Sunday, May 27, 2012

Day 4 - Sofia to Skopje: May 27, 2012

On our last day we visited Sofia's triangle of three religions: Jewish, Islamic, Orthodox Christian.

We went to the Jewish Synagogue that was closed yesterday.  It was also closed today. The Christian guard told us that it was a significant day in the Jewish faith; the reading of the Torah began last night and would continue for 24 hours. The exterior architecture is Moorish style.  Inside there is supposed to be a 2,000 kilo (4,400 lbs) chandelier. The inside can hold 1,300 people making it one of the largest synagogues in Europe.  The structure was completed in 1909.

The Banya Bashi Mosque (1576) is the only Muslim place of worship in Sofia that still serves that purpose.  All the other old mosques now serve as museums or in some other capacity.  The interior is not spectacular but it has been recently renovated with new Turkish tiles.  Behind the mosque is the site of the former mineral baths (banya).  They have been closed since 1986 and undergoing a slow renovation.

The last point of this religious triangle is Church of Sveta Nedelya.  A church has been on this site since at least the 10th century.  The current structure was rebuilt after a bomb blast destroyed most of the building in 1925.

We also happened upon the 13th century Church of Sveti Petka located in an underground shopping mall.  Petka Paraskeva was a 3rd century Christian girl from Asia Minor who was martyred during Emperor Diocletian's reign.  Diocletian created a lot of martyrs.  The entrance is through the tomb.

Monument to Sveta Sofia

The monument to Sveta Sofia (Holy Wisdom) stands on the spot once occupied by the sculpture of Lenin.  St. Sofia was erected in 2000.  She holds a laurel wreath (symbol of blessing) and an owl (representing knowledge) perches on her shoulder.

We had no problems re-entering Macedonia; we arrived in Skopje at 4:00 pm, unpacked, and packed Dan's suitcase to go to Washington DC.  He made a reservation for a taxi to pick him up at 2:45 a.m.  His mission is to pick up his work permit at the Macedonian Embassy in Washington DC.  We'll see.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Day 3 - Sofia: May 26, 2012

More rain but we planned to see some museums today so it didn't really matter what the weather was like.  The art gallery at the National Museum in the former Presidential Palace is closed for renovations.  Our second museum attempt was at the National Gallery of Foreign Art.  We spent quite a bit of time in this museum and enjoyed the collection.  On the second floor we found a group of young children with crayons copying the work of master painters.  One little girl was so immersed in her drawing, that she didn't want to quit when the rest of her group was leaving.  Her drawing was very good and very much like the original.  This is a children's art activity that takes place each Saturday morning.

Back on the street, it was still raining, but the women who sell handicrafts wrapped themselves and their products in plastic and were sticking it out.

The changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace wasn't effected by the weather, either.

Sveti Georgi and 6th century foundations surrounded by the Presidential Palace and the Sheraton Hotel
A well positioned panhandler and his dog
Dress shops in Sofia

Sofia Street Car

For dinner we ate a wonderful dinner at the Brasserie Deja Vu, Ul. Aksakov 15A.  We didn't plan to eat here, but when our first choice was closed, we wandered a little and found this small restaurant.  I had trout with a green cilantro type salsa.  As a starter we shared salad and a sauteed goose liver on apples sprinkled with figs--so good.  The total cost for a small bottle of wine, salad, appetizer, two mains, water was less than $40.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Day 2 - Rila Monastery to Sofia: May 25, 2012

We woke to a drizzle of rain today and wandered downstairs for our breakfast of french toast with strawberry jam, sliced ham, cheeses, orange juice and coffee.  Then, we packed up and returned to Rila Monastery to see the inside of the cathedral and visit the museum.

There were a lot more people present this time.  We were glad that we had taken most of our photographs yesterday.  The interior of the cathedral was every bit as stunning and fresco covered at the outside porches.  Every inch was covered with darkening frescos.  The iconostasis was at least three stories high and made of carved walnut covered with gold leaf.  No photos allowed of the inside.

Since we had seen so much artistry from the Samokov school of icon painters, we decided to take a detour to see the town of Samokov on our way to Sofia.  Our first stop was the Bairakli Mosque.  The building was in the National Revival period style and the entry porch greets visitors with trompe-l'oeil murals.  Sadly the mosque, now a museum, was not open.  Peeking in the windows, we could see that this style of lovely murals covered the interior as well.

The History Museum was open and like last night's dinner, it was also a surprise.  The second floor held a collection of beautiful icons painted by the founding artists of the Samokov School of Icon Painting.
Archangel Michael
by Hristo Dimitrov, 1813
Archangel Michael

John the Baptist by Zachari Zograph, 1852

Back on the road we headed toward Sofia.  Along the way we saw people selling cherries.  My taste test found them not quite ripe, but the farmers were dealing with rainy conditions and probably picked them early.  Samokov was formerly an industrial town.  Now it is the central potato growing region.  Heaping bags of red potatoes and yellow potatoes for sale lined the roadways.  

We arrived in Sofia, finally, and checked into the Grand Hotel Sofia in the center.  We were meeting one of Dan's colleagues for dinner at 7:30 so we had a few hours to walk around and see the nearby sights of Sofia.  

The Neo-Classic National Theater
Russian Church (1914)
Backside of Aleksander Nevsky Memorial Church (built 1882-1924)

Interior of Aleksander Nevsky Church
During our few hours in Sofia, we kept seeing cars decorated with balloons blowing their horns and racing down the streets.  We also saw limos, hummers, a Rolls Royce, hummer limos, tow trucks, exotic sports cars all decorated with balloons and filled with teenagers.

In front of the very somber Aleksander Nevsky church, a party was going on.  Girls were dressed in eye-catchingly fabulous or bizarre outfits.  Roma musicians were drumming and young couples were dancing to the beat of the drums.  

This is high-school graduation--Sofia style.  Girls wear fantastic dresses, paparazzi, us, family members were everywhere taking photos of kids celebrating.  At each large hotel downtown there was a noisy graduation party.  

In front of our hotel, it looked like the academy awards.  Only the red carpet was missing.  Cars pulled up, girls dressed to be noticed stepped out, photographers took photos, friends hugged, and they walked into the hotel party.  

We quickly began getting ready, but just five minutes after we entered our room, Dan's colleague (Temenushka) called and said she and her husband Boyan were downstairs.  We thought she was early, but after dinner and after we had returned to our room, we realized that Bulgaria is an hour later than Macedonia.  We were late-they were on time.

Dinner was at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant called Manastirska Magernitsa.  Our dinner was so good.  I thought the choices would be similar to Macedonia, but the menu listed dishes I've never seen on a Macedonian menu.  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Day 1 - Macedonia to Bulgaria: May 24, 2012

Part 1 - Kokino Observatory in Northeast Macedonia

Today is a national holiday in Macedonia.  It is St. Cyril and St. Methodius Day.  They are responsible for creating the cyrillic alphabet--nothing to celebrate as far as I'm concerned.  At least we can read cyrillic--slowly that is.  

On the way to the Bulgarian border we stopped at Kokino to see the megalithic-era observatory.  This ancient observatory is at an elevation of 1030 meters, and it is more than 3,800 years old.  According to our guidebook, and apparently NASA, it is the fourth oldest in the world after Abu Simbel, Stonehenge, and Angkor Wat.  We've now been to the top four.
Kokino Megalithic Observatory on rocky mountain
From the parking area, the top of the mountain didn't look too far away or too high, but it was a bit of a steep schlep to get to the top.

The Notch and The View from the Top
The observatory measured the maximum and minimum aberration of the rising of the moon during sumer and winter solstices.  

Part 2 - Monastery St. Joakim Osogovski in Northeast Macedonia

Back on the highway and a little further on, we turned south at Kriva Palanka to visit the beautiful monastery named for St. Joakim Osogovski.  The monastery is surrounded by beautiful, lush green forests.  They also have a hotel and restaurant here (see Facebook Manastir Kompleks and talk to Igor 078-359-120).  This would be a great place to return to in the summer to do some hiking and enjoy the cooler weather of this elevation.

The historical roots of this monastery go back to the 11th century. The smaller church on the left was built in the 14th and 16th centuries on 11th century foundations. The larger church was finished in 1851.

This monastery was built by the people of Kriva Palanka and it is extremely well cared for. Beautiful frescos painted by Macedonian artists cover both the inside and the outside of the large cathedral.

Part 3 - Bulgaria, finally!

Our next destination was Rila Monastery in Bulgaria.  Along the way we found other things to stop at.  Our first stop was in the forgotten town of Boboshevo.  This town as seen much better days.  The architecture of the street side buildings is extraordinary.  Now they are a faded memory of better days.

Our next impromptu stop was in Kocherinovo.  As we drove by, we saw the scene below and turned around.

This is a collectibles "museum" of all things related to the Bulgarian way of life under communism.
Our lovely guide
The resident "guide" did not speak any English so that meant we had to communicate with my limited Macedonian words.  She did a lot of pointing, but the explanation was lost on us.


Dan photographed by our guide

Our last stop was Rila Monastery located within Rila National Forest.  We arrived quite late so there were only two or three other people strolling around.

Monastery Entrance
Rila Monastery was established in the 10th century, but the structure that stands today dates from the mid 19th century.  

Just like in the previous monastery, frescoed murals adorn the outside porches of this monastery.  They were painted in the 19th century by icon painters from Samokov.  The cathedral is called the Church of the Nativity.  Since the skies had lightened a little we were able to see the snow covered mountains beyond the walls of the monastery.

Archangel Michael mural

Ceiling painting - The center is the story of Adam and Eve
Scenes from Hell
We stayed at a small roadside hotel, Пчелина, about 3 kilometers before Rila Monastery.  It was basic, but charming and comfortable.  Dinner at its restaurant was a surprise.  I had fresh grilled trout with tasty Bulgarian boiled potatoes.  Dan had some kind of meat that he quite liked.  Dessert was creme brulee for me and a blueberry ice cream cake for him.