Leaving the coast, we headed north towards Varna, then inland towards Shumen. We had heard about Shumen over and over, because it produces one of the best beers in the country and it seemed like a good place to spend the night, but first another UNESCO World Heritage stop, the Madara Rider.
The very tiny village of Madara is 17 kilometers east of Shumen, and even though, it’s not far from the highway, the area is pretty rural. We knew we are in the right area when we started to follow the contour of the cliffs.
The relief was carved in the 8th century and there has been much debate on what it means. One of the first speculations was that it was a depiction of the Thracian Horse God, but this was later disputed when translations of the three inscriptions were made public. The sculpture depicts a warrior riding a horse and killing a lion with a hound nipping at the heels of his steed. This type of art is reminiscent of the tapestries of medieval Europe, and is the only artwork of its type in stone, which is why it was inscriptedas a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
It is thought that the warrior could be the Bulgar Khan Tervel who was an ally of the Byzantine emperor Justinian Rhionotmet. Tervel helped him stave off a battle and siege of Constantinople and was rewarded with the title of “Kessar” (Caesar) of the Bulgarian State. On the three inscriptions, there are other victories and other Khans mentioned, so overall, the relief symbolizes the hunter as the victorious Khan over his powerful enemy.
Pulling up to the site, there is the typical row of vendors and snack bars on one side of the street with the park opposite. Most of the stuff was closed down since it wasn’t yet tourist season, and with the light drizzle, it gave the entire spot a sort of dismal air. To be truthful, we weren’t really expecting anything different anyway. After reading the somewhat morose review of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, we just didn’t have high hopes for this outing. According to everything I had read, the relief is has been eroded to the point of being unrecognizable. We weren’t sure we were even going to see it at all. So, to come upon an almost deserted tourist area on a misty day just seemed to hit it right.
However, as the consummate tourists we are, we jumped out of the car and headed to the ticket box and then up the stairs straight away. For being on the side of a cliff, the climb was pretty mild. All of a sudden, there it was! And yes, not only could we see it, but it was surprisingly clear. I did have to keep looking at it to try and pick out some of the details. Due to the erosion, which is what makes it so difficult to view, there is an ongoing debate how to help preserve this delicate piece of antiquity. It desperately needs some type of structure or roof to protect it from the elements, but considering the artist was intent on using nature to highlight the powerfulness of the Bulgarian state, it is difficult to build something to protect it from the elements. It certainly isn’t going to last much longer, especially when the cracks are collecting water which will quickly destroy it. I do hope they figure something out quick, because from the looks of it, it won’t last much longer. Luckily you can also see it on their 50 stotinka coin.
There are a couple of other sights to see, and one of them is up the path that climbs above the Madara Rider to an old Roman fortress, which is now in ruins. Also, below the relief, is a series of caves that have been inhabited by religious people and one still contains an Orthodox chapel. One of the last things to see is a covered ruins of a house with antique farm implements and such. So, the sculpture was far from everything to see and after an hour or so of wandering around, we headed back to vendor row.
After we had wandered to our hearts content, we made our way back to vendor row and had something at the only open snack bar. There was no electricity, and the proprietors weren’t serving much, but no matter what, you can always have Shoppska salad. I mean we hadn’ t had one yet today, and they are always pleasing to the palate.
It was getting late in the afternoon, and we had to make our way to Shumen, which in my mind is an industrial city, to the point of being just plain dreary. There were blocks upon blocks of Soviet-style apartments. Looking for a break in the landscape only allowed you to see smokestacks from the various factories. We followed the signs passing by the huge brewery to the top of the mountain where the Shumen fortress is situated. We were pushing it for time at this point, so we paid and started to walk in when we were waylaid by the museum curator. He had been planning on leaving, but when he saw someone to talk to, changed his mind and gave us a tour of the very small, but interesting museum.
The fortress dates back, originally, to Thracian times, but the current layout if from the Bulgarian first and second kingdoms. One of the interesting facts we picked up was that the name “Shumen” did not come from the Ottoman occupation. It existed before then, so is a truly Bulgarian name. This is something to be proud of.
Finally, we hiked up the path to the fortress entryway, and as we walked through the gate were overwhelmed by the mere size of it. It doesn’t at all look as big as it is from down below. The ruins are nicely laid out with signage and pathways, and it was a very pleasant way to spend the next hour wandering through houses and churches from the past.
When we finished with the fortress, though, we were also completely finished with the depressing city of Shumen. We wanted to stay somewhere a little more quaint. This we found in Arabasi. Noticeably a town where Bulgarian weekenders go, we were offered a very nice room at only 50 leva a night, then the proprietor walked us all the way through town to our restaurant. She wasn’t very talkative, but she was extremely helpful. After a little wine and a little dish of rabbit, it was time for bed!