We were past it before it really registered what we had just seen. Phil started laughing knowing my weakness for old bottles. “Turn back,” I said… Phil laughed… “I’m not joking!” It was a good 5 to 7 km before we found a place to turn around…but we had all day. Little did we know what lurked behind that seemingly innocent little stall of old bottles…


We were immediately and enthusiastically greeted by a shirtless man, who popped out from behind a sort of shack behind the glass bottle stand—well not really a stand…a board supported on two barrels along which the bottles were lined up. Apparently, the bottles are used for storing Rakia, a very popular, very potent Bulgarian distilled wine.


“Do you speak English?” I ask the shirtless vendor. To which he vigorously nods and eagerly demonstrates his fluency. “Daa, daa, poco Inglisa!” Having thus assured us language would be no barrier he zealously ushered us past the bottles and into the little shack behind. In here was all manner of old bottles, baskets, wooden barrels and an assortment of old items I couldn’t even begin to identify. However, we were not stopping here. Bounding into the shack came a second shirtless and also toothless older man. “Madam, madam!” and wild gesturing which obviously meant to follow him out the back of the shack and into the yard.


What lay before us was astonishing and it became even more so the more closely we looked around. I cannot possibly do it justice to describe it with words. Initially we were just too astounded to do anything other than rush–well not exactly rush, it was really, really hot—more like ooze from one item to the next uttering our amazement.


So what was so amazing…? Initially, all I saw was a massive junkyard, but then I looked closer. The first item that drew my eye was an old granite grindstone and beside it, an equally old stone basin of one of the roadside water fountains you see everywhere here. Phil was busy examining a few of the seemingly hundreds of wooden wagon wheels and old wooden carts and wagons laying about the yard.

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“Madam!, Madam!” and more gesturing and I followed the Toothless One further into the yard where he proceeded to show me yet another stone fountain, more grindstones and then a pile of granite blocks, some looking like they could have some engraving on them. I’m just thinking to myself, “could those be Roman?”


“Madam! Madam!” I was falling behind. Lying in the weeds and brambles at the Toothless One’s feet was a Roman column. Behind it and under even more brambles and garbage, a Roman capital (the carved top of a column). “Madam! Madam!” And another column! By now I am shouting, “Phil! Phil!” And gesturing wildly for him to come see, given his love for all things Roman.


I thought we had seen it all, but “Madam! Madam!” and I discovered that we were only just beginning to crack open the lid of this treasure trove. This was just the front yard leading up to a huge 3-story house and an exceedingly long (I’m going to say at least 20m) farm building and another large outbuilding attached to the house. There may have been more.


“Madam! Madam!” And the Toothless One is leading me past stacks and stacks of wooden trunks, many of them ornately painted and dated: 1844, 1808…etc. I lifted the lid on one small one and it was filled to the brim with journals and what looked to be personal correspondence. Another, big trunk was filled with old traditional clothing and blankets.


Innumerable old wrought iron singer sewing machine stands (and the actual machines themselves in places) were strewn about everywhere. Piled on top of one another old world war munitions boxes and red cross trunks formed long tottering aisles. Rusty vehicles and ancient gasoline pumps littered the yard everywhere. Farm machinery hung from wooden walls.


Most surprisingly, amongst this utter chaos was some sort of order as The Toothless One would scurry here and there to retrieve this and that he wanted us to see. I paused to look at some of the old clothes, he disappeared into the house then bounded out again. “Madam! Madam!” In his hand a plastic bag and in that a beautiful belt with a huge brass clasp to go with the clothing.


Then he was gesturing frantically for me to come into the house—I had thought it was where he lived. Instead we discovered it to be stuffed to bursting point with more and more antique items.


“Phil! Phil!” It was The Toothless One and we laughed in surprise at him calling Phil by name. He ushered us into a room filled with all manner of old clay vessels, it was the ones for distilling whiskey he wanted to show Phil. Shouting for the younger Shirtless One, the Toothless One barked some orders and heaved up one of the whiskey vessels and ushered us out again. There the Shirtless One assembled a full old fashioned distillery from fire to cooking pot to clay piping that passed through and old wooden barrel and finally “emptied” into the whiskey pot.


We weren’t quite finished being impressed when, “Phil! Phil!” and we were being ushered to the farm building. Piles of old machinery littered the building. An old wooden grape crusher was interesting to me. The huge bellows were interesting to Phil.

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By now our heads were about to explode. It was ridiculously hot. Everything was for sale so it was impossible to choose. Obviously, credit card wasn’t going to be an option and for sure and old stone fountain wasn’t going to get picked up and put into the back of our little economy car.


“Phil! Phil!” (Afterwards, I wished I would have referred to Phil as Sweetheart, as I would have loved the Toothless One to be calling Phil by Sweetheart). The Toothless One was pointing to a piece of a marble frieze leaning up against the barn wall and in front of it what looked like an old marble basin for a fountain or something. Writing on a piece of paper, the Toothless One indicated that they were perhaps 1500-2000 years old. If they weren’t, they certainly looked it. What to do?


We finally left with a few bottles and baskets and a small wooden barrel and a promise to come back another day with a truck and really do some shopping!

Little Red Church

Little Red Church

In an effort to avoid festival traffic on our drive home from Sofia (after taking my dad to the airport) we took a less direct route back to Pamporovo. Phil suddenly caught a glimpse of something old-looking in the trees—which always excites him. It looked to be an old, nearly-collapsed brick building way off across the field and behind some trees. We looked for a place to pull over and were surprised to find a sign pointing down a paved walkway along a river taking us to the Little Red Church. As we neared the end of the walkway, we found a large parking lot (strange as you couldn’t drive in) and a building labeled Visitor Center.


It looked like it might be closed and we hesitated on the path for a moment, which seemed to trigger the front door being thrown open and an incredibly enthusiastic woman springing out the door and hurrying up the path towards us, talking almost as fast as she was walking. When we indicated that we could only speak English, she literally clapped her hands together and jumped up and down—“Oh!! My favorite tourists!!”


And so… we “discovered” The Little Red Church dating from approximately the 5th century AD. It is considered a special little building, as it was entirely constructed of brick, which apparently was rare in buildings between the 5th and 12th century. In fact, it is one of only three preserved brick churches from that period in Bulgaria.


It felt like a special place too, standing alone in the grassy fields and no visitors there at all. What remains of the 14 metre brick dome is carefully reinforced by steel supports, but what really surprised us, was the remains of the beautiful frescoes totally left open to the elements. Apparently these frescoes, dating from the 5th and 6th century, were only just discovered during the church’s restoration in 2013. While the walls were painted, the floors were said to have been mosaic although I did not see any evidence of their survival. It must have been truly remarkable in its day!


I took many photos both of the brickwork and of the frescoes, hoping that in some way we might be able to incorporate something of both when constructing our place! At the same time I kept thinking that this would be a wonderful little side trip to bring guests to when our center opens. In fact, it is quite possible to make a stop there on the way from the airport to our property…hmmm…


Festival Time!

Festival Time!

Lucky, lucky us! This past weekend, literally 5 minutes from where we are staying was the venue for a huge festival. It has not been held in 9 years so it is a big deal for the local people (well for people all over Bulgaria actually). In fact, this deserted little ski area that we have been staying in this past month welcomed 250,000 to 300,000 festival revelers! Suddenly there were cars on the roads—EVERYWHERE! I expected chaos, drunkenness and disorder…instead it was an exciting, happy and joyful celebration for people of all ages and all walks of life.

It really was a lot like a cross between the Calgary Stampede: livestock, midway, food stalls, souvenirs…and a Welsh Eisteddfodd with 4 stages of singing, dancing and bag piping competitions. What struck us was the pride Bulgarians took in their culture. A single note from a bagpipe would have them jumping to their feet, hands in the air, flags waving, singing along and particularly dancing and dancing and dancing! Young, old and in between…some of the performers hobbled onto the stage on walking sticks. We were told that, for some, coming here was very likely the first time they had been out of their village in their lifetime. For many of them, they will not live to see another one.

People arrived by the busloads, or by car—parking shiny Mercedes up steep banks and rutted roads—and then many gypsies arriving by horse or mule drawn wagon filled with wares to sell. It was free to all (even the parking) and all competitors received a certificate to say they had participated in this momentous occasion. And awards for the winners on the last day! Not commercial like the Calgary Stampede…just a lot of fun for everyone! Next weekend is another festival, which we won’t miss!

A silk purse from a sow’s ear

A silk purse from a sow’s ear

“A silk purse from a sow’s ear”…my dad’s words in reference to what we are trying to do. I think he meant it to be a negative comment, but I love it! That is exactly what we are trying to do! And if we are successful, a lot of it will be down to the hard work and assistance he has provided us.


Today we drove into Sofia and put my dad on a plane for home—via Warsaw and Toronto, he will finally arrive in Calgary some 25 hours later. My mom will meet him at the airport and about 3 days later they will be off to their sailboat on the west coast to meet up with their Blue Water Cruising club. We are not talking your run-of-the-mill everyday sort of sailboat—but a 34 foot wooden boat that my dad spent 20 years building in land-locked Calgary and then transported by truck to Vancouver. In addition to sailing, this winter will be their first not spent in Calgary in the house my dad designed and built nearly 50 years ago. Instead they will stay on Vancouver Island on a little barge they bought and which my dad plans to convert into a comfortable LITTLE home.

I mention these details for two important reasons. Firstly, to point out the first rate expertise we have advising us on our venture—he may be family, but he is an exceptionally talented craftsman as well. And secondly, to remind my dad that we are all entitled to our once in a lifetime follies and frivolities—his being building a boat in land locked Calgary or perhaps downsizing to a tiny little barge at the age of 81—ours being an artist retreat on a 30 degree slope in 200 year old buildings!

Planning Begins

Planning Begins

Only two days left in my dad’s visit with us. It seemed like two weeks would be plenty of time and now we can’t believe it is almost gone. We would like to keep him for the rest of the summer—or at least another two weeks, but his sailboat beckons! And I think he can hardly wait…


I had hoped that we would visit some of the beautiful sights in the area and some ancient ruins and nearby towns and villages; instead, he has had his nose to the grindstone since he arrived. He arrived prepared with a ball of string and a tiny level and a long, long measuring tape and he has been crawling up and down the steep slope of our property working out property lines and the grades of the slopes. He didn’t think to bring one necessary piece of equipment; but we found it—a machete—in a local hardware store and so, fully armed, no ground was safe from his scrutiny.


And so he spent his 81st birthday…whacking weeds and brambles (with huge thorns I might add), scrambling up and down slopes and scribbling little figures and working outs on a paper pad in one of his jean pockets (not always the same pocket so there was always a search for paper and pencil after every measurement—assuming he remembered to write it down).


Fortunately he brought his own pencil and eraser (for Sudoku on the airplane) as we had neither, but Phil did bring a couple of small notepads and this is where the initial drawings of the plans for our house and art centre began. We had purchased glue when we were at the hardware store as the blade for the machete and its wooden handle came in separate pieces (both used and I guess salvaged). We had to buy a screwdriver and one screw too to assemble it—but that was no problem as just about anything was available at the hardware store—harnesses for horses, shoes for donkeys, about 15 different varieties of hammer and the same for axes, and any conceivable sort of farm tool—mostly used. My dad was in his element!


So with several pieces of notepad paper glued together, my dad drew up a scaled initial drawing of our house-to-be with a scale he drew on the birthday card my Aunt sent with him using the little two inch ruler on the straight edge of his compass (yes of course he brought a compass!). With a bit of help from jet lag and the strong coffee over here we got bonus work hours from him when he couldn’t sleep at night and so would get up and continue slaving away.


Finally paper shortage became a ridiculous issue and we found a small stationery store and bought a real ruler, a small pad of squared paper and another pencil. Armed with these tools, my dad completed his drawings for the addition to the front building which we intend as our home and also drawings for the big building which will serve as accommodation for 6 guests and a small lounge-if all goes to plan!



The Keys

The Keys

So finally we have the keys for our new home…they are as charming as the buildings themselves. Old and full of character!

Although ‘charming’ and ‘full of character’ are not exactly the words my dad used when he first saw our four old stone buildings. Old he agreed on… Not fit for human habitation…A money sink…A fool’s errand…Just plain crazy. Those are descriptors that more adequately describe his first impression of the place.


Old Shoes

Old Shoes

Earlier this week we had a poke around in the attic of the big house on the property (the only building that in anyway appears habitable). We were up there to measure the walls under the eaves with a mind to removing the roof and raising the walls about a metre to allow for a third loft floor. Whether this actually happens or not we will see—obviously my dad feels it is a ridiculous waste of money.

However the attic itself is a treasure trove of old relics…and dust and dirt and cobwebs. We managed to take down a few which Phil photographed in the light streaming through the front window giving them a glow like rich oil paintings and bring to life the stories behind them.

Inside a dusty, old, wooden chest, what seemed to be rags turned out to be articles of clothing. What was most striking about the clothing were the patches on top of patches—threadbare doesn’t even begin to describe their well-worn state. We hope to gently wash them and then frame them and return them to the house when we finally get to that stage.

An old pair of shoes, a rusty bucket, a variety of dirty aged bottles, old wooden barrels and many other odds and ends. We hope to recover all that we can and incorporate them into the finished buildings in some way or another. There is much more still to unearth and hopefully by the end of the summer we will have salvaged all that is salvageable.

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