Monthly Archives: December 2011

Thessaloniki

The first nasty thing to happen on our trip happened on the bus from Bulgaria into Greece – my ipod was stolen. But if that’s the only bad thing to happen on the trip, I’ll take it! We arrived in Thessaloniki and set out to meet our host at the main square. Mirsini is a university student studying to be a veterinarian and she was an incredibly gracious host. She also had the most adorable 3 month old Pug puppy. I should correct myself and say the most ugly pug puppy – so ugly it was adorable! Our first night Mirsini took us on a night tour of the city (the new town section) and showed us our way around. We also stopped to have the most delicious pastries that are a local specialty of Thessaloniki. Their name translates as ‘triangles’ and essentially they are triangle shaped phyllo pastry filled with pastry cream. So rich and sweet but delicious!

Puppy!

Triangles

The next day we had breakfast (yum baklava and Greek sweets) at a nice bakery before heading to the White Tower (which is no longer very white) to have a look around. There was a storm coming in off the sea and it was drizzling a bit but it was a lovely walk. The tower got its name from a punishment in which a prisoner whitewashed the entire tower in return for his freedom. A big task for one person! Inside the tower was a museum about the history of the city – a good starting place for looking around the city. It has a rich history as a major trading hub and was influenced by the major powers in almost every era.

Breakfast

The White Tower

Shoreline

We then went a checked out several Greek Orthodox Churches as well as a Mosque and the old ruins of the Agora and the ruins of the old city gate. Lots of old ruins and buildings in Greece! We also managed to stumble on the beginnings of a riot (although we missed the tear gas that happened later in the evening) and with our luck we also managed to end up in between the protesters burning dumpsters and the riot police. We got out of there rather quickly and Mirsini explained later that there are always riots on that day because a few years ago the police killed a teenage boy on that date. Luckily we missed the worst of it!

Ruins of the Gate

Janice at the ruins

We headed to a café and had enormous salads for lunch before having the owner of the café enforce free dessert on us. This happened quite frequently in Greece – I suppose in the north they aren’t used to tourists, especially in the winter so people were very excited to see us and often we were offered free food in restaurants – the owner would bring over a plate with their favourite dish and offer it to us “this is from me!” was the common refrain. The hospitality is really quite wonderful – as was the food!

Inside the Orthodox Church

Market

The next day we took the bus up to the Old Town – built up on the hill after we explored the market and had breakfast. Once we found the Old Town, we wandered around the walls for a while before getting horribly lost. Eventually we sort of figured out where we were and decided to have some lunch at a tiny little empty restaurant. After a huge lunch (the problem with free food) we set out to find a church we saw. Unfortunately, because we were looking for it, we couldn’t find it but we did find a lovely little wilderness area up a hill and saw some traditional Greek topography before giving up on the church and deciding to wander home. Of course the minute we gave up on it, we turned the corner and there it was! It was a very lovely example of Greek Orthodox churches and I’m glad we found it at last! We wandered back down to the New Town and found a pet store selling all sorts of unusual creatures – most strange were chipmunks. I’m not sure that they’d be good pets and I’m not convinced they wouldn’t carry disease – but I suppose they’re a novelty here! That evening we went out with Mirsini to meet some friends at a bar and have some drinks which was lovely until Janice got a migraine from all the smoke and loud music, so we headed back early and I caught up on some business before heading to bed in preparation for our trip to Istanbul the next day.

Old Town walls

Pretty wild areas

The church we found

Bye for now!

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Sofia

We arrived in Sofia quite late in the evening after missing our first bus from Veliko Tarnovo. We were staying with a host in Sofia, but we couldn’t contact her because our cellphone had died. Quite a story. We left our original charger in Nottingham and had to buy another in Heathrow airport. The we found in Veliko Tarnovo that we’d lost that one – we think in Brasov, but we’re not quite sure! So our phone died by the time we were heading to Sofia! (In a continuation of this story, we bought a new one in Sofia and then left it at our host’s place – we took another by mistake! But the phone was charged enough that we made it through the rest of the trip without a charger!) Our host Rada was very accommodating when we finally arrived though and took us out to get something to eat at a nice restaurant. We all had Bulgarian style pizza and salad (quite yummy, but I’m not sure I like hard-boiled eggs on pizza). Then we headed back to Rada’s lovely and spacious flat to await the arrival of her other couchsurfer – a guy from Brazil. Tiago turned out to be lovely and an architecture student – we spent quite a lot of time with him, wandering around the city looking at pretty buildings and getting him to tell us about the various styles and histories!

One of the remaining mosques

The next morning we all headed to downtown Sofia to meet up with a free walking tour group, after grabbing a traditional breakfast of bouza and cheesy Bulgarian pastry. Bouza is a sweet and sour fermented wheat drink – Tiago and Janice didn`t like it at all, but I thought it was quite nice! The walking tour took a couple of hours and took us by almost all the main buildings in downtown Sofia. We saw …….. While walking by the Parliament we saw a changing of the guards and then the newly elected President walked out the front door with a single bodyguard and aide and walked right by us! He even nodded and smiled at us – which made everyone very impressed! A little later we were looking at a 4th century church that had been excavated with its roof intact and we ran into a Kiran Aluwahlia – a Canadian-Indian artist who was performing at the ongoing music festival. Unfortunately we`d missed her performance the night before!

Changing of the Guard

4th Century Church

Alexandre Neveski

Theatre

We went for lunch at a nice modern restaurant with some friends we met on the tour and had a traditional mixed grill – lots of meat and very Bulgarian. That afternoon a few of us wandered through the enormous outdoor Ladies Market (where we bought our charger) before going to a pub for a couple drinks. We cooked dinner at home that night (lentil and carrot soup) and we had a baking session, which I`d been dying for! After some decent chocolate mint cookies and a session of listening to Rush, we headed to bed.
The next day, Tiago, Janice and I took a day trip to Rila Monastery which is a couple hours out of Sofia. It’s the most beautiful monastery (still operating as such) set is the gorgeous Bulgarian countryside right on the edge of Rila National Park (which has beautiful mountains and hiking). It`s hard to describe how beautiful it was – so I`ll just show you a bunch of photos instead!
After we got back we met up with Rada at the city library to watch a performance of Native American song and dance (performed by a Bulgarian fan club essentially). They were quite good and a few looked very Native even! It was interesting to see the reception of the music and ideas about Native culture in a foreign country. Then we met up with another couchsurfer at a cute little teahouse and had lots of tea and food hanging around chatting and listening to music. Stef (the couchsurfer) has us promise to come visit her in Holland while she’s there on her Erasmus project in the spring.

Rila Monastery

Rila

At Rila

Our final full day in Sofia Tiago, Janice and I wandered around some more and went in to a bunch of the churches we weren’t able to see inside of on our walking tour – such as the Hagia Sofia and the Alexandre Nevesky Cathedral. We also wandered around the Christmas Market and had some hot wine before picking up groceries for dinner and heading back to Rada’s place where we cooked pasta and had salads. We stayed up quite late talking and the next morning we all headed out to our next destinations!

Outside the culture building

Janice and Tiago

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Veliko Tarnovo

We decided to go to Veliko Tarnovo on a whim (like much of our trip). We had met some backpackers in Hungary who had loved the city and recommended it highly, so we decided to stop by for a couple of days. Our train from Romania was supposed to get in at 7pm, but unknown to us, the Bulgarian railway employees had gone on strike the day before so we kept mysteriously stopping for forty minutes at a time, meaning we arrived closer to 10pm. Luckily our hostel was very accommodating and sent a cab to pick us up from the station. The guy working at the hostel, Damien, turned out to be a really nice guy – he gave us a bunch of helpful tips and he and his business partner (a German guy) were really cool to hang out with. They also provided both breakfast and dinner – a real plus! Also staying in our room was a Canadian couple from Newfoundland (there appear to be Canadians everywhere) who had been caught in the train strike the day before – so we commiserated for awhile and got some hints on where to eat in town before we headed out for a very late supper. The food was good, but basic and unfortunately Janice wasn’t feeling well so we headed back to the hostel to sleep. Veliko Tarnovo is quite a small town and we really got that impression after running into Damien on the street (less than 3 hours in town and we already recognize people!). Also on the way home we noticed the town was plastered with posters for some type of live event going on that night – however the posters didn’t make it clear if said event was a boy band group performance or a bunch of male strippers – so we decided not to risk it and let Janice sleep off her headache instead!

Fortress

Walking to the Fortress

The next day we got up early, had breakfast at the hostel and headed out to see the fortress. It was only a ten minute walk from our hostel to the entrance and there were very few people around off-season and early in the morning. One of the first things we noticed was that the site, aside from being pretty well preserved and beautiful, had very few safety precautions. A few signs warned of that fact and told us this was for ‘authenticity’ reasons. These signs also asked us not to die. After such a thorough warning we wandered off through the fort, possibly taking a few more risks climbing the walls than the owner’s of the signs would have liked. We found the ruins of a 4th century church and monastery on the far side of the fort and read the accompanying sign that declared the rock jutting out from the cliff was called Execution Point, because prisoners used to be thrown off from there. Nasty old monks…

Ruins at the Castle

At the top of the fortress there was another interesting (but less old) church with some of the most unusual modern style paintings decorating the interior. We spent a bunch of time there, ogling the art before heading back into town and wandering through some of the old streets with very classic Bulgarian architecture and wandering through a few more churches before stumbling on a 1 lev store – the equivalent of a dollar store. We decided to check it out and were amused to discover they sold a wide variety of undergarments, including many highly padded bras. Apparently Bulgarian women like their cheap bras so padded there’s no room for anything else in them! We headed back to the hostel for supper and met a group of American girls who were studying in Bulgaria, so we spent the night chatting with them and making new friends! The next morning, Damien, helpful as always, called us a cab and sent us off to the bus station to catch our bus to Sofia.

Church in town

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Bucharest, Romania – land of the stray dogs

On the train to Bucharest, we were overheard speaking English by an older Romanian woman travelling with her granddaughter who decided to take that chance to practice her very limited English by telling us all about her family (with pictures!) including her brother who lives in Toronto (everyone has a relative in Toronto apparently). This seems very typical of Romania – although we were warned repeatedly before coming here that we had to be careful and that people here weren’t trustworthy, we’ve found exactly the opposite. People go out of their way to be friendly and helpful, and will come up to you on the street if you’re holding a map to help you figure out where you are. Even those with a limited grasp of English will try to help – warnings about caution with our personal possessions abounded and offers to show us how to get places were always forthcoming. The only challenge we experienced was the tendency to get ignored in less touristy restaurants – we once sat an hour with our waitress completely ignoring us. In Bucharest we stayed at a nice hostel (but nothing to compare with Gabriel’s in Brasov) in a slightly seedier area of town (of which there are many in Bucharest).

Our first Christmas Tree

Russian Church

Beautiful old Orthodox Church

Bucharest is an interesting city – modern in its young population and vibrant nightlife, but it lacks the charm of many other European cities which can only be attributed to years of communism and earthquakes. Much of the pretty old town was partially destroyed by an earthquake and then dismantled to build the enormous Palace of Parliament – the second largest building in the world, after the Pentagon. Bucharest does have some very pretty buildings, but those are interspersed with the solid concrete blocks typical of communist architecture. We still managed to find some gems – a night market, some beautiful churches and a lovely old hospital. We ate dinner at a cute jazz restaurant owned by an Irish guy – who heard English and gravitated towards and then picked up some homemade caramels at the night market before heading back to our hostel.

In front of the Palace of Parliment

The Grand Staircase

Ceiling of the Ballroom

We headed out on the train the next day for Bulgaria – first stop, Veliko Tarnovo!

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Train into Romania and Brasov

The train from Budapest to Brasov is long – about sixteen hours. We took it overnight, leaving from Pecs earlier that day. When we got to the station we found we could only reserve tickets for the section of the trip to Budapest there and we’d have to wait to reserve the other portion once we got to Budapest. I spent the next couple of hours uncomfortably fretting over whether the ticket office in Budapest would be open at 10:00pm – luckily it was and the girl understood enough English that we were easily able to communicate. Of course the train was late – it is Eastern Europe after all – but we finally boarded and found an empty compartment to settle into. Overnight went smoothly, except for being woken up to have our tickets checked, then our passports checked by Hungarian officials, then rechecked by Romanian officials, and then our tickets checked again!

Frost on the Trees

Once we arrived in Brasov we followed the straightforward directions sent by our hostel to their front door, the only incident occurring along the way was a very friendly, very old Romanian man who spoke little English but wanted me to go to his church with him. A nice offer, but since our train journey didn’t leave me overly thankful I declined. At our hostel we met Gabriel and a little later, his wife Elena. They turned out to be the sweetest people and staying with them didn’t feel like being in a hostel at all! We were their only guests and Gabriel fed us large amounts of his home made prune brandy (very good) and told us in detail about the process of distilling it and gave us all sorts of useful advice for getting around. He treated us like his daughters, possibly because he has a daughter our age who’s away most of the year.

Brasov

All the kitties hanging out

Main Square

We wandered around the town that afternoon and got our bearings, and the next morning we headed back to the train station and took the train an hour away to Sighisoara – a pretty little town up in the Romanian mountains. There we explored the lovely Old Town Fortifications – went up the old town hall and explored the old guild towers. It was a grey day, so it made everything suitably creepy looking for all the Vlad Tepes mythology that exists everywhere in that area of Romania! We climbed up a four hundred year old set of covered stairs to the aptly named Church on the Hill where I made a new friend! As we were looking at the sign at the top of the stairs, a little black cat appeared and decided it wanted to take me home with him. After attempting to climb my pant leg, it climbed into my lap when i bend down to dislodge his claws and continued to follow us around for the next twenty minutes. I considered buying a basket and sneaking him home, but decided he really wouldn’t like the train that much. For lunch we tried a Romanian specialty – sour tripe soup – which is one of those dishes that’s so foreign at first you can’t decide if you like it or not. But as I kept eating, it definitely grew on me – pretty good food, creamy with a bit of a sour note to cut the cream and soft pieces of tripe (not the usual unappetizing texture). We took the train back into town (after being slightly harassed by the local gypsy population, who we also watched trying to run over a dog with a car) and headed out to an old school Romanian restaurant where food is served cafeteria style – just like during the communist era!

On the train

Into the old town

Tripe soup

The next day we had arranged for Gabriel to drive us to Rasnov Fortress and Bran Castle, an adventure that would take most of the morning. It ended up taking much longer as after we finished with Rasnov Fortress (an interesting set of very ruined buildings, improved by the fact we were the only people there aside from the staff), Gabriel decided to show up his friend’s brick-making operation, followed by a trip to his godmother’s house for lunch and then a trip to his friend’s farm to meet the animals! The Romanian countryside in the area is beautiful and the drive was lovely (less so the rather smelly cows who attempted to splatter us with feces. After our farm experience we headed to Bran Castle (of Bram Stoker fame). Really the castle was the seat of the former Romanian royal family and is not only a beautiful castle, but very informative about the royals and their lifestyles and fates (one went from being a princess, to an actress in America, to being a homemaker and then finally a nun – quite the career!). After our adventures avoiding tour groups in the castle, Gabriel took us o the local market where we bought smoked sheep cheese and delicious lamb sausage before trying another local specialty – think of an elephant ear but instead of sugar, it’s topped with garlic sauce and cheese. Terribly unhealthy but delicious!

Rasnov Fortress

Rasnov again

Bran Castle

Living space for the royal family

Our last day in town we spent wandering around, exploring the lovely architecture and getting lost as we tried repeatedly to climb the hill to Brasov Fortress – it’s in the middle of town but is derelict of signs directing you to its entrance, so we ended up trying three separate routes! It was a nice place to get a good view of the city and the park we wandered through later. We had an easy night, hanging out with Gabriel and watching a movie before packing up in preparation for our trip to Bucharest the next day.

Brasov Fortress

Hanging out in Brasov

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Pécs, Hungary

The next stop on our tour was Pécs, a smaller student city in the south of Hungary. It has a long archaeological record – which I like – started with the Celts, continuing with the foundation of a Roman city on the site and it was an important site of early Christianity too! So many things for my geeky interests to love!

We arrived in the city in the early afternoon and made our way to the hostel to drop off our bags before heading out to explore. We had lunch at a place with absolutely delicious food – the standout was the pear cream soup. Then we saw our usual churches, with a mosque thrown in! We explored the main street, the shopping district and went for a walk in a lovely little park where we found the entrance to part of the old bishop’s fortifications and climbed the tower (with its teeny-tiny stairs that I was desperately nervous of falling down!) to look out over the city (or part of it). We stopped for coffee in a cute shop that made their own chocolates before braving the post office. Getting stamps in a foreign country can be quite difficult and in Pécs, no one spoke English, so we had to pantomime postcard and then try to tell them where we wanted them to go (we settled on saying America, because Canada got us blank stares).

We had a early night at the hostel (due to my now full blown cold) and chatted with our dorm mates, who were Americans on their way home from teaching English in Korea. The guy had left his passport on the bus on the way into Pécs and had been obviously panicking once he arrived at the hostel and realized this. The lovely (although English challenged) hostel owner had gone down to the bus stop herself, convinced the driver to let her on the bus and crawled through the bus till she found it and brought it back for him. Hospitality here is an amazing thing – people will go out of their way to help you as best they can, even if you can barely speak to them!

The next day we did some more exploring, visiting a 4th century Christian Mausoleum, wandered around the castle some more and did some errands before deciding it was too cold outside for me and my cold, so we went to huddle in a cafe and people watch until it was time to catch our bus.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hungary (Budapest)

We took the train from Ljubljana to Budapest on a Sunday and we were supposed to make one connection in Slovenia and one in Austria before arriving. When we got to our first connection in Slovenia, we walked up to the platform only to have an old man start yelling at us in Slovene and gesturing for us to go with him. We obviously had no idea what was going on and he seemed very forceful and angry, luckily the younger man following him piped up and told us that the ‘train was out of electricity.’ This meant we had to go by bus across the Austrian border, so they herded us onto one and drove for about 40 minutes to drop us at a train station just on the Austrian side of the border. Then we sat. And waited. It took almost an hour for the engineers to get this train working, and so of course, we missed our connection in Vienna. Eventually we made it to Budapest, although much later than we had originally intended. Getting off the train we were hounded by people trying to sell us hostel rooms, although some did try to be helpful – pointing out the nearest ATM. The area around the train station was a little seedy – full of strip clubs and it was almost midnight, so we headed straight to our host’s apartment. This took a little while because a big chunk of Budapest’s metro line is under construction and we couldn’t figure out how to get into the underground! One we managed that, our host’s directions we easy and we made it to her place quite quickly. In Budapest we stayed with a Hungarian girl named Kriszta who is currently doing her PhD in gender studies and teaching English classes on the side. She was very busy, but extremely helpful, giving us suggestions and directions whenever she could. She also had an adorable but neurotic grey cat named Mono. We always enjoy the hosts who have pets for us to play with!

Mono

The next day we woke up pretty early and set off to explore the city after buying metro passes for the time we were in Budapest. We took the metro in the direction we wanted and randomly set off in a direction that looks promising. Surprisingly, considering our luck, we stumbled across the old Buda castle and fortified towns. We wandered around looking at the pretty architecture and wandered into an art gallery before heading to the fortified walls and St Mattias Cathedral. We kept walking and managed to find the Old Royal Palace and an excessive number of men on or with horses!

Buda Castle

Cathedral and Guy on Horse

Royal Palace Gates

Janice and I

Later in the day we decided to walk up Gellert Hill and see the citadel at the top. The walk looks way more difficult than it really is, and so when we came around the corner and first saw the hill we had a serious ‘oh shit’ moment, but once we started climbing, it wen pretty quickly. After poking around for awhile we wandered down the other side to the Rock Church (a church built into a cave) and then to the Gellert Baths. We hung around in the mineral baths for a few hours before walking back to our host’s place (stopping to get lost finding food) and talked with Kriszta for awhile before having a relatively early night.

Rock Church

Bridge at night

The next day we wandered to the other side of the river and tried to find the Strudel house our host had recommended, but Hungarian street names are more complicated than we thought and we got tricked! We didn’t find the Strudel house but we did find a cute little cake shop where we had breakfast before wandering over to the basilica just down the street. Then we took the metro over to the major Jewish synagogue and arrived just in time to go on a very informative tour that included a tour of the gardens where almost three thousand victims from the ghetto in Budapest are buried. Then we took the metro out to the far end of town to walk around the other major baths, the Szechenyi baths, in the city and the very pretty palace complex called Vajdahunyad Castle, well as visiting the monuments at Heroes Square. We wandered by the Opera house on the way home and poked around the lobby pretending to want tickets before going to a rather touristy restaurant with mediocre food.

Cake instead of strudel

Basilica

Synagogue

Memorial Tree

The next day we took a train to Szentendre, about an hour out of the city. We got to the town and decided to try to take a bus out the the Hungarian Open Air Museum which we looked up online. Their website claimed that they were open but once we finally figured out the bus system and took a bus another forty minutes out of town and got to the museum entrance, we learned that their website lied and it wasn’t open. So we went back to the bus stop to wait for the bus to (hopefully) come back. A little more than an hour later, with still no sign of a bus, a car pulled over and an older gentleman leaned out and said ‘Szentendre or Budapest’ and gestured for us to get in the car. He looked respectable and had museum papers in the back of the car, so we got in and he drove us to the centre of town and dropped us off, without speaking a word of English! We were so grateful to not be stuck in the middle of nowhere getting colder and colder! The rest of the day in the town we spent walking by the river, poking around little churches and wandering the pretty streets.

By the river in Szentendre

Church in Szentendre

After we made it into town we made a last ditch attempt to find the strudel place, and finally succeeded! It was good strudel – but very odd flavour combinations! Then we picked up a bit of food for dinner and headed back to the apartment because I wasn’t feeling to well… Janice had finally managed to pass on her cold to me!

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