A little bit of history.

bulgaria jewish travelBulgaria is one of the oldest countries in Europe, just about 100 years older than Greek City-States.  The country was founded in 681 BC. According to the archaeological finds, the first settlers were Thracians.. Between the VII and VI centuries BC the ancient Greeks started the colonization of the Black Sea coast. The Romans (I century BC) divided Thrace into three provinces: Moesia, Thrace and Macedonia. From the IV century AD the whole Balkan Peninsula was occupied by the Byzantines. From the V to VI century, Slav tribes settled in the Balkan peninsula and merged with the existing peoples. During the second half of the VI century, the region near the Danube delta was overrun by Proto-Bulgarians who came from central Asia. During the VII century three kingdoms were founded in Eastern Europe and each of them was named “Bulgaria”.

The first was the Great Bulgaria of Khan Kubrat, located between Russia and the south-eastern part of Ukraine which disappeared soon after the death of its founder. The second kingdom was founded by Kubrat’s son, Kotrag, between the River Volga and its tributary Kama. The capital was Bolgar (now Kazan) and the kingdom existed, as a separate country until the XIII century. The third kingdom was founded by Khan Asparuh, the third son of Kubrat. At the beginning, the Bulgarians were allies of the Slavs, until the year 680 when Bulgaria was founded. Over the years the Proto-Bulgarian aristocracy merged with the Slavs and the rest of the Thracian communities. In the IX century the official language of the country was Slav and the Cyrillic script was applied throughout the Balkans.

The First Bulgarian Empire existed from 681 until 1018 (during this period Bulgaria accepted the Christian religion as the official religion in 865), when Emperor Vasilii II invaded Bulgaria and made it a province of the Byzantine Empire. The second Bulgarian Kingdom (1185-1396) was born in Veliko Tarnovo after the revolt against Byzantine rule. In a few years Bulgaria became the most powerful empire in the Balkans under the rule of Ivan Asen (1218-1241). In 1396 Ottoman rule began and continued for almost five centuries. The Bulgarian aristocracy and administrative structure were destroyed and the National Church fell under the control of Constantinople. Hundreds of Bulgarians were deported to Asia and were sold as slaves; a lot of churches and monasteries were burnt and people who had refused to accept Islam were often killed. In the XIX century, this situation favored the birth of the new period of the Bulgarian National Revival.

The Orthodox Religion and the sense of Bulgarian cultural heritage became stronger in sections of the population, particularly in the commercial classes, which started to be rich and closer, for commercial relations, to Western Europe, so in April 1876 riots broke out and a large part of the country was involved in the first  uprising. In a few days the Turks repressed the riots, due the disorganization of the rebels. The balance of the uprising was terrible: over 30,000 Bulgarians were killed and 58 villages were destroyed. These and other atrocities led to many protests throughout Europe and was one of the reasons that led Russia to declare war on Turkey. In September 1908 the independence of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire was declared in Veliko Tarnovo. In September 1939, Bulgaria declared its neutrality in the conflict.

But in 1941, when Germany decided to invade Greece, the Bulgarian government allowed German troops to cross the country in order to avoid a German invasion. In 1943, after death of Tsar Boris III, Bulgaria joined allies. In September 1944 the National Front, dominated by the Communists, took power. The members of the previous government were arrested or executed. The National Front won the 1945 elections. In November 1989, the Central committee of the Communist Party forced Todor Zhivkov, prime-minister from 1962, to resign and decided to change its name to the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). The BSP won the first free elections. Bulgaria was the first country in the Soviet block which returned ex-communists to power. One year later the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) took control of the country. This caused a long period of political instability until June 2001 when the newly formed National movement Simeon II, led by the last king of Bulgaria, surprisingly won the elections. Although Simeon did not participate in the elections, he became prime-minister.

He claimed that he didn’t want the return of the monarchy. In his words his only aim was the fast modernization of the country through the implementation of the project called “the 800 days program”. Bulgaria became a European Union member in 2007  Travel Blog Day by Day.

September 17, Sofia – Kyistendil. I flew to Sofia present Capital of Bulgaria, connecting from Tampa to Atlanta to Rome.  On the plane to Rome, I was seated with very friendly group of Evangelical Christians from Mississippi. They were flying for a mission to Albania and were carrying bibles translated to Albanian. I arrived Rome at 7am, I had seven hours layover to Rome but I prefer it over CDG 1.5 hour connection which I would never make it.  As of now, there are no direct flights from USA to Sofia.  My layover I spent time in business lounge, had shower, breakfast and even layed down on massage chair for 1 hour which somewhat alleviated my jet lag. I browsed nice stores in airport. Almost bought Furla purse to replace my old one, less expensive than I bought in USA 8 years ago. Flight from Rome to Sofia was about 3 hours. Airport was almost empty in the evening. On arrival, all my 3 collegues from local travel agency GoBalkans came to meet me: Emilia, Virginia and Kristina. I appreciated warm greetings, and Emilia drove company minivan to the city. Sofia reminded me of the Soviet Union – many apartment buildings of Khruschev Era. They were mixed with new sleek shopping malls and business centers. We arrived to my hotel 4* Princess casino.  I got superior room on 12th floor with nice view of the city across of train and bus station. Location is a bit off center but still walkable. I enjoyed music by piano and cello player at casino bar until my companions arrived to go to for dinner.

Two more agents joined us for dinner who arrived day earlier, Doug and Karen, who would me my travel companions for my stay in Bulgaria. We walked for dinner to Hadjigranoviti Kashti  – local characteristic Bulgarian restaurant At Kashtitie which features national dishes.  I SHOULD NOT HAVE EATEN but food was delicious and a lot’s of it. For starter, I had Bulgarian dish- shopska salad which had delicious tomatoes, cucumbers,peppers, sweet onions, topped by white Bulgarian cheese. It looked like Grek Feta cheese but I was told is not feta cheese but Bulgarian cheese and it is called Sirene! They do not use various dressings, just olive oil and vinegar.

For main course, I opted for chicken shish kebab “shashlik” with vegetables.  Food was delicious. After that we walked back to hotel  few minutes and I barely made to bed. As usual first day in Europe I am without sleep for 48 hours.
Room was nice though for 4* hotel. Good internet connection with free wi-fi. No in room safe though.  Next morning, I joined Doug and Karen at breakfast, the service was fine but with eastern European attitude – not too much smiles.  Food was good though, many groups mostly European and Japanese.

I tried Bulgarian specialties: banitsas (a pastry filled with cheese, spinach or meat), Bulgarian plain yougurt which is creamer than ours, and it is somewhat what I grew up with in Ukraine (kislo mleko – translated as Fermented milk). Bulgarians use the culture Lactobacillus Bulgaricas which as I was told, is very beneficial to digestion.
After breakfast, we met our guide Kamen and Emilia. Emilia drove us for short drive to the city center and dropped us of for a walking tour. Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, has been settled for many millennia. In honor of its hot springs, in the 8th century BCE the Thracian tribes settled here gave the city its first name – Serdika or Serdonpolis.

In the 1st century BCE, Serdika was captured by the Romans, who transformed it into a Roman city. Serdika was the favorite city of Constantine the Great (reign 306-337), who said “Serdika is my Rome.”  At the beginning of the 9th century, the Bulgarian Han Krum (reign 803-814) invaded Serdika and the city became an inseparable part of The First Bulgarian Empire. At that time the city was renamed Sredets (The Center), because of its central strategic location. From 1018-1094, Sredets was under Byzantine rule, but still remained an important strategic, economic, and cultural center. The city gained its present name at the end of the 14th century, in honor of the city’s major symbol, The St. Sofia. Her three daughters, Faith, Hope and Love were tortured at reign of Roman emperor Hadrian.
Sophia buried them and remained by their graves 3 days until she died herself. St. Sophia Church has been built later in 6th C commemorating the Saint. The city, known earlier as Sredets (Средец) in Bulgarian, was renamed Sofia in 1376 after the famous church. St. Sofia gave city its name and is a protector and the symbol  of the city.

f you happen to pass the Sofia city center, you  will definitely notice the Statue of Saint Sofia standing on a column in the middle of a bussy crossroad. Her golden face look upon the Batemberg square, where TZUM, The presidensy and the Government houses are situated.  The 24 meter high bronze statue was designed by the local sculptor George Chapkanov and replaced the statue of Lenin that was on the same spot (the square was also named Lenin at that time). This is the newest statue in Sofia and it is a nice thing to see when you go sightseeing in Sofia. She stands on a place where the old culture meets the modern lifestyle.
Sofia means “wisdom” in Greek (I am lucky my parents gave me this name!), that’s why she hold a an owl in her left hand, a symbol of wisdom. In her right hand she holds a laurel wreath – a powerful symbol meaning peace, success, reputation etc.

We walked the center where we saw excavations of “Serdica”  Even city’s underground passages and metro is part of this archeological site. We inspected 5* hotel Arena di Serdica in the center, which lobby is a part of Roman Amphiteather. When they started digging for construction of hotel, a unique complex containing the Amphitheatre of Serdica and a theater was discovered! The finding which was evaluated by archaeologists and architects as unique and sensational required changes to be made in the architectural designs of the Arena di Serdica Hotel so that now the hotel guests and visitors may enjoy the priceless artefacts.  How cool it will be staying at this hotel! Just to walk this lobby on the glass floor revealing below excavation site was exciting. We visited Church of Sveta Nedelya (Holy  Sunday), circa 11c, typical example of Neo-Bysantine architecture.  The entire church is painted by talented Bulgarian masters.   We passed Mosque, from the years the Ottomans had control of the city nearly five centuries. The mosque derives its name from

the phrase Banya Bashi, which means many baths. The most outstanding feature of the mosque is that it was actually built over natural thermal spas. The mosque is famous for its large dome, diameter 15m, and the minaret. Currently the Banya Bashi Mosque is the only functioning mosque in Sofia and is used by the city’s Muslim community.  We crossed through covered market building (admired selection of produce, meat and fish)  and arrived at synagogue. Sofia’s synagogue is the largest Sephardic temple in Europe. It is located in the historical center, close to Mosque and several churches of other denominations.  The only city in Europe I’ve seen such close all religious monuments is Sarajevo. This impressive building is style of Bulgarian National Romanticism,   combination of Moorish and Viennese Secession styles. It was built in 1909 by Viennese architect Friedrich Grunanger and was supposed to be similar to great Sephardic Viennese synagogue in Vienna (unfortunately now demolished). During the war Bulgarians were on the side of Germany.  The synagogue was shut down as most Sofia Jews were sent to Bulgarian provinces. Most of them survived (see more about it below). During allied bombing of Sofia, there was some damage of the building. After the war Soviet backed Communism regime declared the country atheistic, arrested the Chief Rabbi, used this wonderful building as a concert hall. After fall of the communism, the synagogue was given back to Jewish community, restored in 2008 by Bulgarian government and with help of private donors from Israel and USA.  So here I am standing under 2,200 kg Viennese brass chandelier, the largest in Bulgaria. In Synagogue, I saw a plaque commemorating Boris III , King of Bulgaria, and Queen Giovanna for rescuing Bulgarian Jews during dark days of Holocaust.

History of Jews in Bulgaria and Macedonia

Jews lived in area which is now called Bulgaria since 2nd CE, some theories suggest, they moved after destruction of the First Temple. During Roman conquest, many Jews were exiled here from Jerusalem, these Jews were Romaniots.

There are archeological finds in Kuistendil which shows Jews lived there in 3-5 centuries CE, also antiquity synagogue in Philippopolis, now modern Plovdiv.  At that time Judaism was tolerated in Chirstian Roman Empire. In 8th Century Bulgaria was land of many faiths – Proto-Bulgarians, Slavs and Thracians. I learned in history museum about Jewish influence in Slavic Alphabet. First Slavic Alphabet, Glagolithic, was created by two Greek monks, Cyril and Methodius, acting on orders from Emperor of Byzantine. It was needed to spread a new alphabet to Slavs outside Byzantine and increase Constantinople’s influence. And, besides Greek, Latin, Phoenician, Coptic, some letters were borrowed from Hebrew. Glagolithic did not survive however and the students of Cyril and Methodius were expelled. Later on, in next century, it was replaced in Bulgaria by Cyrillic. Even to this days, Cyrillic continues to have two direct borrowing from Hebrew: Shin ש And tsade ע Gave letters Ж and Ц In 11C

Bulgaria has a good number of Jewish communities. Under Byzantine rule, Ohrid (which is Macedonia now), became a center for Jewish studies. In 1185 Bulgaria regained independence and Jewish Immigration increased. Romaniots were joined Italian Jews called Francos. Most of them left anti-Semitic Europe and also take advantage of pro-Jewish laws encouraged by Bulgarian King Ivan Asen II in 13C. Many of them were business people and had state jobs. Jews in second Bulgarian Kingdom seem to have better life then their brothers in Europe.

During Ottoman Empire they prospered since the Sultan needed educated citizens and was tolerant to non-Muslims as long as they paid taxes. And when Jews proved their usefulness, then they even got tax breaks and became influential and rich. In 15th Century,   more Ashkenazi Jews arrived from Europe. In 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled Jews from Spain, The Ottoman sultan grabbed golden opportunity and invited them to Ottoman Empire throughout Balkans including Bulgaria. Next 2 centuries, Jews prospered. Sephardic Jews lived in their own communities and spoke Ladino. The Jewish newcomers brought needed skills to Ottoman Empire. They practiced medicine, law, succeeded in business, banking, trade. They had close knit network throughout Balkans from Salonica to Plovdiv, Skopje, Sofia, Venice, Dubrovnik, Walachia and Moldova (my trip will take me later on to these places…)

In 18th Century, however, it was harder to keep competence, and they become isolated from Western Europe. The Sultan was losing interest in them since they already did their job, and started slowly deprive them of their privileges. Meanwhile, Bulgaria started talking about regaining their independence from Ottoman. While Jews were supporting fight for independence, there were concern of Russia to act as liberator since Tsarist Russia was anti-Semitic. When Russia declared war on Ottoman empire in 1877, some Jews left Bulgaria. But many Jews supported Bulgarian national cause.
Famous Jews Moshe Kalev and Leon Krudov were war heroes in decisive Shipka fight. The Russo-Ottoman war ended officially July 13, 1878. The treaty was signed in Berlin. The new country adopted principle in new constitution not to discriminate any religion or ethnic group. The Jewish community first time during its existence in Bulgaria, was granted the rights of religious community and they appointed first Rabbi in 1885. Zionists wanted chief rabbi to be subordinate to Consistory – a secular organization modeled after community in France, Alliance israélite universelle.

They won and at the first National Assembly in 1920 it was decided to every Bulgarian city with a population of over 300 will have their own Jewish community. Sofia, Varna and Ruse each had two – one Ashkenazi and one Sephardic. In newly founded country, Jews had to re-invent themselves since whatever influence they had in Ottoman empire, was not available to them anymore. With urbanization, new Jewish working class was born. Their influence in government decreased, most Jews now prospered were traders, artisans and industrialists. Jewish culture started developing, schools opened, and curriculum was endorsed by government,  and children now studied Hebrew, history and religion. Jewish newspapers were published, writers, composers, musicians and poets were part of Bulgarian life. Even sports organization, Maccabees, emerged as very popular club. Many Jews served in army and they were allowed to take day off on Shabbat. The military Oath of Allegiance were adopted for Jews and Muslims in prayers said before battle.
During my visit of Bulgaria, I saw quite few of plaques commemorating Jewish soldiers for their services. During that period from independence to 1920’s , Bulgaria developed national identity and Jews were integral part of it. But unfortunately with WWII started in Europe, Bulgaria choose wrong ally. I will return to this topic later in my blog.

After brief visit to synagogue, we had lunch in sister restaurant at Kashtitie where we had dinner yesterday. Then we hurried to St. Sofia church for celebration of St. Sofia day.  On September 17, The Bulgarian Orthodox Church marks the Day of Saint Sophia and her three daughters Faith, Hope and Love. This is also the holiday of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, which is named after the Holy Wisdom of God. When we arrived to St. Sofia church, we were lucky to come close so we saw President, city official and clergy carrying icons and wreath and hear the liturgy in front of the church. Then the President’s group proceeded to the main boulevard.

Kamen pointed President, Patriarch of Orthodox Church and army personnel in the respective uniforms (President’s Guards, Army, Navy, Air Force).  The liturgy was conducted by Orthodox Patriarchs and national anthem was played.  We were amazed to see President and Religious leaders and honored to be a part of this celebration.

Afterwards, we went to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It is the largest church-monument of Balkans, built in 19th Century by Russian architect Alexander Pomerantsev, neo – Byzantine style, with its gold plated dome. It is dedicated to the national saint Alexander Nevsky and Tsar Alexander II and is a memorial to the 200,000 Russian soldiers who fell in the Russian-Ottoman War, which resulted in Bulgaria being liberated from Ottoman empire. We did not have time, but for those who are interested, there is Icon Museum in the underground crypt  of the Cathedral, impressive collection of icons.

We saw Largo  – a complex of three socialist Classicism built in 1950’s , now it is National Assembly of Bulgaria (former communist party headquarters), TZUM department store (similar to Russia and Ukraine) and Council of Ministry of Bulgaria in the same building. The third adjacent building to is occupied by President’s Office, Sheraton Sofia Starwood luxury collection, and the Ministry of Architecture. In front of Largo fitted very nicely I think, the archeological site, with Early Christian Church (below) Rotunda of St. George, believed to be built on the side of pagan temple. We went inside and admired frescos on its walls.

I enjoyed seeing and talking with Bulgarian people. Young people speak English and others who did not at least tried to communicate.

liked location of Sheraton (same building as President’s Office) and made a mental note to change my reservation from Princess Casino for last night in Sofia to Sheraton.

We left Sofia for Boyana Church, Unesco Heritage site, located in the village of Boyana, residential area of Sofia. The scenery was spectacular since the village is situated at foothill of the Vitosha Mountain. This small church is and in a nice wooded park. We waited until previous group of Japanese came out and came in. The church keeper showed us spectacular frescoes of 13 Century, painted by very talented artist. His mode of expression was very progressive at that times comparing to medieval art, and many historians call his work as a precursor of Renaissance. Afterwards, we visited The National Museum of History, with its collection from prehistoric times to the present day.

There was a Russian helicopter at the entrance to museum.
In late afternoon, we said goodbye to Kamen (who will join us again few days later) and departed Sofia in for Macedonia. We Arrived Kyistendil, a town near Bulgarian – Macedonian border. During the Iron Age, a Thracian settlement was located within the town, and then became conquered by Romans in 1st Century. On arrival, we dropped bags at our hotel 5* Strimon Spa and went to see Dimitar Peshev’s house. It holds a museum dedicated to the life of local-born Dimitar Peshev. It is a joint project of Kyistendil municipality and Union of Bulgarian Jews. Dimitar Peshev, who was born in Kyustendil, was a Deputy Speaker of the Bulgarian National Assembly during the war. He  was instrumental in saving Bulgarian Jews from deportation and death during Holocaust. It is a precise copy of Peshev’s house and all materials regarding his life and work and history of Jewish community are exhibited there.   History of Bulgarian Jews at Holocaust time. In 1940, Bulgaria had to decide which side to take. King Boris was afraid that otherwise would bring on Communism (even though Russia at that time was ally of Germany) so they went along with Germany.  When Yugoslavia was divided between the Axis powers, Bulgaria regained the territories that it had lost in the Balkan war of 1912-3, including Macedonia.

But very soon Bulgarians started getting uncomfortable since King Boris III and National Assembly were asked by Nazis to deal with “Final Solution”.  Jews were taken away their basic civil rights based on infamous Nuremberg Laws. The new law caused many protests from Members of Parliament and Orthodox Church against discrimination of Jews. In February 1942 the Bulgarian government agreed to deport 20,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia.  Since there were nowhere near 20,000 Jews in these provinces, it was agreed to make up the difference with 6,000 Jews from Bulgaria itself.
The first such group of Bulgarian Jews was to come from Kyustendil. When rumors about the intended deportations reached Peshev, he acted promptly and traveled to Kyustendil. There he met with the assistant chief of police who told him about the planned roundups. He also received delegations of Jews and non-Jews who implored him to intervene. Peshev, who two years earlier had accepted the anti-Jewish measures as necessary, felt that rather than shut his eyes and continue to persuade himself that the alliance with Germany benefited Bulgaria, he confronted the consequences of this pact and decided that it was his responsibility to act.

He organized a parliamentary delegation and brought the matter to the Parliament. On 17 March he wrote a letter of protest and had 42 parliamentarians sign it. In a final vote, the party declared its support of the Prime Minister and decided to censure Peshev. On March 30 Peshevwas forced to step down as the Parliament’s vice president, and his request to be allowed to speak was rejected.
Peshev was politically ostracized, but his protest was echoed by other political and clerical voices and the Bulgarian government had to abandon its plans to deport the Jews of Bulgaria. The deportations from Bulgaria were suspended, but while the political negotiations were going on, the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia were being deported by the Bulgarian authorities. Bulgarian Jews were sent to Bulgarian Provinces and King Boris III and parliament were dragging their feet as possible to delay Final Solution.

At the end of 1944, King Boris III visited Hitler in his Alpine residence of Berchtesgaden. Hitler was losing in the war and the King refused to send his troops to the Eastern front. A few days later, King returned home and suddenly died under unclear circumstances. The country was brought into government crisis and all Anti-Jewish measures were suspended. In summer of 1944, Bulgaria realized that pack with Nazis was a big mistake.
The government distanced themselves from Hitler and joined the allies. On September 3, 1944, anti-Jewish laws were annulled. Bulgaria after Holocaust In 1944, Russian Army invaded Bulgaria and communist led coup toppled the government and installed new coalition.  During Soviet Regime, Peshev was charged with Fashism and anti-Semitism (that’s Soviets to you!) and collaboration with the Germans.

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was released after serving one year. He lived in poverty and died in 1973. In 1997 he was declared an honorary citizen of Israel and was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. So some aspects of rescue of Bulgarian Jews rescue still remained unexplained. In fact, only two powers interfered with deportation – Peshev-led Parliament and the Orthodox Chruch. They say that the winners write the history. So under Communism rule, the propaganda was that Communist party saved Bulgarian Jews from deportation.
At current time, modern Bulgaria, politicians try to avoid controversies by saying that it was the whole nation’s effort. During the Soviet’s era, People’s Court sentenced to death many members of Bulgarian war government. Next King Simeon II and his family were exiled to Spain. His descendant King Simeon returned to Bulgaria in 1990 after Soviet’s regime collapse as a private citizen and became prime minister. Many cemeteries were destroyed.

Some Jews left right after the war to Israel, although Soviets insisted on creating a good life for Jews in Bulgaria. But as known now, after 60 years+ of communism, life turned out completely different of what Soviets promised. Now all people’s properties not just Jews, has been nationalized. Stalin sent people to concentration camps who opposed of new regime. Most Synagogues and churches closed.
After creation of Israel, Zionist organization was getting very strong. There was struggle between Zionist and Communist Jews. Communist Jews enjoyed party’s preferential treatment.  Bulgaria’s Stalinist leader, Georgi Dimitrov after consulting with USSR, allowed Jews to leave for Israel, especially after in 1948 Soviets supported creation of Israel at United Nations. Zionist were encouraging Jewish immigration “to fight against imperialism” there. In 1948-1951 about 33,000 Jews left.

There was an incident in July 27, 1955 when EL AL flight was shot over Bulgaria with all onboard passengers died. It was supposed to fly from London over Yugoslavia and Greece since Communist Bulgaria did not allow non-Warsaw pack planes to fly over her skies. Bulgarian communist party did appoint commission of investigation but they did not allow Israeli investigators to look into case. The Israelis stated the plane deviated because of high winds. Still the reason of shooting down the plane is unclear.
Nowadays, there is vibrant Jewish Community in Bulgaria with good relationship with Israel. After moving experience of visiting Dimitar Peshev’s house, we took a short walk of small historic center Kyustendil. The curator of museum accompanied us and she told us about history of the town and pointed landmarks.  We saw remains of Roman amphitheater and mineral baths.

A thousand year history of Kyustendil is closely related to the healing mineral waters which exists since Roman Age. Romans built there the biggest at that time center for leisure, health and entertainment for tired warriors. At modern times, hot mineral water (temperature of 74 C) combined with mild climate, made Kyustendil to well known Spa and health resort. After walk of the town, we came to hotel and I had about few hours before dinner so I went to the spa. I enjoyed mineral pools. I’ve met some Israeli tourists in the spa who said coming here every year for a week to “take waters” and make pilgrimage to Dimitar Peshev’s house.
Dinner was at hotel.  I had single room, small but adequate.

Next day we inspected hotel and it was nice however I would rate it 4.5+ according to Western European standards. Some suites had nice apartments with two levels but bathroom was on first floor. Not that convenient to go down at night on staircase.
September 18, Kyistendil, Bulgaria – Macedonia – Skopje – Ohrid After breakfast and inspection, we checked out and left for Macedonia.  About 1 hour drive took us to Macedonia’s border.  We arrived to Osogovski Monastery. We were able to drive up to mountain road, but Emilia told us that usually you park at the foot at the mountain and walk up about 30 minutes.

he setting was spectacular. It was founded in 12th Century and rebuild later in 19th. It had impressive wall paintings.
It’s unusual to see frescoes on the outside walls of churches and monasteries. This monastery complex is important religious, cultural and educational center in Macedonia. It is possible to organize art, science and religious seminars and events. It even has few rooms to stay.

The mountain air was so clear and fresh, I thought it would be a spiritual experience for people of any faith to stay there for few days.

We continued to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. On arrival, we felt contrast with city and mountains.. It was crowded, no rules for driving, complete chaos on the street. Emilia navigated through busy streets in the center. We were supposed to meet our local guide Vlatko on parking lot but it was no space to park. Emilia pointed to me hotel Holiday Inn in the center. I am not particular fan of Holiday Inns in Europe since prefer characteristic charming accommodations but since it is THE center of Skopje and to avoid parking issues, this would be probably the place to stay in town. We did not stay in Skoje though.

We passed Holiday Inn, pedestrian districts (but cars where sometimes parked in that area), found café and had a coffee break. Vlatko joined us there after managing parking minivan somehow and we enjoyed nice weather and people watching as well as discussing our sightseeing plan for Skopje.

Skopje was once part of Macedonian empire, then part Ottoman empire. During the war it was administered by Bulgaria. There is dispute going on with Greece since Macedonia after disintegration of Yugoslavia, wanted the name of the country “Macedonia”. That caused protest from Greece stating that they cannot use the name because there is already area in Greece called Macedonia. To me it does not make sense, for example, there is Georgia state in USA and when Georgian republic of former Soviet Union took name Georgia, USA did not object. So not sure what is a problem. Vlatko said it is a big issue.

Now Macedonia has temporary name FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Greece blocked Macedonia’s entrance into NATO due to the name issue. There was construction everywhere in the center and some of the buildings were already completed. 22 meters high statue of the warrior – Alexander the Great? There was no sign on it, maybe also due to the issue. The new buildings and bridge over the river are in Recreation of Neo-classicisim style in 21st century, through statues of historic figures.

In 1963, Skopje was destroyed in earthquake. Then t was part of Yugoslavia and it was rebuilt in Socialist style. This new project Skopje 2014 is about 100M cost, and besides revamping the city, also the goal of current party is to restore sense of national pride, create new monumental appearance and become attractive to tourists. There were many huge newly built government buildings, bridges, fountains, many sculptures of prominent history figures, a lot’s of statues, arc of Triumph. To me honestly it looked like Las Vegas.

But I am sure it will be big draw for tourists. Next we visited memorial where Mother Theresa was born. She was born in Skopje, in Albanian family. There is memorial plaque at the house where she was born and also larger memorial, very well done depicting life of this remarkable woman. Vlatko drove us to the fortress and old section of the city where Then we went to visit synagogue and the Jewish community center in Skopje. We strolled the ancient Muslim quarter with its Bazaar, souvenir artisan shops, narrow lanes, traditional coffee houses just like we arrived in Istanbul – you would not believe that few minutes away it is new Skopje center. From the top of the fortress we enjoyed for a nice view of the city.

There a TV crew nearby was filming concert so we listened to the music for a while. We had nice lunch at local restaurant Gourmet, where we were introduced to the new minister of tourism, he dropped in for lunch. He was very young and enthusiastic. We had an appointment at the Jewish community center in Skopje. The history of Macedonia Jews is similar to Bulgaria from arrival Jews to Balkans around 3rd century until WWII and Holocaust. But that’s when similarity ends. Unlike Bulgarian Jews, Macedonians were not that lucky, most of them perished in Holocaust. In April 1941 the Bulgarians invaded Macedonia.

Allied to Nazi Germany, from October 1941, Bulgaria introduced the same laws and treatment of the Jews as the Nazis were doing throughout Europe. Property was confiscated, ghettos were created, and finally in 1943 the Macedonian Jews were sent to the death camps in Poland. Of the 3,276 Jews from Bitola who were sent to Treblinka, not one survived. Many believe Macedonia lost 98% of its Jewish population during WWII, the highest rate of any country during the conflict.

Today there are about 200 Jews living in Macedonia, most of them in Skopje. What little of the Jewish part of Skopje that was left after WWII was finished off by the earthquake and practically nothing remains to be seen. Some efforts are being made to revive at least some of the Jewish past in Skopje. We visited Jewish community center and talked to their representative, young woman. She said that her grandmother survived deportation because she was runaway bride and eloped with her non-Jewish husband. After the war she assimilated but granddaughter was the one who brought family back to Jewish community. Young people are very active there. The current Jewish community center was in three floor building, at the place of former Beit Yakov synagogue.  he center is on second floor and synagogue was on third floor, just one room, with stained glass windows and menorah. There is also Hebrew school, various clubs, choir and even athletic club.

Rabbi comes from Sofia or Salonica for High Holidays. Occasionally families get together for a Shabbat meal. Jewish center has also kosher kitchen. We went to Holocaust memorial center but with traffic , we got behind schedule and we missed our appointment (at 4pm) and the center was closed. We could only take picture from outside. It is a new 2011 building as well. Every year there is commemoration ceremony on March 11, the deportation day at Tobacco factory (where deportation took place).

It was time to leave Skopje and we were on the way to our next destination Ohrid, where we will spend the night. We arrived late in the evening at hotel Royal View Ohrid, which faces the lake. It was already dark so we did not have a nice view of the lake.
The room was nice, hotel like so far everything we saw in Macedonia, was newly built. Bed was comfortable and free wifi.  There was a balcony facing the lake.  One thing there annoyed me, though.There was a desk, and a bed. The chair did not fit between bed and desk. It was put on the side. Could they come up with smaller chair? I hope someone tested the furniture before setting the room together. Dinner was at hotel, very nice, with traditional cuisine. I tried local trout and it was delicious.

September 19, Macedonia, Ohrid – Stobi – Berovo In the morning, I woke up with daylight. I opened my balcony and saw beautiful large lake with swans swimming in the lake. We had breakfast, checked out and went to explore Ohrid.
Ohrid is a Macedonian town located on Ohrid Lake. Since Macedonia is land locked, Ohrid is their sea. It is about 30 km long and 300 m deep. It is shared by Macedonia and Albania and it is one of the Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes.  It is designated Unesco Heritage site. The blue clear waters fed from mountain springs. On  top of the cliff we arrived to Church of St. Ioann Kaneo, from where we admired beautiful views and promenade on the lake. Ohrid considered is the most spiritual place in Macedonia.  The beaches looked lovely and there were small lake boats. I definitely want to come back here in summer.

We left Ohrid and went to our next destination. On the way we stopped at winery Popova Kula   for a wine testing and lunch.
The winery is in idyllic setting on crossroads from Belgrade to Northern Greece. It is great place to stop for overnight since they also have rooms to sleep. They served lunch with local dishes paired with wine. We sat outside with gorgeous views of the valley. We’ve learned that Macedonia has rich wine tradition since days of Philip the II. It has favorable climate with warm summer days and cooler nights. There are about 80 wineries in Macedonia. Two main varieties grown in Macedonia are Vranec (red) and Smederevka (white), which we had with lunch. The wines are not known yet in Europe since they only now started to work on marketing.

So far Macedonia and neighbor countries are consumers. We also looked at rooms which are named after wines (Cabernet Savignon, etc) and appropriately decorated.  It is definitely a good stop for dinner and overnight for people who appreciate food a wine.

After lunch we went to Stobi Roman Archeological site dated to 1st Century when it was first populated and lasted about 6th. It was an important urban, military, administrative, trade, and religious center of the Roman and Byzantine empires. It’s baptistery had well preserved beautiful mosaics in the theater, very advanced for  hat time.  In Stobi, the ancient synagogue was discovered dating from the 4th Century, created by the father of the Synagogue of Stobi, Tiberius Claudius Polycharmos.

Stobi Archeological site In the evening we got to Hotel Monastir  in the mountains close to Bulgarian border. We had nice dinner at hotel (seems to be nothing around there) and went to sleep. Emilia told us we need to leave early in order to see what planned and get to the border crossing.

September 20, Berovo, Macedonia – Samokov, Bulgaria – Plovdiv

We complied for 6:30 departure. I did not even have time to look outside and in the morning discovered I had a terrace with nice view , it was small studio apartment. My joy of seeing nice sunrise was marred however lack of hair dryer so I had to forego my shampoo of the hair. We left promptly at 6:30am, hotel provided breakfast box to go. About one hour later, unfortunately we got a flat tire. Doug who is a retired fireman and can fix anything, was able to replace tire and we were on our way, albeit with some delay. So much for rushing! The road was also mountain windy so Virginia put on emergency yellow vest and was regulating traffic for safety. Soon we were back on the road to the border! Karen was not feeling well so we had to stop in Blagoevgrad for a hospital. We waited for about 1.5 hour and I had nothing to do but scout for kiosk with drugstore and some hospital cafeteria food ! Karen returned and reported, doctors were very attentive, did not cost a penny and they gave her some medicine and it looked like virus.

We started to get concerned for our proximity but not much we can do. Travel is always adventure!
We arrived to the border. Once crossing to Bulgaria, Emilia was supposed to return to Sofia, our guide Kamen would rejoin us and we were going to continue tour north. Emilia said she would have to take bus to Sofia. On Bulgarian border, the custom officers were not present, maybe for break or so. We waited for 15 minutes. Meanwhile Emilia talked to next car’s driver  behind us and the gentleman there was going to Sofia and offered her a ride. Our American mentality kicked in and we advised Emilia not to go with stranger in a car! Emilia and Virginia said it is not a problem. The man seemed to be decent, in a good Volvo car, middle aged. Finally we compromised on taking car photo of license plates and asked her to call us when she gets to Sofia.

We stopped in a parking lot of large store which looked like our Costco. Emilia met Kamen and proceeded to the men’s car who was going to Sofia. Meanwhile Doug and I had expresso at “Costco” and Karen suddenly felt better, perked up by shopping opportunity and she bought some rose cream products very inexpensively. We continued, now Kamen driving and Virginia in charge.
Next touring destination was Rila Monastery, another Unesco Heritage site. The road in the mountains was beautiful. The trees started turning yellow. The monastery is believed to have been founded by a hermit, John of Rila, in the 10th century, during the reign of the

Bulgarian Tzar Peter (927-968). St John of Rila, whose relics are exhibited for pilgrims in the main church, in fact lived in a cave about half-an-hour walk away from the present-day monastery complex. The monastery itself is considered to have been built by his scholars, who came to the place to be taught by him.  It had beautiful frescoes, but most of them were restored in 19th Century. It seemed very busy and large complex.
Afterwards we stopped in a restaurant nearby where we had lunch. I enjoyed, agan, fried trout from local rivers. We stopped in small town of Samokov on the way to Plovdiv to see Arie House. Samokov is a small Bulgarian town but 200 years ago it was very prosperous. It was on a trade route from Europe to Istanbul and of course Jewish merchants came here and settled. They had good relationship with Ottoman rulers and prospered. They built synagogue in 1860. One of the wealthy family was Arie, and their house was preserved as national museum to show how wealthy people lived and for us it was interesting to see how well established Jewish community was. The house had Ottoman architecture but some of the furniture was European French. Later on, Samokov declined, and after Independence, Jews lost their lucrative import/export trade. The synagogue survived but currently is closed, waiting for renovation. On the picture above, you see ceiling is carved with Jewish Star of David. The lady in charge of museum told us the story of the house and showed it. It is indeed very beautiful house and well restored.

We continued to Plovdiv, our next destination, with brief stop at tire place to replace spare tire but there was no tire in stock for Emilia’s Fiat. We continued to Plovdiv and arrived in the evening, and checked into our hotel 4* Trimonzium in the center of Plovdiv. http://plovdiv.bgprincess.com/ Dinner was at the restaurant wine bar with European/Italian cuisine. It just me, Doug and Kamen since Karen wanted to rest in the room and Virginia needed to visit relative in Plovdiv. The food was European for a change,  and I had a wonderful risotto.

September 21, Bulgaria, Plovdiv – Kazanlak – Veliko Tarnovo    Next day we inspected hotel, I liked it a very much. Plovdiv has many archeological Roman sites and hotel had beautiful indoor pool right with excavations integrated in pool area. I was impressed by this ancient city. In ancient times it was called Philippopolis in honor of Philip the Second, Alexander the Great’s father. It dates to Thracian and Neolithic times. It was prosperous Roman town as, seen from different Roman sites around center. Ottoman rule, left marks at the Old city’s street   eastern influence. It had very nice pedestrian areas in the New Town with 19th century buildings, built over Roman Ruins.

The town also had beautiful Roman theater with, we were told, excellent acoustic, it is very well preserved monument of Ancient Rome.

Most concerts take place here. Plovdiv is also very artistic town, with about 40 art galleries, art school and City Gallery of Fine Arts. Young artists were everywhere in Old town, drawing their sketches.
We visited historical museum, did some walking and shopping in Old Town. Like in Sarajevo, in close distance you can find churches, synagogue and mosque, which attests to peaceful coexistence through ages. Synagogue was closed on Saturday.

We left for Kazanlak, Rose Valley, also called Valley of the Roses in central Bulgaria, where the famous Bulgarian oil-bearing rose grows. The elevation of the Rose Valley is between 990 and 2300 feet. The mild climate, particularly the spring weather, with its frequent rainfalls in June, soft sunshine, humid winds, cool nights and cloudiness, provides the perfect conditions for oil-bearing plants, especially roses, and for distillation of high-quality oils. Every year, during the first week of June, the city of Kazanlak celebrates the Festival of Roses. One of the festival’s traditions is the gathering of roses early in the morning by people dressed in traditional costumes. Folk dancers, singers and musicians perform in the fields. Queen Rose is chosen in a beauty contest among all Kazanlak girls graduating from high school that year.

If anyone reading this interested, please email us since we will be organizing trip to Bulgaria for next 2014 year for Rose festival.
Bulgaria’s tradition of producing essential oils dates back to the 17th century and is a source of national pride for the country. The rst roses were brought to Bulgaria by the soldiers of Alexander the Great, long before distillation first started. These roses were from the region of the town of Kashan in Persia. The climatic conditions in Kazanlak, however, proved more favorable for the cultivation of roses than the  conditions in Kashan. The roses grown around Kazanlak had high percentage of oil, than the oil from the Kashan region roses and was therefore of superior quality. The climate is favorable to this particular rose variety. It was tried to export them and grow in Russia and Turkey but was not successful.  Therefore,  the roses and oil, jams, and other products produced in this region are really unique and make good gift to bring home from Bulgaria.

In Kazanlak, we inspected and had lunch in wonderful small hotel 3* Palais but it was really very good, more like 4*.
We visited Ancient Thracian tomb which is about 4000 years old! Afterwards, we visited briefly ethnographic village Etara where they showcase different arts and architecture of Bulgaria, we had a pleasant walk there and continued to Veliko Tarnovo.  Veliko Tarnovo has been a city before the establishment of Bulgaria as an independent country back in the year of 681. It has been reinforced by the Roman empire as a strategic city.  In more recent times, after the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman empire, the first Bulgarian constitution, called The constitution of Tarnovo, has been accepted and the independence of Bulgaria proclaimed in the city of Veliko Tarnovo.

We arrived Veliko Tarnovo in the evening and checked in Grand Hotel Yantra 4* right in the center of the city. We had dinner at hotel’s restaurant. Hotel had nice Rose oil products so I did my shopping. Next morning I had some free time so I went out to check out local art district.
September 22, Veliko Tarnovo – Sofia I bought some souvenirs including Bulgarian spiced salt which I  liked in the restaurants. At 10am we’ve  met with Kamen and went to Tsarevich Fortress to watch 105th anniversary of independence from Ottomans which happened to fall on this exact day and exact place where we are!

President at that time was out of the country so Prime Minister attended the ceremony. We got quite a good place to watch before officials arrived and listened and watched ceremony. The flags been raised on the fortress and there were military personnel to carry wreath. Government officials and clergy were giving speeches. Invited foreign dignitaries included Russia of course since they helped liberate Bulgaria, Iraq, Morocco and Turkey (:-) ???) After ceremony we walked back to hotel and watched Parade.

After that we were supposed to leave city however parade blocked the streets so we stayed by our hotel and watched it. I enjoyed to be part of celebration.
We finally were able to drive out and went for lunch to a small town at Luliaka restaurant. It served traditional Bulgarian food.   We have sampled different small plates. At the end owner joined us with his homemade grappa. Conversation and laughter flowed.

We reluctantly left restaurant, it was time to visit ethnographic museum and church. There was one small market where bust of Lenin caught my attention. The saleslady tried to sell him to me at reduced price but I was not interested in Socialist memorabilia.
We had to wait again in traffic since the prime minister’s entourage was passing by. It seems that whole day activities were interfered by prime minister! We left for Sofia. On the way we drove through mountain road and Kamen pointed out ski resort which are popular with locals and European in winter.

We arrived on time for our folklore show at Restaurant Chermeto where we re-united with Emilia and Kristina! The food was good, and the music was nice.  After folklore show they performed popular songs which to my pleasant surprise I recognized music of my favorite Russian singer Alla Pugacheva who looks like very popular in Bulgaria. The restaurant was filled mostly with locals. There was wedding going on so the wedding party was dancing folklore dances. It was great evening. We returned to our hotel Princess for overnight.

September 23, Sofia   Next morning, we inspected hotel, it is nice solid 4* hotel-casino with spa. Mostly groups stay there. It is a little bit off center about 30 min walk, although there are some nice restaurants nearby.

We checked out from hotel. Karen and Doug left for airport and I still had one day left. I booked myself into Sheraton Sofia.  In the morning, we went to Go Balkans office for a business meeting. They have a lovely office in the center.
Then Virginia and I went to synagogue for meeting which meeting with Jewish community, I’ve met president and Rabbi. We also visited Jewish museum. Their synagogue is beautiful. We discussed opportunities to bring US synagogue groups for visit and touring of Bulgaria. The president of Jewish community was constantly distracted by some security people who waiting patiently with their dogs “for a sweep”. I asked if every day they have to do security sweep, at that I was told: No, only today, The President is coming! I guess the President kept following me all along my trip.

After synagogue I inspected three 5* hotel (Serdica, Radission Blu and Sheraton). I liked Sheraton the most, although Serdica is located in stunning setup – on top of arheological site! Finally I checked into Sheraton hotel and I luxuriated in their “heavenly bed” to recover about 2 hours. My standard room was small but very well appointed. They only disadvantage is that windows cannot be open since it is located in the same building with President’s office. I walked outside to do a bit shopping and eat and spent quiet evening alone.
I enjoyed gelato on the street and had nice conversation with young men gelato salesman. He told me to beware of gypsies. I did not find anyone dangerous in vicinity but just in case I held tight my purse. In another place I took salad and strudel back to hotel.

That concluded my trip to Bulgaria and Macedonia. I am sure I will be back many times.
Next morning I left for airport (Virginia accompanied me until I checked-in), to fly to Bucharest. Summary Bulgaria and Macedonia are very beautiful and vibrant country with friendly people. It has a lot’s of things to offer to the tourist: ancient cities and sites, including many Unesco Heritage sites, ancient churches and monasteries, lakes, mountains, sea resorts, health spa with mineral waters.  It has excellent healthy variety of food, cultural traditions including unique Rose Festival. For Jewish Traveler, there is rich Jewish Heritage history. So far they the country is relatively undiscovered by North Americans and less expensive then Western Europe. Hotels classification and standards are still vary. In Sofia, there are no lack of excellent 5* and 4* hotels as you can see from my report. In countryside, 5* spa for example Strimon spa in Kuiestindil, while listed 5* I would rate is 4*. Other hotels were nice and adequate 4* however, they are still some little touches which can make them better, for example, better lights, more plugs at the desk, safes in the rooms. In Ohrid, Royal Hotel at the lake was beautiful and new but in strange setup, there was nice bed and desk but chair could not fit between them. Overall easy to correct. In Monastir hotel Macedonia, hair dryer was missing and while it was offered to deliver, I did not have time for that. Staff was everywhere very helpful. Food was various, healthy and delicious. Great vegetables, fruit, salads, cheeses,  many vegetarian choices.  For meat lovers, it is a paradise with mixed grills. Specials events : Rose Festival in June. Contact us for private tours to Bulgaria and Balkans info@mytravelfind.com Click here to see our website for this tour and others. For more photos, see my slideshow  Disclaimer: this report presents just an opinion of individuals who’s been there…. Tastes Differ…Copyrights Jewish Travel Agency, Emco Travel, LLC..

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