Tours

Glasgow, Scotland

GlasgowWhen we told people we would be heading to Glasgow, almost all of them asked, “Will you got to Edinburgh?”  Time after time people told us there isn’t much to do in Glasgow and we shouldn’t spend too much time here.  After spending the day exploring this city, we are so chock-full of things we want to do that we are considering extending our stay one more day.  Filled with great food and culture, Glasgow appears to be a wonderful city with tons for us to see and do.

We began our day the way anyone should while in Scotland–with a traditional breakfast. Pulled in by the sign that said “Scottish Breakfast £2.99”, we sat down in Wetherspoons.  I went for the breakfast wrap, but Phil is in full Scottish mode and ordered the Traditional Breakfast.  When his plate came, it was a feast of all things protein:  fried egg, fried sausage, bacon, and beans on toast.  Figuring this to be the perfect way to start our day in Scotland, we cleared our plates and then headed into the city.

As you have seen if you’ve read other blog posts, we really enjoy the Hop-on/Hop-off City Sightseeing bus tours.  Doing this upon arrival to a new city really helps to understand the layout and what it has to offer.  In the past, we have always had the pre-recorded tours.  This allows for greater flexibility as the tours can be given in several different languages.  This company also has that option, but the bus we got on had a live tour guide.  It didn’t take us long to realize how much better a live tour is than a pre-recorded one.  Having grown up in Glasgow, this gentleman could speak to the way things were when he was a boy compared to today.  He kept us updated on current events regarding construction projects and city news.  Most importantly, he was much more entertaining than a recording.  His dry sense of humor had us questioning a few times whether he was joking or not.  On the tour, we explored the city’s centre, west end and river front.  We were unaware of Glasgow’s rich ship building history and learned that the town still engages in this trade today.

After the tour, we stopped for a warm bowl of soup to warm us up because let me tell you–it is cold here.  Maybe 45 degrees today, everyone seemed cheered that at least the sun was shining.  Our tour guide joked that we were all baking in the hot sun at the top of the bus and added that maybe the sun would come out again in another 3 years.  In fact, all day we heard joke after joke about the gray, rainy, cold weather which is commonplace here.  We realize we might be very lucky to be graced by sunshine today and we should enjoy it while we can. (The weather for the rest of the week looks like a lot of rain.)  Once sufficiently warmed by some sweet corn chowder, we ventured back into the cold only briefly to head to the City Chambers, the headquarters of Glasgow’s City Council.  This beautiful old building is situated in the center of the city, just off George Square.  When we heard they offered free tours of the interior, we figured it would be a great way to learn a little bit more about the city’s history.  The building was completed in 1888 and is a display of decadence and wealth.  It has two staircases, the white and the black, so named for the material which was used in building them.  In days of old, only the wealthy nobility and royals were allowed to use the white marble staircase.  The other was reserved for servants and working class visitors. On our tour we visited the banquet hall, the council chamber and the art gallery, where each Lord Provost throughout history has a portrait hanging.  All in all, our tour was really interesting and a good start in helping us to understand the Scottish brogue (I swear, sometimes it sounds like a totally foreign language).

After switching our luggage from our previous night’s hotel to our new Air BnB stay, we went looking for our first pint of the day.  We discovered The Grove, an old man bar if ever there was one.  With horse racing on the TV screen and talk of the Scotland v. Belgium football game tomorrow, it was a great place for a drink.  Phil opted for a Guinness while I tried a Belhaven, all for a mere £5.  At this price, I imagine we’ll be back here again tomorrow! From here, we went to a place called Neighborhood Bar to take advantage of their 2-for-1 deal on dinner.  Then, we headed to the famed King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut for some live music.  We haven’t really caught too many live shows on the trip yet, and King Tut’s is known for having all kinds of different bands each night of the week. (Their claim to fame is being the bar where Oasis was discovered.)  The lineup tonight consisted of bands we have never heard of, but that is half the fun of going to a show like this anyway.  The first act, Jonny Jack, was a young rock band.  Well rehearsed, they played together tightly, but their music wasn’t terribly original.  The lead singer’s voice reminded us of Rob Thomas from his Matchbox 20 days.  Next was a solo artist named Luke Sital-Singh, who played slow, sad songs on his guitar that would have been perfect if we were terribly depressed.  His voice was great, but the songs started to all sound the same after a while.  The headlining act, Fossil Collective, seems to have been around a while since they definitely had some regular fans there to catch the show.  Following the footsteps of many other modern bands, they have a multi-vocal, full harmonic sound along with their many guitars.  They sound a bit similar to Grizzly Bear with a voice like My Morning Jacket.

But the gem of the night was Cherry Grove.  We knew we were in for a treat when they began setting up their stage.  Instruments include your basic keyboard and guitar, but then they also had a violin, harp and accordion.  These incredibly talented musicians played a great set.  Sometimes with vocals, sometimes only instruments, they modernized traditional music and instruments in a creative and innovative way.  They seemed to genuinely have fun on stage, and you got the sense that they probably all met at a music conservatory because they have mastered their instruments.  They were releasing their first EP tonight, and it was clear to see that much of the audience came to see them.  The show would have been worth it even if Cherry Grove was the only band we saw.

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut has a midnight curfew to respect their neighbors, so once the bands were done we walked home, huddled together to keep warm.  We are so pleased with our first day in Glasgow and we can’t wait for all that we have in store for tomorrow.  We will do a nice variety of museums, exploration, and sport.  As long as we don’t freeze first!

–Brooke

Beautiful view of the Clyde River.

Phil in the City Chambers.

Brooke always wants to be in charge.

One Lord Provost chose to have his portrait done by an artist with a very unique style. It is very intriguing.

Categories: Bars, Beer, City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eating, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Music, Scotland, Tours | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Budapest’s Memento Park

Budapest continues to impress.  As we mentioned before, we wish we could spend more time here, realizing we cannot possible see and do everything on our list.  During our last full day with our friends, Gina and Tom, we managed to balance seeing some interesting sights with spending quality time together.  It was a really great day!

We began our morning by heading to Memento Park, the new home to communist-era statues which formerly filled the streets and city center of Budapest.  When the iron curtain fell, so did the many of the monuments which had been erected by the former dictatorship.  Great debate ensued among the people of the city about whether they should destroy these reminders of their terrorized history, or if they should use them as memorials of an important piece of their past.  They decided on the latter and created Memento Park.  Originally, we thought this would be a sort of “statue graveyard” for these communist era relics.  On the contrary, great thought and consideration was put into the design and organization of this museum.  I call it a museum, because that is a much more accurate term than park for this collection of sculptures.  Our tour guide led us between the statues, discussing their historic significance and their importance in perpetuating communist ideology.  Along with the standard statues of Lenin and Marx are the bronzed boots of Joseph Stalin.  His mammoth likeness was actually torn down by the people during the 1956 revolution against the Soviets.  Stalin’s statue was cut at the knees and torn into bits by the people.  All that remained on the pedestal were his boots, and although the revolution failed, the rest of his body was never replaced.  One statue we found particularly captivating was that of the “Liberating Soviet Soldier.” It stood atop a 7 meter high platform on a hill which overlooks the city.  Its mammoth size is intimidating, especially imagining it in its original environment.  This was also knocked down in the 1956 revolution, but unlike Stalin, this statue was quickly replaced with an exact replica in 1958.  After all, the city could not be left without the protection of this Soviet soldier!

The guided tour fascinated each of us and we left with a much greater understanding of Hungarian history and the nuances of life under a communist regime.  The museum also had an indoor photography exhibit chronicling the rise, reign and fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe.  This part of the museum featured training tapes of the secret police.  More than 100 training and feature films were produced between 1958 and 1988 which trained secret police in state defense methods.  In 2004, these tapes were edited into short documentaries showing the methods used to spy on “traitors”, and their recruitment methods.  I was particularly surprised to learn how many agents of the secret police were forced or blackmailed into service.  I could have easily sat and watched these films all day.  They offer insight into a part of history which was historically a great mystery.

When we finished with the museum, we headed back toward the city center. (The museum sits in the outskirts of the city to discourage lingering hostile sentiment and any temptation to vandalize the statues.)  While we searched for a certain Thai restaurant for lunch, we discovered Great Market, Budapest’s largest market selling all kinds of gourmet foods from meat to paprika to honey and everything in between.  They also had a huge selection of palinka, the potent drink we sampled earlier in the week.  No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t convince Gina to invest in a bottle.  We didn’t even know this market existed before accidentally discovering it.  We window-shopped the wares for a while before heading down the Vaci u., the pedestrian shopping street which leads the way back to our hotel.  As with all big cities, wading through the cheap touristy souvenirs to find something of value is challenging.  We came up mostly empty handed, though there is a pottery shop I may head back to tomorrow.

Since it is our last night in Budapest together, we decided to get a delicious and traditional dinner at a nice restaurant.  Our hotel concierge recommended Rezkakas, a fine dining Hungarian restaurant not far from or hotel.  The combination of hearty food, Hungarian wine and wonderful friends made for a perfect evening.  Gina and Phil both started with a small bowl of goulash.  After all, what’s a trip to Hungary without goulash?  We discovered that contrary to the heavy, noodle-centric stew some of us are used to, goulash more closely resembles a beef vegetable soup and is suitable as an appetizer.  The entrees did not disappoint and we even had room for a little dessert!  After dinner we headed back to the hotel where we shared drinks, laughs and plans for our next international adventure together.  We are so pleased that Gina and Tom were able to come to Budapest, and we all agree we could not have chosen a better city for traveling together.

Now, Phil and I are back to being a twosome again, but not for long.  After one more day in Budapest and another day of travel, we will meet up with our friend, Jack, in Dubrovnik, Croatia.  We are looking forward to seeing him and hearing about the adventures he’s been having in Turkey.  Until then, we spend will spend our last day in Budapest doing nothing.  Or everything.  Whatever we want!

–Brooke

All that remains of Stalin’s statue–his boots.

Gina and Tom with Krtek, the European answer to Mickey Mouse.

Statue of liberating Soviet soldier shaking hands with a Hungarian man . Locals say the  Hungarian is using two hands so he doesn’t get his watch stolen.

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Eating, Exploring, Friends, Hungary, Museums, Surprises, Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

Budapest with Friends!

Of all the legs of our trip, this is the one we have had planned furthest in advance.  Five full days in beautiful Budapest, Hungary.  Because our friends and travel partners, Gina and Tom, were meeting us here, we planned an arrival date and hotel long before anything else.  We have been looking forward to this for a long time and so far it is exceeding all our expectations.

We knew this city would be a successful stop when we found ourselves with a list a mile long of things to see and do.  From castles to communist history, there is something here to please everyone.  In order to better know the city and its layout, we began the day with a hop-on/hop-off bus tour.  These have proven to be a great way to get an overview when first visiting a city, and this one did not disappoint.  It includes three different rides, one on a river boat tour, and is good for two days.  Today we cruised through the Pest section of town, admiring the architecture reminiscent of Paris.  Wide boulevards lined with trees and buildings dating back to the 1880’s make Budapest immediately more visually stunning than any city we’ve been to in a while.  While we haven’t toured any of these places yet, we drove past the Parliament Building, the Royal Palace, the Opera House, Hero’s Square, and Budapest’s famed baths.  We crossed the Danube over to Buda, the side of the city situated among beautiful rolling hills.  Here we stopped at the Citadel for a drink and amazing views.  Even on a cloudy day, the sweeping landscape down the river and over the city was spectacular.  Tourists were clamoring to take pictures, and Tom even proposed that this may be the best city view he has ever seen.  It really is pretty impressive.  The other Eastern European cities we’ve visited are not even in the same league with Budapest.  A comparison isn’t even fair.

Anticipating the impending rain, we jumped off the bus, headed for lunch, and did what we do best:  enjoyed time with some of our closest friends.  It is amazing how different it is to spend time as a group of four people for the entire day after being so long with just the two of us.  We feel so lucky that Gina and Tom were willing to leave their son at home (which wasn’t the original plan) and come join us on our trip.  They both have such a wonderful energy and spirit that being with them makes us feel like we are on vacation.  A vacation from our travels.  I know that sounds a bit strange, but its true.  To top it off, due to Tom’s bazillion hotel points and endless generosity, we are staying at Le Meridien, one of the nicest hotels in Budapest and certainly some of the best accommodations we will see on this trip.

As the night grew, so did the rain with the addition of lightning.  Beautiful weather is forecast for the rest of our time here, so we spent the evening catching up with our friends and planning the next few days in order to maximize our time here.  We all agree it is a pretty good problem when there is so much we wish to do and not enough time.  We’d much rather it be that way than the other way around!  A late lunch meant we weren’t terribly hungry, so we paid a visit to the local casino.  We all found it a bit strange that the table minimum is 500 HUF.  It sounds like so much, and losing 500 or 1000 HUF feels so painful, but in reality it is only $2.25 and $4.50 respectively.  That’s actually pretty cheap blackjack by most casino standards, which is why we were surprised when the drink Phil ordered (a White Russian) cost him 3100 HUF.  I’ll let you do the math yourself.  It’s ridiculous!  In fact, I think that drink brought bad mojo to the table because my luck immediately turned bad afterward.  Always gluttons for punishment, we played for a bit longer.  After chatting up some very friendly dealers and being creeped out by one overly friendly Danish guy, our hunger got the best of us and we called it quits to head to dinner.

Because we are planning a delicious Hungarian dinner for Thursday night, we settled for a cute Italian restaurant with a beautiful view of the Basilica of St. Stephen. We’ve been doing our best to eat the local cuisine in each city recently, so it felt good to dine at an Italian joint. They served up some tasty cocktails and homemade pasta that made us all happily full.  Tomorrow we plan to take a tour of Parliament and then visit the Memento Sculpture Park–the resting place of communist era statues.  In addition, we hope to make a visit to the thermal baths which we believe will be perfect after a long  day of sightseeing.  As we reflect on our day and the rest of our time yet to come in Budapest, Phil and I keep saying to one another, “I’m so glad we’re here with Gina and Tom.”  We love having these experiences, and they are made so much sweeter when shared with friends.

–Brooke

We arrived at the exact same time into the Budapest train station, making for a very happy, but old-timey reunion of friends!

Gina tries the local fruit brandy, palinka. It was worse than the rakia from Bulgaria and could probably fuel a 747 airplane.

A view of the Royal Palace across the river in Buda.

Our wonderful friends, Gina and Tom.

Categories: At Night, Casino, City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Friends, Hungary, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

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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