We offer you a tour in the material culture of the Bulgarians...
“...and see, in the camp of the Achaeans under the Eastern walls of Troy there is excitement... men have unloaded wine-bags full of heavy, red almost black wine from the remote Thracian land Ismar...” (Homer, The Iliad – 2nd millennium BC)
Where was Ismar? Does it still exist? Not only the likeness of the names, but also the aroma, the color and the taste of today’s wines of Wine Cellar Osmar are leading “our nose” to this area, only 20 km from the second capital of the First Bulgarian Kingdom – Veliki Preslav.
So, our tour can begin! From the seventy centuries old city of Varna...
Unfortunately the first day is always a bit tedious: meeting at the airport, checking in, etc. Indeed, we will try to divert the boredom and to break the cliché: a team of ours will meet you with bread and salt, and a glass of Bulgarian sparkling wine on your arrival at the airport, we will give you a rose from the Rose Valley and a small phial of Rose Water, and in the bus we may even sing to you a Bulgarian song or two, but nevertheless we are not sure that we will succeed in making the first day differ from the usual. However, we will travel directly to our hotel in Zlatni Pyasatsi (Golden Sands) which is 18 km from the Varna Airport, which means that we will at least have time to get to know each other. After a short evening walk along the beach, we will stop at our restaurant where the selected Evsinograd wines will be expecting us.
We will have a substantial breakfast in our hotel because a heavy drinking is before us and then we will head for the only place in Bulgaria where the wine is aging in oak barrels with special herbs under a secret recipe from before the Flood. This is the unique wine cellar in the exotic village of Osmar in the Shumen region. On our way we will drop at the Varna Museum of History where we will enjoy seeing the oldest gold in the world and then make a short sight seeing tour of the city. The Osmar Wine Cellar is situated in a small ancient castle on the flank of the Shumen Plateau, covered with virgin forest. Here masters are the forest deer, the mountain roes, the lazy geese, turtles and wise owls beside them.
We enter the castle through an arch with massive oak gates. The cobbled path through the picturesque yard takes us to the empire of pelin – a wine made nowhere else in the world! In barrels from 1920 the red elixir with 34 herbs and the white laid pelin with only 28 herbs are being taken care of! Here two persons know the composition and proportions. The recipe is the most strictly kept secret, unrevealed for more than 4,000 years. The laid red pelin is the wine of spring! This is why our tour starts at the beginning of May. Cheers! We pass the night in Shumen.
We again pass through the wine estates due South West. Our goal is Veliki Preslav. For us Bulgarians this is the second Bulgarian capital built in the 10th century – the capital of Simeon the Great – Emperor (Tsar) of all Bulgarians and Byzantines. Probably, the Germans, the Italians and the Russians would be curious to learn that in the 8th and in the 9th centuries they were our neighbors, Buda did not exist yet, while Pest was a Bulgarian frontier fortress. But this is another story. Presently, what we see from Veliki Preslav are only impressive ruins. 12 km from them is situated the Veliki Preslav Wine Cellar, having some of the best selected and tasty wines from the Merlot variety, which at the time of Simeon the Great must have been known by some other name. Our hosts at the cellar pour wine, we drink and ask ourselves: how is it possible not to have been aware of this place before? For the night we return to our hotel in Shumen.
This is a day devoted to culture, to avoid being accused of intentional and continuous hard drinking, i.e. today the purpose of drinking will be a cultural one. Therefore, until lunch time we are to sight see the oldest Bulgarian capital – Pliska. We will have a modest lunch in Shumen, somewhere close to the very famous on the Balkans Tombul Mosque. After lunch, “to help digest it”, we will have a tour of the mosque. Around 4 p.m. we will head for the old capital Veliki Tarnov. We check up and have a luxurious dinner at the 4-star Yantra Palace Hotel. Veliko Tarnovo is the capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (1180-1420). The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander, one of the most sacred Bulgarian books, is kept at the British Library. It describes the heavenly beauty of this town; it’s hard to access two citadels and the great deeds of the two dynasties of Bulgarian tsars that have lived there. As of today it is again one of the most beautiful European cities.
“The wine is fermenting, it’s not waiting”. We, however, immediately after breakfast, still “culturally charged”, head for the Preobrazhenski Monastery, where we leave it to the local guide “to inebriate” us with his stories about the glory of this so very small but so great, in a touching manner old Christian Orthodox monastery. For a break we will sight see the village of Arbanasi, whose history dates as far back as the migration of Illyrians and Dalmatians from the Albanian hills in the West to the East, to the flanks of the Balkan Mountain. We have a lavish lunch at the Izvora Tavern and around 4 p.m. we head for the next “Kingdom of Wine” – the Lyaskovets Winery.
Do you know that a wine-press was used even as far as 1,700 years back? You will learn it in this winery and you will see a Roman wine-press from the 3rd century! Used here, at this very place! And the first tasting of wine by tourists took place here, at the Lyaskovets Winery, as far back as 1802!!! You will also listen to some of the most sacred secrets of vine-growing and you will taste the sweet-scented naturally sparkling wine, which is made only in Lyaskovets for more than 50 years now. We have to get back quickly to Veliko Tarnovo to be on time for dinner at Gurko Tavern, because at 9 p.m. we will watch the performance “Sound and Light”. Only two other places in the world deliver such a performance. What is it? You will see for yourselves.
At breakfast we will be disappointed to learn from the guide that we have no time to see the winery with the single in the world 9-ton glass barrel in Suhodol, the cellars in Pavlikeni, to taste the Kailashka Rakia at the wine plant in Pleven or the aromatic Vratsa misket in the cave-wine cellar Magurata. We are in a hurry to cross the Balkan Mountain towards Sliven – Karnobat. On the road through the Pass of the Republic we will study a Bulgarian song in order to put ourselves, although only relative to “song”, in the shoes of those who have selflessly built this road and have afforded us the opportunity to enjoy one of the most beautiful parts of the Balkan Mountain.
We travel towards Karnobat and more precisely towards Vinprom Karnobat. Just like that – we follow the road of the wine! In this area the making of wine and rakia dates, according to ancient chronicles, as far back as 5-4 century BC. Here, during the excavations of dozens of Thracian settlements and tumuli, as well as on the territory of the ancient fortress Markeli, a great number of containers and bowls for wine have been found, and even more – for mixing different wine varieties. Astounding, but true.
Nothing is from yesterday! During the First Bulgarian Kingdom the church and monastery complex of Markeli Fortress were real “wine guards”. This impressive fortification, the biggest in Southern Bulgaria, has witnessed glorious victories and crushing defeats that have written our history of a European superpower in those times. Precisely here, at Markeli, the envoys of Krum offered peace to the Byzantine Emperor Nikifor I “Foka”. If there were a clairvoyant by his side at that time to tell him what would happen to him and to his army, he would have certainly accepted the challenge. But he refused. While our guide from the Karnobat Museum of History is telling us all this, we will sight see “live” this fortress pregnant with history.
After breakfast we will have a brief break in the center of Sliven. We listen to its voivode and entrepreneurship history – the town of “the hundred voivodes”, but also of the first Bulgarian factory. Around 11 a.m. we head due South West towards the city of Plovdiv. On the road to there we stop for around two hours at the Windy Hills Winery to taste two excellent wines of varieties from vineyards which we see with our own eyes down the hill below us. We continue our journey and while traveling we listen to our guide. There is a legend that along the great Maritsa River an enchantingly beautiful girl was growing up of the name of Rhodope. She had a brother – the strong and proud Hemus, who was older than her, already married and living with his family on the North of Maritsa River.
One day the God of the Sea Poseidon, when coming out of the river saw Rhodope and fell madly in love with her. He took her for his earthly wife and not long after she gave him a son – Evmolp. The child was growing up beautiful as his mother and loud-voiced as his father. Soon the young lad Evmolp became famous with his singing and playing across the whole lowland. However, Poseidon, capricious and willful as all gods, decided to go back to his heavenly spheres. He told Rhodope that he was leaving her and that he was going to live for some time in the Aegean Sea.
Deeply sad Rhodope shared her misery with her brother Hemus. Hemus flew with rage and when Poseidon actually took off, Hemus began to dislodge big rocks and to throw them after Poseidon. The first seven of those fell on the right bank of Maritsa River, while the others fell following the running Poseidon and piled between the river and the Aegean Sea coast. With time riverlets streamed out, thick forests and lush meadows grew and thus they turned into a beautiful mountain, which the people named after the girl Rhodope – the Rhodope Mountain. While the seven rocks along the right bank of Maritsa River became big hills and the people erected buildings thereon. Thus a town sprang, which they called after the son of Rhodope and Poseidon – Evmolp.
Hence the name of Plovdiv from the Greek legends and myths is Evmolpia. The Thracians – Odrysae called it in more ancient times - Pulpudeva. In 396 BC the Mygdones of Philip conquered it during their military march against the Odrysaen state of the Thracians and renamed it Philipopolis. When in 62 the Romans conquered and permanently occupied the whole of Thrace, they called it Trimontium. The ancient name Pulpudeva, re-phonetized over the years to Plovdiv, was assumed back by its Bulgarian rulers at the time of Tsar Simeon the Great, who in the 10th century permanently conquered the whole of Thrace and Macedonia. We take a break for an hour or two and of course we get hungry. The old Plovdiv “men of the world” would have advised us to head for the Old Town and by its cobbled streets to reach the Staria Plovdiv Inn in order to have dinner as true Bohemians. That’s what we do. On our way back to the hotel we pass by the festively lit Roman Amphitheater and certainly we all will decide to come back here again, for at least two or three days.
We have an early breakfast. The road of the wine that we have to pass today is long. Our first stop is the village of Parvenets – the Old Cellar. It is situated in a park with venerable trees. From 1950 to 1990 the winery produced wines and rakia only for the Government. During repairs in 1990 wines aged for 40 years were found blocked up in bunkers. Now we can go down without the need to get permission by anybody in the more than 100 years old cellar of the winery. 10,000 bottles and 300 casks with more than 84,000 liters of selected wine are stored there.
In the special tasting room we slowly sip the authentic Cabernet Sauvignon from 1975 vintage onward. We get out of the pleasant coolness of the cellar to the cozy and emanating calm park. The bus is waiting for us at the old cellar gate. We leave for the near by village of Brestovitsa. Villa Vinifera is located there – one of the symbols of Bulgarian wine-growing. Here the emphasis is on the Bulgarian varieties, whose acme is the Rose wine from the mavrud variety. We taste 5 – 6 wines with abundant quality of appetizers and snacks, which will be in fact our lunch. Surprise, surprise from our hosts – the guests may bottle their own wine by mixing the chosen by them varieties and thus to take with them a bottle of wine made to their own tastes.
We continue our trip across the Western Upper Thracian Lowlands. In ancient times here started the kingdom of the belligerent and proud tribes of the Thracians Bessi, which ended somewhere far beyond the remote ridge of the Central Rhodope Mountain.
The Bessians were also one of the greatest masters – vine- and wine-growers. Their technology is best represented in the built in 2006 in the village of Ognyanovo, at the foot of the proper Central Rhodope Mountain, by inspired by history German investors wine complex Bessa Valley.
Modern winery, French technology. It is interesting to experience the pleasure of seeing such a unique combination of French fine taste, as if carried from the castles of Loire, and the Bulgarian aroma of the casks with the freshly pressed out Rhodope grapes. Here we will taste young wines from famous varieties. We pass the night in the village of Brestovitsa at the hotel of the Todoroff Cellar under the Thracian sky covered with large stars. Our hosts from the hotel will treat us with light Thracian dishes and locally produced wines. We go to bed a bit disappointed that our journey is coming to an end.
Again on the road after an early breakfast. There is no road of the wine that will not lead to the town of Melnik – maybe the tiniest town in the world – cuddled at the foot of the welcoming and beautiful Pirin Mountain. We reach Melnik just before lunch after we have passed through the heart of the Pirin Mountain, feeling its magic passing through the pretty villages, so distinctive and maybe a little “lonely”. We drive up to the Rozhen Monastery by a road, winding up through high, razor-shaped sand pyramids. A sight reminding the unearthly scenery of the Grand Canyon. The Rozhen Monastery takes us 10 centuries back in order to remind us how transient our life is.
We drive back down to Melnik, where almost every house is a wine cellar. Which one to choose: the Kordopulov, the Litov, the Uzunov or the Menchev one? The Melnik area is the kingdom of the heavy red wines. We have lunch at the Mencheva Kashta Tavern; we enjoy the savory Rhodope cuisine and the dark red, even “black” Melnik wine from the Shiroka Melnishka Loza variety and then taste the selection of different wine varieties at the cellar of the Litov House. But we have to be cautious; we have to find our hotel, because we haven’t check in yet. We will pass the night at the 3-star Melnik Hotel. It is a free choice night: in whatever Melnik house you go, you will be welcomed with “the most delicious dish” and “the best wine”.
Have you ever heard of one of the most enigmatic clairvoyants in Europe – Grandma Vanga? In the early afternoon we will visit her church and her small house in the bizarre, as if “boiling” place called Rupite. After hearing her strange and impressive in its own way story we will head for Sofia. On our way we drop in the Damianitza Winery and from there to the Rila Monastery, one of “the wonders of UNESCO” and sanctuary of the Bulgarian Christian spirit and national culture. On our way back we try fresh trout on grill in one of the numerous inns along the road and at dusk, probably too tired, we check in at our four star hotel in Sofia.
This last day we will go around Sofia – the capital city of Bulgaria. The earliest information about our city takes us back to the times when there was no Eternal City of Rome even. Some relics from civilization are dated to be almost 6,000 years old. The history of the city is dramatic. From the Far and long ago civilized East to the wild and not yet Romanized West for centuries this land was raided by the numerous tribes of the Alanians, Avarians, Celts, Illyrians, Goths, Attila’s Huns. All of them plundered and destroyed. However, even today one can see and admire the numerous ruins of ancient buildings and treasures, religious and everyday articles – witnesses of the huge wealth of ancient cultures. And during those times of glory and decline one hard-working Thracian people predominated here, the covered in secret Serdians – right until the invasion of the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire Konstantin the Great, who when he first saw the town cried out: “This is my Rome”.
The many names of the city: Tibiskum, Abarium, Baria, Sardicon, Ulpia Serdica, Sredetz, Sofia, speak of its remarkable fate – often destroyed and always reviving bigger, more powerful and younger. For 14 centuries the fate of the city is closely linked with the history of Bulgaria. Since 1880, Sofia, the Greek word for “virtue”, has been the fifth capital of Bulgaria after Pliska, Veliki Preslav, Veliki Tarnovgrad and Ohrid. The ambition of the today’s citizens of Sofia is to get the city out of the decay caused by the transition period and make it one of the most modern EU capital cities. After breakfast – a sight seeing tour of Sofia: the St. George Rotunda, the St. Petka Samardzhiiska Church, the Synagogue (the biggest building of its type on the Balkans), the Archeological Museum, the St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral and the Crypt.
The Bulgarians never send off their guests hungry. And if it is to be lunch, let it be lunch – this is why we will have a good feed at Pri Bai Gencho Restaurant. In the afternoon – transfer to the Sofia Airport. One can’t help it. We have to part. Everything, even the best, will sometime come to an end. At the appointed time – flight to home. Bon voyage and happy landing. A lot has remained unseen and inexperienced: the Getaen capital by Sborianovo, the town – sanctuary Perpericon by Kardzhali, etc., etc. Next time... isn’t it wonderful that there is “Next time”?
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