Monthly Archives: September 2012

Great times and full days in Serbia

Hello again from Belgrade! The Serbian capital continues to be a surprising gem of our trip. Particularly considering that we didn’t expect to even be in Belgrade as recently as two weeks ago. We keep harping on it, but the weather in Eastern Europe has been as close to perfect as you could ever want. In New Zealand and again in the Baltic states, we were a bit chilly and bundled up. Visiting Asia in August left us predictably sweaty and hot. But in Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia? Perfection.

One of favorite hobbies in Belgrade has been spending time in the inexpensive outdoor cafes between visits to museums and self-guided walking tours. There are endless amounts of cute cafes with abundant outdoor seating where curt, hurried waiters bring you an ashtray long before they bring you a napkin. And you know that long, slow meals are the order of things when the hostess warns you before you sit down that “the restaurant is closing in about two hours” and questions whether or not that will be enough time.  Thanks, but we’re not expecting another dozen people to join us. We should be able to wrap up dinner in under 120 minutes. And no matter where we go, we are always only handed a single menu for both of us. Perhaps the union of menu printers is on a long-term strike. We’ve enjoyed coffee drinks, lemonades and ice cold Staropramens (not all at the same time) all over the city. Yesterday, Brooke finally was able to enjoy the hot fudge brownie she’s been seeking since Estonia. Although we’re a bit befuddled that clerks, waiters and cashiers repeatedly do not have any change on purchases. And this is when we’re paying with the equivalent of a $10 bill. We get exasperated looks and shrugs when they can’t cough up some small Dinar. Quite strange.

On thing we’ve really enjoyed is the fact that the city has an elaborate network of sensational parks including Kalemegdan and Aja Ciganlika which have something for everyone. Kalemegdan has provied us overlooks of the scenic confluence of Danube and Sava Rivers and more uses of the world confluences than I’ve encountered in my life. One park had Cable Water Skiing. That was a first for us. Cable Water Skiing! Ah, I see something new, novel and interesting every single day on this adventure.

We started our day with a trip to the Belgrade Military Museum inside Kalemegdan park. The museum has a stellar and massive collection of swords, knives, guns and uniforms spanning hundreds of years, but not much history…nor many exhibits in English. After getting burned a couple of times, we’ve learned a good rule of thumb is to always ask at the ticket booth how much of the museum is in English before forking over your cash. However, the museum improved with several rooms dedicated to WWI and WWII with good chunks in English. One highlight and notably eerie exhibit was the blood stained outfit that the Serbian King Alexander was wearing in 1934 when he was assassinated in France. Yowza. We also learned that Serbia is the first country we’ve visited in Eastern Europe who did not align themselves with Germany during WWII and, while quickly succumbing to occupation, can boast an active war time underground resistance. The unfortunate result was a brutal bombing by the Germans in 1941 and then the Allies a few years later. The massive museum provided some interesting highlight, but I would argue that it was a bit too large.

The highlight of our day was a four hour bike ride through a company called “I Bike Belgrade.” A two-wheel tour that took us over a flat, scenic easy course with a pair of exceptional guides. It was nice to be on bikes and the ride was almost exclusively on bike lanes,  away from traffic.  Judging by the looks our group received, I think biking is a somewhat rare affair in Belgrade. The ride took us along the river, over to New Belgrade and back through the parks and waterfront. New Belgrade, built during the 1960’s, reminded us that no communist construction of the 20th century is ever going to win any awards for beauty. This was our kind of tour! An interesting way to see parts of the city that we never would have stumbled across otherwise. Combine that with knowledgable, easy going guides who give pertinent, interesting information at every turn. We learned that bombings from the 1999 Nato campaign were announced and targeted in advance. We learned that several bombed out buildings from ten years ago were left that way as a tourist attraction. We learned that communist leader Tito wanted to build a whole new Belgrade, so he filled in swamp land in the 1960’s. Brooke and I are innately curious about our new surroundings (to learn as much as we can has been one of the primary points of this whole trip), so it is wonderful when we find local people who love to talk about their own home city and answer all of our questions. Brooke loved chatting up our guide and getting the history of Belgrade and his opinions on regional politics.

The perfect shot from our night tourThe same company who organized our bike tour also has a “Nightlife Academy” which comes highly recommended.  Unfortunately, we were exhausted and thought a 4 hour pub crawl just might kill us.  Instead, we took a leisurely walk home, stopping for drinks and then separately for dinner.  Without realizing it, I essentially ordered a plate full of meat, and it seems almost impossible to order a meal here which isn’t 90% meat, 9% onion and 1% other.  Don’t get me wrong – the five different samples of pork, steak, chicken, lamb and sausage was delicious. I think tomorrow we will prepare a home-cooked vegetarian meal at the apartment where we are staying.  That will be a refreshing change!

-Phil

Home of the Military Museum

From our bike tour: this office building/apartment in New Belgrade was a coveted building in the 1980’s, now it’s a bit of an unoccupied eye sore.

As mentioned above, the blood stained clothes of a slain King from the Military Museum

Our reward for a long bike ride- the complimentary beer that comes with our tour! Bonus: this is the 200th photo of us with beer on our RTW Trip!

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Categories: Bars, Beer, Differences, Eastern Europe, Eating, Museums, Self Guided Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Belgrade, Serbia–A Wonderful Surprise!

When planning our trip, we did not know exactly which cities we’d be visiting.  We had our flights and a basic plan, but we did not map out specifics in order to allow ourselves flexibility.  If you had asked us before we started whether or not we would visit Serbia, our answer would have been, “You never know, but probably not.”  Now, here we are, thrilled to be in the heart of Serbia: Belgrade.

Belgrade has a lot to offer, so we decided to start our day at the Nicola Tesla Museum.  Going into this, Phil knew a lot more about Tesla than I did.  In fact, if you had asked me who Tesla was, I might have made vague reference to a crappy band who covered the song “Signs.”  As it turns out, Nicola Tesla’s inventions changed the course of human history and we all use his technology daily.  In case you are like me and don’t know who he is, Tesla is best known for inventing the alternating current (AC) electrical system.  You may have heard of the Tesla Coil, his most well known invention which is integral to the AC system.  Nicola Tesla was born in Serbia, and here in Belgrade they have a museum dedicated to celebrating his work and his contributions to human history.

The Tesla Museum was a fun, interactive and incredibly informative experience.  We were given a tour by a young woman who just graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.  Her passion and knowledge for the topic shone through in her presentation of the material. The one floor museum situated in a beautiful old 19th century home was as much about Tesla as it was about his inventions. We learned that Tesla was a legitimate genius level inventor who could never be accused of thinking small. His inventions ranged from Hydroelectricity to a theorhetical global communications array that was never completed. Especially cool was the interactive exhibits like the giant Tesla Coil and a reproduction of the world’s first remote control toy boat that was showcased in Central Park in the early 1900’s. What really helped make the museum, or any museum for that matter, is that the guides were certified experts on the subject matter and sincerely passionate about all things Tesla. After our visit, our head was swimming with fascinating facts and information about Tesla. It is truly a sensational museum!

The light bulbs are being lit by the magnetic field created around the Tesla coil. Phil’s body is the conductor. Don’t get too close or you’ll get a shock!

After the Tesla Museum, we slowly wandered through the city toward the Belgrade Fortress.  Our eyes were filled with wonder at seeing bombed out buildings, still in crumbling ruins, adjacent to beautiful, historic structures.  The NATO bombings of Serbia, which took place over the course of almost 3 months in 1999, have left evidence almost everywhere you look in Belgrade.  At the same time, this city already feels more forward thinking, cosmopolitan and progressive than either Bucharest or Sofia.  We were expecting a sort of sadness…or at least the feeling that they were still trying to get back on their feet.  Not only are they standing on their own two legs, Belgrade is thriving.  There are cafes, corner stores and markets everywhere.  The streets are bustling with people and the nightlife here draws visitors from all over Europe.  There is a pulse and vitality that we haven’t felt in other Eastern European cities.  However, wages are still quite low and the younger population is dwindling as they leave to find jobs in other countries which are unavailable here.  The city seems to be growing, but it is not happening at a fast enough pace for to meet the demand of people in need of jobs.

We continued to walk along Knez Mihailova, a pedestrian only street which leads toward the fortress.  We happened upon a robotics exhibition and also discovered that Serbians love their popcorn like Romanians love their pretzels.  Finally, we made it to Kalamegdan Park, a huge park created on a plateau in front of the Belgrade Fortress.  Filled with people, the park is the best place to watch the sunset at the spot where the Danube and Sava Rivers converge.  It also houses several public art pieces, including a series of photographs of depicting gorgeous landscapes from each state in America.  We got a little misty at both the photograph of the Roebling Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati, Ohio and the view of the city from New York’s Central Park.  As we gazed out over the river, talking about all things past, present and future, we realized we are missing some small things about America.  This was punctuated by our discovery of several Buckeye Trees.  The characteristic seeds lay all over the ground, and I picked them up, dreaming of home and just wishing they were made of chocolate and peanut butter (a popular treat for Ohioans).

We finally found the fortress at the top of the park.  Originally built in the 1st Century A.D., it (of course) has been destroyed several times over the years.  This is somewhat surprising because the location is the highest spot around and one could easily see the advancing enemy coming in by river.  The current fortress has been turned largely into parkland, but also houses the Military Museum, an Entomology Museum and an Observatory.  Hunger spoke louder than our desire to see these exhibits, so we plan to head back there tomorrow.  As we strolled back through the park toward the tram, we realized that we have had yet another day of perfect weather.  With the exception of Brasov, Romania, Eastern Europe has been a meteorological utopia.

It had been such a lovely day, and we were excited to experience our first real Serbian meal.  After a recommendation from our Air B ‘n B host, we went to Orasac.  Our stomachs growled on the short walk to the restaurant, so we were psyched when we spotted the sign.  The man who greeted us warned that they were busy and it might take a while for the food.  We decided to stick it out since we were already there and didn’t really have a back-up plan.  In retrospect, we should have left when we had the chance.  Annoyed that we didn’t speak Serbian, the waiter was brash and rude.  We ordered “light domestic draft”, which is how the beer was described on the menu.  No brand.  No other option.  We think it was Lav, but we aren’t completely sure.  After being told the first 3 items we asked for were unavailable with a brusque “Ney,” we hastily ordered our meals.  Willing to overlook the bad service, dirty tablecloth and crumbs at the bottom of our beer glasses, we finally drew the line.  Phil cut into his chicken skewers and they were completely uncooked on the inside.  Bright pink.  Raw.  After the experience we had thus far, we decided it wasn’t worth it to try to explain or argue.  Instead we just showed it to the waiter and asked for the check.  The message was clear and we soon left unsatisfied.  We’ve had some really amazing meals in the last week, so I suppose we were due for a stinker.

Dinner aside, today was really wonderful.  We have such a positive impression of Belgrade and we are excited to explore it further tomorrow.  We are planning to explore the Military Museum, plus partake in a bike tour which sounds awesome.  We’ll let you know how it goes!

–Brooke

Wishing these Buckeyes were the sweet treats I love so much!

The fortress offers beautiful views of the Danube and the entire city of Belgrade.

 

Categories: City Visits, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Europe, Exploring, Homesick, Landmarks, Museums, Serbia, Surprises, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

From Bulgaria to Serbia

This morning, we packed up our bags and left scenic Sofia just before sunrise. We took one last tram ride to the bus station where we prepared to trade in one Eastern European capital for another. We’re pumped to see Belgrade, Serbia and learn all about the former Yugoslavia republic. What do we know so far? Belgrade has a long history with several episodes of conflict that include three months of Nato bombing not so far back in 1999. Serbia is home to the top ranked tennis pro whose name I can never say or pronounce correctly. And also home to electric innovator Nicolai Tesla. To get here, we boarded a 7:30 coach bound for Nis, Serbia and then a quick change would take us onward to our next destination: Belgrade. Since the buses we’ve seen in Bulgaria and Romania have ranged widely in age and quality (and that’s being polite), we sighed in relief when our particular bus pulled into the station: Comfy, clean and modern. Nevertheless, a universal truth is that traveling a good seven hours by bus is rarely boring. Or routine. Or lacks a good story for our blog.

During the ride, we battled mightily (and lost) to keep our eyes open to enjoy the scenic countryside.  At the rare awake moment, we met Katarina – a native Serbian student who was just returning from a study program in Siberia. Katarina was full of insight and some solid general information about our next stop. Also an enthusiastic traveler, she’s part of a team that runs this great community website: Serbia Travelers Club.  We are already using it as a resource and it’s worth checking out.  We had a quick set of dual border checks that gave us two shiny new passport stamps as we exited Bulgaria and entered Serbia. It was when we landed in Nis that things got interesting. Initially we thought that we could stay on the bus to continue to Belgrade. It was only after everyone else exited that we realized we had to transfer our old ticket to a new one and get on a new bus. Our Serbian is jussst a bit rusty, but we managed to muddle through interactions with the ticket clerk to find out that our next bus that was scheduled to depart in ten minutes. As a bonus, without knowing it, we had lost an hour and experienced a time change at the border. Hmmm..it might be wise for us to look at a time-zone map in detail since throughout this trip we’ve never been quite sure when and where the time changes. That might eventually bite us in the rear.

The kicker at the Nis station was the bathroom. The three hour bus ride thus far left both of us with the need to use the restroom. No problem. But it is a small, busted up station that looks stuck in the 1950’s and the only facilities are pay toilets. This wasn’t too surprising, except the clerk at the pay toilet only accepts Serbian Dinars. Which we did’t have. And the bus was leaving in five minutes. And there was no toilet on the next bus. A glimmer of hope lay on the horizon where we spotted a currency exchange, With deft speed and a full bladder, Brooke set off to convert some leftover Bulgarian Leva to Dinar. Amazingly, the stern, unyielding change maven refused to accept the paper bills from the bordering country. While I wasn’t there personally to witness the exchange regarding the exchange, I’m told there was begging, pleading and a request for sympathy. At the last moment, Brooke found an American dollar stuffed somewhere in her wallet and the conversion bought us a pair of trips to the toilet. Quite a way to spend your first Serbian Dinar! Soon, the bus pulled out of the station and all was well. Needless to say, our brief time in Nis did not leave us with the most positive impression. But its all part of the joys of traveling.

Our travel reward and pay off awaited in Belgrade in the form of our next AirB’nB stay located right in the middle of town. Brooke did it again and found us a phenomenal place to stay. We have a full, private apartment to ourselves for the next four days with bedroom, bathroom, clothes washer, kitchen and living room. Even a welcome bottle of wine. It’s the nicest, roomiest accommodations we’ve had in quite a while. I know it sounds minor, but a place like this during a four month trip is rejuvenating, comfortable and does wonders for your state of mind. Plus, we have the greatest variety of cable television since…well…perhaps ever on this trip.

Our somewhat final European itinerary as planned at a Sofia cafe a few days back. Flexibility is a great thing.

We went for a short walk around the neighborhood to get some groceries, snacks and dinner for the evening. It is warm in Belgrade and the city is lined with small cars and pedestrians moving from place to place in a hurry. We were once again reminded that just because a cross walk signal says that you CAN cross the street, doesn’t always mean you should. Some European drivers have interesting interpretations of pedestrian rights and can be bullies. But we’re saving most of our Belgrade discovering for tomorrow. Today, we have passed an official resolution that we’re not going to do much of anything. We broke out some  Baileys (the official drink of relaxation and comfort) that we had picked up in Sofia and settled in. A nice dinner around the corner, some e-mails sent, some pre-research on this new country and then an early bedtime to catch up on some sleep. Kind of a non Day. How did I end it? By enjoying some New York Mets baseball shown through ESPN America where I watched R.A. Dickey punch out 13 to become the Mets first 20 game winner since 1991, and to top it off, it was their last home game of the season. Quite the taste of home. Awesome. Just awesome.

-Phil

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Eastern Europe, Hotels, Reflections, Relaxing, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Last Day in Sofia

 

Greetings one last time from the Bulgarian capital! Today is our last day in Sofia before moving on. It’s been a short but memorable time in Bulgaria and we’ve managed to make the most of it.

One of the real highlights has been the food. More specifically, three knockout dinners in a row at three different restaurants in Sofia- all a short walk from our hostel. Last night, we ended up at a bistro named Lubimoto which had recently received, of all things, a write-up in the New York Times. Man, what a meal! Run by a trio of brothers, a dinner at Lubimoto allowed us to sit outside and pace ourselves over a nice long meal. One of the brothers had spent considerable time in America and doubled as our host (so much more than a waiter) for the evening. We finally relented and began the meal like Bulgarians do -with Rakia! A clear, potent, traditional aperitif  that tastes like some devilish mix of paint thinner, jet fuel and bad whiskey. Okay, it’s a bit more palatable than that, but it is certainly an eye-opening way to start any meal. From there, we enjoyed another local staple that’s become a fast favorite and a daily must of ours: A shopska salad.

Brooke gives Rakia a taste

someone call a service to just roll us back to our hostel, please.After that, our host brought us two made-to-order entrees that were out of this world.  One pork dish and one chicken dish that I would only shame if I attempted to describe the deliciousness. Brooke is calling it one of the best meals on the trip and I’m inclined to agree. A couple of pints of Staropramen and a dessert of cake and pecan ice cream (compliments of our host) rounded out the evening. And the final bill left us wondering if the printer was broken or someone sliced off a few zeros. Great stuff, but not an isolated incident! We also had tasty meals at Divaka and Izbata where we dined among locals, had some Bulgarian dishes and walked away with our Leva (Bulgarian currency) in tact. In summary, great eating in Sofia!

I mentioned it before, but Sofia has been a incredibly easy city to get around (crumbling sidewalks aside). There is the occasional post in the middle of the walkways which I’ve done a poor job of dodging. But if walking is not your thing, there are street cars everywhere. These trams run over a thorough network that seems to cover most of the city, arrive frequently, and are a cheap way to get around. They can run a bit slow, but we’re usually not in a hurry. And some of the older models have steep, giant steps into the cars that are best tackled by those who are part billy goat. But the most unique part is that, in general, no one checks your ticket. The driver’s main responsibility is just to drive. That was until three of the notorious ticket checkers quickly and quietly boarded the street car today. It was the first time in any country that we’ve seen anyone actually come in and check tickets on these types of self-check bus and trams. The ticket checkers meant business and you got the feeling they weren’t interested in friendly banter. We’ve been warned of problems and scams in these cases, but Brooke and I didn’t face any issues. However, there was drama and a shouting match with two other passengers. Not sure what was happening  (language barrier and all), but man was it entertaining! I know that we keep comparing our time in Bulgaria to an Indiana Jones adventure, but it really did go down a little something like the video clip below:

Today we took some time to do what Brooke and I do best: Take our own self guided tour of the city. We managed to catch the very cool changing of the guards outside the presidential palace. Impressive pomp and circumstance that happens every hour on the hour. We stumbled into the former Royal Palace turned Art Museum and while we were in the city center, we found ourselves next to a loud (but organized) protest march. Again, we had no idea what they were marching against, until one of the participants came running up to us pointing and shouting at our plastic bag that contained today’s souvenirs. We later learned that it was a march for the government to take more action on environmental concerns and, you guessed it, ban all plastic bags.

Not far from the museum, there was an outdoor market selling communist era medals, clocks, clothing and more. You get the impression that when the socialist era ended, a lot of these “collectibles” were left behind. We visited two of the more noteworthy and historic churches in Sofia including a massive Russian Orthodox Church and the church for which Sofia gets its name. So far, no shortage of churches (and statues! So many statues!) in Europe, but each one has grandeur, individual detail and a stunning, peaceful quality that makes it worth the visit. I’ve learned that I prefer the Lutheran cathedral – so many of the Russian Orthodox churches are magnificent and stunning, especially from the outside, but are dark, uninviting and cavernous sterile places of worship on the inside. Just my opinion though.

So, as we wrap up our few days in Sofia, we’re ready to say goodbye to the sensational weather, street side cafes,  friendly faces and move on. Tomorrow morning, we take two buses a combined six hours to Belgrade, Serbia. The rest of our time in Europe includes stops in Budapest, Dubrovnik, Munich and then a 10 day stay in Scotland and England. Can’t wait for what’s next!

-Phil

Bulgarian Environmental Protest

Brooke with Morning Coffee and the changing of the guards. This might be my new favorite photo!

For reasons we never quite understood, some of the Sofia police cars were Audis and BMWs. Nice.

Categories: Budget, Bulgaria, Differences, Eastern Europe, Eating, Self Guided Tours, Tours, Transportation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Rila Mountains and Monastery

What a view!Having lived in New York City for the past six years, we are somewhat starved for nature.  Yes, we try to chip away at our hunger by taking short trips outside the city or visiting my family’s cabin in the Great North Woods.  We have slowly been working our appetite back to fulfillment, but years of living in the “Concrete Jungle” leaves a lot of work to be done.  After our journey today, we feel satisfied.  The warm contentment that comes only after an amazing day surrounded by lush green forests rests solidly within our souls and we are happy.

Today, we visited the Rila Monastery which sits nestled in the Rila Mountains, the highest range in the Balkans. Bulgaria is filled with monasteries, and this one is easily the most beloved and visited by tourists.  Hostel Mostel, the hostel where we are staying, arranges daily trips for this two-and-a-half hour journey outside of Sofia.  Accompanied by our driver, Ivan, and a French traveler, we set out into the Bulgarian countryside.  As we began to wind our way up into the mountains, the warm air sweeping through the car cooled and the surrounding forests grew thick with foliage.  Feeling confident with the sharp turns, Ivan sped around bends that were starting to make me a bit queasy.  And then, out of nowhere, the monastery appeared before us.  Grateful to be there, we slowed to take in the sights.  Driving past the monastery, Ivan pointed out places to eat lunch and other points of interest, but then kept driving. We were momentarily confused, he explained that he was first going to take us to a small cave just three kilometers up the road.

The minute we climbed out of the car, the beauty overwhelmed me.  Images of my family’s home in Canada flooded my brain and immediate happiness ensued.  Ivan told us it would be a 15 minute hike to the cave.  It was balmy–65 degrees, sunny with a lovely and light breeze.   The perfect day for a hike.  I only wish I knew this was going to be part of the trip–I wore my sandals, which worked but would not have been my first choice.  Before spotting the cave entrance, we came upon an old church.  In broken English, Ivan explained that this was used hundreds of years ago by monks (we later discovered this was the original location of the monastery).

That's a backdrop that would make Olan Mills droolAfter wandering around, he led us into the cave.  Now, we have had two “cave experiences” on this trip–Waitomo Caves in New Zealand which was amazing, and Heavenly Cave in Vietnam which was underwhelming.  Those trips bare little comparison to this one.  Upon entering, Ivan told us a monk lived alone for 12 years in this cave, filling his time with prayer and religious study.  We had to double over to enter the cave which was pitch black inside.  Probably 15 feet long, 7 feet wide with maybe an 8 foot ceiling at its highest point, this was a cramped space.  Ivan lit 3 small candles to provide some light for us to see the ledge where the monk probably slept. The tiny space made it impossible to imagine living there for so long.  Ivan motioned us to a ladder in the corner which led toward daylight.  He began climbing to exit through the top of the cave and indicated we were to follow.  As I watched him squeeze through the hole at the top, my self-consciousness made me question whether or not my round hips would fit through.  I slowly started up and twisted myself into one awkward position after another until I was able to emerge on the other side.  We all made it safely through, which is an especially good thing–apparently legend has it that only those without sin can fit through the exit.  Glad we made it, though I’m not so sure the legend holds true.

After sampling some delicious spring water, we descended the slope so we could continue on to the monastery.  Phil and I found ourselves walking slowly, taking deep breaths of the crisp clean air, and wishing there were a hammock for us to spend more time soaking in the environment.  Eventually we forced ourselves back into the car, but not without lamenting the fact that beauty like this can’t really be captured in words or photos (as much as we like to try).  It can only be experienced.

We ventured back toward the Rila Monastery.  Built in the 10th century, these grounds hold a special place of importance in the hearts of Bulgarians.  The monastery, which has been threatened by destruction from the Ottoman Empire as well as a disastrous fire, prioritizes the preservation of Bulgarian culture.  It has been rebuilt and maintained as needed throughout the years and now attracts thousands of visitors. The architecture is striking, but we were most impressed with the paintings which cover the walls of the church entrance.  Meant to teach the lessons of the Bible, these sometimes cartoonish depictions are quite entertaining.  We particularly love the facial expressions and the ways the devil tries to tempt people into doing evil deeds.  Both entertaining and educational.  What more could a person want?

After wandering the grounds for a bit, we took some time to soak in just a little more nature before we got back in the car to head to Sofia.  One of the things I found so amazing about the journey back was that in the span of twenty minutes we saw a monk checking a cell phone, a family of pigs running out of the woods into the road, a BMW speeding around a tight turn, and a farmer driving his horse-drawn cart.  This constant juxtaposition of old and new continues to emerge during our visit to Eastern Europe, and that is what makes this such a great place to be at this moment in history.

As if to punctuate the thoughts I was already having, our driver stopped by a privately owned museum (of sorts) on our way back into Sofia.  Really, it was one man’s collection of antiques that he had on display for visitors who gave a small donation.  Old cars and motorbikes caught our attention first, but it was the bust of Stalin and the wall of old TVs and radios that had us enamored.  Our French friend was fascinated by the WWII era bombs which were on display.  A cross between a museum and a junkyard, visiting this collection was the perfect end to what can only be described as a perfect day.

–Brooke

Paintings on the outside of the church designed to teach parishioners to stay away from the devil!

Phil climbing through the afore mentioned caves!

Categories: Bulgaria, City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Hiking, Hotels, Landmarks, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Beautiful Vitosha…or Not

Upon arrival in Sofia, our friendly hostel workers gave us a map with suggestions of things to do.  Top on the list:  enjoy Vitosha Natural Park.  Similarly, when we went on our walking tour of Sofia, one of the first things the guide said to us is that Vitosha is not to be missed–having a mountain peak that reaches 2290 meters just 30 minutes outside of the city makes Sofia unique to other Eastern European capitals.  So we figured, this is a must do.  A can’t miss.  Today was the day we would hike Vitosha.

In our research, we discovered that Vitosha is a very popular weekend destination for both visitors and locals.  There is actually a chair lift that takes guests part of the way to the top.  There, ambitious visitors can hike to the top, or less adventurous types can connect to another chairlift which takes them to the peak.  There is also a gondola that leaves from a separate town at the base and takes people all the way to the peak without any switching.  We were so excited for all of these options–this way we could ride up and hike down (I know, we’re taking the easy way).  Sadly, we learned that the chairlifts and gondola only run Friday to Sunday.  Our stay in Sofia is Monday-Wednesday, so chairlifts are not an option for us.  Damn.

Okay, we are young.  We are healthy.  We climbed Mt. Fuji, for god’s sake!  We can hike up to the top, right?  Of course.  We set out on Tram #5 to the end of the line where “it’s very clear” how to hike up the mountain.  When we arrived at our stop, we exited the train and were surrounded by a run-down park with stray dogs (of course), some locals hanging around, and a rickety set of steps which led further into the woods.  After stopping for directions in a hotel whose stairs tried to permanently injure Phil, we trekked up the steps to begin our journey.  These led to a set of paths up the mountain.  Awesome.  We were there.  Except, there were at least 4 different paths.  Time for a map.  What?  No maps in English, only Cyrillic, an alphabet we can’t read.  Okay, that wasn’t going to stop us.  Nobody really speaks English, but everyone we spoke to pointed up, smiled and said, “Vitosha”.  So, we looked at each path and decided to follow the one that actually had another person on it.

So, here’s the thing:  it was quiet.  I mean, we didn’t see a single other hiker anywhere.  And, we didn’t have a map.  Though the trails were clearly laid out paths, they weren’t marked so we couldn’t be sure we were headed in the right direction, and more importantly, getting back down the same way might be tricky.  And then there are the bears.  In my reading before arrival in Bulgaria, I read that one of the wonderful things about this country is that its forests are still filled with natural elements like bears, lynxes and rare birds which other European countries are losing.  Rare birds–awesome.  Lynxes–uh, okay.  Bears–no way!  I’ve heard enough horror stories and been warned enough times about these dangerous creatures that I am really scared of bears.  What are the odds we would run into one on this hike?  I don’t honestly know–we weren’t exactly going into this exactly “well-researched”.

Phil’s delicious breakfast to prepare him for our unexpected day. Affordable, too, at only $1.20!

If there had been lots of other hikers around, I would have been fine.  If we would have had a map, I would have been okay.  If there were park rangers hanging about, I’d have felt confident.  But we had none of these things, and pretty soon the random noises in the forest started to freak me out.  So, I bailed.  I told Phil that I really wasn’t comfortable doing this.  For all the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I said I thought we should turn around and try something different.  I felt kind of bad, but being the wonderful partner he is, Phil agreed instantly and understood my concerns.  Great.  Now, for plan B.

Coming up with a plan B required we find a little help either from friendly locals or from the internet.  We spotted a hostel and figured they would be able and willing to help us on our journey.  We climbed the stairs, found the receptionist and asked our usual first question, “Do you speak English?”  She replied, “Deutsch.”  Hmmm, we don’t speak German.  We don’t really know any German at all (except for “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” and we already had an answer for that).  We were really wishing we had our German-speaking friend Drew to help us out at this moment.  Luckily, she was nice enough to give us their WiFi password and let us sit on their steps and do a little research.  After quite a bit of looking, we discovered there is a bus that takes people to the top of Vitosha!  Awesome.  All we had to do was go back into Sofia, catch the bus and the rest was a breeze.

Of course, things are never easy.  We finally worked our way to the spot where the bus terminal was supposed to be only to find it wasn’t a bus terminal at all.  It looked like it maybe used to be a bus terminal, but at this point it was just some bus stops and a turnaround that didn’t look to be in use any longer.  When we asked the proprietor of a nearby pizza stand, he was able to point us in the right direction.  After a little hunting (and asking for a little more help), we were able to find bus #64 heading to Vitosha.  Awesome.  This is the bus 3 different people (plus our online research) told us would take us to the top.  We were on our way now.  Nothing could stop us.  But, just to be sure, when we got on the bus we asked the driver, “Vitosha?”  He looked puzzled and shook his head.  I tried again, but this time I also traced the shape of a mountain in the air with my finger and he said, “Da.”  Great, two tickets please.

At this point, all we had to do was get off once we got to the top.  We started picking up passengers and slowly climbing through the neighborhoods at the base of the forest.  We didn’t really look like we were headed into the forest, more just an outer neighborhood of Sofia, but we figured as long as we were heading uphill, we were good to go.  We passed some movie studios and a monastery.  Soon thereafter, we definitely felt a shift in momentum as the bus started heading downhill.  He was picking up speed by the second and it seemed forever until the next stop.  At that point, we knew.  Almost immediately we knew we weren’t going to make it.  We would not see the top of Vitosha.  Defeated and weary, we rode the bus back down to the last stop, got out in a neighborhood we did not recognize, and ate the lunch we had packed for our hike.  It was over.  It’s important to know when to call it quits.  This was it for us.  It was only 4pm, the day was not completely lost, but we were not going to spend any more time trying to reach the top of the elusive Vitosha.

The rest of the afternoon shaped up nicely with a few drinks to help ease our frustration, lots of productive planning and a lovely dinner of traditional Bulgarian food at Divaka.  We felt a little better when we overheard a girl who is staying at our hostel tell someone on the phone that she, too, tried to get to the top of Vitosha today but after hours of walking, gave up.  That’s something, I guess. As you can see, sometimes the attempt at a destination makes for a pretty good story alone. Besides, we win more than we lose, so days like these don’t really bother us when we have a comfortable bed, a delicious meal and an exciting tomorrow planned.

-Brooke

Categories: Bulgaria, City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Eating, Hiking, Reflections, Safety, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Welcome to Sofia!

Greetings from Sofia! The overnight train from Bucharest pulled into the Bulgarian Capital City bright and early around 9:00 AM. Our private, if not incredibly old, train car granted us some sleep in between two separate hour-long border checks (groan – at one point, our conductor fell asleep after taking our passports. Hey, guy, we’re going to need those) and station stops where the train grinds to a sudden stop.  On the bright side, we woke up to some stunning views of Bulgarian mountains.

After arriving, we made our way, half on instinct and half on dumb luck, to the funky Hostel Mostel where we’ll be staying for the next few days. We’re back to staying at Hostels and in Sofia where we have a private room as part of a five bedroom apartment annex right in the center town. The street cars out our window generate a lot of noise and the bathroom sinks are a bit too small, but for $34 a night giving us a comfy, clean, big room, we really can’t complain. Once we settled in, the city was ours to explore. Brooke and I turn our excitement level up a little bit higher each time we step foot in a new country. A whole new place to explore! We tend to start in the bigger cities because we’ve found that they make perfect jumping off places. And when you may not have a lot of overall time in a specific country, these big metropolises are a great place to start.

After getting settled with a much needed shower and afternoon nap, we joined the 6pm Free Sofia Tour walking tour. We had an exceptional guide who spent two hours giving us a basic overview of the city and it’s rich and detailed past. It was an amazing, informative tour where we learned everything from where Sofia earned it’s name to the history of the palace guards to the supposed communist era tunnels that run underneath the city and are still shrouded in secrecy. What a fabulous way to get some perspective and kick off our visit. The icing on the cake was the dinner that followed at a local Bulgarian restaurant where we dined with a friendly fellow American we met while on the tour.  He is working here for a month, and was able to give us some useful insights into the culture and people,

The most important thing to know about getting by in Bulgaria is that the dreaded cyrillic alphabet is used here. The same cryptic set of symbols is found in Russia and used by millions elsewhere. B becomes V, Ps are Greek PIs, etc. Not speaking the language already makes things a little tricky but not being able to read any signs, menus, maps and more makes things that much more difficult. The second most important thing to know is that the weather here has been absolutely gorgeous. Talk about coming at the right time. Perfect weather immediately gives us a favorable impression.  On top of that, this past Saturday was Bulgarian Independence Day (celebrating their independence from the Ottoman Empire so many years ago) creating a Sofia that is alive and bursting with people and activities everywhere. Sofia strikes us as a young city trying, much like Bucharest, to break out of the shadow of decades of iron curtain rule. The Soviet era statues and buildings are gradually being replaced or just allowed to crumble altogether, while a new city is slowly starting to spring up carefully around historic structures. For the record, we’re pretty certain now that every single Eastern Block city had a giant statue of Lenin somewhere along the way. Sofia just removed their own 25′ version a few years ago.

Sofia scores impressively high on the walkability scale. It’s been easy to make short treks from bars to monuments to post offices. And where we can’t walk, a thorough network of trams and buses has been able to give us a cheap, speedy ride. But what has been most remarkable is the amount of history we’ve found here in such a short time! Churches, synagogues and mosques that are hundreds and hundreds of years old house active congregations and international visitors rather than sit idle as museums. Just recently, while expanding the city’s Metro, local workers unearthed ruins that date back to the fourth century. The fourth century! I’m pretty sure when they expand the subway in Los Angeles they just find more rocks. And this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this: in both Copenhagen and Bucharest, expanding metro construction has revealed ancient archeology finds that are re-writing some of the nation’s history. Simply amazing. But that all pales in comparison to our most important discovery about Sofia: There is gelato everywhere. The national pastime here must be to own a gelato stand because we can’t go five feet without tripping into the deliciousness.  I think we’ll have to sample several different vendors so we can provide you with a fair assessment.  That only seems right.

Our one complaint about Sofia? The sidewalks are absurdly uneven and broken apart. i know that sounds like a petty complaint, but see below for a video clip of Brooke walking down the street. It was a lot like this…(skip to :37 if needed)

-Phil

Our delicious dinner with our new Sofia friend Woody on our first night in town

Our delicious dinner with our new Sofia friend Woody on our first night in town. The shopska salad is an instant favorite

Our view from our train ride

Brooke touching buried walls of an ancient fort discovered only in the 1970’s when the subway was built. So cool to be able to walk around the ruins!

The Bulgarian Guard at the office of the President

Categories: Bulgaria, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Eating, Tours, Trains, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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