It's been said that to really begin to know a country, you have to step away from it's glitz and glamour and meet the people. Today, that is exactly what we did. We are in Varna, Bulgaria as I write this, waiting to pull out of the port and head back through the Dardanelles and head to Israel.
This morning, we were up early and off the ship to our tour of Madara and the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Madara Rider. Basically, this is a carving of a horse and rider with a dog at its heels with inscriptions of battle victories - on a mountain side. Kid you not, it's way up there! It's a beautiful setting - much like the state of Oregon with lots of trees, hills and rain (the first we've encountered). I hiked up over 300 stairs to get to the top and took several pictures. Then, took another trail and wound up at the fortress and then the caves. Amazing! On the way down, I encountered an elderly couple. Actually, I think it may have been an elderly man and his adult daughter as she appeared quite a bit younger. At any rate, the stone path was slippery with leaves and he was using a cane. She was holding on to his arm. They were stepping down the 300 stairs at the top and he lost strength in his legs. As I was right there, I basically caught him before he hit the ground. I helped them down a few more stairs before they headed down the gentler path towards the caves. I moved on and didn't give much thought to it - until I saw them again. It was evident that the man was losing whatever energy he had as it was quite the little hike. I chatted with them for a few steps and then asked if I could assist. They were grateful for it and all was well until we hit the last set of steps. The gentleman's legs completely gave out! Thankfully, another man (younger and much stronger than I) came to help. The three of us got him seated and rested. He must have fallen earlier as we noticed blood at his feet. Further investigation showed a large gash that was bleeding profusely. This poor man! He was such a trooper, though. They sat for a moment while I went to their coach and asked the driver to move up to the steps from where he was queued quite a ways back - Go Gray Line training!!! - and between the young man on one side, the woman on the other and me holding up the rear - literally (I had hold of his belt loops), we got him situated on the coach. Whew! He was in good spirits, though, and that made it all the easier!
After that, I got on my coach and we headed to the village of Madara. Here, we visited a family in their home complete with accordian music, all the barnyard animals that live "in" the home and a huge spread of meat, cheese, sweets and a few unidentifiable items. It was great fun and the woman of the house showed us how she made a traditional Bulgarian dish - pastry, sheep's cheese, eggs and yogurt. Fabulous! We sat in their courtyard, hanging heavy with grapes ready for harvest, as well as beautiful flowers. It was lovely to say the least and I'm anxious to be able to share the pictures. This was the highlight of my day - maybe even the entire trip thus far!
We're sailing out of port right now, and I think back to the beautiful, risilient people of the Slavic nations we've visited. I remember their smiles, their generosity, their gorgeous lacework and am amazed and humbled at how they have survived the string of occupations, dictatorships and regimes and yet still continue.
I'm proud to be an American and promise to remember the freedoms I have and those that have provided them...