Monday, November 25, 2013

Kardzhali and stuff

Has ever the picture of a far away, exotic, lovely place captured your soul and in an instant, lain hold of some future moment in your life? This happened to me when I began researching Bulgaria's beautiful spots and ancient ruins.

About a month before I left Ohio, I started an intense search of the spots I should visit once I arrived in BG. I combed through travel blogs and creeped on Pinterest boards until I compiled my list of must-sees. Immediately, I was taken by pictures of Dyavolski Most (Devil's Bridge), an ancient bridge spanning the Arda River in the Rhodope Mountains. I don't know what it was about this bridge that appealed to me so much (literally, it is just a bridge), but I knew I had to see it in person. And I did!

A couple weekends ago, I visited a fellow ETA, I.K., in Kardzhali, about an hour's bus ride south of Dimitrovgrad. Another friend, Kardzhali's ETA from last year, M, who is currently teaching elsewhere in Bulgaria, was also visiting. Our host ended up feeling a little ill, so M served as my tour guide for the weekend, showing me around his old town. 

I had told M how much I wanted to see the devil's bridge and asked if he knew of any way to get there. Success, he not only had an old colleague in town who loved hiking, but also really wanted to see the bridge! So we went! Me, M, and two awesome Bulgarian teachers. The best part? These teachers are awesome ladies who gather mushrooms and herbs on their various treks, so I got a crash course in mushroom hunting! We drove through the lovely Rhodopes for about an hour before parking just far enough from da bridge for a brisk autumn walk.

It's no surprise that our destination was called the devil's bridge. Truly, the valley in which the bridge sits feels a little mysterious. It lays just a bit beyond a small town called Ardino, and the road to get to the bridge feels abandoned and like a secret. There are several legends about this 15th-century bridge. One is that in certain light, a person standing atop the bridge can see the devil's reflection in the river below. Another claims that the devil's footprint can be found on a stone of the bridge, while still another claims that the bridge, which has not needed repairs in over 500 years, is so sturdy because its creator built his wife's shadow into the structure when she died. Spooky!

I was such a happy lady during this weekend. Aside from checking off a big item on my Bulgaria list, I got to spend time with some good friends and see other lovely Kardzhali sights. First off, if you know me, you know I love anything old, anything mysterious and forgotten. I am deeply moved by traces of a different era and my creative, thinking side is intrigued when I see places and buildings that were once glorious and are now past their prime. It makes me wonder, and my wonderment makes me think and imagine. So of course, it took all I had in me to keep from bouncing like an idiot when M took me on a tour of Kardzhali's old buildings. EEP. Actually, it didn't take too much too keep me body was still processing my recently-inhaled espresso. But IF I'd been in a prime state, I would have bounced! So much bouncing would have happened!

Don't they just make you think a little bit? Make you wonder what they looked like when they were brand-new? Ahh, the lovely past.

I also saw this really wacky grouping of stone formations called the 'stone wedding.' These rock formations make up what looks like a wedding procession. My friends and I took a little walk around them. Other neatness included a walk around the town's dam (where I had to sneak pictures because the guards worry that people taking pictures are looking for structural flaws in the dam and intend to flood Kardzhali if they find weaknesses. Haha, Bulgaria!).

Since this last adventure, I've just been laying low in Dimitrovgrad. I took day trips to Plovdiv during the last couple of weekends, where I sat in normal coffee shops (GOD BLESS YOU COSTA COFFEE) and ogled at locally-produced crafts. I love the city, it's like my cultural center, only an hour away by train. Other than these day trips, I've been getting to know my students better. I now meet with 8th graders once a week to walk around town and practice English in a less formal environment than the one created in school, which has been so wonderful. I've also had some really serious talks with my older students about opinions concerning their futures, their country, and the world. These meetings, these talks-- theses are the experiences I love. The travel, the Bulgarian must-sees are noteworthy, but my day-to-day reality is the kids I teach. These daily interactions and the goofy kids I teach are what I'll remember most about my time here, I'm sure. When we have good days together, I feel that I've never been more satisfied. The good days aren't everyday, but when they happen, they're priceless.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Travel update

Most of my weekends here are spent traveling, either to Sofia or another city in Bulgaria, and up until last weekend I'd only stayed in my town on weekdays. I couldn't help it, all the sites in Bulgaria were calling to me! Travel within the country is really cheap and convenient, as there is a fellow Fulbrighter living in nearly every large city which means free housing. Bus fares are really inexpensive and there's nearly always a route that will take me where I want to go (save this morning, when I foolishly assumed I could get to Sofia early on a Saturday. Nope. Blog time!). And truly, I LOVE THE BUS RIDES. They afford so much time for reflection and give me a chance to understand Bulgaria’s topographical layout. Each bus ride adds to my mental map of the places I've visited and when I return home, the flat map hanging on my apartment wall takes shape and thickens with personal reflections brought back from each weekend's adventures.

Here's a quick recap, mostly through photos, of what I've been up to on the weekends. I've now been to the Black Sea, Plovdiv, Varna, Stara Zagora, Veliko Tarnovo (the medieval capital!), Gabrovo, Buzludzha, and of course good ole' Sofia (the modern-day capital).

One of my first Bulgarian ventures landed me in Plovdiv, an absolutely stunning city about an hour bus ride from my. A buddy and I took a quick trip here one weekend and found it to be well-paced and more unique from other European cities than the capital, so refreshing. We attended a huge city-wide arts and music festival, complete with live jazz in the streets and art shows in all the city's galleries. Made some friends, shared great conversation. A successful trip! The below photo captures the city's famous Roman ruins...a forum/ theater/ gladiator fight arena. Yes, gladiators. Gore!

The following weekend, my friends and I stayed with another ETA in Gabrovo. It was a very nice visit, but my bus ride to the city started out kind of rough. On this particular trip, my stop was not the final destination, so I needed to be really aware of road signs and distance traveled. However, I was feeling terribly car sick and kept dozing off and on while my bus wound through the mountains. At one point, I woke up at one of our stops in a state of utter confusion and tried to ask the man sitting in front of me where we had stopped. I thought I asked him correctly in Bulgarian, but I saw the what-are-you-saying look on his face, so I repeated myself slowly. He still had no clue what I was trying to say. A voice behind me said "Tell me in English." So I did. The voice then explained where we were, asked what I was doing, and informed me smugly that most people in Bulgaria understand English. The pictures below are from that weekend, during which I also saw Buzludzha and Veliko Tarnovo.

These two fine specimen are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Yes, I'm serious. No, I am not quite sure what they're doing in Gabrovo. Welcome to Bulgaria! Actually, this was a really neat display. Both sculptures are made from repurposed trash-- old shovel heads, oil drums, etc. Innovative!

Below are some pictures from Buzludzha, the abandoned communist monument. It's situated on the highest point of the surrounding hills and offers the most breathtaking view! Plus, abandoned building and exploration!

This is the window we had to climb through to enter. A determined group we were.


After Buzludzha, we ventured to the old medieval capital, Veliko Tarnovo. Why ins't it the capital anymore, you ask? I think the easiest response is that Bulgaria wanted to keep a closer eye on Serbia soooo, to Sofia and the border!

And then my travel destination from two weeks ago, Varna, a seaside city! And this lady with an infinity symbol on her behind! And this beautiful cathedral! And these kittenses! I LOVE ALL THE BULGARIAN CATS. I'm getting to the point in this blog post where I'm just typing away like a crazy lady!

My first glimpse of the Black Sea. The clouds were full to bursting, the beaches were vacant, and I was sharing a deeply meaningful conversation about how I want to spend my life with a good friend. A day for the books.

And lastly, my latest jaunt. This past weekend, I decided I was just too tired for big travel so I opted instead for a day trip to Stara Zagora, a city roughly 40 minutes from me. I met up with a friend and we had a wonderful time catching up and exploring the historical sites of the city, including the ruins pictured below and a really odd yet moving commemoration to Bulgarian volunteers who had fought the Turks in the Russian-Turkish Liberation War. Read more about the monument here.

Bulgaria has an incredibly diverse landscape for being such a small country. There are sections that roll like the sea and on cloudy, brooding days remind me of English moors. There are flat, scrubby lowlands that run parallel to distant mountain ranges, reminding me of driving through the flat expanse of Boulder, Colorado which runs right next to the rockies. Everything is at once familiar yet completely alien, and I love it. Traveling here fills me with the strangest sensations!