Tag Archives: Balkan Countries

White House Stone and the Zlatni Rat: Bol, Croatia

8 Sep

The road to Bol

BOL, on the Island of BRAC, CROATIA

7.22-7.24

I decided to spend the last weekend of my trip on the mountainous island of Brac (pronounced ‘Bratch’) in the picturesque little town of Bol. Car ferries depart regularly from Split, heading to the island’s largest city, Supetar.  Once there, I found it Supetar simple (ha!) to catch a  bus to Bol, where I remained amazed at the way these bus drivers whip around curvy mountain roads.

I stayed at a hostel called The White House, which wasn’t really a hostel at all, just a private home with an owner who had converted rooms into dorms. I walked through an open door and after not seeing any sort of reception, wandered around the house for a good 10 minutes. Eventually, I was greeted by a miniature old women carrying a broom. After saying something in Croatian which included my first name,  she handed me a note from the hostel owner, which read “I’m sorry Sarah but I couldn’t be here for your arrival. My mother does not speak English!  You are just welcome to take the key and go to your room.”  I glanced at this little old lady, who was smiling at me as I read. They had upgraded me to a single room for the same price, which was fine with me! I liked this place already.

Bol's famous white stone

Bol is famous for its white limestone. Apparently, both the White House (U-S-A) as well as Diocletian’s Palace in Split were built from this very stone.

Stone statues on the way to the beach

Fun and sun on the Golden Horn.

The Zlatni Rat peninsula!

Zlatni Rat beach is even more famous than Bol’s signature limestone. It overwhelms Croatian tourist brochures, but is as not as nice as it’s cracked up to be, in my opinion. The beach wasn’t all that crowded when I was there, which was nice. I took the opportunity to fall asleep while listening to Orchestra Baobab.

There wasn’t very much to do in Bol, which I suppose is the attractive thing about a beach vacation town. At least, it’s all fine until it begins to rain, as it did during my second day in town. I had dinner with some Swedish girls at my hostel at an Italian place called Topolino, where the pizza was decent.

Babes in bikinis

Awaiting the storm

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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

Organs and Air Shows: A Day in Zadar

23 Jul

ZADAR

7.20.2011

No, Zadar is neither the name of a villain you might find on some Cartoon Network program, or a far off planet mentioned in some sci-fi novel, it’s a northern Croatian harbor town that Lonely Planet describes as “an underrated tourist destination.” Clearly a lot has changed since the guidebook was published in 1999, I crossed the footbridge into the old town and was unprepared for the mass of tourists that seemed to be blocking every street and doorway. I noticed many German parents with little blonde kids who always managed to wander in front of me and stop suddenly. Unfortunately, all of the hostels in the old town were full and I didn’t want to risk finding a room from someone at the bus station, since I had read that a lot of private accommodations are located in coastal towns a few kilometers away. Since I only had one day in town, that would not have been the way to go. Nope. So I headed to the tourist office, knowing that such offices often help unprepared tourists with finding a room. “I know a very nice lady” said the young girl behind the counter “she has a room right in center just two minutes from here for 200 kuna”

It was a bit more than I had wanted to spend, but all things considered, $40 was pretty great for a room smack in the main square, especially since hostels in town were running close to $30 per dorm bed. I still didn’t believe that it was really my only choice- but whatever, a lot of these tourist offices seemed to have affiliations with cafes, restaurants, and tour guides, so why should private accommodation be any different?

 

A man led me to a family home two minutes away from Narodni square, where I was greeted by friendly looking woman in her 30’s. She complimented my striped hat and immediately asked for my 200 Kuna. The room had clean sheets, access to a relatively clean bathroom, and a door that locked, all fine by me. I had to laugh at the key chain—a battered Chicago Bulls player with his limbs snapped off. It made me wonder how people acquire such things: Can you even buy Bulls paraphernalia in Croatia? Was there a Bulls fan in the family who had traveled to the US? Who knows.

In the Forum

I wandered around Zadar for the remainder of the day, pausing with my laptop to use the free internet connection on the steps of a building in the square. Despite the crowds, I really liked Zadar. It had a certain artistic buzz, everywhere I turned people were selling beautiful glass jewelery and ceramics. I chatted with some local artists in a couple of tucked-away galleries that I came across and thought about how great it will be when I can actually buy nice art someday. “I’ll come back to Zadar when I’m not a student!” I promised them with a wave. I’m not a student, but that seemed like the easiest explanation. What I really meant was “I hope to come back to Zadar when I have more disposable income!”

I noticed that many of the souvenir shops promoted certain local artists by selling their works, as many of the same handmade prints, sketches, and trinkets could be found all around town. This was apparently Zadar’s thing as an artsy town. I was thinking about this as I began to be aware of the a great deal of noise. It was not just the teenagers yelling to one another, or kids screaming things at their parents in German and Croatian, some sort of sound was coming from above. Planes or helicopters, perhaps?  In any case, some sort of flying machine was making a lot of racket.


At the tourist office I grabbed a brochure of local events. Listed for Wednesday July 20th were two things: Evergreen music in Narodni square at 9pm, and the “Adria Air Race” starting at 12:00 p.m. I had no idea what that was, but after about a half hour of wandering around Zadar, the noise overhead was really starting to get to me and I wondered if there might be a connection. Zadar has a massive Roman Forum, and when I arrived at it, I noticed everyone holding their cameras and phones into the air. A plane was circling the sky, making wide arcs and loops dare-devilishly. Mystery solved, this was an air race, an air show, whatever you want to call it. Maybe that explained all of the tourists? It was, after all,  a Wednesday afternoon, yet entire families were roaming around. Didn’t anyone have work to do? Was it a national holiday?

The forum area was great. Cafes had set up tables and chairs next to broken columns, their faded orange seats contrasting nicely with the off-white surface of the rounded church of Saint Donat—it’s one of the oldest in Croatia and quite impressive. In the forum, kids hopped from one broken artifact to another. I was tempted to join them in a game of hot lava, it would have been the perfect playground! That being said, from a historical preservation perspective, it was strange to see kids dripping ice cream all over this ancient stone, shouldn’t someone be worried about the impact of tourists on all of this old rock? Maybe that’s the American in me speaking, like, if it’s old, put it behind glass and charge $5.00 per visit. I guess if the rock has been laying around for this long, there’s no reason to be concerned about the pitter patter of little kids’ feet.

I took a walk to the seaside, where there were an awful lot of yellow-jacketed security personnel around. I finally asked one guy exactly what was going on around here. He seemed pretty excited as he explained the airshow, which was making its debut on the Croatian coast. Music was being Dj’d from little tents near the water, and a fence had been set up for VIP access—this was quite an event, indeed. You had to have a ticket to get to the seaside and I was not about to pay for one, especially since there were hardly any people in there, and it seemed lame.

The sea organ lies beyond these flower beds

I walked to the southern tip of the park, the location of two famous creations by the Croatian architect Nikola Basic, the first of which is the sea organ (the only one in the world!). Apparently Zadar’s coastline had been naught more than an unappetizing slab of concrete since WW2, but in 2005, the city paid for its makeover. Now, the promenade is swimmer-friendly; steel handrails and ladders make the ocean easily accessible, as do white marble steps leading directly into the water. Within these steps are a series of pipes and whistles which have been designed to utilize the wave motion and create sound. It was annoying that the area was roped off for the air show, but you could still hear the organ. Some German tourists and I stood at the fence and listened for a while. The organ’s tones are simultaneously melancholic and whimsical—think foghorn, a far-off train whistle, or the sound of multiple cellos warming up in a distant concert hall.

The Sun Salutation

Next to the Sea Organ is a large circular solar panel designed by same architect, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t get a closer look. Apparently, it harvests the sun’s energy during the day, and at nightfall emits a multicolored light show which supposedly stimulates the solar system. Scientifically speaking, I have no idea how plausible that may be, but it sounds interesting, in any case.

I spent the rest of the day walking around and getting a feel for the city. For 10 Kuna I entered a Croatian journalistic photography exhibition at the Narodnij museum. The museum was actually an old venetian building that was in the process of being restored after the 1993 bombing. The display’s chicken wire interior was supposed to remind visitors of the palace’s ongoing reconstruction, as I was told. The exhibition was great, there were photos from the last year documenting everything from the first ‘high heels marathon’ (which looked sooo painful) to hand wrestling championships, and a Hungarian village overtaken by a toxic sewage leak.


Later that night, ‘”Evergreen music” was performed in Narodni trig right next to the cafe I was frequenting. A band set up in front of the city sentinel—a pink tower—and an orange-faced middle-aged man wearing white linen took hold of the mic. I enjoyed his renditions of well-known tunes, and his willingness to tackle a wide range of genres, from Motown, to Italian love ballads. He had a bunch of little kids jumping around and dancing, while most the adults stood at a safe distance, some swaying their hips conservatively.

Hang on Sloopy, these kids can dance!

Yet another impressive church

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!


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

Border Patrol- Traveling Between Sofia and Belgrade

14 Jul

7.8.2011

The journey from Sofia was pretty painful, it was about 8 hours and hot as hell. We transferred from a mini-bus to a full-size monster in Nis, a town across the Serbian border. Crossing the border was an interesting process. On the the Bulgarian side they simply collected our passports and stamped them. However, at the Serbian border we actually had to exit the vehicle and answer some questions about our destination and purpose of journey. They were keen to make sure I wasn’t smuggling anything, but it wasn’t as bad as watching the Korean guy before me. He spoke zero English, and everyone in the line was getting annoyed as the border guard tried repeating “destination?” several times. When we transferred in Nis we had about 15 minutes to kill. A big Serbian guy with a curly ponytail, Adidas shirt, and sport-style sunglasses appointed himself ‘caretaker of the foreigners,’ ushering me and the Korean dude to the front of the line to make sure we got the correct bus tickets. “We have 10 minutes here” he told me, unprompted. “The bus leaves from right here, platform 8.”

At the Nis bus station: Watch your step when withdrawing currency!

It was very nice of him, and having this guy around made me feel safe. I think my Korean friend needed it more than I did, he seemed to be constantly heading the wrong direction. I nipped off to the ATM to take out some Serbian dinars, and to say the area was under construction would be an understatement: two big-bellied construction workers seemed unconcerned as they sat on a large pile of rubble, while checking out a blonde girl with a stuffed animal backpack. It was refreshing to know that someone, somewhere in the world (over the age of 5) was attempting to keep those furry backpacks in fashion. When I returned from buying a bottle of water, Mr. Ponytail said he had been concerned that I had been misplaced. The bus was sketch, very jerky. Although I know admittedly little about mechanics, I know it’s a bad sign when the bus driver calls for a pause and then opens the engine with a puzzled look. When I returned to the bus, ponytail who was sitting nearby, turned his head comically, gesturing to me and looking very concerned that our Korean friend hadn’t returned. I imagined him sitting in the cafe eating apple pie (yes they sold it at the cafe), totally unaware that the bus had been waiting for him.

A window with a view

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


Bachkovo Monastery

8 Jul

My new travel buddy Erich and I went to check out the Bachkovo monastery, nestled in the Rodopi mountains about 25 km from Plovdiv. It’s Bulgaria’s second largest monastery, and since I wouldn’t have time to go to the largest (Rila, near Sofia) I decided this would be a nice substitute.

The bus dropped us off next to a brown sign advertising Bachkovo. As we walked uphill toward the entrance, we were bombarded by teenage girls who attempted to feed us yogurt samples. Forget about yogurt, I was having a hard time not being distracted by each gorgeous piece of handmade pottery we passed.

One funny thing that we experienced: we paid 10 cents to use the WC, and although it hardly seemed worthy of record, we were each given ticket and required to write down our respective times of entrance. I thought that was rather necessary.

Lots of honey and jam for sale

The Bachkovo monastery was founded in 1083 A.D. by two Georgian brothers. Much of it was destroyed by the Turks in the 15th century, and was restored in the 17th century.

There were indeed many monks about, as was expected. One dark robed gentleman had the tedious job of cutting the grass with scissors. SCISSORS! I couldn’t get over that. Talk about paying attention to detail!

The view from inside- that’s the monk with scissors!

We took the suggested walk up a path and discovered a waterfall. I accidentally trespassed and found some creepy abandoned buildings.

On a hike

Rodopi Mountains

A waterfall!