Bulgaria: ARIT Tour Day 2, Smolyan and Mogilitsa

Reflections of Smolyan
Our first activity of the day was a tour of Smolyan. Although this is a relatively new town, established in 1960, it still has connections to the region's ancient history, extending right back to the end of the Bronze age (13th Century BC). Smolyan is situated in the Rhodope Mountains, believed to be sacred to the Thracians, and the legendary birthplace of Orpheus. We were particularly interested in this region as it was conquered by the Ottomans, and remained part of their empire until 1912.

The statue of Orpheus, leading his wife from Hades.

We visited the Regional History Museum which houses a fascinating collection of artifacts dating from the early Plealithic and Eneolithic periods, up to the present day.

National costumes of the area, shown in an interesting way
on one of the walls of the museum

This costume reminded me of a yeti!

Our specific interest in the Ottoman Empire, led us to the wooden house of Ali Bey, a classic example of Ottoman architecture. This was built in 1702, and restored in 1976, when it was proclaimed an architectural cultural monument.

We had fun exploring Ali Bey's house

When Emin told us that our next stop would be a bean museum, we thought we hadn't quite heard right. But, a bean museum it was! In fact, the museum is part of a very interesting project to protect the biodiversity of Bulgarian crops. The purpose of the museum is to promote and advertise the Smilyan bean, and create jobs for the local community.

Everything here is decorated with beans, and made by the children in the local school

We were each invited to stick a bean to a wall mural. 
There were nearly 9,000 beans in the mural and it wasn't yet finished.

The mural shows the village, with the river running by.

On the way to our next destination, Mogilitsa, we went to look at a cave. After a long slog up a hill, and ascending endless stairs, we arrived at the Uhluvitsa cave, locally called the Bat Cave. This is an extraordinarily beautiful cave, with amazing formations, and well worth the climb. As well as the more usual stalactites and stalagmites, there are dendrites (looking rather like sea coral), and the even rarer helictites (resembling small suns).

The beautiful limestone formations in the Uhluvitsa cave

Once in Mogilitsa, we explored another Ottoman-style wooden house, dating from 1843. This one was huge. It had 221 windows, 86 doors and 24 chimneys. It was like a maze, with one room leading into another, and there was even a secret room hidden behind a cupboard.

The interior had beautiful wooden fixtures and fittings

Outside the house we found this delightful old gardener,
cutting the grass with a scythe

I think he found us very entertaining too!

We just had to photograph this ancient bridge in Mogilitsa

Finally, we were taken for a well-deserved dinner before driving back to our hotel after another fun day.

This was just the first of many courses brought to us throughout the meal

We were also serenaded by a traditional bagpipe player while we ate.


Bulgaria: ARIT Tour Day 1, Plovdiv


The pretty pedestrian walkway in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
We left Istanbul on a gloriously sunny day for the drive to Edirne, where we crossed the border between Turkey and Bulgaria. Our tour, organised by ARIT (American Research Institute in Turkey), to South Central Bulgaria, was a continuation of previous tours, following in the footsteps of the early Ottomans as they spread their empire.

Leaving behind Istanbul's interminable queues of traffic, we drove through vast areas of agricultural land, burgeoning with crops as far as the eye could see. On the Bulgarian side, the terrain was little changed, except now we drove by field after field of sunflowers. Gradually the land became hillier, as we crossed the foothills of the Rodolphe mountains and arrived at our first stop, Plovdiv.

This is a statue of Milo, a resident of Plovdiv, who liked to 
listen to other people's conversations

Plovdiv is an ancient city, older than Rome,  Athens, Carthage or Constantinople. Named and renamed throughout its 6000 to 8000 years of existence, there is documentary evidence that the name Plovdiv has existed since the 5th century AD. Accompanied by our guide, Emin Saatci, a native of the area, and an experienced guide, our group set off on foot to explore the old town.

The Dzumaya Mosque

Our first remnant of the Ottoman era was the Dzumaya Mosque, originally built in the second half of the 14th century. Unfortunately, it burned down soon after, but was rebuilt by Murad II in 1435. It underwent a further reconstruction in 1784, under the reign of Abdul Hamid, when it took the form we see today.

I noticed this perpendicular sundial on the wall of the mosque.
The Turkish architect, Sinan, is credited with designing this type of sundial.

We continued to walk through the quaint old town of Plovdiv, past historic buildings, to the house of Nikola Nedkovich. This old Ottoman house is now a museum. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos there...

...but the caretaker did allow us to take a photo of the original key to the house.

Hisar Kapiya, in Plovdiv Old Town; a gate in the ancient
wall of the fortress, possibly dating from the 2nd century AD

Walking past Balabanov House, Plovdiv's historic museum
Another beautiful, old wooden house we visited, was built for Stepan Hindlyan, a wealthy merchant. This house was constructed between 1835 and 1840, and is richly decorated both inside and out.

By the time we reached our last stop, the Bachkovo Monastery, it was closed. But, thanks to Hayri, our Mr Fixit in Bulgaria, they opened up especially for us.

The Bachkovo Monastery
Here, we were allowed to take photos, only if there was a person in the frame too. The monastery was established in 1083 by Grigorii Bakurian, and the architecture combines Byzantine, Georgian and Bulgarian cultures, as it came under different rulers through the ages.

The beautiful courtyard of the Bachkovo Monastery
The richly decorated walls of the monastery.
We finally reached Smolyan, and our hotel, where we enjoyed a welcome dinner, before I fell exhausted into bed for a dreamless sleep, to prepare for the next days offerings.

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I couldn't resist this one!