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Karlovo: In The Heart Of Bulgaria

Karlovo was the home of Levski. Need I say more to establish the town’s place in Bulgaria’s heartland? If you are interested in the real Bulgaria, you must journey to the homestead of the nation’s most beloved founding father. Because of his dauntless courage, Levski was called the lion, a figure that became the national symbol of Bulgaria and the name of its currency. A memorial in Karlovo depicts Levski wielding a pistol with an enormous lion behind him. The whole area around the statue is immaculate. It’s a 19th century monument that captures that era’s willingness to mix ambition, grandeur and violence. People were taking photos. Levski’s preserved house in the centre of town retains the dyeing workshop – an enormous tub for boiling and dyeing clothes – his widowed mother used to support them both. You can see where they squatted on tiny chairs and ate. A church around the back of the house contains a ringlet of Levski’s hair, which legend says he cut and gave to his mother as a memento when he left the priesthood to join the Bulgarian uprising. Levski’s capture, trial and execution are depicted in a series of paintings in the museum attached to the house. They depict Levski as a martyr whose trajectory followed that of Jesus. Of interest to me was the gallows scene in Sofia, where the Turks, wearing fezzes and sporting beards, stand around Levski’s limp body. In the background is Sveta Sofia, the ancient brick church next to Nevski Cathedral. There is no cathedral, however. There’s no Moscovska Street. There are no buildings around the church at all. It’s surrounded by fields. The painting depicts Sofia before it ballooned after Bulgarian independence. So even the location of Levski’s death was prophetic. We stayed that night at the Shterev Hotel near Karlovo City Hall on 20th July Square. It cost a total of 50 leva a night for two rooms. Beware, however. First, Mr. Shterev must be a wealthy man, because he owns a number of similarly named hotels in the area. So when you go there, you have to specify you’re going to the Shterev in Karlovo (0335 9 33 80). Second, the hotel was dirty. Cockroaches. In the morning, I went to bend to tie my shoe and realised there was a hole in the wall under the coat closet. I could see into the next room. We had to rent hotel rooms in Karlovo because it’s not easy to get there, and we had an appointment in a nearby village in the morning. We didn’t know that busses leave for Karlovo from the bus lot between the Sofia central bus station and the train station. The people at the Sofia central bus station told us no busses went there at all. We took a train that left Sofia at 22:10 and arrived into Karlovo at 00:30. It cost six leva. Earlier trains took four hours. On our way back, we caught a bus in Karlovo to Plovdiv. Tickets cost three leva apiece. When we reached Plovdiv, we had to nudge our way into the next bus to Sofia. Those tickets cost 10 leva apiece. We were home in three hours.