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Today we went to the Preobrazhen monastery near Veliko Turnovo. It is a secluded male Orthodox monastery situated on one side of a deep gorge; on the other side of the abyss, we could see a convent.  Years ago, an earthquake had broken off three huge rocks from the cliffs just above the monastery, but miraculously none of them had damaged the bell tower or the church itself.

The brightly colored paintings on the façade of the cloister represent floral ornaments together with scenes from the Bible. The most famous mural, however, is that of the great Bulgarian icon painter Zahari Zograf, the Wheel of Life.

Wheel of Life, a mural by Zahari Zograf at Preobrazhen Monastery

The composition portrays the months, the seasons, and the cycles of life with its many meanings and symbolical layers. The outer layer shows the material possessions one aims for: the man on top of the wheel is holding a scepter and a bag of golden coins, but drops them as he moves closer to death. The inner layer represents the true virtues that one should aim for in life: to educate oneself and to work hard, so that in the end, one can gladly sit down and enjoy the old age. What do you think the woman in the middle represents? What about the two figures on both sides of the wheels?

The significance of monasteries, I explained to Oriana, is more than religious. During the liberation movement against the Ottoman Empire, these were safety havens where monk-revolutionaries hid the rebels and pointed them to secret passages leading to the mountains. The monks also preserved the Bulgarian literary and cultural heritage and helped spread it during the time when the Ottomans were suppressing it. Lastly, monasteries are holy places with special energy to which even earthquakes bow down.

The Preobrazhen Monastery was built by the great Bulgarian architect Kolio Ficheto

 

The monastery was spared by an earthquake, which caused three huge rocks to fall in the garden, just meters away from this building

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On our first night in Veliko Turnovo, Oriana gave me an important lesson. It was the night of the 9th to the 10th, or the night before my birthday, when we decided to go for a cocktail at a local bar. As we were sitting down at one table, the three boys who had entered the bar just after us asked if they could join us. As Oriana later said, I had knitted my brows to form a big and shocked “go away!” Thankfully, Oriana’s ever-ready smile had outshined the clouds on my face, and the three boys sat down next to us.

They were three Italians vacationing in Bulgaria. They were coming from Sofia and were headed to Golden Sands resort at the Black Sea. Two of them were from Milano and went to Bocconi, where I have many friends, and the third one – from Florence.

We talked about Oriana’s trip around the world and what a shame it was that she would visit Germany, France, and Bulgaria (“Heeey!..,” I objected) but not Italy, about the difference between south and north Italy (which is almost like that between Barcelona and New York), about thin-crust pizza in Venice and risotto in Milano, about what they had seen so far from Bulgaria and how much they liked our cuisine.  We exchanged blogs links and travel tips.

When the clock hit twelve, they all started singing Happy Birthday to me in different languages! Among the five of us, these were seven languages – English, Italian, Bulgarian, Spanish, German, Turkish and Chinese! So this is how thanks to Oriana’s open-heartedness and friendliness, I received an unforgettable multi-lingual birthday party!

As we were walking back to our place, having said goodbye to our new friends, Oriana shared with me her father’s words of wisdom:

Always say yes. If a boy comes up to you and invites you to a dance, just say yes. You don’t know how much courage it took this boy to ask you, and you don’t know how wonderful of an experience it might turn out to be, so just say yes. At least give him one dance only, but just say yes. It makes life so much more interesting!


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!

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