Monday, July 17, 2017

Ahhh... Shipka!

I love this Bulgarian village! 

It’s described in a guide-book as a “rustic huddle of houses.” Poppycock! Well, maybe the old buildings look like this to anyone who just drives through for a minute before they head to the tombs (note the mounds in the back-ground) or over the Shipka Pass.

But not to me. For two weeks I’ve called it home. Finally I can find my way home at midnight, alone except for the scurrying cats who own the streets after hours. I know which of the three little markets carry the best produce. And where the little all-purpose store is that carries toilet paper and pens.

I may have been lost the first day but I got found.

I was told clearly by email to take Bus 6 from Kazanlak (after the train from Sofia) and then to disembark on the second stop in Shipka.  I told this to the ticket taker in my non-Bulgarian who shrugged. The older lady behind me assumed I understood Bulgarian because she chatted incessantly. I learned to stop nodding because that meant I understood – and just gestured that I wanted to get off the second stop in order to find Hotel Shipka IT. She wagged her head from side to side, which actually means yes in Bulgarian, and she got off on the first stop. Mine was actually the third stop – no help from the ticket taker in making the decision, but getting out in the middle of a field would not have been the town square that the email described. Got out, no signs and the phone map didn’t work. Finally a lady in the bar pointed up hill, (me hauling my too much luggage), an electrician pointed up hill and right, and the next electrician offered to put my luggage in his car and take me. When who should appear but the older lady from the bus on her bicycle! She had ridden to find me and escort me to the hotel. That was my welcome and here she is. My first Shipka angel.

And why you might ask, did I end up in Shipka, Bulgaria? 

Well my Florida friend Judy knew Anita who knew Paul and Sophia Alfrey. They are an amazing English couple who with their two boys have created a Permculture heaven in Shipka. I arrived to take a week course in Regenerative Landscape Design along with 17 multi-national enthusiasts.

There is no room here to do their justice to their course or accomplishments at the Balkan Ecology Project. I can just refer you to their website Explore their blogs, pictures and purpose and be inspired!

I stayed at the lovely English speaking hotel for a week. Here is a picture of the breakfast Tosha prepared each morning. Home-made fig jam and too much food.

Each day trudging up a hill to classes or off to the gardens. Each day at least an hour of walking over cobble-stone, or taking a hay-ride to the cherry orchard, making a compost pile with ingredients harvested on-site, witnessing the rush of mountain springs down irrigation ditches, enjoying the unmanicured medians and wildflowers and bees …

The  pace of life in this village is slow.  

A few children are pushed in prams, eating ice cream. Dogs and cats run free. Young people wander safely. Cherry trees planted in the sidewalks give their fruit free to those who pass by and I make cherry juice and compote.

The next week after classes are over and I volunteer in the gardens we work a couple of hours in the morning then buy food to assemble for lunch at the market. Then a nap (hot) and then just enjoy our leisure as the evening cools. Some hikes. Some help in film-making. 

One spa day. Trip to Eco-village. But otherwise a slow-paced village life.

What do I love about Shipka? 

Well, imagine looking out your kitchen window to this community spring. All day people stop to fill bottles or wash their faces. 

Notice the horses contentedly grazing or a goat being led down the street. (And the Alfrey boys were paid in goat milk for cleaning out a neighbor's ditches.)

Imagine walking out of the “volunteer house” to pick mint and lemon balm for tea or dill and savory for flavoring the tomato, eggplant, cucumber dishes. What if you could pick this fruit salad from Paul and Sophie's garden?

And then during an off day exploring the five Thracian tombs. Or the gold-domed Russian church. Or driving with friends over Shipka Pass to EcoVillage Joy (next blog). Or to the decaying Communist monument (next next blog.) You could walk a poorly marked hiking trail to the top of the mountain and be alone. Or join friends for a back-yard puppet show.

You could visit the Forestry museum and witness the early 1900’s degraded mountain tops from sheep grazing, the resulting devastating floods and the reforestation organized by a French consultant. Planting the trees was a community effort as was the maintenance of the irrigation ditches. 

Indeed the flow of water is life itself for the house owners, each of whom gardens little plots or vegetable in their own yards (a Bulgarian tradition even in larger towns.) The timing of the irrigation for each area is sent out by email and each is expected to adhere to the schedule – arranging flow of water into their plots on allotted days and not on others. It's a simple system using sandbags to open or close the flow.) Indeed one day a group of villagers head off to the higher ditches with hoes, cleaning them together.

 Ahhh…Village life. (But not to romanticize it. A mixup wth one lady who did not have a computer schedule had her threatening another neighbor with her stick! Villages also share scant resources.)

I don’t know the underlying politics here or power plays or gossip. But I strongly suspect people feel they belong,. As I do after only two weeks. 

So, if you ever feel inclined to label a group of red-tiled houses huddled under the grand and generous mountains as simply “rustic,” please know that it contains a rich history, vibrant community, living homes and fruitful gardens.

Ahhh… Shipka. Stay for awhile…

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