After having shown Oriana Bulgaria’s nature and ethnography, I had to give her a lesson in history too.

Russian church at Shipka

From Plovdiv, we headed north towards the Balkan mountain range and the Shipka Pass. We stopped at the town of Shipka in the foothills of the mountain to pay a visit to church dedicated to the Bulgarian-Russian military friendship during the war against the Ottoman Empire.

I explained to Oriana that for about 500 years, from the 14th to the 19th century, Bulgaria and the entire Balkans were part of the Ottoman Empire. Under their yoke, our culture, language and religion were heavily suppressed; nevertheless, we did not lose our identity as a distinct people. After a series of riots and with the great help of our “Slavic brothers”, the Russians, we eventually won the liberation war, which lead to the intervention of the Great European Powers and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Shipka Memorial

Today, the memorial on Shipka peak reminds us of great battles. In 1877-78, the Russo-Turkish War, this was the main pass through the Balkan Mountain Range: the north of Bulgaria was the stronghold for the advancing Russian army, while the south was still occupied by Ottomans. Thus, it was up to the Bulgarian volunteer troops to guard the Shipka pass from the Turkish hordes until the arrival of the Russians. The poet Ivan Vazov eulogized the key battle: when the ammunition ended, the brave Bulgarian soldiers started throwing every empty gun, knife, and stone at the Turks at the foot of the peak, and when even those weapons ended, the Bulgarians lifted up the dead bodies of their fellows and threw them at the enemy.

On the way to Veliko Turnovo, we stopped to take pictures by a sunflower field. We visited Etar, an ethnographic and cultural town-museum, and Bozhentzi, a village with historical significance, which in recent years has become a place of escape for many public figures.

Sunflower fields near Shipka

Oriana was interested to know more about communism, so I told her what I tell all Americans who ask me about it: it’s nothing like what you studied in school.

Back in those days, people felt more secure: my grandmother says she always had enough food for the family, a secure job, enough time for vacation and opportunity to send her children to summer camps and trips. Yes, they didn’t listen to Western music and didn’t wear jeans, but that’s not as important, is it?

Veliko Turnovo over Yantra river

My mother and her friend started recalling stories from their teenager years, like the time when they had to hide from their parents and sneak into the basement at night to listen to the forbidden radio stations from Western Europe. Lidia remembered when as a schoolgirl, her headmaster penalized her because she was wearing long socks and had teased her hair: an indecent, Western manner.  Years later, my mom had to save money for several months to be able to buy a Beatles vinyl record.

We arrived at Veliko Turnovo in the afternoon. Veliko Turnovo is the old capital of Kingdom Bulgaria and bears the signature of the Asenevtzi dynasty, who liberated the country from Byzantine influence in the 12thcentury. One of their greatest feat of arms is that they stopped the advancement of the Fourth Crusade, which was presumably sent by the Church to protect Constantinople, but in fact looted our lands and conquered the Byzantine throne in Constantinople. The Bulgarian tzar Kaloyan captured the crusader and new emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin, and locked him up in a tower near the Tzarevetz fortress in Veliko Turnovo.

The Asenevtzi Dynasty

Oriana was particularly impressed by the unique museum-church surrounded by fortress walls at the top of the Tzarevetz hill. We were also hoping to watch the audio-visual night show at Tzarevetz, but alas, they didn’t have it that day. Oh well, Oriana needs a reason to come back, right!