We left at 9am and drove south toward the area that was previously part of the ancient Thracian kingdom (Antiquity). Our first stop was Plovdiv, a 2-hr drive south of Sofia
. About one hour into our drive, I was informed that the area we were going is CCHFV endemic. In fact, half of all Bulgarian cases of CCHF come from Plovdiv and the surrounding area. Oh, great! Too bad I left all my insect repellent clothes and sprays at the hotel. I really don't need a hemorrhagic fever on top of my gastroenteritis. Anyhow, the drive to Plovdiv was interesting - we drove out of the mountain range where Sofia is located and past an agricultural area and a few small villages. As we approached Plovdiv, we arrived at another mountain range - the Rhodopa mountains. Plovdiv, formerly known by its Greek name Phillipopolis after King Phillip II of Macedon (aka Alexander the Great's father), is also a city steeped in a rich history. Like Sofia, Plovdiv was part of the Greek Empire, East Roman empire (Byzantine), Bulgarian Empires, and then the Ottoman Empire. There are several well-preserved ruins from Greek Antiquity here, including an amphitheatre (see the pics). And of course there are several churches/monasteries from several historic periods. Dennis, Nikolay, and I spent a little over an hour walking around the city's oldest part.
We drove about 30 minutes further south through Asenovgrad (named after King Asen) into the Rhodopa mountains to a small town called Bachkova. This drive was stunningly beautiful! The mountains were steep and rocky but also tree-covered
. The road twisted and turned alongside a whitewater river (Chepalare River), and we drove past a few villages that looked as if they were left untouched since the Middle Ages. In Bachkova, we ate at a small rustic cafe with outdoor seating next to the river. I stuck with flat bread and Bulgarian cheese (boring but all I could "stomach" - but the cheese was one of the best I've ever had!) while Dennis ate a Bulgarian-style salad. After eating, we hiked up the mountain (only a 10 minute walk) to the Bachovo Monastery (one of the oldest Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Europe), despite the fact that I felt incredibly weak. This monastery was originally founded in 1083 but was destroyed at some point by the Turks during Ottoman rule. The existing structure was built in 1604. Unfortunately, and like so many other Christian holy places, photos aren't allowed inside. The most memorable moment for me was when I went inside one of the smaller chapels which held an icon of the Virgin Mary. People pray to her, asking her for various things. I asked her to please take my illness away.
Final stop was Asen's Fortress (just a few minutes drive away from the monastery). The original plan was that we would hike this - thank goodness we didn't do this. I'm sure I would have passed out from my illness. The fortress is on top of a very steep mountain and the walk would've taken us at least 45 minutes! The view from the fortress was awesome (although during the hike up to the fortress from the parking lot I was thinking that it was very smart of me to purchase travel/health insurance...but to be fair, I was wearing flip flops - not the best choice for footwear!). The "steps" up to the fortress were essentially like marble stones - worn down by time and smoothed out. Nice and slippery, plus no guard rails to prevent people from plummeting 2000 feet to their deaths in the whitewater river canyon below. But the upshot is, that I started feeling increasingly (miraculously?) better, albeit a bit sleepy and despite the heat and energy exerted in climbing the steep hillside to the castle.
After returning back to the hotel, Dennis and I checked each other for ticks. None to be found! Tomorrow is our last day in Sofia and there is still a lot to see. We leave by train from Sofia to Istanbul around 7pm.
Today I was not feeling 100% better, but there was no way I was going to miss out on our plans for the day, so I sucked it up! While planning our vacation, I had wanted to do a day trip during our stay in Sofia so that we could see some other parts of this country, and I had also informed Dennis that he drive us in order to make that possible. LOL. Thankfully Nikolay, our Bulgarian friend, offered to drive us instead. I'm sure that Dennis and I would've ended up in God Knows Where, as it is very difficult to make any sense out of the Bulgarian language/road signs. Bulgarian consists of the Cyrillic alphabet (Bulgarian is similar to Russian...Nikolay informed us that the Bulgarian language actually predates the Russian language).