A Travellerspoint blog

In the air again

Three thirty in the morning is way, way too early. I kept waking up because I was afraid my alarm wouldn't go off. Still, I felt reasonably well after four and a half hours of sleep. My taxi came on time, and we were to the airport in somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes. It was more expensive than the Metro but a bargain at only 12.33 leva, even though the driver seemed to have only a passing acquaintance with soap.

Sofia Airport was already very busy, with a long line for security snaking across the hall. I'd been planning to get something for breakfast while waiting to board, but virtually nothing was open yet. So I got a bottle of water and sat at the gate, which smelled faintly of poo.

Again, the flight was very bumpy and the seat belt sign was on during most of the flight. At least I had an aisle seat this time, and the cabin crew was pleasant. We were served almost immediately with a turkey-and-cheese sandwich, a heavy choice for breakfast. I was pretty hungry by that point, so it tasted rather good.

I had a long time to kill at Schiphol. The first thing I saw (after the 15-minute wait for the bathroom) was a Starbucks. Like a ray of sunshine, it was! I got a mocha and sat awhile watching travelers hustling about.

I shopped a little — bought some chocolate and the cashier gave me a stroopwafel — and just wandered around and, after a few hours, went to the gate to wait out the last hour and a half. The plane was almost completely full; the man in front of me reclined as soon as we were airborne and stayed that way till we landed. The people behind me constantly used my seat back as a support when they stood up, and the lady across the aisle had an ugly cough. All in all, a pretty typical flight for me. (Except that the girl next to me took off her shoes right away and was barefoot, and she went to the lavatory that way. Euuccch!)

John was waiting for me at SeaTac with my water bottle. It absolutely poured while we were on I-5. Welcome home, me!

I had a terrific time in Bulgaria. John asked if I would recommend this tour. I suppose it would depend on the person. There's a lot of stuff that's ugly and broken and sad, but there's also a lot of beauty and tradition and history. Plus, they make a darn good shopska salad. :)

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Germs

There was a very large spider in my room last night. I had to knock on Connie and Melanie's door to see if either one of them could deal with creepy-crawlies. Connie sort of got rid of it: it crawled into the wall when she tried to get it onto a piece of paper. Euggh!

After breakfast this morning I learned that we have eight sick people. I've been feeling a little intestinally challenged over the last couple of days, but nothing like our sickies. They've got nausea and everything. The bus ride today was pretty much misery for them, and they only participated in our activities minimally. Knock wood I don't get it.

Riding along on the highway today, I realize that every single Bulgarian driver's main objective is to overtake everyone else on the road. We had a couple of fairly close calls with cars suddenly in our lane, and one time we were in the wrong lane. It's a little scary, especially as this is the first European coach I've been on where seat belts aren't a priority.

After a brief rest stop for those who really, really needed it, we visited the Pomak village of Glogovo. "Pomak" is somewhat derogatory because it means "smashed Bulgarians." Its origin lies in the 16th and 17th centuries when Ottoman Turks forced southern Bulgarians (along the border) to convert to Islam. At some point in the 1950s, the Pomaks were moved from the Rhodope Mountains and resettled in small towns in northern Bulgaria because the Communist regime thought that the Pomaks would capitulate to or possibly even aid a Turkish invasion. So apart from the fact that they're Muslims who live in their own communities, they are Bulgarians in every other way, though some of the older women dress in Turkish-style pants (baggy and colorful). In addition, though they are Muslim, they drink alcohol and eat pork, and I didn't see anyone wearing the clothing that one associates with Arab Muslims.

We visited a pre-school/kindergarten (I've never visited a school on a Rick Steves tour before and now I've visited two!). We were greeted in the playground by kids of around four or five years old. They sang a song, and then one little girl recited a poem for us. Completely adorable. Going into the school, we went down to the basement where the kindergarteners were. Kindergarten starts at six years old and first grade at seven. They also sang some songs (one about how to behave in traffic, apparently) and danced. They were just like little kids anywhere: fidgety, sweetly uncoordinated, and focused on what they were supposed to be doing … except when they got distracted, which was often. You can see who the bossy kids are, the shy kids, the flirty kids. And then we had to sing "Old MacDonald" again. The kids clapped but looked less than enthralled.

Stefan then presented the class with a giant teddy bear that's been riding around in the bus with us since Sofia. We named the bear Uncle Rick. We also had some smaller teddy bears for the children, and they just descended on those. Much happiness abounded.

This classroom had bunk beds so the kids could have their naps. They're at school from 8:00-4:00, and they get two meals and two snacks while there. We also saw the five-year-olds' classroom, and they have little IKEA-style beds for their naps.

The teacher or principal (not sure what exactly she was) prepared a snack for us in the classroom: bread, honey and a mix containing cumin and other spices that go in curry for dipping the bread in, and bite-sized baklava. Yummers!

A two-minute drive down the road took us to the mayor's office. We got to sit in his office for 15 minutes or so asking questions. He's in his second term but preparing for elections in October. His secretary, who's been in the job for 24 years, is also running. There didn't seem to be any animosity between the two, but then again they are politicians!

Mr. Mayor was proud that his village of 2,000 people has its own medical center and dentist. They had a policeman, but he retired last year and they're still waiting for a new one. Unfortunately, the closest fire department is 20 miles away, and when there's a fire, the brigade typically arrives just in time to record the results.

There are three other people who work in the mayor's office, all of them appointed but not by the mayor himself: the secretary, a treasurer, and a lady who seems to do everything else that needs to be done. Mr. Mayor and the secretary agreed that the worst problem in the village is unemployment, which runs around 30 percent.

For lunch we drove another few minutes down the road to the house of a family of musicians. At picnic tables in their yard, we were served potato salad, a veal soup (Ew.), and a bean soup, followed again by teensy baklavas. Then the uncle, his sister, and her two children sang for us. The girl who did most of the singing was only 14 years old and had a very nice, strong voice. The other little girl didn't do much; I think she just wanted to be on view because she had dressed up for the occasion. The grandmother or aunt or whatever she was took care of some of our sickies and was wearing a traditional costume. They were very nice and hospitable people, and I think we probably could have sat there for a little longer.

We had a couple of hours back in Sofia (at the same hotel) to recover, and then it was time for our last dinner. We were missing nine people due to illness, and the restaurant had us split up among three tables, so it was rather a sorry affair. The food was good — one of the courses was feta with garlic and honey baked in tinfoil — and my table was happy and interesting, but the vibe felt off. Anyway, we all applauded for Kyro and presented a card to Stefan, and Stefan gave each of us a little recipe book he had made that has all the recipes from the trip, as well as some spice packets to get us started.

Saying goodbye is always hard, but particular hard for me this time since I have to leave the hotel super early and won't get to see anyone at breakfast; plus, of course, I didn't get to say goodbye at all to the sick people. Hugs and handshakes all 'round. I'll miss Stefan's smiling, chipmunky face, but I'm looking forward to being back home with John and the cat.

To bed soon, as I must get up at 3:30 a.m.

Random King Kong moment

Random King Kong moment


Reciting a poem

Reciting a poem


Uncle Rick

Uncle Rick


The kids and their teddies

The kids and their teddies


Lunchtime entertainment

Lunchtime entertainment


One of our lunch hosts

One of our lunch hosts

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

Shopping and dancing

The cricket eventually buggered off last night, thank Heaven! The music went on for a while but it was a nice jazzy sound, so I didn't mind it. For a short while, it was just a tenor sax playing, and it sounded happy and mournful at the same time.

My aunt asked if there's been any problem here with the migrant crisis. It's certainly in the news (though I haven't been keeping up with the news at all) but I don't think Bulgaria has been directly affected at all.

We had our long walking tour of Veliko Tarnovo today; the weather was gorgeous … and hot. I don't know what the temperature got to, but there wasn't a cloud in the sky so the sun was just beating down on us. I may need to think about taking a hat or at least a visor on future trips. I mentioned that our hotel is on the side of a hill. It's actually toward the bottom of the hill, so everything else is up: up stairs, up pathways, up streets.

After climbing many, many old stone steps, we arrived at a sort of viewing platform between two buildings, each of which had stucco art from the late 1970s on either side. One of the walls showed a 19th-century Bulgarian architect named Kolyo Ficheto. He was a brilliant guy, and his methods are still studied today by architectural students. At one time, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was going to be torn down because of the rising waters of the Seine beneath the structure. Someone from the French government was buddy-buddy with the Bulgarian consul and asked him if there were any masters in Bulgaria that could be sent to figure out a way to save the cathedral. The consul sent Mr. Ficheto to solve the problem, and he did: he worked out a proper drainage system to keep the waters from undermining the foundation. And that's how a Bulgarian architect saved Notre Dame.

We saw one of his designs a few minutes later. It's called the House of the Monkey because it has a stone figure of a monkey over the doorways. It's built in the symmetrical style with faux brickwork. The businessman for whom it was designed and built used to travel a great deal, and apparently the monkey was a symbol of this and, ultimately, a symbol of the businessman's great wealth.

We walked by a couple more stucco walls showing scenes from Bulgarian history. These were all created in the 1970s and 1980s under the Communist regime as a sop to the people. Also we saw a statue of Stefan Stambolov (sp?), a 19th-century politician — some say the greatest Bulgarian politician of the 19th century — who was attacked by his opponents after losing an election. They cut off Stambolov's hands with an axe and cracked his skull. He didn't die for three days. His wife kept his hands and displayed them in her window. (Ew.)

And finally, what we'd all been waiting for throughout the entire trip: the arts and crafts street (and by "we" I mean "the women"). Stefan kept telling us not to shop because everything would be better in Veliko Tarnovo. And it is!

We visited a potter's studio and watched Nina and her son, Demeter, mold the clay on a wheel and paint the clay after the first firing. Nina uses traditional medieval patterns and an old Byzantine technique called sgraffito. From wheel to sale condition, a plate takes her one month to make. It's a very hard and very precise craft; one little slip and the object must be destroyed. The traditional colors used for the pottery are yellow and green, but they do other colors too. Demeter played a collection of bowls like a xylophone, and they made a beautiful sound.

The silversmith next door is named Todor, and many years ago he was featured in a Bulgarian calendar of artisans. He likes to take old, traditional forms and update them. Everything in his shop was beautiful — and shiny!—from earrings to jewel-encrusted altar cross. He showed how he makes a bracelet from silver thread that looks black but eventually cures in a solution of sulfuric acid (five percent) to look pretty. He learned his trade as an apprentice, and he now has two apprentices.

A kadaif maker was next. This is the main (pretty much only) ingredient found in our dessert last night. It's the only place in Bulgaria where kadaif is made traditionally. It's just flour, water and salt, and it's poured from a sieve-like contraption onto a giant, horizontal, convex wheel. The wheel (which is heated) spins, the batter dries into long threads, and the lady scoops them off. It looks like a spaghetti harvest.

The woodcarver, Rumi, has been carving for 17 years. Prior to learning to carve, she studied drawing. I bought something from her later on, and it turns out she's married to Todor the silversmith. They have a son who has just gone to university in the Netherlands to study 3D animation. She was having a hard time cutting the cord and proudly showed a photo of her son and husband. Her son is really tall, over six feet. I don't think I've seen many tall Bulgarians. She creates spoons with intricate handles, little boxes and puzzle boxes, candlesticks that look like wrought iron, and little toys.

Arts and crafts behind us, we proceeded to once again climb up, up, up to the Tsarevets Fortress. To be honest, at this point I was so hot that I stopped paying much attention. I'm pretty sure it was built by one of the first kings of Bulgaria in the 16th century (?) and … um … well, it's huge. There's a wall and another interior wall, and then at the top of another hill within the fortress, there's another wall surrounding a church. The church was actually built in the 1980s and was painted by a Bulgarian artist who was clearly influenced by Goya, Picasso and the Mannerists. It's art that has its place, just not in a church. None of the paintings were religious — though there was a vague spiritual overtone — but of Bulgarian history. Personally, I didn't like it. The best part was that there happened to be five of us there at the time, so out in the church's backyard, four of us spelled out LOVE (I was the O) and the fifth took a picture. I'll have to remember to ask for a copy.

Hung out for a while under the trees on the second hill down from the church (still in the fortress) and had a Bulgarian lemonade, which was tasty, cold, and most welcome. There were several of us there, and we all looked a bit wiped out by the heat.

I left with five others to go find lunch and we met Stefan, who happened to be going to the restaurant we wanted to try: Hadji Nikoli Inn. "Hadji" is a title that could be put in front of your name if you had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. So this guy Nikoli went to Jerusalem, came back to Veliko Tarnovo and built an inn. Now it's a restaurant, wine store, and gallery. We all ate outside. When it came to ordering, Stefan said he was going to have some sort of fried lentil dish. Connie asked if he would share, and he replied, "Joey doesn't share food!" Which cracked me up. I had to ask him if they get a lot of American television programs here. He said they do, and they're all dubbed but with the English track still playing.

I had grilled chicken with sweet corn and a beer, the first one of the trip. Melanie and Connie had the same sort of salad, which came in a mold and looked like a fancy cake. Everything was tasty, Stefan almost choked when the heat from a pepper hit the back of his throat, and we took selfies (well, I didn't because I'm crap at it). Later found out that Stefan posted one of the photos on Facebook, with the comment, "Lunch with some of my tour members. This is what guiding is all about." Someone from one of his May tours responded, saying that she could see her friend Diana in the photo. Stefan told Diana, who was amazed, as the commenter was, indeed, a friend of ten years. She had no idea her friend had been on the Bulgaria tour, and her friend had no idea that Diana was on the Bulgaria tour. What a ridiculously small world!

Some of us went shopping afterwards. My need for stuff finally overrode my need to keep my suitcase manageable, and I bought stuff from Rumi, the woodcarver from earlier, and another woodcarver who carved more lighthearted, ornamental stuff. I also - finally - bought a magnet, the first of the trip.

Back to the hotel to rest and recover for an hour, then a cooking demonstration in the hotel restaurant at 5:00. The first dish cooked was mishmash, containing tomatoes, peppers, puree of roasted tomatoes and peppers, salt, cheese and eggs, all cooked in a very hot pot of sunflower oil. We tried it with toast, and it was very good. Then Stefan, the barmaid, and another lady in a traditional Bulgarian vest did a circle dance that was very energetic.

Stefan and the lady then demonstrated how to make banitsa. Layers of phyllo dough were formed into rose-like shapes and put in a round pan, then cheese was added on top. Then another layer of phyllo roses and more cheese, topped by another four layers of phyllo. Sliced lengthwise and crosswise, a boiling pot of butter was poured on top, and then it had to sit before being put in the oven. This meant another two circles dances, one of which I got dragged up for. I dearly hope there is no photographic evidence of this. I never did figure out what they were doing with their feet, but at least I could manage moving in a circle. At last, the banitsa was sent to the oven. Those Bulgarian dancing songs are long!

This evening we went to a performance at the cultural center in a nearby town. There are cultural centers in most cities and larger towns in Bulgaria, and they generally comprise a library, performance space, classrooms, etc. We were there to see a folk group perform especially for us. There were maybe 30 women and six or seven men who sang and danced for us in the most wonderful traditional costumes. The ladies had marvelous headdresses, and the men had beautiful coats and big furry hats. Stefan said the age range of the group is 16-76, but we didn't see any kids because today was the first day of school in the country. There was a lot of high-pitched yipping from the dancing women and "Ho!," "Oop!" and "Hey!" from the men. They were accompanied by a seven-piece band: two types of string instruments, something that looked like a recorder, a drum, bagpipes, and an accordion.

The performance was excellent, and afterward we all had to get up on stage, with the performers, and do the dance we learned yesterday. It was actually a lot of fun, as it started in a circle but soon became a line just snaking around the stage in crack-the-whip fashion. We only had to dance for two or three minutes before we were exhausted. I can't imagine how the performers felt in their wool costumes.

When we got back to the hotel, we had the banitsa. So light and so buttery, and any calories we worked off dancing were put right back on again!

The House of the Monkey

The House of the Monkey


Graffiti

Graffiti


Nina puts the finishing touches on a bowl

Nina puts the finishing touches on a bowl


Demeter decorates a plate

Demeter decorates a plate


Todor

Todor


Blowing fire onto the silver thread

Blowing fire onto the silver thread


The finished product

The finished product


Pouring kadaif batter

Pouring kadaif batter


Sleeping in the sun

Sleeping in the sun


Rumi the woodcarver

Rumi the woodcarver


Terry and Chris have a swordfight

Terry and Chris have a swordfight


Tsarevets Fortress

Tsarevets Fortress


Danger

Danger


The church at Tsarevets Fortress

The church at Tsarevets Fortress


Kitty in the fortress

Kitty in the fortress


Me at the fortress gates

Me at the fortress gates


My room is right above the door

My room is right above the door


Folk dancers

Folk dancers


Some of the singers

Some of the singers


Part of the band

Part of the band


Pyramid of men in skirts

Pyramid of men in skirts


The oldest singers

The oldest singers


The men try to look macho

The men try to look macho


A triumphant finish

A triumphant finish

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

Cats and crickets

It already seems like Varna was days ago; I can't even properly picture it in my head. It's funny how being on the coach will do that.

Our first stop of the day was the Madara Horseman, situated in a national park. We hiked up a little ways to an open area that was once a cave and is, therefore, called the Big Cave. The cliff face looms over the area, so much so that it was hard to bend backward to take a photo. It makes for amazing acoustics, demonstrated by Stefan's clapping, which echoed beautifully. He asked us to be quiet for a moment, and we heard birdsong and trickling water. Due to the presence of water, humans have been there since the 13th century BC.

The original cave was used as a temple by various religions as ruling races came and went and at one point, again because of the water, was dedicated to nymphs. Stefan made us learn a Bulgarian circle dance in the clearing (there was no one else there to witness our embarrassment), and we were awful! But apparently we're going to have to do this for other people tomorrow night. Oy!

One of the caves in the park was fashioned into a small chapel: Christian in medieval times and it looks like Orthodox now. There were icons everywhere, and a family was lighting candles.

On we went to find the horseman a little farther up the path. And he's much smaller than I expected. It's an 8th-century, bas-relief carving into the side of the cliff around seven feet high and eight feet wide. It wasn't discovered till sometime in the 19th century, and even now you can't see it till you're right below it. It's also the oldest bas relief in Bulgaria and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

There is a lion — symbolizing the Byzantine empire — beneath the horse's front hooves, and a hunting dog follows behind. There is, unfortunately, a crack that extends from near the top of the cliff right down through the horse, just missing the horseman himself by a few inches. The crack started small but attempts at preservation have widened it. And there are bacteria in the various cracks that also cause widening; Germany is supposed to be working on some way to kill the bacteria without ruining the bas relief.

I'm not sure how we came to this, but Stefan told us that there are some archaeologists (or maybe it was anthropologists) who believe that the Great Wall of China was built to repel Bulgarian tribes back when they were nomadic. There were three tribes, and they moved in hundreds and thousands. I can see how China may have been slightly alarmed. The Bulgarians may have originally migrated from Persia, but recent tests show that DNA-wise, they have the most in common with Italians. I guess we're all related somehow.

After the horseman and a steep, rocky set of nearly 200 steps going back down, we set off for Arbanasi. Part of the main highway was closed, so we had to detour onto a very rural road that was bumpy and potholed and just broken. The villages we drove through were a bit broken too, and it's mainly elderly residents who remain in them. The young all go to the big cities of Sofia or Varna, or go live abroad even. This detour took 20 minutes; boy, was I grateful to be back on the highway! Also, I saw two dead foxes, a dead mole or possum, and something that looked like a dead hare.

We finally made it to Arbanasi, a smallish town dating from the 15th century. We were given 50 minutes to get some lunch on our own and I ended up with Rosemary, Marcella, and Mark eating outside. I wanted pizza, but the waiter said it would take 45 minutes. So I quickly scanned the menu again and decided on chicken salad. It took a long time coming out but it wasn't too bad. Would've been better spread between two slices of bread, but very fresh and filling. We were supposed to be back with the group by 2:50 but we were still paying our bills at that point. Fortunately, we weren't even close to being the last ones back.

Arbanasi was once one of the richest villages in all the Bulgarian lands. Most of the inhabitants were merchants or aristocrats, and they built their houses like forts. And there are ten churches.

We went to one of the churches — not much to look at from the outside, but the inside was covered in frescos. This was the Church of the Nativity and has a rare fresco of Jesus Christ Immanuel, which shows Jesus as a younger man. Usually, he's older and bearded, but in this fresco he's pretty much just a teenager. There's a 17th-century extension on the church painted with frescos of mainly female saints to celebrate the Virgin Mary, and it's called the Female Hall (men would have services in the first chapel). It also has a Tree of Jesse fresco painted on one wall that extends up into the vault. It's one of only two in Bulgaria. The frescos also include images of Greek philosophers because at that time the Church was exploring the central idea of the universe: man; and the philosophers, I guess, provided a lot of thoughtful talking points.

There's a further addition from the 19th century and has mostly frescos of martyrs. Kind of depressing! It also has a Circle of Life fresco showing the sun in the center, then in concentric circles around the sun are the four seasons, the zodiac, and the months, all inside something that looks like a ship's wheel. Surrounding all of that is the life cycle of humans: the young climb the handles of the wheel and try to make it go faster, then they reach their pinnacle when they feel invincible (picture of a king above this); but soon age sends them down the other side of the wheel, while they try their best to pull back on the handles in the hope of turning back time. Eventually, the wheel deposits them into Hell. And the moral is: life is hell. No, wait: it's that if you don't live a good and religious life, you will end up in Hell. That's what I meant to say.

We went to the Konstantsalieva House, one of the fortress-like houses that's now a museum. It was built in the late 17th century for the wealthy Mr. Konstantsalieva, and he must have been very wealthy indeed. The whole is surrounded by a stone wall that's probably seven feet high. The house has heavy shutters on all the windows, as well as an iron cage sticking out from one; it makes it easier for someone inside the house to peek out and see who or what is on the ground and still have some protection. As it was built during a time when Bulgaria was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, it was a good thing to appear to be Ottoman. So in this case, the Christian owner had Ottoman-style arches built into the windows and doorways.

Inside, there are at least two rooms for entertaining guests, a large kitchen, a ladies' room, two furnaces, and a mother-and-baby room. Not only that, it has two indoor bathrooms — i.e., two small rooms with triangular holes in the floor that look down into the yard.

Back onto the bus and an hour later we arrived in Veliko Tarnovo. The bus couldn't take us to our hotel so parked in the lot of a different hotel to drop us off. Omigod, this hotel: big, featureless, characterless, Soviet-style building that looked practically deserted. Stefan said he was going to tell us that it was our hotel for the next two nights, just so he could see our reactions. Our actual hotel is much, much nicer.

It's the Hotel Gurko, situated on the side of a hill. Across the street (and a steep drop down) is a river, and on the other side of the river is an island with an enormous monument that was put up in the 1980s to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Second Bulgarian Republic. It's quite the sight. It's also the view from my balcony.

My room is big. There's a table with tea things and a chair, the double bed, two nightstands, a wing chair, a cabinet holding the minibar and with a TV on top, an armoire, and a vanity table with a stool. The bathroom is big too. I have to use the key to lock myself in the room as there's no deadbolt knob. A cat showed up on my deck and hung around for a while, then disappeared through the grape vine that's wound itself along the front of the building. The deck is nice, but right now there's a cricket out there that's been chirping — loudly — for the better part of 90 minutes. I'm ready to murder the little bugger but (a) I'm not going out there in the dark, and (b) unless it's wearing a top hat and carrying an umbrella, I don't really know what a cricket looks like. (Oh, God! I just Googled crickets. Gaah!)

Dinner was in the hotel restaurant. Chicken soup to start, followed by a salad of shredded carrot, with a little bit of apple and crushed walnuts. There was another flavor we couldn't identify at first, but then realized it was honey. Dessert was a little scoop of chocolate ice cream and a cake called kadaif. It was plain-tasting, which would have been fine, but it had the strangest texture. In fact, we all at first thought it was a coconut cake, but there wasn't a shred of coconut in it. Anyway, I didn't finish mine because I just couldn't get past the strange, stringy texture.

I'm sitting up in bed now, listening to music coming from somewhere, as well as that freakin' cricket. Do crickets chirp all night long? I hope not!

The Big Cave

The Big Cave


The Big Cave

The Big Cave


Madara Horseman

Madara Horseman


The Madara Horseman

The Madara Horseman


The group in front of Konstantsalieva House

The group in front of Konstantsalieva House


The ladies' room

The ladies' room


View from my window

View from my window


My Bulgarian buddy

My Bulgarian buddy


View from my window

View from my window

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

Old Gold

That damn fridge kept waking me up all night long. I looked before I went to bed last night to see whether or not it could be unplugged, but the cabinet it was in was too close to the wall and I couldn't reach the plug. But at least my room wasn't on the third floor, where a contingent of Belgians managed to wake everyone up at 1:30 a.m.

On our drive to Varna, we could see how Sunny Beach — the area visible from the north side of Nesebar — is too built up. There are hotels and big resorts and apartments, apartments, apartments. It's just ugly. There's one absolutely enormous resort that looks like something from Dubai, or Las Vegas. Most of the billboards along the highway are in Russian, trying to entice Russians to buy an apartment there. However, Stefan says, a huge percentage of the buildings were illegally built and don't have proper sewer lines, water lines, and real blueprints. A few are even built directly on the sand. He says they'll almost certainly be torn down in a year or two once the government catches up.

Someone asked about the unfinished and abandoned buildings that seemed to be everywhere. It's likely that for many of the projects the money ran out in the middle of construction. But for others, it may simply be because the summer season runs from May to September, and it's forbidden to have an active building site during the season. So the project will stop in April and restart in October. And some of the projects may be related to money laundering schemes. In fact, says Stefan, 20 to 30 percent of the hotels along the Black Sea are involved in money laundering in some way. These schemes are, naturally, run by the Bulgarian mafia. "Is the Bulgarian mafia like the Italian mafia?" "No," says Stefan, "the Italian mafia at least has some rules!"

Money laundering led to a question about drugs in Bulgaria. Like pretty much everywhere else, Bulgaria does have a problem with heroin and meth. And it turns out that Bulgaria is the biggest producer of meth in Europe, but it's mostly for export. The bigger problem is alcohol addiction, but it's not really seen as serious. Why? The Russians and Poles will drink alcohol straight from the bottle and end up blind drunk. Bulgarians pour their alcohol into glasses and sip. They still get drunk, of course, but it's generally a happier, still-in-control drunk. Personally, I'd say there's also a major cigarette addiction here. Probably the first thing John will tell me when I get home is, "You smell like cigarettes!" There's no smoking in restaurants, etc., but you can't get away from it when you're outside.

We could see Varna from a little distance, and it's quite large and spread out along an east-west line. It's known as the Capital of the Black Sea Coast and is the third largest city in Bulgaria. It's also got the largest port on the Black Sea, for both cargo and people. In addition, the first train tracks in Bulgaria started in Varna in the 1860s.

Our hotel is called the Capitol. It's very centrally located and has a ton of amenities in the bathroom (not to mention the first properly fitted toilet seat of the tour). The wi-fi is free and strong, and I was able to post a blog that wouldn't work in Nesebar. (To be fair, all the wi-fi so far has been free.)

We started our orientation walk shortly after checking in, walking by a cathedral with gold onion domes. We entered a pedestrianized area that was only finished (refurbed) three weeks ago, so we are the first group to see it this year. As it's Sunday, it was also full of Bulgarians out enjoying the sun. Judging by the number of tiny humans in strollers that we saw, there was a mini-baby boom a few months ago.

We walked by the gorgeous "Dramatic Theater" and then went to the archaeological museum. I think this may be my archaeological limit, quite frankly. This museum, however, has something rather amazing: the oldest gold in the world. There are rings and bracelets and necklaces and other ornaments and adornments made of gold that's 2,000 years older than the pyramids. Most of this gold was found at burial sites. In the grave of burial #43, that of a chieftain, were necklaces of semi-precious stones, gold necklaces, gold bracelets, gold buttons, a gold-handled axe, and gold circles that probably formed a headdress. We also saw Roman mosaic floors and Greek tombstones.

One interesting thing we learned is that when a painting shows a boar being chased or killed, the scene is showing an initiation (e.g., a boy becoming a man). If it's a bull that's being hassled, then the scene is something to do with sacrifice. Never knew that.

We were free after the museum, so I walked back to the pedestrian street to go to Trops, a cafeteria-style restaurant. I think nearly all of us ended up there at some point. I had spaghetti bolognese, which wasn't bad, and sat with Peggy and John. They shared a plate of potatoes that were so yellow, I initially thought they were pieces of pineapple, and a seriously large sausage; they said it was like kielbasa. A little orange cat crept up alongside me and meowed; I really wanted to give it something.

After lunch, we walked down to Primorski Park overlooking the sea. Lovely park with lots of families; some of the tiny children were in remote-controlled cars made to look like Porsches or Audis. Slightly older children had slightly bigger cars and could drive on their own. There were dogs lying in the sun (I've seen a few with tagged ears, so I hope that means they've been fixed) and more cats roaming around looking for handouts. People were eating ice creams and smoking cigarettes (not at the same time … at least I don't think so), and there was an old man playing an accordion in the shadow of a pillar. "It's Now or Never" seemed to be his signature tune.

Steps led down to a large yellow building that stretched far in both directions. Fortunately, there was a door that led to a corridor that went out to a bar/restaurant situated right on the beach. There were tons of sunbathers, some wading in the sea, large men in Speedos, and large women in bikinis. Everyone looked happy and relaxed. John and Peggy both went right down to the shore to dip their hands in the water. The tide was coming in pretty fast, and John got his shoes and cuffs drenched. I settled for putting my hand in Black Sea sand. For a few minutes, I watched a man with a metal detector roaming up and down the beach. He got a few hits but nothing came of them.

John and Peggy went off to the Planetarium, and I went to find the supermarket. I had intended to buy toothpaste, but I could only get full-size tubes and they cost an absolute fortune. Instead I got a bottle of water (still can't drink the water here), a bottle of Fanta (only tastes good in Europe), a banitsa (cheesy bread thing), and some crispy things. I decided I didn't feel like doing a dinner this evening, especially as I had that bowl of spaghetti for lunch, so I'll just eat in my room. Maybe I'll watch Bulgarian television! (Luckily, one of the amenities in my bathroom is a "dental kit" containing a toothbrush and a tube of paste, so now I shouldn't run out of toothpaste before our last day.)

One curious thing I've noticed in Bulgaria is that when there's music playing, like in a restaurant or a hotel lobby, it's American or British. I've heard Tina Turner singing "Simply the Best" more times than I can count, and I've heard Beatles song after Beatles song after Beatles song. I haven't heard anything sung in Bulgarian or any other foreign language. In the breakfast room at our Sofia hotel, we ate our muesli and yogurt to a Muzak version of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head."

Later: I did watch some Bulgarian TV. "Perfect Strangers" dubbed in Bulgarian was too much for my brain to handle.

Varna's Dramatic Theater

Varna's Dramatic Theater


Cathedral of the Assumption

Cathedral of the Assumption


Showing me how to sharpen my claws

Showing me how to sharpen my claws


Gah!

Gah!


Kids in cars

Kids in cars


Aslant in Varna

Aslant in Varna


Varna beach

Varna beach


Old man and accordion

Old man and accordion

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

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