FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Cats of Varna

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

Take a wander through the streets of Varna and you are highly likely to find yourself in the company of a feline friend or two. The street cat population in Varna had been steadily increasing in the opening years of the 21st century. I haven’t see any recent figures, but a census in 2016 recorded 2000 stray cats and 630 stray dogs in the municipality. Through my tourist eyes it was rather lovely to see the cats everywhere, but I can appreciate that the local perspective might be a little different.

One of Varna’s delightful cats

On our visit, it was rare to turn a corner and not find five cats waiting on the other side. It was a delight to see cats chasing birds through the Roman ruins, appropriating museum exhibits as perches (such as a boat and gantry in the Naval museum) or the rather charming sight of a cat waiting patiently alongside an angler for the occasional fishy treat from the end of a fishing rod.

Thankfully, we didn’t see the famous green cat of a few years back, apparently the result of a cat sleeping on tins of powdered paint and steadily absorbing more and more of the colouring. It’s never good to see a painted cat, no matter what the circumstances.


Socialist Varna: The Pantheon

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

Another striking sight from the Socialist era is the Pantheon in the Sea Garden, officially titled the Monument of the Fallen Fighters against Fascism and Capitalism from the City of Varna and Varna District in the period 1923-1944 (Паметник на загиналите борци против фашизма и капитализма от град Варна и Варненски окръг в периода 1923-1944 г.).

The Pantheon

The Pantheon was initially constructed as an ossuary to hold the remains of the fighters who fell between 1923 and 1944. Their remains had originally been buried on Turna Tepe hill, where the massive park monument now stands, but re-located to the new location on the completion of the structure in September 1958. However, there was general agreement that the new structure was insufficiently impressive. As a result, new designs were drawn up for a sculpture of two fighters to sit atop the structure – one carrying on the fight alongside his wounded comrade. The revised monument was inaugurated on 6th November 1959.

Underneath this eye catching composition a series of seven scenes depicting the fighters in their struggle against fascism are presented on stone reliefs around the monument. It’s a little hard to make out some of the scenes, but these seemed to range from the sabotage of railway lines to an enthusiastic welcome home (or is that a stoic farewell?) for a soldier. I’m sure there must be a more accurate description of what the scenes actually show but I certainly couldn’t find one.

Today, the eternal flame no longer burns and the honour guard has long since gone. The Pantheon no longer holds the remains of the fighters, which were returned to their families for burial in 1995. Nevertheless, after some years of crumbling the authorities have recognised the importance of the monument, allocating money for repairs and illumination.

For many, the idea of spending money on the Pantheon and the other communist era monuments is appalling, arguing that they should be turned to dust. Others take the view that such a dark history needs to be remembered through these monuments, with a bit of explanation, lest history be allowed to repeat.

Socialist Varna: Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

The Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship in Varna is an astonishing structure, constructed by 27,000 workers using 10,000 tonnes of concrete and 1,000 tonnes of re-inforced steel between 1974 and 1978. It was a design that was 20 years in the making, from the first design competition to the opening ceremony.

It is hard to imagine how impressive (or oppressive) this monument must once have seemed when it first appeared on the horizon. The authorities picked their spot well, building the monument on the Turna Tepe Hill where the Russian army positioned its headquarters during the 1828-29 Russo-Turkish wars. It is visible from a long way out and can clearly be seen even as far away as the lighthouse guarding the entrance to Varna’s port.

Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

On our visit we walked from the centre of town, through the Sea Garden. At one time you could have crossed the busy roads that surround the monument using a pedestrian underpass but this has long been shuttered off and the steps down quite overgrown. Once we made our way over we began our climb of the 300+ step ‘ladder of victory’ to take a closer look. In theory the sun should illuminate the monument best in late morning, lining up perfectly along the staircase, but we were a bit unlucky with the clouds.

The concrete steps are steadily deteriorating, missing chunks here and there, but still perfectly climbable. Along the way we could see some of the 180 floodlights that used to illuminate the monument, quietly rusting in the undergrowth. In similar fashion, the loudspeakers that used to blast out Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad) look they have been long silent. The eternal flame, once fed by four gas cylinders below, has been extinguished and the bronze looted.

The rusting loudspeakers

The sculptors Evgeni Baramov and Alyosha Kafedzhiyski worked with the architect Kamen Goranov to create the monument. On one side you have four Soviet soldiers bearing arms and on the opposite wing you have three Bulgarian mothers greeting them with bread and salt. It is a striking, if somewhat brutal, composition.

Today, the once immaculate lettering between these two sculptural compositions is falling apart and quite indecipherable from what is left. One of the soldiers has been daubed with red paint in recent times and graffiti surrounds the lower part of the monument.

At one time you could enter the monument and climb the internal stairs to the top to inspect the figures at close quarters and get an even more impressive view across Varna. However, the staircase (located through an opening inside the arch, on the left hand side) is now protected by a locked gate and every other opening is barred by metal grills.

A couple of surveillance cameras paid for by the Varna Regional Administration now keep an eye from the top of the monument. Although this was a disappointment, it is an encouraging sign that there is now more interest in the future of the monument and perhaps this could lead to action on the proposals to adapt the monument into a cultural space.

A view of the monument from the port

We were far from alone on our visit. I reckon around a dozen visitors were making their way up and down the steps, mostly fitness fanatics and joggers. The only exception were a couple of old ladies who slowly made their way up the steps and settled down at the top underneath the watchful gaze of the four concrete Soviet soldiers. At the end of our visit we headed back to the main road and took a 409 bus (runs every 15 minutes) back to the centre of town.

I read a few sources before my visit, but one of the most interesting was the account from The Bohemian blog detailing a couple of visits to the interior in 2012 and the associated entry on the terrific Monumentalism website.


Eight highlights from Varna

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

On our long weekend in Varna we made it to a selection of the tourist attractions in the city, but by no means all. These are my personal highlights…

The Archaeological Museum

The importance of Varna (or Odessos as it was known) in the ancient world is really apparent as you explore the rich collection of the archaeological museum.

The exhibits in the collection of Thracian gold are astonishingly intricate, including a couple of beautiful gold appliqué horned bulls. At well over 6000 years old these are the oldest known gold treasures in the world. It’s no wonder to learn that the ‘Varna Gold’ has toured the museums of the world in the 47 years since it was discovered at an archaeological dig at the Varna Chalcolithic necropolis. Alongside this, there are other exquisite exhibits from the time, such as a clay anthropomorphic head.

The Archaeological Museum

The first floor rooms take you on a chronological tour through the periods of Thracian, Greek and Roman history. There are so many wonderful finds that it is hard to pick out individual items from the long list of highlights, but these would include a panther shaped fountain from the late 5th/early 6th century; three animal headed drinking cups (rhyta) from the Borovo treasure; ceramic lamps in the form of theatrical masks from the 3rd century; a limestone altar with a striking horned bulls head dedicated to the Thracian horsemen from the 3rd century; and a bronze votive hand from the 1st/2nd century.

One of the most surprising (perhaps shocking) exhibits was an incredibly graphic, crude and very rude relief from a brothel at the Roman baths dated to the 2nd/3rd century. I would blush to describe it in any more detail than that.

As if this was not enough, the upper floor includes a striking collection of Bulgarian icons including a good many that depict the fate of martyrs in gruesome detail.

It’s an absolute bargain at 10 leva for admission (approximately £5 at current exchange rates).

Roman baths

The Roman Baths of Odessos (2nd-3rd century) make an impressive sight, despite their ruined state. In their brief spell of active use these were the fourth largest public baths in the European provinces of the Roman empire, taking up 7000 square metres (the largest three were located in Rome and Trier). As the empire fell into decline these maintenance-heavy baths were abandoned and the building materials robbed to build a smaller, more economical, set of baths.

The fourth largest Roman baths in Europe

Today, the baths sit in a residential area, ringed by apartment blocks. You can get a good view from the exterior fence but its worth paying the modest admission charge of 4 leva (approximately £2) to get a closer look at the fallen building blocks. Unlike many Roman sites there are few explanations here but plentiful illustrations showing you what each chamber would have looked like in use.

As an added bonus, the local cats treat the Roman baths as their playground and could be seen stalking birds and each other through the grounds.

Sea Garden

The Sea Garden is said to be the largest landscaped park in the Balkans, occupying a four kilometre stretch of prime coastline with a footprint of 90,000 square metres. It’s much loved by the local population, which generated a campaign to protect it when development was threatened. There are museums, restaurants, fairground rides and monuments inside the park but it’s just as lovely doing nothing more than taking a relaxed walk.

Monument to Yuri Gagarin in the Sea Garden

Among the sights to look out for in the park are the Pantheon, a monument to the fallen fighters of 1923-1944; a bust of Yuri Gagarin; an alley of trees planted by cosmonauts; and a monument to the border guard (built in 1918 to remember the sacrifice of the fallen soldiers of the 15th Border Brigade of Varna’s Eighth Infantry Regiment). There’s even a wall made up of old Bulgarian motorbikes at one spot!

Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral

The Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral is one of the most familiar landmarks in the city centre. The first stone was laid by Prince Alexander I of Battenberg in 1880 and the structure was complete by 1885, but interior painting and decoration would go on for decades (for example, the colourful floor tiles were added in 1911 but the large stained glass windows were not added until 1960). It was modelled on a temple at the Peterhof Palace in St Petersburg.

The cathedral was mostly paid for by public donation and a lottery of 150 000 tickets. On top of this, Russian Tsar Nicholas II donated 45 icons in 1901.

Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral

Today, the cathedral sits at a major traffic junction so it seems perpetually busy as you approach (not that this is particularly visible in my photos – most of these were grabbed in the split-second change of lights). However, all that disappears when you step inside.

Naval Museum

The Bulgarian Navy is headquartered in Varna (in a rather splendid baroque building on Preslav Street) and there are many buildings around the city associated with this, including the Naval Academy, Naval Hospital and the Navy Club. The Naval Museum, established in 1923, focuses upon the maritime history of the country; the wars fought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and the modern navy.

Torpedo Boat 301 outside the Navy Museum

It’s a relatively compact museum so doesn’t take long to walk around, with some interesting exhibits on display in the yard outside and a little farther beyond. These include the torpedo boat Drazki (1907), torpedo boat 301 (1957), a Mil Mi-4A helicopter, a Kamov Ka-25Bsh helicopter, a S-2 Sopka coastal defence missile and the record-breaking Cor-Coroli yacht.

Admission comes to 5 leva (approximately £2.50 at current exchange rates) but a look inside the torpedo boat outside costs an additional 2 leva (though it didn’t seem to be open when we visited).

If you are interested in the modern fleet you can also get a good view of the Bulgarian Naval vessels in port from a wander along the pier to the Varna Seaport Lighthouse.

Park Monument

The Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship in Varna is an astonishing structure, constructed by 27,000 workers using 10,000 tonnes of concrete and 1,000 tonnes of re-inforced steel between 1974 and 1978. It was a design that was 20 years in the making, from the first design competition to the opening ceremony, but would only last 11 years in actual use. In its day it would have been an impressive place to visit, including a bookshop and library in its apparently spacious interior.

Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

Today, access is blocked off and the site is monitored by surveillance cameras. I’ve covered the detail of our visit in the next post, but in short – it’s well worth seeing close up to truly appreciate the extraordinary scale of this monument.

City Art Gallery of Boris Georgiev

I found it a little hard to pin down what we were seeing at the City Art Gallery in Varna, which seemed to be almost entirely taken over by displays of very recent art when we visited. However, there are some cracking pieces hidden among the halls, including sculptures by the likes of Ivan Funev.

The highlight of the collection is a hall containing 13 exquisite artworks donated by the family of Bulgarian artist Boris Georgiev (1888-1962). Although Boris was born in Varna his life took him far across the globe and into the orbit of some of the most famous individuals of the 20th century. His work was championed by Albert Einstein, who became a close friend, and he later became close with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru on his travels to India. Portraits of all three are among those exhibited here.

Sveta Paraskeva Petka

The colourful red and white striped church of St Petka is a little off the main tourist trail, but still only a short walk away from the Archaeological Museum. The construction of the church began in 1901 and the first service took place five years later. The interior is beautifully painted and the decoration is quite stunning.

Sveta Paraskeva Petka

Other sights we checked out that are worth seeking out included the Monument to Tsar Kaloyan, the Portal-Monument to the 8th Coastal Infantry Regiment of Varna and the church of St. Nicholas the Thaumaturge.

There are other attractions in Varna that we didn’t get around to, including the Retro Museum, the small Roman Baths, the Varna City History Museum, the Ethnographic museum and the Museum of National Revival. Beyond the confines of the city you can also find the Aladzha cave monastery and the natural wonder of the Petrified Forest (also referred to as the Stone Forest).


Three days in Varna

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

A long weekend in Varna on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast seemed like an increasingly bonkers idea the closer it approached, but turned out to be a perfectly timed opportunity for a break from an extremely busy autumn at work and an ideal escape from the ongoing madness of Brexit, which seems to have left no stone unturned in its quest to permeate everyday life in the UK.

Welcome to Varna

A big part of the appeal for me was the opportunity to see one of the most striking monuments from the socialist state, but there is plenty more to Varna. Must see sights range from a museum chock-full of archaeological discoveries to the strikingly beautiful Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral. I am also reliably informed by my better half that the many cats of Varna were a highlight too, though I can’t claim to have planned the visit on this basis!

Our visit came at the beginning of October, which is either the end of the Summer season or start of the Winter season as far as the main attractions go. This distinction is more important than I realised at the time of booking, as the winter schedule sees many museums close over the weekend and on Mondays. However, aside from that, it was rather nice to visit at this time of year. The sights were relatively quiet, the first signs of autumn colours were visible in the Sea Garden and there was no problem getting a table at any of the restaurants in the city centre.

The economical cost of a trip to Varna was a big plus. Over a long weekend we spent around £100 (excluding accommodation) on a couple of three course meals, all our museum tickets, bus fares and an ice cream or two. Our accommodation at the Rosslyn Dimyat hotel was on the luxurious side – a stay in an apartment larger than my flat in London cost no more than I would pay for a budget hotel in the UK. The hotel was situated in a quiet-ish location opposite the Sea Garden that might not suit everyone but plenty of more central options are available too.

The clocktower

Flights from the UK can be a bit tricky, with many scheduled to arrive in the early hours of the morning. We opted to fly with Austrian Airlines via Vienna which got us into Varna around midday.

On our arrival, in early afternoon, we took the 409 bus from the airport to the city centre. The transfer was quite straightforward once you worked it out. The same bus stop outside the terminal buildings serves buses in both directions so you have to pay attention to the bus signs, lest you make an unplanned trip to Aksakovo rather than Varna city centre. The 409 runs every 15 minutes and a ticket costs just 50 pence (1 leva) which you pay to an official on the bus rather than the driver (they tear off a paper ticket from a wad). Surely the cheapest airport transfer anywhere?


Three highlights from Plovdiv

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 25, 2017

Our final day in Plovdiv gave us the opportunity to explore the many small museums, art galleries and churches to be found on a wander of the cobbled streets of the old quarter and just a little further beyond. It’s a lovely area to walk around with historic features such as the Hisar Kapia, a medieval gate through the old fortress walls, amidst the former houses of the rich merchants’ class. I thought I would take a moment to share our top three sights in case it helps anyone else…

Hisar Kapia

House of Stepan Hindliyan

The symmetrical house of Stepan Hindliyan, built in 1834-35, is absolutely gorgeous with beautifully preserved original wooden ceilings, stunning wall paintings set into the alcoves (alafrangas) and a charming steam room. The owner was one of the four most distinguished Armenian families in the city and a merchant renowned for his trading connections with India. This house was just about the only property we visited where you could imagine the family life that must once have sounded within its walls.

As well as seeing the ornate family rooms we were able to take a look inside the service wing (notable for a mural of the main house above its entrance) to see a display of modern art at the time of our visit (with oddities like fish swimming in pink blancmange in an upturned umbrella and a security camera being attacked by an octopus!).

Hindliyan House

Zlatu Boyadzhiev Gallery

Since 1984 the former home of Dr Stoyan Chomakov in the old town has been home to a gallery of 70+ paintings by Zlatu Boyadzhiev (1903-1976), a Bulgarian artist that I was not at all familiar with but whose work I absolutely loved. Initially his work was neo-classical but a stroke in 1951 that paralysed the right side of his body prompted a change in style, adopting more grotesque imagery. I found much to like from both periods.

It is perhaps no surprise that I loved his painting ‘The Pernik Miners’ (1945) which brings to life a mine in a snow covered landscape, complete with black slag heaps and a mine train disappearing into a tunnel and a steaming loco in the distance ready to take loaded coal wagons away from the scene. It’s absolutely chock full of life from the line of workers climbing a snowy hill with pickaxes over their shoulders to a watchful worker leaning against a wagon. The closest I can get to describing it is a cross between Breugel and Lowry.

Klianti House

The Klianti House is one of the most stunning sights in Plovdiv, but as it only opened to the public at the end of June 2017 it is not yet featured in guide books and is currently languishing in 54th place out of 92 in the rankings of TripAdvisor. I didn’t know anything about it when we arrived in the city but was intrigued by the signs across the old town stating that the Klianti House was not included in the combined ticket. I assumed that meant it was rather special and decided to take a look!

It turns out that this two-storey house has been recognised as a building of national significance since 1949. It is said to be the oldest example of Bulgarian revival architecture in Plovdiv, dating to the mid-eighteenth century, and includes features that are not seen elsewhere. It was in particularly bad shape when the restoration efforts began 10 years ago and the works since then have cost 1.6 million lev. The results are stunning and amply demonstrate why this house is regarded as an architectural gem.

On the first floor of the property there are some incredibly ornate and surprisingly curvaceous decorative wooden ceilings with glass and gold elements. In addition to that, there are some beautiful painted alcoves (alfrangas), decorated wooden recesses (musandras) and two wonderful murals depicting Vienna and Constantinople in 1817. The decoration must surely be unrivaled in the city and it is one sight you do not want to miss…

It is well worth taking a moment to see the audio-visual presentation that shows how much effort went in to the restoration and just what a poor state the building was in, though I would suggest waiting until after you have seen the spectacular first floor rooms to avoid the spoilers. I have to confess that my pet hate is audio-visual presentations at attractions that show you everything before you get the chance to be wowed by seeing it for the first time!

One of Plovdiv’s 10,000 cats!

One other feature of our wander through the old town was the extraordinary number of cats that we encountered. You could barely walk a few paces down any street without coming across a cat tucked up asleep or a trio of playful kittens. It was a delight for us but a problem for the authorities who have 10,000 cats on their hands. One step they have taken is to fine anyone feeding the cats – no laughing matter when you consider that the fine for a second offence can exceed the minimum monthly wage in the country.

It was a pleasure to explore the old town even if the uneven cobbles did get a little more tiresome by the end of a long day of wandering! It often felt as though we were exploring a giant open air museum, particularly as most museums didn’t take that long to walk around.

Exterior decoration at Sveta Marina

I should end by saying that besides the museums, all of the churches in the old town were a delight to step into with their rich decoration. My favourite would have to be the mid-nineteenth church of Sveta Marina with its colourful decoration set against a striking blue backdrop. If you stop by don’t forget to take a look at the wooden bell tower hidden round the back!

Our old town wanderings completed our trip and we ended our day with a taxi-ride to the airport outside town for the late evening flight home to London very satisfied by the eclectic mix of sights that filled our weekend and the marvelous tastes of Bulgarian cooking that we sampled (at the restaurant at the Hotel Odeon and Hemingway respectively). Thank you for your hospitality Plovdiv!


The admission fees for the many museums of the old town are relatively modest, mostly 5 lev each, but the costs can soon rack up if you visit enough of them!

One way to manage the costs is to buy a combined ticket from one of the museums for 15 lev – this allows you to visit your choice of 5 of the eight sights included in this arrangement (Ancient Theatre, House of Luka Balabanov, House of Stepan Hindliyan, House of Nikola Nedkovich, Zlatu Boyadzhiev Gallery, Pharmacy Museum Hippocrates, House of Veren Stambolyan and the Early Christian Basilica). The tickets list all the sights you can choose from and a hole is punched each time you visit one.

The Klianti House is not included in the combined ticket but is well worth the 10 lev admission fee. I would go as far as to say that it is the most stunning of the small houses that you can visit.

Opening days for the buildings were a little different to those shown in our guide book so it’s worth double checking with the free guidebooks and maps on offer from the Tourist Information office in Plovdiv before planning a visit.


The hillock of fraternity

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 25, 2017

The hillock of fraternity is probably not on the itinerary of most visitors to Plovdiv, but I have always found the sculptural legacy of the communist era strangely fascinating. This one is certainly unusual.

On an aerial image of the site it looks just as though someone has embedded a fan into the landscape. You might think that it would have more visual impact when approached from the long ceremonial avenue, given the usual desire to make a big statement, but here the monument barely breaks the surface. It’s as if a small eruption has broken through the concrete pavement and been left un-repaired.

The Bratska Mogila is most commonly translated as ‘Brotherly Mound’ or ‘Hillock of Fraternity’

The architects of the monument were Lubomir Shinkov and Vladimir Rangelov who were commissioned by the City People’s Council in 1968 after a series of failed architectural competitions. Work started in 1971 and the site was ready for opening on 9th September 1974, the thirtieth anniversary of the Socialist Revolution in Bulgaria.

The monument is supposed to echo the Thracian burial mounds of ancient history, hence it’s low profile. Inside the pantheon the remains of 126 partisans from the Second World War are buried. Looking through the locked gates you can see the poor state of the 19 sculptural compositions by Lyubomir Dalchev. Five years after the memorial opened the sculptor emigrated to the US and the name plate marking his work was removed from the site.

The eternal flame at its heart of the monument has long been extinguished, the bronze elements of the site have been plundered and the exterior is covered in graffiti.


If I’m honest it isn’t the most rewarding walk you can take from the city centre, which for me involved skirting round the Bunardzik Hill and following the pathway through the park that runs alongside bul. Svoboda. The walk is bordered by high rise apartment blocks but seemed safe enough when I visited. The site itself was fairly quiet, bar for a few local youths with their skateboards.

The gates are usually locked so it’s unlikely that you will get a chance to take a close look. However, the memorial is in such poor condition that it’s just nice to see it all – given that some memorials in Bulgaria have already fallen victim to the ravages of time!

It’s worth seeing in the mid-morning sun when the sun is high enough to illuminate the interior. I made my visit later in the day which was fine, but probably not the best light to have picked!


Six sights from Roman Plovdiv

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 24, 2017

The roman city of Philippopolis, now Plovdiv, was an important urban centre in the province of Thracia and prospered for three centuries until the barbarians arrived.

A surprisingly rich array of Roman sights remains to this day, despite the repeated sacking of the city. A half day wander through the city is easily sufficient to cover most of these, though there are a few sites a little farther out (such as the aqueduct) that would take a little more time. You can follow an easy trail marked from the ‘On the roman path‘ leaflet provided by the local Tourist board.

1. The Bishop’s Basilica

The most fascinating of the Roman sites is the least accessible at present. The remains of the fifth century Bishop’s basilica, adjacent to the present day Catholic Cathedral of St Ludwig, were first discovered in the mid-1980s during work to construct an underpass but further exploration of the site only concluded a month or two back. The scale of the buiding can’t be overemphasised – this is the largest early Christian Basilica in Bulgaria and one of the largest in the entire Balkan region.

The mosaic floor at the Bishop’s Basilica

The ten month long archaeological dig to explore the northern apse came to a close this summer but during our visit it was possible to look down upon the site from the boundary fencing whilst the final clean-up and recording was taking place. You don’t often get to see such wondrous sites at this stage of their development so I relished the opportunity to observe.

The quality of the 2,000 square metres of mosaics was evident from a distance, including a stunning peacock medallion, whilst other discoveries included a fifth century stone baptismal vessel.

It is intended that a museum will be constructed over the site with the mosaics displayed in situ under a protective glass floor, presumably in a similar set-up to the nearby small basilica. I have seen reference to opening dates of 2018 and 2019 suggested in different articles. Once it is open I have no doubt that this will be a major attraction in the city.

2. The Small Basilica

In 1988 the foundations and mosaic floor of an early Christian church from the fifth century were discovered during work to build an apartment block. The finds were stunning, including mosaics of a stag and doves (or pigeons if you believe one of the labels) in the baptistery. Around half of the mosaics were put into storage but later returned to the site in 2013 after the construction of an archaeological museum over the site. Some of the mosaics are now visible under a glass floor and the rest are on open display behind barriers.

The Small Basilica

It’s probably easiest to approach the small basilica from the direction of the Post Office in the town centre rather than taking the back street route we followed from the Eastern Gate as the museum is entirely fenced in from this side (it took us a while to find a cut through onto the main road). We were the only visitors on the Sunday morning that we stopped by. Admission was relatively inexpensive at 5 lev.

A small note of caution – you might want to avoid the video presentation offered on the religious sites of Plovdiv if you are planning to visit these later and don’t want too many spoilers!

3. The Eirene Residence

The Eirene Residence, a roman villa with some marvelous mosaics, was discovered in 1983 during work to construct an underpass. The small museum, referred to on maps and signposts as ‘Trakart Mosaics’, presents 160 square metres of ancient Roman mosaic preserved in situ.

The mosaic floor at the Eirene Residence

The site takes its name from the centerpiece of the mosaic floor – a portrait of Eirene, goddess and daughter of Zeus. We came across this mosaic marvel twice – first at the Eirene Residence and later at the archaeological museum in Plovdiv (presumably the latter is the original?).

The museum is accessed from a pedestrian underpass that is interesting in its own right as it uses the exposed roman road as its floor. Admission was 5 lev.

4. Ancient theatre

The ancient Roman theatre (dating to around 108-117 AD) looks so impressive today that it is hard to imagine that this site was entirely hidden until its accidental discovery during construction work in 1968. Archaeological exploration was followed by reconstruction of the stage building (scaenae frons) from the elements that survived on site and it was re-opened to the public in 1981.

The Roman Theatre in Plovdiv from the 1st century AD

Our visit co-incided with a series of evening concerts at the venue giving us a different perspective of the site, not least the trickiness of clambering down the heavily worn steps (it’s a lovely opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the ancient citizens of Philippopolis but a health and safety nightmare too!). It’s an impressive venue for live music and the acoustics are all the more remarkable when you realise that a major road runs underneath this hill, entering a tunnel just before the site.

5. Eastern Gate of Philippopolis

The Eastern Gate was discovered in the 1970s and the foundations now lay exposed in the open, making it easy to get a good view over the entire complex. It’s one of those sites that has changed significantly over time, evolving from a triumphal arch into something a little more ordinary and then ending up a source of building material for the local population.

The road running through the Eastern Gate of Philippopolis

The Eastern Gate is easily reached from the old town and its close proximity to the delightful church of St Nedelya means that it can easily be incorporated into a walking tour of the city.

6. The Forum and Odeon of Philippopolis

The Forum and Odeon are two sites in close proximity to the modern day Post Office that give a glimpse into the heart of city life, including public buildings such as the hall in which the city council met. The pedestrian walkway here presents an easy view of the two open air sites, though it has to be said that the forum looked a rather sad sight when we visited.

The Odeon of Philippopolis

Other sights in the city centre include a section of the roman stadium and a stretch of aqueduct sandwiched between two busy roads.

In addition to all of this, you can visit a much older site at the hilltop of Nebet Tepe which has been fortified and re-fortified many times over the centuries, including during the Roman era. It is surprisingly easy to reach, just a short walk up from the heart of the old town and well worth visiting for the panoramic view as much as for the ruins themselves. It’s not hard to see why it is such a popular spot at sunset.


Asen’s Fortress, Bachkovo Monastery and the Wonderful Bridges

Posted in Asenovgrad, Bachkovo, Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 23, 2017

The Bulgarian long weekend started in earnest with a day trip to see some of the most spectacular sights located a short drive away from the city – Asen’s Fortress, Bachkovo Monastery and the Wonderful Bridges.

The 13th century Church of the Holy Mother of God at Asen’s Fortress

Our first stop brought us to the ruins of Asen’s Fortress, a hilltop stronghold strategically located on a rocky crag overlooking the Chepelarska gorge. The winding road that climbs to the summit looked like quite a trek on foot and plenty were attempting that. I’m sure that has its own rewards, with time to soak up the stunning view across to the church of Sveta Bogoroditsa Petrichka, but I was glad that we were driving up with our guide.

The spectacular setting is matched by the interior of the church which includes some fragments of frescoes from the 14th century. Beyond the church you can walk up to the top of the fortress for incredibly scenic views and an even better shot of the church with the valley as a backdrop.

The refectory at Bachkovo Monastery

Bachkovo Monastery, the second largest monastery in the country, was our second stop and proved to be the highlight of the day. The monastery was originally founded in 1083 and bridges three cultures – Byzantine, Georgian and Bulgarian – and this rich history is helpfully recorded on its the walls through some fascinating murals.

Entering the first courtyard we immediately saw a long line of locals queueing to enter the main church of the complex, the seventeenth century Sveta Bogoroditsa, so they could pray at a 11th-12th century icon of St Mary reputed to have healing powers. We were able to enter through a rear entrance so as not to disturb the serious business of the day and spent most of our time with our necks craned upwards to admire the stunning decoration throughout the church and at the base of the bell tower.

On the day we visited the gates to the second courtyard were open so we were able to take a look at the porch of another church in the complex, Sveti Nikolai, with its striking frescoes of the last judgment. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see inside as the church doors were locked – it looked as though they were getting ready for a baptism later in the day.

The star attraction of the complex is the vaulted 17th century refectory that is entirely decorated with colourful frescoes depicting ancient philosophers and kings of Israel encircled by the holy vine, the akatis hymn of the Holy Virgin and domesday. The frescoes were restored in 1965-1971 and the monastery are justifiably proud of their unique attraction. Admission fee to the refectory cost us 6 lev each plus 6 lev for a photo permit.

Overall, I found our visit to Bachkovo Monastery much more satisfying than the trip to Rila Monastery last year. I would have to admit that the lack of tourists was a big factor in this – we only encountered one other tourist on our wanders round the site.

The Wonderful Bridges in the Rhodope Mountains

The final stop on our itinerary brought us up a long, somewhat pot-holed road, to the wonderful bridges (Chudnite Mostove). The effort was worth it as these two natural rock arches in the forests of the Rhodope Mountains are just immense whether viewed from up top or down below. Sadly, none of the photographs I have taken do them any justice – it’s one of those sights that you just have to see in person to properly appreciate.


The guide books indicated that it is possible to make a visit to Asen’s Fortress and Bachkovo Monastery by bus but the little information we could find online suggested that it would be easier with a guide, sparing us the steep walk up the 2.5km road to Asen’s Fortress and the hassles of finding a bus to take us back. To be honest, I appreciated the simplicity of not working all this out for myself!

Travelling with a tour guide also allowed us to visit the third site, the Wonderful Bridges, which can only be reached by car. Our guide helped to order food for us during our trip and smoothed out minor issues that might have been tricky without a smidgeon of Bulgarian – such as asking the guardian of the refectory at Bachkovo to switch the lights on so that we could see the wonderful murals!

Our day trip was booked by email through Plovdiv Trips and the tour delivered matched up to all the promises made on their website. I would certainly recommend them.


Alyosha at 60

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 23, 2017

One of the most distinctive sights in Plovdiv is the 36-foot tall concrete Soviet soldier Alyosha that towers over the city from a position atop Bunarzhik Hill, looking out to the east with a Shpagin machine pistol in his hand. At the first opportunity I got I took the 15 minute walk to the top of the hill to take a closer look…

The Alyosha statue at sunrise. The base of the monument is decorated with a five-pointed star and an inscription that reads ‘Glory to the invincible Soviet Liberator Army.’

The statue, officially unveiled on 7th November 1957, was modeled on Aleksey Ivanovich Skurlatov (1922-2013), a veteran of the Great Patriotic War who fought on the Bulgarian front in 1944.

Accounts vary, but one version says that it was during his work as a signalman here (re-connecting the lines between Plovdiv and Sofia) that a picture was taken which sculptor Vasil Radoslavov later used as the basis for his monument. Aleksey returned to his home in Siberia in 1946 and only became aware of his granite doppelgänger in the 1980s, returning to a heroes welcome in 1982. He helped celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2007.

A small museum remembering the life of Aleksey Ivanovich Skurlatov can be found in Altai. Astonishingly, his mother received notification of his death twice during his military career!

The view of Alyosha from Sahat Tepe

The monument was commissioned in 1948 and the photograph of Aleksey was passed to Vasil Radoslavov by former Bulgarian resistance fighter Metodi Vitanov of Plovdiv. Construction started in 1954.

There are some historians who doubt the story, suggesting that Alyosha was actually modeled on factory worker Georgi Milenkov, whilst the daughter of the sculptor was told that a Russian actor posed for her father. It almost doesn’t matter because the sculpture has taken on a legend of its own and has somehow achieved an affection from the local population unlike any other communist era monument in Bulgaria.

One of the panels at the base of the monument

All of the photographs in this post were taken on two walks up Bunarzhik Hill (one at sunrise and the other just before sunset) and a walk up Sahat Tepe (at sunrise) for the view from the opposite hill.


I started my walk from the intersection of Ruski Blvd and Ulitsa Volga, roughly fifteen minutes on foot from the centre of Plovdiv.

Alyosha in the run up to sunset

From this point it is easy to get to the top of the hill and you probably won’t be alone – it is a popular place to walk dogs or take in the sunset. The easiest route up is along the gently curving road, which you can shortcut at points by taking the steeper staircases, but there are also a multitude of small paths and steps you can take around the hill which are not marked on any map that I have seen. All offer terrific views of the city along the way.


Flight to Plovdiv

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 22, 2017

A long weekend in Plovdiv sounded like a lovely idea many months back but for the discovery that there is only one flight in and out, three days a week. Added to this, these flights are operated by Ryanair, an airline I generally avoid unless it is the only option. On this occasion I caved in and booked a (not at all cheap) ticket and began to plot a lovely break…

Plovdiv Together: European Capital of Culture 2019

The announcement that Ryanair was to cancel 40-50 flights per day for six weeks just a week before our trip came as a nasty surprise, particularly listening to reports of the short notice that many passengers were given. Thankfully, the airline eventually published lists of all the flights they intended to cancel but for a while my stress levels really ratcheted up.

Whilst I applaud the way that Ryanair has opened up new tourist markets and connected cities that would have been a pain to reach by other this experience has been a startling reminder of the uncertainty of booking with budget airlines. I like my holidays to be an antidote to stress, not increase it!

Our near-full flight was around half an hour late out of Stansted but everything worked out pretty smoothly once we reached Plovdiv. The airport is relatively compact with just three gates but had more services than we expected given the infrequency of flights (if anyone is wondering there are cafe counters landside and airside, plus a small duty free store in airside departures).

The pick-up we arranged was waiting for us as soon as we stepped landside and delivered us to a friendly welcome at the delightful Expo Hotel. A good night’s sleep in our rather splendid room was much needed to prepare us for the full day of sightseeing that lay ahead.

Doviždane Sofia

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 23, 2016

Three days in Sofia has been an absolute pleasure, but our time here has come to an end. It is a quite stunningly beautiful city with some incredible architecture, lovely green spaces and a friendly vibe so we leave with a little regret on our journey back to normality!

It is worth noting that the latest editions of the guide books that I could find were out of date, having mostly been written before the re-organisation of the national art collection (for example, referring to the national gallery building as the national gallery of foreign art, which really doesn’t reflect the current arrangement at all), the opening of the Sofia City Museum or the unveiling of the remains of Roman Serdica. The In Your Pocket guide to Sofia proved much more reliable, but it’s definitely a location where a bit of homework pays off!

A wall from Roman Serdica

A wall from Roman Serdica

The newest attraction in the city is the remains of Roman Serdica, which opened to the public in April 2016. This 9000 square metre archaeological complex is located below street level and accessed from the metro station at Serdica or from staircases around the Largo. There were some impressive finds, such as the remains of an early Christian basilica, but most of the space is made up of underwhelming streets and buildings. The presentation is rather odd, if I am honest, with modern walls built on top of the Roman walls to preserve them. It’s an interesting addition to a great city, but it’s not going to challenge any of the existing sites (unless there is more to this complex than I discovered).

Our visit to Sofia was complicated slightly by the Museums at Night festival on Saturday, which meant that most art galleries and museums did not open during the day we had earmarked to see them. Admission was free for the evening, though this inevitably resulted in long queues to get in.

National Gallery - Square 500

National Gallery – Square 500

The National Gallery – Square 500 was a revelation and one of the highlights of the trip. The gallery is arranged as a chronological walk through Bulgarian and European art, but it was the Bulgarian art that appealed to me.

It’s tricky to pick out any highlights from the national collection, but three pieces that stood out were ‘Motorman’ (1932) by Funev, a relief of a locomotive driver hanging out of a window looking at the way ahead; ‘Respite’ by Kirkov, a rather downbeat black and white portrait of a man smoking a cigarette; and ‘Stop along the way’ (1967) by Gasharov with the striking image of a man in a flat cap at a bus stop with a small white toy wooden horse on wheels in tow. There were many other arresting images, including some lovely industrial compositions.

Sofia City Museum

Sofia City Museum

The Sofia City Museum, housed in a former bath house, was quite splendid at presenting some of the most fascinating moments in recent Bulgarian history, with some astonishing pieces of religious art (such as a marvelously colourful prelates throne from the old church at Kremikovtsi with arm rests shaped like open mouthed dogs dated to 1814) in a space cleverly adapted from the bath pools themselves.

A particularly strong collection of material in the Sofia City Museum covered the short history of the Bulgarian royal family, including a surprising set of possessions that belonged to Tsar Ferdinand I: a clock given by Queen Victoria, a writing desk given by Otto von Bismarck and Marie Antoinette’s royal carriage (used for his marriage, if I remember correctly). There is also a rather lovely souvenir cup given to Ferdinand I by the Ministry of Railways in 1912 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his accession to the throne. Well worth a half-hour queue to get in!

The combination of interesting sights from the communist era, fantastic architecture and great galleries/museums makes this a much underrated destination for a weekend or longer. My only regret is that I didn’t look into tours from Sofia out to the Buzludzha Monument before it disentegrates completely!


Relics of the cold war

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 23, 2016

The National Military History Museum in Sofia offers a comprehensive account of the complex history of the region over four floors, covering uprisings and wars from ancient Thrace to the present day. It was particularly fascinating to learn about those periods of Bulgarian history that I’ve never really been aware of, such as the Russo-Turkish war of liberation (1877-78), the war with Serbia (1885-86) and the Balkan wars (1912-13).

The Code Neon Beacon KNS-4P was intended to emit light signals to help orient pilots during night landings or in bad weather

The Code Neon Beacon KNS-4P was intended to emit light signals to help orient pilots during night landings or in bad weather

However, the main draw of this museum is the impressive display of military hardware in front of the entrance and spread across the extensive grounds inside (40,000 square metres of outdoor display space in total). The collection includes some terrific examples of ex Bulgarian Air Force MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets, plus plenty of German and Soviet tanks. The grounds are beautifully maintained and the exhibits clearly kept in good condition.

Most chilling of all was the display of a cluster of missiles that once pointed westwards from silos just outside Sofia, including decomissioned OTR-23 Oka ballistic missiles (better known to the west by the NATO name of SS23 Spider). It really is quite disconcerting to see these weapons of mass destruction laid out in a pretty green park with benches as if they were no more harmless than the cats wandering amongst them.

Some of the exhibits were in use with the Bulgarian army until relatively recently, such as the Anti-aircraft missile complex 2K11M SA-4 “KRUG”-M1 which was only retired in 2002. This mobile armoured guiding station for SMR 1S32 missiles could trace targets, including supersonic aircraft, in any weather conditions.

Missiles galore

Missiles galore

Practical information. A walk to the museum from St. Kliment Ohridski metro station took me about 20-30 minutes with the unexpected sight of an interesting memorial on Bulevard Tsarigradsko Shose along the way. On the way back I took the route via ul. Tsar Ivan Asen II which was a more pleasant option. Public transport options are listed on the museum website.

There are two entrances to the museum – one in Cherkovna Str and the other in Han Omurtag Str. The official address for the museum is 92 Cherkovna Str.

Overall, I would say that the museum was much better than I had expected. As you take your walk through history there are some fantastic paintings and it would be worth the price of entry to see these alone. On the top floor there is aslo a superb display of decorations. I only had an hour and a half to stay in the museum but I could have spent so much longer!


The marvel at the centre of Sofia

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 23, 2016

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a monumental structure that you can’t help but see everywhere in the books, brochures and guides for Bulgaria. No wonder, it is a mesmerising confection of arches and domes that catches the light beautifully throughout the day.

The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

It was built between 1882 and 1924 to honour the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 (an inscription professes love and gratitude to the Russian people for the Liberation of Bulgaria in 1878). The cathedral is 50,52 metres tall at its highest point (the belfry) and covers an area of 3,170 square metres with a capacity of between 5,000 and 10,000 worshipers depending on which guidebook you read!

Inside, the cathedral is quite dark at first but when your eyes adjust the riches are stunning to behold. You could spend hours in here absorbing all the detail. Colourful icons and wall paintings surround you at every turn, whilst beautiful chandeliers and painted ceilings tower above you. Stone lions lie the feet of columns, around the pulpit and flanking the dais of a remarkable throne built for Tsar Ferdinand. Even small details, inside and out, such as the door handles delight.

It is quite impossible to describe adequately, but a splendid 360 degree panorama shows just how marvellous this interior really is.

Morning reflections

Morning reflections

The icon gallery in the crypt (accessed from a door to the left hand side of the main entrance) is a complete contrast with its whitewashed walls and well lit interior. The riches contained inside seemed endless, including a wood-carved screen and many icons from Rila Monastery. A small exhibition in one of the antechambers included a couple of paintings depicting the rather surprising resurrection of a cow by St Modestus. It has to be said that it can be hard to keep track of what you have seen after a while, but it’s still well worth getting lost down here!


Holy Sofia

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 23, 2016

Sofia is a city of many remarkable places of worship, most of which have complex histories in keeping with the history of the country!

My favourite would have to be the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church (Church of the Holy Seven) which was converted from an Ottoman mosque. The so-called black mosque (a name derived from the black marble tiles used to decorate the minaret) was constructed in 1528 to designs by the grand architect Sinan. However, the mosque was abandoned after the liberation of Bulgaria in 1878 and the medrese (schoolhouse) was converted into a prison.

Sveti Sedmochislenitsi

Sveti Sedmochislenitsi

One of the prisoners, former Prime Minister Petko Karavelov, who had been incarcerated there between 1891 and 1894 proposed the conversion of the mosque into an orthodox church. The work was carried out between 1901 and 1903 to a design by Alexander Pomerantsev which saw the exterior changed entirely. At the centre of the orthodox church is an impressive square space, the sole surviving part of the original mosque, capped with a dome designed by Milanov and Momchilov. The interior is quite beautiful, painted from floor to ceiling with colourful murals and a comparatively simple but effective iconostasis.

Other places of worship that I visited included the church of Sveta Sofia (a sixth century church which gave its name to the city), the church of Sveta Nedelya (a medieval church and the focus of a terrorist attack in 1925), the Russian church of Sveti Nikolai Chudotvorets (the interior was undergoing renovation when I visited and a temporary chapel had been set up, but you could still peer into the interior if you could cope with the solvent fumes) and the rotunda of Sveti Georgi (the oldest architectural monument in the city). I also enjoyed the exterior views of the church of Sveta Petka Samardzhiiska, the Banya Bashi Mosque and Sofia Synagogue on my wanders.

In short, Sofia’s places of worship each have something very different to offer and it is worth taking the trouble to explore them if you can find a moment when they are quiet (something that I found was much harder than I expected, stumbling on a seemingly never ending timetable of baptisms, choir practice, prayer sessions, services and marriages!).


Rila Monastery

Posted in Bulgaria, Rila by folkestonejack on May 22, 2016

The Rila Monastery is one of the iconic images that is never far away in any guidebook or tourist brochure about Bulgaria. The ravages of past fires mean that little of the original monastery complex remains, with most buildings constructed in the nineteenth century with the Church of the nativity (1835) at the heart of everything. The one survivor is Hrelyo’s Tower, a rather unusual fortress-tower with a small chapel on the top floor.

Church of the nativity

Church of the nativity

Not having our own transport, we opted to join a tour organised by Traventuria, departing by minibus at 9am from the parking lots outside the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

The tour took us first to Boyana Church in the suburbs of sofia, a small church noted for its beautiful frescoes. It was interesting to learn that its survival was down to an early efforts in preservation from the Bulgarian royal family who offered money to the locals to build a new church nearby, rather than demolish the existing one.

A two hour drive brought us to Rila Monastery, leaving just one hour and twenty minutes for a visit. Needless to say, this was insufficient time to do it partial justice, let alone full justice! However, we enjoyed the experience despite these limitations.

The church of the nativity offers a stunning spectacle, the like of which I have not seen in any other church, with an incredibly elaborate 33 foot wide iconostatis covered in gold leaf, remarkable murals and the grave containing the heart of Tsar Boris III. The murals command your full attention and you easily have spent the entire tiem absorbing the detail of each scene, especially the vision of hell conjured up in the arcade and the scenes illustrating the perils of giving in to the temptations of the devil.

Hrelyo’s Tower

Hrelyo’s Tower

The limited time available gave us a dilemma – should we choose to see the treasures in the museum or to go up the Hrelyo’s Tower (5 lev apiece) to see the earliest frescoes on site (located on the 4th floor, behind glass). In the end we chose the latter and had no regrets about that.

After our brief visit we headed back towards sofia, albeit with a two hour long stop at Gorski Kut restaurant for food, with brown trout from the local fish farm. I thought it a little absurd that we spent longer in the restaurant than at the main attraction, but I appreciate that is the peril of the bus tour! We left the restaurant just after 3pm and reached Sofia almost dead on 5pm.


Socialist Sofia: Museum of Socialist Art

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 21, 2016

The Museum of Socialist Art, an initiative of the Ministry of Culture, opened its doors in September 2011 and has already become well established on the tourist trail in Sofia. There are three parts to the museum – an outdoor sculpture park, an exhibition hall and a video room. A cafe is located above the souvenir shop.

The collection boasts 77 works of sculpture from the socialist era (1944-1989) and over 60 paintings, but is still continuing to grow. For example, the sculptures from the 1300 years of Bulgaria monument will be moved here when it is dismantled, assuming that it doesn’t fall apart first!

Sculptures in the museum grounds

Sculptures in the museum grounds

Our visit coincided with a spell of heavy rain which was far from ideal for looking around the impressive colection of sculptures in the grounds. The statues of notable figures include Dimitrov, Lenin and Dzerzhinsky but I took as much, if not more, pleasure in the sculptures of the worker, such as Funev’s The Champion Worker’ (1958).

At present the museum is hosting the exhibition ‘The image of the leader’ in its hall and this runs until November 2016. It offers up an interesting collection of paintings and posters that amply demonstrates the changing styles across the span of the communist era. The curator of the exhibition quite rightly questions whether some of the late works would have been acceptable a decade or two earlier.

My favourite was a large canvas from 1951-53 entitled ‘The National Conference of the Winners of the Labour Cooperative Farm’ which shows the winners queueing up to be congratulated by party officials. The detail is superb, such as a chap with a pig under each arm waiting his turn. As all of this is going on the proceedings are being observed by portraits of Dimitrov and Stalin hanging in the conference hall. I think it captures the essence of the era, even if a modern audience is bound to see a layer of threat in these watchers that perhaps would not have been present for most people at the time.

The museum building and the star from the Party House

The museum building and the star from the Party House

A small video room next to the souvenir shop offers a loop of archive footage from communist Bulgaria, interspersed with images of its demise (for example, footage taking us on a walk inside Dimitrov’s mausoleum is followed by images of its demolition). The footage had its comical moments too, such as when one model worker was praised for exceeding his targets by 1200% – I’m glad my managers don’t have such expectations!

Practical information. The National Gallery – Museum of Socialist Art is located at 7 Lachezar Stanchev Street which is easily reached from G.M.Dimitrov metro station. We followed the map and directions that a kind soul added to tripadvisor after the difficulties he encountered trying to find the place.

Opening times are given on the national gallery website. Admission currently costs 6 Lev and catalogues for the current exhibition are available from the souvenir shop for 12 Lev.


Socialist Sofia: The Largo

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 21, 2016

The Largo was the heart of Socialist Sofia, a square bounded on three sides by neoclassical buildings with the figure of Lenin facing the centrepiece – the Party House. The symbols of that era have long since been replaced but there is no disguising the origins of these buildings. It can’t be any coincidence that you feel completely dwarfed by these buildings as you stand before them.

The former Party House

The former Party House

The construction of the Party House began on 16th March 1949, following the designs of Petso Zlatev and his team. Work was completed in 1954. The result is a giant, with a vast 40,000 square metre interior lurking behind its neo-classical colonnade. It remained the headquarters of the communist party until 1992, though the red star was taken down by helicopter in August 1990 after protests.

Today, the Party House provides office space for members of the National Assembly of Bulgaria, whilst the neighbouring buildings accomodate the TZUM department store, the Council of Ministers and the administration of the President’s Office. The entrance to the last of these is a particularly strong tourist draw with the spectacle of the hourly changing of the guard.

A few years ago there was talk of opening up the complex to tours under the auspices of the ATRIUM project, a programme funded by the European Union to explore the cultural potential of the architectural traces of totalitarian regimes. The interior looks fascinating, as blogger Agnė Drumelyte discovered in a pilot tour (see her post: My life in Sofia: Party House, NOT a nightclub) and as you can see in a short youtube video Largo of Sofia. Sadly, I could find no evidence of these tours running today.

The Party House at sunset

The Party House at sunset

Practical information. The area offers much to the tourist, with sights such as the Rotunda of Sveti George and the Archaeological Museum located just off the Largo and the new attraction of Roman Serdica under the square (illuminated by a glass roof). If you are staying out of the city centre it is easy to reach all of this by taking a metro to Serdica or one of the trams that stop in the neighbouring streets, otherwise it’s a short walk from most central hotels.

The star that used to sit atop the party house and the statue of Lenin can now be found in the grounds of the Museum of Socialist Art. There is an interesting story to the star (or rather stars) at The red star revisited as well as some fascinating pictures of the Largo under construction in the 1950s.


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Socialist Sofia: Lenin’s last stand

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 21, 2016

The big monuments and buildings from the communist era may still remain for now, but traces of this are much less evident away from the centre. One survivor is a piece of wall art on the Russian Lyceum in boulevard Sveti Naum which includes images of Lenin and a Russian cosmonaut.

Practical information. The lyceum is located at 36 Sveti Naum, a short walk from European Union Metro Station. The school building is on the right hand side of the street with the wall art located at the end of the building furthest away from the metro station. The wall art is pretty well screened by trees so you may find it easier to view from the opposite side of the road. I didn’t spot the images immediately, but the date ‘1917’ told me I was looking at the right spot.

It is worth being a little cautious as you navigate Sveti Naum as the pavement is in particularly poor condition in places with dodgy manhole covers, broken and uneven paving slabs. It is also a fast and busy road so a degree of care is required when crossing the street (signage offers a reminder that there are crossings here, but drivers seem more than a little surprised by anyone daring to use them!).

Credit must go to Sofia: in your pocket for pointing me towards this sight, which I hadn’t seen mentioned anywhere else. I’ve been using the in your pocket series of guides for 12 years now and they are unrivalled in the Eastern bloc.

Socialist Sofia: The bridge of friendship

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 21, 2016

Friendship Bridge (Most na druzhbata) is another piece of political propaganda that became part of the daily fabric of life in Sofia in 1953, subtly pressing its message about the brotherhood between Bulgarians and the Soviet Union.

Sculptural compositions stand at all four corners of the bridge representing the workers, intelligentsia and the army. It looked perfectly innocent to my Western eyes, but the Russian soldier standing side by side with his Bulgarian equivalent is yet another attempt to draw a parallel between the liberation of the country after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and by Russian forces in 1944-45.

The bridge stands at the crossroads between ulica Graf Ignatiev and bulevard Evlogi i Hristo Georgiev, looking down over the rather murky waters of the Perlovska. It’s easily accessed on foot from the city centre, or by public transport by taking the metro to the station for the Vasil Levski Stadium.

Socialist Sofia: Sporting heroes

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 21, 2016

The sporting hero has long proven to be a useful tool for communist and fascist states alike, immortalising their idealised citizens in stone and bronze. Sofia has its own collection of sporting statues to discover, though like many of the monuments from this era they are in poor shape and a frequent target for grafitti artists.

The approach to the main entrance to the Vasil Levski Stadium is lined on either side with sporting statues produced by a team of artists, such as Dimitar Daskalov, in the 1950s. Seven of the plinths are filled, giving us a football player, an athlete holding an olympic trophy, a netball player, an olympic torch bearer, a boxer, a relay runner and a woman whose sporting talents are now lost along with her arms.

The eighth plinth is empty, but I stumbled across a statue of a swimmer in the south eastern corner of Borisova gradina that looks like it might be the missing figure (located close to the intersection of aleya Yavorov and bul. Peyo K. Lavorov). Even if it is not, it was still an interesting discovery that I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t got completely lost in the extensive grounds of the park!


Socialist Sofia: Mound of Brotherhood

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 21, 2016

The Mound of Brotherhood (Bratska mogila) in Borisova Gradina (formerly Freedom Park) is a memorial complex constructed as a permanent reminder of the sacrifice of the partisans to free Bulgaria during the Second World War. It was opened on 2nd June 1956 – the 80th anniversary of the death of Bulgarian revolutionary Hristo Botev whose words adorn the monument ‘He who dies in a fight for freedom never dies’.

The mound of brotherhood

The mound of brotherhood

The remains of 17 partisan fighters (members of the Bulgarian Communist Party and the Workers’ Youth Union) who died in the fight against fascism were laid to rest within the site.

At the centre of the monument are two gigantic bronze sculptures of partisan fighters, weapons in hand, standing at the foot of a 41 metre high granite obelisk. On either side are reliefs that depict the struggle of the Bulgarian people, the welcome given to the Soviet Army and the joy of the people on the occasion of the 9th September 1944 coup d’état.

A Balkan Tour description from 1968 highlights the complexity of the story being woven here, bending history to its own ends by linking up the history of the failed uprising of 1923 to the formation of the communist state through the inclusion of the freedom flag in the right relief, now passed to the current generation to carry forward.

Two standalone sculptural compositions stand on plinths to either side of the central block, one showing us the sacrifice of the common people (a mother seeing off her son to fight with the partisans against fascism) and the other showing us the people building a new socialist future for Bulgaria (a worker, countrywoman and intellectual unified under the leadership of the Communist Party).

A mother sees her son off to fight with the partisans

A mother sees her son off to fight with the partisans

A plan to remove the monument was approved after the end of the communist era, but all they have demolished so far is the two lane processional way with a flower bed in the middle. It’s not quite the same walking up to the monument via a haphazard muddy dirt track! The difference can be seen in a striking before and after photograph on the website, showing the difference in the approach between 1965 and 2012.

The monument is not in the greatest of shape, with many elements missing from the reliefs on either side of the obelisk. A good many limbs, banners and weapons were missing from the sculpture. In the most extreme case all that remained of one figure, presumably a child, were the feet. I’m guessing that must have disappeared fairly early on after the fall of communism as the missing figure does not appear in any photographs from the last few years.

The original bronze plaque was also missing from the front of the obelisk, though it looks as though this has been replaced by engraved text (in common with the Monument to the Soviet Army). At the time of my visit a red star had been sprayed onto the front of the monument.

Two partisan fighters stand at the centrepiece of the monument

Two partisan fighters stand at the centrepiece of the monument

Practical details. The Mound of Brotherhood is located in the south-eastern corner of Borisova Gradina. It’s an easy walk from either of the nearest metro stations (St. Kliment Ohridski and Stadium Vasil Levski) but I preferred the walk down from St. Kliment Ohridski, crossing the Eagles’ Bridge and then following the pathway through the park that runs parallel to Boulevard Tsarigradsko Shose. It gives you the best impression of the whole complex before you get up close.

I visited the monument on a few occasions during the trip, photographing the various elements in differing light conditions. It is perhaps better not visited in the evening as it is a popular spot for gangs of youths to hang out, though they didn’t cause me any trouble. At other times of the day it is a popular spot for walking dogs, exercising and even conducting martial arts classes with swords. It is also worth saying that there is very little shelter around, other than the trees, should you time your walk for a downpour!


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Socialist Sofia: Monument to the Soviet Army

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 21, 2016

The striking Monument to the Soviet Army stands in the centre of Sofia, presenting the image of a Red Army soldier leading a worker, peasant woman and child towards communist paradise.

The monument was created by a team of artists and architects under the direction of Danko Mitov in 1954. The scale of everything here is immense – the monument takes up a 2000 square metre plot with a grand 80 metre long granite pathway flanked by five bronze wreaths (signifying the victories of the Red Army over Hitler’s forces) laid out before it. The figures watching over everything, from atop the central column, are giants too with the tallest coming in at 8 metres high.

The Monument to the Soviet Army

The Monument to the Soviet Army

Two standalone compositions at the entrance to the complex show the Bulgarian people greeting Soviet soldiers on foot and motorbike, entitled ‘The Bulgarian people welcomes the Soviet Army of Liberation with bread and salt, flowers and gifts’. The sculptures were created by a team led by Ivan Funev (1900-83) whose works can also be seen in the National Gallery – Square 500 (look out for ‘The motorman’ and ‘Third class wagon’).

Three panels around the central column depict the October 1917 revolution, the battles of World War II and the support of the people for their army.

'October 1917'

‘October 1917’by Lyubomir Dalchev

'Everything for the front, everything for victory'

‘Everything for the front, everything for victory’ by Peter Doychinov

'The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union'

‘The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union’ by Vassil Zahariev

The Sofia Municipal Council voted to destroy the monument in 1993, but no sooner had the decision been made than it became mired in complications. The small matter of the cost of demolition, dogged opposition from the followers of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and questions of legality (specifically, on whether the momument was protected under a treaty of friendship with Russia) all contributed to the shelving of the plan in the short term.

Since then the space around the monument has become a popular spot for skateboarding, whilst the bronze bas reliefs have become a focus for political protest. The reliefs have been various painted by grafitti artists as superheroes, in the colours of Ukraine and in pink to apologise for Prague 1968. We could see traces of the last batch of paint, but the monument was looking in reasonably good shape after a clean up for the Victory Day commemorations on May 9th.

The future of the monument came to the fore again in January 2011 when rallies for and against its removal clashed in Sofia. In the great feature article ‘The Soviet Army Monument in Sofia: Keep It but Explain It!‘ Ivan Dikov from the Sofia News Agency Novinite offers some background and sets out the case for and against keeping the monument. For now the monument stands, but as we have seen in other Eastern bloc states nothing is guaranteed.

The monument in its new life as a skatepark

The monument in its new life as a skatepark

Practical details: The monument is located in Knyazheska Garden, facing out onto Tsar Osvoboditel boulevard, a short wander from the metro station at St. Kliment Ohridski (Sofia University). It is easily visited, though you may need to navigate your way around a few skaters in the process!

It is worth noting that there is a separate mausoleum dedicated to the Red Army in another location in Sofia. The mausoleum containing the remains of Soviet soldiers who fell during the liberation of Bulgaria can be found at bulevard Cherni vrah 20-24 (see the Traces of War website for further details).


Socialist Sofia

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 21, 2016

One of the most fascinating aspects of a trip to Eastern Europe for me is the opportunity to see the lingering traces of the artistic output from the era of the tolaritarian state, from paintings following the doctrine of socialist realism to monumental statues that dominate everything that surrounds them.

I am always slightly nervous about showing too much interest as I am well aware that these works are loaded with an entirely different meaning for anyone who has lived through those times, whereas for most tourists they are just interesting works of art and objects of historical curiosity. It is rare not to see someone raising an eyebrow as you take a photograph or two and you can feel the question forming – should you really be visiting this place!?

The Monument to the Soviet Army shortly after Victory Day

The Monument to the Soviet Army shortly after Victory Day

The most significant of these in Sofia is the Monument to the Soviet Army, placed right in the heart of the city and clearly meant to leave the local population in no doubt as to who their saviours were. The continued presence of the monument must chill the hearts of anyone who experienced the terror of the state.

In many other Eastern bloc countries the process of removing these monuments is well on its way, or already finished. It can’t be an easy choice to make with the danger that erasing these monuments from the present risks taking with it the reminder of what the people overcame to achieve democracy, particularly as the years pass and the struggle becomes ever dimmer in memory.

I am reminded of a comment made by W. B. Yeats in relation to the equally contentious statue of Nelson that stood in the heart of Dublin “I think we should accept the whole past of this nation, and not pick and choose.” Mind you, that is probably a bad example given that Irish republicans went on to blow up Nelson’s Pillar in 1966!

At most of the sites I visited there was an air of neglect, irrelevance and an overriding sense of time taking its toll. Nowhere did I see any attempt to explain the complex history behind the benign figures immortalised in metal, from the sacrifice of the common soldier through to the forced assimilation of minorities – to me that feels like a missed opportunity.

In the next few posts I will highlight some of the remaining sights from Socialist Sofia, all easily reached on foot from the city centre.

A long weekend in Sofia

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 20, 2016

A weekend of sightseeing in Sofia beckons after the excitement of a week playing with trains, but the first priority was to head out to Sofia airport to meet up with Brett who was coming in on the early morning flight from Gatwick.

The airport is well connected to the city centre by metro and it only takes around 20 minutes from Sofia University St Kliment Ohridski and only a little longer from Serdika or the Central Railway Station. It’s a smooth journey to the cathedral of steel and glass that is Terminal 2, but getting to Terminal 1 is somewhat trickier!

The metro station at Sofia Airport which opened in April 2015

The metro station at Sofia Airport which opened in April 2015

The metro does not connect to Terminal 1 and there is no obvious walking route between the terminals, so the only option is to take the free half-hourly shuttle bus which runs from T2 to T1 departures. It is operated by a mini-bus with just sixteen seats so it was no surprise that it was completely full for the 15 minute run in each direction.

Terminal 1 presents a stark contrast to its ten year old sibling, looking fairly unloved inside and out. The terminal was constructed during WW2 and it’s clearly a struggle to squeeze all the check in desks and security systems of a modern airport into the space available. On top of that, some of the public facilities are rather poorly maintained as I discover on a descent to the toilets in the arrivals hall. It’s a rather grim first impression to give visitors.

Our hotel for our short stay in Sofia was to be the Radisson Blu Grand Hotel, located right in the heart of Sofia and directly opposite the National Assembly. I was relieved to see that the square was relatively quiet when we emerged from the metro as the previous night it had been the scene of a large demonstration with a heavy police presence!

The view from our hotel room

A room with a view – the National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria and the golden domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

I got a little glimpse of Sofia’s beauty a week earlier, but no time to explore properly. Most of the major attractions in the city are located within a 15 minute walk of the hotel, but the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the Monument to the Soviet Army are only a minute or two away so these were top of our list.

I would hazard a guess and say that the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral has to be the most photographed building in the country and I made no effort to resist the temptation to add to the many millions of photographs that must already have been taken!

Monument to the Soviet Army

Monument to the Soviet Army

After visiting the most obvious sights near the hotel we set our sights a little further afield and took the metro to the fascinating Museum of Socialist Art, comprising a gallery of socialist paintings and an impressive collection of socialist sculptures in the grounds. The heavens opened whilst we were in the museum so once we had seen everything we headed back to the shelter of the hotel and called it quits on the sightseeing day!

Narrow gauge steam in the Western Rhodopes

Posted in Bulgaria, Septemvri, Velingrad by folkestonejack on May 19, 2016

After four days in the Eastern Rhodopes we set off on a drive west this morning, with a brief stop at Haskovo to see the world’s largest statue of the Virgin Mary with Jesus.

609.76 with our train at Septemvri

609.76 with our train at Septemvri

Our destination was the rather remarkable 125km narrow gauge line that takes passengers on a five and a half hour journey from Septemvri to Dobrinishte, stopping at 25 stations along the way. The railway recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of the completion of the line in 1945, though the first section opened almost twenty years earlier (in 1926).

A few years ago there were rumours that the struggling Bulgarian State Railway network had earmarked the line for closure, so I have long been keen to see it for myself. I always imagined that I would end up making a visit for the diesel hauled regular services, but the line’s delightful 2-10-2 tank engine (609.76) was so much better!

Fifteen locomotives of the 600.76 class were acquired by the railway in the 1940s (the first five were manufactured by the Schwartzkopff factory in Berlin whilst the remainder were manufactured at Pierwsza Fabryka Lokomotyw w Polsce Chrzanów). Our locomotive came from the second batch and joined the rosters after a successful trial run on 21st December 1949. It was returned to operational condition in 2004 after a year of restoration.

We wouldn’t get to see the entire line in the limited time that we had here – instead, our charter would focus on the 39km stretch of line from Septemvri to Velingrad trip. It was to be a leisurely journey with a schedule that allowed five hours on the line, including a two hour lunch break at Varvara (a necessary evil to enable us to work around the regular services). More of a taster than a hardcore day of gricing!

77009.9 and 75004.2 in the shed at Septemvri Depot

77009.9 and 75004.2 in the shed at Septemvri Depot

Our journey up the line started at Septemvri at 12.50, after a fascinating visit to the depot. The visit gave us an opportunity to see the diesels in the shed and the steam locomotives located in varying states of disrepair around the depot buildings/. Three steam locomotives can be found in front of the depot entrance (1.76, 470.60 and 506.76) whilst another four lurk in the back (10.76, 610.76, 611.76 and one more from the 600.76 series).

The long lunch break began at Varvara just twenty minutes after our departure from Septemvri, providing a welcome opportunity to see the arrival of a regular service hauled by Romanian diesel-hydraulic locomotive 77009.9. Later in the day we would see services in the opposite direction with German diesel-hydraulic locomotives 75005.9 and 75006.7. Varvara also gave us the unexpected sight of a concrete monument to communism (in the form of a red star).

Monument at Varvara

Monument at Varvara

We managed one shot in the gorge but it soon became apparent that this is a tricky line to photograph from the lineside and that it is better from down on the roadside, not that there seemed to be much in the way of safe spots to stop and start taking shots! However, when we passed one of the most beautiful photospots on the line without stopping everyone started scratching their heads. What was the logic here!?

At a stop for water at Dolene the glum faces and angry conversations told their own tale. Our tour leader had not been allowed on the footplate to call the photostops, nor were the crew taking any instructions on where to stop. Instead they were working to their own programme, delivering us at the photospots they knew regardless of whether they were appropriate at this time of day.

We arrived at Konstandovo on time (at 5.14pm) and departed after the service train had passed (5.26pm). A couple more runpasts on the outskirts of Velingrad (5.45-5.50pm) gave us some good opportunities for better shots before we arrived at our final destination around 6pm. A lovely last shot of 609.76 and the water tower here was accompanied by a welcome late burst of sun.

609.76 at Velingrad

609.76 at Velingrad

After waiting so long to visit the line I found the day a little disappointing. Clearly the timings don’t allow for many photo stops so when the crew are as uncooperative as they have been today it makes for a pretty frustrating experience. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful line and I’d certainly recommend it (it’s a bargain at roughly £5 return at current prices). If you are considering it there is a terrific account of a trip up the line from ten years ago on Andrew Grantham’s blog at The Septemvri – Dobrinishte railway and there is an informative unofficial website about the railway at The Rhodope Narrow Gauge Railway.

We re-boarded our bus and settled in for the one hour and forty five minute drive back to Sofia. I have thoroughly enjoyed the tour despite the occasional setbacks and had good fun attempting to take half way decent photographs. I wonder where the next railway adventure will take me in the world!?


The mysterious case of the missing wagons

Posted in Bulgaria, Kardzhali, Momchilgrad, Podkova by folkestonejack on May 18, 2016

The afternoon in Kardzhali offered us a last chance to take the shots on the short stretch of line to Podkova, including the elusive viaduct between Kardzhali and Momchilgrad which had resisted all our efforts to photograph it in sun from the high vantage point. However, when we assembled at Kardzhali station ready for the re-start at 3.30pm it was clear that the plan had already fallen to pieces.

Awaiting news at Kardzhali

Awaiting news at Kardzhali

We had the locomotive and the sun but not the freight cars that we needed to make up the train! The wagons of the right historical vintage, that are certified to run on BDŽ lines, were en route from Dimitrovgrad but apparently running 2-3 hours late. The station master at Kardzhali said that the section between Most and Kardzhali was not blocked (i.e. our train had not entered the section) and would be between Haskovo and Most. The sad conclusion was that there was no real hope of them arriving before the light disappeared.

In this unenviable situation the horrible choice before the organisers was between light engine or no engine, knowing that neither of which would be popular with anyone. Who would be a charter organiser!? Trying to put a positive spin on this I suppose you could say that engines did run light at times so it’s not historically inaccurate, just not what anyone would like to see!

To add to our frustration there were plenty of wagons in the yard at Kardzhali but we couldn’t use any of them in place of the wagons we had ordered. One line of wagons looked ok to my untrained eye but was apparently made up of condemned stock that were unfit to run, whilst the modern stock could only be used with a little flexibility from BDŽ. Needless to say, flexibility is not on offer…

Light loco

Light loco

Light loco it was. We headed off by bus to a lovely green landscape just outside Kardzhali, accessed by crossing an old airstrip. The shot of 46.03 passing through was lovely in its own way, but definetly lacked something.

At this lowest point we received news from the field (quite literally) that our wagons were arriving at Kardzhali! The crew realised this when they stopped the loco in the fields ready for us to get into position – they heard the diesel arrive (just ten minutes after we left by bus) and contacted the station master at Kardzhali by mobile phone. He confirmed that the wagons had indeed arrived.

The station master at Kardzhali told the crew that if we wanted the wagons they would have to go straight to Momchilgrad and get there by 4.14pm or he wouldn’t authorise the departure of the wagons. The only option was for our loco to continue light to Momchilgrad and wait for the wagons there, skipping the ever elusive viaduct. Totalitarianism is still working here!

Awaiting our wagons at Momchilgrad

Awaiting our wagons at Momchilgrad

We carried on to Momchilgrad and sure enough the freight cars arrived at 4.40pm. Now the game was back on! We had three runpasts at the viaduct on the line between Momchilgrad and Podkova between 5pm and 5.15pm, though sadly the sun disappeared just as we got to the spot (in desperation I grabbed a few shots of the loco setting back as I saw the sun about to slip behind the clouds).

The next three runpasts took place in glorious late sun at the level crossing we had visited previously. It really is a lovely stretch of line between Momchilgrad and Podkova. I think there is more potential for shots from the road taking in the sweeping scenery and it will be interesting to see the results of the local car-chasing photographers.

A burst of sun at Podkova

A burst of sun at Podkova

Finally, we made it into Podkova just after 6pm to find that a good crowd of locals (more than we had seen on previous days) had gathered to enjoy the spectacle. A more fitting end to an enjoyable four days with 46.03 than the madness of the previous few hours.

A crazy, crazy afternoon. You would have thought that BDŽ would know where their own trains are, but evidently not. It’s not exactly reassuring is it!? Still, we got some nice shots in the end, even if it was a painful process getting there!


Wanders through Kardzhali

Posted in Bulgaria, Kardzhali by folkestonejack on May 18, 2016

Our schedule gave us a lengthy gap in the middle of the day before our activities on the tracks resumed. I took the opportunity to have a good look around the centre of Kardzhali. My guidebooks were remarkably dismissive of the place, but I figured there must be more to this place than they would have had me believe.

My mini-tour took me on a wander up Bul. Bulgaria to the one sight I had acquired some slim details on, a monument to the Bulgarian soldiers who fell in the liberation of Kardzhali during the First Balkan War between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. The date of the battle is either 8th or 21st October 1912 depending on which calendar you use.

The Liberators’ memorial in Kardzhali

The Liberators’ memorial in Kardzhali

The municipality has some grand plans for the redevelopment of the wasteland by the river Arda which they hope to turn into a waterfront park with an open air theatre and other attractions. The first steps towards this goal are already visible but there’s a long way to go before the plans displayed at the entrance are realised.

One of the more curious sights was the grand communist era monument with a grand set of steps, a massive granite backdrop and an empty plinth. It was pretty clear that a statue stood here until it was ripped off, suggesting that it was formerly home to one of a select group of public enemies.

A little digging revealed that a golden statue of Georgi Mikhailov Dimitrov (1882-1949) was erected here on 14th June 1980 and that it was removed in 2010. The plan is to replace it with the unifying figure of St George. This will eventually be the world’s largest statue of St George, but for now a lack of funds has delayed the start of work.

A grand setting and the empty plinth

A grand setting and the empty plinth

Other sights around town included another war memorial, a mural on the side of an administrative building, the children’s railway (inactive today), a graffiti covered Mig 21 plinthed in the large recreational park, the golden domed church of St. Georgi Pobedonosec and the Kardzhali Historical Museum (exterior view only) which was apparently built to be a Muslim College but never actually used as such.

Kardzhali is never going to challenge any of the tourist destinations in Bulgaria but a wander through town on a warm and sunny day was a perfectly pleasant to spend a few hours. I was pleased to have seen a glimpse of the world beyond the railway tracks.


Steam and sheep

Posted in Bulgaria, Haskovo, Most by folkestonejack on May 18, 2016

On all our photo charters so far we have headed south from Most, but today we travelled in the opposite direction with a passenger service hauled by 03.12.

03.12 hauls our early morning charter

03.12 hauls our early morning charter

To make our charter possible we were pathed between the regional trains that ply this route in the early morning and we would have to clear the line for the northbound service to Stara Zagora (which offers the only connection that allows you to get to the capital on the same day).

We set off from Most at 7.13am and worked our way steadily up the line. At first the lineside seemed too densely vegetated for any photographic efforts but I was heartened by a runpast at the edge of a wheat field beyond Maslinovo (7.59am). It was a lovely spot with some pretty purple flowers in the foreground and worked reasonably well, despite our best efforts to ruin the shot by trampling them down in our walk to the position!

The next runpast (8.30am), amongst the atmospheric railway buildings at Knizhovnik, was even better. To add to our improving fortunes the sun was finally burning through the thin layer of cloud above us, illuminating the scene before us.

03.12 runs through Knizhovnik

03.12 runs through Knizhovnik

After passing through the station at Malevo (8.40am) we stopped at a field to the bafflement of a shepherd and his flock of sheep. Moments like this can be photographic gold, if everything falls into place perfectly, but often the sheep don’t stick to the script! On many occasions I have seen photographers forlornly chasing sheep across fields, trying to keep them in the foreground as a train passes, but this time we took advantage of the movement of the flock in front of the locomotive to get some memorable static shots.

Once the crew had finished assisting the shepherd in his efforts to persuade the sheep to cross to the other side of the line we enjoyed a lovely runpast (8.45am) with the train rounding the curve. The last clouds disappeared to give us clear blue skies and bountiful sun. If I can be allowed a little photographer’s grumble, I have to confess that this was a little frustrating knowing that we had a long break ahead of us in the middle of the day!

Steam and sheep

Steam and sheep

The last runpast of the morning took place at a sweeping curve through a patchwork of fields (9.08am). We had clambered out in the nearest field but soon discovered that the grass was so tall that it obscured the track from all but the tightest of positions. A short walk up to a hillside vantage point gave us a much better prospect and a great opportunity to admire 03.12 for a longer stretch.

Before the rural landscape gave way to urban sprawl a tractor driver ploughing a field next to the line honked up our train. There can’t be many steam specials here and most must be concentrated on the more scenic stretches around Kardzhali, rather than this stretch.

03.12 passes through the rural lanscape between Malevo and Haskovo

03.12 passes through the rural landscape between Malevo and Haskovo

We finally reached Haskovo at 9.30am. The crew gathered in front of the locomotive for a small presentation and thoroughly deserved the round of applause that followed. It was time to say goodbye to the crew, to 03.12 and to our passenger carriages.

The carriages, from the Corona Express set, are as remarkable as the locomotive. The carriages were originally manufactured for the use of Tsar Boris III, Tsaritsa Ioanna and Prince Kiril in 1938. Although this luxury might seem inappropriate for a group of railway photographers it is well known that Tsar Boris III was something of a rail enthusiast himself and he was often to be found travelling on the footplate and even drove steam locomotives on occasion. I hope he would have approved of the future use of his royal train!

After our farewells the crew set off for Dimitrovgrad where 03.12 will overnight before continuing on to Sofia tomorrow.


16.27 to Podkova

Posted in Bulgaria, Kardzhali, Momchilgrad, Most, Podkova by folkestonejack on May 17, 2016

The afternoon gave us our only run behind 16.27, a steam locomotive constructed by the Lokomotivfabrik Floridsdorf, Vienna, in 1948 to a simplified wartime design (class 42) and exported to Bulgaria in 1952 along with 32 other locomotives of this class. The numbers in Bulgaria may have been relatively low, but across all the manufacturers 849 class 42 locomotives were built between 1943 and 1949.

16.27 at Most (with diesel 07.126 lurking in the background)

16.27 at Most (with diesel 07.126 lurking in the background)

In Bulgaria the locomotives were designated as class 16 and were an immediate success, hauling heavy freight trains on steep and curvaceous sections of network from their home depots of Ruse and Gorna Oryahovitsa in Northern Bulgaria. The class had a good lifespan, continuing to haul trains in regular service until 1990. Today, the only member of the class in operational use in Bulgaria is 16.27 following the completion of her restoration in 2015.

Our run with 16.27 began with departure from Most at 1.35pm and ended at Podkova around 6pm. The results were a little mixed photographically, principally because the cover of the spark arrestor often had the effect of pushing the smoke down, smothering the train. As one member of our party said, nothing that an oxy-acetylene torch couldn’t fix! However, when everything was in favour the results were splendid (for the conditions) and we got a good selection of shots.

16.27 on the viaduct between Perperek and Sredna Arda

16.27 on the viaduct between Perperek and Sredna Arda

This was be our last run on the stretch of line between Most and Kardzhali, giving us a last chance to grab any shots that we have missed so far. The delights on offer this afternoon included a false departure from Most, two runpasts at a viaduct beyond Perperek (2pm-2.15pm), a single runpast at a tight spot beside a lineside posthouse just before Sredna Arda (2.35pm) having beaten down thorns to create a position, runpasts at Sredna Arda from low and high (2.48pm and 2.55pm) with the latter shot taken from a handy ‘seat’ in the rockface, a runpast at tunnel portal 3 (3.15pm), a runpast at the exit of the next rock cutting (3.24pm) and a runpast at the tunnel portal 4 (3.37pm).

One classic shot that eluded us up to this point was a view of the causeway coming towards Kardzhali – we stopped at the spot today (at 3.59pm) to the delight of one of my fellow photographers. An Australian chap in our group commented ‘Your fairy godmother is looking after you’ but then as we were halfway out we were all told to re-board, leading the same chap to admit that he spoke to soon ‘Your fairy godmother just ****ped on you!’. It was a pity that we had to abandon the shot to keep to our timings, but to be fair we were running 40 minutes late at this point!

At Kardzhali we boarded our bus and drove to the spot overlooking the viaduct between Kardzhali and Momchilgrad. On this occasion I chose the high viewpoint, which involves walking along a busy four lane road with no pavement to a couple of spots that look down onto the viaduct. After two runpasts we began our walk back along the road, staying as close to the guard rail as possible, only to hear the locomotive going for a third run and reached a distant viewpoint in time to see a fourth.

16.27 on the viaduct between Kardzhali and Momchilgrad

16.27 on the viaduct between Kardzhali and Momchilgrad

The bus continued on to the next viaduct where we had the opportunity to photograph the train on two runpasts from a high vantage point (5-5.30pm) with a terrific view of the landscape beyond, before re-boarding our train. A couple of stragglers got left behind this point but some nifty footwork from our organisers got some local gricers to pick them up in their car, dropping them off at Podkova where they were bemused to see an empty train arrive (we had climbed out at a level crossing a short distance from Podkova for two runpasts and then walked back to the station).

Over the past three days we have covered most of the good spots on the line between Kardzhali and Most, with the obvious exception of the causeway in the direction of Kardzhali. The number of spots is limited by the dense vegetation that surrounds much of the line, though it is possible that there could be some shots to be had with rural and industrial scenes on the stretch of line just beyond Kardzhali. I’m quite happy with the opportunities that we’ve had, even if I’m convinced that I’ve made the most of that!