Friday, May 17, 2019

NW Bulgaria Trip Part IV–Vidin

This is Part IV if the series of posts about our trip to NW Bulgaria. Here are the links for Part I, Part II and Part III.

Our third stop on this trip was Vidin, which is a port town on the Danube in the extreme Northwest of the country. The Danube is the natural border between Bulgaria Romania in this area. There is a bridge connecting the two countries here (it is one of two, the second being at Russe). Vidin is also very close to the Bulgarian border with Serbia.

Vidin is an ancient place that started out as a Celtic settlement by the name of Dunonia, then evolved into a Roman fortified town called Bononia. It became an important center in the Roman province Upper Moesia, encompassing parts of modern day Serbia and Bulgaria. The area was then settled by Slavs, who changed its name to Bdin. Eventually, the Slavs formed an union with the Bulgars (or Old Bulgarians, who were nomadic warriors and came from Central Asia via the Caspian and Volga regions) and founded Bulgaria in 681. In the Middle Ages, Vidin was an important Bulgarian city, a bishop seat and a center of a large province though it did at some point accept Serbian suzerainity and was briefly occupied by Magyar (Hungarian) crusaders before falling to the Ottomans in 1396.

We arrived around noon and checked into our hotel, Anna-Kristina, which we were told was the best in town. We got an apartment with a queen-size bed and a fold-out couch. It was on the top floor, overlooking the park along the Danube, which was nice, however, it had a low, attic-type ceiling sloping down along two walls. This might not be an issue for other visitors but we are tall and it was a little uncomfortable because we were left with a very small area where we could actually stand up without having to stoop over. Otherwise we liked the place – the location was good and there was a decent restaurant in the hotel which was handy in the evening because it started raining.

We decided to take a walk in the park along the Danube on our way to the Baba Vida Fort and the old synagogue. The weather was a little overcast but nice, so we walked until we saw the old synagogue.

It was built in 1894 and used to be the second largest Jewish temple in the country (after the one in Sofia) before WWII. Even though Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany during WWII, it defied Germany’s order to send its Jewish citizens (about 50,000 of them at the time) to the concentration camps. It did, however, send about 11,000 Jews from then Bulgaria-controlled areas of Northern Greece and Macedonia to the death camps where most of them perished. After WWII, most of Vidin’s Jewish population immigrated to Israel. The synagogue was seized by the communist government. There were plans for its restoration but they never went anywhere. After all these years of neglect, the building is gutted and in ruins. I had seen pictures of it and knew it was in bad shape but wanted to see it.

Even though it is falling apart, you can tell it was gorgeous once. It was bitter-sweet to think about all the weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah’s and other special occasions the Jewish community celebrated in this building, all the times it was filled with excitement and emotion. And so sad to see it crumbling. I understand there are plans to restore it and make some sort of a multi-purpose community center from it, which would be nice but there have been more than one similar plans for the building, so I hope this one comes to fruition.

We continued on our way until we got to the Baba Vida Fort. It was built on the bank of the Danube on top of the remains of the old Roman Bononia settlement. The construction began sometime in the second half of the 10th century. According to legend, a powerful Bulgarian ruler lived in the area. He had three daughters, Kula and Gamza and Vida. Before he died he divided his kingdom in three – Vida got Vidin and the lands in the north to the Carpathian, Kula was given Zaecar and the Timok valley, while Gamza received the lands west up to the Morava. Kula and Gamza didn’t luck out in marriage - one married a drunk, while the other a warlord. Vida rejected all marriage proposals that came her way and remained single. She built the castle and lived in it for the rest of her life. It bears her name: Baba Vida (Grandma Vida).

The fort is surrounded by a moat, which was empty when we were there but we were told that it’s sometimes filled with water from the Danube. It had two concentric walls and nine towers, three of which are preserved.

We walked around it a little bit and spent some time on the bank of the Danube.

Unfortunately, it started to rain, so we had to go back to the hotel. Max was really bummed out because he wanted to spend some quality time skipping stones in the Danube, so we promised him to make a little bit of time for that the following day on the way out of town. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant which was quite good. The region is famous for its good wines, so we tried some of them and they did not disappoint.

We left Vidin after breakfast the next day and headed for Vratsa. We decided to take the longer but more scenic route, via Lom along the Danube - we had to keep our skipping promise to Max, after all. We found a place on the river where we could stop and do just that. There was a little wind from the North, which was less than optimal for stone skipping as there were some waves coming our way but Max enjoyed it nonetheless.

Monday, May 6, 2019

NW Bulgaria Trip Part III–Belogradchik

This is Part III in a five-part series about our recent trip to NW Bulgaria. Here are Part I and Part II.

Our second stop was Belogradchik, another small town in NW Bulgaria famous for its interesting rock formations, a Roman/Medieval fort and the caves in the area. Belogradchik is a popular destination for Bulgarians and foreigners and I had wanted to see it for a long time but somehow I never made it that way, so I was really looking forward to finally seeing it. We stayed at Villa Rose, which was recommended by a colleague. It’s a three-bedroom private home that the owners are renting but it’s one of the nicest places we have found in Bulgaria. It is spacious, well-appointed, has a nice, private yard with a couple of patios (one of which has a lovely view of the rocks), a small dipping pool (not heated). It got a little chilly overnight but there was a nice fireplace hooked up to a heating system which kept us nice and toasty. The kitchen was roomy and comfortable and had everything you would need to prepare a meal but there was a nice restaurant around the corner (Pri Ivan), so we didn’t need to cook.

We got there a little after lunch, dropped off our stuff at the house and walked over to Pri Ivan. We had a quick-ish meal and headed to the Venetsa (the wreath) Cave. A friend had recommended it saying it was the most beautiful cave in Bulgaria and I had seen articles online making that claim too, so I thought we had to see it. I have only seen a few caves in Bulgaria, so I can't say if it's truly the most beautiful but it is cool and it does indeed have onyx stalactites and stalagmites, which is pretty amazing. It is not very big and it was developed and open to the public fairly recently (in 2015), so it has a new lighting system with changing color lights, which makes the stalactites and stalagmites look neat. I liked it but Nia complained because there were some really low and narrow passages and navigating them was a little tricky. I’d say it’s worth seeing, especially if you are a caving enthusiast. Here are a few pictures from it:
We headed back to Belogradchik with the intention of seeing the fort. We decided to see the cave first because I had checked the hours and realized it closes an hour earlier than the fort. The fort was supposed to close at 6 pm. We wanted to get there in time to see the sunset. We got there at 5:20 and were told that the fort does indeed close at 6 but they don't allow people in after 5, which was a total bummer because we were leaving for our next destination (Vidin) the next morning. We were really disappointed that we won't get to see the fort but the cashier lady pointed to a road that she said went to an area where we could see the rocks. We headed that way and found an area where there were metal ladders, allowing us to climb up on the rocks from where we could see some of the other rock formations. It wasn't the fort and it wasn't sunset yet but the views were still amazing. 

The cashier at the fort also recommended a restaurant called Mislen Kamyk, which she said had the best sunset views of the rocks. We went there and there was one table on the veranda overlooking the rocks but everyone on the veranda was smoking and it was rather unpleasant, so we left. The view was not bad though:

We ended up back at Pri Ivan for dinner, after which we walked home. Max took a dip in the little pool, undeterred by the cold water and Paul and I had some local rose at one of the patios overlooking the rocks. It got chilly after sunset, so we moved inside and enjoyed a little quiet time by the fireplace before going to bed.

We all liked Belogradchik and Villa Rose and wouldn't mind going back some day to see the fort.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

NW Bulgaria Trip Part II–The Chiprovtski Kilim Festival

This is Part II of a five-part series of posts about a trip we took recently. Here is a link to Part I.

Our first stop was the small town of Chiprovtsi, famous for the colorful hand-woven carpets (kilimi in Bulgarian) they make there and the annual Chiprovski kilim festival. Carpet-weaving is ingrained in the culture of the small town. Every family is (or was) involved in some aspect of it, whether it’s raising sheep, spinning yarn, dying it, or weaving, and each home had a loom but then that was the case in every home in Bulgaria back in the day because every woman wove household items for her family. I am not from Chiprovtsi but my grandmother used to weave. She had a covered area, adjacent to their house, where she set up her loom every summer and wove scrap rugs. Her rugs were not as fancy as the Chiprovtsi ones but they were practical and she used them throughout their house. I loved watching my grandmother weave and over time she taught me how to do it.  At first, when I was really little, I would just watch, then she let me push the shuttle with the yarn from side to side. Eventually, I got to sit at the loom and weave. I wasn't really good but I knew the basics. It was something girls her generation were expected to learn and even though things were changing and neither my mom nor I had to weave, she thought it wouldn't hurt us to know.

In 2014 the tradition of carpet weaving  in Chiprovtsi was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, which has caused a surge in the popularity, demand and prices of Chiprovski kilimi. The interesting thing about these carpets is that they don’t have a nap (loops of yarn sticking out) and their designs are just as beautiful on the right side as they are on the wrong (they actually don’t have a wrong side – they are the double sided but the two sides are mirror images of each other.) I had heard about the Chiprovski kilimi growing up and had seen them in people’s homes but I am not really a carpet person, so I was not interested in them until I came back to Bulgaria in 2017. Living outside the country for more than 20 years has made me appreciate some of the things I had taken for granted as a child and now I find myself thinking about things I may want to buy before we leave Bulgaria. At some point I decided I wanted a Chiprovski kilim. Going to the festival in Chiprovtzi made sense because it would allow me to see the greatest variety and if I were to fall in love with one and it was not insanely expensive, well, maybe it was meant to be. The festival fell on Orthodox Easter weekend this year and we figured this is probably one of the last chances we have to take a trip in Bulgaria as a family before Paul and Nia leave for Saudi. Plus, we had a four-day weekend, so we decided to go for it.

Chiprovtsi is located in a picturesque valley surrounded by snow-covered peaks in the Western Balkan range. We got there about 10 am, parked close to the center of town and were greeted by this sign. It says Chiprovtzi in Bulgarian with the “o” shaped like one of the most popular carpet motifs, the Kanatitza (Max is sitting on it in the picture below), a symbol of eternity or eternal life, providing protection from evil and good fortune.

We took a walk around looking at the carpets. Here are the ones I liked the most. Below to the left is a “Chicken” design and to the right “Makasa.”

 "Fall vine" below

Another “chicken” kilim but with a different border to the left below and a “spring vine” to the right. I really liked the "spring vine" - the colors were really vibrant and it was large-ish (maybe 5’ x 6’). I asked for the price and the seller lady said it was $1,700, which seemed steep. I asked why and she said that they were about to increase their prices again as it was hard for them to find weavers at that price. She said that particular carpet took two women two months to weave. When she put it that way, it seemed fair for the weavers but I still couldn’t make up my mind. I needed to think about it but got their contact information (, in case you are interested). They have a store in Sofia and make custom carpets – you specify the size, designs and colors and it takes about 2 months. It’s not cheap, for sure, but I can still order one and make it unique. Something to ponder and save for, perhaps.

I also really liked the “Bakamski” design in red and black (the folded one) below but it wasn't for sale.

There was traditional music and dancing in the square:

If you couldn’t afford a whole carpet, you could buy Chiprovski kilim souvenirs:

There was also an area, where you could see the old ladies of the town demonstrating the different parts of the process of making a kilim.

We were told there was a nice museum in town, so we headed that way. There were gorgeous antique carpets displayed along the way.
And there were many more inside the museum.

In the end, I left Chiprovtzi without a carpet. I did buy some souvenirs for friends and relatives but just couldn’t pull the trigger on the rug. I will go to their store in Sofia though and and see if I can buy one on the spot or order a custom.  
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