Bulgaria – Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanasi

During the night, our boat had moved from the Romanian side of the Danube to the Bulgarian side. It took about 10 minutes.  We were now in Russe, Bulgaria. In the morning we got up around 6 am, because we had an early tour that would last all day. It was our first breakfast on board.  There was lots of variety as well as a chef who cooked any kind of omelet or egg. Some of the same things appeared for every breakfast, but all in all, I thought the morning fare was very good. Anytime something wasn’t available, all you had to do was to ask for it.

Just a bit of information about Bulgaria: it is a Balkan nation and has land borders with Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey. It has a network of over 500 rivers with the Danube being the largest. Our guide told us that Bulgaria was famous for its roses, so we saw many rose products – water, oils, soaps, perfumes, and even rose flavored brandy. The Rose Valley is found south of the Balkan Mountains. We also saw many fields of sunflowers but it was difficult taking photos of them on a moving bus. I did manage a few blurry fields.

Fields of sunflowers. Used for sunflower seeds and sunflower oil.

Our excursion took us through Russe and then on to the medieval town of Veliko Tarnovo and then to Arbanasi, rich in history and Greek influence.  The tour was 81/2 hours and we ended up meeting the boat in the port of Svistov.

The Russe port on the right bank of the Danube was very pleasant.  As we went up the walkway, the bank on both sides was filled with flowers and tiny birds darted all around.  I noticed giant sculptures down the road not far from where the buses were located. I ran over and discovered that they were sand sculptures and took a few hurried photos before I had to get on the tour bus. Shawn and I found two good seats behind the back stairs. We could jump off the bus in a hurry.

The beautiful flowers that greeted us as we walked up the walkway to our excursion bus.
Tiny birds that darted all around the water.
Sand sculpture – along the shore of the Danube



Our tour guide was a young lady named Cremy (not sure of the spelling).  She spoke English well and told some funny jokes and stories. She also gave us quite a bit of information about life during the communist rule which I found eye opening. We drove through the port town of Russe, sometimes called Little Vienna because of its architectural variety.  On the outskirts of the town, we passed these high rise apartments built during the Communist era.  We saw them in every major city taken over by the Communists. 

High-rise apartments built during the Communist years.

Veliko Tarnovo, in north central Bulgaria, is located on the Yantra  River.  It is known as the historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and is also one of the oldest settlements in Bulgaria. Its delightful old world charm made this excursion a real highlight of our trip.

On the way to the city, we passed the Stambolov arched bridge, designed by an Italian architect and built in 1897.


Our bus took us into the city and we made a stop at the Interhotel Veliko Tarnovo to have pastries, tea, and coffee.  There was a bridge nearby so we took advantage of the beautiful views to take photos.  The bridge spanned the Yantra River.  It had a strange asphalt covering on the walkway and every so often you could look down through these holes on the side and see the river below.

The Yantra River and Bridge

Photo from the Yantra River Bridge.
Looking through the hole, down to the river.
Houses on the hill with reflection in the water.
Houses on the hilltop in Veliko Tarnovo.

After taking photos on the bridge, we wandered into the huge reception hall to have Bulgarian pastries and cookies. The pastries are called banitsa and are made with phyllo dough and yogurt. All the tour buses had converged here together so there were quite a lot of people.  I think we spent about an hour there.

Interhotel Veliko Tarnovo where we had pastries called banitsa, cookies, tea, and coffee.

We climbed aboard the bus once more, to go to Arbanasi, a village rich in history and Greek influence. It was also a crucial trading center for wealthy merchants who traded during the Ottoman Empire. It sits on a high plateau about 400 meters above sea level between two larger towns.  It is known for its large number of historical monuments – such as 17th and 18th-century churches as well as, examples of Bulgarian National Revival architecture. Our bus dropped us off at the edge of the village.  The roads inside the village were very narrow, so we walked to all the sites. We came to a small rose shop and there, our guide gave us samples of rose and peach brandy and cookies made from sunflowers. The brandy was extremely strong, so I only had a very small sip.  Perhaps, it is an acquired taste!  The following photos are things we saw as we walked by the shops.

Merchant’s House – Konstantsalia

First, we went to a very old 17th-century house which reflected the Turkish influence. The 400-year old house is now a fascinating museum and one of the main attractions in Arbanasi.  It was owned by a wealthy merchant and served as a combination residence-warehouse-fortress. The lower level of the house was constructed of stone and the upper level was wood. Servants and animals lived on the first level and the family lived on the upper level.  When a child was born the wife and child lived separately for 40 days.  Our guide said there was even an indoor toilet – then showed us a hole in the floor, but I later read that it was a drainage hole for the bathing room.  The entrance to the house is also interesting – it had large studs in the wood to prevent attackers from pushing their swords through and robbing the family.

When we completed the tour, we found a shop under the house with all kinds of Bulgarian souvenirs for sale.  I think Shawn bought some folk figurines in traditional dress.

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We walked along the pathways in the village.

The Church of the Nativity of Christ

Arbanasi’s oldest church, the Nativity Church of Christ is deceptive in its appearance. Its exterior is somewhat simple and worn, however, the inside is a treasure of paintings, frescoes, and woodwork. The themes portrayed are biblical, philosophical and astrological. The church was built in the 15th century – the 17th century in three stages. It comprises a women’s section, a men’s section, a gallery and the Chapel of St. John the Baptist which tells his life story in glorious colors. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos, so I just took a few photos outside of the church. We did go inside and sit in a room that was filled from top to bottom with religious frescoes.  We listened to a local guide retell the biblical stories as they appeared in the paintings and 

I came upon these beautiful hollyhocks on the path to the church.
Sign near the church.
Outside of the church seemed nondescript but inside was very unusual with beautiful paintings, woodwork, and icons.
Bell next to the church.

After the church lecture and tour, we came across several vendors selling their goods to the tourists.   Shawn bought a religious icon of the archangel, Gabriel from the artist who painted it.  I bought a ceramic box, but after looking closely at it later, I discovered some defects, so was rather disappointed in my purchase.  I think being in a group and rushing from one thing to another had its disadvantages.  We never seemed to have enough time to shop or take photos.  Shawn and I were always at the end of the line taking photos and missing half of what was said about what we were looking at.

The guide told us interesting and somewhat depressing stories about life during the Communist era.  But here are some funny things she told us.  The Lada is a Russian-made car that was sold in all the communists’ countries.  There are a lot of jokes associated with the Lada, and we had some laughs when she told us a few of them.  Here are two of them: “What’s the difference between a Lada and a golf ball?”  “You can drive a golf ball 200 meters”.  “How do you double the value of a Lada?”   “Put a liter of gas in it”.

Orange Lada we saw in the village.

It was lunch time.  The bus picked us up and we went to a picturesque restaurant called Izvora. There were all kinds of yard decorations – a boat, wishing well, a few chickens, old wagon with flowers.

Wooden boat
Wagon with flowers

There were tables outside and inside.  Shawn and I sat with a group at the last table.  I ordered the vegetarian option.  It was a huge place and many tourists.  It took a long time to get waited on.  Two people got their soup while the rest of us waited quite a long time before we got ours.  We did have salad and bread which to me, was the best part of the meal.  Shawn and I split a beer and that was very good.  I think we were the last table to be waited on.  They brought the vegetarian dish first.  I was shocked to see a plate full of frozen vegetables and much of it was mushy.  I didn’t eat any of it. Shawn’s entree was a kind of goulash chicken.  He said it was okay, but it didn’t look that appetizing.  I was happy with the salad, bread, and beer.  The server was all upset that I didn’t eat the vegetables and brought the second vegetarian option.  It was fried cheese with French Fries.  I ate a few French fries.  Dessert was yogurt. Later, I went on Trip Advisor and saw that the restaurant had quite a few poor views.

Salad – Delicious!
The bread was very tasty.

There was a folk group who sang and played musical instruments.  At one point they grabbed some tourists and danced inside and outside.  One man played an instrument that sounded like a bagpipe.

We boarded the bus and went back to Veliko to see the hilltop royal castle.  Just a little information about Tsarevets Hill where the medieval castle was built.  During the period of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, from the year 1185 to 1395, Bulgaria was the largest and most powerful state in Southeastern Europe. Tsarevets Hill was the main fortress of the medieval capital – Veliko Turnovo. At the top of the hill, is the complex of the Patriarch’s Palace.  It was restored in 1981.

View of. the castle from the street below
Houses on the side of the hill.

Samovodska Charshia  (Artist Street)

We had a few hours left of the tour so we were taken to a hotel where we could relax, buy a drink, and look at the hotel shop.  I decided to take a walk on a great shopping street called Samovodska Charshiya.  It had so many cute shops and unusual things to buy.  Many were artists shops where you could watch the artist at work.  I was very disappointed because our time was so limited here.  I had fun taking photos and shopping for Bulgarian treasures.

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Just a word about signs.  As we entered each town or city, there was a sign naming the town or city and as you left there was a sign with a red line through it – telling you that you had left the town or city.

Sign leaving the Tsarevets area.

Trabant – the Cardboard Car

Cardboard cars from East Germany became a symbol of the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of them was called the Trabant and was made in East Germany. There are only a few of them left and one of them was at the port where our boat was docked.  Before we went on board, Shawn and I took a picture of the car.  The guide said that it was called the cardboard car because it was made of cardboard, but after a bit of research, I discovered that it was actually made of a hard plastic from recycled materials: cotton waste and phenol resins.  The use of the fibrous reinforcing material was partially responsible for the misconception that it was made of cardboard. The engine produced very smoky exhaust and significant air pollution. It was best known for its dull color scheme and cramped uncomfortable ride.  In spite of all these problems, today the car has achieved a measure of cult status.

Purple “cardboard” car. It was known as a “spark plug with a roof”

Once again it was time to get on board the bus and return to the boat.  It had been a very hot day – over 100 degrees and we were looking forward to the air-conditioned lounge and a cool drink!


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