Bulgaria

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 Town of Velinko Tarnovo

\After a full day of sailing through a section of the Danube known as the Iron Gates we reach a small town along the norther border of Bulgaria.  On the other side of the river is Romania, which we will visit tomorrow.  Not much to see in this town, we board a bus and ride for 90 minutes past extensive agricultural areas.  During the Soviet occupation, which lasted over forty years, Bulgaria became an important agricultural producer.  They were also a major producer of heavy equipment for the Soviets, but that industry disappeared here when the Soviet Union failed.  Their agricultural industry continues to flourish.

\Today is national cleanup day in Bulgaria and we see people picking up liter on the highways and streets in many places.  We reach the old town of Velinko Tarnovo, population of about 70,000.  It’s also a university town, giving it a mix of old buildings and young people.  We see some very old homes where domestic animals occupied the ground floor, providing heat in the winter for the families living on the second floor.  The weather today is pleasant, though their summers are very hot and winters are very cold.

We wander along the tourist-centric streets, then visit two old small churches from the 15th century.  When the Ottomans occupied Bulgaria, they allowed the Orthodox Christians to practice their religion, though forbid their churches to exceed the height of surrounding buildings.  In one church we enjoy an unexpected performance of four superb vocalists, singing Orthodox hymns in an ancient language.  The effect is nearly transformative in the small, acoustically optimal stone structure.

We will not be able to visit Bulgaria’s capital city of Sofia because it is too far from the river.  However our tour guide assures us that we are not missing much; an unusual admission of plainness from a native citizen.  We are served a traditional Bulgarian lunch, which includes a very thick yogurt, similar to Greek yogurt. Local folk dancers entertain us.  We sense that Bulgaria has more Ottoman influence than Balkan countries to the west, as the duration of Ottoman influence diminished sooner at it’s western borders. Bulgaria was the last to see the Ottomans leave.  We return to our boat, adding Bulgaria to our list of visited countries, leaving with a generally favorable impression of this recent and less prosperous member of the European Union.

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