Perhaps it was the foggy start to the day that set the tone as we arrived in Varna, Bulgaria. We ate a leisurely breakfast on the back of the Lido deck looking out at the eerie images of navy ships behind us muted and grayed even more by the mist that hung in the air. There wasn't exactly a scheduled tour or excursion that we chose for Varna but I had found online a free walking tour that began at the cathedral at eleven in the morning.
A ride on the complementary shuttle bus into town took us through neighborhoods that were full of graffiti. Not a good first impression of the city. The drop for passengers was in front of the Cathedral of the Assumption. We were about an hour early for the tour and decided to wander around the Cathedral and try to get our bearings. The area around the cathedral was dotted with sleeping bodies.
Deciding to take a look inside the Cathedral, we wound our way around several people shaking cups at us asking for money. In all the ports we'd visited, this was the first where we'd been approached by beggars. Inside the cathedral the priest met us at the door. He had a little table set up with some pamphlets, a basket with money in it under a sign that said donations and a bowl of holy water. I didn't recognize the small branch of greenery in his hand but it soon became obvious when we slipped a little money in the basket that the branch was used along with the holy water for a blessing. Bob indicated we were passing on the blessing.
Inside the Cathedral which was built in the late 1800s it was rather dark but had a lot of mural paintings. Along one side of the sanctuary were several furnace or fireplace like boxes where candles that were lit could be vented to the outside. and the sand and water that they were set in were definitely a deterrent to unwanted fires.
A sign inside the front door prominently situated said there was a charge for taking pictures. And just to be sure you didn't forget, there were two ladies who looked like they could wrestle a picture-taker to the floor patrolled the area with hand held signs that announced the price for three pictures. They never broke a smile and stared down anyone who raised a camera. I think one man was going to feign not understanding but they got him and loudly protested in their own language. I think he forked over the money. (If you'd like to see pictures of the inside, take a look at this sight of the Varna Cathedral).
I wondered what it would be like during a worship service.
After sitting in a pew a bit and walking around the sanctuary which really wasn't all that large, we went back outside. There was still plenty of time left until our meeting time for the tour so we crossed the street (by way of a tunnel under the busy main street) and began a walk down the pedestrian plaza through town.
The sun was trying to break through but it still looked kind of bleak. There was just something about the area that made me uncomfortable and then we began to have individual men coming up to us every so often and saying in English, "Change." We thought they were asking for change although they didn't look like they were beggars. I clutched my camera bag a little tighter and was thankful Bob was wearing a money pouch inside his pants rather than a wallet in his back pocket.
Shops were just beginning to open but there was still not much pedestrian traffic. Not like in other cities where we've seen outdoor cafes and people eating breakfast or grabbing one more cup of coffee. I really was wondering if I didn't just want to go back to the ship and skip the day in Varna. I am so glad I didn't. The sun broke through. The tour guide arrived. And soon we were thoroughly enjoying this unusual city.