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Archaeological Tour of Bulgaria May 2016
One of the highlights of the programme of the Classical Association of Ireland is the biennial tour of a country of classical interest under the inspired (and inspiring) leadership of Joan Wright and Andrew Smith.
This year's tour was to one of the less familiar parts of the Greco-
Our trip began and ended in Sophia and took in quite a large slice of the country. What we experienced was a beautiful country with stunning scenery, a wonderful variety of archaeologcal sites and a friendly and welcoming people.
Our local guide was Julien. He, Joan and Andrew had put together a programme that included some of the most interesting sites and museums but also gave us great insights into contemporary Bulgarian society. Julien was a mine of information and his theories about Thracian culture sparked some lively discussion! In addition to this, he was unfailingly kind and helpful. When we recall that we stayed in nine different hotels over the fortnight and, for various reasons, used four different buses., it was a very challenging assignment for Julien.
Sophia (Roman Serdica) has one metro line in operation and another is planned (Dublin please note!). The excavations revealed extensive remains from the Roman period, very well preserved and displayed. Sophia also boasts the most amazing collection of Thracian gold in its archaeological museum. Plovdiv is Bulgaria's second city and quite different to Sophia. It gets its name from Alexander's father Philip but it is the Romans who have left extensive remains. We were entertained that evening by local singers and dancers. On our way to Ivaylograd, we had a tough climb up Perperikon, a strange jumble of massive boulders. It is claimed that Alexander came here seeking to know what the future held for him.We were now working our way towards the Black Sea. On the way, we stopped at the wonderful Roman Villa Armira where we were lucky to have an outstanding guide. On then to Nesebar, beautifully situated on a promontory on the Black Sea and once called Mesembria, Nesebar has many fine Orthodox churches.
Over the next few days, we encountered some fascinating examples of Thracian burial mounds. The one at Pomerie is quite extraordinary and gave rise to lively discussion. Later, we met other tombs at Kazanluk and Shipka.
Although not often available in Ireland, Bulgaria produces lots of wine,some of it very good and very reasonably priced. We had a number of visits to wine producers, large and small, built into the programme.
On then to Varna with its museum and Roman baths. Not far from Varna, we had a very pleasant meal on the shore of the Black Sea, (two of our party even took the plunge!). Our route now took us westward towards Velik Tarnovo but on the way we stopped for a picnic below the Madara horseman, a stone carving high up on the rock face. In the same area were the lovely mosaics at Devnya from Martianopolis, the complex Trajan built for his sister.
On then to Nikopolis ad Istrum and a steep climb up the imposing Tsarevets fortress. Later in the evening we enjoyed a sound and light show. The end of our tour was not far off but there were still some treats in store. First was Stara Zagora with its museum, Roman theatre and mosaic. Another surprise was the importance of rosewater to the Bulgarian economy. Bulgaria is the largest producer of rosewater in the world. We had seen on our travels acres and acres of roses and were given an interesting tour of a rosewater distillery in Karlovo, followed by our last hotel in Hisaria (a town built by the emperor Diocletian) and our last meal all together, enlivened by local musicians playing traditional instruments.
We have been fortunate enough to have experienced Bulgaria, past and present. It is a fascinating country with a wealth of treasures, many of them waiting to be discovered. It remains to record our thanks to Joan and Andrew for all they did both before and during the tour to make it so memorable.