Bulgaria day six
02.06.2019 - 02.06.2019
A sneak preview of today's highlight, the Cathedral Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary at Bachkovo Monastery
Another early start today, as we had to get to the pick-up point at the Ramada Hotel for a morning tour out of the city. I had a lift with my friends Regina and Jon in their hire car while some of the others took taxis. We all arrived promptly for the advertised 8.30 pick-up time, only to discover that owing to a breakdown in communications our minibuses weren’t due until 9.00! Never mind, VTers are always happy to use slack time to catch up with friends, and I also managed to buy some very effective cough lozenges from the little kiosk at the bus stop. And our meeting place at the Ramada Hotel gave me a glimpse of the Roman Forum located nearby, although the view is somewhat marred by the ugly rear elevation of the Central Post Office.
Central Post Office with remains of Roman Forum in front
Boarding the buses in Plovdiv
Street art on the road out of Plovdiv
Once on board the buses, which were newer and more comfortable than the one used for our tour on Friday, we had a relatively short ride through the outskirts of the city and into the mountains to our first destination, Asen’s Fortress. Unfortunately the weather had become a bit drizzly, so we couldn’t fully appreciate the scenery around us, although what I could see certainly looked lovely.
View of Asen's Fortress from the bus
When we got out of the buses, we had a chance to admire the view down into the valley while our guide gave us some background information on the fort.
Views from Asen’s Fortress
Sign pointing the way
It is built on a cliff overlooking the Asenitsa River, and impregnable on three sides. It isn’t surprising therefore that there has been a fortification here since the time of the Thracians, who fortified it in the 5th century BC. The fortress was rebuilt during the time of the Roman Emperor Justinian as one of a series of fortresses erected to defend the Empire against invasions by Slavic tribes. It has since seen three periods of substantial construction – during the 9th, 11th, and 13th centuries. The third of these periods was under Tsar Asen II, who in 1231 undertook the largest expansion and rebuilding of the fortress – hence its present-day name.
The fortress tower (all that remains of the main fortress) is at the highest point and below it the Church of the Holy Mother of God, which is where we went first.
We had to walk along a rocky path to this church, which I would describe rather as a chapel, it is so small. The white marble was slippery in places, so I was glad when it changed to concrete steps and then to a flatter track. It wasn’t far to walk, and once we arrived our guide told us about the Byzantine style in which it is built, with a crypt on the ground floor and main church above.
View from the chapel
It is built of brick and stone, in decorative layers, and what appear to be bricked-up windows (reminiscent, to me at least, of those often see in England because of earlier window tax laws) are in fact deliberate ‘blind arches’, a design element very typical of medieval Bulgarian architecture.
The chapel, Asen’s Fortress
This was one of the first churches in the country to have an attached bell tower, as that way it could be used for defence and as a place of refuge if the fortress came under attack. The tower is considered to be the earliest preserved example of its kind in the Balkans.
Co and Martin outside the chapel
Jon, Regina and Colin
Listening to our guide
The church was spared destruction in the early 15th century when a feud between two brothers, Syuleiman and Musa Kesedzhi, who were battling to succeed their father Sultan Bayazid, led to the rest of the fortress being razed to the ground. The reason for its being spared is unknown, but it allowed local Christians to carry on using the church for prayer, with the result that the church is still largely intact, albeit restored (in 1936, after an earthquake, and again in 1991).
We started our visit in the crypt, which was possibly originally intended as an ossuary although never used as such. I found it very atmospheric if plain. You are in no doubt here that you are in a fortress church - look at the width of the walls.
Window of the crypt, and VTers in the crypt
The walls of the upper church, on the contrary, are covered with the faded remains of 14th century Byzantine frescoes. Our guide pointed out some of the most interesting, including the Assumption of Mary above the entrance door. He told us this image is commonly painted on the west wall of Bulgarian Orthodox churches and showed us a painting of how it would once have looked, with a pagan kneeling at Mary’s bedside trying to drag her down to Hell, his hands chopped off at the wrist by an angel to prevent him succeeding.
Worn fresco of the Assumption
An idea of how it must once have looked
Other paintings are of saints including John the Baptist, the apostles Peter and Paul, Constantine and Helena, and of Bible scenes including the Baptism of Christ, and His trial by Pilate. I tried my best to get photos although it was very dark inside.
Part of the Assumption fresco, and another very worn fragment
Leaving the chapel, a number of those in our group climbed further, to the fortress tower itself, from where you can get great views of the mountains and of Plovdiv, as well as looking down on this church. My friend Kirsty has kindly let me have a couple of her photos to share here.
Kirsty's photos of the church from above
From this you will gather that, like some of the others, I decided not to attempt the steps, especially given the poor weather and their likely slipperiness. My reward was the sighting of an amazingly beautiful blue beetle, several inches in length, placidly crossing our path as we walked back to the parking place.
Blue beetle at Asen’s Fortress
It was only a short drive from Asen’s Fortress to our other stop on this tour, Bachkovo Monastery. This was for sure one of my favourites of the many sights I saw in my short time in Bulgaria! Despite all the visitors, the atmosphere was one of tranquillity, the buildings looked so photogenic both in the drizzly weather we arrived in and the sunshine when we departed, and there so much to see that was both interesting and beautiful.
Bachkovo was founded in 1083 by Prince Gregory Pakourianos, a prominent Byzantine statesman and military commander, as a Georgian Orthodox monastery and as a seminary teaching religion, maths, history and music. It was looted and destroyed not long after the invasion by the Turks and establishment of Ottoman rule in Bulgaria, but it was reconstructed in 1601, while the Cathedral Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was finished in 1604. There is a full history (in English) on the monastery’s website: http://www.bachkovskimanastir.com/en/cms/history
Even before we entered there was lots to see of interest just outside the monastery, and not all of it planned – like this old Moskvich car which caught the eye of several of us as we descended from our bus. Moskvich was the classic Soviet car brand.
The entrance to the monastery is decorated with paintings of angels attending the birth of Christ – on the left the Archangel Michael and on the right the Archangel Gabriel.
Entrance to the monastery
Detail of the entrance, and a nearby gate
Once inside the gate we were in the main courtyard from where we could get good photos of two of the three churches here. Our guide told us that some of the trees planted in this courtyard were gifts from different countries to the monastery, such as the gingko from Japan.
The main courtyard
The smaller church is closed to the public but the larger one, the Cathedral Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, can be visited and photography is allowed throughout. Just as well, as it is absolutely stunning and I am glad to be able to share some of its glories with you here.
Above the entrance to the Cathedral Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary
Here our guide really came into his own, pointing out loads of details in the frescoes both outside and inside the church. The frescoes in the nave date from 1850. They were cleaned only a year ago and layers of sooty grime from burning candles removed, so we were fortunate to see them like this. Our guide pointed out many of the images and described the iconography of them.
He told us that the three fingered blessing given by Christ in several of the images denotes the Holy Trinity.
Three fingered blessing
This includes the painting in the dome, where he is shown surrounded by seraphim.
The main dome, and that of a side chapel
On the west wall we saw the Assumption again, as at Asen’s Fortress, but here far more distinct and surrounded by many other scenes.
The West Wall
There are a lot of Bible scenes, from both the Old and New Testaments. I didn’t recognise all of them, but I did spot the Last Supper (near the top left in my first photo below) and Jacob’s Ladder.
Part of the ceiling
Jacob's Ladder, and the pulpit
Another saint, or Christ again maybe?
The two Georgian brothers who founded the monastery, Grigorii and Abasii Bakuriani, are portrayed holding the building.
The founding brothers
My video hopefully gives you just a little idea of how overwhelming the frescoes are inside this church - not an inch of wall is left uncovered, that I could see!
The church’s prized possession is its Miracle Working Icon of the Holy Virgin, which has been here since the monastery was founded. According to the monastery’s website:
‘During the early times of the Ottoman rule, the icon was hidden in the territory of Kluviata, where it was found again in the beginning of the XVIIth century and brought back to the monastery. On two occasions the icon disappeared by itself only to be found in the same spot by the perplexed monks. Following a dream of one of them, it was finally brought back permanently and placed in a special spot, created for it in the cathedral church of the monastery, on the right from the central door, in a separate iconostasis and onto a small platform. In this way, it could be accessed by everybody in need. Such tales might be part of the mythology surrounding the holy object, but they undoubtedly add to its fame.’
The devout were queuing at one side of the church to pray to and kiss this icon. It seemed disrespectful to take photos of it under those circumstances, so I kept my distance. Like others in our group however, I was less respectful of the incredibly photogenic monk/priest in the church, and I heard later from friends that he showed his displeasure when he realised how many of us were snatching photos – fortunately for me, after I had taken these shots!
In the outer part of the church, the narthex, it was naturally lighter and easier to take photos of the frescoes, although the colours were less rich. Here our guide pointed out images of the Holy Trinity and many saints.
Frescoes in the narthax
Beyond the church in the far part of the courtyard are the monks’ residences, with towels and bed linen hanging prosaically on the balconies to air.
The far corner of the courtyard, with the monks' residences
Monks' laundry day
There is a second church here, the Archangels' Church, which is the oldest of the three monastery churches, dating probably from the 12th century. This one isn’t generally open to visitors, being reserved for the monks’ services.
We retraced our steps back across the courtyard, towards the old refectory building on the opposite side to the cathedral church. This has a very well-preserved fresco running along part of its wall. It depicts the monastery itself and its surroundings, with an Easter procession emerging through the gate carrying the church’s miracle-working icon.
The panorama fresco
The procession group includes some people who made donations and provided support for the monastery. Everyone is wearing richly decorated clothes. The two founding brothers are also among those in the procession, dressed in monastic clothes even though neither of them was actually a monk.
The Easter procession in the panorama fresco
At one end of this panorama is a circular picture of St. George, at the other St. Dimitar.
In the further courtyard beyond the refectory is a third church, dedicated to St. Nicholas. This is only used for weddings and baptisms, so we couldn’t see inside. But we did get a good look at the frescoes in its entrance area, the narthex, which our guide told us were the work of an especially famous painter, Zahari Zograf.
Fresco on the dome of the narthex of St. Nicholas
Detail of ceiling fresco
The paintings include a large one of Doomsday above the door depicting Heaven and Hell, with a battle between angels and devils for the soul of one individual whose deeds are being weighed in the centre. On the right the condemned are led away to Hell, while the saved souls on the left include a self-portrait of the artist!
The Doomsday fresco
Detail of the Doomsday fresco
Around the walls at the top are a series of small paintings telling the story of Adam and Eve. The one in my photo below shows God making Eve from one of Adam’s ribs as he sleeps.
God creating Eve
This courtyard has a rustic air, with grassy cobbles and in one corner some peacocks.
In the courtyard
By the time we returned to the main courtyard the sun had come out, so we were able to photograph the church with blue skies behind it.
Bachkovo Monastery in sunlight
Some of us also had a quick look at the monastery’s orchard on the far side of the car park, with beautiful views of the clouds lifting from the surrounding mountains.
Monastery orchard with mountains beyond, and rose in the grounds
We drove back to Plovdiv through the town of Arsenovgrad, which our guide told us is famous for its wedding dress shops and wedding venues, but which struck me more for its signs warning of horses and carts on the road!
Road sign in Arsenovgrad
Afternoon in Plovdiv
I had lunch with five VT friends on the pavement terrace of a café just off the main shopping street - Zlatna Krusha. We were impressed by the friendly service (it was our waitress’s second day on the job and she coped well with our invasion and lack of Bulgarian) and fresh salads, as well as the stylish interior when we popped in to use the toilets!
Josephine, Colin and Jonathan with our VAs
Lunch at Zlatna Krusha
Views from our table
After this four of us strolled around the shopping area and Kapana, enjoyed ice creams at Arcobaleno Gelateria near the mosque, and browsed a few shops before heading back to the hotel for a rest.
Building on the main street, and fountain in Stefan Stambolov Square
Attractive Art Nouveau building in shopping district
More Kapana street art
A stormy evening in Plovdiv
Soon after I got back to my room, I heard a strong wind blowing through the trees in the small park across the road and it started to rain. The rain quickly became torrential, with thunder and lightning. At first I enjoyed the fresher air that blew into my room, but as it grew closer to the time we were to leave for dinner I became a bit concerned, as the restaurant was some distance away and we had had problems getting taxis when it had rained heavily two nights ago – and this was if anything heavier still. To make things worse, just before I was due to meet up with the others all the lights went out. I had to finish getting ready and make my way downstairs by torchlight.
As we had feared the receptionist was unable to get hold of any taxis, and although he offered to keep trying, things didn’t get any better. The road outside had turned into a small river, the thunder seemed to be directly overhead, and we were sitting or standing in the dark going nowhere.
Then Jon came to our rescue! He offered to ferry us all to the restaurant in small groups in the hire car he and Regina had with them. We gratefully accepted and we made our way in three separate groups through the almost deserted streets, across junctions with non-functioning traffic lights, and pulled up outside the restaurant on another road that was doing a great impression of a small stream!
Once inside we found that most people had made it although a few had had to give up, and we had another nice meal (I loved the dolmas in particular, and we all enjoyed the ice cream cake I think). The party broke up earlier than usual, thanks to concerns about the on-going bad weather, but not before I had managed to exchange at least a few words of farewell with everyone there, I think.
Euromeet was officially over for another year, but I still had a few more days in Bulgaria to explore a little further with some friends.