Monday, April 30, 2012

Breaking and Entering

"This is Bulgaria, there are no regulations."
- Alex, our Veliko Tarnovo hostel host and surrounding area tour guide.

During our stay in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria's former capital, we experienced this Bulgarian-ness on a few occasions.

she said:

At the Tsarevets Fortress, arguably the city's biggest tourist attraction (both in size and popularity), the only rule seemed to be not to kill yourself. Maybe because April is still low season, but even the purchase of tickets wasn't really enforced. Our first clue should have been that the woman in the ticket booth had to be woken from her nap, but no one checked them at any point on the grounds, and it wasn't until a few days after visiting that we found out amateur photography is meant to be another small fee.
View from the fortress entrance. The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God. Bells.

he said:

As evidenced in the first picture below, "Don't do stupid stuff but we're not going to do anything more than put up this tiny sign." You could literally walk on the edge of the fortress walls like you were a guard on watch! The only differences between now and nine hundred years ago is that the wall has deteriorated quite substantially and you can't don armor and medieval weapons. Wait, this is Bulgaria, maybe you can!

Warning: "No sitting or river-dancing on fortress walls". View of the patriarchate on the top of Tsarevets hill.

I would not be surprised if a large section were to crumble with the slightest agitation. Furthermore, there were children, human baby children, running around on the edges of these walls. I thought for sure we were going to hear the bone shattering chorus that gravity so cruelly sings to the unsteady. If this was North America you would be admiring everything from a few feet away behind an obnoxious rope. (Thanks a lot pesky insurance companies.)

Dark and scary inner rooms. Dilapidated stone wall jungle gyms.

she said:

But that was the fortress, a place we could reach on foot. Surely an organized day tour to the local sights would mean a little less freedom?

On to the first stop. The Dryanovo Monastery and Bachokiro Cave.

he said:

Parking in the back lot  for the monastery (normally used by locals and tour guides) wasn't accessible because of a bridge under repair, so our guide Alex brought us around to the front. Unfortunately, the greasy S.O.B. who wears a laminate and "patrols" the parking lot is willing to walk the distance between you and his seat if he sees you park. After some gentle words from Alex but no money exchange the man huffs and puffs and waves his hand in frustration. "That's Bulgaria, everyone wants money to do nothing," Alex says as we stroll past the gates.

Monastery grounds. Monument to the April Uprising. Inside the cave, a four story maze with 700m of maintained paths (i.e. they're partially lit and sometimes have stairwells).

she said:

After a hearty Lunch, and a few less exciting stops, we drive through Shipka Pass and over some snow (with the help of a tow) to our last destination: the Bezludzha Monument, better known as the "UFO".

he said:

It's locked, it's dilapidated, the road up is barricaded. No problem, we'll just drive around the gate, pry the doors open, and go inside to throw huge rocks around and climb on everything. The entire time I was completely unsettled because I was envisioning this thing sliding off it's base and rolling down the hill.
Outside and inside the UFO.

she said:

Originally built by the Bulgarian Communist regime and opened in 1981, the Monument was a masterpiece of marble, red velvet, and shimmering mosaics with a concrete core. But after the fall of the party and many raids by industrious gypsies the only parts that remain to show it's past glory are it's massive size and bits and pieces of the original tile work.

Full circle view of the inner hall.

Please let the building stay intact just a little bit longer. Thank you to Alex for a great tour, and everyone at Hostel Mostel for the beautiful place to stay. Hello Romania.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Check and Double Check

she said:

Turkish/Bulgarian border. 1am.
You are leaving Turkey, please wait an hour in what appears to be an immigration office and we will give you an exit stamp.

Onboard stationary train. Kapikule, Bulgaria. 2am.
Passport and tickets please. Looks fine, here's your sleeper car, enjoy the trip.

Onboard still stationary train. Kapikule, Bulgaria. 3am.
*BANG BANG BANG*  PASSPORT CHECK. PASSPORT CHECK. Who said it was ok to sleep...PASSPORTS. An official looking Bulgarian man disappears down the train corridor with a bundle of passports while a group of disoriented travelers poke their heads out of sleeper cars.
15 minutes later passports are returned and the train begins to move. Finally some sleep. Or so you think.

Enroute to Sofia, Bulgaria. 4am.
*BANG BANG BANG* PASSPORTS. PASSPORTS. Sleeping! During an overnight train, what were you thinking? PASSPORTS. An official looking Bulgarian woman collects passports again, this time most of the passengers are too groggy to wait patiently for her return and go back to sleep. Good thing as it's another two hours before she returns to bang on doors and return travel documents. This time with entry stamps included. Welcome to Bulgaria!

And Welcome to Sofia, a capital city rich in history, outdoor spaces, and graffiti.

On buildings, city fixtures, in parks, even historical monuments. Some of it impressive.

he said:

I find history fascinating.  Specifically, I find historical human behavior interesting.  Here's a tidbit I learned in Sofia this week.

Tsar Boris wants to unify two groups of nomads, the Bulgars and the Slavs, who occupy a strategic area of land situated between Constantinople and Rome. So he (probably) accepts copious bribes from either side and then takes the best deal.  He declares Orthodox Christianity the standard when he is assured that he will be able to operate as an independent state and later gets the bonus of also being an independent religion.  Soon after he commissions two scholars who are monks, and brothers to create an alphabet.

There you have it, we've gone from pagan nomads to a new country with its own archbishop and a fairly unique alphabet in one man's lifetime.  

Apologies, but it doesn't seem to me there was any sort of religious enlightenment or miracles to spur this unification and conversion.  If it's not already obvious I suspect Boris' motivations were more terrestrial. Economics, taxes, wealth, a big ol' piece of that pie. And why were Rome and Constantinople so eager to get a hand in the game? J'accuse!

This and other historical tidbits learned on the FREE (and excellent) Sofia Walking Tour.

Thanks to Kilios, an excellent guide. St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a historic Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Saint Sophia Statue, a symbol of the city. Saint Nicholas Russian Church. National Art Gallery (Former Royal Palace), and the yellow brick road, said to have been a wedding present from some Austrian cousins to Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria and his Italian princess Marie Louise. Changing of the Guard. Rotunda of Saint George, contains the Church of St. George which is considered the oldest building in Sofia.

she said:

Because of it's small size and many outdoor spaces, Sofia is an easy city for walking, be it on a guided tour or on your own. And when you've seen too churches, historical sites, and monuments to keep track, Vitosha Mountain and its hiking trails are just a short trolley ride away.

Giant Squirrel and Red Army Monument in the Soviet Army Park.
Along the Vitosha Mountain Trails.

Please keep us out of anymore impromptu hailstorms. Thank you to everyone at Hostel Mostel for the amazing breakfast, all the help, and keeping a great hostel going. Hello Veliko Tarnovo and the Tsarevets Fortress.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Bread and Tulips

she said:

Dear Bread,
I love you. I didn't realize how much I'd missed you as a staple food in my life. Please forgive me for trying to replace you with poor substitutes like noodles and rice.

Dear Istanbul,
Thank you for being the provider of so many wonderful variations of my good friend Bread.

Dear 20 or so pounds lost while traveling,
It may be early yet, but hello. I believe we'll be reunited again soon.

Pide: Delicious bready goodness, often found topped with cheese, meat, and veggies (like pizza if pizza were made on french bread rolls). 

Snack time! Borek: a crispy, flaky phyllo dough filled with good things like feta and spinach. Dürüm (means rolled): a flat bread rolled around delicious things like kebab meat, primarily for take-away. Lahmacun: Turkish Pizza.

Simit: ring shaped (like bagels) and covered in sesame seeds. Tandir: dough cooked on the inner walls of a round oven.

he said:
Oh there you are, Appetite, I've been wondering where you went off to.  When the weather is around 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit for my kind) and the humidity is upwards of 90, 95 or even 100 percent your tendency to eat isn't high.  When you do sit down for a meal you generally want it to consist of ice and you fill up quickly.  Now that we've migrated from the tropics to what my body considers the arctic all I want to do is eat comfort food and drink hot things.

Food around town: (top) A mixed salad with pita bread, lamb and chicken kebab cooking, Çoban salatası (tomato, cucumber, onions, parsley, and red pepper). (bottom) Mixed Doner plate, Lamb Kofte (meatballs) served on crispy bread with a side of yogurt and goat cheese.
A perfect fancy dinner: Karniyarik (eggplants stuffed with meatball and served with spicy tomato sauce), rice pilaf, and a Green Almond Casserole with black mulberry juice. And for dessert: Eggplant dessert served with oregano and thyme tea. Tastes like gingersnaps, pumpkin pie and warm salad dressing (the tea). More sweets: Chocolate pudding with coconut and pistachio, and giant macaroon. With regular Turkish tea, Çay (pronouced chai).

she said:
With all the new things to taste, Istanbul felt a bit like we must have wandered into a food festival. Not the case. It was however, time for the 6th International Istanbul Tulip Festival. Turns out that while the flowers are often associated with Holland, they actually originated in Central Aisa and Turkey, and are used throughout Turkey as a symbol of peace and enjoyment. Hope you enjoy the pictures...

Tulips tulips everywhere.