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Slaps in Your Face: Plitvice National Park

24 Jul

Plitvicka Jezera- Plitvice National Park, Croatia


7.21.2011

‘Slap’ is the Croatian word for waterfall, and perhaps one of my favorite translations yet.

This trip up North was starting to seem a bit superfluous. It was costing more than I’d anticipated in transportation, and involved quite a bit of bus time. However, when I had asked people if visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park (A UNESCO world heritage site) was really worth it, the answer was overwhelmingly “YES.” So, after getting my beauty sleep in Zadar, I awoke with the birdies at 7:30 feeling refreshed and ready to go. After just a two-hour bus ride, I arrived at the National Park. It was pretty crowded, and I felt a bit of pressure in choosing one of the several different routes, as their estimated times ranged from the minimum 2-3 hours to max: 6-8. I settled for a 4-6 hour path, figuring I could walk fast and make it back in time for the 5pm bus to Zadar. I then found my way onto a trolly full of mostly German speakers, although the fact that so many Germans had found their way to a Croatian mational park did not surprise me in the least. If hiking is the name of the game, Germans are all over it. Wandern wir?

Lot’s of Slap (waterfall)

The park is home to acres and acres of wooded forest, which make way for 16 crystal blue lakes accented by cascades and waterfalls galore. The sedimentation of calcium bicarbonate found in the water creates porous rock, which forms these ever-changing waterfalls and cascades, most of which are covered with spongy green vegetation. The unique relationship between plant life, rock formation, and water-dwelling organisms in Plitvice Jezera has existed in this way since the last Ice Age.

One of nature’s little miracles…… or just a lot of toilet bowl cleaner?

Don’t even think about it.

Lots of signs remind you of what you can’t do, which is pretty much anything other than walk on the wooden pathways and take photos. Stepping in the water will upset the delicate balance of minerals and organisms that make this water so blue and beautiful. However, it was clear that the water’s many fish were expecting tourists. You could see them schooled up next to the wooden pathways, eager and waiting for a snack.

The Big Slap!

Plitivice triangle

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Taking Liberties in Dubrovnik

20 Jul

7.15.2011

 

Once I get into the swing of things while traveling alone, I find myself taking social liberties that I wouldn’t normally take. Nothing big, just asking strangers simple things like: “May I join your table so I don’t have to drink my coffee standing?” Little things like that. I find that people usually respond positively. And what’s the worst that could happen? I might get someone politely turning me down, that’s all. Last night in Dubrovnk, I was glad I had taken such a liberty. After a long day of sightseeing I was tempted to continue my 7 p.m. nap until the next morning. However, I decided that I owed it to myself to at least have a glass of wine in the old town. It was a Friday night, for goodness sake! While I was waiting for the bus, I started chatting with two Swedish guys who were on vacation. They seemed nice enough, so when they asked what my plans were, I asked if they’d like to grab a drink. They agreed, and a bit later we were sitting in a spacious square packed full of bars. Considering its small size, Dubrovnik must have one of the highest street performer per capita ratios—I saw everything from a wooden flute player to an undeniably stoned fire-eater from Macedonia. In our square, live jazz played from one corner, while Euro pop blasted from another.

Michael and Wey-Han were incredibly polite, and after some brief introductory chat, we had some very engaging America-Sweden conversations about politics, school-systems, boy-girl relations, etc. You name it, we covered it all. Michael asked me to comment on his observation that Americans often speak in extremes, like “That was the most AWESOME meal I’ve ever had!” or “it was the WORST restaurant EVER.” I had to laugh because I’m definitely guilty of that, as you can probably tell from reading this blog. He said that Swedish responses are a bit more reserved, comments like “yeah it was fine” are more of a mainstay. In any case, it was great to be able to cut bullshit of get-to-know-you chat and talk about things that mattered with two people I had just met. They invited me to check out a club, but I had a catamaran to catch the next morning, so I politely declined.

Dubrovnik is beautiful if you can manage to fight your way through crowds of middle-aged Americans, Brits, Germans, and various other Europeans. Everything was overpriced and you needed to keep an eye on the change you got back. It reminded me of being a tourist in crowded Venice or Florence again. Perhaps the Croatians inherited the tourism gene from their Venetian roots?

Ye ol’ drinking fountain

Aside from that, the streets are shiny and white, and the city is clean and full of posh restaurants. The main road through the old town leads to a delightful clock tower, surrounded by swooping black swallows. The narrow streets seem to all lead to big beautiful Baroque churches. Another attraction: the 3rd oldest pharmacy in Europe. This only made me think of the summer of 2008, when Natacha and I rented an apartment right next to the oldest pharmacy in Florence.

Taking a stroll along the ramparts

I had spent the day sightseeing, starting first with a walk on the city ramparts. Someone told me that it was the 2nd longest walkable continuous wall in the world, but I should do some fact-checking there. Anyway, it took quite a while to get around, but afforded great views.

This cruise ship overtook Dubrovnik right before my very eyes.

I finished around 1:30 and was soaking with sweat! I overheard someone on the phone saying the humidity level was at 80%. I believed it. My plan was to walk around the old town to do some sightseeing, but it became clear that I was going to pass out if didn’t find some shade. My sight-seeing turned into scouring the old town for wireless internet, which eventually I found. I had to take a 2-hour break and drink a cold beer before I could feel properly refreshed. I then went to the beach for a bit—the water was so warm, like taking a nice salt bath. Fortunately, the closest sand-rock beach is a five-minute walk outside of the walled center. 

The lazy sunbathers

I walked back to my rental room, which was terribly far away. They had lied to me because this “15 minute walk to center” was at least 30 minutes, which in this heat, translated to something like 1 hour in hell. Although I had bargained her down from 25 to 20 euro since I had been promised internet, it still annoyed me to feel taken advantage of. I had a room to myself but no fan, and the 20 euro price made it the most expensive and least satisfying accommodation of my entire journey.

Next time I will do it differently. Final impression: best to be there during a cooler month when I’m not on a backpacker budget.

Climbing the Stairway to Heaven (It’s In Kotor!)

20 Jul

Success!

My new friends and I climbed 1350 stairs to get to the Fortress of Kotor. The ascent in the 85 degree heat was brutal, but the spectacular views of the bay and mountains made it worthwhile.

We started here…

Interesting choice of stair-climbing clothing

Finally at the fortress!

Unfortunately this is just a poor substitute for how breathtaking the view actually was!

Making Friends in Montenegro

20 Jul

7.14.2011

 

On the Road. The bay of Kotor

 

The sun was setting, affording a gold-tinged view of the the many coastal towns we passed on the bus ride from Dubrovnik to Kotor. The bus was only half-full, most passengers seemed to be backpackers and other youngish commuters. I was excited to have an open seat next to me, since I’d now have ample room to type and edit my photos. However, at the very last moment, a deeply tanned messy-haired boy asked if he could sit down. I didn’t know how to say no and still be polite, so I said “Sure thing.” He and his friend spoke Spanish while they took long swigs from a plastic beer bottle filled with some clear liquid. After spending the day in Mostar more-or-less alone, I was still in intrinsic mode and not ready to engage in random conversation. Eventually, as we reached the border and pulled out our passports, my seatmate and I got to talking. Surprisingly, Victorio from Buenos Aires and I, had a lot of common interests—he was an engineer and an actor who took singing lessons and was an active couchsurfing.org member. He and his motor-mouthed friend Nico, were starting their trip around Croatia and ending wherever the wind would take them. They had a ‘camp where you can’ motto. “Last night we slept in the grass in front of a radio station.” Vittorio told me. We ended up chatting for the remainder of the trip and I made plans to grab a drink with them after they found a ‘campsite’ that evening.

On the way to the Old Town in the Bay of Kotor

That night, as we arrived at the bus station, a challenge awaited me: I was going to try to rent a room from a local. This was quite a common thing to do in places where hostels are scarce. In fact, friends and other travelers had told me it was more or less the way to go, since you have your own room and typically pay less than overpriced hostels. As we got off of the bus, several people were trying to do the same thing, and a friendly young girl volunteered to translate for a French guy and myself. As she haggled with an older woman, the conversation seemed to be turning into more of an argument. The woman didn’t want me to stay in her old town apartment because I would only be there one night. Who cared, it was already 11pm! She was trying to convince me to go with her to another house outside of the center for 15 euro, which I did not want to do. The French guy and I were stuck in the middle of the argument, trying to interject. Soon he signaled to his friend and told me, “My friend is talking to a lady there, she has 3 rooms for 10 euro. You are welcome to come with us.” Done. This process had been more stressful than I had anticipated. Soon we were following this middle-aged woman to her house in an apartment complex nearby.

We had no way to communicate with our host, save a variety of hand gestures and loudly repeated English words, spoken mainly with thick French accents. She showed us to our room: three beds squashed in a spare bedroom. The guys seemed a bit embarrassed.

I thought she said separate bedroom’ one told me. “Should we make a…em…a division here?” he indicated, using his hands to fictionally separate the space between my bed and theirs. Until this point, I had been staying in 8 and 10 bed hostel dorms, so sharing a room with only 2 other people was a luxury. I did feel a bit bad for unexpectedly intruding on their 10-day best buddy holiday, but whatever. C’est la vie. As we got to know each other, I learned that they are both sports journalists, working in their respective French towns. Remi spoke an accent-free English, and Gregory struggled a bit, but was definitely better than he thought. We went out to dinner in the old town at local restaurant called Kantun in the Bokeljske Mornarice square.

The town was a walled-beauty and surprisingly empty for a Wednesday evening. The bar across the square was blasting techno music to an empty house, which I found annoying. Who did they think they were fooling? The food I ordered was amazing: traditional home-made sausages with onions, french fries and vegetables. I tasted Remi’s Montenegran smoked ham dish, which was similar to a thicker and smokier prosciutto, and also delicious. My meal had cost only 6 euro and was so massive that I couldn’t manage to finish.

I couldn’t resist documenting this.

Our host offered us coffee the next morning, Turkish style again. It was very kind of her. She sat with us and showed us a book that seemed to be about religious relics. As we passed it around, Remy speculated that she was trying to tell us about the place where she was born. Not being able to communicate with verbal language was a bit challenging, and when the boys indicated they wanted to stay another night, it was pretty hilarious. As Gregory repeated in English ‘We stay here tonight….leave tomorrow’, she just kept saying “moje, moje” with a blank look and that “I have no idea what you’re saying” smile. I think moji (not sure of the spelling) means something like ‘ok’ or ‘alright’ in Serbo-Croatian it still wasn’t clear that she totally understood. Gregory was cracking up, and finally he told me it sounded like she was repeating the word moche (ugly) in French.

 

The next day, we headed into the town, which was picturesquely situated between high mountains on the bay of Kotor.

Inside the city walls

The guys invited me to join them on a guided tour ala their French guidebook. Gregory decided to practice his English by translating the tour for me, which was a real treat. He stopped to point out buildings, telling me slightly lost-in-translation things like “this is the old town hall. She was before filled with sugar and cookies.” Our tour took us to St. Tryphon, a cathedral with two bell-towers, one of which remains unfinished and is significantly shorter than its counterpart.

St. Tryphon’s Cathedral

Sarah, over here” called my guide, squinting at his guidebook and pointing at the church. “I would like to show you this important building. It is best if you stand back and take a recul so you can see it is not even”

A recul?

A view from far away!” chimed in Remy, chuckling.

Watch out Pisa! There’s a leaning clock tower in Kotor

Gregory was really getting into his role as tour guide, saying things like “Right theese way I would like to point out the special window,” or “Sarah, pay attention! She is very important.”

Whilst we were mid-guidebook, I spotted my Argentinian friends slumped next to the side of the church. They were as scraggly as ever with tired, red eyes and breakfast of grocery store snacks splayed about. It looked like they had had a rough night. Victorio offered me an orange-chocolate cookie as I greeted them.

We slept on a road not too far from the station.” he explained.

Can we join you?” asked Nico. I looked at Gregory, not wanting to invite these ragamuffins without his consent. He shrugged with a French je ne sais quoi.

I’m kind of on a tour right now…but sure, come along.” 

This building was deemed ‘tres jolie’ by the french

The five of us hung out for the rest of the day. It was a funny group: the self-proclaimed hyperactive Nico, his best buddy Victorio and the significantly more reserved and put-together duo of Remy and Gregory. Lots of Spanish and French speaking going on.

Thank God for public drinking fountains on HOT days

Nico liked to call attention to the scantily-clad (and very beautiful) Montenegrin girls. He wasn’t shy:

I have to see this clothing store, wait one second!” he announced. I looked at his cut-off t-shirt, which was probably going on day five without a wash and didn’t believe for a second that he was about to go on a shopping spree. Not surprisingly, as I peeked in the store, I noticed a beautiful high-heeled girl in a low-cut top folding shirts.

Si, bueno, perfect. Yes, those are very nice clothes in there….very nice” said Nico.

It looks better than it smells.

The gang was dripping sweat, so we made our way to the bay for a swim. This was not my idea, as I had read in several places that the water is polluted pretty badly. However, locals insisted it was fine, and we saw many families and children enjoying the water. “It’s disgusting!” said Nico smiling as he paddled around. Everyone who jumped in after wards agreed. “I will not go. It stinks” said Remy, agreeing with me.

Si, the water is like a lotion!” said Victorio once he got out. I cringed as he rubbed his skin, massaging the toxins into his thighs. I’m pretty sure I noticed a third eye growing from his back later that day.

One of the entrances to the fortress

Eventually we ended the day with a grueling hike up to the fortress, see: Climbing the Stairway to Heaven (It’s in Kotor!)

Mostar, Herzegovina

18 Jul

7.12.2011

The Old Bridge by night

Mostar was stunning, like a smaller and more serene version of Sarajevo. I arrived in the evening and was picked up by the owner of the guest house I stayed at, Hostel Nina. Similar to my hostel in Sarajevo, the house belonged to a family who had built dorm rooms and allowed guests to use their facilities. It might sound uncomfortable, but it certainly was not. My host was probably around 55 years-old and very smiley. To my surprise, she started telling me very openly about her family’s experience in the war as we drove towards the hostel.

“It’s important for Mostar to have tourists. There are no jobs now-only tourism,” a sad, and familiar refrain.

Well considering its beauty and proximity to tourist hot-spot, Dubrovnik, it didn’t seem that Mostar was going to have a problem expanding the post-war tourism industry. The town had been completely destroyed in the mid-90’s; similar to the amount of damage done to Dresden during WW2, 1993 left nearly 75% of Mostar in ruins. Nina pointed out some buildings on the front line as we drove by; one had been rebuilt, but the rest showed their 15 years of neglect with crumbling rock and vines that twisted around bullet-riddled facades. Nina had fled with her children to Norway during the war, her husband was Muslim and therefore, the whole family was in danger.

“It was not safe for me, even though I’m catholic” she told me.

Bombed-out building

The family returned to Mostar in 1997, only to find that “the city was destroyed and very dangerous after the war. People were doing whatever they want to survive,” Nina continued. 

In 2007, Mostar’s famous landmark, the Old Bridge, was rebuilt, and from that time on, tourists started to return. As it began to get dark I took a walk around the town, which was breathtakingly set to the backdrop of arid mountains. The rocky river was such a vibrant shade of turquoise blue that I had to do everything in my power to resist from taking a dip fully clothed.

 

Koskin-Mehmed Pashka’s mosque

From deadly weapon to decorative household item

OMG it’s Weltbekannt! I have to check out the Turkish House!

Visiting the ‘Turkish House’. I got a postcard!

Take off your shoes in the Turkish house.

80’s restroom!


Sarajevo for Beginners

17 Jul

SARAJEVO, Bosnia & Herzegovina

7.11.2011

Sarajevo is stunning. It was the first place on my three week trip through the Balkan countries that I felt that I was truly in a land far, far, away. In Bosnian, Sarajevo translates to “castle valley,” as there was once a lone castle in the once undeveloped hollow. Now, an impressive mosque stands in its place.

The Miljaka river

I had the opportunity to take a tour with a local tour guide, Verena, who was born and raised in Sarajevo. She told so many interesting anecdotes that I could barely jot them all down. Hopefully I got the most important bits!

The center of the Bascarsija

Sarajevo was under siege from 1992-1995. Serbian forces (Republik Srpska and the Yugoslav People’s Army)  lined the mountains and attacked the city in an effort to claim Sarajevo as part of a new Serbian state. Over 11,000 citizens lost their lives and an estimated 50,000 were injured. Most of the city has since been rebuilt, but bullet and shell marks are visible on many of the town’s facades.

Although she was still young at the time, Verena remembered unpleasant years of traveling from basement to basement, attending make-shift schools that had been set-up “temporarily.” “That was a long time to be underground,” she told me. Plaques are visible on walls where shells killed pedestrians, and pedestrians will notice many “roses,”—shell indents filled in with red paint which serve as grim reminders that someone had met their end in that very spot. Although there are numerous similar reminders around the city, as a tourist it’s hard to imagine this somewhat sleepy, and undeniably peaceful town being so recently traumatized.

One of many mosques

The arrival of the Ottoman empire in the 15th century transformed the mountain-dwelling existence of the Bosnians to more a trade-based civilization, spurring the development of Sarajevo. Silk importation was the city’s first claim to fame, and thanks to Ottoman governor Gazi Husrev-beg, many beautiful buildings, bazaars, and mosques, were built during this period in the 15th century. The Turks still believed in the importance of separating home life from trade, so the houses were built in the nearby hills. There was also a Right of View law, no house was allowed to block the view of another. Even now, many graveyards are visible in the hillside neighborhoods, and Verena explained that the Ottomans had mixed the cemeteries with residential areas to remind the living to be on their best behavior each time they passed by. 

The preserved Turkish part of the city center is called the Bascarsija which means ‘trade district’. I enjoyed this area the most- especially the street filled with coppersmiths. They can be observed chiseling away at coffee sets and vases throughout the day.

My guide and a Bosnian coffee set

Labyrinthine passages led to tiny squares where people sat on plush cushions while smoking hookah, and drinking tea. I felt as if I was walking into some sort of mini-Istanbul. Continuing West along the main road past mosques (there are 204 in the Ottoman quarter!) and low buildings, there’s a sudden change in the architectural landscape as Austro-Hungarian design takes over.

The Eternal Flame- Remembering WW2 victims

Taking a stroll through central Sarajevo is like walking between two worlds. Trendy cafes blast European pop music as you continue down the Austro-Hungarian stretch.

Selling wares in the Bascarsija

Fun Facts:

  • Sarajevo has historically been home to four main religious groups: Serbian Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, and Catholics. Sarajevo’s Jewish community was devastated after WW2

The Serbian Orthodox Church- Church of the Holy Child

Fountain in front of the Gazi Husrev-beg mosque

  • Austrian-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo- a single shot simultaneously killed both Franz and his wife and started WW1.
  • You can still buy postcards advertising the 1984 winter olympics
  • The Sebilj is a famous water fountain in the Bascarsija’s main square. The legend: if you take a drink from the fountain, you will return to Sarajevo. Verena made sure we stopped and had a sip.

The Sebilj!

  •  She showed me something called a Mangala (sp?) It’s a coal-heated device and its purpose is to keep coffee warm. Hosts would set coffee cups on the metal lip in order to keep them warm for guests.

Keeping your Kahva warm

  • We visited the Gazi-Husrev-beg Vakauf, a beautiful building built in the 1530’s named after the Ottoman governor. Now a carpet store and an attractive tea house, this used to be an inn which offered three nights of free stay to weary travelers. In Islamic culture, helping travelers is important, and wealthy families would donate money to the vakauf (foundation) in order to fund this tradition.

  • The Legend of the Church of the Holy Child: A mother once murdered her baby in the church yard. Centuries later, the coffin was found and opened, and the shocked clergy discovered the immaculately preserved body of a recently deceased child. The kid’s corpse was then displayed in the church and it was said that women who have trouble getting pregnant should visit the church and pray to this murdered child for fertility. Morbid, I know.

  • According to Verena, nearly 50% of Bosnians are unemployed. My tour guide is a lawyer and has been searching for a job for over a year and a half. She said she is ready to practice whatever kind of law she can find a job in, since specialization isn’t even an option when living in present-day Bosnia. High hopes are placed in tourism, and judging by the amount of souvenir tit-tat that’s already present, more and more tourists are finding out about this hidden gem every year.

Hills and cemetery

A Drive Through the Bosnian Mountains

15 Jul

7.10.2011

Sure I might have been squished between 7 Finnish guys in the hottest car ride of my life, but the scenery between Belgrade and Sarajevo made up for it.

Blue waters and rolling hills

What! A cow on my left…

A cow on my right? What’s going on?

Ah, now I understand

Large and In Charge: Sofia, Bulgaria

11 Jul

Here are some photo highlights from my brief visit to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capitol.

camping?

 

 

St. Sofia is watching you....

 

The Russian church

 

Alexander Nevsky cathedral- it's absolutely massive.

 

Alex Nevsky's cathedral again...

 

And again...

 

Spell it with Hot Dogs

 

Roman ruins in the underpass... I like.

 

Communism...and a big truck!

 

 

Hitchin’ a Ride (For the First Time)

10 Jul

Adventurous Europeans often choose to travel in the Balkan countries due of the normalcy of hitchhiking and camping, two logistical practices that keep costs at a minimum. Bring your tent, your thumb, eat cheap food, and voila! Gute Reise. After hearing several impressive hitchhiking stories, I was curious to give it a whirl myself, but felt wary as a solo female traveler. However, after meeting a fellow Michigander at my Plovdiv hostel who had just hitchhiked from Shanghai, I became inspired to undertake the previously unthinkable. Gathering a small group of Sofia-bound hostelers, a unanimous decision was made: it was time to chance a lift.

Our rag-tag group of three mid-western girls and one Californian boy set out in the heat of the early afternoon, heavy packs burdening our shoulders, and the warm sun overhead .

“I have some knives and pepper spray” assured Molly, the motliest of our crew.

Sure, the bus from Plovdiv to Sofia was only seven euro, but this seemed like a good time for a test hitch, since we could easily make our way back to the bus station, heads hung low in shame, if the plan failed. As I led us down a busy road, I realized that somehow I had become the leader. Perhaps it was my status as the wizened 25-year-old to 23-year-old youngsters? I couldn’t be sure.

Anyway, there we were, standing by a gas station and holding out our thumbs like some teenage runaways in a cheesy Hollywood movie. After thirty minutes of frying under the Bulgarian sun, our digits were cramped and the only acknowledgement of our tacky ‘Sofia!’ sign was a flirtatious wave. What were we doing wrong?

Eventually, a taxi driver pulled up, and informed us in broken English this this was not the way to Sofia, this was, in fact, merely a small road in central Plovdiv leading to a small village. We needed to get to the Motostrada, the expressway, and he would take us there for ten leva, the equivalent of five euro.

“We’d better get picked up after this” said Elan, as we reluctantly piled our packs into the taxi, already sensing an epic failure. As if it wasn’t laughable enough to take a taxi in order to hitch, the comic value was at its peak when we were actually let out on the side of the road in what appeared to be a corn field, just as we had asked. With a friendly chuckle and a mocking hitchhiker’s thumbs-up, our driver zoomed back to Plovdiv, his muffler dragging loudly behind his yellow vehicle.

We were alone on the side of some godforsaken intercity road, a waving green field in front and the Rodopi mountains magnanimously behind, and there was no going back. On that wimpy slice of cement, we assumed our positions, thumbs in the air, sign raised high. It couldn’t have been more than three minutes before a faded red sports car rolled up.

“This is going to be a tight squeeze” said Erich looking grim-faced at the zebra-printed backseat. Two bleach-blonde 20-something females, hopped out of the car, its speakers crackling with the heavy bass of Bulgarian Chalga music.

Merci! Merci!” We chorused, knowing that these girls would understand this universal word of gratitude. One of the girls told us with a friendly smile “You’re welcome!” and proceeded to help us fit our bags in the trunk.

Our driver, a plump young lady decked-out in designer glasses and faux-diamond earrings that matched the gems on her painted fingernails, kept her eyes on the road while her Barbie-esque companion asked us where we were from. The girls were both Turkish, and the English-speaking one was currently studying industrial engineering in Plovdiv. Her friend had driven to Istanbul to pick her up for a wild weekend of clubbing in Sofia. The seating arrangement was not ideal, Eric’s arm was wedged uncomfortably into my rib, while the petite Elan was forced to balance on two of our thighs. But hey, it was a mere two-hour journey and more importantly, we had found what we set out to find: an adventure.

We were definitely weighing down the car, and it seemed to struggle and groan as it drove down the country highway leading to the main expressway. The girls didn’t seem to mind, chatting and laughing in Turkish, pausing to ask a polite question and offer cigarettes.

At the end of the journey, as we pulled up in front of the impressive Alexander Nevsky cathedral the English-speaking engineering student said one thing:

“Facebook?”

She handed us a faded card with her name typed neatly on the bottom. “In English it means pretty sun” she said. “Next time you in Plovdiv, you call me. My house is open.”

Having gained two new friends and one great story, we all agreed that our first experience hitchhiking had been a success.

For more info on hitchhiking: http://hitchwiki.org/

Oh, HEY Sofia!

Colorful Chaos in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

10 Jul

PLOVDIV 7/5 to 7/7

Plovdiv’s Roman Amphitheatre

The Bulgarian rural landscapes are incredibel. In Turkish, the word ‘Balkan’ translates to ‘a chain of wooded mountains,’ and Bulgaria fits this definition very well. The trip from Veliko Tarnovo to Bulgaria’s former capitol, Plovdiv, was no exception. Although we were trapped in a mini bus that seemed to stop frequently for lunches and snacks, I was in good company, so the trip was enjoyable. I had met Erich at the hostel in Veliko Tarnovo; he came all the way from Northern California where he specializes in making pizzas and poetry. This was his first time in Europe and he was only traveling to the eastern regions. Pretty bold!

That night I stayed with a couchsurfing host, Elina, a 24-year-old Hematologist. Isn’t that incredible? Apparently med school in Bulgaria starts immediately after high school, but I was still impressed that she was already practicing at her age. She had heard of Ann Arbor because of the “Ann Arbor classification,” which I suppose is something doctory. She was extremely nice, very intelligent, and had an amazing apartment not too far from the center. Although she had just gotten off of work, she made us a traditional Bulgarian meal of scrambled eggplant mash from her mother’s garden (“my mother makes everything herself because she doesn’t believe the market vegetables have chemicals”), and a soft white cheese that was incredibly delicious.

It’s because of this cheese that I could never move away from Bulgaria” she told me, smiling.

Elina and I

Elina spoke almost perfect English, as well as German, and was currently tackling French. She was well-traveled and frank about her study/work abroad experiences. “I had a very bad time in Japan.. and in Jamaica” she told me, which I found refreshing. Usually people say things like “Yeah, I was in Japan it was AWESOME!” even if they were homesick as all get-out. Her next goal is to learn to surf, either in Spain or Australia. I’m always interested to meet people on a fast professional track who haven’t lost their wanderlust.

Elina was very critical of the many young Bulgarians who move to other countries in Europe. She’s happy living in Plovdiv and Bulgaria in general. “There are opportunities here, and things are getting better all the time” she told me. We had a conversation about sex trafficking, which is something that’s still a hot-button issue; Bulgaria’s geographic position between Europe and Asia makes it an excellent entry point. Elina believes that the Bulgarian politicians are still turning a blind eye to the issue while being paid-off, just as in the communist years. We talked more about Bulgaria’s transition from communism to democracy. Just as Emilia and Mary in Veliko Tarnovo had told me, Elina confirmed that most older people remember communism as a simpler and happier time. Bulgaria was a ‘model student’ of communism, one that had an excellent relationship with Russia and adapted to communist practices effectively. Examples of ‘bad students’ are Poland, Slovenia, Hungary, she told me, so their transition to democracy and the EU was perhaps easier. However, Bulgaria’s joining the EU has affected her very positively. She has been able to take advantage of the EU’s ERASMUS student exchange programs.

 

The Turkish government pumps 2 mill a year into this beautiful mosque

After bidding farewell to Elina the next morning, I was able to spend the next 24 hours exploring the crazy artistic city of Plovdiv, once the former capitol and now a cosmopolitan university town that I enjoyed more than Veliko Tarnovo or Sofia. The city filled with art galleries and sculptures and it’s also surrounded by four foothills, which are great for getting a good view. Apparently there were seven foothills until the communists leveled the other three to make some room to build.

On the nebet tepes foothill

 I think Plovdiv is definitely underrated in terms of its touristic potential, as most tourists seem to merely pass through for a night on their way to Istanbul. There was a budget hotel in the center of town offering double rooms for only 9.00 euro a person, which I found impressive. The city was incredibly colorful—once you get past an awkwardly vast and empty square, the rest of the center is a pedestrian zone, leading to a large underground amphitheater (one of 2 in the town), which his currently covered by a glass surface.

Lot’s of public art in Plovdiv

Cafes lined the main drag and the buildings were colorfully painted. Shopping seemed like a popular activity—a lot of store windows were pushing a wide variety of styles, colors, and patterns, and it was fun to see what sorts of combinations people came up with. My impressions of Plovdiv fashion: the men, many of whom were unfortunately round and bald, seemed to prefer some sort of tight-fitting Adidas or Kappa shirt, paired with exercise shorts or capris. They might then choose to accessorize with an around-the-shoulder bag. Rule of thumb: the bigger the belly, the tighter the shirt.

For the women: the less fabric the better, lots of strappy, tight-fitting, colorful clothing; rhinestones and slogans seemed to be favored. I liked how this off-beat fashion added the the atmosphere of the architecturally quirky Plovdiv.

Walking towards the old town was perhaps my favorite part of the visit. Signs of every shape and neon color hung from buildings, which ranged from crumbling to brand new. I loved how hectic it was: a flower stand run by Grandma next to a sex shop, for example. The old town itself was one of the best parts. Although it seemed like no one actually lived there anymore, the colorfully painted traditional Bulgarian houses, were the cutest thing. Erich and I spent the day walking around together. iIt was nice having companionship and conversation for a short time.

A traditional Bulgarian building in the old town

Lots of art in the old town

Then we found the Roman Amphitheater! It was amazing. Set high in the old town, it overlooked the entire city of Plovdiv with the Rodopi mountains looming in the distance. After paying the 3 leva entrance (just 1.5 euro) we could walk around anywhere, and I mean anywhere. You would definitely not be able to walk around something as ancient in most parts of Western Europe—it would be akin to having free reign of the Colosseum in Rome. Big pieces of carved Roman rock were strewn about, and the stage was set for a classical music performance, which was apparently scheduled to happen later.

The musical equipment had definitely not been taken very good care of. It was about to rain but the old upright piano was sitting there half-covered with a tarp, while music stands were plugged in and rusting.

Getting ready for the performance?

Gold confetti was strewn over the ground, but it was clear that it has been there quite awhile. The stairs to the amphitheatre were steep, made of slippery marble and worn in after centuries of stepping, and I simply couldn’t imagine a bunch of elderly people trying to find their seats for an opera performance. We stopped and had a cider at the cafe whose seats lined the outer edge of the amphitheater. Erich and I discussed how a few months ago, neither of us knew that sitting around a Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv would be in the cards. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have been able to explain exactly where Bulgaria was on a map.

That night I met two American girls, Elan and Molly, at the hostel. At first I was kind of annoyed that both of my Bulgarian hostels had been crawling with Americans, but these girls were interesting and were doing farming work around Europe. I invited them to come with me to meet Stefan, another couchsurfer who was a Plovdiv native and had offered to take me out for a drink. Stefan met us at the hostel; he was tall, funny and spoke good English. He ended up giving us an impromptu evening walking tour. You could tell he loved his city when he told us about the history of the buildings, what periods they were built in and by whom. It was very nice and informational, and eventually we ended up at a bar that Stefan described as “alternative.”

He’s against Chalga music, which is all the rage in Bulgaria. Chalga combines traditional melodies with dance music, and apparently idiotic lyrics. “Smart people do not listen to Chalga!” said Stefan, almost livid, as he expounded on his hatred. He explained that the secret of Chalga culture is that the singers are actually high-paid prostitutes. So of course they promote a plastic-surgery, silicon ideal that’s not a good influence for the young people.

Typical Chalga music “singer”

He took us to a bar in a traditional Bulgarian building. Metallica was blasting, and the crowd was definitely metal. Stefan requested the song “Down with the Sickness.” “For me, there is no other choice!” he said. He was a pretty clean-cut guy, so I thought this was funny. A group of friends nearby were having a grand old time taking turns picking each other up and slapping each others butts playfully. I tried mentha, a light mint liquor that is typical Bulgarian. It was excellent and stronger than I had expected, but not as thick as schnapps. The night went on for a while until the three American’s had to surrender due to extreme tiredness. It was a great stay in Plovdiv!

The popcorn lady