Plovdiv to Koprivshtitsa (Копривщица)

Dave the motorhome is in the shadow of a mausoleum to those killed during an attempt to overthrow the Ottoman forces in Bulgaria in April 1876. We’re in a small, stone surfaced square  (N42.63997, E24.35806) surrounded by tiny shops selling honey and other stuff we don’t recognise. A few minutes ago a white car with blue Cyrillic lettering parked next to us and the uniformed guard inside was watching us, Ju nipped out to ask if we were OK to sleep here. ‘No’, he replied smiling and nodding his head, then pausing and thinking. ‘No problem’. He was just recalling his English, we’re good for a night’s kip right in the centre of town, although a big old lightning storm’s just kicked off and all the WiFi networks have disappeared; we guess the power’s gone south.

The bones of the Bulgarian revolutionaries lie to my right.
The bones of the 1876 Bulgarian revolutionaries lie to my right.

I celebrated my birthday by consuming an entire 2.5 litre bottle of Deep lager, setting back team Dave’s budget about £1. Part way through three nippers walked past Dave and looked in, a little taken aback people were sat inside. We waved and said hello. The eldest was perhaps ten, the others younger. We introduced Charlie to them (they spoke his name over and over ‘tshar-lee’) and listened as they bashfully tried out their English, which was pretty good. Russian used to be taught at school, now it’s English. They left, waving goodbye, a tiny band of brothers and a credit to their nation. One had a T shirt which read ‘Opportunity is Everywhere’.

As the last drop of Deep gave out, I showered Charlie to relieve him a little from the baking heat and hit the sack. This morning Ju told me how she’d laid awake listening to the noises of the city. Shouts from the riverside below us where some folks had been sat drinking under a tree, muted music, a chorus of frog croaking and something falling onto Dave, probably a bit of branch. I looked out the window at the cobbled parking spaces alongside us, and the occasional person walking their dog, we could have been in a London suburb, a quiet one.

The heat and some low-level break-in nerves had us spending only a little time in Plovdiv centre yesterday, and we decided we’d at least get up to one of the city’s hills this morning. Just a short walk and a plod up granite-stepped paths had us at the top and looking out at the panorama, from the shadow of this guy:

Soviet Soldier at Plovdiv
The Lone Soviet Soldier at Plovdiv, the Alesha Monument. He looks east from high above the city.

The monument, which is flippin’ monumental, is said to be the largest granite statue in the world. It’s modelled on a real chap, a Red Army soldier who, at least as of 2010, is still alive. The statue celebrates the soviet ‘liberation’ of Bulgaria. Why the quotes? Bulgaria had a weird part to play in WW2, starting off neutral and only siding with the Axis powers when Germany threatened to invade on its way into Greece after Italy’s failure to occupy it. Bulgaria fancied getting back some old territory too, and joined in the fighting, but refused to declare war on its old friend Russia. Events played out and before they knew it Russia declared war on Bulgaria and occupied the country, booting out the Nazis and subsequently practically forcing a communist regime on the country. So Bulgaria wasn’t actually being ‘occupied’ by the Nazis and therefore couldn’t actually be ‘liberated’. Nevertheless, the statue’s there, and even more weirdly it’s never been pulled down. Clearly the line sold to us on the western side of the Iron Curtain that the populations in the east were being held in grip by a hated bunch of commies, and were desperate to break free at any cost wasn’t entirely true? A few more pictures from the monument:

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Once we’d done gawping at the sheer size of the man of stone, we looked out over the city. It’s not exactly a pretty place, but on the other hand it’s not exactly rough either. The streets are in fabulous condition, easy to drive with pedestrian crossings and traffic lights on visual timers, clear markings and almost zero traffic (at least at the weekend). There are ageing buildings, depressing high rise flats and a skyline with chimneys and a cooling tower, but on the whole we found it a pretty amiable place, well on its way to becoming a generic ‘Euro-City’. The statue helps set it apart and I hope they choose to leave it up there.

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There’s another monument up there too, itself rather large but it’s about at toe height compared with the soldier. It was built to remember the lives of 200,000 Russian soldiers who were killed pushing the Ottoman Empire out of Bulgaria in 1878.

Russia 1: Ottoman Empire 0
Russia 1: Ottoman Empire 0

It was getting hot so we legged it back to Dave, saying hello to fellow dog walkers on the way. We’ve been trying to remember the Bulgarian word for ‘hello’ from our phrasebook, but no-one uses it, they all say ‘doberdan’, so we’ve taken to using it too. Getting back Dave STILL hadn’t been broken into, nor had he been graffiti’d, tyres slashed etc etc. Plovdiv was kind to us, all the fear was purely in our heads.

Before leaving the city we filled up with fuel (they wouldn’t take a non-Lev credit card, so good old cash came out, again). We keep a close eye on fuel prices as in some countries they can vary by as much as 10% between fuel stations, sometimes on the same street. Not in Bulgaria, almost everyone charges 2.61 Lev per litre, about €1.31. Spotting an open Billa supermarket (in Italy and Greece most shops shut on a Sunday), we nipped in. Inside it was like a cross between Wilkos and an old Co-Op. Shelves were generally stacked one item deep and several items wide, prices seemed (to me) pretty high but they had a much wider range than Lidl. Back in Dave I nipped a potential hangover in the bud with a fistful of cooked chicken wings.

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Heading north from Plovdiv.
Heading north from Plovdiv.

Leaving the city, we found the motorway and turned left, backtracking on yesterday, we’d sussed this was going to be the fastest, least pot-holed route. Passing advertising hoardings offering everything from Jack Daniels to ‘Road Builder – Infrastructure for the Future’, we zoomed along through the wheat fields, 100kph all the way, getting sweatier by the mile

Storks in the fields alongside the motorway.
Storks in the fields alongside the motorway.
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Despite our many photos of horse-drawn carts and ageing buildings, don’t be fooled, Bulgaria’s clearly changing as this massive solar array attests.

Off the motorway and onto the ‘yellow roads’, the surface stayed great and we cruised on up towards the Sredna Gora mountains. JEEZ, the lightning’s close, the last thunder clap came up through Dave’s floor and the power’s still off around us. Anyway, back to the road. Ju did a sterling job trying to photograph the still-incredible sight of the horse drawn carts through our fly-battered windscreen:

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We had to include this one though (mainly fly-free) as the wee fella at the back legging it after the rest made us laugh:

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Eventually the road surface relaxed a little, catching me out as we thundered over a group of unmissable holes. Dave’s cupboards now turned upside down but nothing sounded like it had bust so we cruised on, a bit slower as we headed uphill and staring ahead into the shadows as the air around us slowly cooled. Eventually we entered Koprivshtitsa. Why bother with Koprivshtitsa? Good question, since its in the middle of nowhere (even it’s own train station is 9km away). The answer’s twofold. When the Turks held Bulgaria, this place was important, and had a fair few rich traders and intellectuals in the population. Once the Russians had kicked Turk butt, this part of the population no longer fancied living in the sticks, packed up and left for the cities. At this point pretty much all development on the place stopped, and the commies designated the town a special status so it’s not fallen to bits. The second reason is that it’s here that the Bulgarian nation started the path to freedom from the Turks. The story’s an interesting and bloody one.

An educated, travelled and wealthy 25 year old chap named Todor Kableshkov kicked things off. He was part of an underground resistance movement plotting an overthrow of the 500 year-old Ottoman occupation, but someone snitched on him to the Ottomans who tried to arrest him here. Things unsurprisingly got nasty and a couple of Ottoman policemen were killed, allegedly Kableshkov fired the first shot on a bridge a little way from where we’re parked. And with that the April Uprising commenced. The Ottomans (now called the Turks) went bonkers, killing men, women and children, tens of thousands of them. Kableshkov was caught and tortured before committing suicide in a police station, perhaps thinking the cause was lost. As it turned out, the atrocious actions of the Ottomans back-fired, rousing Russia into action who poured into the country and ousted them.

For our part, we poured into Koprivshtitsa, parked Dave under a tree and went off looking for all this good stuff. Instead we found a village like any other, no sign of the monuments, the bridge, the church where Kableshkov’s buried, nowt. We grabbed a few pics anyway.

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Disappointed, we headed up to have a look at this fella overlooking the town (another Bulgarian who died fighting the Ottomans) and retired to Dave.

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Ju wasn’t about to give up though and walked all off a few meters around the corner ahead to find we’d walked in totally the wrong direction. Doh.

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Kableshkov, A Bulgarian Hero
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Kableshkov’s Well-Tended Grave
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Debelyanov’s (a Bulgarian poet killed in WW1) grave, with his mother carved out forever awaiting his return. “I die and am yet born again in light” is written behind her.

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 Phew! History-a-thon! The rain’s now lashing it down on Dave, blissfully cooling the air. It’s looking like the lightning’s taken out the power still though, scuppering our plan to eat out. Time to crack open Dave’s cupboards (Ju’s wondering if we should offer to cook for the entire town!).

Cheers, Jay

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