The Stuff Inbetween!
This morning we had nothing to worry about. A bus out to Pilska or Madara and take it from there. At the bus station we found out that the only bus to Pilska in the morning is at the ludicrous hour of 7am. Madara had a more reasonable one, that we could still catch.
Not taking any chances, we pre bought tickets (after learning how) and got our bus. Madara is not so far from Shumen, just past the fields of sunflowers.
On arriving at town, we found a place similar to Veliki Preslav. Small and sleepy. The archaeological reserve is a couple of kilometres walk from town, and of course, is up hill. We made it in good time, and got our tickets. The only way to find out any information on the place is to buy their little booklet along with the tickets, or just look it up on Wikipedia afterwards… We also discovered that there is a regional ticket, but as we had already seen some of the sites, it was no longer practical for us. Wish they had told us that before!
Getting a run down, we found we could do the steps up to the horseman, or avoid them by going left, then seeing a few other things before going up more steps to an ancient fortress overlooking the cliffs. We went left.
Following the path through the forest to an old pagan site. All that remains now is a small stone square. Apparently this was an old basin. Water was piped into it from the springs coming from the cliff base. A bit further on there was another pagan site. A small temple that had been demolished to have a Christian church built on top. The church is now gone as well, only leaving the foundations. Then there was the third pagan site of the Rock sanctuary. This is a large rock that has a few old walls around. The legend goes that if you walk around barefoot at dawn you will be charged with the energy flowing through the place. From here we looked at how to get to the caves. Apparently they are at the other side of the reserve. There is a trend showing in Bulgaria. We are not exactly sure what it is yet, but it is either people cannot tell left from right, or map makers have a skewed idea on directions. The next time we look at a map, we will bring a mirror.
We were not the only confused people here. There was another Australian here under the same misapprehension as us. Coming down the stairs, we asked the Bulgarian family if this was the way to the caves or the fortress. They spoke no English, but let us know it was only the fortress. Then they asked if we had been in Preslav yesterday! They had been there as well, but our paths would not cross again as they were not going to Pliska tomorrow (we may not as well, so we could meet them again!).
Parting ways with the Australian (She went to see the horseman and then back to Varna to continue learning Bulgarian dance) we headed up the cliff. More steps. This time carved out of the soft stone. All different heights and depths. Each zig of the zag we got higher. Above the tree line where you could start to see out over the plains back to Shumen, then you could see Madara clearly, a nice circular town bisected by the railway line. Then a Roman ruin appeared out of the fields, and we were still only half way up.
At the top the view is stunning. We are sure that the parasailers above us were getting an even better view, as they could get a 360 degree look around, whilst using the thermals from the cliffs to climb even higher. Walking along we made it to the fortress. There is nothing left here except for some of the outer walls. Three walls and a cliff. A great defensive position. Inside it is all overgrown, and only the foundations of a few buildings remain. Not much to say for it, but the view sitting on the wall as it met the cliff made it worth while. On our way back to the steps to go down, we found a place where there was a shelf about 20 metres below the top of the cliff. This was unusual as it was smooth and covered with concrete. There was also a hatch in it. We have no idea on what it was for, and no way to get there other than abseil down to it (Darn, I left my ropes in Australia!) We asked back in town, but the language barrier prevented any answers. The other weird thing we found up here was fish! There were two small pools of water in the rock of the cliff. In one of these, tiny fish were swimming around. Unfortunately the photos did not work, but we found it surreal that there were fish up here!
Back down the hill we made our way along the base of the cliff to the horseman. This is a famous rock carving that was probably created in the 800’s. It is very important in Bulgaria and the person on the horse in now a saint (We had seen Icons with the same picture in Varna Museum). It is also the image used on the coins. This was the whole point of us coming here today.
What we had not expected is a metal monstrosity of a viewing platform in front of it. We were not even allowed up the platform! Given the signage around (there was some telling you different paths, and most of them even had an English version!) we were surprised that there was nothing here. It is one of the most spiritual and important sites in the country and there was nothing here. Again it was a conspiracy to buy their booklet.
I lied above. There is a sign that is in Bulgarian at the site, and surprisingly, in German! This sign is almost as old as the carving itself, and just says that it was discovered by the wider world in the 70’s (1870,s or 1970’s we are not sure) and is now a UNESCO site. Thrilling.
The carving itself is cool. A lot of detail remains, and the guy on the horse with his trusty dog behind him stabbing some kind of animal (No it is not St. Gorge and the Dragon, but someone else). The rock is cracking due to age, and a lot of the Greek inscription to the side has been lost due to a section of the stone flaking off. After admiring it from ground level for a while, we moved on. Just one small gripe. If you are going to have a large steel viewing platform in front of it, either let us up it to get a better look at the carvings or REMOVE IT! It is an eye sore as you can see from the photo. and a ptty it detracts from the place.
Further along the cliffs we eventually found the caves. They were right rather than left. Still, there was not too many places they could be. One has been converted into a small shrine. Although it is not much of a cave, but a place where rocks had fallen and created a small grotto, it is still considered important and filled with icons and offerings. Moving on from there we could see evidence of habitation on the cliffs. Holes cut into the wall for beams, stairs carved into the rock to go up different levels, and even foothold stairs to go even higher. Nothing but the rock is left, yet using your imagination you can see a massive complex forms in your mind. The caves themselves are not that interesting. A small cave and a big cave. The big cave is a very large overhang that could have housed a few families. And what is an important site without a tourist souvenir stall? So of course there was one here. It was not bad though, he had a nice place set up under a tree and was happy reading a book until interested people walked past. Not pushy, not impacting on the site, and not worried.
After leaving, we found out the bus times, and there was no way to get to Pliska from here. There was no way to anywhere from here. We had to walk back to town to catch the bus. It was only twenty minutes until it left, and we had to go roughly two kilometres to get there, yet there was another option we had not looked at. We could catch a train! This was a lot better as we could have an ice cream first before doing the walk. Back to town was not that interesting, but in town we had to follow the train tracks to the station. This was a dirt road, and there was nothing here. A few dilapidated houses with their grape vines hanging down over the fences and trellises. Then the road ended! Still no sign of the station, and now only a small path to follow. We had no idea on if we were even going the right way. I was pretty sure we were not, as it was a fair distance back to town, and their were fields on either side. Crossing over a bridge the path got better (there was paving) and the remains of an old ornate fence. Going along this we found the station. It was in the middle of nowhere. A rather large columned building. We had been warned that it was no longer in use, and as we found a seat, we got a look around. The door next to us was fairly new, as it still had its protective tape around the sides. It had even been painted over when they painted the wall (This is not unusual and we have seen it many times in Bulgaria. They leave the tape on until it comes off by itself). The windows were all still intact, but there was nothing inside. The station building and area around it was also about 10 metres from the railway lines! You had to go over a small wooden section to get to the rough sloping cement platform before climbing up into the train! Not the most thought out, and we have no idea why, as the building itself is very nice. A lot better than the other station buildings we passed on the way back to Shumen.
The train ride was pretty good. Fast, well, as fast as the Romanian ones anyway. A bit bumpy, but the view was pretty good. Sure there were overgrown sections that you could see nothing but a newly grown forest, but other times you could see the fields of sunflowers and wheat, with corn in between. After buying our tickets on the train, we settled back and enjoyed the ride. Being deposited at the Shumen train station which, happily, is right beside the bus station.
That’s about it for the day, unless you want the boring details of walking all the way back to tourist information to work out where to go to the day after tomorrow, or the succulent chicken for dinner and that sort of mundane thing. Having said that though, the chicken was good. Even if you have to buy the side dishes separately. The beer was cold, and we managed to avoid hearts, lungs and tripe which is popular in the country. As we are no longer in tourist central, this was no mean feat!