Sunday, April 19, 2009

Easter "take 2" – Orthodox celebration in Sofia

I really enjoyed Bulgaria the second time around, even despite being horribly ripped off by yet another taxi (it would be a lot easier if licensed and unlicensed weren’t identical yellow!). I was there again for work and while there wasn’t much free time I made the most of what time I had. After a publicity appearance at a public school, a completely run down and depressing building, but one filled with so much energy and light from the very enthusiastic & happy children learning there, I went off to the downtown area. There I discovered new sites like the Archaeology Museum (a sign at the entrance informed me no handguns allowed) where I saw incredible artifacts from the 3rd century, the Presidency where I watched the hourly changing of the guard, and the Sveti Georgi Rotunda, the oldest building in Sofia.
After a tasty pizza lunch, I walked down by Sveta Nedelya, en route to see the Banya Bashi Mosque, the only working mosque in the city, and the Mineral Baths built in the early 1900s. I ventured on to the City Garden, and strolled through the Easter craft market admiring the intricately hand painted eggs and had some fun looking at the quirky statues and old men playing chess nearby. I rounded out the day with a little shopping and ice cream on Vitosha Blvd.
Work consumed most of the rest of the week, but the best parts of this trip were still to come! Outside our venue I met a sweet elderly couple who were selling hand-made pinwheels on the plaza, after a few purchases and comical hand gestures I learned they used to have a magic act, very coincidental since I was there with our magic show.
On (Orthodox) Good Friday I went inside the Aleksander Nevski church and watched as a line of people reaching out the door slowly progressed toward a table in the center, which they passed under after kissing the Priest’s hand and then left flower offerings at the crucifix. I read somewhere that the table symbolizes Jesus’ coffin and passing under it brings health & fertility, but somewhere else it said the act was symbolic of Jesus’ passing into the tomb. In either case it was a very unique and interesting tradition to watch.
Saturday I attended the Pascha (Easter) vigil with our local partners. At the church we joined hundreds of other worshippers in a candlelit procession around the church, reenacting the journey of the myrrhbearers to the tomb of Jesus, while a deep chanting, coming from a remarkably ordinary man inside the church, floated over the crowd. The liturgy very ceremonial lead by the ornately dressed bearded Priest. Of course I didn’t really understand much of what was said, and as it was standing room only in the incense laden church I didn’t stay too long, but to take part in such a real cultural/religious celebration, far removed from the typical tourist haunts, was unbelievably beautiful and truly moving. Unfortunately I did not have my trusty camera along to document the experience, but at least it’s an experience I will not soon forget.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter with the Pope

Rome is such an amazing city, full of some of the most incredible history in the world and fantastic food to boot! And of course, it is THE place to be on Easter, the holiest of holy days. There was a stressed shopping spree squeezed in between our site-seeing, thanks to Alitalia failing to load our entire flight’s luggage, but we tried hard not to let it ruin our good time. The first day we toured the Vatican and got to see the Sistine Chapel where we were repeated shooshed and shuffled about, with our necks craning upward so we could see what the big “Michelangelo” fuss was about. It was quite a nice roof I must say! After we finished there we went to St. Peter’s Square and watched Good Friday Mass on LCD screens outside the basilica. Of course I’ve seen the Pope (or Ho Fa as I like to call him) televised before, but to know all this was going on only a few hundred feet away was quite moving. We hung around a bit and watched all the colorful clergy, from all nationalities and walks of life, depart the church. After sundown, we headed to the Colosseum to see the Ho Fa lead the candlelit “Way of the Cross” procession. Unfortunately we got locked in the Parco di Traiano with some other American tourists– took a little while to figure out the entrance was still open! - and missed the actual procession, but there were still thousands and thousands of people congregated to hear the Pope’s blessings. I didn’t understand a thing but it was unbelievable to see such unity and all the twinkling lights surrounding the Colosseum.
Saturday morning we went to the Villa Borghese and admired the Renaissance sculptures & paintings. When we had our fill of the arts, we took a very lovely stroll through the park and meandered through Piazza del Popolo. After a nice pizza lunch, we worked our way up the Spanish Steps then went on to enjoy a tasty gelato at the beautiful Trevi Fountain and finally on to appreciate the unbelievable 2nd century architecture of the massively impressive temple to the gods, the Pantheon.
We were completely wiped out by the end of Holy Saturday, which was good for Tracey and I since we had given up our biggest indulgence, vino, for Lent and knew that just one short sleep away we would finally be able to indulge once more!
We were like 2 kids on Christmas waking up on Sunday, except for that it was Easter and the Pope Benedict’s mass and a wine lunch awaited!!! St. Peter’s Square was quite crowded, but thankfully not nearly as bad as we assumed from the packed subway cars. Again I did not understand much of what went on, but it was truly unbelievable to see the Ho Fa in person, even if he was about a mile away!
We followed the swarm of people, again all sorts of clergy amongst them, down Via della Conciliazione and over the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele bridge. Eventually we made our way to the Nuova Square where we had another delicious pizza lunch and our first refreshing sips of the anticipated (since Ash Wednesday, that is) vino! Luckily my pick of Prosecco hit the spot perfectly, but Tracey had to trade in her house red wine for something a little more pleasing to the palate, but it wasn’t long until we were riding that bike once again.
Later that day we toured the Colosseum, which was not quite as expected on the inside, but still very interesting and then ventured into the Treviste area for some relaxing people watching & dinner.
Needless to say my first Easter abroad was very eventful, very fun, and very, very holy!