Saturday, September 3, 2011

Zdravete, friends!

This week, we continued our orientation to Bulgaria and our new place of employment. We find ourselves with yet another 4-day weekend to enjoy, so we're off to explore Sofia a bit further today. But first, let's look back on our exploits with our cohort of new teachers...

The school does a nice job getting new teachers acclimated to each other and to Bulgaria by taking us on a little excursion, which happened last weekend. We visited three very important sites: Rila Monastery, a still-working monastery and place of sacred importance in the Eastern Orthodox history; Koprivshtitsa, a tiny village that was turned into a "museum village" under Soviet rule; and Plovdiv, the "Paris of the Balkans" and Bulgaria's second largest city.

Rila Monastery has the geographical advantage of being nestled in the Rila Mountains, and so the views from throughout the monastery's courtyards and balconies are impressive. Keep in mind we've had almost exclusively sunny, cloudless days, so the contrast of lush mountain greenery and deep blue sky make it easy to understand why St. Ioan Rilski chose this site and, later, why the builders and artists of various local schools were inspired to adorn it as they did. Unfortunately, a major fire destroyed almost all evidence of the original buildings from the 10th C., so the pictures you see here are of 19th C. buildings.

Rila Monastery's principal church

The rooms along these upper balconies around the courtyard are the monks' quarters

A fresco of St. Georgi on the outer wall of the main church

You can barely make out one of our colleagues crawling out of this dark and narrow cave. It's the cave in which St. Ioan, Rila's founding father and patron saint, lived in seclusion. Many of us crawled through it.

After Rila, we visited Koprivshtitsa, which earned its fame during the April Uprising, April 1876; this insurrection against the Ottoman "yoke" was not technically successful--it was brutally suppressed by the Ottomans, a story retold passionately by Bulgarians--but is said to have laid the groundwork for Bulgaria's establishment as a sovereign nation a couple of years later. There's a bridge in this little village from which the first shot of the Uprising was fired. Many of the town's homes are now historical sites that depict life in 19th C. Bulgaria; Americans might recall colonial Jamestown when visiting the village. The folk-art style of the facade paintings; the choice of color; and the reliance on wood for almost all major construction lend a doll's house feel to much of the village. We stayed overnight here and were treated to a quartet of Hungarian teenagers performing Balkan folk dances in the evening, followed by a lively and long dinner. Our companions in the restaurant were a group of Bulgarian and Hungarian people, two of whom, we found out later, were the hotel's owners, visiting with friends for vacation. They were an extraordinarily friendly and welcoming group, and they taught many of us Bulgarian folk dance and insisted that we dance with them. The restaurant quickly turned into a Bulgarian folk dance party, which later devolved into a regular dance party fueled by American country and rock hits that you'd never have imagined to make it across the pond.

The tower of Koprivshtitsa's "old" church (built about 15 years before what is still referred to as the "new" church, from the mid-19th C.)

The facade of one of the village's historical homes; the paintings depict scenes from Venice and other trading points for the home's wealthy owner.

One of Bulgaria's most revered poets was killed in the First World War; here, a statue of his mother gazes out towards the gate of their home, depicting her waiting for his return.

Phil never would have made it in these houses

Typical view of homes in Koprivshtitsa

Koprivshtitsa streets

The view out the window of our hotel; some of our colleagues were awoken in the morning by the sheep living next door.

The next day, we moved on to Plovdiv, which is the hometown of one of our tour guides, Natalya, who works at the school. We toured the Roman amphitheater, which is in remarkably good condition, considering that--or maybe because--it remained buried until about 1973, when renovations on the school that perched atop it uncovered this hidden treasure. We also spent some time roaming the lovely cobblestoned streets of "Old Plovdiv," and then went to a hilltop (Plovdiv has 7 hills) for a better vantage on the city.

It seems that ruins of the Roman, Byzantine, and, certainly, Ottoman periods of the country's history lie all around one's feet. One teacher from a small village south of Sofia said that, as a child, he and his brother were always turning up relics and using them as toys. Natalya tells us that many a construction project has ground to a screeching halt, stalled indefinitely, due to the discovery of an archaeological treasure that stands in the way.

Plovdiv's Roman amphitheater

Phil on the old steps of the amphitheater; some of the upper balcony seats have been replaced, but much of the theater's original marble is intact.

The glare off the marble was so strong I could barely keep my eyes open for this photo.

Incredibly, these tall columns flanking the stage still stand.

The streets of "old Plovdiv"

Plovdiv graffiti

The facade of a building in Old Plovdiv

Fountain in a main square off a pedestrian street in Plovdiv.

Back in Sofia, we started orientation in our departments and then, yesterday, had the first all-school faculty meeting. Those days are always pretty overwhelming, between all of the meeting and greeting and information-overload; fortunately, the vibe among the staff is notably cheerful (at least for now!), and our colleagues have been incredibly helpful in getting us up to speed. Unfortunately, we won't maintain that speed for long, as the national holiday called Unification Day falls this weekend, meaning we have off until Wednesday! Rather than escaping to the beach, the mountains, or even another country, as many people do, we've opted to stick around Sofia. We'll do some more neighborhood walks, bike rides, and perhaps another excursion to Mt. Vitosha tomorrow...

Until next time, obeecham (love) from Sofia!