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TOMBS, TEMPLES AND DISTILLERIES

After our beers, we met up with Chan Yee and Plamen and managed to get a table at a local restaurant for lunch. Here at least Plamen could explain the menu to us, in a fashion, but Sandi and Chan Yee still ended up with dishes they did not overly enjoy; baked white cheese with more cheese underneath!
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We then set off for the nearby village of Shipka to visit the tomb of one of the great Thracian kings. Bulgaria contains many tombs and relics of the Thracian era, testament to the extensive power of the Thracian kings in the 3rd and 4th centuries BC. These mounds were first used as temples, then ritually closed up after the king was buried inside, together with personal gold ornaments and food and wine for the journey into the after-life. They all have similarities in structure; an entrance, leading into a passage, at the end of which were 2 heavy marble or stone doors, which led into a round chamber with a beehive roof, finally opening into a sarcophagus carved out of a solid piece of rock [often weighing up to 60 tons]. The tomb is solidly built of stone blocks, sometimes joined with iron clamps, and covered with a mound of earth. We noted marked similarities to the mounds of Knowth and Newgrange in Ireland, although those are much older.
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This particular one had only been excavated in 2004, and was found to have belonged to King Seuthus lll. His capital city, Seuthopolis, lies several km to the south, submerged under the waters of the Koprinka dam. The ruins of the city were examined before the dam was filled, but there are plans afoot to dry a section of the dam in order to provide tourist access to the ruined city. Unusually, this tomb had been spared plunder by grave-robbers, and a bronze head of Seuthus, which had been ceremonially decapitated, was found in the tomb together with beautiful royal and equine gold ornaments.

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The burnished gleam of golden spires halfway up the mountain, was our next destination; known as Shipka Monastery, which is actually a church. It was built by the Russians towards the end of the 19thC to commemorate the joint victory of the Russians and Bulgarians over the Islamic Turks. It is beautifully painted, inside and out, with the many domes and spires covered in real gold leaf, and is still in active use by the Orthodox Church today. At the very top, a gold cross stands above an inverted Muslim moon to symbolize their victory. Sandi lit a candle for all our loved ones, as she does in most of the holy places we visit.
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On Monday, another hot day, Plamen took us in search of some top quality rose oil. The oil that is offered on the streets to tourists has either been diluted, or is fake, and most distilleries are not interested in selling anything less than a few kgs. Plamen’s contact at the Scientific Rose Institute said they could supply a small quantity, but we would first have to pay, then they would have to go to the bank to get it out of the vault! After allowing Sandi to assess its quality, they would take another 24 hours to decant and package it, before we could collect it. Sandi was not sold, so the search for the well-hidden, un-signposted distilleries, continued.
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We eventually hit Rose Jackpot at a distillery called Damascena, at the foot of the Balkan Mountains.
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It is a family-run distillery producing about 200kg of oil per season. Alongside an outdoor museum displaying traditional distillation equipment and some rural antiquities, the owner boasts the most beautiful rose garden imaginable, crammed with voluptuous, hybrid tea roses, but not a Damascena rose bush in sight, or on site! Not unusual, since rose fields can be some distance from the actual distilleries.
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We had a "nose” around the distillation shed for a little while before meeting the owner.
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After a happy sniff test, he was willing to sell Sandi a modest amount of divine rose otto oil.
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As rose oil freezes and crystallizes at 17deg
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his son went inside to warm the crystalline oil so that it could be decanted.
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The owner kindly brought an electronic scale outside and set it up on the ice-cream countertop and drew up the exact amount under Sandi’s watchful eyes. He allowed us to photograph the event, while decanting it into an aluminium container on the scale, before closing it, winding a three-coloured silky cord around the neck, and finally sealing it with hot sealing wax and his personal ring seal.
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Mission accomplished!

Later that day we decided to take in the remaining tourist must-dos in Kazanlak. We visited the Iskra Museum full of famous socialist art by Bulgarian artists, and relics from the tomb of Seuthus lll. Further up the road we found the modest Ethnographic museum, which displayed local living conditions in a bye-gone era. We were intrigued by the low chairs, and even lower table, which ensures that peasants don't need to eat much, because the seating position squashes the stomach, ensuring that one feels fuller than if sitting on chairs that are lower than a table.
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We sat up on a balcony overlooking a small garden and wood-fired still pouring out fragrant rose water,
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and were given some rose brandy and rose jam to taste.
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The Kazanlak Tomb up on the hill, was unearthed by soldiers digging trenches in 1944, and is famous for its detailed frescoes on the walls and ceilings. Unfortunately the original tomb is too fragile to allow visitors, so a replica has been constructed nearby. Sandi found a friendly kitty to cuddle on the steps, which was far more exciting!
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Posted by davidsandi 05:27 Archived in Bulgaria

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