“Why leave behind the seat in your own home to wander in vain through the dusty realms of other lands? If you make one misstep, you stumble past what is directly in front of you.”
The above quote from Dogen’s Fukanzazengi so accurately depicts my feelings as we traveled through Bulgaria with our friends Brett and Christie. Dogen, of course, is referring to the fact that the wonder of the present moment is available to us no matter where we are and that it can be folly to think that happiness lies in traveling to new lands. Yet we recognize that travel is a wonderful way to challenge engrained habits and finding living ways to connect to the present. Still, Dogen’s words echoed through my head as we returned to Bulgaria to show its beauty to our friends. We visited some sites we have seen before and some that we haven’t, but each site brought more wonder and awe than most we have seen around the world. My appreciation of the wonders of my home grows with each step I take through it.
Turandot at the ruins
Our first stop was Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. We have been there many times before, but through travelers' eyes the city and its ruins appeared even more beautiful and majestic than before. As we waited for our friends’ bus to arrive, we happened to stumble upon a free opera presentation of Turandot right in the heart of the ruins of the old city of Tzarevetz. The ringing voice of the singer portraying Prince Altoum was mesmerizing as it carried through the ruins of the ancient city, bringing a life to the place that has been absent for centuries. This was one of the top experiences of our travels!
Views of Tzarevetz from the tower
We explored the new city of Veliko Tarnovo and the old ruins with Brett and Christie the next day as we began to introduce them to traditional Bulgarian foods and drinks. As vegetarians, they were thankful to discover the fresh vegetable salads that crowd the menus here. They also loved Bulgarian tarator, a cold summer soup of yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, dill, and walnuts. We took a short trip up one of the hills to visit the small village of Arbanasi, where many 18th century homes have been preserved and some serve as museums. To see pictures of this leg of the trip, click here.
Our next stop was Stara Zagora, where I have spent the majority of my life. My mom prepared delicious vegetarian versions of Bulgarian dishes and we shared our gardens’ veggies and fruits with our guests. We took them to see the famous Shipka Monument, dedicated to those who died in the Liberation of Bulgaria at Shipka pass. Shipka is sort of like the Bulgarian “300”, where 7,500 Bulgarian and Russian soldiers defended the pass against nearly 40,000 Turkish soldiers during a grueling winter campaign. The views from the top uncovered rolling hills of limitless mountains and peaks. (Pics for Shipka here). We could also see Buzludja perched atop its mountain, our next stop of the roadtrip. This ruined Communist monument was fascinating and deserved its own blog post; you can read about it in our previous post.
Of course any trip to Stara Zagora with the Fields’ isn’t complete without the mandatory tour of the Zagorka brewery and the ensuring hilarity. Even though the brewery was bought by Heineken back in the 90s, it is still the area’s beloved local beer, and the brewery remains the only place you can taste their fresh 6.4% probiotic packed live beer at the end of the tour. As sometimes happens with Bulgarian hospitality, the 30 min tasting session turned into 1.5 hours and many smiles as it did when our friend Ryan came to visit last November. Check out the rest of the pics here.
With dad driving our caravan, we set off to the south western part of the country where the smallest town in Bulgaria lies - Melnik. Most of the town’s buildings are preserved cultural monuments indicative of the life of the people here a couple of hundred years back.
The beautiful sand formations
According to archeological evidence, the Thracian tribe Medi first settled this area and interestingly enough, Spartacus belongs to this tribe! The city is surrounded by unusual and unique sand formations called the Sand Pyramids. As we hiked up the pyramids in the early morning, we were awed by the glowing rocks and delighted by the panoramic views of this part of the country. We ended our hike at the Rozhen Monastery, the biggest monastery in the Pirin Mountains. Melnik also offered a variety of wonderful foods, including the tasty Greek fish Tzipura (Sea Bream) and unique wines from the region. Christie arranged for us to visit a winery, Villa Melnik, which turned into an afternoon of hospitality and generosity by the owner, Nikola and his vintner Didier Mailhe. While his new larger wine making facility was not fully completed yet, Nikola still graciously took us on a tour of the building and showed us every detail of how the wine will be produced here. He also took us out in the vineyard, where he plucked handfuls of different varietals and let us try them all! He then invited us into his home, but not before taking us to visit a local rakia distillery, where Brett & Christy could see this authentic Bulgarian spirit being made under the hot Melnik sun! Back at Nikola’s home, Didier led the tasting as bottle after bottle of Villa Melnik’s best were uncorked. Each bottle was more delicious than the next and most had won medals at the International Winery Exhibition in Plovdiv. One of our favorites was the spicy and bold Melnik 55, a red made with the local grape of the region. Thank you Villa Melnik for such a memorable experience!! Pics from Melnik are here.
En route to our next destination, we stopped to see the famous Baba Vanga monastery, where we chillaxed, slacklined, and enjoyed the peaceful space she had created. We also took a hike in the Pirin mountains and visited its largest waterfall. Pics of this day trip are here.
The crew with fish lake in the background
Our next big adventure lay in the Rila Mountains, home to the infamous Seven Rila Lakes. We took a lift up to these high altitude lakes, which were formed by melting glaciers many years ago. Each lake is named after its main characteristic such as the Tear for its clear waters, the Eye and Kidney for their shape, the Twin, the Trefoil, the Fish, and the Lower lake in order of their location and height. Even from the lift it is another 3 hour hike up to the highest peak, which rewarded us with an inspiring view of the Rila Mountains surrounding these mystical lakes. The crystal clear waters of the lakes serenely reflect the surrounding peaks and imbue peace to the observer. Some believe they represent the Seven Chakras from the yogic traditions and it is easy to understand why as the 7 lakes are all connected by the “spine” of flowing waterfalls. There is even a religious sect called the Dunovisti, that spend the whole month of August performing ecstatic dancing in a series of concentric circles close to the lakes as they commune with God and nature. This amazing natural phenomenon is one of the most beautiful we have seen from anywhere in the world. I couldn’t help but smile as I recalled Dogen and wonders that lie “in the seat” of my own home. See all the beautiful shots of the Rila Lakes here.
For our last evening, we arranged to spend the night at the Rila Monastery, one of the most visited and beautiful monasteries in Bulgaria. We enjoyed our bottles of Villa Melnik wine and fresh trout from the Rila River for our last dinner with Brett and Christie. As the peaceful chatter of the river put us to sleep I heard one of my favorite ATB songs in my mind and realized that I couldn’t have dreamed a better trip through my homeland.