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Dates of visit:
September 1 - 20, 2010

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Trip Highlights:
 Meeting Cousins
 Historic Bulgaria
 Roman Ruins
 Byzantine/Turkish
 Nature Reserves
 Rock Churches
 Ethnographic
 Monasteries
 Fortifications
 Palaces
 Black Sea Coast

 Kachina

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Bulgaria - Part 0 - Introduction, Portrait & History of Bulgaria
Bulgaria - Part 1 - Rock Curches, Rusenski Lom, Medieval City of Cherven
Bulgaria - Part 2 - Nove, Ulpia Eskus, Belogradchik Fortress, Vratsa
Bulgaria - Part 4 - Nesebar, Balchik, Kaliarka, Yailata Reserve, Tsarevets Hills
Romania - Part 1 - Arges Monastery, Poenari Fortress, Alpine Pass
Romania - Part 2 - Sibiu, Fortified Churches of Biertan and Viscri
Exploring Bulgaria's Cultural Highlights
City of Sofia

Sofia is the capital and largest city of Bulgaria and the 47th largest city by population in the European Union, with 1.4 million people living in the Capital Municipality. It is located in western Bulgaria, at the foot of Mount Vitosha, and is the administrative, cultural, economic, and educational center of the country.

Sofia at Night(Image: Sofia at night). Prehistoric settlements were excavated in the center of the present city, near the royal palace, as well as in outer districts such as Slatina and Obelya. The well-preserved town walls (especially their substructures) from antiquity date back before the 7th century BC, when Thracians established their city next to the most important and highly respected mineral spring, still functioning today. Sofia has had several names in the different periods of its existence, and remnants from the city's past can still be seen today alongside modern landmarks.

Ancient fortress of Serdica(Image: Ancient fortress of Serdica). Sofia was first mentioned in the sources as Serdica in relation to Marcus Licinius Crassus' campaigns in 59 BC. The name Serdica or Sardica was popular in Latin, Ancient Greek and Byzantine Greek sources from Antiquity and the Middle Ages; it was related to the local Celtic tribe of the Serdi. The name was last used in the 19th century in a Bulgarian text, Service and hagiography of Saint George the New of Sofia. Another of Sofia's names, Triaditsa, was mentioned in Greek medieval sources. The Bulgarian name Sredets, which is related to sreda (middle), first appeared in the 11th-century Vision of Daniel and was widely used in the Middle Ages. The current name Sofia was first used in the 14th-century Vitosha Charter of Bulgarian tsar Ivan Shishman or in a Ragusan merchant's notes of 1376; it refers to the famous Hagia Sophia Church, an ancient church in the city named after the Christian concept of the Holy Wisdom. Although Sredets remained in use until the late 18th century, Sofia gradually overcame the Slavic name in popularity. During the Ottoman rule it was called Sofya by the Turkish population.

The city's name is pronounced by Bulgarians with a stress on the 'o', in contrast with the tendency of foreigners to place the stress on 'i'. Interestingly, the female given name "Sofia" is pronounced by Bulgarians with a stress on the 'i'.

Antiquity

Sofia was originally a Thracian settlement called Serdica, or Sardica, possibly named after the Celtic tribe Serdi.[4] For a short period during the 4th century BC, the city was ruled by Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great.

Around BC 29, Serdica was conquered by the Romans. It became a municipium, or centre of an administrative region, during the reign of Emperor Trajan (98-117) and was renamed Ulpia Serdica.

It seems that the first written mention of Serdica was made by Ptolemy (around 100 AD). Serdica (Sardica) expanded, as turrets, protective walls, public baths, administrative and cult buildings, a civic basilica, an amphitheatre - the City Council (Boulé), a large Forum, a big Circus (Theatre), etc. were built.

The Church of St. George, dating back to 4th century(Image: The Church of St. George, dating back to 4th century). When Emperor Diocletian divided the province of Dacia into Dacia Ripensis (at the banks of the Danube) and Dacia Mediterranea, Serdica became the capital of Dacia Mediterranea. The city subsequently expanded for a century and a half, it became a significant political and economical center, moreso - it became one of the first Roman cities where Christianity was recognized as an official religion (Emperor Galerius). So it was only very natural that Constantine the Great called Serdica (Sardica) "My Rome". In 343 AD, the Council of Sardica was held in the city, in a church located where the current 6th century Church of Saint Sofia was later built. Serdica was of moderate size, but magnificent as an urban concept of planning and architecture, with abundant amusements and an active social life. It flourished during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, when it was surrounded with great fortress walls whose remnants can still be seen today.

The city was destroyed by the Huns in 447 but was rebuilt by Justinian and for a while called Triaditsa or Sredets by the slavonic tribes.

Middle Ages

Sofia in mid 19th century(Image: Sofia in mid 19th century). Sofia first became part of the First Bulgarian Empire during the reign of Khan Krum in 809, after a long siege. Afterwards, it was known by the Bulgarian name "Sredets" and grew into an important fortress and administrative centre. After the fall of North-eastern Bulgaria under John I Tzimiskes' armies in 971, the Bulgarian Patriarch Damyan chose Sofia for his seat in the next year. After a number of unsuccessful sieges, the city fell to the Byzantine Empire in 1018, but once again was incorporated into the restored Bulgarian Empire at the time of Tsar Ivan Asen I.

The royal palace in 1917.(Image: The royal palace in 1917.). From the 12th to the 14th century, Sofia was a thriving center of trade and crafts. It is possible that it had been called by the common population Sofia (meaning "wisdom" in Ancient Greek) about 1376 after the Church of St. Sofia. However, in different testimonies it was called both "Sofia" and "Sredets" until the end of the 19th century. In 1382, Sofia (Turkish: Sofya) was seized by the Ottoman Empire in the course of the Bulgarian-Ottoman Wars - after a long siege the city was captured with treason. The new name "Sofia" replaced the old one ("Sredets"), after the liberation of the city from Turkish rule in 1878. Quite some time after 1878 there was a strong will, expressed by Bulgarian committees, to keep the name Sredets, but the Russian administration accepted Sofia.

Sofia in 1920(Image: Sofia in 1920). After the campaign of Wladyslaw III of Poland in 1443 towards Sofia, the city's Christian elite was annihilated and became the capital of the Ottoman province (beylerbeylik) of Rumelia for more than 4 centuries, which encouraged many Turks to settle there. In the 16th century, Sofia's urban layout and appearance began to exhibit a clear Ottoman style, with many mosques, fountains and hamams (bathhouses). During that time the town had a population of around 7,000.

The town was seized for several weeks by Bulgarian haiduks in 1599. In 1610 the Vatican established the See of Sofia for Catholics of Rumelia, which existed until 1715 when most Catholics had emigrated. In the 16th century there were 126 Jewish households, and there has been a synagogue in Sofia since 967. She was the center of Sofya Eyalet (1826-1864).

End of Ottoman Rule

Sofia in 1934(Image: Sofia in 1934). Sofia was taken by Russian forces on January 4, 1878, during the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78, and became the capital of the autonomous Principality of Bulgaria in 1879, which became the Kingdom of Bulgaria in 1908. It was proposed as a capital by Marin Drinov and was accepted as such on 3 April 1879. By the time of its liberation the population of the city was 11,649. For a few decades after the liberation the city experienced large population growth mainly from other regions of the country.

Sofia in 1944 after the Air Raids as photographed by Tsanko Lavrenov(Image: Sofia in 1944 after the Air Raids as photographed by Tsanko Lavrenov). During World War II, Sofia was bombed by Allied aircraft in late 1943 and early 1944. As a consequence of the invasion of the Soviet Red Army, Bulgaria's government, which was allied with Germany, was overthrown.





Republic of Bulgaria

The National Assembly Square.(Image: The National Assembly Square.). The transformations of Bulgaria into a People's Republic in 1946 and Republic of Bulgaria marked significant changes in the city's appearance. The population of Sofia expanded rapidly due to migration from the country. Whole new residential areas were built in the outskirts of the city, like Druzba, Mladost and Liulin.

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Rila Monastery

Rila MonasteryThe Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, better known as the Rila Monastery (Bulgarian: Rilski manastir) is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. The Rila monastery lies in the very Rila mountain, at 1,147 meters above sea level. It is situated 117km away from Sofia to the south, and is no doubt the most popular tourist site among all monasteries in Bulgaria equally for its size, natural surroundings, architecture, wall paintings and ancient history. The monastery is flanked by the small mountain rivers of Rilska and Drushlyavitsa and is only 4 hours walking distance from the Malyovitsa peak, rising at 2,729 meters above sea level. The highest peak of the Rila mountain, Mousala (2925 meters), which is also the Balkan peninsula's highest point, is further away at about 8 hours' walk. The monastery offers a great view to the surrounding peaks of the mountain and represents a developed tourist sight with all the accompanying facilities such as souvenir shops, restaurants and inns. (Image source: Rila Monastery, Vyara Kandjeva/Antoniy Handjiysky, Borina Press).

Founded in the 10th century, the Rila Monastery is regarded as one of Bulgaria's most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments and it is a key tourist attraction for both Bulgaria and Southeastern Europe as a whole. The monastery is depicted on the reverse of the Bulgarian 1 lev banknote, issued in 1999.

History ... It is traditionally thought that the monastery was founded by the hermit St. Ivan of Rila, whose name it bears, during the rule of Tsar Peter I (927-968). The hermit actually lived in a cave without any material possessions not far from the monastery's location, while the complex was built by his students, who came to the mountains to receive their education.

Ever since its creation, the Rila Monastery has been supported and respected by the Bulgarian rulers. Large donations were made by almost every tsar of the Second Bulgarian Empire up until the Ottoman Conquest, making the monastery a cultural and spiritual center of Bulgarian national consciousness that reached its apogee from the 12th to the 14th century.

Tower of HrelyuThe Rila Monastery was re erected at its present place by a local feudal lord named Hrelyu Dragovola during the 14th century. The oldest buildings in the complex date from this period were-the Tower of Hrelyu (1334-1335) and a small church just next to it (1343). The bishop's throne and the rich-engraved gates of the monastery also belong to the time. However, the arrival of the Ottomans in the end of the 14th century was followed by numerous raids and a destruction of the monastery in the middle of the 15th century. (Image source: Rila Monastery, Borina Press).

Thanks to donations by the Russian Orthodox Church and more precisely the Rossikon monastery of Mount Athos, the Rila Monastery was rebuilt in the end of the 15th century by three brothers from the region of Kyustendil, who moved Ivan of Rila's relics into the complex.

Tower of HrelyuThe complex acted as a depository of Bulgarian language and culture in the ages of foreign rule. During the time of the Bulgarian National Revival (18th - 19th century), it was destroyed by fire in 1833 and then reconstructed between 1834 and 1862 with the help of wealthy Bulgarians from the whole country, under the famous architect Alexi Rilets. The erection of the residential buildings began in 1816, while a belfry was added to the Tower of Hrelyu in 1844. Neofit Rilski founded a school in the monastery during the period.

The monastery complex, regarded as one of the foremost masterpieces of Bulgarian National Revival architecture, was declared a national historical monument in 1976 and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Since 1991 it has been entirely subordinate to the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

On 25 May 2002, Pope John Paul II, the Slavic Pope visited Rila monastery during his pilgrimage to Bulgaria. He was greeted by the Monastery's igumen, Bishop Ioan, who had been an observer at the Second Vatican Council.

Architecture ... The whole complex occupies an area of 8,800 sq. m. and is rectangular in form, centered around the inner yard (3,200 sq. m), where the tower and the main church are situated.

Main ChurchMain church ... The main church of the monastery was erected in the middle of the 19th century. Its architect is Pavel Ioanov, who worked on it from 1834 to 1837. The church has five domes, three altars and two side chapels, while one of the most precious items inside is the gold-plated iconostasis, famous for its wood-carving, the creation of which took five years to four handicraftsmen. The frescoes, finished in 1846, are the work of many masters from Bansko, Samokov and Razlog, including the famous brothers Zahari Zograf and Dimitar Zograf. The church is also home to many valuable icons, dating from the 14th to the 19th century.

Residential part ... The four-storey (not counting the basement) residential part of the complex consists of 300 chambers, four chapels, an abbot's room, a kitchen (noted for its uncommonly large vessels), a library housing 250 manuscripts and 9,000 old printed matters, and a donor's room. The exterior of the complex, with its high walls of stone and little windows, resembles a fortress more than a monastery.

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Trigrad Gorge

Trigrad GorgeThe Trigrad Gorge is a canyon of vertical marble rocks in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria's very southern parts. The gorge encloses the course of the Trigrad River that plunges into the Devil's Throat cave and 530 m further comes out as a large karst spring. It later flows in to the Byunovska River.

The gorge's west wall reaches 300 m in height, while the east one extends up to 300-350 m. In the beginning, the distance between the two walls is about 300 m, but reaches about 100 m in the north. The Trigrad Gorge is located 1.2 km from the village of Trigrad at 1,450 above sea level and has a total length of 7 km, of which the real part is 2-3 km.


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Shiroka Laka Folklore Reserve

Shiroka Laka Shiroka Laka (Bulgarian: "wide meander") is a village in the very south of Bulgaria, located in Smolyan municipality, Smolyan Province. It is a proclaimed architectural and folklore reserve and lies in the central Rhodope Mountains, 23 northwest of Smolyan, 16 km from Pamporovo and 22 southeast of Devin.

The dominant and traditional religion in the village is Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the population is 573 (as of September 2005). Shiroka Laka lies at 1,206 m above sea level. The village has existed at this place since the 17th century and was founded by Bulgarians fleeing from the forcible Islamization conducted by the Ottoman authorities of the time in the Rhodopes.

Architecture ... Shiroka Laka is famous for its authentic Rhodopean houses set in tiers on both banks of the local river. The old houses were designed in the characteristic architectural style of the Rhodopes by the noted local building masters, and feature two storeys, oriels, built-in cupboards and a small cellar with a hiding place. The thick white walls hide the yard from the outsiders' eyes. The yard is small and slab-covered and has a typical stone drinking fountain in the middle. Some of the most famous houses are those of the Zgurov, Uchikov and Grigorov families.

The local Church of the Holy Mother of God was constructed in 1834 for 38 days according to the legend. It boasts an authentic iconostasis, possibly painted by apprentices of the brothers Dimitar and Zahari Zograf from Samokov, or even by the brothers themselves. The old school, built in 1835, is located near the church. There is one more church in the village, the Church of St Nicholas.

Culture ... Shiroka Laka is known not only for its old Bulgarian architecture, but also for its singing tradition and the kaba gaida, a local type of bagpipe. Some of the most prominent singers of Rhodopean music stem from the village, and many of the local families are well familiar with the style. A secondary school for folklore songs and instruments was founded in 1972.

On the first Sunday of March, the village also hosts one of the best known kukeri (specific Bulgarian type of carnival) celebrations in the country, Pesponedelnik as it is called. On that day, people dressed as folklore monsters, carrying wooden swords and painted red, dance around the village to drive the evil spirits out of the homes and the peoples' souls. Their costumes are decorated with bulbs of garlic, beans and peppers and they wear a belt with characteristic Rhodope bells attached to it.


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Plovdiv Ancient Theatre

Plovdiv Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria, located on both banks of the Maritsa River and is situated in the southern part of the Plovdiv Plain. The city grew around seven hills, which the millennia have formed throughout the valley of the river. Because of these seven hills, Plovdiv is often referred to in Bulgaria as "The City of the Seven Hills". Plovdiv is among the most ancient settlements in Europe with history of more than 8 000 years, being contemporary to the legendary Troy and Mycenae. The city is located on an important crossroads, where strategic roads met in ancient times, connecting Europe with the East, the Baltic region with the Mediterranean, the Black Sea with the Adriatic Sea.

The beginning of the millennia-long development of Plovdiv is referred to the Neolithic period (VI mil. B.C.), when the first prehistoric settlements appeared on the Nebet, Taksim and Dzhambaz hills. One of the earliest settlements was located on the Nebet hill, where archeologists have uncovered 12 cultural layers in a depth of 7 meters. It has established that in the end of the second mil. B.C. the whole three-hill area was already settled by the Thracians, who fortified the settlement with stonewalls and named it Eumolpia.

In 342 B.C. Philip II of Macedonia conquered the town and named it Philipopolis (the town of Philip),In the beginning of the Common Era Thracian lands were included within the boundaries of the Roman Empire and the town became a metropolis (main city) of the newly-established in 46 A.D. Roman province of Thrace. The Romans greatly admired the unique and beautiful location and named it Trimontium -city of the three hills. There was vast construction of temples, theaters, and roads and Trimontium reached unseen economic and cultural growth.

After the fourth c. the Roman Empire divided and Trimontium remained in Byzantine territory. In the sixth c. the Slays appeared in the region, naming the city Paldin, from which the contemporary name Plovdiv is derived. The city was conquered by the Bulgarian Khan Krum in 812 and during the following centuries it went from Bulgarian to Byzantine rule on numerous occasions.

Plovdiv During the Ottoman invasion on the Balkan Peninsula in the fourteenth c. Plovdiv was conquered and received a new name - Felibe. The architectural look of the town changed - there was mass construction of mosques, baths, new administrative buildings, and Plovdiv acquired the typical Oriental look. Significant monuments of the Ottoman period are Dzhumaya Mosque, Imaret Mosque, Mevlevi Inn, Chifte hammam (Turkish baths - today the Center for Modern Art), as well as the Clock Tower on Sabat hill from the sixteenth c., which is considered to be the first clock in the Ottoman empire.

During the time of Bulgarian Revival Plovdiv grew into a major economic and cultural center, comparable to Istanbul, Thessaloniki and Edirne. The town was liberated by Russian troops on January 16, 1878 and was pronounced capital of the vassal province of Eastern Amelia. On September 6, 1885, the unification of the Kingdom of Bulgaria and East Rurnella was announced here.

After the Liberation, Plovdiv strengthened its position as the second biggest Bulgarian city and as a significant industrial, trade and cultural center. The city was growing fast and soon acquired a European look. In 1956 the old city area, located on the Nebet, Dzambaz and Taksim hills, was pronounced architectural-historical reserve "Ancient Plovdiv", which walls up with the modern vision of the city, in a quite unique and ,impressive way.

The antique forum from the first-to-second c. is the largest such complex on Bulgarian territory. In ancient times, it was the center of the political and social life in the city. The square is 99 meters wide and 110 meters long, it's paved with rocks and surrounded by marble porticos and shops. In its northern part were situated administrative buildings, related to the political, religious, and cultural life of the city. Visitors can see the renovated building of the antique Odeon (second-fifth c.), which hosted theater performances, as well as the meetings of the city council, There are traces of the former rich decorations - marble fragments, columns, inscriptions, etc. Today the Odeon is an operating antique stage with about 350 seats, intended for small musical and literature performances.

Plovdiv Ancient Theatre The magnificent theater from the time of Emperor Trajan (53-117) is one of the most fascinating representative building in Plovdiv. The stage was richly decorated with statues, friezes, cornices, etc. The theater used to have 28 rows with seats, divided in two floors and used to accommodate between 5 and 7 thousand people. Today the building is partially restored (with about 3,500 seats) and is one of the most attractive places for outdoor events. The antique theater is an inevitable part of Plovdiv's cultural life - a symbol of the town, where the overflow of different ages is so strong.


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Gallery - Plovdiv Ancient Theatre
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Plovdiv + Ancient Theatre Plovdiv + Ancient Theatre Plovdiv + Ancient Theatre
Plovdiv + Ancient Theatre Plovdiv + Ancient Theatre Plovdiv + Ancient Theatre

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