Category Archives: Travel

Veliko Tarnovo / Велико Търново

The ancient seat of the Second Bulgarian Empire, this is a lovely place. Ivan and Peter Asen launched the successful rebellion for independence from the Byzantine Empire in 1185.

This is one of the four horsemen from the magnificent monument that honours them:

Veliko Tarnova remained the capital of an empire that expanded across the Balkans before it began constricting again. In 1393 the Ottomans burnt this capital city the ground, though 1396 is the date given for the completion of Ottoman conquest.

Not much is left of the fortress of Tsarevets (Царевец), but its reconstructed ruins drape the hill like a crown. The town itself stacks itself along the hillsides surmounted by its beautiful church. Hristo told us before dropping us off that there is no left or right here, only up or down.

We walked down the oldest street, Ulitsa General Gurko, renamed after the Russian General who led the Russian forces freeing Bulgaria from the Ottoman ‘yoke’ in 1878. We wandered this old impossibly picturesque street with an older couple, and before they left it the man turned back. He spoke little English, but showed us a poor black and white photocopy of this painting kept safe within a clear plastic sleeve:

Grand Prince Nikolay Nikolaevich Enters Tarnovo – painted by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky in 1883, depicting the city’s liberation. In it General Gurko rides behind the Grand Prince at his left side.

He beamed a contagious happiness. He had found the precise view of this street depicted here, and after waving the picture at us with a final smile turned to follow his wife. I had not seen the painting previously, but I think this is it. Or close to it. It is perhaps not quite far enough down

I was reading The Rose of the Balkans, histories of Bulgaria being limited. I found the highlight to be the many letters included, like this one describing precisely this street only ten years later.

Nothing can exceed the beauty of the rocky ravine through which the northern road winds as it approaches Trnovo. Here and there the slopes are exquisitely green, dotted with forest trees and fragrant hawthorn; in other places tall perpendicular crags obtain the mastery, and frown down upon the traveler to the right and left, while at his feet the foaming waters of Yantra dash swiftly along, half hidden by the luxuriant foliage, as they carry the melted snows of he Balkans to the broad bosom of the Danube. A sudden turn of the road brings him to the entrance of the town, and it is not without a pang of disgust that he finds himself in a dirty, ill paved malodorous street, the closely built houses of which shut out all view of the lovely valley, through which the river winds as it almost encircles the ancient city of kings and priests. The town lies on a rocky peninsula, and it is necessary to descend to the banks of the river, or, if possible, to scale the dizzy heights of the opposite side, in order to appreciate the extreme beauty of its situation. The houses cluster on the precipice like sea birds on the ocean crag, the red-tile roofs rising one above the other in picturesque confusion, here and there relieved with trees and tiny vineyards, which seem literally to hang over the rapid torrent beneath…

— J. D. Bourchier. Through Bulgaria with Prince Ferdinand, Fortnightly Review, July 1888 (272 The Rose of the Balkans, Ivan Ilchev)

The times are better I think.

But this is still a style of building that…look at these eaves, these houses jostle each other in their lots, sprawl on top of each other down the hills.

But of course the city has grown far beyond these old cobbled streets, like all of the other places we have been here, it is ringed by wider more modern streets full of lovely National Revival style mixed with more modern buildings.

And the outer ring? Buildings like the city hall in a modernist, communist style, huge slabs of social housing. And our absurd hotel, the Interhotel, which represents such faded communist grandeur, and gave us incredible views from our balcony, but also a shower possessed by the devil and the most peculiar smell.

This is a beautiful place full of art and life spilling out across public spaces, lovely craft shops, a brilliant book store and of course, cats.

Walking Tsarevets Fortress (Царевец)

This hill has been defended by many, from the Thracians to the Romans. It was made famous, though, as the centre and capital of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, which lasted from 1185 through 1396, though this was burned down in 1393. You can tell why, staring in wonder at the views in every direction. They now include old factories, the fortress of Trapezitsa on the neighbouring hill, and the park of miniatures representing all of Bulgaria’s monuments.

Its outlines have been traced through reconstruction, they are plastered with what I can only assume are Cold War era signs in Bulgarian, Russian and German (finally it becomes more clear the differences between Bulgarian and Russian). There is a frustrating lack of English, though occasionally you will trigger a sensor that begins a disembodied voice speaking in Bulgarian and English.

It is crowned by the palace and the Cathedral of the Ascension, reconstructed and the murals inside. They are absolutely unexpected and incredible. You can tell from trip advisor though, that you either love them or hate them.

You can climb everywhere, which means it is also possible to enter grave peril if not fall ignominiously to your doom. This includes the rock from which they threw off prisoners into the Yantra.

They have tried to prevent this with signs, that led to our best long running photography joke of the holiday.

Buzludzha Monument — to Socialist and nationalist Struggle, and 50s Science Fiction Паметник на Бузлуджа

It is visible for miles, perched precipitous, high on its mountain above fields golden with sunflowers. It is an incredible absurd sciencefictional thing. A flying saucer tethered to a grounding skysoaring shard of concrete.

It sits on earth of great significance, impossible beauty. Site of the last battle of rebel Hadzhi Dimitâr against the Ottomans. He received a fatal wound here, and it was for many years known by his name.

Between 1877 and 1878 a number of battles were fought here for control of Shipka pass, Russian General Gourko facing down the Ottomans, you look down on the monument itself from here.

Then on 2nd of August, 1891 the 1st Bulgarian Socialist Congress was held here under cover of celebrations of the deeds of Hadzhi Dimitâr. There is a monument to Dimitâr Blagoev at the turn off for the monument.

Monument to Dimitâr Blagoev

Some Nazis were killed here as well in 1944, and three partisans lost their lives in the ambush (though Bulgaria’s government under Tsar Boris III officially supported the Nazis until 1944). This massive 1981 installation was designed by architect Georgi Stoilov, as Richard F. Morton writes:

He lists both the Roman Pantheon and the sci-fi films of the 1950s amongst his inspirations for Buzludzha.

It was meant to symbolise all of this history as a museum and meeting space, but after decades of varying types and degrees of Stalinist rule, the fact that it was built with not-always-so-voluntary labour and subscriptions…it is not a thing I can love wholeheartedly. After it was abandoned in 1989 looters (rumored to include government officials) stripped what they could like the copper from the ceilings, smashed the red star thinking the glass to be rubies, pulled down concrete letters to leave them scattered across the grass.

All this and also the villain’s lair in Mechanic 2.

What it looks like today:

What it looked like once (this is borrowed from the best site by far about the monument, with an extensive history and many more photos, especially of the inside which you are no longer allowed to risk life and limb to see. Have a look!):

Beneath it sit this amazing sculpture of unity, two hands holding torches.

After arriving in Veliko Tarnovo, I looked at the book I was reading and there they were again.

We had to get a special tour out here as we didn’t have a car, but well worth it and we enjoyed it immensely.

Boyana Church (БОЯНСКАТА ЦЪРКВА) to Boyana Waterfall

We were almost a week in Sofia before heading towards Mount Vitosha for hiking…it had been so hot, and then stormy. We took the metro to Vitosha station then the 64 bus. Public transport here is a bit terrifying until you figure it out, this helped immensely unlike many another site, especially official ones.

It’s a short walk to Boyana Church, which was amazing. From the UNESCO site:

Located on the outskirts of Sofia, Boyana Church consists of three buildings. The eastern church was built in the 10th century, then enlarged at the beginning of the 13th century by Sebastocrator Kaloyan, who ordered a second two storey building to be erected next to it.

boyanachurch

A schematic drawing of the church from the church website:

The frescoes in this second church, painted in 1259, make it one of the most important collections of medieval paintings. The ensemble is completed by a third church, built at the beginning of the 19th century. This site is one of the most complete and perfectly preserved monuments of east European medieval art.

The frescoes are amazing. We were lucky enough to be the only ones there for a short time — having walked from the bus there was no press of people, no time limit. The caretaker gave us some beautiful stories behind the depictions. Photos are not allowed and are in short supply on the internet, my favourite there is not be found. A poet, whose eyes watch you wherever you are in the church. They are vivid and very beautiful, what photos do exist do not come anywhere close to capturing them. But I recognised the crowns of these immediately that we had seen the day before at the National Museum of History where they have been copied and sit on display. This is Tsar Constantine Asen Tikh and Tsaritsa Irina:

From there we walked up the hill to find the trail up to Boyana waterfall. We weren’t quite prepared for an hour and a 45 minutes or so of steep uphill climb with little break to get there, the guide book might have been a little more explicit. But the woods were beautiful, the falls lovely, and we did have some cheese and wine to work off.

Coming back down we encountered these amazing creatures — Dryocopus martius — their calls are quite eerie in an almost silent forest. Apparently if you can imitate them they will come find you. If only we had known, we chased them down switchbacks through the trees but they caught on to our game soon enough.

The mountain now, and some of its wonders:

boyanawaterfall

boyanachurch

The waterfall

We were up and back in around two and a half hours, then walked down the hill to Cinecitta Osteria Italiana, who let us in despite being a little more dishevelled than the other guests and having no reservation. A delicious meal. Glorious day.

Howth

So lovely and that place where Yeats once lived in a lovely white cottage overlooking the water and where once upon a time Molly said yes I do yes I will yes or something rather close to that, but no one knows just where…thank god, or they’d commodify that too. It was full of birds and wildflowers and stick men blithely walking off of cliffs and long moments of silence and being alone in the wind and the rain. But also much of the time tourists and Dublin youth dressed like it was 1984.

Sweetwater trail, AZ

Mark, Julie and I on New Year’s Day, snow on the Tucson Mountains, seeing quail, coyote, deer. Taking these as tokens of the year ahead, even the dead tarantula curled up in the middle of the small wash. Working to ignore the unsustainable arrogance of wealth mushrooming across the desert in the form of giant block houses. I hope my year is full of wilds and family and love, some writing, some working to change the world.

Jerome and Haynes

Jerome is one of my favourite mining towns, I came here with mum on the great road trip of ought eleven, which also included Wupatki, Montezuma’s Castle, and Tuzigoot. We missed them all this trip but Jerome was lovely. From 2011:

And now:

We went this time to Crown King Mine, which was once Haynes Arizona. It is full of mining equipment, old house fittings, a monument to the Evil Dead in the form of a shed filled with every kind of chain saw, wondrous old cars including an old electric model, dentist chairs and mangles and school desks. All of it is collected from this ruined town and others, from the shacks that grew up everywhere around these holes in the ground filled with copper, silver, zinc, molybdenum.

So much abandoned and left, either when the minerals and the jobs ran out, or when people grew too old to stay there. I keep thinking about extraction, the way it demands that people come and then it expects them to go. Very few people ever get rich and they generally were rich already, lived elsewhere, dabbled in claims that others had prospected and staked. Most of those doing the mining itself eke out a living at great risk to life and health, but there is something about it that most of them love even as their labour is extracted from them just like copper or gold. Until there is nothing left.

Somehow in the midst of that they come to come to love, grow to feel a connection with a place. I was thinking about the fight to keep towns like this alive, how it comes from the lives built here, the memories, labour, laughter, friends, family. Things worth fighting for.

I was thinking also though, that maybe it’s best to leave as easily as you came so many years ago, let the land return to what it was before machines ripped the heart from it or return to the wild with it.

Impossible to say which way I fall, but then, it is not for me to decide for others.

I love what remains standing.

I mourn what stands no longer, like the Mexican community of Daisy Town just outside of Jerome, where nothing remains but foundations. As the sign says: ‘Small ethnic communities were common around the mining developments of the West,’ it doesn’t mention of course this was usually for their own protection, though in some cases I expect they might well have been there first.

Daisy Town

There is of course, also a long history of labour organizing here too — La Liga Protectora Latina (not much about that), and the IWW (some awesomeness about that).

Verde Canyon Railroad

The train runs from Arizona’s first company town, Clarksdale, through slag heaps and on up the most beautiful canyon to the remains of Perkinsville. Bald eagles, deer, not sure quite how much harmony exists but this was most lovely…

Sandwiched between two protected sanctuaries, the Coconino National Forest and the Prescott National Forest, the Railroad runs a rare ribbon where dramatic high desert meets a precious riparian area. Such scenery comprises only 2% of the Arizona landscape.

Since 1912 the train has existed in harmony with the wilderness and its native inhabitants…

Verde Canyon Railroad website

Requiem for bedrock

From one sublime to another, we stopped here early in the morning the day after the Grand Canyon. It was 8 degrees, frozen wind, they unlocked the door for us, the first visitors. We had it to ourselves to recapture our youth.

It’s been sold, and the day before we arrived they had begun moving the figures. Small surprise they started with Betty Rubble, Wilma, the giant Pebbles.

What a loss.

Santa Claus to the Grand Canyon, Route 66

From Kingman we had a quick drive down to Santa Claus…once a colorful old-school developer’s dream, a cashing-in-on-Christmas-to-sell-Real-Estate that didn’t work at all, though it proved immensely popular while it was maintained — Jane Russell maybe threw a party here. Arizona Highways provides a short history here. Robert Heinlein wrote a story in which it featured (‘Cliff and the Calories‘), which is rather hilarious.

The sign read Santa Claus, Arizona. I blinked at it, thinking I was at last seeing a mirage. There was a gas station, all right, but that wasn’t all.

You know what most desert gas stations look like – put together out of odds and ends. Here was a beautiful fairytale cottage with wavy candy stripes in the shingles. It had a broad brick chimney – and Santa Claus was about to climb down the chimney!

Maureen, I said, you’ve overdone this starvation business; now you are out of your head.

Between the station and the cottage were two incredible little dolls’ houses. One was marked Cinderella’s House and Mistress Mary Quite Contrary was making the garden grow. The other one needed no sign; the Three Little Pigs, and Big Bad Wolf was stuck in its chimney.

“Kid stuff!” says Junior, and added, “Hey, Pop, do we eat here? Huh?”

“We just gas up,” answered Daddy. “Find a pebble to chew on. Your mother has declared a hunger strike.”

Mother did not answer and headed toward the cottage. We went inside, a bell bonged, and a sweet contralto voice boomed, “Come in! Dinner is ready!”

The inside was twice as big as the outside and was the prettiest dining room imaginable, fresh, new, and clean. Heavenly odors drifted out of the kitchen. The owner of the voice came out and smiled at us.

We knew who she was because her kitchen apron had “Mrs. Santa Claus” embroidered across it. She made me feel slender, but for her it was perfectly right.

Can you imagine Mrs. Santa Claus being skinny?

“How many are there?” she asked.

“Four,” said Mother, “but – ” Mrs. Santa Claus disappeared into the kitchen.

Mother sat down at a table and picked up a menu. I did likewise and started to drool – here is why:

Minted Fruit Cup Rouge
Pot – au – feu a la Creole
Chicken Velvet Soup
Roast Veal with Fine Herbs
Ham Soufflй
Yankee Pot Roast
Lamb Hawaii
Potatoes Lyonnaise
Riced Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes Maryland
Glazed Onions
Asparagus Tips with Green Peas
Chicory Salad with
Roquefort Dressing
Artichoke Hearts with Avocado
Beets in Aspic
Cheese Straws
Miniature Cinnamon Rolls
Hot Biscuits
Sherry Almond Ice Cream
Rum Pie
Pкches Flambйes Royales
Peppermint Cloud Cake
Devil’s Food Cake
Angel Berry Pie
Coffee Tea Milk
(Our water is trucked fifteen miles;
please help us save it.)

Thank you. Mrs. Santa Claus

It made me dizzy, so I looked out the window. We were still in the middle of the grimmest desert in the world.

Now that almost everything has been stolen, it’s all grim apart from the desert. This trip had several of these moments where it felt like we were just in time.

From there we drove down Route 66. I wish we’d had time to stop in Oatman, in Hackberry, in Valentine — nothing more frustrating than a road trip on a time table, I can’t wait until we are retired. Anyway, we followed the train tracks across the landscape.

Route 66
Route 66

Passed Peach Tree Springs

Peach Tree Springs, Route 66

Back down to the main highway to speed towards the Grand Canyon. There were great dark clouds with beams of light pouring down across the valley.

The Grand Canyon — words can’t describe it. It was Mark’s first time, Last I was here, we drove up to the rim, parked, hiked down the Bright Angel Trail. Despite the government shut down everything was open, but the parking lot was massive and full to overflowing and you have to take a shuttle and…

I felt old, wished for the good old days, wished for half the people and none of the cars. But still. It was wondrous in the snow and with the sun setting through the clouds.

Life breaking through the rocks.

  • Grand Canyon, South Rim
  • Grand Canyon, South Rim
  • Grand Canyon, South Rim
  • Grand Canyon, South Rim
  • Grand Canyon, South Rim
  • Grand Canyon, South Rim
  • Grand Canyon
  • Grand Canyon
  • Grand Canyon
  • Grand Canyon
  • Grand Canyon
  • Grand Canyon
  • Grand Canyon
  • Grand Canyon