We woke to enjoy one of those fabulous Uniworld breakfasts before heading out to explore Bulgaria, our next stop on our Eastern European river cruise. It looked a little grey outside so I asked the front desk attendant if rain was predicted. She said it would be sunny. I should have followed the program advice instead. I brought a raincoat and umbrella on the cruise, but left both in the room. Boris wisely got both of us umbrellas.
We left the riverside city of Rousse where we were docked for our day-long tour of the medieval capital of Bulgaria, Velikovo Tarnovo, and the Bulgarian village of Arbanasi. Along the way, we will have a traditional Bulgarian lunch and be back to the ship by 5 pm. Some guests chose to tour Rousse and see the cave churches instead. Their tour ends at 2 pm.
As we left Rousse, a city of soviet-style apartments and crumbling architectural beauties used for that purpose, the guide gave us information about Bulgaria. It is a country of 7.2 million with a declining population. They rely on tourism, grain farming, and heavy industry as their main sources of income.
Under communism, they were part of the 5-year plan of specialization between countries. Bulgaria concentrated on textiles, computers, bicycles, farming, and ship building. There was negative unemployment; they even brought in workers from Cuba and Vietnam to assist with the ship building. With the collapse of communism and the loss of guaranteed markets, there was massive unemployment. Having always been given a job and guaranteed employment, people did not have the mindset to deal with the new system. In the 90s, unemployment was at 25%.
Bulgaria joined the EU and with investment from the European Union unemployment dropped as low as 4%. It now hovers around 7%. Not all EU countries are on the same footing. If coming from another EU nation, you still have to go through immigration to enter Bulgaria or when entering another EU country from Bulgaria. They do not use the Euro currency.
Bulgarian children go to school until the age of 16; some go on for more advanced studies. They are experiencing a brain drain, especially in the medical profession, where their students can make far more money abroad. There is a large expat community of Bulgarians in Chicago. The most popular courses of study are math and the sciences and the students do very well in international competitions in these areas. The average monthly income in Bulgaria is 500 euros.
It was a lovely drive to Veliko Tarnovo through the Bulgarian countryside. The city itself sits on three hilltop with the River Yantra below. It is the medieval capital of Bulgaria. Today it is a University town with a thriving artists community and one of the few cities in Bulgaria that is growing. It has a incredible setting and tourism continues to grow.
We took a comfort stop at a local hotel and admired the view while trying Bulgarian pastries. We will return here to do a little shopping later today in the artisans shops. As we re-boarded the buses, the rain started. Closer views of the castle were all from inside the bus and at least one photo stop was cancelled due to rain.
We went on the the village of Arbanasi less than 4 miles from Velido Tarnovo. Arbanasi is a tourist designation in and of itself with its beautiful 17th and 18th century churches (disguised on the outside) and the buildings in the Bulgarian National Revival style. In fact, any new construction in the village must follow this architectural style. It is enchanting and the light rain (it had eased a bit at this point) made it even more romantic.
In the historic Orthodox Church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, we heard lovely chanting by four a capella singers. People stand in the Orthodox churches and there is limited seating for the infirm with high arms around the edges. When you wanted to pull yourself out of these narrow spaces, you learned why they had high arms.
We next visited the Church of the Nativity of Christ where a wonderful guide told us about the amazing artwork and architecture. From the exterior the building was very unassuming. During foreign rule, the churches were permitted if they had a low profile and no bell tower. They were dug deep into the earth to give the full height inside. Unfortunately, no interior photographs were permitted in this church.
We did a little more walking the village in the rain ending up at a gift shop that sold rose oil products, a regional favorite. After the shop, we walked across the street tot he village museum where they depicted what life had been like for the inhabitants.
After the museum, we went to a charming restaurant where were served a traditional Bulgarian lunch-a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, a vegetable soup, a meat stew with bread, and a yogurt dessert. The rain was really pouring outside, so we were happy to be indoors and enjoy the wonderful food and the music and dancing.
After lunch we returned to Velido Tarnovo and walked the artisan street in the rain. Both Boris and I found handicrafts to take home with us-decorated wooden spoons, embroidery, and a mask. We enjoyed our full day in Bulgaria.