Travelling throughout Bulgaria always gives me satisfaction because of the warm hospitality of its inhabitants and the delicious food. In the 7th century, the Bulgarians lead by Kubrat and Asparuh settled in the Roman provinces of Moesia and Thrace. In 865, Boris I converted to Christianity. Under the reign of Simeon the Great (893-927) the first Bulgarian Empire was at its peak. In the 12th and 13th centuries the second Bulgarian Empire was ruled by the Assenid dynasty. In 1396, the Turks conquered it. The colonial rule of the Sublime Porte lasted nearly five centuries. Young Christian men were enrolled by force in the corps of janissaries and people were highly taxed. Bulgarian culture found a refuge in the monasteries. We started our trip in the north, with a visit to a lively town on the Danube, Ruse (Русе), the birthplace of the novelist and playwright Elias Canetti (1905-1994). Further along, we went to Madara (Мадара) to see a national emblem: the relief, carved into a rockface in the 8th century, of a horseman trampling a lion. After a stop at Shumen (Шумен) we headed towards the Black Sea coast to the large and popular seaside resort of Varna, but it was the tiny and quaint Nesebăr (Несебър) that we preferred. Located on a peninsula, it boasts many fine Byzantine churches. Driving via Sliven (Сливеи), we reached Veliko Tărnovo (Велико Тьрново), nestled in the steep slopes of the gorges of the river Jantra. It was the former capital of the second Bulgarian Empire.
A few miles away, Arbanassi (Арбанаси) is an attractive village with traditional houses and ancient churches. In the centre of the country, Trjavna (Трявна) charms with its whitewashed houses covered with flat stone slabs. Stara Zagora (Стара Загора) is a nice place to quench one’s thirst with the local Zagorka beer. The inhabitants owe the grid plan of the town to Lubor Bayer, a Czech architect. In the Rhodope Mountains, we stopped at the monastery of Bačkovo (Бачковски манактир) founded in 1083 by two Georgians in the service of the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus and in Devin, famous for its mineral water.
Macedonia, an independent country today, used to be a part of Bulgaria. The town of Ohrid has an attractive location on a very scenic lake. The summer festival allowed us to enjoy concerts in the St Sophia church. St Clement is buried in the monastery of St Panteleimon which he founded. He was a pupil of SS Cyril and Methodius, whom he accompanied on their mission to Moravia. He was one of the founders of Slavonic literature.
Over the border, Albania (Shqipëria) was part of the Roman province of Illyricum, the land of the Illyrians, ancestors to the Albanians. We stopped in Durrës (Durazzo), Albania’s main port founded by the Greeks in the 7th century BC. In Krujë we visited the citadel which fell to the Turks in 1478, in spite of the deeds of Albania’s hero, George Kastrioti, alias Skanderbeg. The son of a Catholic princely family, he had been taken hostage, converted and trained by the men of Sultan Murad II. When the Turks were defeated at Niš in 1443, he abandoned Turkish service, returned to the Catholic faith and lead Albanian and Christian resistance. Pope Callistus III named him captain general of the Holy See. In Tirana, the capital city, we saw a statue of Gonxhe Bojaxhi, universally known by her name in religion, Mother Teresa, founder of Missionaries of charity in 1950. We drove north to Shkodër (Scutari) where died, in 1940, the great poet Gjergj Fishta.
Then we arrived in Montenegro (Crna Gora), a country at the southern end of the Dinaric Alps, that never became a colony of Turkey. The capital city today is Podgorica , but it was Cetinje, in the past, where the monastery became the seat of the prince-bishops, who ruled Montenegro from 1516 to 1851. It contains the first book, Oktoihos, printed in this part of Europe (1495). The Biljarda Hall (1838), was the residence of the great poet-ruler Petar II Petrović Njegoš (The Mountain Wreath). Surrounded by steep mountains, the Gulf of Kotor is a spectacular, fjordlike inlet on the Adriatic. Narrow straits link four bays: on one of them, the walled town of Kotor (Cattaro) with it 12th century St Tryphon Cathedral, was Venetian from 1420 to 1797. In another bay, off Perast, is a very small island: on it, the Lady of the Rock church, with the greatest 17th century decoration.