Thursday, 20 February 2014

A Bulgarian Day Trip

Cherven Medieval Citadel and Village
Despite it still being only February we had made plans last week to have a bit of an awayday this week, weather permitting. Yesterday was our target day as Wednesday always seems to break up a week quite nicely. The weather on Monday and Tuesday had been quite pleasant, and the forecast was indicating that we were in for more of the same on Wednesday. It might sound rather odd, but the temperatures have already been in the high teens and low twenties. It might not be shorts and t-shirt weather just yet, but for February this weather is much preferred to knee deep in snow.

So on bounding out of bed to let the animals out for their early morning constitutional we were confronted not by a glorious sunrise, but by thick swirling fog. Definitely not what the Docker ordered. We were not disappointed, or even cursing the weather forecasters and calling for a plague of boils on their collective backsides. This might have been due to the fact that beyond the murk there were signs of a glowing ball, and looking at the sky to the North there were definite hints of blue. The dogs and cats were appeased by their breakfasts, and once they were nose down in their bowls I don't think they gave the fog a second thought. By the time we had finished that all important first coffee the fog was thinning and the sky was steadily growing more blue.

The Car Park Is Down Here We Need To Go Up There
We had planned a full day, which included revisiting a couple of places that we had visited before, and also a couple of new ones. Our first destination was the medieval village and citadel at Cherven. Situated on a rocky hill this citadel was once upon a time of strategic importance. So rather than go up the main VT-Ruse road we decided to use the back roads. At least we wouldn't have to put up with the mad driving habits of the Turkish HGV drivers, who often seem to think that that road is their own personal race track. Another good reason for travelling the back way is that it is a lot more scenic. We did have a SatNav with us but most of the route was from my memory. I think that I was probably the most surprised as we were able to go there without any wrong turns, deviations or side trips to see any 'areas of outstanding natural beauty'. We rolled into the car park, which was like one of those abandoned Wild West towns, minus the Tumbleweed rolling across the road ( a plastic bag which had escaped the bin served the same purpose though).

Enjoy The Scenery
Even though the last of our snow disappeared from the garden on Monday, there were still a few patches at the roadside here. Just enough to remind us that it was still winter. Due to the lack of life in the car park and the cafe we assumed that there were no car parking fees, and so armed with cameras we headed for the steps. That is a problem with a citadel up on top of a hill, to get to it you have to go up. I think at the final count it was 245 steps up. At the top of the steps you follow the path up and then you can gain entry through what would have been the North gate, but first it was well worth taking a moment to enjoy the scenery laid out behind us heading up towards Ruse, the River Danube and Romania. With us being the only ones there, there was nothing to disturb the peace and quiet, even the modern day village beneath us was mainly silent.

A Basic DIY Citadel In Kit Form
Looking out to the West at the rocky hills could these have been the source of much of the stone for the walls, the churches, and other buildings within the fortress area. Some of them seem to be tiered, maybe the druids had also been visitingand created a spiral pathway similar to the one at Glastonbury Tor. Perhaps the 'Pyramid' next to it could provide the answers. The mind wanders in mysterious ways when there are no sounds around to provide a distraction. We could always blame the aliens, or perhaps it was something to do with the medieval loos at the citadel wall. I wonder if the fired red bricks were original, I'm almost certain that the 'aroma' was. After about three quarters of an hour, we were no longer alone as some Bulgarians had also had the same idea that we had. They seemed to have disappeared long before we returned to the carpark, although it is possible that they were alien abductees.

Go Away Before I Taunt You Once Again!!!
It is wonderful being able to get so close to history, and actually nice to see that it is being preserved for future generations. Within the citadel walls it is possible to see some round stone balls which must have been launched from soething like a Trebuchet from one of the surrounding hills. I daresay that if one of those landed on top of the building you were in, it wouldn't exactly make your day. The sites of the churches are numerous within the actual walls, and there are also excavations to unearth the Bishop's residence. To me these points alone indicate the level of significance that this place held back in history. Now all of this wandering round up on top of a hill in the sunshine soon builds up an appetite. We had expected that the cafe wouldn't be open so a picnic was the order of the day. So we slowly made our way back down the steps (still 245 of them) and to the car park. This time there was a man, and he had a badge. We thought that we were to pay a car parking fee, but when we offered he told us that it wasn't necessary. He did look somewhat bored and quite happily accepted the offer of a coffee and a slice of cake.

A Bridge Over Muddy Water
He spoke English and told us that there was a barbecue/picnic area behind the cafe which we were welcome to use. It is now the site of an adventure playground, which has sprung up since we were last there. Hopefully the trees were already damaged before this bridge was strung over the river. There were certainly trees in the river, but they might have been caused by the winter storms that we had at the end of last year. There was even one bit of tree constantly nodding in the currentfurther downstream. The man with the badge turned out to be the official guide amongst other things. He seemed quite happy to chat as he drank his coffee and ate his cake. He mentioned to us about two secret passageways that they had discovered. One is known locally as the King's stairs, maybe next time we go there we will ask him to possibly show us where these secret stairs are. We were told that much of the information which is known about the citadel has come from the actual excavations. The rest have been gleaned from the records which were made during the Ottoman Occupation. For further information about the site, we were advised to check out , although at the moment it is only available in Bulgarian.

An Odd Place For A Shed
Ivanovo Rock Church
This area is also known for the rock churches and monasteries, the guide told us about one which was all of the way round the back of the rock on which the citadel sits. It is very difficult to reach but you can still see some of the original frescos. We mentioned that once we had finished our picnic we were heading for Ivanovo, and the rock church there. He informed us that at the moment it is not open to the public as it is outside of the tourist season, but we would be able to see some of the exterior. He did recommend that we go and see the rock monastery at Basarbovo, hopefully we didn't look too smug as that was also on our itinery for the day. By all accounts the Basarbovo monastery is one of the last surviving rock monasteries which is still active.

Basarbovo Monastery
As we headed off towards Basarbovo we could feel the temperature dropping, and see the fog looming. Once again we were the only ones who had decided to visit, as there were no other cars in the car park. We were greeted by a monk, or a priest, when we walked through the gates of the monastery. I hope that we hadn't disturbed him from whatever it was that he would normally be doing. We checked that it was ok to take photos, I think he said it was ok but it sounded like he was speaking Italian. He had worked out that we were foreign, so maybe he thought we might understand Italian, unfortunately none of it was a menu item. He was quite happy to sell us candles for us to light, even though the box of matches was a little damp from the fog. Again this was quite a fascinating place to see, and I would imagine that there is more to see later in the year when there are more visitors likely. There were still frescos and icons to see, some which were obviously more modern than others.

Modern Items
Smoke Damage From Candles
So three great places seen all in the space of a day. Maybe with the summer crowds it would not be possible to do all three, or you wouldn't be able to do so at your own pace. Rather fortuately my battery warning light on the camera was showing, as the temperature was still dropping and the fog was thickening. What was needed was a hot drink, we still had hot water in the thermos flasks but Ruse was just up the road and we needed a couple of bits from Mr Bricolage. So it was decided that first we get the DIY odds and sods, and then into Ruse for coffee and something to eat. Apart from the weather being a pain I even remembered how to get into Mr Bricolage, so the SatNav wasn't required. We got our bits and pieces and headed off to park up in the centre. These are tow away areas so we were rather concerned when we couldn't find anyone to pay for parking. In the end we asked another motorist who was picking his wife up, and he told us that it was free parking today. What a bargain, all of the different places we had stopped and not one car parking fee between them. It was while we were eating that we noticed a flaming torch light procession. It was like the villagers in a Hammer House of Horrors film off in search of the local Vampire. A kind man explained that it was in commemoration of Vasil Levski being hung. I did see some photos of the service but fog and flash photography don't really mix as there were more light orbs than anything else.

Looks Good Even In B&W
The Bell Tower
The journey home wasn't that pleasant due to the conditions. It didn't seem to stop the lunatics, or even slow them down at all. Before we finally managed to leave the fog behind we had seen the aftermath of two accidents. The truckers didn't seem to slow down at all, maybe that is why so many of them have LED crucifixes shining on the front of their cabs. Fortunately we didn't have any problems, although we were quite happy not to try and break the land speed record, but would rather get home in one piece. Although just over halfway home we did emerge from the fog, and the route we used took us away from the nutters on the main road. So we had a full day, but what a great day it was.    

Friday, 14 February 2014

Trifon Zarezan Den

St Valentine's Day
Not only is February 14th the normal St Valentine's Day, but here in Bulgaria there are a couple of other things that I have to remember. One thing that I always have to avoid forgetting is that it is also Net's birthday. Although Net does keep saying that she doesn't want a fuss, she has even gone so far as to hide her birthday on Facebook. It hasn't worked, well about as well as me hiding mine from Facebook did. So even just for birthdays February has always been a busy month. Here in Bulgaria, especially in the villages, today is St Trifon's Day. He is the saint associated with vines and wine.

Or Is It?
It does seem to be a more practical celebration, rather than the overly commercialised Valentine's Day. These celebrations to the vines and to wine are rooted in history. Many claim that they are similar in style to the old pagan rituals that the Thracian's held in honour of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus. It also marks the end of Winter and the coming of Spring. Depending on which calendar you use St Trifon's Day can fall on one of two days. If you use the old calendar its on the 1st, for the more modern outlook it is today. Many, quite sensibly, hedge their bets and celebrate on both days.

The Traditional Way
As in most cases there are always regional variations which happen, but it seems to be a day long celebration wherever it happens. People get up early on these days, although that is nothing unusual in the many villages throughout Bulgaria. The men head off out to the vineyards outside of the villages, as it is only men who are supposedly to prune the vines. On entering the vineyard the man turns to face the rising sun, and makes the sign of the cross three times. He then cuts three twigs from different vines. The places where these three cuts are made are then washed with red wine, holy water and wood ash from a fire which was burnt on Christmas Eve. Prayers for an abundant harvest are spoken as the pruning takes place, hoping to gain favour with whichever spirit actually looks after the vines. The cut pieces of vine are woven into a wreath which is either worn across the shoulder or adorns a wine flask. Later it will be placed in front of the house icon. Any trees which have not borne fruit the previous season are ritualistically threatened to be cut down if they don't produce this year.

Washing The Cut Vine Stems With Red Wine
In some regions three hot coals are taken from the hearth, and these are used to indicate which crops will be good in the coming season. The coals are also symbolic as they represent the warmth of the sun. Then there is much eating, drinking and singing in the middle of the vineyard. Whichever man's vines produced the most grapes at the last harvest is declared King. Which seems to be another excuse for more drinking of wine. If wine is spilt it doesn't matter, as whatever is drunk or spilt on the ground all goes towards ensuring a good harvest for this season. It is something that many villagers put a lot of emphasis on.

The King
Even during the evening the villagers gather at the 'King's' house, where more eating, drinking, dancing and singing is carried out. Reading the previous bits and pieces you might think that it is all just a male thing, trying to ensure a bountiful harvest. While the men are in the vineyards the women are also busy in the home. Special round loaves are made, which symbolise a fertile field. These are passed out and shared with friends, neighbours and relatives. Special festive breads decorated with grapes and vine leaves are also quite popular. Today is not a day to be a chicken, especially not a black one. A chicken is stuffed and roasted, some will be eaten in the vineyard and some at the evening's celebration at the King's house.

Traditional Round Bread Made By Petya Rainova
So today is a day about trying to ensure that the coming year is a fruitful one for the whole village or community. It is easy to make assumptions about the old pagan fertility rites, and how with the onset of Christianity many such celebrations were claimed and adjusted by the Church. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that a happy village is often a more productive village. Maybe that also accounts for the three vine twigs, and the three hot coals, all used to symbolise the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. This ritualistic pruning is normally the first work which is carried out on the land each year, so after the normally harsh winter people quite understandably look forward to the coming of Spring with the warmer days and new growth everywhere.

Some of you might be wondering where the 'Zarezan' comes into things. This means 'snub nosed', and by all accounts like other villagers had a vineyard. He was pruning his vines one day when the Virgin Mary happened to pass. Rather unkindly he mocked her saying that she didn't know who the father of her child was. In retaliation Mary condemned him to accidentally cut his nose with his own pruning shears. Hence the name Zarezan or snub nosed. Wine is such an important part of Bulgarian life that if you ever see an icon depicting St Trifon you will always notice that he is holding his pruning shears.      

Wishing You Well Whatever You Are Celebrating
So no matter what you choose to celebrate, there is always a good reason to celebrate something here in Bulgaria 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Big Melt Has Started.

It seems as though the big melt is going ahead today. As I stand out in the garden there is not just a drip every now and then, but it is running out of the gutters. The icicle of doom is no more, as that seems to have decided to depart from the corner of the house and inspect things from the ground level. It is very nice to see sunshine and blue skies though. One downside to it all though, is that we are still getting the cold evenings and that often means that what thawed during the day then freezes again. It all makes things a little bit treacherous underfoot when wandering round the village.

I have been following the weather forecasts with interest just recently. It seems as though we have had the last of the snow, well certainly for the foreseeable future. So now I have been busy shifting snow from the driveway all the way up to the barn. Surprisingly it has been about 10 inches deep (that will be about 25 cms if you are a metric person) in places. Where the dogs have been running backwards and forwards over it there were compacted ice trails. With the thaw it will mean that instead of snowy paws being cleaned before going indoors, we will have muddy paws instead. The dogs do like to help with the snow clearing, well that was until we unearthed one of Fenny's tennis balls. That was it all three dogs wanted the same ball so snow that had been moved was suddenly jumped on and pushed back into the driveway.

Now our driveway slopes all the way down from the barn and out onto the lane, which also slopes. Previously when we have been a bit too over eager to get out, we have ended up sliding down the last bit of the drive, across the lane and into the snow bank. I'm not too concerned about this but I can get a bit flustered if someone starts panicing. At least with the snow bank there our neighbours wouldn't get any unexpected visitors through their fence. To try and speed up the ice thawing on the last bit of driveway and the lane I now save our wood ash. This gets scattered over the ice once we reckon there will be no further snowfalls to cover it back up again. So now we can move about the village, we could probaly drive round the village too, but it is so small that it makes more sense to walk.

Trying to get out of the village is where the fun normally starts. Being on a hill, to get off it we have to go down. With icy roads that twist and turn we have found that sometimes it is not always so easy to stop or even slow to safely negotiate a bend, especially when the camber of the road seems to be wrong. The bus is brilliant, but then again it is a lot longer and heavier than our car. The quickest route out of the village and into 'civilisation' is the green route. Unfortunately it is not the straightest route and there are drops either side of the road into wooded areas. So when we can get out at this tme of year, we use the red route. This is the road that is closest to the main road, but it is also in the worst state of repair. Quite often the snow and ice have done quite a good job of filling in the potholes and craters. There are fields either side so it is quite flatish, so if you do happen to imitate Margot Fontaine, nothing catastrophic is likely to happen to you. A friend tried escaping the village the other day, and even though he never got out of second gear he was slipping and sliding all over the place. The bus is ideal if you want to go in and pay bills and get small items of shopping, not quite so good if you want sacks of dog food and to fill gas bottles up.

Another good thing with the thaw happening is that the Jackals will start to move further away from the village. It can be quite worrying when you have cats. The village dogs soon let you know if there are Jackals or Foxes about, just by listening to them you can almost plot their course as they skirt the village. They are normally on the lookout for a stray chicken, but they would not be too averse to taking a sleepy cat. So every night I have to do a head count of the cats, otherwise I just can't settle. The dogs are normally helping when I do this, they seem to tolerate our cats but they don't like strange ones in their garden, including Splodge who sometimes comes to tea with our rabble. On a winter's evening you know that you are in the back of beyond, there are clear skies and the Jackals howling, there smell of wood smoke is everywhere and depending on the time you can also smell what people are cooking for tea.

In the previous blog I mentioned about the January transfer window. Crystal palace did make some final day deals, and I am very happy to report that two of the new boys managed to score for us in their home debuts yesterday. Looking at the bottom half of the league table it is still quite congested so no one can afford to slip up more than anyone else.

Fingers crossed we will be able to safely drive out of the village in the next couple of days, although the dogs quite enjoy their people food extras at the moment. I have seen winter now, so it can depart and make way for Spring. Even though as winters go this has been a mild one.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Ice Station Zebra Reporting In

Hopefully everyone has noticed that January 2014 is now a thing of the past, and that we are now into February. As any football fan will tell you, January is also when the winter transfer market is open. Possibly like many others I have been scouring various boards trying to gain information about those all important signings. More often than not it was rumour upon rumour, or just suggestions. Yesterday is possibly the worst day of the lot as there is always a glut of activity. Fingernails can get bitten down to the quick as an impending transfer almost happens and then for one reason or another it fails to actually materialise. Now I could have spent yesterday going round and round the various websites, refreshing every few minutes, or I could actually do something vaguely useful. The cats and dogs persuaded me that the latter would be an ideal course of action, mainly because they didn't want to run out of their food.

Those of you who live out this way, or even those who follow the blog will be aware that we have had a little bit of snow. The roads in the village have been partially cleaned, which means that the snow has been scraped off of the ice below. Which wouldn't make for ideal driving conditions. It is at times like these that I do what the villagers do, and get the bus into town. Fortunately, on a Wednesday and Friday, there is a lunchtime bus and so that was the one that I aimed for. There were still bits and bobs that needed doing, such as the fires required cleaning and lighting, and also firewood needed to be brought down from the barn. At this point it might be worth mentioning that it was slightly chilly. Even at 10 o'clock the thermometer was reading -11C, so if I was going to venture into town I needed a little bit of time to get myself ready. By the time I had finished I probably had just as many layers as the average onion. Even now I still find a use for various items of military style clothing, thank heavens for Noggie shirts and wool socks.

So with a shopping list in my backpack, and looking like the Michelin Man I made my way down to the bus stop in the middle of the village. This is outside what I have always called Bridget Jones's knicker shop. It is a small village shop, possibly a bit like Arkwright's, in that you can get anything you want in there. The only thing is that in the five years we have been here we have never actually seen it open. I have seen Bridget Jones herself wandering up from there, but actually open no chance. Just out of curiosity we have tried looking in the window without much luck, there did seem to be some rubber shoes, some coffee, some big pants and some chocolate but anything else was not easily discernable through the murk. If anyone fancies cleaning windows I know of a few places which could benefit from your services.

I saw the bus go past on its way to Vinograd so at least I knew that it was running. It did mean that I would have about 15 minutes to wait until it returned. Whilst waiting there on my own it was obvious where everyone else was hiding, the smoke coming from chimneys was a bit of a giveaway. There was also a brief flurry of snow, but I think even that decided that it was a bit too chilly for anything more than a half hearted attempt. The bus returned clattering round the corner, and slidng to a stop so that I could get on. I wasn't the only one from the village venturing into town, although I was the only daft sod stood outside in the cold waiting. One of my fellow travellers was none other than Bridget Jones herself. I don't think that she recognised me, although to see through those glasses she must have good eyesight, she is as deaf as a post too. It could have simply been the heat from the bus caused her glasses to steam up. This bus was so hot inside I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that the driver was cultivating Orchids on the luggage racks. One downside to wearing multiple layers of clothing on a bus is trying to get comfortable as you travel in a mobile furnace. It took me until we got to Strelets.

To my mind the roads were a bit iffy to drive on, and a few times I felt the back end of the bus drift round a corner. It didn't seem to worry the driver, or the other passengers, maybe the best thing would be to close my eyes and hope. Perhaps that is what everyone else was doing, including the driver. He did stop the bus half way down the ridge road, and got out for a walk round the bus. Maybe the driver just wanted to make sure that all of the wheels were still there, or the roadside vegetation needed watering. I had hoped that by the time we got to the main road that the road conditions would be better. I found that they only began to improve on the far side of Draganovo, and even then they weren't brilliant. The roads didn't really get a lot better until Dolna Oriahovitsa, but by then we were almost in Gorna Oriahovitsa. That meant sorting myslf back out and closing up the various layers.

Gorna itself was a balmy -9C, the roads might have been clear but most of the pavements weren't. In certain places they have used marble, especially near the main square. Unfortunately these bits do tend to get a little bit slippery. While in town I though that it would be an ideal opportunity to pay the bills. I knew that the electric bill was ready as I had checked that online. I tried Vivacom first, only to be told that the bill wouldn't be ready until today. So that can now wait until next time I venture into town. It was a similar situation with the water bill, although that will not be available until the 7th. So my idea about paying the bills early didn't really happen. The cats and dogs were happy with my efforts though, as they seemed to be under the impression that my sole reason for going in to town was to get them food. The cats don't seem to mind if I am at home or not, but the dogs do get a bit stressy. Especially Fenric, the Boxer, he has a habit of pacing and puffing and blowing until I get back. At least they were all indoors in the warm.

The journey home was the complete opposite, this bus was like a fridge on wheels. Not only that it must have been the lurgie bus with the number of people coughing, sneezing and spluttering on there. No wonder this flu epidemic is spreading. I probably resembled a bandit, or highwayman, with my hat pulled down and my scarf up over my nose. Even my jacket collar was fully turned up. As to whether I have escaped the lurgie or not remains to be seen, but I can only hope. Today has been quite mild in comparison as we made it to the dizzy heights of -3C today. I am hoping that once the freeze and thaw starts properly that the Icicle of Doom will grow to a reasonable size. Which brings me back to the transfer market, and we were fairly active on the final day. At the moment it doesn't seem as though we have panic bought a lemon, as we normally manage to do. Looking at the weather forecast, depending on which site I use, we might get a little more snow yet, or we might not. The good news is that the day time temperatures will slowly claw their way above freezing. Possibly a bit too soon to start considering shorts and t-shirts, but you never know. Hopefully the roads will soon be ok for normal traffic.