In Summer, the possibility for day trips around Veliko Tarnovo is virtually endless. There’s plenty of hiking, villages to visit, monasteries to marvel at, adventurous activities to partake in. In November it’s a different story. Sure, you could do some shorter hikes, if you like hiking in the rain and wind while freezing your fingers off. But for the purposes of tourism, just about everything else shuts down.
I wanted to visit the nearby village of Arbanasi, which is known for its painted monasteries, and the staff at the hostel only increased my desire to do this, telling me how you can walk through the village and all the gates are open, and people invite you into their homes and force copious amounts of rakija down your throat; how inside every gate is a marvellous garden; how you can see some people still living relatively traditionally; and how incredibly beautiful the intricately painted churches are.
Needless to say, it was subsequently a little disappointing to find that the town had pretty much shut up shop for winter. Arbanasi is only about four kilometres from Veliko Tarnovo, but given the inclement weather and poor public transport connections, I decided to take a taxi there. How can you resist temptation when it comes at a cost of $1.50? The taxi dropped me off at the monastery of St. Nicholas, which I found to be nothing to write home about. From there, I walked up the hill into the town. Arbanasi has a population of around 300, so it’s not exactly big. I headed to the Church of Saints Archangels Michael and Gabriel, which I’d heard had beautiful murals, where a sign on the high and heavy wooden gate advised me that it was closed for winter…unless you’re in a big group and make an appointment. From what I’ve been able to gather, very few consider one person to be a group, so I didn’t like my chances.
The Monastery of the Dormition of the Virgin was likewise closed, as was a church I tried to visit. I thought I’d have a bit of a wander through the village in the hopes that there’d be something other than closed gates to check out.
My hopes were dashed as I walked between houses down little laneways and saw a range of fences and gates separating me from all the wonders I’d been promised. Still, it was enjoyable to just walk around; the sun even came out for a while to make me feel better. I saw very few people, and it seemed as if the town had gone into some kind of hibernation. If only I’d been there in summer… The problem is that if you’re traveling for an extended period of time it’s almost impossible to always be in a place at ‘the right time’, unless of course unlike me you’ve got cash coming out your ears and have the luxury of flying around the globe.
After meandering up and down every laneway I could find – and in a village of 300 people that’s not very many – I came across the Nativity Church, the only place that I really wanted to see that was obliging enough to be open. And that sure didn’t disappoint. From the outside it’s not even recognisable as a church – I’d walked past it earlier without seeing the rather small sign, and assumed it was just another house. On the inside, however – WOW. Every square inch was covered in frescoes representing different Christian stories and parables, as well as pictures showing the victory of Christianity over paganism. The iconostasis included a number of pictures representing the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, with naively styled Adam and Eve hiding behind the fig leaves. My favourite was a piece which showed the Zodiac combined with the Wheel of Life being swallowed by the Beast. This may be a strange choice, given that I consider myself to be an atheist, when you think of all the things that the Zodiac could represent in that context. I had meant to buy a hand painted icon with a copy of this, and regret that I decided against it due to budget constraints [I didn’t want the little one].
I was very naughty at the Nativity Church and sneakily took a few pictures on my phone. I couldn’t resist, although they’re of terrible quality – you don’t by an iPhone if you’re looking for a camera. The postcards they were selling were all faded and curled over, and while I did buy one anyway they weren’t an appealing alternative. Even the postcards have curled up their toes for winter.
Having spent a few hours at Arbanasi, it was time to head on to Preobrazhenski or Transfiguration Monastery. This is about seven kilometres from Veliko Tarnovo, and because of the river I had to go back through Veliko to get there. I’d found a helpful taxi driver in Arbanasi and somehow managed to get across that I wanted to go to the monastery and come back if he would wait for me. He was happy to do so and spent part of the drive there chatting away to me in Bulgarian, while I pretended that I had a clue what he was saying when he would slow down and repeat something again.
Preobrazhenski Monastery is beautiful. I’m glad I took a taxi there, rather than wait for an infrequent bus to get to the turnoff and walk 3km uphill in the cold. You enter the complex, which is still active, through a high gate and the small church is just up ahead. It was almost empty when I arrived, and when I entered the church an Orthodox monk or priest [I’m not sure] was before the altar half-singing half-chanting in clearly ritual fashion. It was lovely. I didn’t want to intrude by taking any pictures – not even so much my shyness about it, but it seemed like it would be entirely inappropriate to do so.
The inside of the church is painted, and ongoing restorations mean there’s some wooden scaffolding in the inner chapel blocking the view of much of the frescoes. The exterior is also painted, although much weathered, in vibrant scarlet hues – a marked contrast to the blue coloured monasteries of northern Romania. It contrasted beautifully against the deep greys and browns of the cliff behind and the greens of the grass and trees.
As I was enjoying the view [the monastery is on the side of a cliff], a group of people appeared and entered the church. They were still in there almost ten minutes later and, being a little curious, I went back in to see what was happening. It turned out that it was the baptism ceremony of someone’s little baby boy. I watched for a short while, but the chapel was tiny and packed, and I was getting dirty looks from a few people so I headed back out.
About a minutes walk from the entrance to the monastery complex is a small closed church with a tiny cemetery, quite overgrown. I am guessing that the cemetery is attached to the monastery and that the people buried within were monks or associated with the monastery, but that’s just a guess. As I headed back to my waiting taxi, I saw these kids kicking rocks and leaves around.
The taxi driver dropped me off in the centre of town, and the trip – including waiting time – came to a tiny 14 lei, not even $5.