In Glasgow giving a book talk to students at the School of Art. They were amazing, bright, full of questions and the need to talk about cities and justice and architecture and language, I loved them. Eight of them bought books. They. Bought. Books. My beautiful nephew Reuben’s second birthday, all too short and wonderful time with T and Laura, the science museum.
The world frozen, beautiful from their Hamilton window.
A quick run up to Chatelherault Country Park where I remembered again how much I love winter. I love this place. The ancient Cadzow oaks and the earthworks dating back to at least the 12th century. the Cadzow castle ruins looking over the river. Frost. Mist. Bare branches against the sky.
The ancient seat of the Second Bulgarian Empire, this is a lovely place. Ivan and Peter Asen launched the successful rebellion for independence from the Byzantine Empire in 1185.
This is one of the four horsemen from the magnificent monument that honours them:
Veliko Tarnova remained the capital of an empire that expanded across the Balkans before it began constricting again. In 1393 the Ottomans burnt this capital city the ground, though 1396 is the date given for the completion of Ottoman conquest.
Not much is left of the fortress of Tsarevets (Царевец), but its reconstructed ruins drape the hill like a crown. The town itself stacks itself along the hillsides surmounted by its beautiful church. Hristo told us before dropping us off that there is no left or right here, only up or down.
We walked down the oldest street, Ulitsa General Gurko, renamed after the Russian General who led the Russian forces freeing Bulgaria from the Ottoman ‘yoke’ in 1878. We wandered this old impossibly picturesque street with an older couple, and before they left it the man turned back. He spoke little English, but showed us a poor black and white photocopy of this painting kept safe within a clear plastic sleeve:
He beamed a contagious happiness. He had found the precise view of this street depicted here, and after waving the picture at us with a final smile turned to follow his wife. I had not seen the painting previously, but I think this is it. Or close to it. It is perhaps not quite far enough down
I was reading The Rose of the Balkans, histories of Bulgaria being limited. I found the highlight to be the many letters included, like this one describing precisely this street only ten years later.
Nothing can exceed the beauty of the rocky ravine through which the northern road winds as it approaches Trnovo. Here and there the slopes are exquisitely green, dotted with forest trees and fragrant hawthorn; in other places tall perpendicular crags obtain the mastery, and frown down upon the traveler to the right and left, while at his feet the foaming waters of Yantra dash swiftly along, half hidden by the luxuriant foliage, as they carry the melted snows of he Balkans to the broad bosom of the Danube. A sudden turn of the road brings him to the entrance of the town, and it is not without a pang of disgust that he finds himself in a dirty, ill paved malodorous street, the closely built houses of which shut out all view of the lovely valley, through which the river winds as it almost encircles the ancient city of kings and priests. The town lies on a rocky peninsula, and it is necessary to descend to the banks of the river, or, if possible, to scale the dizzy heights of the opposite side, in order to appreciate the extreme beauty of its situation. The houses cluster on the precipice like sea birds on the ocean crag, the red-tile roofs rising one above the other in picturesque confusion, here and there relieved with trees and tiny vineyards, which seem literally to hang over the rapid torrent beneath…
— J. D. Bourchier. Through Bulgaria with Prince Ferdinand, Fortnightly Review, July 1888 (272 The Rose of the Balkans, Ivan Ilchev)
The times are better I think.
But this is still a style of building that…look at these eaves, these houses jostle each other in their lots, sprawl on top of each other down the hills.
But of course the city has grown far beyond these old cobbled streets, like all of the other places we have been here, it is ringed by wider more modern streets full of lovely National Revival style mixed with more modern buildings.
And the outer ring? Buildings like the city hall in a modernist, communist style, huge slabs of social housing. And our absurd hotel, the Interhotel, which represents such faded communist grandeur, and gave us incredible views from our balcony, but also a shower possessed by the devil and the most peculiar smell.
This is a beautiful place full of art and life spilling out across public spaces, lovely craft shops, a brilliant book store and of course, cats.
We were almost a week in Sofia before heading towards Mount Vitosha for hiking…it had been so hot, and then stormy. We took the metro to Vitosha station then the 64 bus. Public transport here is a bit terrifying until you figure it out, this helped immensely unlike many another site, especially official ones.
It’s a short walk to Boyana Church, which was amazing. From the UNESCO site:
Located on the outskirts of Sofia, Boyana Church consists of three buildings. The eastern church was built in the 10th century, then enlarged at the beginning of the 13th century by Sebastocrator Kaloyan, who ordered a second two storey building to be erected next to it.
A schematic drawing of the church from the church website:
The frescoes in this second church, painted in 1259, make it one of the most important collections of medieval paintings. The ensemble is completed by a third church, built at the beginning of the 19th century. This site is one of the most complete and perfectly preserved monuments of east European medieval art.
The frescoes are amazing. We were lucky enough to be the only ones there for a short time — having walked from the bus there was no press of people, no time limit. The caretaker gave us some beautiful stories behind the depictions. Photos are not allowed and are in short supply on the internet, my favourite there is not be found. A poet, whose eyes watch you wherever you are in the church. They are vivid and very beautiful, what photos do exist do not come anywhere close to capturing them. But I recognised the crowns of these immediately that we had seen the day before at the National Museum of History where they have been copied and sit on display. This is Tsar Constantine Asen Tikh and Tsaritsa Irina:
From there we walked up the hill to find the trail up to Boyana waterfall. We weren’t quite prepared for an hour and a 45 minutes or so of steep uphill climb with little break to get there, the guide book might have been a little more explicit. But the woods were beautiful, the falls lovely, and we did have some cheese and wine to work off.
Coming back down we encountered these amazing creatures — Dryocopus martius — their calls are quite eerie in an almost silent forest. Apparently if you can imitate them they will come find you. If only we had known, we chased them down switchbacks through the trees but they caught on to our game soon enough.
The mountain now, and some of its wonders:
We were up and back in around two and a half hours, then walked down the hill to Cinecitta Osteria Italiana, who let us in despite being a little more dishevelled than the other guests and having no reservation. A delicious meal. Glorious day.
So lovely and that place where Yeats once lived in a lovely white cottage overlooking the water and where once upon a time Molly said yes I do yes I will yes or something rather close to that, but no one knows just where…thank god, or they’d commodify that too. It was full of birds and wildflowers and stick men blithely walking off of cliffs and long moments of silence and being alone in the wind and the rain. But also much of the time tourists and Dublin youth dressed like it was 1984.
I’ve finally started mapping these. This was an astonishing 16.6 miles, no wonder we didn’t make it to Windmill Hill. But it was a most splendid birthday, follow by prosecco and chocolate cake back at the Old Forge.
More about these wondrous things from Neolithic times here, and for all things Roman, Saxon and Medieval here.
I know those adjectives don’t usually go together, but I stand by it. The first Saturday of February, there were no holiday hordes. There was almost no one there but for a couple of the beaches where absolutely everyone was out walking their dogs. That was quite glorious. But we walked past great mud flats and rickety ruined piers stretched out above the mud and the waves through woods and out past sand bay full of windswept grass with black feathered heads beyond which stand mysterious islands shrouded in the distant mist and a great city shining white on the far banks of the Severn (Cardiff). Out to Sand Point, the tail end of the Mendips forming sweeping coves and secluded rocky beaches. A defense installation, pill boxes, old boats beached high. Neolithic mounds. Walls built by prisoners of the Napoleonic war. The sky was blue above us scattered with clouds — except when it was all cloud, but this is England after all.
Above all there was room to expand, to breathe even as the wind did its best to take your breath away.
I have a new coat that actually keeps me warm. It has changed my life.
Walking home from the Briton’s Protection through the darkness along the Manchester canal…it’s not late but there is no one here. The night still hides the brash and cheap ‘luxury’ buildings that line the waterway here. I walk and stare at the water reflecting lights and bricks, think simply how easy it would be to fall in. I am not drunk but jetlagged, only a few hours sleep, not much to eat…This would have been no place for me one hundred years ago, and I know how many secrets the canals hid.
I exult in walking, the darkness, the city, it wants to come pouring out in the form of the great modernist novel. But of course, we have left the modernist novel far behind. I can no longer write it. Ironic that now as a woman I can wander the darkness like James Joyce, Dylan Thomas (and it’s funny how they are always with me as I walk), but I can no longer push boundaries the way they did. The boundaries have been pushed, the novels written. The city they knew no longer exists.
I walk past Elizabeth Gaskell’s home, wonder who she might have been outside of the constrictions of her time and place. Wonder if she might have wandered the darkness, or wanted to. Wonder if she might have had less mawkish sentiment in her. The cemetery and what’s left of the church bombed out in WWII, her home, a handful of villas transformed into student flats are all that’s left really of what was here once. I am happy for the council housing, but these streets — Manchester is all wide streets, all cars, all noise. It is no longer for walkers, not like London. Almost no one walks in most of the city apart from the very centre, and on a Friday night…well. First time I came here myself was for a hen do with a bunch of girls from Glasgow. We trampled these canal pathways with stiletto heels and shrill drunken laughter. But honestly, perhaps I was closer to my great modernist novel then…
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.