After 12 days of cruising from Venice to the Black Sea and back to Istanbul, in total luxury, the time had come to discover two more countries of the old Eastern Block, countries that found themselves left behind the Iron Curtain, for so many years, Bulgaria and Romania.
Even though I have visited many areas of the old Communist Bloc, I was not prepared for the interesting panorama and ancient historic treasures that were in store for me, the amazing mix between East and West, Europe and Orient!
Bulgaria is the smaller of the two countries and has gone through the troubled Communist Era better than its neighbour. Sofia is the capital, a very beautiful European small capital, with all the trimmings such as a host of eateries, cafes, a flea market etc. The 5th Century St Sofia Basilica is “in the shadow” of the magnificent Alexander Nevski Cathedral, but it is nonetheless one of the most important sights and symbols of this capital: St Sophia Church provided the name change of the medieval city of Sredets (ancient Serdica) to Sofia, in the late Middle Ages. The Basilica is dedicated to the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia Istanbul!).
Plovdiv is about two hours South East of Sofia and is the second-largest city in Bulgaria. It is an ancient city dating back 8000 years built around seven hills and it was controlled by the Romans. What a sight to stroll through the Old Town seeing its 18-19th Century Bulgarian City architecture, Orthodox Churches, Muslim Mosques and a Catholic Cathedral! And then, to my surprise, there is the 2nd Century Antique Roman Amphitheatre “patched” on one of the seven hills - breathtaking! The Old Plovdiv with its colourful special houses nowadays is an original living museum showing so vividly the undying values of the cities six millennia long history! A mention needs to also go the the Etnographic Museum, one of the most interesting in the country. But let us not forget: Plovdiv is an old trade centre, hosting such events as an International Trade Fair since 1892 (one of the biggest in the Balkans), the Festival “A stage on a crossroad” amongst more.
Heading North is the Valley of Roses an area which has had a rose-growing industry for centuries and which produces 85 percent of the World’s Rose Oil. But do not expect a World Class or historical presentation! No doubt wonderful when the roses are in bloom, but in general very basic, except for the produce!
On the way to the Valley, SHIPKA is a must on an itinerary, for the visit of the Memorial Church, or better known as the Church of the Nativity. It was erected after the Liberation as a monument to both Russian and Bulgarian dead, during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877/78. Its location is South of the Stara Planina Mountains and its golden domes and the green and pink coloured façade look amazing against the mountains! The 50 m high spire houses 17 bells!
Further on the road North lies the City of Kasanlak, close by is a UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Thracian City of Seuthopolis, with the Tomb of Seuthus III. The Historical Museum Iskra is a must!
Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria’s medieval capital and one of the oldest settlements in the country has a history of more than 5 millennia; the first traces of human presence date from the 3rd millennium BC on Trapezitsa Hill, one of the three hills that the town is built on. The Town is a living museum and the history is well documented it the nightly Sound and Light Show.
A good hour’s drive North is the mighty Danube, the border between the two countries. The Border Crossing Town of Ruse leads to Romania and its capital Bucharest. This European Capital with some 3 Million Inhabitants was called “Little Paris”, in the early 1900! Not surprising though when you travel through the wide tree-lined boulevards you are reminded one of the glorious Belle Eqopue!
Bucharest is today a bustling Metropolis. The recent history of Bucharest – and Romania – is nothing short of deeply troubled, and little shows the contrasts better than Calea Victoriei (Victory Avenue) linking the Arch de Triumphe with the monsterous Ceausescu Palace second largest only to the Pentagon! Only after the terrible Civil War in 1989 was Romania given the opportunity to re-establish itself as a World identity.
A few hours North of the capital lies the Carpati Mountain range, Romania’s Ski area, and on the way Sinaia and Peles Castle – a mountain area that made the German born King Carol I of Romania and his wife Elisabeth feel at home! Peles Castle could be in Bavaria! The Royal Couple kept well in touch with the rest of Europe, and in particular with Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. Sinaia also has a 17th Century Monastery. Bran Castle is not far, and thus we enter the World of Count Dracula! Whilst Dracula is a fictional character in the novel, the people of Sighisoara will tell you differently: their local by the name of Vlad Dracula was born there in 1431 but resided and became the ruler of Walachia – and this despite the incredible legends that surround Transylvania! Sighisoara, by the way, is worth more than a quick stop on the way through: founded by Transylvanian Saxons during the 12th Century (when it was called Schassburg) is still one of the most beautiful and best-preserved medieval towns of Europe! It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with 9 towers, cobbled streets, burgher hourses and churches which rivals the streets of Old Prague and Vienna!
Let me go back to the Southern Carpathian Mountains, and we find Brasov – Kronstadt at the time – which means Corona, Crown City (coat of arms of the city is a crown with oak roots). Brasov is the second-largest city in Romania, with a fortification around the city, with several towers that were maintained by different craft guilds. Brasov is also a big industrial center and was even more so during the Communist area. The Black Church is tha largest gothic church in Romania, with also one of the largest organs in Eastern Europe.
The German influence in Transylvania is enormous: the seven walled citadels populated by the Saxons were known in German as the Siebenburgen. The other Siebenburgen citadels were: Bistita (Bistritz), Cluj (Klausenburg), Medias (Mediasch), Sebes (Muhlbach), Sibiu (Hermannstadt) and Sighisoara (Schassburg).
And then Sibiu, the largest and wealthiest of the seven walled citadels – the guilds paid for the construction of both impressive building and fortifications for protection – the Old Town retains the grandeur of the earlier days and there is still a distinctly Germanic feeling. Sections of the wall still stand, narrow streets, steep-roofs 17th Century buildings with gable overhangs, church-dominated squares such as Great Square and Little Square! Cross the Liar’s Bridge, and another mention needs go to to the Bruckental Art Museum, one of the best in Romania!
The way back to Bucharest leads past Cozia Monastery built in 1388 and one of the country’s most valuable monuments of medieval architecture. The area of Wallachian’s old capital was Curtea de Arges, with its 6th Century Monastery, Dedication Day Assumption of the Virgin 15 August. The Monastery houses some very valuable paintings, and in the pronaoes, some of the country’s rulers are interred such as for instance King Carol I and his Wife Queen Elisabeth, King Ferdinand and Queen Maria and King Carol II.
If you are interested in History and Art, and if the mix between the West and the Orient fascinates you, a visit to Bulgaria and Romania is well worth a trip! However, in order to get the full benefit, it is most important to only join a very small group and professional local guides, in fact the best option is a private tour and private guide which makes it so much more satisfying!