Tuesday, November 16, 2010

АСЕНОВГРАД – Asenovgrad

АСЕНОВГРАД – Asenovgrad 
 Asenovgrad is a small city located 25 minutes (by train) south of Plovdiv.  It has about 55,000 people, and the elevation in the city is 900 Ft. above sea level.   It is a town Lynn and I visit often.   The round trip train ride costs each of us only 1.40Leva, and it is a great escape from our more crowded city. In 1230 Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II strengthened the local fortress Stanimaha (now called Asen’s Fortress) and because of this reason the city was named after him in 1934 (literally city of Asen). Among its more unique claims is that it is the wedding dress capital of Bulgaria with more gown shops than any other place.  It also has more chapels and churches per capita than any other Bulgarian city (15 total including one at Asen’s fortress).   
Most importantly, it is nestled right into the base of the Rhodopes  mountains.   Within two hours of getting on the train in Plovdiv, we can be high up in the hills around Assenovgrad.  From the Assenovgrad train station, it is a quick walk along the short pedestrian walkway next to the river before you take a left and start taking narrow streets leading steeply uphill.  There are trails in the mountains all around this small city, and Lynn and I have only started finding all of the connections, and ways to get from one trail to the other.  We wish there was a local map with all the trails, but we have only been able to find a map with the major trails throughout all of the Rhodopes mountains.   Of course without a good map, it just means you have more adventures, and also have to talk to more people to try to figure out where this (or that) trail may lead. 
The Cliff from half way up - at the West end of the ridge
This past Sunday afternoon, I decided to head to Asenovgrad, and try to connect some of the trails we have taken in the past couple of months.  In order to do that, it meant I had to climb up a very steep (almost cliff-like) section of one of the ridges, and see what was at the top.  I had already taken a small trail more than half way up the ridge, and we had seen other people coming down this trail.  We just did not know where those people had been coming from.  We had never seen anyone along the top of the ridge.  But I just had this “feeling” there had to be a trail up there.  So… off I went.  I had lots of water, some food, and my map (without all the trails) with me. 
That small trail I had been part way up on an earlier trip, got steeper, and pushed around behind the cliff exterior.  I was thankful for that, and hopeful that I would find out that this trail came out on the top.  As long as I kept going up, I figured I was going in the right direction.  It turned out that this trail did take me to the top, and it was Spectacular!!! You could sit on the top of the cliff, and see into the rest of the mountains off to the south.  Lynn and I like this ridge because you face the south and get the full effect of the late Fall and early Spring sun).   We can go here, find some rocks, and just sit in the Fall sun soaking up the warmth like a snake.  From the cliff on the top, the view was awesome.  And… the trail kept going. 
Looking East along the ridge.  
So… Like any explorer, I followed the trail to see where it would take me.  I found a walk that I will try to repeat often.  The trail continues along the top of the ridge.  But what I did not know until I walked the ridge was that the top of this ridge is almost a “knife edge”.   The top was normally not more than 100 feet wide.  In many places it was only 30-40 Feet wide, and most of it was a barren rocky top.  That meant, I had unbelievable views whichever way I looked.  To my left, the ridge dropped dramatically off 2000 feet to the valley floor where there was a patchwork of grape, wheat, hay, and other fields.  The view toward the valley was unobstructed for as far as the haze would allow.  To my right, the cliffs dropped to the small stream in a valley a thousand feet below, with a view into the higher (almost 4,500 Ft) mountains south of this “front-range” ridge that I was walking. 
The trail took me along the ridge for about 50 minutes until I reached the ridge end, where I was amazed to find a small chapel.  Even more surprising were the 15-plus people there who were restoring the chapel. It is rare to find Bulgarians working to bring back old structures.  More amazing was that they were doing it here in the middle of the mountains.  I was not able to figure out how they got the mortar bags, bricks and sand to the chapel.  There must be some old logging road off the edge of the ridge near the chapel.  But I guess finding that trail is just one reason to make another trip to Asenovgrad. 
Asens Fortress with my ridge walk in the background
Although I could have headed off the eastern edge of the ridge at the chapel down into the forest, I decided to return back along the ridge to another trail I found near where I climbed up on the ridge.  It was a glorious sunny November Sunday, and I wanted to make the “ridge walk” again.   So.. I headed back, stopping often.  When I got to the end, I parked myself on the cliff, had some apple slices, soaked in the sun’s warmth, and enjoyed the view.   While I was there, some other people arrived including a couple of young “mid-twenties” girls and their small “dust-mop” dog.   We all decided to leave the cliff at the same time.  I asked them (in Bulgarian) which the fastest way was down.  On the trail I came up, or the new trail I found going down the other side.  They told me the new trail, and they were going down that way.  Since I was not sure where exactly this new trail would come out, I was happy to let them lead the way.  It was much quicker. But what was more fun was the conversation on the way down. 
Irena and Dianna both lived all their life in Asenovgrad.  They had gone to college in South West Bulgaria about a three hour drive from here.  They have graduated, but are looking for work which they cannot find.  They showed me where they live, and I assume they are living with their parents – like so many other Bulgarians.   They asked me all of the usual questions.  How long have I been here, where do I live, where do I live in the US, do I like Bulgarian food, do I like Bulgaria, and on and on.  I also asked about them, where they went to school, what they did, etc. (By the way, this was all in Bulgarian.)
The trail we were on ended up on a large high rocky cliff-like peninsula which projects into the edge of the Asenovgrad.  Lynn and I see this cliff wall every time we visit.  There is also another chapel at the end of this cliff peninsula.  Our trail down the mountain took us past the cliff to the front of the chapel where the girls talked to some other folks.  Then we headed backwards along the trail we had just come on behind the chapel to the cliff.  I was confused!  There is no way down, and I kept asking where we were going?   Irena told me to watch and learn!  And we headed over the  cliff edge on a small foot path that zig zagged down the cliff.  At one point, they told me they were mountain goats – and I agreed.  But we got safely down, and I learned the trail.  At the bottom, they asked if I knew how to get to the train station.  I did.  We parted, and I headed to the train station and home to Plovdiv. They went back to their homes.
It was a wonderful day!!!
Thanks for reading

Monday, November 1, 2010


Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

One of the Seven Lakes
What started as a trip to Istanbul ended as a jeep excursion into the Rila mountains.  Twice a year our faculty ventures together on an “excursion”. Most often it is in Bulgaria, but this fall a plan was in the works for two nights in Istanbul. That never came to fruition, I’m guessing because of the expense. An alternate plan was developed; a one night trip to the beautiful Rila Mountain National Park to the mountain top resort of Panichishte the place we spent our first four nights in Bulgaria with Peace Corps. It is a beautiful location and this time the promise of a lift ride to the top to view the famous Seven Lakes enticed us to join the group. The excursion is an opportunity to dance, eat and drink together. Not everyone goes, but for those who do it is usually a fun time.

We set off in a luxury bus right at noon on Friday. It is about a four hour trip, none of it on highways. First through the flats and then up and over one pass after another. Looking down in some locations, you know that puny little guard rail would never stop a full bus from careening off the edge. But our driver was cautious and the edges of sheer cliffs became less threatening. As we neared our destination, it all looked familiar. Interestingly, some colleagues had never been here. We find this to be true often as we talk about places we have been in Bulgaria. We have certainly been to more places in Bulgaria than either of our counterparts.


The Panorama Hotel was appropriately named. It sat in a clearing facing south with wide expanses of mountain views. The sky was a clear deep blue, bringing the outlines of the snow covered peaks into sharp focus. A large patio even in late October with the sun shining was a wonderful place to sit and enjoy all this grandeur.


Mike and I immediately set out on foot in search of this new lift reported to be about twenty minutes away. We found the signs but it was more than six kilometers away.  Too far for a late afternoon trek.  Instead we just enjoyed a shorter walk with some colleagues.

News broke early that the lift was not working, a great disappointment for those of us who had planned to ride it the next day. We had come prepared for what might be a cold 20 minute ride and a 30 minute walk once on the top. Seven Lakes sits at about 9,000 ft.

There are two things that are consistent among Bulgarians. Most often plans come together at the last minute even for rather large events, and details just aren’t part of the plan. In America, one of the planners certainly would have confirmed that the lift was operational at this time of year. As a result of always being in “crisis mode” they are good at scrambling and solving problems on the fly, or  just accept things as they are. This time there was a plan within a few hours of hearing the lift was not working to take jeeps to the top of the mountain where the lift would have dropped us. All was well and good.

Saturday morning was just as clear and beautiful as Friday had been. It would be perfect at the top, with opportunity to see all seven lakes from one vista point. At the designated time three jeep/four wheel drive vehicles were parked out front and ready to go. It was a squeeze getting everyone in. Ten people were packed into my jeep: a father and son in the passenger seat, four women sitting two forward and two back in the back seat and four good sized people cramped into the way back with very little head room! As we left I thought there were still people waiting to go and thought there must be another jeep on the way. I never did sort that out. 

The first 15 minutes were on a newly paved road and there was much laughter and excitement. A few expressions changed as we reached the bottom of the lift and started up the rugged construction road. We zigzagged back and forth under the lift several times and expansive views opened up a few times. This was going to be SPECTACULAR!  We splashed through puddles formed by descending streams and bumped over good sized rocks. I didn’t care for the driver smoking and talking on the phone while driving, but at least we were not on cliffs edge while he was doing it.

During one of the phone calls I heard him say чакай!  Wait! And before long we were stopped. Another quick call and we were on our way. Around a bend and up a VERY steep incline. Part way up and we could go no further. Ice and spinning wheels! Back down and try again. Same thing. Third try unsuccessful. Time to lighten the load. Everyone out. Back down with only the driver and another attempt. Over and over again while we watched. Up ahead of us the first jeep had cleared this part of the hill, but was enacting the same scene on the next part of the hill. Below the third jeep waited patiently. Our driver eventually tried an alternative route from the lower waiting point, only to get hung with two wheels in the air 20 yards from the road. The first jeep eventually gave up as well and returned to the flats, quickly rescuing the hung jeep. 

"I know I can, I know I can"!
Not this time, but next time for sure!

Everyone OUT!

Rescuing the "hung Jeep"
Eventually we had to admit defeat and turned to return. However my jeep which was packed like a Volkswagen full of clowns on the way up now only had five people in it and one was not someone who had come up with us. Where were the others? Had they been shuttled back already? Another mystery!

Back over the stream puddles and rocks feeling disappointed. Will we have the opportunity to return to the Seven Lakes again before we leave Bulgaria? The snows remain on top into summer and they are not easy to get to. Bummer!

Suddenly my jeep turns off the road and we are attempting an ascent up a logging road, much worse than what we have already experienced. Now there were trees to dodge and much bigger stumps to get hung up on. What is he doing?  A failed attempt one way just means try again another way, and that is what we did several times. No one in the jeep is saying anything, just numbly sitting and watching.  In the meantime the other two jeeps have stopped and are waiting on the road. Again failure, more discussion and off we go again to the base.

Oh No! NOT our driver. He heads back from where we just came and sure enough we try again (with the five of us still in the vehicle). On our way up the impassable stretch we see a VERY LARGE logging vehicle backing down. This is the kind of machine that has tires larger than I am tall (no laughing) with treads as deep as my hand. If he can’t make it up certainly we can’t. But no, once it is out of the way we try again, first forward then in reverse. I’m thinking ( in Bulgarian) enough already. What is motivating this man to be such a fool?  Is it the money for he would garner in this one afternoon a week’s salary, pride, or stubbornness? God knows. All the while we are just very quietly accepting this. I could not stand the foolishness any longer and said (in Bulgarian) “Enough, this can not be done and there is not enough time to go to the top.” I got no response from anyone, but within minutes we were turned around and heading back.  The other jeeps were no where in sight. They had not waited to rescue this fool hearted colleague if he had once again got us hung up! Once we hit paved road there was a collective sigh of relief.

Feeling safe, I enjoyed the vistas that would appear as we descended, but became alarmed again when the jeep stalled for no apparent reason. A few tries of the crank and nothing. Had he emptied the tank of fuel with all those attempts up the hills spinning wheels furiously?  The driver hops out, grabs something from under the driver’s seat and lifts the hood. Blinded by it we can only guess at what he is doing. The sounds of a compressor certainly leave me confused. Unhook the compressor and back in the jeep. Several more false attempts and I’m thinking surely we have run out of gas. His stubbornness is rewarded and eventually he gets the jeep started and we are off again!  The hotels are looking familiar and we are now within walking distance to the hotel if anything else should go wrong.

Once back, there seems to be some commotion among the teachers which neither Mike nor I could understand. We try to sort it out by watching and listening but eventually have to turn to Petya to translate. Apparently those people that did not return in my vehicle are STILL on the mountain. They had decided to walk to the top. All but one have cars at the hotel as they are planning to extend the long weekend by going other places nearby. They are in touch with the group and it is estimated that it will be four hours before they return. There is talk about a jeep waiting to pick them up but where? We have learned to just go with the flow as there is nothing we can do. However it becomes clear 38 people riding the bus back home are going to wait for the ONE person who decided on her own to hike to the top. Mike and I certainly would have joined her if we had known it was an option!!!   There is surprisingly little discourse about the waiting….once again just accepting things. Petya says, “We have no choice. She paid for the bus”.  As Americans you can imagine our thoughts about that. She is not being stranded on the top and once down there are two cars heading toward a town with buses to Plovdiv!!  But we wait. Her four hours were only two but I can tell you she was not a popular person when she returned. The director had a few words for her, we boarded the bus and headed home.
There is a good chance Mike and I will  get to Istanbul and return to the Seven Lakes long before many of these Bulgarians do.

As crazy as it was, we had a good time. The camaraderie, location and weather were all worth it plus we had another Bulgarian adventure!!