Monument? Which Monument?
Oh, You mean that Monument towering above town?
Time to check out Shumen.
We are here to see the first capital of Bulgaria, and the second is not too far either, but this morning we are just going to look at the massive monument we can see on the hill above the town and an old fortress. Both of which we only discovered were here on arriving in the city.
A quick walk along the main street. This is a fairly old street, and although Shumen did not seem to come into its prime (architecture wise) until the 1920’s there are a few prime examples of this type of building around. Again, as in the other Bulgarian towns we have visited, they appreciate the artistic value of statues and fountains. Both of which appear on the walking street through the centre.
At the far end of the street things get into a little worse condition, and if you go any distance away from it as well. There is a grand gesture to the vagrancies of the modern world, with a high building that has only been partially built before the construction was abandoned. After a few jokes about it being a monument to modern buildings and living we moved on. A statement on Communism and society in the finest form.
Finding the path leading up the hill, we had a look around. It was wide, well built and slightly overgrown. In the centre there were spaces for water to flow down the hill, and the occasional feature. Seeing all this, it was a surprise to find out that the EU is providing about 6 million Euro for a refurbishment. Apart from a little gardening there was not that much that needs doing. I could have it all done for 1 million!
Steps. There were lots of steps though. (1400!) At first it was not too bad, but as we got up above the town the steps got steeper. Very soon we were well above town. The hill side had turned into forest, and the steps continued ever upwards. There was no end in sight, and they disappeared into the sky. After an eternity we started catching glimpses of the monument. We had known it was big from looking at it in town, but now we were a lot closer and higher it looked even bigger. Humongous is not the word. It is bigger than that. Eventually we made it to the top of the stairs, and had to crane our necks upwards to see the thing. On the side looking out over the town was a lion, and everything else was cement.
Going up the last few steps we were greeted with the sight between these monumental columns of cement and stone. A gigantic statue of a horse and a man in front of it. The people up here were trying to jump up and touch his hands. Eventually two of them lifted the third, and he could just make it. The statue was easily ten metres high!
From the bottom of the hill, we thought it was only the one statue looking out, but inside there is a whole collection. This entire place was built to commemorate the history of Bulgaria, and built in the over-the-top blocky communist style. It works. The place is impressive. Walking around and taking our time, as everyone else left we got to appreciate the detail, and while up close it is a bit rough and crude, as soon as you step back it all blends in together. Very well done given the scale.
After walking around, and seeing the mosaics on the underside, admiring the details and getting a good look out over the plains and town, we went and paid. It is one of the few times where we were both happy to find the ticket office and give our donation.
Apparently there is a car park, and if you drive up they expect you to buy a ticket, but if you make the effort and walk up the stairs, you get a free pass! This also had a side benefit of getting some information on the place. The guy and his horse is the founder of the Bulgarian state, and then a few other statues of the major Khans after him (The Bulgarians come from Asia and are probably related in some way to the Mongolians, as the leaders are Khans, and they used to live in Yurts). Then the mosaics represent different time periods and peoples in Bulgaria.
This place is amazing, and the good thing about it is that it is unknown. We just happened to stumble across it, and are very glad we did. It is easily one of our favourite statues/monuments that we have ever seen!
Going on from here, we learnt that the entire plateau is a park, and at the far side there is a fortress. Well, we did know there was a fortress here somewhere. Part of the reason for climbing the hill in the first place was to see if we could see it! Apparently it is about 5km from the monument, and everyone we asked for directions was stunned we didn’t have a car, and thought it was no problem to walk there. One lady gave us an itinerary though. Walk to the fortress, then down the hill past the brewery (not open for tours 😦 Past the second biggest mosque in the Balkans and back to town. It is only 10-15km. Sounds like a plan.
The plateau is an interesting place, the area is Limestone Karst (Similar to where we went hiking in Slovakia, but very different topography) and full of caves and monasteries. We didn’t go and see them as we were worried that we would not have enough time to get to the fortress before it closed. This turned out to not be an issue, as it does not shut until 7pm in summer, but we didn’t know that. Info is a bit hard to find. Even getting an idea of the walking tracks is difficult, as individual paths are not set out specifically, but marked according to their difficulty. Any signposts (of which there were very few) are in Bulgarian, and while this is not surprising, it does make it difficult for us. The tracks themselves are clearly marked, but the ones we took were based on my internal compass rather than knowledge. Still, we made it to the fortress (OK so we cheated and followed the road for a lot of it).
The Fortress dates back to Thracian times and has been around since before Christ. It was adopted and modified by the Romans and Byzantines before being destroyed by the Ottoman. At the moment there is nothing much left. Some parts of the walls have been restored, and one tower. Other than this there are only foundation walls from different times remaining. The entire complex has been used as a town occasionally, and the walls are clustered together so thickly that there is not much space left for anything else. The paths between the houses would have been very narrow and a large man with a big barrel of wine would have had a lot of trouble moving around. Granted that these foundation walls date back to different periods over the 1000 year history of the fortress, but still. Now there is no way to identify different buildings other than the churches due to their orientation and curved wall.
It was good to go around the place though, and you are even allowed up into the reconstructed tower. On the inside it is a masterpiece of concrete. The stairs are bulky and only attached on one side, the floor is a good couple of inches below the level of the stairs on the landings. We assume that they had intended on putting a proper floor in, but never got around to it. On reaching the top the view out between the turrets is stunning. The site of the fortress opens up below you on one side, and on the other there is the town, shrunk in size due to distance, and then a view out over the fields all the way to where a small range blends into the haze of the summer air on the horizon.
Following our itinerary we were given, we wound down the road through more forest when it started raining. We were missing this a little bit, as it must be close to two weeks since it has rained! It was only a little bit, and cleared up fairly quickly,although the clouds hung around and left a chill in the air. Down twists and bends to the bottom of the hill. Much easier than the stairs going up on the other side of the plateau. Past the never ending row of crates being used for the beer factory (Yes, we went past them, so it was not never ending, but it was a very long line, and that wasn’t all of them, the derelict buildings were being used to store them, and still more stretched off in another direction past the factory itself) through a nice park land area, past the bear coming out of its small cave. It must have been a bit disorientated as it even allowed me to clime up on it and go for a ride. The only problem was that it was made of bronze, so it didn’t go far, but on the flip side it also didn’t maul me either!
A long day, a longer walk, but worth every metre. Especially now that we have gotten home and gotten our shoes off!