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by Irene Butler
(for Travel Writers’ Tales)

#1 photo Melnik nestled in mountains

The tiny town of Melnik in wine country beckons us a mere day after arriving in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. Our hotel manager, Asen, has exuberantly offered to drive my husband Rick and me around the countryside on his days off! We accept with delight!

Orchards are fruit-laden and fields of sunflowers lift golden heads sunward as we breeze along. “Baba Vanga is a worthy stop along the way,” Asen announces.

#2 photo Baba Vanga and me

We are keen to visit the home of this world renowned prophetess! Until her death in 1996 at age 85, Baba (Grandmother) Vanga was visited by statesmen, historians, economists and scientists for her ability to predict the future. Born as Vangeliya Pandeva Dimitrova, her uncanny psychic abilities began at age 12 after being hurled through the air during a vicious tornado, which also rendered her blind for life.

#3 photo Small church, Baba Vanga site

A statue of Baba is at the entrance of a pleasant site of gardens with natural thermal ponds, a small church, her gravesite, and humble abode where she lived until her last breath. Her legacy of predicting historic events many years before they occurred is lengthy, some being 9/11, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, the 44th president of the US being an African American.

#4 photo Our lunch spot, Melnik

It is onward to Melnik, nestled below stunning sandstone cliffs of the Pirin Mountains. Our rumbly stomachs welcome a tasty lunch at one of the family-run taverns before milling around town seeking out locally-brewed wines; some in professionally labelled glass bottles, others in plastic jugs sold along dirt streets.

#5 photo Wine for sale along streets

A tour of Kordopulov House, built in 1754 by a Greek wine merchant, sweeps us back in time with its rich murals, carved wood, and gigantic stone sun-dial clock.

#6 photo Rila Monastery The next morning Asen whisks us away to Rila Monastery. Chanting voices rise to the heavens during the service underway in the Church of the Nativity, which dominates the complex. My eyes feast on painted religious figures covering every inch of the church’s exterior.

#7 photo Biblical scenes inside Rila

Iconoclastic statues and biblical scenes fill the inner sanctum. Rila was founded in the mountainous surrounds by hermit monk Ivan Rilski in 927AD. In 1335 a grander monastery was built where it is today, with numerous rebuilding from Ottoman plundering, and an accidental fire that nearly burned it to the ground in 1833.

Around the outer edge of this spell-binding UNESCO site, is a four-story structure containing 300 monk cells, small museum, and a gift shop from which I am quick to spot a must-have cross of violet stones. Another enthralling day!

After a good night’s sleep, we are off to see the sites of Sophia! The pedestrian only street with cafes under canopies is a good place to start…with tikvenik, a traditional sweet pumpkin pastry and much coffee.

#8 photo Palace of Justice

Further along this street the Palace of Justice stands in regale white marble. “Saint Sophia” reigns at the next intersection. This 8m female figure of bronze and copper perched on a 16m pedestal was erected in 2001, where a statue of Lenin once stood during Soviet times. She symbolically wears a crown (power), and holds a wreath (victory) in one hand and on the mid-section of the other arm she balances an owl (wisdom).

We move on to Party House. This Socialist Classicism structure built in 1953 was once headquarters for the Bulgarian Communist Party; now housing Government offices. In close proximity is Ivan Vazov National Theatre, fronted by gardens and fountains which would please the most ardent designer.

#9 photo Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

We gape at our first glimpse of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The massive exterior of stone with green-hued copper and gold plated cupolas is stunning! The ground breaking took place in 1882, and after our walk through the muralled interior that can hold 10,000 people, I understand why it took 30 years to complete.

#10 photo Roman ruins

Sofia’s newest tourist draw is a Roman city discovered while digging for a new underground metro line. Serdika Archaeological Complex dates back to periods from 1st to 6th century AD. It’s a heady feeling to walk among the ruins of six large buildings and stand on a well-preserved 2000-year-old stonework road.

Around each corner is another gem, which has Rick commenting, “I’d love to have a pedometer to gauge the miles we’ve covered!” I smile, knowing my ‘to see’ list is still lengthy, but with timely coffee breaks, he’s good to go.

#11 photo Beautiful Sophia

Bulgaria’s rich culture, historic sites, natural beauty and our many encounters with warm-hearted locals are now filed away in fond memories.

PHOTOS by Rick Butler

1 Melnik nestled in mountains
2 Baba Vanga and me
3 Small church, Baba Vanga site
4 Our lunch spot, Melnik
5 Wine for sale along streets
6 Rila Monastery
7 Biblical scenes inside Rila
8 Palace of Justice
9 Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
10 Roman ruins
11 Beautiful Sophia

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