Tag Archives: Travel Guide

Organs and Air Shows: A Day in Zadar

23 Jul



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


So You Want To Be A Hvar Superstar?

23 Jul


On the promenade

With its year-round sunshine and growing fame as a new European party capitol, Hvar island is a popular vacation destination. Although technically Hvar town has a center, the most prominent architectural feature is the palm-lined marble promenade that wraps itself cozily around the harbor. Small streets filled with trendy and expensive restaurants that slink off of a main square, home to the rather bland Dominican church of St.Marko.

I found the tourist population to be younger, better dressed, and a bit less chilled out than the vacationers in Korcula. This is no doubt due to Hvar’s reputation as the new Ibiza….so the kids say. To be honest, I really didn’t feel like partying during my stay, so Hvar wasn’t exactly the place for me, not on this trip. However, a group of five French guys at my hostel from a town near Nante, partied hard the entire time and gave the town rave reviews. Others I had met in Korcula said they couldn’t understand the comparison between sleepy Hvar and Europe’s party capitol. So, I guess you’ll just have to go and decide for yourself. The first night, people from my hostel went to Nautica, a cheap Top 40’s bar, which I felt way too old for. I actually ordered an orange-flavored Bacardi Breezer, the kind of malt-beverage that I haven’t touched since high-school. That’s when I knew it was time to call it quits. The main club on the island is Carpe Diem, an upscale establishment that’s starting to get some big-name djs. Its sister establishment, the creatively named Carpe Diem 2, is located on a nearby island, and reportedly ferry shuttles covered in the 20 euro entrance fee float people over at night. From what I heard, if you’re looking for lots of trance music and the opportunity to make love on an uncomfortable jagged-rock beach, this is the place for you.

Also noteworthy: Hula-Hula, a day club that you’ll find by walking 15 minutes west along the coast. Entrance is free, there’s a dj and the option to sit on chair or on the beach. When I went, they were playing some decent house music.

My hostel, Villa Skansi, was easily the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. In fact, Hostelworld.com members voted it as such in 2010. Just a short walk from a pebble-beach next to a beautiful monastery, this was less of a hostel than a full-out villa. The family added dorm rooms and private accommodations to their gorgeous tri-level residence, and as a weary backpacker, I was impressed by the great deal of work that went into making the facilities more than just a cheap place to crash for young party-goers. It came equipped with indoor and outdoor kitchens, brand new-bathrooms, and air-conditioned dorm rooms, all of which were stylishly decorated. A beautiful wicker-chaired terrace overlooked the blue sea, and the owner, Matteo, a tanned-friendly guy, made an effort to introduce himself to everyone while tending bar at night. In the evening, everyone gathers on the terrace, chats, and consumes reasonably priced mojitos, draft beer, and Matteo’s homemade wine. At 10:30, the terrace closes and the fun-loving girls working at the hostel usually lead the group to a bar or club in the harbor.

Franciscan Monastery

Vive la France!

On my second day, the French guys invited me to rent a boat with them. It was a bit expensive, seeing as they had purchased it for 10 hours and gone all out by renting a ‘banana’ (towable floaty thing). They had wanted to reserve a doughnut (inner tube in American) but they were booked out for the day. Renting a boat seemed like pretty much the only thing to do in Hvar, so I agreed, looking forward to anchoring at one of the many islands nearby. Soon the french friends, a young British girl from our hostel, and myself, boarded a comfortable rubber boat with a 150 horsepower engine, ready for the day’s adventure. We had a relaxing morning, afternoon, and evening, and anchored at several beautiful inlets in the nearby Pakleni islands.

Our chariot

Somewhere off of a Pakleni Island

Why are Speedos still so funny to me?

We saw more than a few ridiculous yachts. Everyone had their flags waving, and it was interesting to see just how far some of these yachts had traveled. The boys were good company and very funny, constantly dancing in their little Speedos and pushing each other into the water. Although a couple of the boys spoke very good English (one had been at Oklahoma university for 6 months) everyone got some good English practice that day, and the British girl and I did a lot of laughing.

Dance break!


Wine and Beach: Korcula Island, Croatia

21 Jul


Korcula town, so photogenic

7.16- 7.17

Korcula is everything a I’d imagined an island off of the Dalmatian coast to be: relaxing and beautiful. I was happy that I’d skipped a second night in Dubrovnik for this.

Fun facts: Korcula is actually the 6th biggest island on the Adriatic, with a population of 17,000 inhabitants.

Yes, it’s very big!” said the guide of the Wine and Island Tour that I had taken. Considering the entire population of Croatia is under 5 million, I guess 17,000 seems like a lot of people.

I had taken a 2.5 hour catamaran ride from Dubrovnik and I stayed for 2 peaceful nights in this charming haven. It looks something like this photo (above), only ten times better in real life. Imagine my relief at feeling the cool sea breeze after a week of relentless, sweltering heat.

I stayed at the Onelove hostel in a 6-bed dorm room with a view of the East harbor. The owner, a South African guy who was constantly wearing surf shorts and some sort of tank top, fit the hostel-owner bill perfectly. The place was decorated like some sort of modern harem; colorful tapestries were tacked all over those chunky stone walls. At night he ran a cheap and rowdy bar for the guests.

I noticed that the island was significantly less touristy than Dubrovnik, and I liked that. It definitely had a laid-back feel and was affordable, which was a nice surprise. Feeling motivated upon my arrival, I signed up for the aforementioned wine tour offered by the tourist office. I felt a bit guilty about the amount of time I was likely to spend on the beach, so I figured this was a good way to do something a bit more culturally oriented. So, later that day I embarked on a tour with 3 couples and one tour guide. The driver took us in an air-conditioned van (a luxury), to a hilltop catholic church on top of more steps (feeling the burn!), and through two of Korcula’s reputable vineyards.

With a view like that, what do they have to wine about? ha.

Wine production is pretty small-scale on the island. We first went to a family-run winery near the town of Lumbarda on the South side, and our guide explained that the wine from this particular area is grown in sand the color of red clay. A grizzled old man ushered us into his terrace to sample, which afforded a nice view of the vineyard and the ocean beyond. A couple of kittens were prancing around, which adding nicely to the authentic aesthetic. We tasted a variety of wines, and were told to pay particular attention to dry white called Grk, which translates to Greek in Croation—a toast to the island’s ancient Greek settlers. After some meager samples, he instructed only the MEN of the group to try a traditional mint-flavored Croatian grappa. Talk about old-fashioned! The middle-aged Australian guy in our group piped up and asked “don’t the ladies drink grappa too?” our tour guide laughed, avoiding the question “oh sure, some do.”  I was very annoyed, although I don’t even like grappa and probably would have declined the sample.It’s like the moonshine that people from the southern part of your country make.” the Australian man commented. I imagine I would have spoken up if I felt that I was really missing out on something, but after the moonshine comment…

In Smokvica

We then visited another family owned vineyard 30 minutes away in Smokvica village, where the grapes are grown in a valley that remains sun-drenched throughout the day. The tasting area itself was interesting, traditional wine producing tools were displayed as if we had entered into a mini-wine production museum. This particular vineyard is well-known for producing a more widely distributed wine called Rukatac. “It’s very expensive at a restaurant!” assured our guide while calling out attention to the bottle for sale on the tasting table. I’m certainly no wine connoisseur, but I enjoyed it. A Swedish girl and I were extremely hungry and we helped ourselves shamelessly to unattended sheep cheese samples. I definitely can’t get enough of the impressive cheese I’ve encountered on this trip—it has been varied and delicious.


The second day on the isle was your typical relaxing beach day, especially since there wasn’t much else to do in this kind of heat, and it was a difficult adjustment after such an active three weeks of sight-seeing in the other Balkan countries. I spent the afternoon with two Mid-westerners, Nelly and Paulina. They were the kind of sisters who finish eachother’s sentences in a non-obnoxious way—like some sibling comedy duo. Originally, we wanted to take a 20 minute bus to Lumbarda to find Korcula’s only sandy beach, but the Sunday bus schedule made it impossible. We settled for a pebble beach right near our hostel and were pleased to find that the crystal blue water was bath temperature.

I wandered around the small city later that night and enjoyed the promenade surrounding the town.

During sunset I ate at a no-frills national restaurant recommended by my hostel owner. It’s called Plainjack and you’ll find it when walking from the old town to the West harbor. I enjoyed a delightful summer salad for 25 kuna ($5.00) and a glass of wine for 10 K ($2.00). Next time, I would probably try one of the meat or fish dishes, they looked amazing and were pretty cheap 50 Kuna, or so.

As I mentioned, the old town is very cute, like a mini Dubrovnik without all of the tourists, i.e. lots of winding streets, and a couple of impressive stone churches. Korcula still had its fair share of overpriced clothing stores selling striped dresses and hats, insinuating that you must cover yourself in stripes while enjoying the seaside. What’s up with that, anyway? The tourist angle seemed to be name-dropping Marco Polo, as I noticed lots of clothing stands and gelato shops named after the man. Apparently he may have been born in Korcula, although no one seems to be too sure.

one of many children selling seashells

Entering the old town


Just a tip: if you have a computer and want free wifi with the purchase of a beverage, go to Dno Dna. It’s on your right on the way to the bus station. The people at the tourist information office won’t tell you about it, which I find incredibly annoying. They want you to pay for the wireless that they provide 10 kuna ($2) for 15 minutes! No thank you.

Taking Liberties in Dubrovnik

20 Jul



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.

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

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria: Go There

7 Jul

The train from Bucharest to Veliko Tarnovo. Sunflowers galore!

Some of the view from Veliko Tarnovo

I arrived in Veliko Tarnovo (pop 68,000) on a cold and cloudy early evening. After being crammed on a mini-bus next to a friendly Brazilian guy and his Polish wife, I was happy to be let out in town, even if I had no idea where I was. I called my hostel, Hostel Mostel, to request their free pick-up service:

Just get a taxi to the hostel and we will pay for it. Don’t worry yourself!” a friendly male voice instructed me over the phone.

Chello, English…..haha!”greeted the high-spirited cab-driver as Balkan pop tunes bounced out of the sound system. 

My travel literature had described Veliko Tarnovo as a picturesque village with traditional Bulgarian homes hanging over the hillsides. I guess I was thinking something along the lines of Positano or Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast. This was not quite so. While it was still a nice town, this had seemed more like the Eastern Europe that I had imagined. Things were in a more extreme state of disarray than in central Bucharest or Brasov; fading signs hung haphazardly from paint-chipped brown and white houses.

I think the fact that everything was in Cyrillic helped to add to the foreignness of it all. At this point, I was thankful that I had made and used those Cyrillic flashcards.

Keeping the streets clean


Hostel Mostel was really the highlight of my experience in VT.  I was greeted by a friendly young Bulgarian man who introduced himself simply as Todd.

Todd, I questioned him. “That’s it?”

“Well it’s Tadavorolajlhbg but don’t worry about that, just keep it at Todd, like in English!”

He had the most professional of manners, as if he were introducing me to a 4-star accommodation. I liked that, and I let him go ahead and carry my bag.

“Ladies first, always!” he said happily as a recently arrived male traveler struggled under the weight of his pack. The hostel was a beautiful traditional Bulgarian home which had been renovated two years ago. It was comfortable, clean and had a very zen-like vibe, plus a great terrace.

The common area in Hostel Mostel

For 7 euro a night this really couldn’t be beat; they even had two hostel mascots—fancy pigeons with fanned tails! I had arrived just in time for dinner and joined the rest of the hostelers for some potato and cabbage soup. I was surprised to find that out of the 20 people staying, several were American. One of whom, travel extraordinaire nomadic Matt http://www.nomadicmatt.com/  ended up being a good buddy of my friend Maneesh. Small world!!

Later, we were informed that the light show would be taking place at the nearby Tsavarets Fortress, the pride and joy of Veliko Tarnovo. I couldn’t believe my luck, as I had been reading about this multicolored spectacle.

The foggy fortress, pre-light show

It was interesting to get to know my fellow Hostel Mostel companions. Many were traveling on similar routes—Sofia-Plovdiv-Veliko-Varna—everyone weaving in and out of the Balkans in their own manners. It seemed that I would see some of these people again. I got along quite well with a Quebecois girl traveling alone, Amelie, she jammed out on her harmonica as a group of 7 young Mexicans chattered loudly while taking photos on the bridge. After waiting for nearly a half hour without seeing any signs of the show,  we gave up and went back to the hostel. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, lights were illuminating the skies in the direction that we had just returned from. Amelie and I ran outside screaming and running up the hill as fast as our legs would carry us

C’est la! The light show, the light show!”

Neon streams and white explosions lit up the night just outside of view. We managed to see the fortress glowing in red and blue before being illuminated in the normal manner. Bummer! At least we saw it for a second.

I Invited Amelie to join me in me in meeting a couchsurfer, Emilie, at the bar she worked at downtown. I felt very cool being able to say I had a “friend” working at a bar after having just arrived in an unfamiliar Bulgarian village! The bar she worked at, Malkia Inter (The Old Inn), was not only quite close to our hostel, but really antiquey and cute, with myriad accordions and fiddles decorating the walls.

Emilie at Malkia Inter

Emilie studied graphic design at the university in town. She was incredibly kind but kept responding to my conversation by shaking her head from left to right, in what I perceived to be disagreement. After a few minutes of confusion, I remembered that I had been told that Bulgarians indicate agreement by shaking their heads from left to right, while nodding indicates disagreement. Now it all made sense! Later, I joined Emilie and some friends at a nearby Irish pub, which confirmed my theory that such pubs don’t vary a whole lot regardless of where they are on the globe. Surprisingly, given the size of this town, this bar was owned by a real-live Irishman. Apparently a lot of foreigners from the UK and western Europe have been taking advantage of cheap real estate prices in Veliko over the last few years.

The next day I met Emilie and her friend Mary promptly at 10 am. They showed me around the city, first taking me to the most famous little historical street, pointing out “the monkey house” designed by the famous Veliko Tarnovo architect Koljo Fichev.

The Monkey House

The main street in VT

Although a bit touristy, the street was full of little artisan shops- everyone was there, from the knife maker to a herb preparer. I fell in love with the traditional Bulgarian textiles and ceramics. A woman putting her loom to use in Emilie’s favorite shop as we walked in “I buy so many things here!” she told me, encouraging me to take my time looking at some beautiful scarves and bags.

Working with metal

The mask maker

 The three of us sat a little traditional cafe that Emilie told me (with a slight laugh) was called ‘The Sugar Cock.’

“In English I think that is not right?” she asked. Inside we ordered coffee which was very similar to Turkish coffee but prepared in a slightly different manner: over hot sand.

Coffee on sand

I loved the traditionally low-to-the-ground Bulgarian tables, although I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland.

At the Sugar Cock with coffee

It was interesting to talk to the girls about politics, in particular, why so many Bulgarians miss communism. Bulgarian history is somewhat hard to follow; even the last 10 years would take a good hour of clarification. After being under the thumb of the Turks and the Russians, Bulgarians are finally taking a stab at democracy. The girls told me that joining the EU in 2007 hasn’t affected most citizens yet, since there is still quite a bit of corruption in the country’s leadership.

As I sat there happily getting my history lesson for the day, a group of elderly American tourists walked by. What were they doing in Veliko? One lady took her time to squint at the English translation on the cafe’s sign.

John, JOHN, come get a look at this. I don’t think the translation is right. They got it wrong, didn’t they?  It says ‘coffee on sand’. Coffee on sand? That’s just not right, is it?!”

John came over with his buddy, laughing and patting his wife on the back. “That’s like Sex on the beach isn’t it. Coffee on sand, sex on the beach! Haha” he chuckled, proud of himself.

Oh America….

The rest of the day was great. They showed me “Mother Bulgaria,” a monument and not a figure of speech, as I originally assumed. We took a walk around the park, through the main streets and across the river to the statue of the four Bulgarian kings who founded the city.

The Old church in the middle of the village

The girls were really funny, and as we walked around the park, they laughed about what they were going to do with me. “Boil you in a carrot soup!” said Mary, probably referring to a travel story I had recently read and told them about, one where an American journalist was unknowingly held hostage in Prague until his ‘guide’ handed him a fat bill for his expenses while discreetly flashing a handgun as he dropped him off at the airport.

This is the street to the dormitory” said Mary as we walked back over the bridge towards the main road. “There was a problem with a man who would stand here and expose himself” she said chuckling. “He would make bird calls and then girls turned to look at him” That’s terrible!” I said. Mary just kept chuckling.

This artist was a friend of the girls’ from school

We then headed over to experience the day’s highlight—lunch at a traditional little place called The Quiet Nook (English translation, of course) we had a big discussion about what a small hidden place in a house was, but I decided it was probably a nook….The food was cheap and the chairs were plastic and colorful. Russian disco music played quietly in the background as we ordered.

At the Quiet Nook

He is usually drunk…but very nice” said Emilie, smiling as the waiter walked towards us. “It’s just his wife and daughter who work here.” A true Bulgarian family restaurant. I liked that.

She asked me if I liked strong drinks, because if so, I should have a traditional Bulgarian liquor with lunch, either Mastika, an anise flavored liquor, or Rakia, which tastes a lot like the Italian grappa. Soon, the owner was filling up my 2 oz shot glass generously with Mastika.

I ordered the Shopska salad: goat cheese, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, all for the low price of 3 leva, or $2. I also ordered something that Emilie said “all the tourists like.”  It was Kvarma, pork with sauteed tomatoes, garlic, and onion and served in some sort of viking ship saucer. I also tried the girls’ food: Mary’s white bean soup and whatever was in Emilie’s ceramic pot: an egg, tomato sauce, and a thick layer of cheese. I was definitely a fan of Bulgarian food.

A lunch time visitor; one of VT’s many stray kittens

The Mastika had my head spinning as we walked back up to the hostel a couple of hours later, petting some stray kittens on the way. Emilie had to go to work but she promised she would come visit me in New York some day. She was pretty into hitchiking and assured me that she would find a way to do so across the ocean. 

“Why not?’ she said.

Day Trip to Bran: What Does This Castle Have to do with Dracula??

2 Jul

Bran castle in all of it’s glory- white horse adds to the scenery nicely

7.1.2011 2:17 p.m.

Arrival in Brasov and a trip to Bran Castle

I had a packed first day in Romania yesterday. In fact, I already feel like I’ve been here a week! I stayed with Adina and Mircea, a travel-loving middle-aged couple who have discovered the joys of letting cuochsurfers stay in the spare bedroom. Since I arrived at 9:30 pm, almost 4 hours later than I intended,  Mircea immediately came to pick me up at the station and pointed out in broken English the passing landmarks as we drove to their family home. I could hardly keep my eyes open, but Adina made me feel comfortable when I arrived, making sure I didn’t need warmer clothing or anything to eat. She explained that I will be living in the downstairs apartment in a room across from grandfather who is 87 years old. She insisted that I stay two nights instead of going back to Bucharest the next evening. So, that’s what I did.

The next day (Thursday) the weather was rainy and terrible, but I made the most of it. As Adina had suggested, I took a path along the river just outside of the city ramparts (built once upon a time for keeping out the Turks), which led me to the bus station. From there, I caught a smaller bus which led to the city of Bran, home of the infamous Bran castle. Bran itself was pretty touristy, as touristy as a small Romanian mountain village could be. They were really pushing the Dracula theme via a bunch of little huts stocked with Romanian souvenirs and tacky Halloween masks and wigs. I thought the connection was a bit of a stretch, but whatever. After paying the entrance (10 Romanian Lei, only $3.00) I embarked on the journey.

As far as castles go, I really didn’t think this one was anything special. This may sound crazy to some of you, but after seeing some big-shots like Neuschwanstein or the El Alhambra, your expectations get pretty high. I can’t believe it’s come to “castles are just castles!” Four years ago, when I arrived wide-eyed to Italy, some European friends and I took a day trip to check out a seaside village. There was a castle there,  and me being a curious castle-less American, suggested we check it out. My friends ‘poo-pooed’ me with a series of off-handed waves. “It’s just a castle” they said. Maybe now I understand.

Bran castle was inhabited by a Romanian Queen. No bloodthirsty Vlad the Impaler, no carnivorous spirit of living dead, just a straight-up queen. Somehow, since Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897, people have come to associate Bran castle with the legend. The castle tries to support this with informational signs in the last rooms of the tour, but the connections are weak.

How did this happen?

Mr. Stoker probably based the Dracula character off of the real-life Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, Tepes translating to ‘Impaler’. During young Vlad’s rule from 1448-1476, he instated an authoritarian regime based on terror and gore. For a laugh, he enjoyed torturing his enemies in the most brutal of manners—use your imagination! Vlad also had another nickname: Son of Dracula, after his father Vlad Dracul. In Medieval times,  ‘Dracul’ or dragon, used to have positive connotations relating to fertility and dragon-slaying , i.e. slaying one’s enemies in order to defend the cross. However, in later years Dracul became synonymous with the devil…muah hah haaah.

Ironically, although Tepes gets a bad rap for being a brutal ruler and such, he goes down in the Romanian history books as a sort of Robin Hood-esque national hero, one who protected the poor while fighting tooth and nail against the invading Turkish army. For better or worse, Tepes was speared to death by his enemies.

Don’t mess with Vlad

Anyway, Vlad Tepes lived nowhere near Bran castle, but luckily for Bran’s economy, someone decided that this Schloss resembled the one mentioned in Bram Stoker’s novel.

Covering Ground

25 Jun

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen: the 6 countries and 18 cities (give or take a few) that I’ve proposed to explore. Can I do it? Perhaps. Will I try? You’d better believe it.

All preparations are going smoothly thus far- stay tuned for some pre-travel ponderings!