Welcome to the Jungle

Dear Reader,

Warm greetings from the Bulgarian Black Sea coast! 🙂

Not quite the seaside yet, but my family’s seaside residence. 🙂 This is the seaside villa of friends, located on the outskirts of Slanchev Bryag, or Sunny Beach. It is gorgeous and I felt like crying when we got there yesterday, after a Spartan 2.5-day sojourn in the mountains.

Only about 50 years ago this coast, covering Bulgaria’s entire eastern border, has been populated with fine-sand virgin beaches, vegetated dunes, dense woods and sparse hotels.

Since then greed, coupled with the understanding of tourism as the mushrooming of half-legal and stylistically very eclectic, if not downright ugly, hotels, has transformed the area into a sprawling concrete jungle.

Pear trees and roses in the garden. I actually walked barefoot on the dewy grass to take a picture of those, at 7 in the morning :). I am an urbanite and live in a flat looking onto a busy downtown Sofia street, so such things are unusual for me. 🙂

However, every jungle hides an oasis and I was lucky and grateful to reach one late on Aug 1, in the face of a very comfortable house with a guest bungalow, a 1,000 sq-m yard, a cleaning lady and a gardener – graciously bestowed, key and all, to my family by friends.

The songs of birds and bees woke me up this morning and it felt so good. Yesterday evening when we arrived I thought I don’t need the overcrowded beach, I could stay in this cozy house and yard and read my holiday away, in quite bliss. 🙂 I think I’ll become an eccentric recluse when I grow old. 🙂

We got there after a 350-km journey from a real jungle – one located high up the vast Rhodope mountains where sirens live and treasures have been lying buried for centuries, where there are no roads, no phone coverage, no internet and no piped water, and where, alas, your luggage, from a certain point onwards, has to carried by a horse. 🙂

Knowing how uncomfortable accommodation during travel distresses me, I am impressed with myself for having agreed to go in this wilderness in the first place. I am also impressed that, once accustomed to the lack of everything, I actually started enjoying living like a pioneer woman. 🙂 Perhaps part of the enjoyment came from the certainty in the restricted duration of the experience and the knowledge that the chances of agreeing to its repetition in the future are close to nil. 

Pioneer woman or no pioneer woman, the experience went together with breathtaking views like this one. Picture is of the mountain surrounding the ancient Bulgarian fortress named to the 13-th century Bulgarian Tsar Ivan-Assen II.
Ahh, what can you say when faced with such magnificence? This is the only fully-surviving building of the Tsar Ivan-Assen fortress – a church named to St. Virgin Mary of Petrich. It is perched on a cliff rising from the middle of a very deep mountain gorge and is open for visit to enthusiasts willing to climb not a few flights of steep stairs.

So the Tsar Ivan Assen Fortress…Located in the mountains outside the central-southern town of Assenovgrad, (grad means town, so Assenovgrad literally translates as the town of Assen, the same Tsar), this fortress was on our way to the Rhodope pioneer experience, so we stopped to visit. It was breathtakingly beautiful, though we reached it on Saturday, Jul 30, at about 15.00 PM, in a blistering 38-degree C heat. 

The rocks into which the stairs leading to the fortress have been carved. Needless to say, the stones emitted hellish heat, very taxing to both man and beast. Well, except for the lizards – they moved briskly around and didn’t seem to mind at all.

The Assen Fortress is really ancient – it had existed at the times of the Thracian, in the 5th-6th century BC, and is known to have been upgraded and used by the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century AD. Documents on the fortress’ operations and administration, dating back to the 11th century, were found in the Bachkovo Monastery located close-by. The fortress was seized by the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade, which took place in the early 13th century. It was renovated by Tsar Ivan Assen II in 1231.

An old icon of Jesus Christ located inside the church. I could not find information dating the icon, but I have seen ones in a similar state, dating back to as early as the 17th century. I believe Bulgaria’s oldest surviving icon is of the 17th century, so if this one were older, I would have known. I once saw a reportage on the Bulgarian state TV, about a huge icon of the St. Virgin Mary, whose eyes and other facial features had been scratched by knives during the Ottoman rule. The same icon, image facing down, was used as table during communism. It has recently been professionally restored, which the TV reportage was actually about.

The church, which is the only fortress building still standing, was built in the 11th-12th century AD, at the time of the Byzantine Comnenus dynasty. The dating of the church’s construction is supported by its looking quite similar, both inside and out, to the tiny Boyana church, of which I told you here. (You can google images of the Boyana church for pictures of the interior, as photographing by visitors is prohibited.)

Church entrance, photographed from the altar.
Church altar.
Exquisite, ancient frescoes.
Awe-inspiring mountain views.
The remnants of this fortress must look really grand during a storm. Ivan Vazov, the partiarch of the Bulgarian literature, has very powerful descriptions, both in prose and in verse, of the roar of the stormy Balkans. These are the Rhodopes, which are lower and with less ridged peaks, not covered by snow until July, but still, they must be pretty scary in bad weather.

The visit to the Assen Fortress lasted less than an hour because of the heat. Then we headed to the mountain resort village, not suspecting the conditions we were about to find there. The idea of visiting belonged to the family who were bridesmaid and best man at my wedding, nearly NINE years ago, :). They wanted to get together with friends there to celebrate the fourth birthday of their younger child on Aug 1. However, they had never been to the place before, which has made me draw an important morale – never, ever invite people to a place which you have not previously seen in person. 🙂 

Winding road through the mountains. A bit narrow for two cars. It also resembled the notorious Petrohan pass through the Balkans – all U-turns with relatively straight stretches of about 20 metres each here and there.
We were warned by the mountain resort’s website, but never quite expected this :). At a certain point, the asphalt road ended and THIS started – all stones, potholes and slopes – a real challenge for our urban Peugeot 407 with its low ground clearance. The 5-km dirt road felt like going on for ever, in a sensation not alleviated by the 5 km/h average speed it necessitated. Like all self-respecting Bulgarians, we are moving on to a high-clearance SUV as our next car – I have already firmly made up my mind on that. 🙂
Just when you think things cannot get any worse…
…you find out they actually can!
You can even find out angles to “worseness,” never suspected before.
The views at least were worth it. And that flag did provide some consolation, I have to admit that. :)
The views at least were worth it. And that flag did provide some consolation, I have to admit that. 🙂
The clueless urban tourists have finally reached the point of no return 🙂 Cars are left in a small flat area the middle of nowhere and the journey proceeds on foot, for some 500 metres more. Woe to you if your luggage is too heavy or abundant to carry.
Having to walk on that slippery gravel in the scotching heat took my mind completely off the beautiful scenery for a while. But the smell of dry heated grass and the buzzing of insects in the otherwise total silence were interesting. Though a bit disconcerting too. I thought – what if you fainted or something here…? No one would ever find you. That was the urban panic talking…:)
How very lovely. Approaching our destination sensitised me to the beauty of nature once again. According to Ivan Vazov, man was made imperfect because he harbours vice, passion and spiritual and bodily ugliness, while nature is God’s real image and likeness, as it is as grand, as eternal and as good as He is.
Welcome to the Sabazius mountain resort! Also spelled Sabazios, this is a nomadic horseman and the sky father god of the Thracian. Although we have been Christian since the 9th century, we Bulgarians are a pagan lot, still paying homage to the pre-Christian pagan deities.
The entrance path to the resort. I have to say it looked lovely. But I was outraged and a bit scared by the difficult access. I had also realised that we had brought far too much luggage. It’s true that we were heading to the seaside after that, but we could have prepared luggage for the mountain separately. Anyway, we had to humbly ask for the services of…
The Maya taxi! Maya was the name of the mare. The baby horse was called Gosho, which is short for Georgi, the Bulgarian version of George. When the resort owner saw what our luggage consisted of, he lost his temper, totally oblivious, quite in the Bulgarian way, of the customer always being right principle. And indeed, the luggage of my family and that of the birthday boy, included but was not limited to the following quite eccentric items: two cool boxes, two suitcases full of children’s toys, an espresso machine and an electric jug as well as food such as raw barbecue meat, fresh fruit and vegetables and ingredients for a tiramisu cake. I think I can make an educated guess about your facial expression right now. 🙂

So, dear Reader, that was the first part of my much-awaited summer holiday. I will share more of the mountain villa resort in my next post. As I told you, after I got used to the realities there, I started enjoying it, hard access and all. Therefore, as musical greeting, please accept Beethoven’s beautiful Symphony N 6, also called Pastoral. My internet is too slow to listen to it now, but I hope you will like it.

You know, before Beethoven, at the time of Bach for example, music was about order, logic and glorifying God. The next generation of composers, such as Haydn and Mozart, composed music on commission for the elegant and cultured entertainment  of the European nobility.

The final metres of the path to the resort entrance.

Beethoven, on the other hand, with his peremptory and tumultuous personality, made music all about himself and his emotions, thus providing composers and audiences with a totally new angle to the musical message. So the Pastoral symphony deals with Beethoven’s emotions on observing nature. I think I felt a similar mixture of awe, excitement and humility while looking at the velvety green slopes of the Rhodopes.

I am leaving you in the excellent company of this magnificent piece, to dream about rustling leaves, bubbling brooks, cool shadows, tiny field flowers and birds singing their hearts out, springing lightly from branch to branch. 🙂  

Talk soon,