Updated: Nov 22, 2018
Well that was quite an adventure and a half in May! All with the adventures of Bulgaria as the main one of the month for a photo project with two other friends.
With a wedding and a race straight to Heathrow from the wedding to start off with, and I was lucky to get 20 minutes to spare to catch the last train down to London from Doncaster! I did manage to get Heathrow in good time also despite problems reaching there due to maintenance work over the weekend.
On the morning of the flight out it was a lovely pleasure to see Astrid once again after two years (neither of us could believe how long it was neither!) and very much looked forward to this adventure! Flying over Sofia as we were coming into land, it was a wonderful crisp day it looked and gradually over the descent, the whole Bulgarian land and world came to view. Mountains and trees along with the punchy and powerful green it showed to us. With the buildings showing history and age of Sofia also, even though Sofia is not our base city for this trip. The airport itself was neat, spacious and wide open. Good to get around and to find where you are going and after meeting our third friend and photo buddy Heike, who came in from Germany whilst of all places we were going through passport control, we got out and got our car for the trip, the Fiat Tipo saloon. Once loaded up, we set off to your base town, Plovdiv in the central part of Bulgaria.
2 1/2 hrs driving later, arriving in the historic town of Plovdiv to our flat for the week, we certainly needed a rest after our long journeys! Plovdiv town was amazing to see. A real mixture of old and new, and traditions flowing through the veins of the town and Bulgaria in general. Will come back more on Plovdiv later.
On our first official day outing, we went to the town of Bachkovo, South of Plovdiv near Asenovgrad to explore our first of many monasteries on our trip. Bachkovo Monastery is certainly one with full tradition held on, even though tourism plays a big part in its life now, it still has its origins and feeling.
Also, this trip is quite a trip back for Astrid as she once lived in Bulgaria for a while and so it was really nice to follow the adventure and track back to her past and also for her to bring out the Bulgarian language, which is regarded as a difficult language to learn. When a monk of the monastery was talking to us from the upper floor balcony, he thought we were mostly english until Astrid spoke to him in Bulgarian and he were astonished in a lovely way, in fact he invited us to his room which we had accepted. It was certainly a delight to visit and support his wonderful heart and enthusiasm and the room feeling like you were in a forgotten era, piles of various items, books and other pieces kept to either be reused or memorabilia and reusing items for various tasks to help keep the costs low. A single bed with various coloured blankets in simple basic conditions. During our conversation with the monk, something of the past sprung to mind that I had learnt from another great dear friend of mine Philip Dunn about photographing people when he used to work for various top newspapers and magazines and I remember vividly photographing people then and the cogs had started to turn in my mind palace.
I can always remember Phillip saying always try and photograph them in a way to help viewers know who they are and to respect them. Later on, as we were leaving, the opportunity arose to do so, his doorway.
Seeing the wooden doorway, the gentle lighting on him reflecting is welcoming feel and for me the trigger point of the image was the Bulgarian Flag with a small tree like pin on the flag that really connected everything for me. (I hope I did you proud Philip!)
But in all seriousness, seeing the life of a monk in today's eastern Europe was a privilege to see and I want to thank him (the Monk) for allowing us to see his personal side of life and it makes you think once more in today's life that there is still signs of poverty and penny-watching.
After the monastery, the three of us hiked up through trees and small valleys to a small Monastery called Bashkoviski Monastery. A total contrast to Bachkovo, it was only a small almost hut sized monastery but what is unusual about this little treasure of a find, is that it has natural spring water flowing through it which I thought was wonderful. The walk up has also showed me the frequency of drinking fountains and springs, which is quite regular in places! The little shrine again enthused my mind with appreciation and delicateness of today's reigions and respect. The water flowed clean and was drinkable. The time we spent here we had seen changes of lighting and shadows fairly quickly which gave the place many sides to its personality.
Our main base for the duration of the trip. Plovdiv is one town with quite a lot to see. From quiet past time streets of Centuries ago to near current times and with some mix of tidy modern buildings. The most modern of buildings were more between the centre and the outskirts of the city. In central Plovdiv there were an array of sights to see of the tidy central high street area to the quieter mixed smaller streets, especially in the old town castle area, where there is also apart from castle ruins, but you can see most of Plovdiv from the area also. on the first evening of arrival we thought we would go for a stroll around old town with just our phones and got really into the depths of the town's personality from cats to the cobbled streets that we had explored and also graffiti with a variety of topics, especially political and social modernism which was found on a variety of buildings and stone. Although I felt sad that the natural stone was defaced of the graffiti, I admired the art work at the same time, especially the details of some of the influential people of Bulgarian history was interesting and looking at it again, as a way of communicating it through to today's generation is an interesting way.
The second evening of our stay, we went out for an adventure around the streets, but this time with the main cameras and through out the evening, we were hoping for some rain... Which never came until late... with an unusual surprise...
On that late second evening, we explored Plovdiv again but with our cameras and hoping for some wet weather to lighten up the streets and to add a bit of 'sparkle' to the scenes. Well, along with some very late showers, we had another surprise... Whilst I was stood in the old castle ruins, it felt a bit like listening out for the call somehow... As I was preparing to do a long exposure of a cityscape, heard cracks of thunder and thought anytime soon, we are going to get showered... But instead of showers, came flashes of lightning instead! I thought this could be my chance to capture one!!! Knowing that I was pretty much thrown into the deep end without preparation, I was having to work with what I had got... It pounded, rattled, banged, flashed with the whole landscape in flash-lit daylight and knowing my probability of getting one was slim... But on one take, another huge crack came and thought that looked a good one but didn't think it would come out right... The moment the shutter clicked off and processed, the above image was the result! I was beyond stunned! Astrid also got her first ever lighting shot also that evening and I was so proud of us capturing a lightning strike on the first attempt!
Plovdiv is also one of those cities with a variety of night time views and also scenes of interesting energies and life. On the final evening of the night photography work, I remember seeing a scene in the centre of the town where there was a lonely cat amongst the neon lights of a corner store and food parlour. It made me think about the loneliness of the place and the feeling of able to detach my way fo life into one fo a cat or a local. That feel was what drove me to take the picture of this lonely cat on its night out.
Etar, Shipka and Buzludzha
Etar is a small town in the mountains in central Bulgaria and after a long drive from Plovdiv, we had arrived at the small town of Etar, which was a small little normal village / town of manufacture and production of tools and other various hame crafts including especially the outstanding quality of leather work, powered by old traditional methods and green efficiency ways with water mills thanks to both very small canals and man made aquaducts to control flow of water effectively and to where needed. Etar is now a working museum, managed but protected. It is worth a visit as everything is in a working way that is hard to find nowadays.
Shipka is a place also worth visiting in the area of Etar. It isn't far from the town and has a large memorial and statues commemorating a battle of long ago during 20th century warfares of world war and of soviet wars. With wide beautiful views from the climbing of the steps to the tall structure and easy to drive to from the main road.
Buzludzha is quite another! Although a long almost 1hr of driving around its bends, with potholes the size of tables and dodging left and right here and there to avoid the dense and consistent potholes of the old road, it was certainly worth it to this amazing area. There are murials and small statues once more about the war torn past and then the magnificent reward of a phenomenal abandoned structure that reminds me of star trek or a UFO spaceship! An abandoned government building where a ruling political party used it as its headquarters until it was left in 1989. Although the huge structure is desolate, and left to rot, it is still of interest somehow as police still do patrol the building and its grounds to this day. There were wonderful photogenic views across the mountains and valleys from this place.
St. Ivan's Church, Koprivshititsa and Smoylan Three Memories Rock Bridges
St. Ivan's Church is certainly worth a visit to see. A small church that is in ruins but still used as there are various displays of some religious imagery. At certain times, the Church does flood from the lake that it stands alongside. Parking the car nearby for safety as it was also an area renowned for cut-throat type gypsy country, we didn't expect the car to be suddenly surrounded by at least 15 - 20 cows! A cold sweat and thinking more of what could happen, I was about to suggest I go and move the car when the cows suddenly walked on, thanks to an 8 year old gypsy boy herding them along. Later, the boy spoke to us, begging, which we refused. However, the church, although sat on a dry area of the lake beach and bottom, sat wonderfully in the magical side light from the pre-dusk light that was on show. a scattering and balance of cloud coverage was wonderful too. It was nicely timed and I was able to set up a long exposure shot as above to just allow the tones to guide us into the image and not the sharp contract edges of the sky or the flora. The place also feels that it was trying to explain to us its history and past before its fall and decay. I certainly felt to have created something to extract its speaking somewhere in its sky above.
Koprivshitsa is an interesting town to the North-West. A town up in the mountains in a gentle swooping valley, it was raining and overcast, but this seems to set the tone and senses off nicely. There are many small museums and collections within houses and yards here which is wonderful to explore. It really showed the depth and explanation of its past and the influencers of Bulgaria who revolutionised and changed life as well as fighting hard for their rights against many empires that the country had faced. The streets are certainly traditional away from its main road at the river. Cobbled streets and tracks leading up and down the sides of the town, there were pictures a plenty to do. Traditional brick work, doors and styles are still here too.
On our last day before closing the work and preparing to head back home, we looked through Plovdiv town and as an afternoon final visit, we thought we would explore Smoylan, an area high up in the mountains with roads the width of just an average sofa and bends as hard as hairpins and again potholes, although not as bad, it was a long drive and climb up the southern mountain range along some bridges with again a pleasant reward to see the Three Memories Rock Bridges, natural formations of the landscape where there are large formed caves and gaps of which they have shaped the area like bridges. Certainly large and graphical area, it is definitely an area where sunrise would be magnificent.
Overall, I would certainly return back to Bulgaria. The country is full of charm, friendly people and bearing on from its communist past with still old structures and billboards that stands empty and rusting through. A happy, but also sorrow of history is sensed here. A time-warp still trapped in its past, reeling, and building, but preserving itself for future generations to understand its background and struggles. I certainly did feel Bulgaria's personality and haunted past.