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Phespirit goes to Bulgaria
Bansko     September 2006


Map of Bulgaria

1 Sofia  [София]

After travelling overland by bus from Niš to Sofia, Phespirit booked into the delightful Hotel Pop Bogomil for one night only. Next day, refreshed and full of breakfast, he ventured out onto the streets of the capital city for some intensive tourism.

He started with five churches, a synagogue, market and mosque, then moved on to museums and galleries, went back to religion at the Alexander Nevski Memorial Cathedral, and concluded his tour with a look around a couple of football stadiums.

Alexander Nevski Memorial Cathedral is the iconic centrepiece of the city. Phespirit thought its interior was a tad reminiscent of the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. The National Art Gallery offered little to suggest that Bulgarian art has been unfairly ignored by the world's critics. Best picture: "Portrait of Maria Stoilova", 1932, by Dechko Uzunov (99-86).

Phespirit walked around the perimeter of the Vasil Levski Stadium and the ramshackle CSKA Stadium, but couldn't get to a game.

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2 Kyustendil  [Кюстендил]

On his journey overland by bus from Bansko to Skopje via Sofia, this was Phespirit's last stop on the Bulgarian side of the border.

He stretched legs for 15-20 minutes and bought a Kit-Kat Chunky from one of the bus station kiosks.

Riveting stuff.

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3 Rila Monastery  [Рила]

Overwhelmingly the number one tourist attraction in these parts, it has history, holiness, an attractive line in stripy architecture and a picturesque mountain setting. What could be finer?

After thoroughly exploring the monastery, Phespirit retreated to a nearby restaurant where enjoyed to a hearty three-course meal of salad, fresh trout with potatoes, and pancakes with blueberry jam.


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4 Blagoevgrad  [Благоевград]

This town is utterly dominated by the huge American University of Bulgaria, celebrating its 15th year when Phespirit visited. Would it have needed the guards and airport-style security screening at its entrances throughout all those years, or are they symptomatic of more recent times?

Blagoevgrad's History Museum has a nice display of minerals and rocks, followed by a comprehensive set of stuffed animals, stuffed birds, pickled fish, pinned insects and assorted artefacts from the town's human history. Phespirit was the only visitor, outnumbered by staff 4 or 5:1. They had to switch the lights on for him. Exhibits are only labelled in Bulgarian so one of the museum staff decided to help out by giving Phespirit a personal guided tour .....

..... entirely in Bulgarian.

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5 Velingrad  [Велинград]

Velingrad is comprised of three 'quarters' - harking back to a time when it was three distinct villages - and is served by two stations.

Phespirit took the narrow-gauge railway from Bansko to Velingrad and - in error - alighted at the first station. This is the minor south station in the Chepino quarter. To make the most of his situation, he had a pleasant stroll around the nearby Kleptuza boating lake before walking up Saedinenie Boulevard to the heart of town. Here he became preoccupied by his struggle to find (i) the bus station, (ii) details of buses back to Bansko, and (iii) a tourist information centre. Belatedly, he spent a final hour around the Ludzhene and Kamenitsa quarters before heading for his bus.

Phespirit enjoyed the scenic railway journey to Velingrad, but has to confess he took little from the town itself.

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6 Bansko  [Банско]

Where is the best place for a holiday in the Bulgarian mountains? Phespirit considered Bansko, Borovets and Pamporovo.

He chose Bansko as it is said to have an older, more established town than the other two. Borovets and Pamporovo are supposedly just glorified ski resorts (although this could be completely untrue; Phespirit hasn't seen either place for himself).

So what of Bansko? It has a musty 19th century church, a core of fine old buildings, a few bars, cafés and restaurants, several small shops and a supermarket. All of which are decent enough, except that the 'old' somehow lacks real charm, and is now rapidly being overwhelmed by the new.

Bansko served Phespirit's purpose, but if he hadn't needed it as a base for hiking he probably wouldn't have rated it as worth a visit. Next time he stays in Bulgaria he will probably chose Pamporovo, again for the hiking, but also for ready access to Plovdiv.

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7 Sandanski  [Сандански]

While Blagoevgrad promotes its reputation for youth and vibrancy, Sandanski seems more content with a leafily laid-back ambience.

Phespirit strolled along tree-lined Makedonia street, from the town square in the west to the parks in the east. On the walk back, he took a slight detour to look at the unimpressive ruined foundations of a Byzantine Episcopal basilica, and then detoured even further to inspect an Orthodox church on the hill above.

It's a nice place.

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8 Melnik  [Мелник]

Bulgaria's smallest town is a living museum. Like most museums in Bulgaria, the quality of the exhibits greatly exceeds the quality of the infrastructure in which they are displayed. Thus, in Melnik, immaculate National Revival houses are served by roads that look like the bottom of a quarry.

Phespirit visited the Kordopulovs' House, built in 1754. A sign on the outside wall claims: "The house is recognised as the greatest building of the Bulgarian National Revival and it is also announced as a culture-monument with national meaning." Fine. In the cellar Phespirit participated in a spot of wine-tasting, from which he was able to conclude that the good merchants of Melnik have not been concealing their best stuff from the export market all these years.

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9 Rozhen Monastery  [Рожен]

Rozhen Monastery sits detached from the village of Rozhen in an unusual landscape of spectacular sandstone pyramids, the result of natural erosion over thousands of years.

The monastery itself is smaller than that at Rila, and less tolerant of tourist excesses. A noticeboard standing outside the main gate itemises every single activity in the known world, and then bans it from inside the monastery walls.

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  1. Sofia
  2. Kyustendil
  3. Rila Monastery
  4. Blagoevgrad
  5. Velingrad
  6. Bansko
  7. Sandanski
  8. Melnik
  9. Rozhen Monastery
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Sofia Kyustendil Rila Monastery Blagoevgrad Velingrad Bansko Sandanski Melnik Rozhen Monastery