Waterfalls, Socialism & FairyTales

Hike to Boyana Waterfall

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My only previous experience of solo hiking took place in Hong Kong a few years ago when, kitted out in flips flops and armed with a bottle of water, 2 cans of Carlsberg & some takeaway noodles I set off down the wrong path and instead of taking the easy 90 minute WW2 walk, I ventured off on to a 4- 5 hour hiking trail. I spent the first few hours trying to align the map I had with the route  maps on the way and to somehow make sense of the landmarks I could see not being where they should have been, deep down knowing this wasn’t down to me being a bad map reader, (which I’m not.) Thankfully my visions of being airlifted by a helicopter to safety and being spotted by friends on the evening news weren’t fruitful premonitions. I finally bumped into a lady with a map who showed me where we were… and where I thought I was, which was off the map… A few little pics below. At least the views were fabulous.

So, I was understandably a little nervous about going solo again. I heard about the hike on Sofia Green Tour but as an early riser I wanted to get going straight after breakfast, and be back in time for the Communist Walking Tour. I also relished the challenge of not getting lost, and spending a few hours alone in the ‘wilderness’. The Green Tour gave me some really easy and reassuring directions, concluded by ‘if you do get lost, just descent and you will get to a town,’ which though obvious was the advice I needed to hear!

IMG_6180Getting out of my taxi at Boyana Church I already felt lost. But thanks to advice from my wonderful Adventurer mate Laura Kennington I had downloaded the ‘Co-Pilot’ App which allows you to download city/country maps usable on GPS. With this I found the entrance to the path and started climbing towards Boyana Lake on Vitosha Mountain. (I would have found it anyway I’m sure..)

The sun was shining, but again with a slightly cold wind; perfect hiking conditions for a sun junky like me. From seeing the first yellow sign that pointed me in the right direction, and taking my first few steps I felt such a sense of calm being safely enclosed by the tall skinny trees surrounding me and the seemingly infinite blue sky above me, with occasional views of Boyana and Sofia below. 

IMG_6188Whilst encased in a natural canopy my mind wandered from one topic to the next; relieving old memories, analysing the present, speculating the future, and, just talking shit with myself! (I assume we all do this…?) Complete freedom of the mind is such a rarity in my busy London life. About half way up I noticed I’d been continually smiling and perhaps may have even danced or skipped a little too, or maybe that was just in my head.

Though I passed many people on the way, for the most part when I looked around I was walking alone. It’s hard to put into words the feeling of being utterly content, a word I believe is misunderstood. Contentment for me is not about settling, or being ‘okay,’ but that feeling when right at that moment, you want nothing more than what you have, and would rather be no where else. Really, truly, being in and embracing the present moment. I felt like that the whole way up, and the whole way down. It’s not a feeling confined to being in beautiful surroundings – I even get it commuting on the tube.

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It took around 30 minutes to the lake and perhaps another hour to the waterfall. I dawdled a lot, and stopped many times to take in the views and my surroundings, so I’m not too sure! A fairly easy hike, though towards the top there was still some frozen ice, so guess that’s why they do a different hike in the winter seasons!

Communist Walking Tour

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Former Communist Party HQ, now a Govt. Admin. Bldg Underneath the bubble are the ruins of Serdica

I made it to the Palace of Justice just as our tour guide Niki started his introduction. He explained Bulgaria is really an ex-Socialist state but but for simplicity, understanding, and better promotion, they tend to use the word Communist.  Niki was heckled by a local whilst showing us photos of the main players in Bulgarian Communism, specifically Georgi Dimitrov. He called him a criminal and said he should not be talked about, or shown off.IMG_6257

Bulgaria initially stayed out of WWII, but joined the Axis Alliance (Germany, Italy & Japan) in 1941, again on the promise of Macedonia. They officially declared war on the UK & France, refusing to accede to the German demands that they declare war on Russia; huge, powerful, and very close by!

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Bulgaria sustained a lot of damage from bombings and in 1944 they started negotiations with the Allied forces asking them to deploy against the advancing Red (Russian) Army. At the same time they wanted to end the union with Nazi Germany, and so for this time they were caught between the two, in a sense at war with everyone. The Red Army eventually entered Bulgaria in Sept 1944, seen as Nazi Liberators, and an armistice signed the following month. They stayed until 1947. The Bulgarian War Government was put on trial for entering WWII and 3000 people were executed as War Criminals.

In 1946 a referendum called to abolish the monarchy, who then went into exile. On Sept 15th 1946 under the leadership of Georgi Dimitrov the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was proclaimed, with a constitution modelled on the Soviets.

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The Jaeger door was the entrance to KGB interrogation offices

The focus was on collective industrial and agricultural growth, with dissidents (or more correctly, anyone middle accused of criticising the regime) was either interrogated, punished and/or sent to one of the approximately 200 labour camps.

There has been speculation that Tito envisaged a larger Yugoslav state including Bulgaria, but as far as I can see this hasn’t been confirmed and I’m not sure how complicit Bulgarian leaders were with this idea.

Though there was no freedom of speech, religion or political beliefs there was high employment, (though technically it was under employment (i.e. three people doing the job of one man), education was free, women were employed on equal basis as men and were given the same salaries. In the late 50’s a universal welfare and health system was introduced. There was also universal suffrage, though not sure how beneficial that was. In the 1960s Bulgaria even defied Cold War etiquette and bought a Coca Cola license, printed labels in Cyrillic. Ahh sweet sweet Capitalism.

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After the Stalin years, Todor Zhivkov took a less hardline stance and living standards improved with the country prospering economically and industrially, producing and exporting many household goods, and eventually computer tech. as well. This also relied on cheap labour provided by ethnic Turks until their mass emigration to Turkey in the 80s.

In Oct 1989, there was a movement for political reform, intensified by perestroika (the movement for political reform within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and in June 1990 multi party elections were held.  The name changed to the Republic of Bulgaria. However, the election winners were the Bulgarian Socialist Party (SP); the Communist Party with a new name. They only lasted a year in power and similar to other newly democratic countries in that region the 90s was a period of hyper inflation, economic and political instability and a drop in living standards for most whilst criminal networks flourished and flaunted their new wealth and power. 

Niki said that many felt that the real change in Bulgaria happened when it joined the EU in Jan 2007, though many still are disappointed that is has not brought as much real change and prosperity as expected. 

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The concrete area above was the site of Georgi Dimitrov’s mausoleum. It was constructed in 1949 taking six days, and demolished in August 1999 after four attempts. There are stories that underneath there is a nuclear bomb shelter with a series of underground tunnels. I found a video online, but not sure how authentic it is. Always up for exploring tunnels!

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We were taken to the Soviet Liberation Monument, erected in 1954 to commemorate 10 years of Bulgarian Liberation by the Soviet Army. In more recent years it has been used as a canvas for political graffiti protests and in 2011 the soldiers/peasants were painted as Super heroes, with the graffiti underneath meaning ‘in line with the time’ provoking pro and anti Russian discussion in the country.

In Sept 2013 it was painted pink with,’We the Bulgarians apologise’ in Czech underneath. Referring to the Prague Spring (1968) where (a small amount) of Bulgarian troops invaded with Soviet troops to quash the Czech attempts of reform and greater personal freedom. 

In Feb 2014 it was painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag to show solidarity with the revolution in Ukraine,  and later again in support against the invasion of Russian troops into the Crimean Peninsula; ‘Hands off Ukraine’  written underneath.

Note: Above three photos are not mine

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One of our final stops was the ‘1300 years’ monument erected in celebration of the Foundation of the Bulgarian State, meant to showcase three stages of its history.

IMG_6279At first glance I thought the decrepit, rusty, crumbling monument look so intentionally, but for a glorious moment or two in 1981 it was almost fully covered in tiles, until they started falling off due to speedy construction with cheap, inadequate materials and fixing solutions.

Fully intact the ginormous steel crane-esque monument would still be considered an eyesore to most, but I actually quite liked the monument, showing it’s glorious failings coupled with colourful graffiti. , Understandably there have been calls for it to be demolished, or at least removed from the rather beautiful, social meeting place, Yuhzen park, that it is in.

After the tour, I headed to Sofia Hardcore Tattoos to meet a friend of a friend, and we headed up to Mixtape to go and watch some local Hardcore & Metal Bands. There could not have been a more perfect end to a day as I just get so buzzed from seeing hardcore shows around the world. I knew no one (at first) and no bands, but felt right at home. Worldwide Hardcore Family – there is nothing like it.

Plovdiv

Woke up early the next morning feeling a little rough, like a hangover – a sugar hangover perhaps? I had a list of vegan places to check out the day before, but there was too much walking to be done, too much learning, too much music !! So I kept my energy levels up with white bread, jam, vegan cookies & protein flapjack bars…. 

I’d booked a tour with Traventuria and picked up by our lovely guide Marina. En route to Plovdiv I sat in the van mesmerised by the contrast of the man made buildings and factories beside the road, with the glorious snowcapped mountains in the background.

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It took us approximate 2 hours to get to Plovdiv, Sofia’s 2nd largest city with a population of 0.5 million. (1.5mill in Sofia and a total of 7mill in Bulgaria). 

Walking around Plovdiv Old Town felt like being in a fairy tale village. The streets were cobbled and windy, with a mixture of perfectly renovated houses as well as those in desperate need of attention, despite many still being in use. Their disrepair still had a certain charm. The grand, colourful houses were opulent and and lavishly decorated.  Window after window was framed not only by glossy wood panels and shutters but with intricate painted patterns. We entered a few houses but I chose not to pay the extra camera fee. Upon entering you would find yourself in a large communal area with all the other functional rooms off the side; kitchen, sitting rooms, living rooms, etc. I loved this spacious, inviting,  The interior of the houses were also just as beautifully adorned and painted.

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From the top of a ruin covered hill we had a great 360* view of Plovdiv and the surrounding 7 hills. (or 6, perhaps we were on one – I wasn’t feeling too good at this point so my listening skills deteriorated.)

We visited the grave of a famous Bulgarian poet & revolutionary, Nikola Vaptsarov – and also a secret church with a very simple exterior to kept its real purpose hidden. Though I’m interested in religious icons and church interiors I did find this very interesting, and even quite attractive inside. 

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The Plovdiv Amphitheatre is the google stock image for the town and really is a beautiful sight. Hard to believe it was undiscovered until the 1970s.  It was originally constructed in the 2nd century AD, in use until 5th Century AD and now showing performances again. I haven’t acted since my teen years and unexpectedly felt a yearning for it when I walked across the stage and looked out across the rows of seats in front of. Who knows eh?

Whilst sitting at the top looking down at the theatre, I heard clearly from the stage a tour guide talking to his students – the acoustics were fantastic. With the backdrop of the city and the hills it would have been magnificent to see a performance there.

We went for lunch on the main street and I was completely shocked to see that aside from the fairy tale old town, it is an energetic, modern, vibrant city! Had I been in Bulgaria longer I would have loved to stayed a night there just walking, drinking coffee and people watching, and really soaking in the old and the new. If you get the chance, do!

Koprivshtitsa

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We then headed off to Koprivshtitsa,  even more the archetypal historic, rustic village. It reminded me of Kustendorf/Drvengrad in Serbia (a traditional village built in 2004 by film director Emir Kusturica), not visually as such, but so perfectly quaint in design and layout. This town however is 200+ years old and steeped in history.  The current population is around 20,000 though in the 19th Century was significantly higher due to the number of merchants living there because it had semi autonomous rule and was allowed to trade in other parts of the Empire whilst under the Ottoman rule.

It plays a significant part in Bulgarian history, most famous for the establishment of the 19th Century Revolutionary Committees, intent on forming the Republic of Bulgaria. The plans for a 1st May 1876 uprising were pushed forward due to a betrayal and on 28th April was quelled quickly with approximately 12,000 – 15,000 massacred (the figure is disputed) not only here but also in other areas of Bulgaria. This however was a huge turning point in the fight for independence which was eventually supported by Austria Hungary and Russia.

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I fell so in love with this particular house I paid the camera fee because I just needed to show it off. A future property purchase perhaps? Ha. The ambience felt so warm and inviting, despite in reality being quite dark and cold inside!

The pastel houses dotted around the hills were just charming, and again, I felt a deep sense of contentment walking over the stone bridges and beside the river listening to it babble away,  deeply breathing in the fresh air and absorbing the sunshine.

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We then headed back to Sofia where after thanking Marina, (who was such a wonderful guide and I was only sorry I didn’t feel up to my usual overly inquisitive (if there is even such a thing) self as I know she had so much more to say than our quiet group allowed her)  I jumped on the metro to get to the airport. Less than a euro and there in 20 minutes. I sat waiting for the plane, eating my dinner of oreos and Bulgarian Rose delight (was delicious – and the only vegan food I could find!) Thinking back to the last 48 hours I was a little in awe of how much I had done and seen and what a marvelous weekend escape it had been. 

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One thought on “Waterfalls, Socialism & FairyTales

  1. You certainly covered a lot of ground. I don’t remember if it was in English as well as Bulgarian, but there is a sign just at the beginning of the hike up to the Boyana Waterfall that notes the two paths – shorter but harder or longer but easier. In either case, it’s quite doable and the falls lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

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