Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nevski Art Market

From upper left clockwise: Eagles Bridge, Melnik, the National Theater, Nevski Cathedral
From left: Rila monastery, Nevski (Nevski cathedral behind the paintings)

On Sunday we decided to invest in a bit of Bulgarian art. First we dropped by the Ethnographic museum for some new pottery to take back with us to California next week and hide in storage, and then we sloshed through the slush to the Nevski Cathedral art market.

The art market is pretty unique. It's basically an art alley, paintings stacked on expansive easels in the snow from one end to the other, all running about $25. It was a trip through our last two years of Bulgarian travel as we admired paintings of the many lovely places we've seen - Melnik, Koprivshtitsa, Rila, Plovdiv, the Black Sea Coast and Sofia. In the end, we settled on one of Plovdiv and one of Koprivshtitsa and they will be lovely reminders of this time someday when we get them mounted on our walls in....

We'll find out where soon, since we go to our job fair in just three short days!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


It's just 15 days until Baba Marta, the old grandmother of spring, will arrive in Bulgaria. The stands selling tiny red and white EVERYTHING to give to everyone you know on March 1st have sprouted throughout the downtown, along with ladies who could actually be Baba Marta herself in disguise, selling tiny bundles of the first snowdrops of the season.

Spring will come!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day from Bulgaria

Life in Cyrillic

It took a while to get used to the fact that billboards, posters, book covers, restaurant signs and street signs are in Cyrillic. Now it's kind of fun, seeing how the names we know translate into such a very different system. We have Cyrillic sightings outside Bulgaria now and then - a poster on the Friends t.v. show set, or a bit of spray painted graffiti that means nothing to most passersby in a country we are visiting. I remember when we first started learning, back in Claremont, when Brett was sick with a high fever and wanted me to make him flash cards to study. We've come a long way since then.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Weekend in Sandanski

Rila Monastery under Snow

One of the many murals, and me

On the drive

The indoor pool at Spa Medite (photo carefully angled to avoid swimmers)

When I told my seniors I spent the weekend in Sandanski, many faces lit up and they shouted "Intriga!" To my amusement, one immediately handed me a business card for an exclusive night club in that town, for the next time I return. Silly me, spending all my time at a spa when I could have been dancing the nights away at Intriga. Ah well, maybe next time.

Brett and I took off on a bitterly cold day in Sofia after getting a jump start from a team of friendly ACS maintenance and security guys. We drove around the crowded ring road, across the cobblestone way that leads to the main thoroughfare to Greece, through an intensely foggy mountain pass, and out into the sunshine of Southern Bulgaria, snowy mountains cresting the Horizon. We pulled off the main way for a quick trip to Rila monastery, excited to see it in its winter garments.

The drive up the mountain was gorgeous in that full sunshine just after a snowstorm kind of way. Every branch and curve of the river was wearing melting tufts and peaks of snow, and giant icicles hung from rocky patches on the sides of the road. Snowy pine forests ranged across the shadowed hill to our right as the sun beamed onto the cliffs on our left. We swerved often to avoid patches of rocks on the road but since we were virtually the only travelers headed toward Rila, it didn't much matter.

We joined five other visitors, one gigantic dog and one wandering monk in the courtyard to enjoy the splendid colors of the monastery framed in white mountains. Then we took off for Sandanski.

We arrived into the outskirts after an hour and were pleased to see large signs pointing us ever upward to Spa Medite, which turned out to be in "Sandanski Heights." We added our car to the three or so others in the spa lot, and went in, taking note of a grassish looking tennis court and NO SNOW.

Checked in, and having checked out the fluffy bathrobes in our closet and made massage appointments for later, we headed out for some tennis, stunned to be playing outside after waking up in weather so cold as to kill our trusty 1994 Volkswagen Golf.

For the next twenty four hours we enjoyed the comforts of Spa Medite - a giant jacuzzi in a private deck, a heated pool in the middle of a solarium, a gym, massage, pedicure, and a lovely restaurant that produced Brett's "2nd favorite ever meal" and the best creme brule we've ever tried.

Throughout it all, I found myself wondering, why do we seem to be the only ones here? At dinner, we joined one other couple in a restaurant that could seat at least 40. The bar was empty save for the barman. My name seemed to be the only one on the spa schedule for Saturday, and the jacuzzi was available the moment I asked for it. What was going on?

It was my pedicurist, Sonia, who tipped me off. "The border is closed," she said. "Most of our customers come from Greece." It turns out that protesting farmers have parked trailors and tractors across every border crossing between Bulgaria and Greece, and trucks are back-parked for miles. No Greek tourists can come and enjoy the chocolate croissants, Turkish lights massages and outdoor tennis of Spa Medite until the farmers get what they want. It struck me as amazing that the border had really been closed for a whole month.

Photo from The Sofia Echo

Here's an excerpt from an article about the blockade:

The farmers drove tractors and heavy machinery to the borders with Albania, Turkey and Macedonia to block border traffic there as well.

Earlier this week, the Bulgarian government appealed to the European Union to take "immediate" action to end the blockades.

Greece's socialist government, which is struggling to cope with an unprecedented economic crisis and pressure from the European Union to curb the highest budget deficit in the 27-nation bloc, promised to provide state aid by mid-March and urged farmers to dismantle the roadblocks.

However, the government rejected the farmers' demands of new subsidies worth about 1 billion euros (1.4 billion dollars). Agriculture Minister Katerina Batzeli said in a televised discussion that the country's precarious fiscal situation made subsidies impossible.

The country's farmers estimated their income has declined by 25 per cent in the past 10 years. The farming sector is composed mainly of small-scale farmers who rely on handouts from the government to survive.

Last year, a monthlong protest in which farmers blocked roads also triggered major problems for commercial truck drivers and travellers. (Read more: here)

We enjoyed our weekend at Spa Medite, but felt bad for it too. It is providing a wonderful bit of tourism inside Bulgaria, a country that deserves and badly needs effective tourism, and now it is undoubtedly draining money every day. On the other hand, what are the Greek farmers to do?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Back to Rila

On our way to Sandanski this weekend, we decided to take a little side trip to Rila Monastery, the most visited site in Bulgaria. We first went there on our orientation trip a year and a half ago. Founded by the hermit Ivan Rilski in 927, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage sight that sits amidst the Rila mountains. Earlier this year, I was able to peer at Rila from the ridge far above, during a hike on Maliovitsa (in the background). Ever since then, I've been wanting to see it coated in snow. The weather kindly obliged, and the only question was weather we'd be able to make it up the rock-strewn access road. Luckily it was on the south side of the mountain, and early morning sun was already melting the snow.

Rila is known for being a sanctuary to Bulgarian heritage during the long Ottoman occupation. Its library houses 16,000 volumes, many of which are hand-written originals. The impressive frescoes were painted in the 1840s and remain remarkably bright today. (Thanks to Thomas Cook for this information.)

Bulgaria's stray dogs have even made it to Rila, where they beg for alms from visitors.

Though it is often overrun with tourists, Rila is still a working monastery.

You can see the monk from the previous picture on the middle level here, perhaps walking toward his room. These halls are off limits to tourists.

The impressive fresco lining the main monastery.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Here Comes the Sun

Perhaps you too have experienced a sense that winter might just last forever. A rich earthy scent on the air followed by 6 inches of snow. Wet socks from the powder that snuck into your shoes on the way to work. Angry lungs on a run. Cold fingers on your keyboard.

Tonight I decided to bring a little light to mid-winter by looking back over my travel photos on a scavenger hunt for only one item - sunshine. Here are the results...

Sofia, Bulgaria

Oia, Greece

Cinque Terre, Italy

West Coast, Morocco

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Cinque Terre, Italy

Hamburg, Germany

Oia, Greece

Flam, Norway

West Coast, Morocco

Barcelona, Spain

Sofia, Bulgaria

Prague, Czech Republic

Sofia, Bulgaria

And they're off...

We've finally finished first semester at ACS! Now we're off to Medite spa ( in the mountain town of Sandanski for a bit of R and R. We'll let you know how we liked this top-rated place when we get back next week.

Image from: Google Images.