The list part 1

It’s a little strange for it to be my final day, I’ll admit I have very mixed feelings about this.  Sofia has been successfully keeping me occupied so far which has been good.  Yesterday I wrote a list of some places taking part in the Sofia design week and spent a lot of time searching out the galleries, also enjoyed drawing the Russian church for a while.  In the evening I went to a couchsurfing meeting and met someone who offered to take me around today, so I’ll be catching them later to see the city with a local.

I have learnt so much being on my travels and feel very grateful for having had the opportunity to do a journey like this.  It’s been so interesting, especially starting in Czech Republic which is very ‘western’ and working my way south where the countries seem to get poorer and in more disrepair and the people have less and less faith in the government.  But it has been heartening to see that a lot of people have been so welcoming everywhere I’ve been, offering me opportunities to see life as they see it and not sugar coating it for tourists.

Some experiences I will never forget –

  • Communist queuing (it took me a couple of times being queue jumped before I cottoned on, at first I thought people were in a group when they stood at the window together and then when one person left and the other just slid right in, I had a ‘hey!’ moment when I realised that standing a polite distance behind does not work here if you want to get served)
  • Meeting specific people (one guy whose ex was threatening police action for stalking; making friends with locals who have been so kind to show me around – students in Olomoucs saved my trip there from being horrifically boring – the couch surfers I’ve befriended – the random Romanians I got talking to in Brasov; some of the people who work at hostels have gone out of their way to make your stay as great as they can make it – for example one guy in Budapest used fabric softener in my laundry, never has soft clothes meant so much as when you’re travelling – one woman running the Sibiu hostel was fantastic when I told her about my awkward experience with an over friendly train conductor; the woman whom I met in Krakow and were able to share the Auschwitz experience together)
  • That being said, Auschwitz.  Horrifyingly fascinating.
  • The somewhat thrill seeking Crazy Guides tour of Krakow.
  • Catching trains in Romania (scrambling over train tracks and complete lack of platforms)
  • Having to learn 6 different languages for ‘do you speak English?’, ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘cheers!’.  Please don’t test me when I come back – I’m afraid I won’t be able to remember them all…
  • The fantastic festivals I’ve bumped into, counting 6 in all.  The one that stood out most was the Sibiu Theatre festival.
  • The hostel in Olomouc.  A swimming pool, seriously?  But at least everything else has been really nice in comparison.  And truth be told, it could have been worse but to me it stood out.
  • Having to communicate with people that don’t speak any English at all.

There is someone waiting for the computer and I’m probably over the time limit so will continue later…

Getting to know Sofia

After a wonderful time in Plovdiv, my friend saw me off at the train station with a big hug and promises to keep in touch.  This is after having laughed at me when I said I was getting the train.  A Bulgarian train, are you kidding?  I’d already heard many stories of how slow the network was, where people would leave Istanbul to go to Sofia, one traveling by train, one by bus and the bus would win, every time.  In fact, any Bulgarian I mentioned that I was getting the train laughed.  Hmmm.  But I’ve already got my trusty InterRail ticket, so it’s a no brainer.

I get to Sofia, track down my hostel and find that there is  a walking tour in a couple hours.  I head over so that I can get my bearings here, hoping that I’ll discover lots of things to do.  Which may be a little tough, according to people that I’ve spoken to about Sofia.  Most reports say it’s just another city.  And that 4 nights here are too long.  So my mission is to find all the interesting points of Sofia to fill up 4 nights.  My InterRail ticket has now run out so this is definitely the winding down of The Adventure.

The walking tour showed interesting points of the city; mosques from the ottoman empire, russian built churches, the cathedral, lots of churches.  There were lots of communist buildings, the one which housed the main seat of ruling used to have a great red star on top.  Which now is tossed (well, as unceremoniously placed as you can with a giant glass star) in the grounds of an old abandoned building.  At the end of the tour I was asked my first impressions of Sofia.  Honestly.  I said that there seemed to be lots of interesting pockets in the city but it’s hard to see it apart from just being a big grey city, mostly thanks to the communism era…  I’d like to know more about it because I’m sure there is lots to it that I don’t know.  My impressions of Bulgaria in general is mostly influenced by the people.  Everyone I’ve met has been so friendly and welcoming but terribly pessimistic about the conditions in Bulgaria.  The tour guide laughed, I asked if that was true, and he agreed.  He said that despite people wanting change, the next generation just falls into the old habits of their parents because they’re the only habits they know.  But there are people working hard to be optimistic, to open up Sofia and Bulgaria to the traveling community to help others understand it and make changes within the country.  So again, here seemed to be a deep core of faith for the future.

Today I went on an organised day trip to Rila Monastery, the biggest in Bulgaria.  It’s set on a site where a monk went and lived in a cave for 7 years.  We went to the cave, saw that there were bits of paper with prayers and wishes tucked into the cracks of the rocks.  In the cave was a little platform which is where he must have stayed and there were religious pictures and burning candles arranged amongst the rocks.  We were able to climb through the cave – legend says that if you climb through you are absolved of all your sins….

We then traveled to the actual monastery building which was quite magnificent.  Similar to Bachkovo in that there was a courtyard with a church but much much bigger.  I know I over use the word awesome, but I thought it was beautiful, and a little Tim Burtonesque with black and white stripes on a lot of the pillars.  Awesome.  Inside, the walls were totally covered with paintings and gold displays, as is usual for the orthodox churches.

Now I’ve done a day trip out, I think I’ll next be doing the meanderings around the city – bonus design week festival will help – and hopefully I’ll find that 4 nights in Sofia isn’t way too long!

How Government Inaction Can Almost Break Your Ankle

My new Plovdivian couchsurfing friend took me to a ruins site to see over the city and watch the sunset as we got to know each other.  I was super pleased to discover he liked the same music as me so I pumped him for information on new bands to discover!  He warned me away from a type of Balkan music called tsauga (I’m not sure on the spelling) which is a sort of hideous pop balkan music whose superstars and role models are essentially high paid prostitutes (his words).  The  music seems to have connections to local mafia (or whatever the bulgarian version is)…

From our vantage point we could see the old and new parts of the city.  The entire city was in view, showing how small a city Plovdiv is.  Later in the week we took a walk around the old city where we saw remains of a roman ampitheatre that stretched all underground and was found only fairly recently as the pavement was being dug up for roadworks.  All the cobbles in old town were original, which I believed because they were in such bad state now.  It looked that all in between the cobbles had worn away and the cobbles had twisted and turned so it was hard to look around whilst you were walking because you had to constantly look where you were going. The streets are so small, nicknamed ‘the trap’ because cars have such trouble passing through.  I saw a lot of  4×4 cars and it seemed that you needed one to live around there.  The whole place is UNESCO protected so if any new houses were built in the area they had to be built in the same style as the original houses.    It looked like a few of the oldest and most important houses had been renovated, but badly –  for example the paint work (which were supposed to be intricate paintings) didn’t look like it had been done with care.  I was told the reason for this is that money given from the government tends to get pocketed and a smaller sum is put towards renovation.  The same went for the religious sector, you’d have priests driving BMWs but preaching in crumbling churches.

At a later point we climed two of the surrounding hills.  One of which had a statue of a soviet soldier as a memorial to russian soldiers that died during the liberation.

We took a  day trip out to Bachkovo (orthodox) monestary.  There were cobbles inside a courtyard, and a church in the centre.  I went inside – which was decorated in the orthodox fashion – every spare bit of wall had been painted but was mostly blackened with age, there were great candelabra type things that had a flat plate on top with lots of tiny candle holders so that people could come in, buy candles, make a prayer and place them lit on the candelabra thing.  There were lots of gold decoration, so intricate and detailed.

Next to it was a nature reserve – the sign made me chuckle as its pictures demanded ‘no littering’, ‘no fires’, ‘no shooting’, ‘no camping’ and ‘no goats’.  Seriously, why would you have a goat with you?  Anyway, we walked as far as the waterfall, the whole place was very beautiful and peaceful listening to the trees rustling in the wind and the water rushing over the rocks.

One night we went to a rock bar, meeting with some of my friend’s friends and some people from the hostel.  I got chatting to some of the locals about life in Plovdiv and Bulgaria.  It seems that there is not much trust in the government, that not much has changed from the freedom from communism.  People  still have the same mentalities and that nothing gets done around the city unless it’s near election time and the  person in power wants to be seen doing something.  But a lot of things are left, or left unfinished because money runs out or ‘there is no money’.  A lot of their friends have left the country to study and making the move can need a lot of money so mostly people put everything into the move and hope they can make a better life for themselves elsewhere.  I mentioned that some people I spoke to in Romania said similar things and I was told that it was worse  in Bulgaria because people don’t complain whereas elsewhere, they do.  Perhaps there will be a protest but after a couple hours the momentum leaves and so do the protesters.   The government therefore feels unthreatened and continues as normal.  There is little hope here but as my friend said, there is always faith that the future can hold something better.  There has to be faith because  it is the only thing you can hold on to to the end.

Finally in Plovdiv, or nnoBANB as it looks to me…

I suppose I’d been lucky to not encounter rail works before now.  I was looking forward to a straight forward train journey when I was told to get off, get a bus and get back on the train further up the track.  The bus journey was actually a great way to see more gorgeous scenery as we snaked our way over the mountain, one turn so sharp that the bus had to essentially 3 point turn to get around…  I did start to wonder why they had a train station where I got off though, it was at least 20 minutes by bus to the closest clump of houses, so seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

After an hour and a half wait for the next train – where we were surrounded by strays trained to hear someone think of opening a sandwich from 30 paces – I got off the train and tried to find the exit which was a little tricky considering all the normal train station type signs had been obliterated by signs for all the shops that were in the underpass.

Now at the hostel, after having had a little wander and about to take advantage of the free food offer they have here (win).  Later I hope to meet up with someone I was introduced to via Couchsurfing so will be good to see the place with a local.

Dibovo train station bulgaria

VT’s greenery and light show

So I went for a walk with a lovely Aussie girl I met at the hostel to reach a couple monuments nestled in the surrounding trees.  It was lovely chatting and soaking up the relaxed beautiful atmosphere.  Where Romania had rolling and flowing green hills and landscape, Bulgaria is a lot more ‘textured’.  The mountains are a little more knobbly, with outcrops of rock peeking through the trees.  It’s stunning here.

Later that evening I was lucky enough to catch some of the light show that highlighted the church.  It took a second for me to realise the bells were ringing so ran outside to be greeted by the church up on the hill flashing red, green, blue.  A lovely little finish to my stay in Veliko Tarnovo (or VT as the locals call it).

Who’s Afraid of Cyrillic?

After time spent on the train cramming like a student the day before a language exam, I did my best to make sense of the cyrillic alphabet so that I would at least recognise the name of the train station I needed to get off at (which looked a bit like ropHa but actually said Gorna).  The train gave me lots of cramming time, stopping for passport checks both sides of the border.

I’m currently in Veliko Tarnovo and I have been trying to pronounce words that I see, on posters, signs, in shop windows, getting a buzz of satisfaction when the word I’ve just struggled through says something like  ‘hotel’ and I realise that I can both pronounce and recognise the word!  Wahey!  It’s turning in to a little game for me, what can I say, I like puzzles.

I am also currently in hostel heaven – so considered because of the free food and perfect showers.  In my mind I have a tick list as to what makes a perfect shower.  This was not important before I left because I’ve been fortunate enough to not experience that many bad showers.  I’ve discovered that you become grateful for small things when you travel, your perspective changes drastically when you’re on the road.  I also miss vegetables.  And hot chocolate (again, which they have here, thus further confirming this is hostel heaven).  And having a choice of clothes that isn’t one skirt, one pair of trousers and one pair of shorts.  Actually, I miss jeans.

So, here, whilst sipping on my hot chocolate last night, I see flashing before my eyes – a firefly!  It morse codes its way across the patio and I can’t help but smile at it.

Today I went into old town and bought some locally produced trinkets.  I’m a sucker for earrings, so bought some delicately decorated copper earrings, a communist badge celebrating Lenin (it seemed so odd, these trinkets would be everywhere and are now dustly bits and bobs in a bowl near the shop desk – it also seemed like I needed something as a nod towards communism to remind me of the things I have seen and learnt here.  It was also strange seeing the communist art exhibition in Brasov’s Art Museum –  yes I realise I forgot to mention this in the last post) and a mask that I had seen everywhere in Romania (and I guess will see in Bulgaria) that was small enough to put in my bag.  The mask was designed to ward off evil spirits.

Earlier I walked around a ruined castle and church.  The church was really cool, all the paintings on the wall looked quite contemporary and a little abstract.  This afternoon has been slow, which is good because I am still not used to this heat!  However hope to take a walk amongst the greenery later…

one of the many haystacks seen on farms around Romania