticketing desks or from machines. The Metro is underground, so you will need to go down steps, at the moment I don't know about disabled access, but if in doubt ask.

You won't be surprised to learn that this station is called Central Railway Station (Централна Гара) and is on Line 2 (that's the blue line for you and me). The airport is on Line 1 (the red one), so you will need to change platforms. The station where you do this is the main interconnecting point for the Metro lines, and is called Serdika (Сердика), and is only about 4 minutes journey. With it being the main Metro interchange there will be a bit of a traipse through tunnels to get you to the Line 1 (the red one remember), so try not to get yourself lost. Once on the Line 1 platform look around and see if you see others there with suitcases, if they are on the other platform to you then chances are you are on the wrong one. Keep an eye on the notice board for train arrivals, you want to go to the airport (Летище Софиа) and not out to the Business Park (Бизнес Парк Софиа).

It used to take about 20 minutes to get as far as the old line ended at IEC - Tsarigradsko Shose (ИЕЦ - Цариградско Шосе), but now you have another 4 stops to go. It might be cheaper than a taxi, but if time is important for checking in then maybe its not such a good option. So almost an hour after starting at the main Railway Station you arrive outside Terminal 2 of the airport. I daresay that in time the service might quicken up, but at the moment that is definitely something to take into account when planning journey times. The Metro station isn't even connected to the terminal, so you still have a bit more walking to do, although it is only a couple of hundred metres. Maybe not so bad in the summer, but possibly not so pleasant in the winter, or when it is persisting down.

That is OK for those who want to be at Terminal 2, but what about those who want Terminal 1, the old terminal. Look outside the front of the Terminal building and you will see a marked area for a FREE transfer between terminals. If you see a vehicle there all well and good, if not then you might have to wait half an hour for the next one. So all told it could take you about an hour and a half to get from the main Railway Station to your check-in at Terminal 1. The return journey, or for family coming out the time constraints might not be quite so important, unlike your flight out or their return journey. The Metro runs from 5 in the morning until midnight, and the FREE inter terminal link runs from 7 in the morning until 7 in the evening. The return journey is the reverse of the outward trip, but if you do decide to use the Metro keep in mind that it does get busy during the rush hours. Hopefully this blog might help, or at least it may give a bit more of an insight until more information becomes available.


Saturday, 28 March 2015

It Has Arrived

Do you remember in previous blogs I mentioned about the red and white thread bracelets that are worn from the 1st of March, the Martenitsa? About how they are worn until you see a Stork, or you see the first fruit blossom? Well, as a change this year, despite scanning the skies, we took ours off when I happened to notice that our Apricot tree had suddenly started to show blossom. I am sure that they weren't there in the morning when I was out working in the garden, but there they were proudly unfurling themselves in the afternoon sunshine. So now our slightly grubby Martenitsi are hanging from various fruit trees around the garden. Despite today's weather I have been out in the garden again, and besides the Apricot tree, we also have Pear, Apple, Plum, Peach and Cherry trees all starting to display their wonderful Spring colours. Even on a dreary day, such as today, the insects are slowly waking up and lazily flitting from one open blossom to another. Hopefully the blossom will get pollinated without sudden frosts, or bad weather, damaging them. There is something very satisfying about sitting in the garden on a Summer's day eating fruit which has been freshly picked from your own trees.

Not only are the fruit trees coming into a show of Spring colour, but so are the Forsythia bushes. Their bright yellow flowers are a welcome sight on a grey day. Not only that, they also help to attract the early insects into the garden. Looking at the photo, it looks as though they could do with pruning once their flowers have dropped. Even though we are now nearing the end of March, Baba Marta is still having her say. We have had temperatures above 20C already this year, by comparison today at 11C feels a bit chilly. That might have something to do with last night's rain, and today's sporadic drizzle. So on fair days we are out in the garden mainly tidying up after the winter, but on days such as this it is Spring cleaning indoors. Various spiders have been evicted, windows have been opened to freshen the house up, and I have been tasked with cleaning the oven, fridge and microwave. Once the freezer gets lower that will be defrosted and cleaned too.

After having been cooped up indoors throughout the winter months, it is nice to be able to get outside and start pottering in the garden. Apparently clearing snow from the paths, and doing the daily log runs doesn't really count as getting outside. The cats are enjoying watching the birds who come to visit, but I am assuming they are thinking more along the lines of lunch, or toys, rather than them being a welcome indication that Spring has returned. The dogs are much more laid back about things, and their main interest, besides food, is where the sun will be at any given point during the day, and how can they ensure it is comfortable for them to bask. Fenric is also happy to have rediscovered his tennis balls, which had been buried under snow. I wish that they would all learn to wipe their feet before coming back in though, as we seem to have a constant battle against muddy paw prints on floors, walls, window sills and windows, alongside nose prints on the windows.

Yesterday, we went into town to do our shopping, and pick up a couple of bits from the ECont office. The Storks might not have made it to the village yet, or even Strelets, but they were there on one of the nests in Draganovo. One flew in front of the car as we went through Pravda. It is surprising that such a large bird, which looks so graceful in the air, can look like a broken hang glider when coming in to land. The one in Pravda was then quite happily strutting around the football pitch as though it didn't have a care in the world. My knees are hoping that the warmer weather will soon be following them, but that's what you get from kneeling on too many cold and wet steel flight decks working on aircraft.

One thing I have noticed is that our hallway must be the end point of a ladybirds migratory route. Everyday it is swept and dusted, and totally devoid of any sign of the little buggers. Five minutes later they are back again, some are quite happily marching about on the rugs, whereas others  haven't fared quite so well. I have looked and looked, but I can not find where they are coming from. Perhaps they are from a Ladybird equivalent of Star Trek, and that they have been beamed down. Oh all right I'll say it, "Beam me down, Spotty". Even the cats and dogs tend to avoid them, maybe they have also read my blog where I revealed that they can, and do, bite.

The only thing left for me to do on this blog is to remind everyone that the clocks change in the wee small hours of tomorrow. The clocks go forward an hour, so that means an hour less in bed. Hopefully the dogs will not be in too much of a hurry to go outside tomorrow morning. Wishing you all a wonderful Spring and Summer from us here in the back of beyond.