Bulgaria day seven
03.06.2019 - 03.06.2019
One of far too many photos I took at the Buzludzha Monument – you have been warned!
Although the VT Euromeet was officially over for another year, some of us were staying on in Plovdiv for another day at least. I had arranged to do another day trip with a small group of friends, eight of us in total, to visit sights in and around the so-called Valley of the Thracian Kings or Valley of the Roses.
We were picked up from our hotel at 9.00 by our driver/guide Hristo, who proved to be an excellent companion for the day. He suggested rearranging the order of our planned visits as the weather might get worse during the day (as seemed to be the pattern) and we agreed, especially as his proposed first destination, the Buzludzha Monument, was one of our top priorities and the main reason for selecting this tour.
The drive took us through some pretty countryside with poppies and other wildflowers along the verges, lavender among the crops being grown and low cloud swirling around the Rhodope Mountains.
Mountain views from the road
- you can still see patches of snow, in early June
Hristo stopped at one point for photos and I also snatched a few through the minibus window.
Poppies and mountain views
We got some glimpses of Shipka Memorial Church which we were to visit after Buzludzha.
Shipka Memorial Church from the road
He stopped again at the turning for the road up the mountains, by the monument to Dimitâr Blagoev. He is regarded as the founder of Bulgarian socialism and of the first social democratic party in the Balkans, the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, founded in 1891. The Buzludzha Monument, which we were on our way to visit, was built by the Bulgarian communist regime to commemorate the founding of this party.
Monument to Dimitâr Blagoev
The road twisted and turned up the mountain, winding through what seemed to be quite ancient woodland, and emerged on to the grasslands above. The crumbling hulk of the monument loomed above us, the last wisps of cloud just drifting away.
First view of Buzludzha Monument
Buzludzha was constructed between 1974 and 1981 to commemorate the events of 1891, when a group of socialists led by Dimitar Blagoev assembled secretly in this area to form an organised socialist movement. This resulted in the founding of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, which became a forerunner to the Bulgarian Communist Party.
Buzludzha Monument from below
The original plan, formulated in 1961 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of this meeting, was for a relatively simple tower topped with a red star and surrounded by a ring raised on six columns. But the tower was never built, and by the time the 80th anniversary came around in 1971 concerns about the climate at the top of the mountain (with winter temperatures often as low as -25 °C, and strong winds) the plan was radically revised. Instead of a tower the monument would be a memorial house heated interior spaces for hosting special events. The architect Georgi Stoilov designed this ‘flying saucer’ shaped body, influenced by the Brutalist style of architecture then popular and by the work of Mies van der Rohe, Gropius and Le Corbusier, among others.
VT members exploring Buzludzha Monument
Building the monument here on the mountain top was a considerable undertaking. The peak had first to be levelled, using TNT, reducing its height by nine metres and removing more than 15,000 cubic metres of rock. According to the official website, ‘more than 6,000 people contributed their work to the creation of the Buzludzha monument. This included engineers, artists, designers, sculptors, a large number of volunteer labourers and 500 soldiers from the construction corps.’ The same website also notes that a number of workers are alleged to have died during the construction project and their deaths covered up by the authorities.
Holger and Ali at Buzludzha Monument
Once the structure was finished the interior was lined with mosaics in rich colours. Again from the monument’s website, these ‘illustrated an allegorical history of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Notable scenes depicted space travel, warfare, and communist workers driving their pitchforks into a serpent symbolic of foreign capitalism.’
On one side of the hall were the faces of international communist heroes (Marx, Engels and Lenin) on the other Bulgaria's own communist figures - Dimitâr Blagoev (founder of Bulgarian socialism), Georgi Dimitrov (the first communist leader of Bulgaria) and Todor Zhivkov, the then-communist leader of Bulgaria. At the centre was a hammer and sickle emblem, covering five square metres, and encircled by a quote from The Communist Manifesto, ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!’
Graffiti at Buzludzha Monument
Yvonne at Buzludzha Monument
This interior would have looked stunning (have a look at the archive images on the website to get some idea). Meanwhile the tower would have been equally impressive in its own way – 70 metres (230 feet) high, with synthetic ruby stars measuring 12 metres (39 feet) across on the north and south sides. These are believed to have been the largest in the world, and it was claimed that they could be seen from as far away as the Romanian border in the north, and the Greek border to the south. A lift inside the tower went up to an observation platform with extensive views over the Balkan Mountains. Given how good the views are at the base, that would have been quite something I reckon!
Views from Buzludzha Monument
Just nine years after its opening ceremony the Bulgarian Communist Party fell from power and democracy took its place. There was no appetite to make any use of the monuments left behind by the previous regime. For a while Buzludzha stood here empty, visited only by the guards who protected it. But at the end of the 1990s that guard was withdrawn, and the public could get close to the structure. Looters stripped out anything of value, and much that was not. The solid copper ceiling and other items of value went first, and it was rumoured that members of the government took these for themselves. Some looters believed that the red stars in the tower were made from real rubies and shot them out with rifles, only to get showered in shattered glass. The elements took their toll on what was left of the building, with rain and snow getting in through the broken roof and windows, and what hadn't been taken was left to decay.
Today Buzludzha is in a sorry state, a ghost of its former self, but ghosts have a fascination for us all, and soon people began to visit again, not to wonder at its glories as they once would have done, or to loot as in the more recent past, but to soak up the atmosphere of its ruins and be awed by its mountain setting, as we did.
Lettering on Buzludzha Monument
Ali at Buzludzha Monument
We took our time exploring, making the complete circuit around the base of the structure. It is forbidden these days to enter - the gates are sealed and a security guard on duty to prevent trespassing, as it is considered unsafe. It certainly sounds unsafe – Hristo talked about a 12 foot deep hole just inside the entrance! A shame though, as it must be even more photogenic and atmospheric within.
Buzludzha Monument, with security guard
There is talk now of a project to preserve what is left of Buzludzha and once more make use of it. The aim is to use it to tell the story of ‘the ideas behind communism, but also the propaganda that the system created about itself'. The tower will also be restored, and the observation platform reopened, with a sky walk that will allow those brave enough to walk out beyond the overhang for a dizzying view downward.
I am very glad we got to see it in its current state but would also love to go back one day and see what they have created out of this haunting shell of a building.
Buzludzha Monument from below
On the way back down the mountain Hristo stopped at another monument, popularly known (for obvious reasons) as the two ice cream cones, but officially as the Fists. This was another fantastic spot for photos, both of the ‘cones’ and the Buzludzha Monument above. They were created at the same time as the saucer, to symbolise the different factions of Bulgarian socialists who met at Buzludzha to strengthen their common ideals. The concept behind them is of the two fists coming from north and south, meeting in friendship at the mountain peak where their torch flames join as one.
The Fists, with Buzludzha Monument above
The Fists, with my friend Holger providing some scale
The Fists, with Buzludzha Monument above
A visit to Buzludzha might not be for everyone, but personally I find these relics of the former Communist regime and its brutalist style of architecture fascinating, and even those in our small group who had not seen this as a priority for their visit to Bulgaria, and who simply came along for the company and the other sights on the tour, seemed to really enjoy this experience – and surely no one could fail to love this beautiful landscape!
The Fists, with Buzludzha Monument above
Shipka Memorial Church
Our next stop was on the edge of the nearby village of Shipka, to visit the stunning Bulgarian Orthodox Memorial Temple of the Birth of Christ – usually known simply as Shipka Memorial Church. Its golden domes are all the more striking in this rural setting.
Shipka Memorial Church
The church was built in the Russian style at the end of the 19th century to commemorate the Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian soldiers who died during the liberation of Bulgaria in the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78.
The opening of the church in September 1902 coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Shipka Pass. Its bells were cast from the cartridges that were collected after the battles. Inside, the names of the Russian regiments and Bulgarian volunteers are inscribed on 34 marble plaques on the walls, and the remains of 9,000 who were killed lie in seventeen stone sarcophagi in the crypt.
It is free to enter the church, although there is a fee for photography – 5 leva when we visited, which I was happy to pay, as the walls are covered with beautiful paintings and demanded to be captured!
Inside Shipka Memorial Church
I found the frescoes here more delicate than those we had seen yesterday at Bachkovo Monastery, but in their way just as beautiful.
Frescoes in Shipka Memorial Church
Paintings in Shipka Memorial Church
A baptism was in progress and nobody seemed to mind my camera - indeed one member of the family stood aside a little to let me see. I took the opportunity to shoot a short video so that I could record the priest’s chanting.
A priest, and the baptism party
Back outside I took a few more photos, stroked the friendly cat, and visited the small gift shop but didn’t buy anything. I did however get a bag of juicy cherries from a local woman selling fruit at a stand in the car park – something to enjoy later at the in-hotel picnic we had planned for this evening.
Statue in the grounds
Hristo and Yvonne
And now for something completely different!
Goliama Kozmatka burial mound
The valley here is dotted with small mounds, many of them wooded, which while they may look natural are in fact the burial places of Thracian rulers, or possibly temples to them. The reason for the uncertainty is that the Thracians often burned their corpses before burial so few of any remains can be found in many tombs.
Distant view of a Thracian burial mound
Approximately 300 of these burial mounds have been already excavated but archaeologists believe that there may be over 1,500 of them in this valley. The Thracians were among the earliest inhabitants of the Balkan region, but their history is unclear because they left no written records. They may have descended from the original inhabitants or from migrants from Asia or even Africa. They were skilful warriors and conquered an area located mainly in today’s Bulgaria in the fifth century BC, which lasted nearly five centuries until it was conquered by Rome in 46 AD. The region then became the province of Thrace within the Roman Empire. The most famous Thracians include the poet and musician Orpheus, who enchanted all living things when he started playing his lyre, and Spartacus (from the Medi tribe in southwestern Bulgaria), the gladiator who led the biggest slave rebellion in the 1st century BC.
The Thracians believed their kings to be sons of the great goddess, Mother Earth. When a king ended his journey in this world, he needed to return to the womb of his mother, hence burial in a mound of earth.
At the Goliama Kozmatka burial mound
Entrance to the mound
Passage to the tomb
We stopped at one of these, the Goliama Kozmatka burial mound, thought to date from the end of the 5th century BC, when it would have been built as a temple but later used as a tomb.
At the beginning of the 3rd century BC a ritual burial of a Thracian aristocrat was performed in its central chamber. The personal belongings and the gifts needed for the afterlife would have been carefully placed in the chamber, and the entrance and anteroom were blocked, after which the ruler’s horse was sacrificed in the outer chamber and the corridor was ritually set on fire.
Presumably because of this fire, few human remains have been found here, but it is believed that the aristocrat buried here was a king, Seuthes III. He was the ruler of the Odrysian kingdom of Thrace from c. 331 BC to c. 300 BC. It was he who moved the Odrysian Kingdom to central Thrace and built his capital city at Seuthopolis (Kazanlak in present day Bulgaria).
We paid the 6 leva entrance fee and went through the protective but incongruous glass doors into an area with explanatory boards and some photos of objects found here - the objects themselves are now in the museum in Kazanlak. I was especially taken with a headdress of golden oak leaves.
Poster showing treasures found in the mound
After learning a bit of the history from Hristo we walked along the narrow stone corridor, noticing the decrease in temperature as we did so. This leads to a sort of small antechamber, with wonderful acoustics which my friend Ali demonstrated beautifully. Its stones fit perfectly together – hard to believe that this structure is 2,500 years old! Its marble doors still bear traces of red paint and have small heads carved on them - the god Helios on one and the Gorgon Medusa on the other.
Marble door to the tomb
- showing traces of red paint
Beyond the antechamber is the one assumed to have housed the tomb itself, sealed off by a glass panel. A wealth of treasures was discovered here – gold, silver and bronze vessels; gold ornaments for horse harnesses; richly decorated armour; and of course the headdress we had seen the photo of near the entrance, of which a replica is placed here in situ.
Replica treasures in the tomb of Seuthes III
As I mentioned above, no human remains were found, other than a few teeth from a child aged about 10-12 years. So what makes the historians believe that this is the tomb of Seuthes III? It is this.
Replica of a bust, probably of Seuthes III,
found in the burial mound
This is a replica of a bronze head which was deposited in the ground seven metres in front of the outer façade at the time when the tomb was finally sealed. It depicts a man with an aquiline nose, dense curly hair, beard and moustache. The craftsmanship indicates that this was a man of considerable importance, and similarities with the images of Seuthes III on his coins (four of which were found in the passage to the tomb) are very strong.
And if this is Seuthes III, surely it indicates that this was his final resting place from where he started his journey to the womb of his mother? Furthermore, three of the treasures found here, a bronze helmet, a silver jug and a silver cup, are inscribed with the name of Seuthes.
Hristo told us that these burial mounds were all pretty similar but having seen a few others online I wish we could have visited one or two more as they look quite different to me, and one website claims that no two are alike! Some have murals that have been surprisingly well-preserved and I would have loved to have seen one of these (see http://www.ancientpages.com/2018/12/10/valley-of-thracian-kings-with-more-than-1500-ancient-burial-mounds/ for examples)
A countryside lunch
Another view of Shipka Memorial Church
- from near the Goliama Kozmatka burial mound
For lunch Hristo took us to a nearby roadside restaurant, Cheshmata, which he had discovered just a couple of weeks before. We sat outside by the road, which thankfully wasn’t busy, and ate quite a feast, guided by him in our choices. He was keen that some of us at least tried the local rakia, so of course I was among those happy to oblige. And he showed us how it is drunk here, in small sips alternating with salad (Bulgarians drink it as an aperitif rather than digestif) and with a slightly salted yoghurt drink, ayran. I much preferred sipping my rakia in this fashion, able to savour it properly rather than be expected to knock it back like a shot!
For my main dish I chose moussaka, which Hristo recommended and which he said was made differently here from in Greece. It was indeed a little different, and was served with more yoghurt on the side, although I only ate a little of that as it cooled the dish too much for my taste. We shared several salads and flatbreads, and I squeezed in a dessert of (more) yoghurt with honey and walnuts, as we had by now decided to make this our main meal and stay in for the evening as more storms were forecast for Plovdiv.
And the cost of this feast? Just 15 leva per person (less than £7.50) which included a small tip and Hristo’s own meal as we all treated him. And as a bonus there were lots of my favourite poppies growing on the verge opposite and many other wildflowers besides.
Poppies by the roadside
Our last main stop was at this rose distillery, where the petals are transformed into essential oil. We had to pay an additional 6 leva entrance here which I guess is good value as there is lots to see, but for me this was the least interesting part of the tour and I would rather have seen more monuments / tombs / churches! However, the setting was very pleasant, and it made for a relaxing final stop.
By the entrance - sculptures of King Seuthes III and a symbolic rose picker
- there is no link between Seuthes II and Damascena, other than the proximity of his tomb!
We saw the vats in which the distillery process happens, watched as large sacks of petals were delivered, and learned more about the process, although some of what our guide here told us duplicated what we had heard from Nadia on Friday, for instance that most of the best quality oil is exported to France for use in perfumes.
Wall paintings in the distillery area
Rose petal delivery
Damascena has clearly set out to be as much a tourist attraction as working distillery, perhaps unsurprisingly when you consider that the rose picking season lasts only four weeks of the year!
So as well as the working part of the complex we visited an ethnographic display area where traditional Bulgarian household objects are displayed – I liked the old looms and textiles, having once many years ago done a bit of weaving, but could fairly happily have skipped this on the whole - it seemed a bit out of place and the items were too jumbled and poorly arranged to be properly appreciated.
Set-up of typical Bulgarian country home,
in the ethnographic display area
We also walked through the beautiful gardens – there are roses of course, but also ponds with fish (including some bizarre American Paddlefish), and black and white swans, and some interesting sculptures by (I believe) local artists.
Mountain view, and work by a local sculptor
Roses in the gardens
Swans at Damascena
We went in the inevitable gift shop and I bought some rose honey for my sister, but nothing else, although the beauty products etc. did look nice.
VT group at Damascena
Back to Plovdiv
From here we drove back to the city, stopping in one village to photograph this stork on its nest. Hristo pointed out how smaller birds had moved in as lodgers, nesting below the stork!
Arriving back in Plovdiv Hristo stopped at our request at a Billa supermarket so we could buy some snacks. The five of us staying at the Ego had decided to picnic on snacks in my friend Kirsty’s room (the largest of those available to us) rather than go out, as storms were forecast again. Those storms never materialised, but we had a pleasant evening chatting, drinking wine and nibbling on nuts etc., as well as the cherries and apricots some of us had bought from the stall at the Shipka Church.
Before going to bed I made a start on my packing, as tomorrow we would take the train back to Sofia. The holiday was nearly over.
PS I organised our private tour through https://privateguidebulgaria.com/ and we were all very happy with it. Everything went smoothly and Hristo gave us a great day out!