Differences

Enjoying Mar Del Plata

Choosing to come to Mar Del Plata as an end to our trip around the world was a fantastic idea.  We have enjoyed our time relaxing, doing some “re-entry” work, and literally taking long walks along the beach.  No, we aren’t placing a singles ad or anything, but the coastline here stretches for miles and it is wonderful that we have time to simply walk.  Like many other beach towns, there are dozens of runners, roller bladers, power walkers and skaters moving about and enjoying the sunshine and ocean breeze.  The beach is noticeably busier on the weekends and the atmosphere is charged with energy and excitement.

Determined to take advantage of the awesome apartment where we are staying, we wandered half way across town to find a better grocery store in order to make dinner for ourselves.  Though this Toledo store is the same brand as the other, its much more expansive aisles and wider selection made this one far superior.  We could actually identify vegetables through the mud caked on them, unlike our previous Toledo visit.  The floors were also level, allowing us to let go of our cart without it racing to the other end of the store and crashing into a wall.  What a refreshing change!  We bought all the fixins for a truly delicious homemade dinner.  Once preparations began, we found ourselves faced with a challenge.  Now, bear in mind we have cooked using a gas stove and oven for years–this is what we are used to.  Also know that our Air BnB host, Carlos, demonstrated how to use the oven on the first day we arrived.  None of that made any difference.  On this stove, the pilot light for the oven has to bit lit manually using a match.  Simple enough, but we had the hardest time finding the right combination.  Light the match, push in the dial, spin until you hear the gas release, then release and set the temperature.  Each time we tried the last step, the flame disappeared.  In fact, every time I had the stupid thing lit, the flame would die if I made any moves with the dial.  I wasn’t too keen on sitting with my hand on the dial for the entire time and not only did my frustration began to build, but my fear that we were going to blow up this apartment in our efforts.  Phil took over and had similar issues.  Match after match, we lit the flame to see it almost immediately die out.  As soon as we were about to change the menu from oven-roasted carrots to sautéed carrots, Phil saved the day and figured it out.  It took us at least 15 matches and I’m not sure we’ll be able to do it again, but at least we were able to roast those carrots and enjoy a delicious homemade dinner.

After dinner, Phil was excited to check out the casino.  I was feeling much more comfy and cozy inside and managed to talk him into staying home and just hanging on the couch.  As Phil mentioned in his last post, one thing we have been doing is watching a fair amount of television, which we haven’t done much of on the whole trip. Now, almost every channel we get has the shows dubbed over in Spanish, but there are a few reliable channels that merely have Spanish subtitles and we can actually watch the programming.  We don’t really get many typical American networks–no NBC, CBS, or ABC.  We do get FOX, but it is some different version and of course there is AXN, with its endless episodes of CSI: Miami, Criminal Minds and Castle.  However, even with our limited choices, we have managed to discover 2 new shows which we think are part of the new fall schedule (though we aren’t sure, because here they were shown on Cinemax).  These shows are Arrow and Revolution.  Both on in marathon format (though Revolution was only 2 episodes), we watched from pilot to current episode and really enjoyed them both.  Are they high quality shows?  Maybe, but we have been starved for such television, and it was fun to indulge and watch for hours.  There is a 75% chance we won’t ever watch these once we return to the States, but I’m glad we caught them here.

We should have known. It doesn’t even look fun or inviting from the outside.

After much begging, pleading and arm twisting, we finally found ourselves at the Casino Central the following day.  Okay, so maybe Phil and I love casinos and we have found it interesting to see some of the differences between the ones we are used to in Las Vegas and those around the world. Set in an old hotel, this casino was said to be a fun time and the best of a few of these establishments in Mar Del Plata.  It may be the best one, but think our standards might be too high.  As we walked in, I got the distinct feeling that we were in an old hotel convention floor which is hosting a casino night.  All the games were concentrated in one area with the corners and edges of the room largely empty.  There isn’t much different from one slot machine to another, although we did see one of our Vegas favorites called Milked Money that involved racing cows and more fun.  However,  when we played electronic roulette, we couldn’t determine how to cash out our winnings.  We hit all the buttons and read the whole screen (in Spanish), but no ticket printed.  Finally we asked the attendant and he showed us this ridiculously obscure multi-step process of cashing out.  Great, at least it was possible to actually get the money out.  We weren’t ready to leave, so I went to put the ticket back in the machine and keep playing, but unlike most casinos, the tickets can’t be used at cash in this electronic game.  Argh, what a pain.  Finally, we settled in an played for a bit.  The minimum bet was 1 peso, which is a little less than 25 US cents, so we weren’t exactly risking our life savings, just having some fun.  Once we ran out of pesos, we headed for the door.  The only thing this trip to the casino really did was give us the itch to go back to Las Vegas.

And now we find we have come to our last full day of the trip.  True, we don’t leave until Tuesday, but that we mostly be spent traveling.  So, we will continue to soak up the sun, reflect on this amazing journey and prepare to establish ourselves back into the world of work, family and friends.  It may surprise you to hear that this is actually something we are really looking forward to. But first, we will enjoy Mar Del Plata–the beach, the sun, the seafood–for just a little while longer.

–Brooke

The bigger, better grocery store also has these crazy peanuts we ate at a restaurant. They are battered and fried. And delicious!

During the high season, it is almost impossible to find a spot on the beach. That won’t happen until late December and January.

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Categories: Argentina, At Night, Casino, City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Mar Del Plata, Reflections, Relaxing, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Trip to the Beach

Yes, we’ve been traveling for months and in some ways it has been a vacation.  We don’t have jobs.  We don’t cook dinner.  We don’t have to clean the house.  Even with all that,  our trip has felt less like a vacation and more like traveling.  I think there is a difference.  On vacation you relax, go at a slower pace and try not to think about any other responsibilities.  On the contrary, when traveling you are on the go, visiting different attractions, learning new information and soaking up interesting experiences.  We have been traveling since the end of July.  Now, it is time for vacation.

When we return to the States we will be relocating to a new city.  Looking for a new car, apartment and job means we will probably have to hit the ground running.  Because of this, we have decided to end our trip with a sort of beach vacation–an opportunity to reflect, relax, and re-gather our energy to start anew upon our return.  So, today we find ourselves in Mar Del Plata, a beach town that’s a 5 1/2 hour bus ride south of Buenos Aires and the summer playground for many Portenos.  We took another comfy ride on a luxury coach bus, where I tried to get some much needed rest.  I fell a sleep for a bit, but was rudely awakened by the man across the aisle snoring so loudly I could hear him through my earplugs.  Argh!  I reluctantly woke up and eventually we pulled into this sunny coastal city.  As we cruised down Avenida de Colon toward the sea’s edge, it felt like we were on the drive into Clearwater Beach, Florida.  The road slopes slightly upward and I eagerly anticipated the moment when the Atlantic Ocean revealed itself before our eyes.  Once it finally did, the view took our breath away.  Ocean spread in front of us as far as our eyes could see and the breeze from the water cooled the air at least 10 degrees.  It is gorgeous.

Our Air BnB home for the next five days. Perfect.

We arrived at the final stay of our trip, an apartment we found through Air BnB.  It is hard to believe after so many different hotels, hostels and apartments over the last few months, this is the last one of our trip.  And we couldn’t have chosen a better final stay.  The apartment is small, but absolutely perfect for what we need.  Big comfortable bed, hot shower and a well-equipped kitchen.  But the most impressive feature is the balcony which overlooks the sea.  In fact, every window in the apartment has views of the ocean making us feel like we are floating on the sea.  Our host, Carlos, was incredibly welcoming.  He shared with us they myriad restaurants and attractions we could visit during our stay.  Apparently there is a section of town with great seafood restaurants and his mention of a nearby casino certainly didn’t go unnoticed.  We ventured out for some lunch and to stock up on groceries. We searched for a grocery which was more than just a “mini-mercado.”  We finally found one, excited by its size, but this excitement soon wore off.  The veggies were all caked in dirt, the meat looked a few days old and I couldn’t find any peanut butter.  They sell dulce de lece by the gallon-sized bucket, but no peanut butter.  This makes me very sad.  We finally settled on brown rice and some frozen veggie concoction, along with some other snacks and necessities, then began to walk back to our place.  Exhausted from the early morning, snoring man on bus and the weariness of travel, we then took an epic nap.  Let the vacation begin.   A king sized bed, the ocean breeze blowing through the window and the sounds of waves crashing against the shore are a recipe for the perfect nap.  Add to that the very little sleep we got last night and waking up early for the bus and we were both asleep within seconds of our heads hitting the pillow.

Excited to finally find a big grocery store. Sadness at not finding peanut butter has not yet descended.

Once we peeled ourselves from our comfort, we made a much anticipated homemade dinner.  The first of many in our near future.  If we had to choose the one thing we have consistently missed the most on this trip (besides friends and family, of course), it is cooking for ourselves.  We can’t wait to get back into this habit.  Happy to be in the same place for 5 days, we plan to continue much the same way we did today, with the addition of some beach time and maybe a trip to the casino.  We will cherish each moment of this “vacation” from our travels because the real world beckons and will be here before we know it.

–Brooke

The view from our balcony. I’ll take it!

Categories: Argentina, Beach, Casino, City Visits, Differences, Mar Del Plata, Relaxing, Surprises, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Back through Mendoza

As we trek onward through Argentina, we’re putting our phenomenal time in wine country behind us and heading back east. Ah, I already miss enjoying a daily bottle of wine. A cheap ride on the city bus took us back into the city of Mendoza. Brooke and I were looking forward to one more day in Mendoza since we liked so much of what we saw the first time around. One of Argentina’s larger cities, the central area of Mendoza is compact, walkable, tree lined and punctuated with several lively public squares teeming with ample green space and functioning fountains. The sidewalks are packed with people on their way to school and work or, in the evening, leisurely ambling across town. Toss on the marble tiling found everywhere and the aqueducts running beneath the sidewalk that feed the city and Mendoza is an easy place to like. Returning to endless dinner options doesn’t hurt either. A tasty Italian dinner at a popular favorite restaurant called Marchigiana was a big success. We’ve found quality Italian cuisine is common in Argentina which is no surprise given the amount of Italian heritage found throughout the country.

One last great photo from our time amongst the vineyards

Zip Lining or Hail Protection Gear?For a change of pace, we headed down to the Avis storefront and decided to rent a car for the day. It’s been several weeks since we’ve had a chance to do any leisurely driving and this seemed to be the right place for it. One insight we’ve gained from traveling is that if you don’t know how to drive a manual transmission car, you’re not going to get very far in just about any country. Lucky for us, Brooke and I are both well versed in the five speed, although the reverse on our tiny Chevy sedan was a bit tricky. One of the primary reasons we rented a car was to scoot out to the Argentina Rafting company outdoor complex about 45 minutes away. Our plan was to tackle a long-standing adventure on our list that we hadn’t had the chance to do yet: Zip Lining! Or, depending on your geographical preference, you may call it Canopy or even Flying Fox. After waiting for a guide, we strapped on our harnesses, hiked up to the start of the course and we’re ready to, er, Zip. Not so far- just about five minutes before we were going to descend down the first line, it started to rain. Then the rain turned into heavier rain. And the heavier rain turned into hail. Nothing says, “you’re not going to be Zip Lining today” like a hail storm. Good thing we had these handy helmets on to protect our noggins from the nasty sky ice. Actually, good thing it started hailing before we started the two hour course. Once you start, there is no where to seek shelter between each zip line.

Undaunted and not discouraged, we hopped back in our rental car and began the scenic drive past the foothills of the Andes and back into Mendoza. We wandered a bit and even found ourselves in a local Wal-Mart stocking up on snacks. Sad to report that an Argentine Wal-Mart is identical to an American Wal-Mart. Our car made it’s way to an extraordinary nature reserve/city park north of the city that offers everything from soccer fields to golf courses. I even managed to sneak in a quick park nap on a bench near the lake. Later, we found ourselves enjoying a late lunch at an outdoor cafe in the center of town. Over afternoon coffee, sandwiches and even more empanadas, we allowed ourselves to wonder what we’ll be doing two weeks from now. After this trip is over, we have a lot of unknowns and another big adventure waiting for us. Even though it likely won’t include afternoons at outdoor cafes, it should make for an exciting and remarkable time.

After re-fueling and returning the car, a small slew of logistical challenges in their own right, we made our way back to the Mendoza bus station and prepared for another comfortable 14-hour bus ride back to Buenos Aires. And I think that this bus was a little bit newer and nicer than the last one. Really, anyway you slice it, these are high quality buses. The overnight ride was comparable to the easy-going trip out that we wrote about last week. Although the morning traffic getting into the center of Buenos Aires was brutal and seemed to last forever.

Sunset view from our bus

Fireproof - forced to watch on a busThe one constant on both of our bus rides? Terrible, terrible movies. Films so bar that we never heard of any of them. I kept hoping and hoping that the next flick the bus attendant was going to pop on would be a box-office smash. Or at least enjoyable. Instead, each film was worse than the one before. And with a screen a few feet from my head, there was no escaping. The first film was “A Little Bit of Heaven” – an obnoxiously adorable Kate Hudson movie that started out like all Kate Hudson movies. That is until Kate Hudson gets a terminal case of cancer and spends the rest of the film dying with dignity and grace. The second movie was “Get The Gringo” a 2012 Mel Gibson movie that might have been the most brutal and violent movie I’ve seen in years. Not so much suitable for a public bus ride, but I’m more stunned that they are still letting Mel Gibson make movies. The last film was “Fireproof” an independent starring former heart-throb turned evangelical actor Kirk Cameron. It was in Spanish, but I got the gist: small town Fire Chief spends a lot of time crying and being angry about his failing marriage until he accepts Christ’s understanding. Awesome. The Avengers it was not.

After a brief stop in Buenos Aires our next stop is the beaches of Mar Del Plata! Can’t wait to check out another Argentine town.

-Phil

Categories: Argentina, City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Driving, Mendoza, Relaxing, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Wine, Tango and Futbol Chat

As Phil stated in the previous post, we had quite a full day yesterday.  It seems some days we take it easy and do nothing of any consequence, then there are days where we are constantly on the go.  It actually works out pretty well and makes for some really great days.  After voting for president and navigating our way through the Buenos Aires bus station, we finally took part in what I most looking forward to while in Argentina–wine!

Thanks to Phil’s diligent research, he found Anuva Wines, a small business dedicated to helping people discover small South American wineries with a personal touch.  We found they offer tasting sessions twice daily in English, so we eagerly signed up.  The reviews raved about this experience with several people stating it was the best thing they did while in Buenos Aires.  They also bragged of the generous pours and refills, often rare at such tastings.  The reviews were spot on.  We arrived to the Anuva Wine Loft to be greeted by Cara, our hostess.  Along with four other visitors, she explained to us the process of tasting wine and the importance of using all the senses.  We looked.  We smelled.  But most importantly, we tasted.  Using all Argentinian wines, of course, she started us with a delicious sparkling white called “Hom”. We moved onto a Torrontes (my favorite white wine grape), and then onto the reds.  When I think of Argentinian wines, I always think red.  She introduced me to a new grape called Bonarda which has traditionally been used with blended wines, but has recently become more popular on its own.  She explained to us the importance of sun, temperature, rain and altitude in the wine industry.  With the Andes Mountains, Argentina has a the perfect conditions for certain grapes to grow, most especially Malbec.  This was easily my favorite wine of the tasting, probably because it is what I often choose to drink at home.  We were offered one more red blend, and they all came along with a different food pairing.  With each glass Cara offered insights and information…and refills if we so desired.  Yes and yes!  After we finished, the order forms came out.  Of course, we could buy all the wines we tasted (and then some).  We could choose to take them with us or have them shipped home.  Everyone immediately started filling out the form to have one or more cases sent home. After we had decided which 12 bottles to get, we put the order form away and figured it’s probably best not to make this kind of decision after drinking so much!  We settled for taking two bottles with us and we will order more online if we wish (when we are totally sober).

After the wine tasting, we had a short respite before going to our first tango lesson.  One of the reasons we chose our hotel, The Tango Suites, is because they offer complimentary tango lessons, at all skill levels, to their guests.  Tango is everywhere in Buenos Aires and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to learn a little bit ourselves.  There were two teachers and six students.  We kicked off our shoes in order to move more fluidly across the floor.  We started merely by walking to the beat of the music, feeling the rhythm.  This wasn’t always easy–tango music changes often and there is not a strong back beat.  It was difficult to keep in time.  After we learned to walk, we paired up and walked with a partner.  No touching, just sensing one another’s movements.  We slowly graduated to touching arms, then embracing, then traditional dance posture.  We took turns leading each other and often changed partners.  There was quite a bit of stumbling, and not a little of stepping on toes, but it was great fun.  I would love to take another lesson, or maybe even a dance class where we learn lots of different dances.  I don’t think Phil had quite the same experience.  He seemed to enjoy the walking and the earlier steps of the lesson.  Once we got to the embrace and traditional dance posture, he got frustrated and I could tell he was ready to be done with it.  If I take future dance lessons, I’m pretty sure I’ll have to find a different partner.

Brooke with Dan, a freelance futbol writer in Argentina.

After we finished the tango, we hurried out of the hotel to meet up with Dan, a freelance writer who covers Argentinian futbol.  While Phil was attempting to procure tickets to a futbol match, he found Sam and Dan, two futbol writers.  When we couldn’t make the game happen, we opted instead to meet for a drink and talk about life in Buenos Aires.  Due to the crazy amounts of rain, Sam couldn’t make it, but we were able to meet up with Dan at a pub called Gibralter.  We chatted for a couple of hours about life in Argentina, futbol culture and the differences between the UK and South America.  Having lived here for 3 years, it was interesting to hear Dan’s perspective.  We always enjoy talking to locals and getting their take.  We spoke of the overwhelming homeless problem and he explained that compared to other big cities in South America, Buenos Aires is considered wealthy.  It is all relative, I suppose.  He also shared a few stories about attempted muggings on the street.  He was much braver than I would have been, standing up to these would be attackers and refusing to give them anything.  In both cases, they walked away.  This certainly made me look over my shoulder a bit more on our way back to the hotel.

We have had full and interesting days here in Buenos Aires, but I have to say, I am ready to go.  I don’t really like it here.  It is a really big city, very spread out and not very well served by the subway.  It seems to take 45 minutes to get anywhere.  Not only that, part of it just aren’t very nice.  It is dirty, with broken sidewalks, graffiti and trash everywhere.  And homelessness is rampant, even in the nicest areas.  I am very ready to get out of Buenos Aires and head to wine country, which is good because that is exactly what we are doing.  Fourteen-hour, overnight bus ride, here we come!

–Brooke

Just one example of the broken and busted sidewalks. i wish the was the exception, but it is the rule.

Brooke learns the tango…or at least learns to walk rhythmically.

Categories: Argentina, At Night, Bars, City Visits, Customs, Differences, Hotels, Reflections, Safety, Tango, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

¡Buenos Días, Buenos Aires!

After 10 cold, cloudy and often rainy days in Scotland, we were delighted to wake up to the sun beaming brightly through the window in warm Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Still adjusting to the 5 hour time difference, we were up bright and early, ready to see a new city!

One of the reasons we were excited about Argentina is because Phil and I both know a very small amount of Spanish.  Normally, one of the first things we do upon arrival in a new country is ask how to say basic phrases, like “hello”, “please”, and “thank-you”.  However, thanks to a few classes at good ‘ole Miami University (and of course having lived in New York City for six years) we are both able to crudely communicate basic ideas and we can even understand quite a few phases in Español.  I was so proud when I was able to buy subway tickets and not use any English at all.  The ticket agent even asked me a question and I was able to respond.  Wow! What a change from struggling through Eastern Europe.  However, one of the things I find interesting is that there is far less English spoken or on signage here than we have seen in almost every other country.  Luckily, we are able to manage our way through Spanish well-enough to figure out where we are going, but if we didn’t have any knowledge of the language, Buenos Aires would be quite a struggle.

We originally intended to start our day with a hop-on/hop-off bus tour in order to get an overview of the city.  After searching for the bus for a bit, we finally found a line 25 people deep waiting to board.  When the woman who worked for the bus company, clad in bright yellow, informed us the next one would be in about 40 minutes and we’d just have to wait in line until then, we decided this wasn’t going to be the best option.  We didn’t want to waste so much time just waiting around and clearly with lines like this, they don’t have enough buses in operation.  We decided instead to explore some tours suggested by our hotel.  We found the Tangol office at the end of Florida Street and chatted with Enrique.  We lamely tried our Spanish, but we all found English was much easier to communicate with.  Tangol offers all kinds of tours and excursions, from a 6-hour walking tour, to an all day Gaucho expedition.  We inquired about various city tours and their Argentinian Fútbol trip.  We had tons of information swimming in our heads, so for starters we decided to go with a 3-hour city tour on a small bus.  We figured this would be just as good, if not better than the hop-on/hop-off tour because this time we would have a live guide who could answer all of our questions.

After killing some time walking up and down Florida Street, the pedestrian only shopping street, we boarded the bus.  We discovered that we were the only 2 of 16 passengers who spoke English; the rest spoke Spanish and Portuguese.  Once again reminding us how inferior we feel in the language department, our guide Fakundo, gave the tour in all 3 languages.  However, we often felt his translations into English were a bit of an after thought.  We could pick up a few words in Spanish here and there–enough to know that he wasn’t giving us all of the information in the English translation.  Still, we managed to glean some new information and see some new neighborhoods.  We drove down the avenue Nuevo de Julio, the widest avenue in the world at 140 meters across. (Correction: we’ve since found out that Argentians just like to SAY it is the widest avenue in the world. Turns out that there is a much larger one in Brazil. Don’t tell the Argentians.)  In the center of this avenue we saw the Public Works building with an iron likeness of Eva Peron on either side.  One side looks in anger and seems to be speaking with vehemence toward the wealthy area of Buenos Aires.  The other side is a friendly iron portrait, smiling down on the lower class sections of the city.  Images of Eva Peron can be seen everywhere, and the people still speak of her as a true Argentinian hero.

As we continued our drive, we saw the elegant and sophisticated neighborhoods of Palermo and Recoleta. We then drove toward an older futbol stadium which is home to the Boca Juniors.  Driving through this area immediately reminded us of Wrigleyville in Chicago. Every shop and storefront had jerseys, team colors, flags and mascots hanging from the windows.  This area is clearly centered on their love of this team.  It is situated right alongside the colorful neighborhood, La Boca.  This used to be one of the poorest neighborhood in Buenos Aires.  The materials for the tenements were leftovers from other buildings and the paint used was whatever leftovers would be handed over to the people.  Because of this, the whole neighborhood is a mish-mash of colors and textures.  It has become a center for bohemian and art culture; streets are lined with paintings, cafes and tango dancers.  Although perfectly safe, our guide warned us that you wouldn’t want to stray too far from this neighborhood at night.  There is still quite a bit of poverty in Buenos Aires and in fact they have 3 shanty towns inside the city.  Apparently outside the city there are many more.  The largest one in Buenos Aires lies very close to the wealthy area and holds 60,000

One set of protesters wanting acknowledgement and benefits for their part in the Falklands War.

squatters.  Our guide explained that they have been there for decades and it is almost more like a neighborhood than a shanty-town.

This overview of Buenos Aires was certainly interesting.  Phil thinks this city has one of the biggest dichotomies between rich and poor that we’ve seen.  To be honest, I’m not really seeing the wealth.  I see poverty everywhere, buildings covered in spray paint and protesters in at least 2 spots in the city.  There seems to be struggle and unhappiness.  At the same time, there is also great pride in their heritage–signs for tango shows, classes and clubs are everywhere.  We have only just arrived, but I am interested to dive a little deeper and see how my impressions of Buenos Aires evolve throughout our visit here.

–Brooke

Categories: Argentina, City Visits, Differences, Landmarks, Reflections, Surprises, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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!

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

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

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