Hotels

Sunrise on our final day in Argentina

Given how far South we currently are in relation to the rest of South America and also factoring in the time of year, there are some long days here in Mar Del Plata. Lots of daylight over the course of any given day. All of that made it even more challenging when we pledged to wake up and catch the sunrise this morning. We set the alarm for the official daybreak time of 5:30 AM, but in all honestly dawn starts lighting up the sky around 4:45. Somehow, we managed to drag ourselves out of bed and onto the balcony by the magical, early hour. Facing due east, we were able to watch the sun quickly rise right across the horizon on schedule. Moving from a slight sliver to a full glowing sphere in just a few moments. Sort of spectacular. Ocean view sunrises aren’t something we will have much opportunity to take advantage of moving forward. We’ve managed to see several sunsets during our trip, but this one was the first sunrise. I know it’s just a sunrise, but it was magnificent all the same.

Thus began the final, full day of our Around the World Trip. An easy going day overall. I finally stuck my toe in the ocean – oh so cold. Long walks around Mar Del Plata followed taking me to the cute and charming Guemes street. Another run in with a Post Office complete with long lines, difficult staff and overpiced ($3!) international post card stamps. Sweet Cliff Claven, I’ve come to loathe all post offices. Later on, I contemplated the gravity of the end of our trip at lunch while a plate of empanadas stared back at me. We’ll have more comprehensive trip reflections in future posts (oh, there is much to say), but as we wind down the trip and prepare to head home, I have a general feeling of accomplishment. I feel really good about things. Although, there are some clothes that I’ve been carrying around since July that I never want to see again. It also might be a sign of apparent good timing to head home as I just ran out of shaving cream this morning and I managed to pack exactly the right number of razor blades. On a more meaningful scale, I really hope that Brooke and I managed to expand our horizons and maybe, just maybe, grow a bit as travelers and as people.

Less stunning was the challenge we had with the local bus company later in the day. We rode all the way on two buses to central bus terminal where there, and only there, we could purchase a bus pass card. After interacting with the two most bored information booth employees I’ve ever seen (never a good sign when you have to wake one of them up), we thought we were all set. It wasn’t until we were headed back home boarding another bus that the driver yelled at us in Spanish that the card is not good. Apparently, there are separate bus companies in Mar Del Plata running different routes. Awesome. We bought a card we’ll have little use for. In hindsight, there were some clues that the 221 bus might not operate the same way the 581 bus does, but it would have been incredibly kind of anyone to have clued us in along the way. It’s actually reassuring to know that in our last days of our trip, we’re still getting bamboozled from time to time. Running into these small and ridiculously frustrating issues is all part of the package deal. It would be kind of shame if we had mastered world travel in a matter of a few months.

We closed down the day with one last, delicious, romantic Mar Del Plata dinner at a top local seafood joint named Alito. We’ve been in Argentina for a while now but we just can’t get the hang of eating out at 10:00 PM. In fact, when we sat down to eat at the reasonable dining hour of 8:15 PM, we were the only patrons in the entire restaurant. More guests showed up soon after, but they were mostly of the elderly persuasion. For a while, it felt like we wandered into the equivalent of the Early Bird Special. Luckily, this didn’t have any impact on a scrumptious meal that followed. Our dinner was bookended with a bottle of one of our new favorite wines from Mendoza (The Trumpetter Malbec, if you’re keeping score at home) and two over-the-top desserts. Brooke’s dessert that involved Baileys, ice cream, walnuts and cookies was served in a cocktail glass. There was a dish on the menu called Flan Solo that Brooke joked should be served with Luke Piewalker and C3POreo. Yeah, I’ve got a damn clever and funny wife. This trip has been made up of several wonderful moments spread across the globe and this would count as one of them. We toasted to our time in Argentina and enjoyed a nice, intimate, slow meal as is the style around here.

One last, delicious dessert!

Now, I’m going to get back to enjoying one last morning of seasside living. One of the nicest things about being here has been simply looking out the window and watching the waves crash into the giant rocks far below. Additionally, given how many hotels, apartment buildings, hostels and homes I’ve seen that are blocks from the beach, we’ve been so lucky to have this place. Having been through so many places (often for just one or two nights), and now having all these days in just one apartment has felt like a pleasant eternity. All we need now are some comfy pants and slippers. Soon enough, I suppose. Next stop, a bus to Buenos Aires, another bus to the airport, a flight to Atlanta and a final flight to Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.

-Phil

Of all the currency we’ve encountered, Argentine peso bills are often ratty and tattered. This was my change from lunch today – the bills are falling apart!

There are commonly found at traffic lights in Argentine cities: Street Entertainers that perform for stopped cars in order for tips. This kid was a pretty fierce juggler.

This is a water tower designed to look like a medieval tower at the highest point in Mar Del Plata. Free to get in, but it was apparently closed for the day so this is as close as I got.

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Categories: Beach, City Visits, Clothes, Destinations, Eating, Hotels, Mar Del Plata, Random Thoughts, Relaxing, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Election Night and Blackouts in Argentina

We’ve been asked from time to time how it is to be so far from home for so long. Truth be told, we haven’t spent a lot of time dwelling on what we miss about the states. New fall TV shows have probably already come and gone, I didn’t catch a single World Series game for the first time since I can remember and I stopped checking football scores a few weeks ago. If we hadn’t met up with our friends in September who brought dispatches of American culture, we might still not know what Gangman Style is. (Yet there is no escaping One Direction or Maroon 5 no matter where you are in the world.) To be fair, we’re only abroad for a short time compared to other world travelers and our attention has been mostly dedicated to full days of exploring new surroundings. But there is one distinctly American event we’ve had circled on our calendar for a long time: election night. That was one we weren’t going to miss.

Cobertura Electoral! The slightly harder to understand CNN coverage in our room

As we planned to watch the election results, we discovered that the cable selection in our hotel room did not include a single news channel in English. No problem: we settled down on the couch in the hotel lobby, asked if they could throw CNN on the giant TV and settled in for the evening. Since the Argentina time zone is currently two hours ahead of the east coast, the real fun didn’t start until after 9:00 PM. Before that, it was a lot of John King playing with that stupid Magic Wall and hearing reporters repeatedly use somewhat meaningless buzz words like “bellweather.” I have a clinical case of aggressively flipping channels, so it took some patience to get used to watching only CNN all evening.

While nervously watching each update, we broke into a bottle of wine. Brooke and I figured that no matter what happened over the course of the evening, at least we had a tasty bottle of wine from Mendoza to share. As we watched state after state go for one candidate or the other, we met a variety of people as they walked through the lobby and checked in on the results. An excited, if not slightly drunk, Argentine woman who had just come from a Tango class wanted to tell us all about the Mar Del Plata region. The lesson there is that our Spanish is exponentially worse when trying to communicate with someone who rambles and is slurring their words. Before long, the network made the call and announced that Obama has secured another term. There was much rejoicing and relief that the seemingly endless campaign was over. It all made for a memorable, late night in Buenos Aires during which I’ve probably watched more CNN then I ever have in my life. By the end of the evening, I felt like Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer had become close, close friends. It would have been nice if Romney would have delivered his concession speech some time before 3:00 AM our time, but what can you do.

In order to make our way to Mar Del Plata and ensure we would’t be on an overnight bus on election night, we landed back in Buenos Aires for a couple of days. Hotels.com found us a great deal at a new, boutique hotel near the city of town called the Lennox Hotel. Out of our three hotel stays in B.A, I would strongly recommend this joint for anyone rolling through town. When I stop to think about how many hotel rooms we’ve seen on this trip, it kinda makes my head spin. But the Lennox Hotel was the epitome of cozy; the room even came with a kitchenette. The only addition that would have made the stay a bit sweeter would have been a washer and dryer. One universal truth of traveling around the world is that we’re always on the lookout for a place to wash and dry our clothes. Half the time it feels like our luggage is only serving to haul dirty clothes around the world. To mix up on our dining options and satisfy a craving that Brooke’s been harboring since Munich, we jumped through some hoops to secure some Argentine style Chinese delivery. I’m certain the Buenos Aires has some quality Chinese, we just didn’t find it that night. The culinary silver lining was the next day when we stumbled across the city’s best pizzeria at Guerrin. Jackpot. It stands to reasons when you’ve been making pizza since 1932 and your restaurant is packed, you’re probably pretty good at what your’re doing.

The Pizza was twice as good as it looked

It ended up being fortuitous we grabbed lunch when we did. Late yesterday afternoon the city experienced a massive blackout that affected a huge chunk of the area. Since the season is just hitting late Spring way down here in South America, the thermometer has been reading hot and getting hotter. Three days of above average temperatures compared with an apparently shaky electrical infrastructure knocked out the power for as far as I could see. Sometimes crossing the streets in Buenos Aires can be challenging enough when the traffic lights ARE working. But with everything dark in the middle of rush hour, it was a small slice of chaos. Things were particularly a mess on the exceptionally wide, famed 9 De Julio Avenue. Turns out that traffic doesn’t move very well across 18 lanes with no stop lights. The more I walked around, the more I got the feeling that this was a somewhat regular occurence. Bodega owners sat in darkened, small storefronts looking bored and annoyed while at nearby cafe patrons downed cold drinks while they still could. The clerk at our hotel pointed out that this was the “first blackout of the spring” and conceded that there might be several more when the heat of December comes about. Luckily, the power was back on for most of the city by late evening so Brooke and I could get back to the important focus of the day: not doing much of anything.

-Phil

Categories: Argentina, Exploring, Homesick, Hotels, Hungary, Relaxing, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences, Voting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mendoza and the 14-Hour Bus Ride

Phil's long, gangly arms go a long wayAfter spending a few days in Buenos Aires, we were really ready to get out of the bustling city and into another region of Argentina. So, we boarded the 14-hour bus to the Mendoza province – wine country!

Now, you may be thinking that a 14-hour bus ride sounds like pure torture, and generally speaking, I would agree. But the coach buses here run the gamut from your basic Greyhound style (complete with 50 people crammed together and a smelly bathroom) to luxury coaches fit for a rock star. We found ourselves somewhere in the middle of the spectrum having chosen the Andesmar Ejecutivo class of service. We boarded a double decker bus and headed to our assigned seats on the top floor. Immediately impressed by their size, we found them to be more comfortable and spacious than Business Class Seats on an airplane. Because we were traveling overnight, it was important to us that we get some decent sleep. This was part of the reason for choosing this bus–the Ejecutivo seats recline to a 160 degree angle, so they lie almost completely flat. They come with a footrest, a small blanket and a pillow. Overall, they were quite comfortable. However, it wasn’t only the seats that made this bus ride bearable. We also had the luxury of having an on-board attendant, much like an airplane. He served us both dinner and breakfast, made sure the bathroom was clean and generally ensured everyone was comfortable. But the best part? Bingo! That’s right. Our trip had only just begun when he offered us all bingo cards and began calling out numbers. Phil was only one number away from winning, but the man seated in front of us beat him to it. The prize? What else on a bus to Mendoza but a bottle of wine. Overall, the whole trip was really easy and definitely the way to go when taking such a long ride. We think the U.S. could really benefit from these types of buses. If we can’t convince people to expand the rail network in our country, maybe we can encourage public transportation in this way. I doubt it will happen anytime soon, but you never know.

Once we arrived in Mendoza, we had a bit of a misadventure finding our latest Air BnB stay. The bus we were told to take kicked us off at the last stop and we seemed to be nowhere on the map which was given to us. After being reassured that we were on the correct bus, we waited and boarded it going the other direction. This did not look promising either, as we appeared to simply be headed back to the place we started. We finally decided to jump off and ask someone for directions. We found some very nice people in a party supply store and managed through our broken Spanish to determine that we were far off the map and about six kilometers from where we needed to be. This was way too far to walk with luggage. Not to mention, this journey had already taken us about an hour, it was hot and we were tired from our 14-hour bus ride. After warning us to be careful of a taxi scamming us, our helpers sent us on our way. Luckily, we got an honest, albeit reckless, driver. He barely missed sideswiping another car in an intersection, though in retrospect we realize it wasn’t entirely his fault. Many of the intersections here have no stop lights or street signs. Nothing to indicate who should give way to whom. I imagine that could be quite confusing (and dangerous) for drivers. It is hard enough as pedestrians.

Once we got settled in, we decided to take a stroll through Mendoza. We were happy to see that this town is vastly different from Buenos Aires. A surprisingly big city in its own right, Mendoza has none of the broken sidewalks, graffiti and overall downtrodden feel of Buenos Aires. The streets were bustling with activity, sidewalk cafes were teeming with people sipping espresso and the air was actually fresh. They should rechristen Buenos Aires to “Malo Aires”and rename Mendoza to the more fitting “Buenos Aires”. The downtown area has a number of vibrant public squares with five right in the center of town. They are set up with the giant, most central square, Plaza Independencia, in the middle complete with fountain, green space, vendors and four satellite neighboring squares equidistant from one another. The happy-go-lucky vibe of Plaza Independencia reinforced that we were not in Buenos Aires anymore. Shanty towns and homeless people had been replaced by families playing soccer, lovers cuddling in the grass, and skateboarders attempting new tricks.

For dinner, we looked over the wide variety of dining options available around town and decided the Ocho Cepas (translated as eight strains) was the place for us. Set slightly apart from the main touristy streets, it boasts a large menu with several wine options. Phil was experiencing almost immediate order envy with he tasted my delicious filet mignon. While it might not take top honors for the best meal of the trip, the romantic atmosphere, tasty dishes and friendly staff made it a wonderful evening out. Now off to more rural wine country so we can see the vineyards up close!

-Brooke

Notice anything odd about this busy Mendoza intersection? There isn’t a single stoplight, stop sign, yield sign or cross walk on any corner! This is (amazingly) somewhat common.

Phil smiling because we’re lost once again on a city bus. Not the first time it’s happened this trip and likely won’t be the last.

In the rooms in Argentina where we have cable television, this is how we’ve been polishing up on our Spanish! Ah, gustamos Los Dos y Medio Hombres

Quilmes – The major local brew in Argentina. While be trading these in for bottles of Malbecs for a while…

Categories: Argentina, Destinations, Driving Abroad, Hotels, Mendoza | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 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

Beautiful Budapest!

Apologies for the delayed posting today! We try to get our new posts live every day by first thing in the morning, but sometimes our trip gets in the way! If you prefer to receive the updates via e-mail, feel free to click the link to the right to subscribe!

Good day from Budapest! I can summarize my impressions of Budapest in just two words: Insanely Beautiful. Good Goulash, this is an outrageouly gorgeous city! You can see it from the wide avenues to the stunning buildings along the Danube like the Royal Palace, Parliament and Saint Stephen’s Basilica. I’m in awe of some of our almost fake looking photos; they appear a bit as if we’re at a professional studio and we’ve requested the “Amazing European Background.” Grand buildings as far as the eye can see. And almost everything is in great shape. Maybe Budapest has a good chunk of money at its disposal for upkeep. Maybe its easier to keep a city in top form when it’s a couple of hundred years old instead of a couple thousand. We’re not sure, but we do struggle with the question, how many sensational buildings, statues, monuments, hotels, bridges and more can one city have? Walking around and craning my neck upwards, I am pretty sure I would give my left pinky to live in some of these apartments.

Looks at the nifty smaller door!At this point, it’s almost a certainty that five days won’t be enough time to see what we want to see. I know we’ve repeated that rallying cry in many city stops, but we really mean it here. Every time we look around a bit, talk to someone else or read something new  in the tour books, we realize that we could spend another week here. To be fair, it doesn’t hurt that we’re staying at the oh-so-fabulous Le Meridien (thanks again, Tom) – an absurdly nice hotel with arguably the perfect location in Budapest. The quality of our accommodations have ranged wildly on our trip thus far. One night, we find ourselves in an overpriced and extremely sparse hotel in Hiroshima, Japan where one must push a button in the shower every thirty seconds to continue the water flow and another night we’re soaking up  the splendor of Le Meridien where we have a bathtub that could comfortably hold an infant whale. Adding to the high class ambience of the hotel is the robe-clad delegation of Lebanese ambassadors we see at breakfast every morning. For the record, they love the omelet station.

Play the Violin like the wind!Yesterday, we continued to tour around the Hungarian capital with Gina and Tom, our friends from back home. Along with all the sightseeing, we’ve enjoyed meals and drinks all across the city. Since it’s considered very bad form to clink glasses while toasting, we’ve been enjoying several silent cheers where glasses are lifted and we all say “Shhhhhh!”  It’s been such a blast that we’ve decided that we’re going to get matching sets of tattoos: Brooke & I will get some ink on our arms that says “Buda” while Gina & Tom will have a corresponding permanent set that says “Pest.”  Getting around has also been easy because English is incredibly prevalent, at least in the Belvaros section of town . However, the locals do have a bad habit of answering questions with a muttered jumble of “yes..no…whatever.” A bit irritating when trying to ask about a menu item at dinner or try to figure out when the next bus arrives. Speaking of food, I was surprised to learn that Paprika, of both the sweet and hot variety, is the ubiquitous spice that is the national pride of Hungary. Paprika is a part of endless dishes and often present on the table as a condiment. Also, for the first time in our travels, our tipping dilemma has been solved when dining out; the bill on every single meal so far has included a mandatory service fee or tip of 10% to 15%. That’s a first.

The House of Terror- When the light shines through the stenciled awning, the word Terror appears on two sides!

Yesterday morning, we took a trip to the House of Terror – a museum built in the building that housed the Secret Police during most of the Communist era. Brooke and I have found that we’re really interested in taking in first hand accounts of European history between, say, 1938 and the late 1960’s. We’ve seen some interesting exhibits and museums dealing with modern history (I’m pretty sure I’ve seen so many pictures of Stalin, I can draw him in my sleep now), but this museum has topped them all. The museum details everything from the Budapest’s double occupation of the 1940’s (Germany and then the Soviet Union) to the frightening tactics of the secret police during the Soviet Era. Well designed rooms really painted a picture of the fear, paranoia and nature of living in the communist state through the 1950’s. Fascinating and horrible. Especially in the basement rooms that housed the re-creation of cells designed to break spirits and bodies. The museum might have benefited a bit from a bit more English, but there were English handouts in each room which expounded on things like propaganda and trials of “traitors”.  All in all, it is very powerful and helps to expose all that was done in secret. “Terror” is about the right word.

Nifty. Kind of. During the afternoon, we took a trip over to the Buda side of the city located in the hills of the former Buda Castle sight. Buda Castle is long gone, but we visited the underground labyrinth where the reviews were mixed. I thought the winding, endless ancient caverns that have been used for generations were interesting and fun to explore, while Gina and Tom thought the caves were boring, gave very little info about the history of the caves, and empty save some poorly made wax figures. But Budapest visitors beware! The more we read, we’re learning that the award-winning, top attraction, amazing caves closed in July 2011 and we might have been a bit duped into visiting a fly-by-night company that set up shop in the old caverns. It’s tricky – after all, who expects two sets of caverns? Outside, however, the views from the Fisherman’s Bastion were once again, sensational (lesson of the day: learning what a bastion is). We opted to spend our money on some afternoon drinks rather than pay the admission to walk the top of the overlook. We were serenaded with a three piece classical band (who later hit us up to buy their CD) and nice fall weather. We knew that we were smack dab in a touristy center when we saw three sets of violinists scattered throughout the hill top. Lucky for us, our tickets on the hop-on hop-off tour bus gave us a ride back to the hotel along with some quality new information about the city. A free ride and a city guide. Good stuff.

We have so much more to see and explore! And a big bowl of goulash waiting for me at dinner tonight. What’s next on the agenda?  Hungarian baths, memento park and more!

-Phil

Categories: City Visits, Europe, Hotels, Hungary, Tours, 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

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

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